Author’s Note: Due to the current global health pandemic, most all of us have been asked to stay at home and avoid unnecessary human interaction. During these times of solitude, I imagine that most of us miss running with friends. I thought I would tell a story that brings you humanity and social contact by proxy. So please enjoy this story about a group of friends running across the Grand Canyon--a place that is presently closed to the public due to the coronavirus--and be safe.
Desert vegetation clings to canyon walls of rusted red, coffee-colored beige, and ochre, which tumble thousands of feet to a tumultuous Colorado River in Northern Arizona. Vast, lingering crevasses dissect these towering walls, hiding oases of shade and springs in an otherwise arid expanse. A plethora of trails navigate the myriad layers of colored rock from the rim to the river and across the Tonto plateau, and creeks flow down side canyons. Within this massive ditch, there are nearly four-hundred bird, almost one-hundred mammal, and some one thousand, seven-hundred and fifty plant species. It’s a beautiful place brimming with life.
When you stand seven-thousand feet above sea level on the south rim in Grand Canyon National Park, you can’t see the river. From that vantage point, you wouldn’t be able to identify all of the birds, mammals or plants either. From the rim, the canyon’s only discernible feature is its vastness. It’s nearly five thousand vertical feet from the top to the bottom and, again, from the top, you can’t even see the river snaking through the canyon’s depths. There are nearly three-hundred miles of river bisecting the canyon between the river’s eastern terminus at Lee’s Ferry and its western terminus at Lake Mead.
If you want to cross the canyon from the south rim to the north rim, it takes twenty-one miles, and some ten-thousand feet of elevation change, via the South and North Kaibab Trails. If you cross the canyon and come back, taking on the infamous rim-to-rim-to-rim route, it’s forty-two miles with some twenty-thousand feet of elevation change. It makes for a long day, which is exactly what you want if you’re training for a hundred mile race.
It was June 3rd, 2019, and it was twenty-six days before the Western States 100. It was a sunny morning and Jim Walmsley, Tim Freriks, Stephen Kersh, Jared Hazen and I drove from Flagstaff to the canyon’s south rim. We parked a half-mile from the South Kaibab trailhead and we started our usual pre-canyon run rituals in a small, shaded parking lot.
Stephen had never run rim-to-rim-to-rim and if you didn’t know that, his anxiety in the parking lot gave it away. And if his anxiety in the parking lot didn’t give it away, then he gave it away on the drive to the canyon when he said, “I’ve never been so anxious my whole life.” He was asking questions about what nutrition to bring, what the North Kaibab Trail was like, if he should wear arm sleeves to keep cool, etcetera. His bottles had been filled with water hours before we arrived at the south rim and he was left to sort of just pace around as we all got ready, his level of trepidation both palpable and reasonable. He’s since learned that you should leave your bottles empty until you get to the trailhead so that you have something to distract you from thinking about what you’re about to do.
Before a run in the canyon, or really before any run at all, or, come to think of it, at any time at all, Jared reverts to an almost primal level of interaction. He talks but he never really says anything. It’s either an inside joke or a sound or a line from a show. He was also exceedingly tired, as he always is when he’s running a disturbing number of miles in training, and complained about being tired, as he also always does when he’s running a disturbing number of miles every week. I don’t know if it’s the fatigue that turns him so nonsensical or if acting that way is his way of dealing with what’s happening or about to happen, which in this case was an undeniably difficult run.
Tim’s mood seemed to elevate the closer we got to the south rim. That’s because if Tim could have it his way, he’d spend nearly every waking minute at the canyon, in the canyon, near the canyon, or, worst case scenario, simply thinking about the canyon. And it wouldn’t really matter to him if he was alone or with people. But when he knows he’s about to spend most of the daylight hours running through the canyon with friends, he’s the happiest person in the state of Arizona. So he was on this day as he lathered himself in anti-chafe salve, counted his calories as he packed them up, and smiled endlessly.
Jim really likes to take his time before a run. It seems to take him longer than anyone else to get ready. He’s often still in his warmups as the rest of us are tying our shoes. For as much as the guy seems to love running, he might find more joy in talking about running before running. I can’t recall what was on his mind on this exact morning, but I’d bet the farm that he was talking about a run he did earlier that week, or a run he was going to do next week, or the last time he ran rim-to-rim-to-rim or something. Meanwhile he wasn’t changing or filling bottles or counting calories and it likely took us an extra twenty minutes to start the run than it would have otherwise.
As for myself, I’m always scared shitless before a run in the canyon. That’s the easiest way to describe how I felt that morning, or any other day at the canyon, but I’m sure the emotions are much more complex. There’s a bit of anxiousness, nervousness, excitement and the like. There’s an energy in the air. It’s quite a lot like the feeling you get on the morning of a race.
The South Kaibab Trail descends abruptly and there’s a lot of steps and you really have to be careful with your footwork so that you don’t catch a toe and plummet hundreds of feet through the air. The trail is often rutted out from torrential rains or the half a dozen mule trains that stomp up and down the canyon every day. I had never fallen during a canyon descent until we were four miles into our forty-four mile day. Fortunately, I fell in as good of a place as you can fall in the canyon, which is any place that allows you to land on the earth in front of you and not hurtling down the canyon walls. This was just below the Tonto plateau where the coffee-colored beige turns to rusted red. It hurt and Jared first laughed but then seemed mildly concerned because I had a rather big gash in my knee. I took a minute to collect myself and then we tiptoed the rest of the way down to the river.
Tim is a nurse and so I defer all of my medical curiosities and inquiries to him. When we got down to the river and stopped to fill our bottles at a spicket, I asked him if I should be concerned. He told me to keep it clean by spraying it with water and that I should be fine. Part of me wanted him to say that it was bad and I needed to seek medical attention, and then I could have walked leisurely out of the canyon and the dozens of miles of discomfort never would have happened. But I’m glad I stuck around because just a few miles later on the North Kaibab Trail, Jim took a memorable plunge in Bright Angel Creek.
Jim, or Swimmin’ Jim as we often call him, has an interesting history with water. I want to start by saying that Jim is actually a very proficient swimmer. That’s partly because when he was at the Air Force Academy, he had to pass certain physical fitness tests that included diving to the bottom of a pool with a weight vest on and navigating an obstacle course. I saw his swimming prowess first hand, too, when Jim and Tim and I swam across the Colorado River (twice) while running the Bass Trail in 2018. Jim was definitely the best swimmer of the three of us, and Tim and I aren’t bad swimmers.
But Jim didn’t earn the moniker Swimmin’ Jim because he completed an underwater obstacle course or swam across the Colorado River. He earned the nickname after the 2016 Western States 100 when, while crossing the American River at mile seventy-eight, he let go of the rope and was swept downstream. His swimming ability actually quite helped him in that circumstance, as the ferocious white water only swept him about a hundred meters down river before he made it to shore. That particular event is especially well remembered in ultrarunning history because Jim was in the lead and well under course-record pace when he went for a swim. He would go on to take a wrong turn and finish in twentieth place.
And then there was the time that we ran rim-to-rim-to-rim in the Grand Canyon on June 3rd, 2019.
It can be very warm at the bottom of the Grand Canyon in early June. When it's the middle of the day and you’re running through a box canyon on the North Kaibab Trail, it’s especially warm. I don’t know what the temperature was that day but it was hot enough that we’d take a dip whenever we could. The lower half of the North Kaibab Trail crisscrosses Bright Angel Creek several times, and the trail basically parallels the creek for half a dozen miles. We had dunked ourselves in the Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon and a few miles up the North Kaibab Trail, we decided to cool off in Bright Angel Creek.
There are undoubtedly many things about Jim that have made him especially well suited for ultrarunning. One of those things is that he has the ability to obsess over something in excruciating detail. If Jim wants to buy a car, he’ll spend hours every day, for months, researching different vehicles. And he’ll educate himself to the point that he can talk to you for hours about why you might buy one vehicle over another, replete with objections and rejoinders. He’ll get so wrapped up in something that it’s almost all he can think about. So much so that you might try to change the topic to talk about something besides cars and as soon as he gets the chance he’ll move the conversation back to the car debate. I think most other people would become disinterested in something, like buying a car, long before Jim. And that ability to focus very acutely, for very long periods of time, is one of the things that makes Jim really good at ultrarunning. Because when you’re trying to run as fast as you can for hours, you can’t become disinterested. You can’t let yourself focus on the pain or discomfort or whatever else. To be really, really good at running really, really fast for really, really long periods of time, you have to be intensely focused throughout. When you become that engaged in something, you don’t have the ability to turn your attention to other things. You might then miss a left turn ninety-something miles into a race. Or you might end up careening from rock to rock as the Bright Angel Creek sweeps you away.
Bright Angel Creek was flowing unusually fast that day. Typically the creek isn’t much to worry about. You could wade across from one side to the other in all of six seconds without getting your shorts wet. But as I recall, the higher elevations in Northern Arizona received a lot of snow that spring, and I think the increased volume in Bright Angel Creek was due to more snow melt than usual. Whatever the case, when Jim and I found a relatively calm pool of water swirling at the creek’s edge, we bushwhacked directly over from the trail and waded in. Stephen and Jared were further upstream and Tim hadn’t gotten in yet.
Jim was in the water first and he moved further into the main current to make room for me. When I lowered myself into the water, I was immediately struck by the force of the pool that had looked relatively calm before getting in. I didn’t lower myself any further and chose to use my hat to splash water on my upper body. The current was strong.
I don’t think Jim thought much about the current. We were running forty-four miles that day and I imagine Jim poured nearly all of his energy into that and thinking about that. He probably didn’t notice that the current was very strong or that he was further into the creek than he should have been. He lowered his body into the current and then bent over to fully dunk his upper half, head included, under water. Then, as he bent back up and emerged from the water, the current grabbed at him and his body turned further into the current ever so slightly. We made eye contact and in his eyes I saw a raw form of fear that can only be experienced. I knew that he knew that he had lost his balance and he would momentarily be swept downstream. And in an instant--swoosh. The white water pulled him away from my outstretched hand and he went bouncing--feet first, head up--down the creek. I think I yelled, “Help!” Tim sprinted along the side of the creek in pursuit.
For a second Jim was in the middle of the creek with no means of an exit. Then the current moved him to the far left and he grasped for shrubbery at the water’s edge. He missed and kept bouncing along, Tim still running and now nearly alongside him. The current then bounced him all the way to the far right side of the creek and there were reeds within reach and he managed to stop himself. I bet he was flowing along at ten miles per hour before he pulled himself to a halt.
Now Jim was on the far side of the creek and he had to get to the near side. We must have spent ten minutes trying to find an appropriate place to cross. Eventually we did and with some assistance, Jim made his way across without the creek sweeping him away again. He was visibly banged up, with two huge welts on his right elbow and hip. But, like Jim does, he played it down like it wasn’t a big deal. We’d go on to reach the north rim and return back down to the Colorado River before the final, excruciating climb up the South Kaibab Trail: roughly six-point-three miles with almost five-thousand feet of climbing. Despite his injuries from the unplanned swim, Jim would climb out of the canyon at least twenty minutes faster than all of us. I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we weren’t surprised when Jim ran a new course record at Western States that year, finishing in a mind-blowing fourteen hours and nine minutes.
I don’t think Jim likes the nickname Swimmin’ Jim. But I think that maybe he should embrace it more. The reason he earned his moniker is the same reason he ran a course record at Western States: his dogged ability to focus endlessly in the face of adversity.
I think we could all benefit from an eventful, unprompted, frightening swim every now and again.