#ThatFeelingWhen, at mile 19, you break boundaries you didn’t know you had

My last-minute attempt at running into and out of the Grand Canyon with 24 hours left in the Park.

Sunset, Day 1: April 9, 2016. Grand Canyon National Park. The best iPhone photo I have ever taken, despite being blurry-eyed with exhaustion and the tears that exploded when I laid eyes on this sight.

Sweat pooled between my eyes, between my shoulder blades, in the creases of my elbows. Minutes into my attempt at running the unfathomable depths of the Grand Canyon, and it was hot. This section of trail is too steep to run, I thought. Who put these jagged rocks and logs here? My limbs went numb every time I glanced beyond the cliffs I was carefully descending, toward the deep bottom of the Grand Canyon. Not dread, not even awe — just the dumb, unintelligible fact that soon I was going to be way down there, and then, hopefully, I was going to be back up here. The notion was too bizarre to register as panic.

Hiking this same route a day earlier, I lugged a 30-pound pack up the trail. While I clomped and cursed and heaved carefully onward, I saw runners — about 10 men and just one woman — picking their way lightly past me. I mourned my sweaty pants and heavy bag, wanting to drop it all and run. Anything but these stiff boots, I thought. Barefoot, even. As I hiked that day, my mind eager for any distraction but my aching quads, I did some rough math: running the 20 mile round trip could take me anywhere from 4 to 8 hours. The wild card, of course, would be climbing the nearly 5,000 feet from the Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon to the South Rim at the top.

I had never tried anything like it. I was training for my first ultra-marathon, sure, and had one road marathon under my belt. But my longest recent run was 18 miles on the very flat, barren earth outside my new home in New Mexico, where I had moved just days earlier to start a new job. Even that road marathon was six years ago. While planning this solo bucket-list vision quest to the Grand Canyon, I hadn’t even thought to hike to the river and back in a day. The National Park Service’s website says not to. Rule follower that I am, running such a forbidden route hadn’t even occurred to me.

But somehow, watching those runners light-footed and smiling along the trail, a crazy idea appeared in my usually cautious mind: I could do that. I had one more day in the canyon. Water fountains dotted the trail. The weather forecast, if hot, was at least clear. I was feeling spontaneous, invigorated by new friends I met and challenges I faced during four days of solo trekking in a place I had never been before. A perfect ending to a perfect adventure — if it worked.

Damn, I now thought, skidding to a halt before hopping off another log. They made it look easy. Warning signs along the path didn’t help my ominous and growing doubt that what I was trying might, in fact, be impossible for me. “Down is optional,” the signs read. “Up is mandatory.”

I picked my way down that first few miles of trail in an awkward mix of controlled scampering and jerky steps, barely managing to not trip on the bumpy logs that made so many crude stairs. The trail switched back and forth, surrounded by grand views of the jagged, colorful cliffs that give the canyon its name.

After an hour, I sprang into the green willows that meant water: a campground. Four miles down, 16 to go. For a minute, I breathed easy.

Smoother, less-steep trail followed. Dirt and sand replaced the stupid logs and rocks. I relaxed, consciously landing on the soft part of my foot below my toes, and even pushing forward with each step. Now, I was running. Bounding down rocky sections with elbows wide, enjoying the momentum that lifted me up the brief, rolling uphills. An hour passed. I hardly noticed.

The Colorado River. Overexposed, but still beautiful.

Then, there it was, shimmering a hundred feet below me. Mecca. My goal. The turquoise Colorado River, icy and beautiful, bending between hulking red cliffs.

I crossed a massive suspension bridge and ran to a sandy beach where a new friend and I had shared a bottle of wine while camping there a few nights earlier. I slipped around in the thick sand, drunk on adrenaline and disbelief, trying to stretch but mostly praising whatever created this immaculate place.

Getting to this point took two hours and a few minutes. I had no idea how long it would take to retrace my steps, back up and out of the canyon to the rim a mile above and 10 miles away. The sun was out in that full Arizona force now, the kind I read about on faded posters in the park’s backcountry office. Uncertainty tinged my bliss. Technically, I was halfway — 10 miles down, 10 remained — but I hadn’t begun the miles-long climb up and out of this ditch so deep you can see it from space.

Doubt be damned, I starting running again.

Turns out, I didn’t have to worry about the sun for long. Clouds rolled in, and a desert storm kicked dirt into my eyes. The first gust of cold wind sucked the air out of me. Rain pelted my neck and legs. For the first time, I was the only soul on the trail. Am I wearing enough layers? I asked myself in a panic. Where will I go if there’s lightning? Was this a stupid idea? This was a stupid idea. It was then, of course, that I slipped in a creek. Ice-cold water filled my shoe. Keep your head, Leah, I told myself — probably out loud.

At least it’s not hot, I thought a few steps later, as I raised my arm to shield my face from the sand whipping around me. For all its nastiness, the wind reminded me of Wyoming, where days before I had left friends, family and years of memories to move just a few states south but a world away from the life I’d known. The thought of home brought not quite comfort, but something close.

I kept running. The rain died down and gave way to cool cloud cover for the rest of the day.

The more I ran uphill, the more rocks and logs stopped being barriers to curse, hurdles to jump, and instead turned into a puzzle. My feet gravitated toward steps of least resistance. I danced a sort of hopscotch from stone to stone. My steps got shorter, but I got lighter. It felt, at times, easy.

About halfway into the uphill slog, I realized I was running by my own kind of unplanned strategy. At every switchback, I looked up at the trail and asked: Is it runnable, or (if a little steeper) is it walkable?

If the answer was “runnable,” I’d try to run.

If the answer was “walkable,” I’d try to run.

Something else happened, too. Something weirder. In the middle of a bustling national park and amid the most breathtaking landscape I have ever seen, I became a spectacle.

“We must pay homage!” One man said as he pulled out his smartphone to film me running by. I pumped my arms and laughed, only realizing later how weird the interaction was.

Some people offered me food and water. Others wanted an interrogation.

The inquisitions went like this: “Where’d you come from?” The top, I’d say. “Where are you going?” The top! I’d shout over my shoulder as I passed them, half annoyed and half amused, nearly as surprised as they that I was running this unkind route.

One man was more scientific in his questioning: “Where’d you start?” Bright Angel Trailhead, I said. “What’s your time?” I looked at my watch — 3:43. “You’re awesome.” I had no concept of time — I’d go a half hour at my run-hike-run pace without checking the clock. Besides, having hatched this uncharacteristically bold plan less than 24 hours ago, just surviving sounded good enough to me.

About 18 miles in, a woman I passed gasped loudly. “Look, girls!” she said. “This woman is running the trail!” Three skinny girls — 10 years old, maybe — looked up from where they stood smiling shyly. Sign up for your school’s cross-country team, I wanted to say. But all that came out was a weak thumbs-up and what I hope was an encouraging smile.

My body burned but my mind rested in the calm of a mid-run rhythm. As my control-tower mind took a backseat to physical instinct, my attention followed the rocks ahead and not much else.

What had been a slow trickle of tired hikers interrupted by long stretches of alone time turned into more and bigger groups of people with smaller packs; I was approaching the top. I ran past a family whose preteen son videotaped their hike with a selfie stick. The other hikers started smelling better.

I thought of my mother, who expressed total bafflement when I texted her details of my plan to run the Grand Canyon the night before.

“what?” she typed in response to my text message. “not up and down? just around?”

Well, technically down and up, I told her, but, uh, yes.

“wow,” she said. “go have a beer.”

Breathing heavy. Fewer thoughts. Thighs burning hotter. Trying hard not to curse aloud at the hundreds of tourists walking at me, not giving me the right of way on my very obvious uphill trek. Around a few more switchbacks. Under a few familiar rock arches.

My feet on gravel. My feet on pavement. Pavement! My feet up and over the slight rise to a parking lot, past a crowded shuttle bus stop and downhill, glorious downhill, to the quarter mile path that lead to my car. Ecstasy coursed through my veins. My arms pumped, knees lifted high and momentum like — like — words failed. Smiling, gaze lifted, letting out big, sighing exhales. I can run like this forever. Did I just run 20 miles, or 2?

Among the joys flooding that moment was the simple, intoxicating truth: I made it. I did something I didn’t know was possible, something the government told me not to do, something my mom didn’t understand. Bucking the system — and my approval-seeking, plan-obsessing mind — was a rare and sweet rebellion. Instead of crying with some fever of relief and accomplishment, I laughed.

Like most feelings while running, that short window to bliss passed. I made it to my car at a slow shuffle, 4 hours and 32 minutes after I left it, shoulders hunched, but happy.

The big red ditch.
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