The dire weather predictions had come true: on May 16, in the middle of spring, a winter storm swirled around the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, bringing cold, wet conditions to the Grand Canyon Ultra.
Undeterred, I pitched my tent on top of the snow on Friday evening, put on my running clothes, piled several warm layers on top of them, then crawled into two sleeping bags. I slept a few hours, waking up every so often to flick snow off my tent, but managed to stay dry and warm while several inches of more white stuff fell and the temperature dropped to 23 degrees.
At 6 a.m., RD Matt Gunn sent our shivering group on its way. The day promised to be a bit drier, and maybe a bit warmer than Friday. We climbed into a wintry wonderland, then descended toward the rim of the Grand Canyon. The snow turned into mud. I ran a down a slippery hill, tripped over a rock hidden under the snow/mud mix, and lost my balance. My phone slipped out of the front pocket of my new hydration pack. I reached for it while falling, which meant that, instead of tucking and rolling, I went down hard and flat. My ribcage collided with another rock hidden in the snow. Pain shot through my upper body. I yelped. I whimpered. I curled into the fetal position. I assessed the damage, while reassuring concerned passing runners that, really, I was ok. Breathing hurt. Coughing hurt worse. Over the years, enough horses have unloaded me to know what that means. Bruised ribs, cracked ribs, damage to the connective tissue between ribs — the exact diagnosis doesn’t matter. These injuries have two things in common: they are super painful, they take time to heal, and there’s no way to speed up the process.
Maybe that had changed. Maybe, by now, my body was so used to violent impacts with the ground that it mended itself on the go. Maybe I had acquired the super power of quick regeneration, like Wolverine. In this state of denial, I picked myself up and jogged (very slowly) to Stina overlook, our first sight of the Grand Canyon. Breathing harder (like one does while running) hurt worse than breathing while standing still. No surprise, really. I slowed to a walk. The view from the rim made me forget my ribs for a minute, but no longer.
The pain did not get better after a couple of miles. I tried running with my upper body hunched sideways. No relief. I tried power hiking, which did not hurt quite as badly as running, but not by much. Runners moving in the opposite direction of the out-and-back called the usual encouraging phrases: “Nice work!” “Looking good!” I knew they were lying.
Running without breathing was not an option. Running for 80 miles with constant, severe pain as my pacer was equally out of the question. Running in a lopsided gait is a terrible idea that leads to more injuries. Like last summer in Leadville, I knew what to do at the next aid station. And I did it.
I DNFd at mile twenty, before I had even warmed up. I regret not seeing the entire course, with its many overlooks. But this DNF doesn’t feel nearly as devastating as the one at Leadville. Why is that?
For one thing, it still might. It’s early DNF days. All of this happened just a couple of days ago. The ton of DNF regret bricks might still hit me, and it might hit me hard.
For another, injured ribs are a condition I’m familiar with, unlike the strep bug that finished my Leadville race. My decision to drop was based on something solid, not a mixture of wild fear and guesswork. I know, from first-hand experience, that the pain wouldn’t have gone away over the next few hours, that this wasn’t an injury to run off. At the same time, I know that the damage isn’t permanent. For most people who spend lots of time with horses, bruised ribs are what lost toenails are for runners: a fact of life.
But the most important factor, I think, is a different one. Leadville has become a large, commercial event with over 800 runners, most of whom I didn’t know by name. I love that race — its hype, its red carpet, its bustling energy, its history. The Leadville 100 was my first 100, which means it will always have a special place in my heart, and on my race schedule. But I enjoy smaller ultras even more, for a different set of reasons. Grand Canyon is part of the Grand Circle series, by Ultra Adventures. These races combine first-rate organization with an old-school, friendly vibe. All of them are in spectacular places, all of them are on well-marked courses with many well-stocked aid stations, but they still feel like a campsite family reunion.
I have run, and volunteered at, other races in the series, like Bryce Canyon and Monument Valley. I knew many of the runners, and most of the people behind the scenes. So I didn’t mind at all spending the rest of the weekend hanging around, in the welcome company of old friends and new friends. I am not just saying that because driving straight home would have been too painful (though it’s true). I welcomed the opportunity to give back, in a small way (because I was in no shape for physical chores) to the wonderful people at Ultra Adventures.
I enjoyed giving a group of pacers a ride to the Crazy Jug aid station, and got to take in another glorious view in the process. I enjoyed watching runners finish, many euphoric, wide-eyed first-timers among them.
Though I only ran one fifth of the course had planned to run, I do not feel like I wasted my time. I got to spend a weekend in a beautiful place with my extended family, my people, my tribe. And really, isn’t that more important than anything else?