January 11 2018
A runner shares a personal essay documenting her years as "the runner" in rural South Dakota.
The phrase “girlfriends’ getaway” may not conjure images of dusty trails and hydration packs. But for six runners, a 24-mile trek through freezing weather and blazing heat became an epic celebration.
What do you get for the girl who has everything? This was the question that had been swirling around my head in the months leading up to my friend Gayle’s 60th birthday. My girlfriends and I love to bond over sweat sessions, so in an endorphin-filled moment after leaving the gym with a mutual friend, Shari, the answer became obvious: We’d celebrate by running.
“How about running the Rim to Rim?” I asked Shari. The Grand Canyon’s North Rim and South Rim are connected by a demanding 24-mile passage. I had first experienced this trail with my brother after losing our father. It was a soul-soothing journey, and one I’d always planned on repeating. Without a moment’s hesitation, Shari blurted out, “That would be amazing. Let’s do it!” The Rim to Rim Birthday Adventure was born.
Mapping a Plan
We settled on a group of six Chicago-based ladies: Shari, Gayle, her stepdaughter Katy, myself and two of our friends, Janine and Maddie. It takes most hikers three days to complete the Rim to Rim. We wanted to challenge ourselves to finish in one day, running the whole time rather than hiking and camping. It’s one thing to agree to train for a 24-mile run through a canyon; it’s another bag of beans to actually make it happen. Luckily, Gayle has the organizational skills of a world-class event planner, and soon the weekend’s itinerary was on paper.
On the Edge
The group started training together months before the Rim to Rim Birthday Adventure, but two weeks prior, we began to taper our mileage so our bodies would be fresh for the adventure. Anyone who’s run an endurance race knows that tapering is a necessary part of training—and that it can drive you completely insane.
For me, the extra time and energy created by cutting back on running was now replaced by fear—which in turn made me a crabby, indecisive mess. I was happy to arrive at the airport to find my friends were knee-deep in taper madness as well. When multiplied by six, that’s enough craziness to make you laugh so hard you cry. And we did just that as we waited to board the plane to Vegas.
The birthday celebration officially launched when we packed our luggage into a 12-person passenger van and headed three hours northeast to St. George. We checked in at the Red Mountain Resort, relaxed with massages and talked logistics over a healthy dinner.
The next morning, we woke early and hit nearby trails for a short, easy run to loosen our legs. But the Resort sits at around 5,000 feet—so the workout at altitude wasn’t exactly easy. The realization that our undertaking would demand hours of running in thin air gave us all a shock. Thankfully, collective apprehension has a bonding quality. We were in this together. Our van rolled out to Grand Canyon Lodge at the North Rim, the final staging area before our Birthday Adventure.
Let Go of the Reins
The day before our run, we headed to the trailhead at North Rim, soon-to-be our starting line. From the top of the trail, we could observe the entirety of our upcoming journey. We gaped at the finish line at the South Rim and the miles of layered rock we’d have to navigate—one step at a time.
As with any adventure, nothing goes completely as planned. While talking to a park ranger, we discovered that the water pumps were out of order on the first 14 miles of the trail. This is similar to toeing the line of a marathon and hearing there will be no fluids on the course. To make it to the halfway point safely, we’d have to carry all the water we’d need on our backs. Gulp.