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"Race ya to the other side."
Standing at dawn on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, I waved goodbye to my father and watched his car until the taillights disappeared in the dust. We would rendezvous on the other side of the canyon. I would run across—a distance of 23 miles, with a 5,500-foot descent and a 4,500-foot ascent. By car, it was a circuitous 200-mile trip to the other side.
At any time of day the canyon is an awe-inspiring sight. But when the first long thin strips of morning light illuminate this vast place, you want to pull up a log, drink a good cup of coffee and admire nature's work. What was I doing thinking I could run across it?
We had been on the road for almost live weeks, driving across northern Canada, through the Canadian Rockies, down the West Coast from Vancouver to San Diego. Every year my father and I got together after the school year ended for a couple of weeks of exploring North America on our way to Colorado, where Dad is head of the opera program at the Aspen Music Festival. After many long months of running cross-country and indoor and outdoor track, I always looked forward to adventurous runs in scenic, often obscure, spots.
Because I had just graduated from college, this summer would probably be the last time we would have the luxury of a four-week trip, so we extended our route to cover nearly 6,000 miles. In the month before reaching the canyon, I had run on glaciers and over mountain passes in Canada, in the rain forest of Washington, on the sand dunes of Oregon, among the redwoods of northern California, along a nude beach in San Diego and through Saguaro National Monument in Arizona. Now I was standing at the top of the Kaibab Trail, shivering in nervous anticipation just as I had done before hundreds of races.
My first steps down the trail were halting and awkward. The rugged one-foot-wide path plummets into a side canyon at a 15% grade. I tried to adjust my foot strike to distribute the impact evenly while still gripping the slippery red, sandy soil. In the pale morning light I could just make out a series of jagged cliffs hundreds of feet below. They were dotted with pine trees that looked like the model-railroad trees I'd had as a kid. The only sounds were the steady swish, swish, swish of my feet shuffling along the sandstone path and those made by an occasional rock as it was dislodged and fell into the canyon. I tried not to think about the grueling uphill climb that awaited me on the other side. I also tried not to think about the legendary heat of the canyon floor—which sometimes reaches 120�—or misstepping, or if the two bottles of water in my fanny pack would be enough.
I was quickly surrounded by the seemingly endless layers of rust, crimson and sandy-white rocks that stripe the canyon. These striations varied in width and color, becoming brighter as the sun rose in the sky. I was so mesmerized by the beauty of the landscape that an hour passed before I looked at my watch.
After about five miles, the trail leveled out and my tight, burning quadriceps relaxed a little. Shortly thereafter, I was surprised to see a house on my left. (I've since learned that it is the canyon's one private residence and that the same family has lived in it for 17 years.) A table had been set up behind the house, and on it were two coolers. A little sign encouraged hikers to have some lemonade. It was the best-tasting lemonade I've ever had. I wanted to stay, move in, marry the family's daughter and never stop running in the canyon.
Nearing the Colorado River, I ran into my first group of campers. They were not happy. Usually it takes two days down and two up to hike across the canyon, and park officials recommend that each hiker carry a gallon of water with his pack. Tired, weighed down and grungy, the group of four West German students jumped out of my way, surprised to see a nearly naked person running out from the brush. They almost fainted when I stopped briefly to talk with them in a South German accent. They happened to be from Stuttgart, where I was born while my parents were studying music there on Fulbright scholarships.