Ten minutes into my “fastest known time” attempt and I’m spooked by some very unexpected trail users - a family of desert bighorn sheep (complete with a ram, ewe, and two kiddos) are directly on the carefully arranged cobblestones of South Kaibab trail, Grand Canyon National Park and I’m currently blinding them with my Kogalla light hoping not to get charged by the fellow with the impressive horns. “Excuse me guys,” I say while attempting to squeeze by and they bound impressively up an exposed rock face. I continue down towards the river. It’s 9:55 PM on a Sunday night and the normally packed corridor trails at Grand Canyon are deserted. At Boat Beach a vertical mile below where I began, it’s just me and the flittering bats and the mighty Colorado River. The moon is nearly full and casts its delicate light over the distant contours of the canyon and Phantom Creek alongside me as I cross the many little bridges back and forth winding upwards through “the box.” The sound of the creek in this narrow gorge is soothing and all-consuming as I trot along in my little tunnel of illuminated singletrack. I feel as though I’m in a dream.
2:13 AM finds me at the North Rim. I’ve split 4:28:18 for this first crossing of the canyon and as I turnaround I’m pleased with my strategy of doing the night running first. The night running will keep me slow and economical I figured, the cooler temps will stave off the inevitable dehydration and I’ll be able to rally better for the second set of crossings in the warm, pleasant sun. The trail trends downhill all the way back to the Colorado River 14ish miles away and as I relax into that downhill, I feel as though things are going well, that maybe running a full rim-to-rim-to-rim the weekend before wasn’t going to bite me in the ass after all.
The sun is rising as I make my way through Cedar Ridge - perhaps my favorite spot on the corridor trails with its wispy juniper trees and soft red dirt that remind me of many seasons spent running in Sedona. The canyon emerges out of darkness slowly in mauves, then soft oranges from the isolated castles and buttes that reach toward the desert sky like sunflower sprouts above their neighbors and then for a few precious moments everything is electric orange and the first rays of sunshine fall over the canyon with an ephemeral soul fortifying glow and in the blink of an eye the sun washes out the landscape from neon magic to a dull sea of red rock, brown rock, white rock, olive chaparral, and blue desert sky.
I’m jolted from my sunrise jubilation back to reality as I ascend the last steep, tight switchbacks of Kaibab limestone to the top of the south rim. I whisper the mnemonic device, “Know the canyons history study rocks made by time,” to myself trying to remember the names of each rock layer as I break out of a hike back into an uphill shuffle to meet my pacer Sarah for a quick resupply before plunging back into the canyon.
Parked next to the pit toilet bathroom is my bicycle and I grab my bag from the front basket and quickly jockey for one of the two vaults where I can shake off my waist belt and light, rabbit tights, and rabbit x Aravaipa long sleeve for my 2” FKT shorts and paper-thin rabbitELITEtrail tee before wolfing down a fruit cup and stuffing my pack with nearly a dozen Spring “Awesomesauce” gels. I split about 9:20 for the first rim-to-rim-to-rim and this pit stop has lasted 8 or 9 minutes. The split math hasn’t completely overtaken my brain yet but it’s definitely time to go back to work. We descend.
I’m soft stepping as economically as I can, trying to minimize the loading of my quads as we drop 5,000 feet back to the Colorado River. I’m dodging mule droppings and tourists and trying not to catch my toes on any rocks or exposed rebar supports as we breeze by the familiar points one by one: Ooh Aah, Cedar Ridge, Skeleton Point, Tip Off, Black Bridge, and Boat Beach. My nose is full packed with the smell of fresh mule urine and droppings but my mind is awash with memories from past Canyon adventures and I let them come and go as we thread our way to Phantom Ranch and begin the work of muscling back up to the North Rim. The incline is mostly subtle at first and I’m painfully aware with how crucial these splits are as we cover the runnable section preceding the steep climbs directly below the north rim. “We’re doing it, this is happening,” I say both aloud and in my mind over and over as Sarah and I exchange small talk about, believe it or not, running. Up trail I spot my Aravaipa teammate Peter Mortimer and general badass Jeff Browning. All four of us lined up for Mogollon Monster 100 mile just a few weeks ago. Sarah and Jeff both won. I packed my trekking poles in a quiver on my pack for the final two crossings and as we begin our climb to the north rim in earnest, I unfold them and begin to focus on steady economical climbing. This whole day has been a sort of meditation on focused, easy work and I’m constantly aware of my breath and effort. Furthering my self-inventory, I observe I’m not in any actual pain, just beginning to feel the fatigue and starting to lag in energy. Sarah prods me to choke down some calories and electrolytes and by the time we turn around from the north rim (12:18 PM, 14:32:02 total moving time) I feel like we can get some meaningful work done. We have 7 hours to make it 21 miles back to the south rim. The split math begins to consume me. We descend.
The downhill carries us surprisingly easily. Sarah and I recall the final downhill at Cocodona 250 leaving Mount Elden for the finish in downtown Flagstaff and how we could barely crawl down the grade, our legs completely shot. Despite finishing the last of 22,000 ft of elevation loss my legs are carrying me just fine downhill. I split my best mile on the day. There is a wind advisory, and the gusts blow dirt and sand into my eyes but also catches and holds the light suspended between the walls of the canyon and everything looks dreamier than usual. That or I’m very tired and sentimental. We’re passing many of the same hikers we saw earlier. “Back for more?!” “Rim to rim?!” Everyone seems to want to chime in with something when you’re running at the Grand Canyon. Occasionally it’s appreciated but mostly it’s a deeply grating pet peeve of mine, like playing music on a Bluetooth speaker on trails which I hypocritically finesse after thoroughly soaking my hair from the tap at Boat Beach and begin our last climb to the rim. I hit shuffle on my Spotify and let the tinny rhythm from my iPhone speaker carry me upwards; aware of my own hypocrisy I either hit pause or apologize profusely when we encounter other trail users. Sarah is a few switchbacks ahead of me and I try to close the gap alternately hiking and jogging while crunching splits.
Time is on our side. I do the math to hit the FKT, starting with the slowest hiking splits I can imagine and then keep pushing to drop minutes off them. Halfway up South Kaibab I’m riding the high of knowing this FKT is going to happen and get lost in the desire to carve off as much time as I can. I look at my watch and realize we can break 20 hours. The previous FKT was 21:37:39. I wrote it on my shoes in Sharpie before failing this run twice in a row. This time is different. As we approach the final switchbacks, I’m over two hours ahead of the previous fastest known time. Sarah snaps a picture of me as I top out the last switchback and I’m smiling wildly. “Pure joy” is the emotion she sees but RELIEF is the one I’m actually feeling. I’ve had my head down working for 19 and a half hours and now I can finally stop and let the full spectrum of feelings wash over me. And there are many. I’ve been mildly obsessed with the 4x crossings FKT for years (plural) and after failing twice I finally get to end my year on a high note. I can rest now. I’m too tired to feel ecstatic, but I certainly feel proud. There is no timing mat or big clock with a time atop South Kaibab, just Sarah lavishing me with nice words, a trail crew worker hiking out that we ask to take a picture for us and the sounds of elk not exactly bugling but kind of softly mewing as I make my way back to the car - that happens to be one of my favorite sounds in the world - and there are a couple of wild horses grazing near the corrals at South Kaibab and these are the sights and sounds of one of my favorite places in the world and I couldn’t be happier or more grateful.