Sharp winds howl near the start of the Grand Canyon 50 - miler on the North Rim of the Kaibab Plateau
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The familiar dreaded jingle of an iPhone alarm quacks off. It’s 4am. Sharp winds howl over the roof of my van near the race start to the Grand Canyon 50 miler on the North Rim of the Kaibab Plateau. Sol turns over and curls back into a ball under the sheets. She doesn’t have to run 50 miles this morning, she can sleep in. I grab my race kit that I had laid out the night before, begin getting dressing, pinning on my race-bib and applying Squirrel’s Nut Butter to the appropriate “I do not want this to chafe” area(s). Car headlights shine through my van’s windows. I hop outside. “I made it!”, squeaks a familiar voice from around the corner of the van. A bed-headed Jim Walmsely smiles with bloodshot eyes. Having driven from Flagstaff to the race start last night after working a seven hour shift and putting in a one hundred and forty-mile training week. A good friend Jim is, driving four hours and waking up on 3 hours of sleep to crew me throughout the 50-mile race.
The air outside is crisp and cool. It feels colder than it actually is, the wind gusts ebb and flow from strong to stronger. The sun is barely peaking its eyes over the horizon. The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is a remarkably beautiful place. Ultra-Adventures (race organization) are known for their spectacular race courses and attention to social, cultural, and environmental awareness throughout their operations. I’ve had the pleasure of running almost all of their events. This will be my first time, however, running their Grand Canyon course and only my second 50-mile race ever. “Don’t worry man I brought some Little Debbie Boston Cream Pies…but I ate a few on the way here”, Jim assures me. He says this jokingly as he knows I don’t eat those sort of things, yet we constantly joke about how donuts and red bulls seem to be a staple in his professional ultra-running diet.
I jog around the camping area a bit to warm myself up. It is around 35 degrees out and I’m wearing my Cosmos puffy over my racing kit as a result. Jim, Sol, and I jump in the van to stay warm and chat about where the aid stations are located and which ones permit crew access. Thirty minutes to start time I slam a banana and some water mixed with electrolytes. Runners begin to gather around race director Matt Gunn at the start area. Shortly after Gunn previews the course and markings the countdown begins and we’re off.
The course begins high on the top of the Kaibab Plateau (9,000 feet) with a gradual decent on relatively new trail two thousand feet down to the rim of the Canyon. Peppered with a plethora of Ponderosa pines the overgrown North Rim is a sanctuary for wildlife. The decent allowed the legs to wake up and the semi-technical trail made it possible to look around throughout the early stages of the race and absorb all the natural beauty.
After passing the first aid station I was in the lead and had the entire Rainbow Rim Trail to myself. If you haven’t heard of this spectacular multi-use trail in the proposed national monument site, I urge you to Google photos of it. The Rainbow Rim Trail is just that: a 17-mile stretch of pristine single track spanning a portion of the North Rim. Red, Green, Blue, and Purple blend together in hues to highlight heart-stopping vistas as you peer over multiple exposed areas of the North Rim throughout the trail. It is nothing short of a fairy tale area. To run along the North Rim is to experience the magic that is the expansive Northern Arizona wilderness. By mile 21.5 I see Jim and Sol at an aid station and I’m able to change socks and tape my ankle. My shoes turned out to be just a size too small and they were able to rub against my ankle in a certain spot that made it become swollen and painful while running. Needless to say I had to run the last 30-40 miles of the race not fully striding out, almost hobbling a bit to the finish. Had I not had the ankle issue, I am assuming I would have run closer to 6 hours and 20 mins instead of the 7 plus hours it took me to finish the course. Everything else: nutrition, muscles, stomach, and hydration went extremely well and I felt great (despite the ankle) for the entirety of the race.
Once I get to the last aid station (41.5 mile) I see Jim and Sol before a monotonous out and back to the finish. Jim kindly reminds me of how slow I am currently running due to my ankle (he’s good for that sort of encouragement). Sol sprints from side to side of the wide forest service road, under the impression that we are just about to start our own training run together. Seeing her seems to make the ankle pain subside momentarily. Although I race to push myself and to compete, running next to Sol reminds me that running is so much more than merit, medals, and results. It is a pure embodiment and celebration of life. I try to remind myself this as I hobble the last 8-ish miles to the finish line.
Returning to the same aid station from the out and back Jim drops Sol off to me and she runs the last 2 miles with me into the finish line. I felt amazing that day. I think I could have run another 50 at that moment had my ankle not been hurting. The temperature remained perfect throughout the entire race and the old growth ponderosas shielded us from the torrential winds for most of the course.
Despite the ankle I was able to take the overall win and set a new course record for the 50-mile version of the Grand Canyon Ultras. Greeted by big hugs from friends Mike Popejoy (winner of the Grand Canyon Half Marathon), Jim Walmsley, and race director Matt Gunn at the finish was a perfect ending to a phenomenal run and experience.
Currently the Sierra Club is urging the White House administration to convert the greater Grand Canyon watershed (i.e. areas of the North Rim outside the national park) to a national monument area. This would offer a variety of resources and protection for the area. I encourage you to look into this initiative and get involved. This area is a truly special piece of this planet and deserves our attention.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nico Barraza is a member of the La Sportiva Mountain Running® Team.
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