At around 5.30 pm on Friday, Apr 23, 2021, my friend and I hopped in the shuttle bus that carried us from the visitor center to South Kaibab trailhead in Grand Canyon National Park. We had just arrived in the area, set up our tents at Mather Campground, and drove to the visitor center. I could feel butterflies in my gut because of the excitement, fear, and nervousness I was going through, all at the same time, for what we were about to embark on. It’s a familiar feeling, an old friend. It’s the same feeling I get before a public presentation or some kind of a test. It’s also something I feel before every adventure. It indicates that whatever I’m about to do is important enough to make me want to do it regardless of the consequences. There’s a certain element of fear involved too, of failure, because of the high stakes that I attach to such things in my mind. It also usually means that it’s a little out of the comfort zone, just enough to create uncertainty and doubt about the outcome and my capabilities.
We were attempting a hike called the R2R2R, short for Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim, in a day. It involves starting at one rim(North or South) of the canyon, hiking to the other, and then back again. Considered to be one of the most iconic and difficult hikes in North America, it’s about 45 mi long, with 14k feet of elevation gain and loss, and the trail, although well maintained, is rocky. It wasn’t technically a run, more like an ultra-hike. Some people go from almost no running to running ultra-marathons in a matter of months, or take the leap from road running to trail running and crush it. Not me. I take small, cautious, and incremental steps. It has taken me two years of hiking, running, and mental strengthening to get to running a 50k(32mi). In other words, I’m fairly slow, not merely on the trail, but also in taking leaps of faith. I found out fairly quickly that speed isn’t my strong suit and that I enjoy the solitude during a run more than anything. So I naturally gravitated towards trail running. I also don’t do well in a competitive setting. Material or external goals and pressures don’t motivate me. I like the idea of a personal challenge without the fuss of competition. That’s another reason why trail running suits me better. After having had one 50k under my belt from two years ago, I thought that hiking 45mi in a day probably wasn’t going to kill me.
A sign on one of the windows of the bus said, “Many hikers think they are strong and attempt hikes beyond their capabilities. Don’t be one of them. Know your limits” and a whistle started to go off in my mind. It’s not like I need any real reason to go into self-doubt - my mind is happy to create reasons of its own - so this sign, to put it mildly, didn’t help calm me at that moment. Ever since I read the novel “The Alchemist’’, by Paulo Coelho, I’ve been a believer in signals of the Universe, and that it’s up to us to identify and unpack them. It’s a superstitious belief, I know, but it keeps me curious and attuned to the opportunities and warnings around me. It’s also an interesting idea because what you make of those signals tells more about your inner state than about the Universe. I took the sign on the bus as a warning for me to back off before I did something stupid. I felt like I was the ignorant hiker that it was referring to. Brain, with all its mysteriousness and capabilities, is also naive and stupid at times. It can’t always tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not. I wondered if it knew the difference between what I did a few years ago and what I was capable of in the present. I questioned if I knew myself well enough or if I was stuck in the stories from the past. As I was thinking about it, the bus dropped us at the trailhead and it was time to get off.
At the trailhead, I saw a few people massaging their legs, beaten but at the same time elated and mildly proud. I knew that they had run the R2R2R trail - they were ultra-runners! I asked one of the guys how long it took him to do that and he said ten hours. We had given ourselves twenty-four hours. If those runners could do it in less than half that time, I thought, our goal wasn’t that too hard after all. What those runners had done made our oh-so-ambitious goal look pale in comparison. Talking to them helped because it put me in the right mindset. I felt a little more confident, more optimistic and I conveniently forgot the signal of the Universe that I was pondering a few minutes ago.
As I watched people at the trailhead, I thought that this was a gateway to a world of possibilities. Like in life, we all started at the same place, but ended up on different paths, choosing different adventures depending on our needs, desires, experiences, and capabilities. Some were just happy to be there. They didn’t need anything more from it. They saw the canyons, took pictures, and enjoyed the company of their friends and family. A majority of the visitors ventured a little further to a vista point, aptly called the “Ooh Aah Point”, which was a mile into the trail. The more adventurous ones hiked down to the river, at the bottom of the canyon, and hiked back. Some stayed there overnight, camping and enjoying the canyons and the river for a little longer. The more capable ones hiked to the other rim, camped there, and hiked back the next day, or extended the trip to more than two days. People who were in it for the challenge of it more than anything else, hiked to the other rim and back in one stretch, either running, walking, or crawling. I was the kind who’d dream of running, start walking and end up crawling. I’m not sure what that makes me – adventurous, brave, strong, and capable, or merely a wannabe.
We started the hike at 06.00 PM.
I had broken the hike into six sections to have a mental map of how much was done, or more importantly, of how much wasn’t.
Section 1. The Trailhead to Phantom Ranch
This comprises the first seven miles of the hike, all downhill, where you lose about 5k ft in elevation until you get to the bottom of the canyon. Despite constituting a third of the entire distance, in terms of the effort and energy needed, it’s more like a tenth. The Colorado River at the bottom, depending on the time of the year, can be spectacular scenery. We hiked at the end of April when the fresh snow melted by the early summer sun brought a loud gush of water. It was very tempting to run this section and be done as fast as I could, but I resisted giving in to that because the hike was long and hard and I wanted to save every bit of energy for the hike back and up. This was similar to the tug of war that plays in our mind every day between instant gratification and the long-term benefits of not succumbing to its pull. The former is natural and easier to seek, but it’s the hard things that are often worth doing. Running downhill is tough on the knees too, so it was better to walk fast than run, to reduce stress on the joints. Hiking poles were helpful and acted as the extra support, the support that we lost sometime millions of years ago when our ancestors learned to stand upright on two limbs. There was drinking water at the end of the section, so I had started merely with two bottles of water and sipped away as much as I wanted. It was already starting to get dark towards the end, but the full moon brought enough light to the floor of the canyon that I didn’t require headlamps. The trail was bumpy, so it might not have been wise to walk partially blindly in the moonlight, but since I didn’t fall or trip, in retrospect, it now seems like a good idea to have put my visual senses and attention to use to navigate. It was certainly a unique experience. With more reliance on our evolutionary making than on technology, I felt closer to our simpler, pre-modern ancestors, like I was living how we are supposed to.
Section 2. Phantom Ranch to Manzanita
This is nine miles of almost flat trails, where you gain about 2.5k to 3k ft in elevation, and is the most comfortable section of the hike, at least for the legs. It’s your best chance to make up for time lost in the climbs. There was no drinking water here, but you’d be walking right along the river, so you could always filter from it if you were dying of dehydration. This section could be further divided into two, 7.5 mi to Cottonwood campground and 1.5 mi to Manzanita from there. Cottonwood usually has drinking water year-round, but it didn’t when we hiked, because of COVID-19 concerns.
At Manzanita, we found some benches, restrooms, and drinking water. It was an hour past midnight when we got there and my friend started to feel sleepy. Since the next section was the hardest of the whole hike, or so we thought, it seemed like a good idea to take a nap and a snack break before we continued. With just the two of us out there in the dark, I didn’t feel comfortable also sleeping while he was asleep, so I stayed awake, snacking and thinking. Reflection, when not filled with negative and toxic thoughts, can be an effective antidote to boredom. You need no one and nothing else but your own company. I also loaded up on some caffeine to help push through the uphill that was staring at us in the dark.
Section 3. Manzanita to the North Rim
The next six miles were uphill with steep grades, all the way to the North Rim. You gain about 4k-4.5k ft in elevation. For someone who hasn’t done it before, the six miles can feel like sixteen. It just doesn’t end. Time flies, but the trail seems to not care about it. Every mile felt like two and every switchback looked like an unwelcome surprise. Around 4.30 am when we were a few miles away from the top, I looked up and saw the Milky Way. I wished I could stop to take a photo, but I neither had the patience, nor the time and energy for it. Every second was important and so was every step. I had to keep moving. The trail wasn’t going to magically slide beneath my feet. We weren’t even half the way yet. So I quietly soaked myself in the landscape for a few seconds, expressed my gratitude for the good fortune I had to be able to enjoy this, and continued climbing. At 6 am, we made it to the North Rim, exactly twelve hours after where we’d started from, which now seemed like a faraway land. There was nobody there but us. Looking at the vast canyon from that vantage point, I felt like someone who had lost contact with the civilization and was trying to find their way back home. It was cold there so we didn’t stay long. Knowing that it was six miles downhill again was comforting and helped us keep going. The day was getting brighter but the sun was still making its way above the canyons. It felt like the sun and I were fighting the same uphill battle in some ways.
Section 4. Back to Manzanita
On the way back from the rim, I took a ten-minute nap somewhere on the trail under the warmth of the sun, which was now up and shining in my face. In a couple of hours, we were back in Manzanita, which was now crowded, full of runners, who were making this hike look easy with their banters, laughs, and light packs. Lack of sleep that I had started increasingly feeling and the pain that started to show itself in various parts of the body made me sulk at the runners. Not that they cared, but I sulked away for my comfort. Some more snacks and water and we took off.
Section 5. Back to Phantom Ranch
We were back on the flats again, but after twenty-eight miles of hiking even that felt challenging. The shoulders yelled with each step at the weight I was carrying. The back had similar complaints. I took breaks and dropped my backpack every hour in an attempt to put them at ease. But they’d scream soon as I started. There was a long way to go still, so no amount of self-pity could have helped. One of the things about putting yourself out there in nature is that it doesn’t take long to find out that it’s an unbeatable force and so the only way out is to make peace with your finiteness, and then to ask, with humility, for some mercy, and muster all the courage and will that you have. Unlike with people, when you’re up against nature, anything that happens to you is on you. It has no bias, no motives.
At the end of the section was a chance to get lemonade. The store at the Phantom Ranch area was now open and serving snacks and cold drinks. The thought of an iced lemonade pushed me in the last few miles. When I had visualized the hike days before the hike, in order to mentally prepare, I had thought about all the things I’d think about during the hike. I also thought about what’d motivate me when things got hard. I didn’t think lemonade would be it. It’s amazing, and naive, how we think we’re in control of our thoughts, but often are nothing more than mere observers of the ones that come to us.
Both of us sipped a glass of lemonade and then I took a twenty-minute nap on a nearby bench. It was close to 1.30 PM, I think. After the nap and some futile attempts at motivating each other, we started moving. It was close to 2.30 PM when we started towards the final leg.
Section 6. The Final Leg - Back to the South Rim
I was trying to avoid even thinking about this section in the hope that if I never thought about it, it’d magically get better. It’s this denial of reality, or rather, firm belief in the myth that problems go away by not addressing them that turns a seemingly harmless piece of stone into an avalanche over time. We do this all the time – a difficult conversation with a friend or a colleague, or emotional troubles that haven’t been paid attention to – not thinking about problems is one way to avoid them, and so is getting drunk, but the sooner we acknowledge the better. “Slow and steady”, I told myself, “and I’ll make it”. “Slow” it certainly was, not so sure about “steady”. I felt like I didn’t even care much about finishing the hike at that point, that all I wanted to do was drop the pack and be done. The only thought that pushed me was knowing that the more I slowed the worse it got. We were already cutting it pretty close to the 24-hour mark and the last shuttle ran an hour past sunset. Missing that would mean walking one more mile to the car. So one leg in front of the other and I kept moving. At 7.30 pm, 25.5 hours after I had started, I dropped dead back at the trailhead, pale, sunburnt, and with no juice left in me.
We caught the shuttle back to the car, cooked and ate dinner before heading to the campsite. At the campsite, we crawled straight into our sleeping bags, only to see each other the next morning. Around 9 AM, we packed our stuff, took shower at the Tusayan General Store and started to drive back.
Reflections on the way back home
Mental preparation is key for such challenges. If someone asked me to walk 47 miles on city streets, I’d gladly reject the offer. I’d say that I’d be physically incapable of doing it, but I’d be lying. The truth is that it’d mentally exhaust the heck out of me, and that lack of intent would make sure that I quit, well before I reach my physical limits. It was the magnificence of the canyon, the respect this hike commanded, and the reputation it had, that helped me view this as a challenge worth pursuing and pushed me enough to finish it.
It might sound preposterous to say that any athletic undertaking like that is more of a mental effort than a physical one, but it’s not very different from something that we are all too familiar with – cleaning the dishes. Cleaning the dishes is an activity that couples and housemates universally fight over, or argue about. But if you think about it, there’s no great physical labor involved in doing it, and it’s not that hard. If you do it everyday, it’d hardly take 15 minutes for most people. It’s the psychological baggage that comes with it, the societal or cultural values attached to it, that makes us want to avoid doing it, and the consistency required to do it well. The first part prevents you from getting your ass to the kitchen sink, the latter part is what makes it difficult every damn day. You might say then that the friction to doing the dishes is a result of mental hurdles more than physical ones, and so it is with an ultra-hike or an ultra-run.
In the weeks leading up to the hike, I visualized myself being on my feet in the canyons for 24 hours without sleep and food. Of course, I didn’t know what it’d feel like, because I hadn’t done it before, but it helped me get familiar with the idea of walking for that long. I went over the uphills, the downhills, and the flats of the trail repeatedly while staring at the maps, telling myself that it wasn’t that bad. I educated myself about the hydration and fueling strategies and convinced myself that I’d take them seriously.
None of it was as I’d imagined it to be. And the surprises taught me something about the gaps in my imagination. The landscape was more beautiful than the canyons of my thoughts, the downhills were harder on the knees than I thought, and the uphill was more brutal than I prepared mentally for. Shoulders and back hurt more than the legs which came as a total surprise. As far as fueling goes, it turns out that when the body is in pain and discomfort, it rejects food, and so the twelve pounds of the backpack I chugged the whole way, like a mule, was for nothing. I had downloaded audiobooks and motivational podcasts into my phone to listen to, but I learned that no amount of external motivation can make up for the lack of internal drive. It’s only when I talked myself into putting one leg in front of the other did I make progress.
While climbing up the North Rim, less than halfway through the hike, I kept telling myself that I had reached my limit. The line from the sign came roaring back to me.. “Don’t be one of them.. Know your limits”. It was interesting how every step, after a point, felt like the last step I could take, but somehow every step convinced me that I could take one more. The concept of limit seemed plastic. The more I stretched it, the more it kept stretching, without snapping, which tells me that the limits that we think are physical, in most cases, are in the mind. The quote I read somewhere now makes sense, “The mind always gives up before the body”.
After finishing the hike, when I was telling my friends and family that my legs felt relatively good, and that the back and shoulders were doing much worse, I learned something insightful. My legs were ready for the distance. Had I dropped my pack and went light, with a bottle of water and some snacks, I could have done it much faster and the experience would have been much smoother. Running the trail somehow started to look doable. I told myself that I was going to attempt running it in the following year. I also realized that my legs would have been okay walking a few more miles, which tells me that 65 mi, i.e. 100k is well within reach, of course, with some physical and mental training. That’d be the next formidable challenge worth chasing.
Here’s the activity in Strava, for the curious ones.