“Look at that. We just passed through the womb of the earth.”
That’s what My Uncle Ed said to me, as we gazed into that vast expanse of space, with the afterbirth of sweat and accomplishment still clinging to us.
If my friend Allan was with us, he would have paused, smiled, and asked, “And what does it mean to pass through a womb?”
You can’t imagine how far away the North Rim looks when you’re standing on the South Rim. And the quality of sound is a kind of quiet which is a language all by itself.
We arrived at the South Rim on Friday night, had dinner, and went to sleep. At 7,000 feet, my throat was scratchy & my nose was dry. On Saturday afternoon, we took a shuttle from the South Rim to the North Rim, 215 miles (by road) and four and a half bumpy hours away. There were two guys on the shuttle who told us that heavy rains during the past week had washed out two small sections of the trail near the North Kaibab trailhead where we’d be starting the next day. Apparently one of those sections had been reduced to around six inches wide, with a not quite sheer drop on one side, and a large boulder on the other side. They kept telling us you had to hug the boulder (with your PACKS OUT they kept urging us, PACKS OUT).
That was encouraging.
We arrived at the North Rim on Saturday night just before sunset. We ordered dark beers and drank in this view:
After a quick dinner, we slept a few hours and woke up at 5:20am, giddy with excitement, but tempered by the confession that each one of us woke up in the night worrying about those washed out sections. We loaded our packs with electrolyte powder, Clif bars, beef jerky, and Nutella/jelly sandwiches, and by 6:10am, we were at the North Kaibab trailhead.
Left to right is Elijah (my cousin), me, my uncle Ed, Daniel (my other cousin), and Ed’s brother in law, Dan. Chris was taking the picture. These are very special people to me. We named our Elijah Daniel after my two cousins. The temp was in the 40′s at the beginning; before the end, it would approach 100 degrees.
At 6:17am, my Uncle Ed fired up Steppenwolf’s Born to Be Wild on his iPhone (not kidding), and we headed down into the abyss.
Over the next few hours, we laughed and chatted as we scampered down the trail, marveling at the beauty; the reds and greens and whites were scoops of neapolitan ice cream painted on the canyon walls. Pictures don’t even come close to describing what surrounded us on the descent.
After about two miles, we made it to the six inch section, and it wasn’t as bad as we’d feared it would be, but we were glad when we got on the other side. This woman (pictured) didn’t seem as scared as we were, which made us all feel very unbrave. We assumed she was drunk.
By 8:00am, we had descended through the Supai Tunnel, and we reached our first water stop at the Pumphouse Residence. After a quick break, we entered “The Box,” the 9 mile section of slightly descending trails with the canyon walls shooting up above us on both sides. It was still very early, so we ran completely in the shade. If you travel this section when the sun is high, it can be brutally hot, where the heat gets trapped by the canyon walls and can beat you senseless. This part was the easiest section of the run, and we made good time, the river bubbling and splashing as we ran and told stories. We reached Phantom Ranch, 14 miles from the North Kaibab trailhead, by 10:15am. We had about 9-10 miles left. My quads were tight from all the downhill running, but I felt pretty good.
One of the guys said, “I”m starting to get a little tired.”
In typical guy fashion, the quick response was “You don’t even know what tired means yet.”
The one thing that was missing so far for me was a sense of connection with the Ethiopian women, one of the biggest reasons I was running. I felt some anxiety about this. I should be feeling for them! I should be crying or something! I should feel like I know them and am close to them!
I talked to God about this.
Hey, I said. How about bringing me some of that special spiritual mojo I thought I would have at this point? Would that kill you? Why am I not feeling anything for them?
After Phantom Ranch, it’s relatively flat for another mile until you hit the Colorado River, but after that, you start the uphill climb. The Colorado River is muddy and light brown, like espresso with too much milk. We crossed the enormous bridge and started the long ascent up to the South Rim. It’s gentle at first, but relentless.
Our run had turned into a brisk walk by this point. When we arrived at the Devil’s Corkscrew, we had to move aside while a mule caravan passed us, and a woman looked down at me and said, “This hurts!” I had a hard time feeling sorry for someone who was being carried downhill while we were laboring uphill. The Devil’s corkscrew is an infamous part of this hike where you climb switchbacks for what feels like a million miles.
This is what it looks like in the rearview mirror:
And we had not yet begun our real climb.
Finally, we made it to Indian Gardens and filled up with water. A sign said we had 4.5 miles left to the South Rim, which felt so close. There were two more water stops, one with 3 miles to go, and one with 1.5 miles to go. We asked a very tan, very Euro looking guy to take our picture. He had Sperrys with no socks on, no shirt, and he was carrying a camera and a tote bag. It wasn’t a back pack, it was like he was carrying groceries. Honestly, my biggest regret of the trip is not getting a picture of Euro Guy. He was also heading up to the South Rim. It was about 1:30pm.
I still felt pretty good, but my stomach was a little off. I thought maybe I was taking in too many electrolytes, but it also could have been because we had already gone 19 miles, and it was approaching 100 degrees. When we started up again, my 30 year-old cousin Daniel suggested that we start running again until we hit the next water stop. So we started, and I made it about 100 yards. Ed, Daniel, and Lige kept running, but I walked.
This is when the climb got hard, at least for me.
I slowed my pace a bit; the sun was pure evil. At this point, it’s switchbacks the whole way, and I became convinced that the sign that said it was only 1.5 miles between Indian Gardens and the 3 mile water stop was a gross misprint. It was at least seven miles. By the time I made it up to the water stop, I flopped down, poured out my electrolyte mix, and replaced it with water. My stomach was seriously off at this point. Ed, Daniel, and Lige seemed like they were doing OK. Chris and Dan arrived a few minutes after I did, soaking their hats and shirts in water.
Three miles to go. All uphill.
Again, I thought of the Ethiopian women. I thought of their hard lives as I thought about each hard step. I wasn’t sure if I was going to barf or not, but I felt like I might. I kept sipping water, kept taking in what my body needed, and thought about those bodies in Ethiopia, wondering what they needed at this moment.
But still, I wasn’t feeling it. I didn’t feel connected to them, even as I was encountering the hardest part of the journey so far. Women tell me this can be compared to labor, though not in the pain sense; obviously labor is much harder. It’s similar in the sense that when the pain is great, you want to feel connected to your baby, but the raw truth is that you just want that baby out. I’m not sure if that’s what every woman feels; I just knew that I wasn’t feeling the love for the Ethiopian women, I just wanted to be done. with. this.
I turned on my phone to see if I got any reception, and for the first time all day, I did. My phone began blowing up with texts and tweets from friends, from my wife, telling me I could make it, telling me they were with me. Mary told me that the boys had run the hill by our house ten times, and that Isaac specifically prayed that God would be with me the whole time.
So we kept going up and up, switchback after switchback, for about a hundred years. The chatting was minimal at this point. We finally made it up to the second water stop, 1.5 miles from the South Rim. Daniel and Lige were talking about tight hamstrings, I was still feeling queasy, and Ed was dizzy. And then No-shirt-no-socks-grocery-bag-Euro-Guy came around the bend, and was about to pass us.
Ed literally said, “Oh no you don’t.” And he got up and started going. There was no way he was going to get beat by Euro Guy.
So we laughed, followed Ed’s lead (because, let’s be honest – there was no way any of us were going to get beat by Euro-guy). We chatted with him for the next ten minutes and wore him down, so he had to stop while we kept going. Victory.
When we passed through the famous arch that lets you know you’re five minutes from the top, we heard my Aunt Maze, and Dan’s wife, Mary shouting and waving at us. They took a picture, and then we finished the last 300 yards, and for the first time that day, crossed from dirt onto asphalt, and we were done.
23 miles. 11,000 feet of elevation change. Nine hours, 53 minutes, 41 seconds.
I’m still unpacking this crazy adventure. To date, 648 people have donated over $62,000. It’s lunacy, and it’s beautiful, and I still can’t believe it. The journey leading up to the run was filled with surprise after surprise.
Here’s what I experienced most, though, during the actual run: it wasn’t love for the Ethiopian women. It wasn’t a sense of adventure, or me feeling so gratified that I got to play a part in some Big Story.
The biggest thing I experienced that weekend was being in the center of a very wide group of people who love me and who were supporting me, and I’m still trying to take that all in.
My Uncle Ed and my Aunt Maze (two of my favorite people on the planet), paid for everything for me, all weekend. I got to experience the thrill of a lifetime with people who have loved me for my whole life.
My friend Drew ran 52 miles in Maple Grove during the same ten hours that I ran, praying for me and the Ethiopians every step of the way.
My friend Mike walked 20 miles in solidarity with me. My friend Drea walked up and down 2,000 steps. My boys ran up and down the hill by our house 10 times.
So many of you were with me, and that’s what I felt, and it was such a gift. Something was born in me, and in us, and it is beautiful and hopeful and expansive, like the canyon itself.
What does it mean to pass through a womb?
I’m not sure. I just know that it’s bigger even than the Ethiopian women. Something was born as a result of what we did together. The stories are still coming in of what people are being inspired to do in their actual lives. And the result of what we did will keep rippling out into things that we may never see in our lifetime.
We did it for each other, we did it for the Ethiopian women, and we did it because we believe that God is still relentlessly working to make all things new.
I wonder what has been born?
In it together, friends.