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A Triple Crown of Trail Running

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The nagging overhead lights flicker. My eyes creak open and I watch the slow lumbering steps of a corpulent, slipper-wearing woman shuffle toward the exit of the rest-stop bathroom on the Arizona-California border. From below the wall of my stall, I see the door open and close. A cold burst of high-desert air surges unwelcome against my bare skin.

I am alone again. I groan. Naomi is likely wondering what has happened to me. I should get up. I want to get up, but my knees scream with pain and a racking cough induces a charley horse that crawls up my left leg. Calf. Hamstring. Glute.

I begin to contemplate sleeping right here, my running tights around my ankles. My head rests on my forearm, propped up by the toilet-paper dispenser. If running is supposed to be fun, and this is what the aftermath feels like, I don’t think I’m cut out for fun.

Breakfast of champions. Photo by Libby Sauter

Earlier that day, my friend Naomi Plasterer of Truckee, California, and I had begun our descent back into the Grand Canyon from the North Rim Trailhead: 22 miles behind us, 22 miles still to go. I had had what, at the time, sounded like a brilliant idea.

Knee deep in a runner’s high as we glided down the rusty-red trail, I shouted to Naomi, “We should do a trail-run trifecta! Three national parks. Three valleys. Three trails that go rim to rim to rim. A triple crown!”

“Oh, hell yeah!” she exclaimed without hesitation.

Naomi is 5′ 8″ and pretty much all leg. Her youth, penchant for suffering and gazelle-like stride make her an ideal ultrarunner.

“Zion would be a sick final option,” I added.

Before we had completed the steep descent off the North Rim, we made plans for a trip to Zion the following month.

Naomi (foreground) and the author. Photo: Libby Sauter

Naomi and I met in September of 2015 while sharing a yoga mat underneath an aged pine in Yosemite National Park. A group of climbers had gathered, trading tales of glory and defeat on the rock walls of Yosemite and, by chance, Naomi was perched next to me.

Having just overheard my story of getting whipped on a moonlit run over a 9,000-foot High Sierra pass, Naomi turned to me and asked point blank, “Wanna run the Grand Canyon?”

As she began to expand on her idea, her excitement growing, I whispered to a friend behind me while pretending to casually sip on my beer, “What’s her name again?”

“Naomi,” my friend silently mouthed back at me. Our introduction thus made, our fall schedules discussed, we settled for trying the run in late November. It would be my first ultra-distance run, and only my second time really hanging out with her.

But, first, we decided on a shake-out run in Yosemite Valley. A month later, Naomi and I were driving in her green van named Gunter (which she periodically lives in), up the winding roads that access Yosemite, under a full moon. As she wrapped up a story about finishing college back in Colorado, I pushed her panting, slobbering black Lab off my lap and asked, “Wait a minute … How old are you?”

“Twenty-three,” she replied. I had just turned 31. Ah, the over-exuberance of youth. No wonder she was so willing to drag me along on a run that I was utterly unqualified to attempt.

In Yosemite, our training mission was a mini-Grand Canyon-style run—17 miles and around 5,900 feet of elevation gain. Starting at the top of the densely wooded Glacier Point Trail, we descended the switchbacks of the deceptively named Four Mile Trail (it’s actually 4.8 miles) down to the parched valley floor. Crossing what was left of the Merced River after years of drought, we quickly began to climb the opposite side of the valley on the Yosemite Falls Trail. We had started the day running downhill through a fairyland-like mossy forest, but the trail soon ascended rocky, arid switchbacks baking in the afternoon sun. The rim seemed so close, yet the switchbacks continued and continued like the Groundhog Day of trails. Hitting her stride, Naomi bolted ahead to the turnaround point.

“Dude, you look horrible,” she said with a smile as I finally caught up to her.

“Thanks,” I managed, not sharing in her enjoyment. Lying in the shade, our planned five-minute break turning to 20, I dry heaved, sick from heat and gels.

Looking at her GPS and pacing like a race horse, Naomi glibly informed me, “Hey, at this point you’d be almost a fifth of the way done with the Grand Canyon.”

She genuinely thought that she was providing encouragement.

Getting ready to drop into the Grand Canyon. Photo: Libby Sauter

The weekend before Thanksgiving, Naomi and I arranged three days off from work for our attempt at the Grand Canyon. We would drive 12 hours from the Bay Area to the Grand Canyon on day one. Run on day two. Drive back on day three. Hobble around the hospital where I worked like an overdue pregnant woman on day four.

As in Yosemite, our run started in freezing temperatures with a biting wind that cut through every layer we wore. But unlike in Yosemite, I was not the only one plagued with runner’s gut. A few switchbacks after we conceived the idea of trying for a rim-to-rim-to-rim trifecta, Naomi bolted off trail a few paces.

“I think I’m gonna be sick,” she mumbled as she ducked behind a bush. Her own admission of illness brought forth the nausea I had been trying to contain. Lying down in the middle of the trail to quell my belly and not lose the precious calories I had fought to ingest, I could hear Naomi laughing, and then saying, “Yeah, let’s do this again!”

At 44 miles (the way we did it), with around 10,500 feet of elevation gain, the run from the North Kaibab Trailhead to South Kaibab and back was my farthest to date by about 16 miles—hence my inability to stand up from the toilet after the 15 hours of running it took.

The author recuperating in Naomi’s van, “Gunter.” Photo: Libby Sauter

We anticipated that the final run, an out-and-back on the East Rim and West Rim trails of Zion, would be easier than the Grand Canyon. Granted, at around 56 miles, it would be longer, but the elevation gain and loss would be significantly less, at only around 6,600 feet. Again, with work restraints, Naomi and I planned our run for the less-than-optimal winter solstice, the shortest day of the year.

A die-hard climber with a love of big, technically difficult rock faces, I have come to revel in the simple, visceral challenge that trail running presents. Contrasted with the logistically complex and gear-intensive sport of big-wall climbing, trail running—just me and my small backpack covering great distances—has allowed me to truly experience what rock climbers often praise as “the freedom of the hills.” But like big-wall climbing, trail running can, as John Steinbeck wrote, have you climbing “ecstatic mountains” or “flounder[ing] in the rocky darkness between the peaks.”

As we ran through the early morning, howls from a nearby pack of coyotes echoed through the canyon. Enjoying a section of packed snow that allowed us to actually run, we were soon startled at the sight of snow freshly drenched in bright red blood and covered with bits of rabbit fur. Matching the color of the rabbit’s last earthly remains, the thick morning clouds began to glow a fiery red. I said to Naomi, “Red sky morning, sailor take warning.”

Early-season storms had already dumped two feet of what felt like powdered sugar on the entire trail. The incredibly light and slippery snow prevented us from opening up our strides on both the uphills and downhills. My knees, still protesting from our Grand Canyon sufferfest, hollered louder than Naomi’s giggles as we skated down the icy lower portion of the East Rim Trail.

Snowy trails in Zion would eventually cut short the effort. Photo: Libby Sauter

As the day progressed, so did the weight of the clouds, threatening to dump even more snow. As we began our ascent of the West Rim Trail, I caught up to Naomi. “Hey, lady … Just a heads up, my knees are wrecked and I’m nervous about the incoming storm. I might wanna call it and turn around at the top of Angels Landing.”

“Let’s just see how you feel when we get there,” said Naomi. “We’ll go until we don’t.”

The turnoff for Angels Landing two miles later came and went without even a pause. Onward. Upward.

But after two more miles of unrelenting climbing, my drive flatlined. With my knees angry even on the uphills, I was concerned about being able to make it all the way back to Gunter if we went much farther. As we finished climbing on a segment of trail that had been carved straight out of a sandstone cliff  face and pulled up onto the forested West Rim, we paused for a snack and Naomi checked the map. We had another 10 miles before the opposite trailhead.

At the highest elevation of the day, I sat, head in hands, my heart at its lowest. Floundering.

“Naomi, we are already going to be finishing in the dark, and I don’t think we’ll see much moonlight through this thick cloud layer,” I said. “Plus, if it starts to snow, we could lose the trail at that slickrock section at mile seven.”

Naomi looked at the trail ahead, noting a single set of snowshoe tracks. “That looks heinous,” she said, nodding her head up the trail.

Knowing her love of difficult physical feats, I prepared to make my case for bailing. But instead, she acquiesced. “Yeah, I’m not stoked to be running through the woods in the dark any more than we have to.”

We bailed.

We made it through the slickrock section just as the sun began to set, and were happy to have stayed on the faint trail. As we climbed out of the canyon and onto the rim, darkness fell. Despite Naomi’s superior fitness, we stayed close together until Gunter came into view.

There, sitting on the edge of her van door, Naomi was framed by the prayer flags fluttering over her bed in the wind. As we peeled off our spikes, gaiters and soaking-wet shoes and socks, our headlamps giving off the only light for miles, Naomi chirped, “Dude, I’m worked. I’m super stoked we aren’t still out there drudging through that heinous snow.”

I think she was just being nice.

Libby Sauter is part professional rock climber, part international pediatric cardiac nurse. She’s cautiously eager for some more big runs in Ecuador and Norway this summer.

This article originally appeared in our July 2016 issue.