Running the Rim to Rim to Rim: the ultimate friendship challenge

Alicia: there’s a sense of inner peace with Laurel, Tara and I running in this beautiful place like a unit, step for step. We’ve already decided how we will work as a team today, and nothing could be better. We’re in a real-life fantasy world, and we get to experience it together. I feel empowered from them being there with me, not in a physical sense but in an intangible, reliability and trust kind of way. I feel supported, and stronger than ever. 

In typical fashion, Alicia bought airplane tickets to run the rim to rim to rim, and along came Laurel and Tara right beside, without a doubt, all before doing any long thinking about what it actually was we were getting ourselves into. This is how we roll. We could picture the Grand Canyon in our minds, but we could not fathom the projected 14 hours worth of running, or feel the heat we were told we would experience at the canyon floor, nor could we really believe the recommended 50 salt pills and 20 gels we were told we would consume. It was all a fairytale…

We show up in Vegas the day before, the dream is finally upon us! Suddenly unsure of what to do, we buy tons of new foods we have never before eaten, new hydration systems we have never tested, 150 salt pills, and 60 bars and gels, many of which, we’ve never so much as licked. We leave hours and bags later, departing toward an unknown camping spot while trying to meet an unknown sunset time, which is apparently two hours earlier than expected.

We get to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon two hours after sunset, after about a 4 hour drive. We drive into the Grand Canyon Park hoping that we could park just park five meters from the trailhead and camp for the night. (“It will be great!”) Until the dream comes crushing down in the form of a woman working at one of the Lodges, who breaks our heart with the information that camping in the park results in a $500 fine. At this point, our non-plan is getting off track. We reluctantly decide to drive out of the park, and settle for a spot on the side of the highway near the driveway of some ranch. By this time it’s quite late. At 11pm we start organizing our untested calories for the following day, eliminating any prospect of a good night sleep. By midnight we’re starting our three hour nap.

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The alarms invite a mad tent destruction at 3:20am, led by Tara. Alicia was off searching for her gold shorts, which were mixed up with little Tara’s, and Laurel was rolling up her foam pad diligently. Within ten minutes we desert our luxurious accommodations and hit the road to the Bright Angel trail. It looks like we will make the 4am start, until some early stomach troubles likely brought on by the four types of hummus the night before. It’ll have to be 5am.

The Canyon is still dark when we wind down its smooth South Rim switchbacks. As we descend, the sky starts to light up, and the scenery welcomes us to sweeping views of majestic rock walls. Somehow, it’s worth the trade in sleep. With the joyous rolling downhill, it’s hard to imagine any kind of pain will take place here– but we laugh, we know otherwise. We hit the bottom of the Canyon in no time, and it reveals a new climate– tropical, dry, desert…

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Tara: the heat is something that I did not prepare for or foresee being my biggest challenge. Our sweat is evaporating immediately. It’s so dry that Alicia thinks her hydration pack is leaking water out the back, until we realize, it’s the only location that still shows sweat. We know that we need to keep our salt consumption and electrolytes up and drink a lot more water than usual. We time half an hour intervals to take salt and wonder what will happen…

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As soon as we pass the South Rim, our thoughts are on the North Rim. (Where is it?) But, alas, the middle chunk of the Canyon is long, it just keeps going. We cross the Colorado River over the suspension bridge, and we feel like we must be close to the North Rim now. As we run, the Canyon walls narrow in on us, and eventually they open up to reveal a seemingly never-ending expanse– indeed, North Rim isn’t close. At this point the Canyon Floor is heating up, and we’ve entered the most exposed area within it, chasing the North Rim…

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Before long, Technical Difficulties occur:

Alicia: Tara keeps talking about her “hot face”, and it leaves me questioning what to do. She complains about her handheld bottles, but I wonder if there’s something else that’s wrong? She denies, and blames it on the bottles. Next thing I see, she’s puking up the Honey Stinger gel she just ate. And then, like a champion, she denies any need for rest and plows right along.

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Tara: I felt my face getting really warm about half way through this narrow canyon, and I was trying to force myself to eat a Pro-bar but was not having much success. I decided to try and take in a Gel as I was not feeling so great by this point and felt as though I needed to eat. Next thing I knew, I was throwing up on the Canyon Wall. I felt better after and was ready to continue on. My bottles were annoying me and I wanted to leave them behind.

Laurel: Tara is probably the toughest person I know, so when she projectile vomits berry-flavored something, wipes her face and proclaims she’s fine, not only am I impressed, I believe her.

After this incident, we start soaking our hats in every creek, stream and river, some kind of water therapy and way of survival.

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Is that the North Rim? Is that the North Rim? Is this the way to the North Rim?

Finally the trail heads upward, and we realize we have earned the North Rim ascent. The more technical side, the North Kaibab presents some narrow parts with huge drop offs which make it even more exciting. We keep thinking we’re close to the top but the North Rim is ever out of reach, taking us up only to lead us right back down. After two or three or four hours, maybe more, we see our friends coming down and we guess we’re near the top. They tell of a Grampa Jim who offers Pepsi at the top, and now we can’t wait to get past the several groups of mules climbing down, who continuously stop us dead in our tracks.

Alicia: I hate mules. (Internal voice: shut up! Be loving of all!!)

Tara: I’m not telling the others but I’m thinking secretively, maybe I’ll stop at the North Rim and get the long shuttle back to the South Rim… I’m worried of not making it back, maybe more dramatic endings… 

Laurel: We have no idea the extent to which Tara is suffering. I know she isn’t feeling awesome, but her army-tough nature hides how much. So we make jokes about mules, mountain people, film b-role of random trail finds and I am having a blast – except for the mules of course…it must be difficult for them going through life being afraid of wind.

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The terrain goes from fierce rock wall to evergreen in the span of twenty minutes, and we know we’re near the top. At this point the team seems fine, but Tara isn’t so talkative. We arrive at the top, and sure enough, Grampa Jim had been told about us, the girls in the gold shorts from Vancouver. He offers us all of the things that become heavenly at this point– cold Pepsi, salty chips, unknown white pills he claims as ELoad, Chips Ahoy. We add these rewards to our “packed lunch” and enjoy a picnic on the top of the North Rim alongside Grampa Jim and friends. It’s nothing short of a proper picnic, a precious hour which helps us remember that while we’re running, it’s not a rush, it’s a journey worth savouring. After three rounds of washrooms, we say our good-byes and away we go again, to backtrack our journey across the Canyon.

Alicia: here come the same mules again, on our way back down…  

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Perhaps fueled by Grampa Jim’s caloric love, we’re full of laughs as we descend the North Rim. We’re making fun of the gastrointestinal issues, the  vomiting, the mules, all of the “character-building” components we’re ready to lighten up to. We fly along beside cliffs’ edge, often stopping because our photojournalist alter-ego cannot help herself. The rockier section induces a decent fall, thankfully; Laurel practices responsible falling, away from the cliff’s edge. We witness how remarkable the people around us are, as random hikers from 500 meters across the Canyon yell over to make sure we’re okay. It’s a long way down full of many bathroom stops, laughs, some falls, and generally all of us feeling amazingly great in spirit. Dysfunctions arise, and we laugh them off bouyantly.

Laurel: I stop running to take a peak at the beautiful scenery. Noticing I’ve gotten a bit behind and feeling giddy from the days adventures, I take a flying leap (think tiger like intentions, but baby giraffe-like coordination) over a log to catch-up and found myself one with the ground. Small price to pay, espcially since Tara and Alicia prove to be wizards with a band-aid.

After the missed tiger leap, for a heavenly stretch of rolling North Kaibab, we experience what it’s like to run without any issues, and the pace starts to steady and quicken. And before long, physical differences start to emerge.

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Tara: I start to gradually feel like I will not be able to keep this up. Sure enough by Phantom Ranch I’m calculating how much further we have to go and how much longer it will take (over 9 miles still from here and all rolling gradual climbs or uphill). I try to soothe my thoughts with a Mars Bar and other treats but they are again difficult to eat and I gave my partially eaten chocolate bar to Laurel.

Alicia: I start to notice that something is wrong with Tara, because she’s asking us to run (faster) ahead without her. That’s when I know her brain is fried. Leaving someone behind in the Canyon, to shave off a bit of time?! I recall having heat exhaustion, and that it fries your brain, so I can empathize. I’m going to have to reverse-psychology her into drinking more water and electrolytes… My hydration level is your hydration level!

Laurel: It’s true. Tara and Alicia have an awesome married couple like dynamic. Tara insists she’s fine, Alicia knows what “fine” really means and tricks her into taking better care of her physical needs. They go back and forth and of course we are staying together. 

We slow to a medical walking pace in order to bolster Tara’s electrolytes. She keeps asking us to run ahead, which we simply dismiss as a request from a dysfunctional mental state. What’s important, is that we stay together — that’s when we’re strong. Any extra time is a very small price to pay. We challenge her with ultimatums to inspire water-drinking, and when she asks how much farther, we balance the answer between heartbreaking truth (it’s still 5 miles until a 4-hour climb) and total lie (we’re close to the end!). It was only two weeks ago that Alicia was in the opposite role, Tara supporting her through heat exhaustion.

Tara: I make the mistake of asking someone how much further they think it is from here. When they say 4.9 miles I cannot believe it. I continue drinking as much water as I can and gradually, I start to feel better.

Alicia: Tara keeps saying she couldn’t stomach any more water, but we decree orders.

At this point we’re walking the flats and it’s glorious. Tara is looking a lot better, and the pace is buying us extra time in the sunset of the beautiful Canyon. We pass Indian Garden, and now our task is straightforward: climb the switchbacks to the top. But it’s still premature to think the task is anything but straight, the switchbacks are a seemingly endless haul toward an invisible end. And as darkness sets in a role reversal happens, now Alicia accepts the role of weakest link in the chain of gold. The feeling of altitude is foreign and stifling, and the pace drops to a snail-like ascent.

Tara: Alicia is not talking at this point which is extremely unusual and I feel as though we have switched roles. We sit down for a moment and she eats some of my crushed chips. I try to give her words of encouragement near the top and I don’t think I was helping. (“We are so close it is like one time around Beaver Lake- Stanley Park”).

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Alicia: Physically, it feels like there is sand in my throat. Mentally, defeatist feelings start to prey upon my tired brain. Not sure what to do, I start guzzling water in hopes it will help me through.

Laurel: I’ve gotten a bit ahead while keeping a triathlete company who wanted to finish hours (maybe even years) ago and is having a really tough time all by himself. I’ll always have a place in my heart for the spandex-clad multi-sporters. When I meet up with the team, it’s obvious Alicia isn’t quite herself and since she isn’t keen to know how close we are to the finish, we settle on blaring Bon Iver from my phone. Everyone needs something different.

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By the end, we’re surrounded by headlamps, and we’re marching along with other groups still making their way up. One group we join near the top had come from the North Rim that morning. When we reach the top there are a few cheers of accomplishment from various people around us, we did it! Woohoo, approximately 47 miles completed today!

Tara: Throughout the day I felt joy, pain, excitement, fear, relief, every emotion you can think of. Running Rim to Rim to Rim …  I am so grateful that I got to share the experience with such amazing friends!!!

Laurel: I have never had so much fun in a desert. Seriously, I suspect what I experienced is beyond anything that might happen at something like Burning Man. Sometimes I had a headache from the heat, and my knee throbbed from my intimate connection to the ground when I slammed into it, but at the same time, I experience something life-changing moments, awe-inspiring beauty and it was so simple. Who knew so much could happen while putting one foot in front of the other.

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