Published on Runner’s World (http://www.runnersworld.com)
The Colossal Crack
A story of peaks, canyons and trying to out-pace grief
She died in February, the cruelest month. That spring, I stayed with a friend in North Carolina, got fed, got stronger, and started running again. Being in North Carolina in the spring makes you want to run, even if what you really want to do is die.
When I got home to Spokane, back to teaching, back to real life, friends worried about me, sneaking into my house at night to make sure I was still breathing. In the mornings I’d find notes beside my bed: Call me when you wake up. It was always a vague disappointment to wake up. I never felt like calling anyone, but if I didn’t return phone calls quickly enough I could create panic. I did the minimum I could get away with.
As summer approached, I started receiving invitations: A wedding by a lake in northern Montana; an offer to lead a pace group at the Missoula Marathon ; a trip to the High Sierra for the last 38 miles of the Western States 100-mile race ; a horse for the World Championship Ride and Tie  in the Humboldt redwoods; a cabin by the bay on the Olympic Peninsula; an offer to be on the sweep crew at the Bridger Ridge Run  in Bozeman.I accepted them all. I was gone every week. As a writer, I work best when I am not at home, and so I wrote a lot and tried to stay away from home.
I entered only one race, and blew it early on. Just as I had done twice before at this beautiful 50-miler in Montana, I got lost on the trail. My heart wasn’t in racing; my mind and body conspired not to let me.
Then I got an invitation that seemed crazy, even to me.
Sure, I’ve always wanted to see the Grand Canyon. But running from rim-to-rim-to-rim? You’d have to carry your own provisions; there’d be no aid stations, no shirts, and no Shiny Metal Objects. I have always maintained that I do not run farther than 26 miles in training. If I go another quarter mile, I expect to get something real and tangible, something solid, to mark the occasion. Don’t tell me that I’ll always have my memories. I can’t remember what I ate for breakfast most mornings.
This trek was to take place at the end of August. Doing a self-supported long run in the summer in the desert, descending twice into a cauldron. Yeah, that sounded like a great idea.
Oh, and the company. I’d be a female interloper among three grownup frat brothers, successful men who had been friends for 30 years. I was slightly acquainted with only one of them; another had read my book about running. I knew what they did not: I’m more fun on the page than I am in person. But they invited me, and for some reason, I decided to go.
The plan was to fly into Las Vegas, drive to Lone Pine, Calif., and then spend a day trotting up and back down Mt. Whitney– the highest peak in the contiguous United States–48 hours before the Grand Canyon run. The plan seemed a bit extreme, even to me.
I realize now I agreed to go because my mother was dead. When I finally sat still enough to think, I grasped the fact that I’d arranged my summer doing things that would drain me
physically and allow me to be in the company of people I liked but didn’t know well. I’m fortunate to have good friends scattered throughout the country, folks who know I’m lying if I say I’m OK when I’m not. The summer after my mother died, I spent no time with any of the people closest to me. I didn’t want to answer questions, real and searching, about how I was doing. So I kept moving. The days at home between adventures were solitary and tearful. There aren’t enough Michael Connolly novels or episodes of “Project Runway” to keep me out of my own head.
There wasn’t much I cared about. Achievements felt hollow if I couldn’t share good news with my mother. I enjoyed playing at danger and prized the pre-trip emails where the frat boys made much of the potential for disaster on the adventure they were proposing. The chance of altitude sickness on Whitney seemed likely. The prospect of falling off the ledgey trails of the Grand Canyon scared me not at all. I looked forward to soul-searing heat, burning muscles, straining lungs.
I’ve run so many hard trail races that I generally know what to expect–which parts will be tough–and I’ve written enough about running to toe the line with an idea of how I will eventually tell the story. During races, I’m writing in my head. Going into events, I often think I know what they will ultimately be about. I suspected that for me, the story of the Mt. Whitney/Grand Canyon run would be that it was a run and not a race, that it would entail logging nearly 70 miles without the possibility of a trophy.
So I’m a bit competitive. In training, I like to take it easy. But give me a race number and I’ll move. Plus, as I said, I like to get material markers of where I’ve been and what I’ve done. I do not buy souvenirs, I earn them.
This was not going to be a race. Henry had done some speedy marathons, a handful of ultras, and had just finished his first 100-miler. Bill, a soccer-playing sprinter, had never raced farther than 5K when he did his first 50K a month before our expedition. Ed had four marathons under his belt. Even though two of them were 20 years before, at least one had been Boston. They were strong runners, though not experienced at very long distances.
I didn’t want to be the weak link. I also didn’t want to be my usual self, which is to get impatient, push the pace, and do in my companions. I’d gone on “hikes” through Glacier, Yellowstone, Canyonlands, and Arches National Parks with various friends. I drove them nuts, asking why we couldn’t go farther and faster, complaining when they wanted to stop to eat and drink. “You have enough body fat to keep you going for three weeks,” I’d say to poor, patient Andrew, the person who got me started as a runner, as he rested for a moment during a day-long hike in northern Montana. He knew to ignore me and take care of himself.
The problem with national parks is that they are national parks. They are there for the enjoyment and use of the American people. The people come. The trail up Mt. Whitney, at 5 a.m. on the last Monday of August, was illuminated with headlamps, a line of sturdy and well-equipped folks marching like coal miners off to work. We had, of course, to get ahead of them.
We passed every group– and the few solo hikers– we saw. We sped up the mountain. A friend, a strong runner, had done Whitney a few weeks before. It had taken his party just under 11 hours. I kept that in my head. He had said that you could do it in nine. I stashed that comment as well. I kept my eye on my watch.
But I also looked around. This part of the trip hadn’t appealed to me originally. The guys had gotten their day permits a year in advance and we needed to enter a last-minute lottery to see if I could score one. I didn’t care much if I didn’t get to go. I figured I could sleep in and then read a novel by the hotel pool while they ran. I’d been in the High Sierra earlier in the summer, and a few years before I’d run through Yosemite. In my lazy naivete I thought, I’ve seen this mountain range; for me, the Grand Canyon was the big draw. I didn’t want to trash my legs bagging some old peak. I didn’t care about getting high. I prize oxygen-rich air.
But Whitney was astounding. We stopped and we looked and we marveled. Three cheers for Natural Beauty! I’d say. And the boys would concur and cheer: Natural Beauty!
We wound through big conifers and then above the tree line. We saw lakes and meadows and rocks. We spied a small squeaky varmint that none of us could identify. (It turned out to be a pika .) At the summit, we met a portly marmot, clearly used to the crowds and bustle at the peak, hoping for some food. “A fed critter is a dead critter,” the Forest Service signs had warned. I wanted to but didn’t feed him. We were both disappointed.
On the way back down, our little group was, I suspect, irritating in its perkiness. We flew while others struggled. We stayed together, often putting Ed, a gentle corporate lawyer, the embodiment of a reasonable and prudent speed limit, in the lead. With a few miles to go, Bill, the sprightly magazine editor who had originally invited me along, balked. He didn’t see a point in running down the rest of the hill when we were going to be doing a much bigger adventure two days later. Henry and I, challenging each other, would have pounded it; Bill and Ed saved us from ourselves.
I was delighted that we did it in nine hours, but I realized I didn’t much care about the time. Going up and down Mt. Whitney was an experience worthy of the trip out. I could have forgone the Grand Canyon and been happy I’d come. At Whitney Portal we ate cheeseburgers and I surreptitiously tossed French fries to fat squirrels. My legs felt fresh. I felt good. I had forgotten that I could feel good.
I tend to fall on runs. I’m used to it. The people who run with me get used to it as well. With my regular group in North Carolina, the guys barely paused to wait for me to pop up when I went down. They’d just say, “Oh, Rachel fell again.” It was not unusual for me to finish Saturday morning runs bloody and bruised.
Coming down Whitney I fell hard, tumbling onto sharp rocks. I bloodied my knee, bashed my hip, and sliced off the top of my thumb. Blood ran down my leg, soaking through my gaiter into my sock. The guys were worried.
“This is what I do,” I kept saying. I knew the blood would dry and flake away. The more they insisted on cleaning me up, the more resistant I became. I am used to falling, but I am unaccustomed to being cleaned up.
I don’t like to hurt. It’s why I’m not a faster runner. But something about charging down the highest mountain in the country with blood dripping down my knee seemed right. I have hurt so much since my mother died, more than I believed I could withstand. Hurting has become a state of being, though it is mostly invisible to others.
When it comes to grief, people hand out bromides like mints. Nothing anyone has ever said since my mother died has helped me or made me feel better, despite kind intentions. I don’t want to hear anyone else’s dead mother stories, and I don’t want to be thanked for sharing mine. Like my love for my mother, my sorrow is unique to me. A gouged knee turned out to be a fitting physical emblem. It hurt, and it bled, and eventually, I understood, it would heal and scar over. But it would never be the same.
As it turns out, I know a lot of people who have done the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim run. A group of athletes from Missoula had invited me to join them on the same route a few years ago. It took them, my friend Kevin said, 16 or 17 hours; down the South Kaibab trail, across the river, a stop for dinner at Phantom Ranch, up North Kaibab to the far rim, down again, across the river again, and then back up Bright Angel. Even resilient Kevin had said that the last uphill was hard. I heard a similar story from a bunch of vigorous Virginia women who had done the same 45 miles in about the same amount of time. Henry liked to point out that we were doing it in the summer. That we had just run up and down Whitney. That made it, he said, more challenging. Much more impressive. A “double.”
Whatever, I said. I wondered what would motivate me if there was no clock, no shirt, and no Shiny Metal Object.
Henry, as it turns out. For him, everything was “all about the run.” He spoke of “game day.” He beat his breast and sang the body electric. Gonzo Henry made me look like a chilled-out Zen master; he became a magnifying mirror for me. I know guys like him. I am kind of a guy like him. Henry reminded me of ultrarunning, race-directing David Horton , a competitor for whom second place can only mean first loser, who thinks a low BMI tells you more about a person than a high SAT. The first thing Henry said to me when we met, at the airport in Las Vegas, was “Rachel! You’re skinny!” I thought he was going to give me an award.
Henry, an engineer by training, had laid out the plan and we pretty much stuck to it. We left the South Rim at 3 p.m. in a light rain. We were back at 8 a.m. the next day. Because of the occasional cloud cover, it wasn’t as hot as it could have been, and for parts of the night we were able to turn off our lights. I cast a moon shadow, and then had Cat Stevens  stuck in my head for hours. We ate a pre-purchased “sack lunch” in the dark at Phantom Ranch.
Henry had predicted–and looked forward to the fact–that some of us might go through a “bad patch,” but he was the only one who did. He’d stopped drinking on the way up the North Rim, got dehydrated, and we had to slow him down and force him to drink. He’d brought a credit card with a high limit for a helicopter flight out; I feared we might need it for him.
I felt good the whole time, but about two miles from the end, I got tired. I needed food, and asked for peanut M&Ms. Now. When I stopped demanding, I waxed whiny. The frat boys accommodated me. Fed me. Cared for and calmed me.
Just before the trip a friend emailed me a joke. It goes something like this: Mike wants to go on a running adventure with guys from his club, but tells his buddies that his wife won’t let him. They make fun of him. The morning of the trip, the runners meet up at the designated place and there’s Mike, standing by his car, ready to rock and roll. They ask how he managed to talk his wife into letting him come along.
“I didn’t have to,” he says. “When I got home she came up behind me in a sexy see-through nightie, kissed me on the neck and said, ‘Carry me to the bedroom, tie me up, and you can do whatever you want.’ So here I am.”
As it turns out, Henry and Ed got married on the same day, a few years apart (Henry to Ed’s cousin). Twenty-something years later, they would be celebrating their anniversaries together, on a day-long run on Mt. Whitney. With me and Bill. The guys frequently talked to and about their wives; I felt like these women were there with us, and I enjoyed getting to know them through their husbands’ stories, purchases, and overheard phone calls. I wondered what it would be like to have been with someone for so long.
When I was married, my husband always introduced me by my full name instead of our marital status. I resist the connotations of wife. But I love the word husband: to protect and nurture, to grow and cultivate, to conserve. For the many years since my divorce I have carried my own bags, taken out my own trash, and made myself popcorn for dinner. I drive my car to the airport, and there’s no one to greet me when I come home. I don’t mind opening doors, but it can be soothing to have a strong hand placed lightly on your back as you pass through a threshold. Some recondite part of me, I realize, longs to be husbanded.
I suspected the Grand Canyon adventure would be about learning to enjoy running without the element of competition, forsaking the material aspects of racing. Giving that up was easier than I thought. Henry was disappointed that we didn’t run more quickly, but it never occurred to me to stress myself for speed. We paused to appreciate the scenery. Bill was adept at spotting wildlife, and pointed out a lethargic scorpion, a snake in the process of eating a lizard, a frog who was trying to look like a rock. Ed went at his own careful pace and made mild jokes.
What I loved most about the trip, I realized on the flight home, was the sense of being cared for. I’m used to competing against–even beating–men. But for one week, during these extraordinary long runs, I allowed myself to be a little less fierce in my declarations of independence. Bill tied my shoes and bandaged my wounds. Ed stood behind me and fished things out of my pack so I didn’t have to take it off. Henry lugged extra everything, including my trash. I could keep up physically, but I could also whimper a little and be nurtured. I indulged in the generosity of these borrowed husbands and for a brief moment stopped pitying myself for no longer having a mother.
On the morning of our Grand Canyon run, I went for a solo walk along the rim. I broke the rules and hiked off the trail. I peered down into the giant fracture in the earth. Even after a lifetime of expectation, it doesn’t disappoint. You see dusty stripes of the geologic ages, sere and austere, and cast a glance down, to where things are green and ripe and fresh. It is history etched onto the earth.
My mother was an artist. I am not visually astute. As I sat in the sun on a precipitous rock, I wanted to call my mother, as I had done every day at high noon for the last years of her life, and tell her what I was seeing, to tax myself trying to translate into words this wonder. My mother was a beautiful woman who made things sparkle. I can be chilly and obtuse. I have learned to rely on others to point out what I miss, to help me appreciate what I do not see.
I sat on the ledge–too close to the edge–and wept for her and for me and for all the motherless daughters and all the rifts and cracks in the relationships we have with those we love. I wept because I do not think I am big enough to bear the loss of my mother, because as strong as my body is, I know my heart is weak.
The Grand Canyon, like all clichés, is different when you experience it in real life. It really does force you to think about the persistence of change over time, about the natural erosion of the natural. It becomes about preserved memory, the smallness of humanness, the force and destruction of “life,” whatever that is.
But it’s also just a colossal crack in the earth. And a beautiful place for an untimed, unhurried run in the company of men who know how to enjoy themselves and are willing to extend a hand–or a water bottle– to a middle-aged orphan girl.