Article By Alex Viada
I stared at the piece of egg sitting there on a hot rock. Man, I thought, that tasted much better going down than it did coming up. I flopped onto my back, a sharp rock digging into my spine, but somehow it still felt good. Something that reminded me I was still conscious and needed to stay alert. OK, I thought, How the f–k did I get here?
Here, of course, was nestled in a small patch of shade at 4,500 feet above sea level, somewhere on the South Kaibab trail in the Grand Canyon, in triple-digit heat. Cramping, hyponatremic, and otherwise well on my way to being one of those dumb shits who has to get pulled out by Park Rangers or, worse yet, becomes a cautionary tale to future hikers who want to test their limits. If I rolled off the side, at least the birds would find some use for my currently worthless carcass. Looking at the piece of breakfast sausage on my shirt had me chiding myself, Didn’t Mom always tell me I should chew my food?
I’d gotten up that morning with much loftier plans. Nearly done with a cross country drive (in the middle of a move to San Diego), I’d stopped in the Canyon for a day to see the sights and do a little bit of trail running. I’d gotten into Tusayan the day before after a long drive down from Albuquerque (I had to re-write that six times before I lost the little red “typo” squiggle!). Did a short bike out to the Rim, felt great and loose, and figured I’d go explore down to the Colorado River the next day. Had a relatively solid dinner — elk filet, some beef sirloin, macaroni and cheese, baked potato — and made sure to get in enough salt and more than my usual amount of water. I was definitely deprived: four days of non-stop driving meant that I was drinking less than usual (so I didn’t have to stop every two hours), and eating a bit less than usual (because to hell with protein bars). Still, I figured I could make up the difference and load a bit.
I woke up Sunday morning early – I thought I would get an early start on the hike. The plan was to hit South Kaibab from the Southern Rim down to Phantom Ranch, recon a bit northwards, then turn around and head back. A storm front was supposed to keep things relatively cool; a shower was forecast around 10:00 which would keep the temperature at Phantom down in the low 90’s.
By 6:45, I knew my plan of a 7:00 am rim departure was a bust. Breakfast took way too long, the (cash only) taxi was delayed, and the ATM was out of order, so I had to run down the street to pick up some folding money. I did a last minute switch from my hydration pack to my day pack (red flag #1) figuring I could use the extra space, so by the time I made it to the Rim, it was close to 9:00.
Bad start, I thought, but the weather felt cool and brisk. I started the run down; the plan was a total of eight miles out — 7 to Phantom and 1 beyond — then a quick turnaround back to Phantom, top up on water, and press back up. I had my tub of Intra-Formance, five liters of water, a Nalgene, and plenty of food. The taxi dropped me off right near the trailhead, and I did a quick jog to the start.
And holy crap, was it beautiful. The start at the trailhead was surreal — endless switchbacks overlooking a breathtaking view. I could see miles in every direction, and nearly a mile down.
Every bit of hyperbole about the Grand Canyon is everything but – indeed, most descriptions fall far short of the reality.
The start of the run was fantastic. The South Kaibab trail is supremely runnable. Relatively smooth, with well-worn steps that are perfectly matched for stride. No question about trail direction, a steady and reasonable gradient, and the temperature was a reasonable 75-80. I skipped down, my GPS registering a 7:30 pace for the first mile. I’ll be down this bitch in an hour, I thought (red flag #2).
I waved to a Park Ranger heading up the trail — the upper part of the trail was littered with day hikers — folks who were out just for a mile or two to get a taste of the Canyon and a nice panoramic picture or two. The Ranger asked me how far I was going, and when I answered, she gave me a bit of a sideways look. “It’s going to be hotter down there than we thought today; you might want to think about turning around at Skeleton Point.”
“Ok, cool! Thanks for the advice,” I said, planning on discarding this excellent advice, much like I’ve discarded so much good advice from my elders through the years.
I passed by Cedar Ridge — a fairly popular flat area with spectacular views of the Canyon. The day hikers seemed to congregate there; families and people wearing sandals and fantastically soft-core gear were taking selfies off the ridge, and rightly so — the view was beautiful.
At that point I grabbed a few quick swigs of Intra-Formance and kept going. I felt great – I was moving fast as hell, barely breaking a sweat (red flag #3), and the temperature felt like it was still in the 70’s. I kept pace through Skeleton Point; another amazing overlook with a near-panoramic view over the canyon. Just under three miles done, and already down 2,000 feet.
I took stock again – I’d somehow gone through less than 400 ml of my performance juice, which was a bit concerning. My hydration discipline was not according to plan, so I chugged a bit more. Still, I was remarkably non-sweaty, even though the temperature had spiked quite a bit. I wasn’t hungry in the slightest, but had a banana regardless. I contemplated drinking a bit more, but figured I’d hit a good amount at the next stop.
Skittering down the steps, I blasted through the next mile or so, passing a mule train on the way up (man, are they cute!), and snapping a few good shots on the way. I still felt great, I cracked (bad) jokes with some of the folks coming up, and felt better than I had on a run in a long time. Even with the elevation, I was smoking.
The next bit of the trip was a blur – keeping up pace, watching my footing, and winding my way down to the Tipoff, a rather bleak and lonely-looking stop with a view of the Colorado River off to one side. It was there where I really felt the first of the heat; I’d been running exposed to the sun for about two miles with no breaks, and I could feel the warmth radiating off the rocks under me. My shirt was soaked — I stripped it off and tied it to my pack, figuring the slight burn wouldn’t be all that bad considering my base tan from a summer of running and riding.
I contemplated turning around. It was getting hot, and I didn’t know if I had the full tub of Intra-Formance or the half-empty one or… ah, shit. I opened my pack, moved aside the water bottles and scoured for the tub.
I’d left in in the room. When I switched packs, I forgot to transfer over the tub. My electrolytes were done, all I had left was 4.5 liters of water. Moment of panic. It’s OK, I thought. I had a salty-as-hell dinner, I’ve got food with me, and it’s been fairly cool. I’m fine, I can do this.
And the river… the river was right there. I looked down to the side and saw the greenish-blue, roiling waters of the Colorado. It seemed so close. Thirteen hundred feet down, and only two miles of running. Easy, I could do this, then I could rest and top off and simply hike back up. (RED FLAG NUMBER…F–K YOU, DUMBASS)
The rest of the descent looked steep — I still felt great, the trail was still runnable, but holy hell was it exposed. The temperature was definitely rising. There was no sign of the storm front that was supposed to come through. The baking sun made the air coming off the trail feel like a blast from a sauna. Or like when you open the oven and forget to let the air waft out before leaning forward to take out the roast and your eyebrows singe off. About half a mile down from the Tipoff, a short stint in the shade drove home just how hot it was. I checked my heart rate, and it was cruising at 90% of maximum, on the downhill, though a short walk in the shade had it drop down to easy zone two (red flag number eleventy-thousand).
The final switchbacks down to the bridge and down to Phantom were intense. Steep (22% or so), exposed to the sun and heat, but fast. I blazed down, across the bridge, down to the campground, then off to the ranch. It was a bit of a surreal locale; one that I’d love to stay at one year, but certainly not then. I could feel the oppressive heat around me. Where the hell was that storm front that was supposed to hit? Not a cloud in the sky.
I didn’t stop for water — I had plenty. When I stopped, I checked my watch. An hour and a half, give or take, for the 7 something miles from the top, including stops for mules, pictures, chatting, bullshitting, and rearranging my pack. Great, I thought. I’ll haul ass back up to the Tipoff to get out of the heat, and hike the remainder (red flag number mauve…nobody likes mauve). I chugged 800 ml of water (because what else?), and took a bite of a granola bar.
I turned around, envying the people playing around in the water. This is it, I thought. These next two miles were the training I’d come here for. Really just the next few miles of hard incline when already fatigued. This training cycle hasn’t been about volume; it’s been primarily about creating training situations where I was forced to confront specific weaknesses or situations that I had to problem solve, and two miles of 22% incline on hamburger-meat quads fit the bill.
I trotted across the bridge, through the short tunnel, and into the furnace. I poured on the gas going up the hill, knowing I had the legs under me. I kept my running cues in mind: hips under me, head up, and short strides, letting my calves spring me up each step rather than loping up the trail. The sun was relentless, the heat was just nasty, but I was moving. Quick pause, chug a half-liter of water (oh, shit, that was more like a full liter), keep moving.
And this is where the actual lesson began. I could move fast; I felt like I was moving fast. The temperature by the river was 106 degrees and climbing, with no shade. At 235 pounds, running a 9:30 pace up a 22% incline, I was generating absolutely stunning amounts of heat. My heart rate was likely red-lining — I wasn’t checking. My goal was simple: get up and out of the basin as quickly as possible.
This was a mistake. If there was any kind of actual internal klaxon, at that point it would have been going ape shit. By the time I’d gone a mile back up the trail, I had been in the heat for too long. Dehydrated from travel and altitude (Tusayan is at 6600 feet, and I was a bloody sea level living, flatlander), lulled into a false sense of security by the lack of sweat (training in North Carolina, with humidity around 70%, makes one very aware when it’s hot, and when to hydrate accordingly), and having taken in far less food and electrolytes than usual, my body was already well into the red. I felt good, but that didn’t mean systems weren’t teetering on disaster. What I should have done was walked, draped a wet towel over my head, and trudged up from shade to shade. At my weight, the wattage I was generating far exceeded my body’s ability to cool itself, and my sweat glands were pumping out every bit of water that my body had available to try to keep my core from overheating.
Pride is a bitch.
I passed the Tipoff, and somehow still felt good. I decided at that point I was sincerely thirsty. I took a sip from a fresh bottle and was stunned to see that I’d just guzzled almost another full liter. Shit. Almost without thinking, I filled my Nalgene, held it in my hand, and decided I’d keep pressing on quickly. Just another few miles and I’ll get into cooler temperatures.
I took a sip here and sip there as I ascended, taking everything from small sips to large swigs as I felt my mouth get dry. It was invigorating at first, but the water started to taste brackish, and I wasn’t feeling any less thirsty.
One more mile up, and I noticed something odd: my adductors seemed unusually tight. I tried to shake them out a bit and alternately lengthen and shorten my stride. They got tighter; it wasn’t working. I slowed to a walk. They tightened up even more. My right calf seized. Then, six steps later, everything seized. My adductors cramped. I stood, legs akimbo, trying to work them out, and my right calf cramped. My legs buckled, and my hamstrings tightened up. I crashed to the ground, and both quads joined in. My legs felt like they were tearing themselves apart. The hot ground I’d landed on felt like it was scorching my face, but I couldn’t do a damn thing about it.
I’m really in trouble. Totally exposed to the sun, miles from the last human I’d seen, and I couldn’t move.
I could feel the heat sapping my strength. I’d been so keen on staying moving that I hadn’t noticed the dizziness setting in. My head was spinning. My stomach, full of water, was churning.
I have to keep going, I can’t stay here.
I stood up, bracing both legs to get to my feet, both quads still completely locked. OK legs, let’s do this.
Nah, we good.
Legs, seriously, come on.
Shh, we busy.
LEGS! YOU WORK FOR ME, F–KERS!
They seemed to listen at that point. I slowly worked my way up the next few steps.
I was in trouble. I hadn’t seen a soul for an hour.
I looked up. Still not a cloud in the sky. Temperatures in triple digits. This part of the trail had no breeze. I wasn’t generating any false wind from moving. I was baking.
I just needed to get to shade. Cramp, stretch, pause, step, cramp, stretch, repeat.
In the distance, about a quarter mile up, I saw a rocky overhang.
Cool, I thought, shade.
Step, cramp, stretch, step.
I slowly lurched my way up the trail. Somehow, over the next 15 minutes, I made it the few hundred meters to a minuscule postage stamp of shade. I hobbled to the side of the trail and collapsed. My legs were twitching, my left sartorius (that a-hole of a muscle) decided it was going to try to tear itself in half. Why it decided this, I don’t know, but it wasn’t helping the situation.
Just cool down, I thought. Relax.
Then, as my legs started to calm down, my stomach decided it needed attention. A disquiet grew somewhere just under my sternum.
No, no, no. This isn’t good. Just breathe. Just breathe. Just… aw f–k.
I rolled to the side and a torrent came out of my mouth and nose. It was pure water. Everything I’d drank. I didn’t even remember drinking that much, but a warm wave of hydration blasted over my shirt, over the rocks, over the sand. My legs cramped up again as I convulsed. Then my friggen’ abs cramped from the exertion. I couldn’t even wipe my face, so I lay there twitching in my small spot of shade, covered with my own emesis, barely able to move. Yes, it was likely as glamorous to behold as it sounds.
And this, dear reader, brings us back where our story began.
When you’ve come to any moment in life where you realize that the consequences of your poor decisions could very well be terminal, you are confronted with two choices: Reflect/wax philosophic on these poor decisions, or own these poor decisions and move the hell on.
I lay there considering option one for a while, then I realized I had to go on. I had my dogs in the hotel room and they needed dinner. They would be so sad. I had to GET THE F–K UP. This was actually my thought process. Whatever — find what motivates you, right?
I took stock. My situation was pretty shitty. I was severely dehydrated, likely from heat exhaustion. The run up the hill had pushed my core temperature too high. I was dizzy and my balance was gone. I couldn’t keep down water, but was certain I was hyponatremic. Nausea, cramps, heart racing, lethargy… and the temperature out there was still climbing through midday without a cloud in the sky. I was below Skeleton Point — the likelihood of anybody coming down at this time of day was fairly slim — everybody leaving the Canyon had already come up, most people going all the way down had already arrived at Phantom, and most folks heading down at that time of day were just day hikers turning around at a higher point.
What were my assets? A whole bunch of water, which I couldn’t drink. I needed salt. Granola bars; took a bite, nope, no saliva to chew it with. Decent social media presence; oh right, good for f–k all. Oh, good, I brought a knife. Maybe I can dig a trench so I can bury my stupid ass in it. I have two phones. No service. Spare shirt. Second banana is smashed into pieces. Two chocolate muffins. Oh, those sounded great a few hours ago. A towel. OH GRAND, A F–KING TOWEL. And man, my pack is wrecked. Look at those salt rings, and…
I need salt.
I looked at my sweaty shirt still tied to the bag. The rings of white around the lower parts were massive.
I need salt.
That shirt is basically soaked with salt water, right?
No. Drink your own sweat? Dude. That is rock bottom.
Uh, hey, you just shot your scrambled eggs from breakfast out through your nose and all over your shirt. THERE IS LITERALLY NOWHERE TO GO BUT UP.
You make a good point.
ALSO, YOU’RE TALKING TO YOURSELF. Stop this shit and do something.
Priorities: salt, cool down, bring heart rate down, stop cramping, then get moving.
I picked up the shirt. I was stunned at how soaked it was, even after all that time in the dry heat. I squeezed the side of it and salty water dripped off. Ah well, what the hell. And, five minutes of squeezing out the shirt into my mouth later, I actually felt better. Much better. I resolved not to tell anybody about it. Ever. The sudden salt influx seemed to provide as much a psychological boost as anything else. OK, now cool down.
I took the towel I had in my pack and poured a full half liter of water on it. I sure as hell wasn’t going to drink it. I poured the rest of the bottle on my armpits, chest, and crotch, then crossed my arms over my chest and draped the towel over them. I lay back and focused on breathing easily. The seizing in my legs slowly subsided; my heart rate started to calm. I picked up my phone and set a ten minute alarm — I didn’t want to drift off for hours. Closing my eyes, I finally started to relax.
My alarm pinged. I slowly stirred. I sat up, still dizzy. Fine, hypovolemia; probably not helping. I started to work my legs with my fists; they seemed to have settled down. I draped the wet towel under my hat and put on a fresh shirt, dousing it with a bit more water.
I stood up. Holy crap, were my legs unhappy. I wavered, head spinning, but slowly got my bearings. Slowly, I started the ascent, into the baking hot sun. I kept a steady discipline, granola bar in one hand, and water in the other. Tiny bite of bar, chew, take in barely enough water to swallow, twenty steps, do it again. I could tell my glycogen levels were low. I usually count on 50 grams or so of sugar from the supplements each hour. Low blood sugar was definitely contributing.
The sun was still brutal, but the wet towel and fresh shirt helped. My legs were still close to cramping — I was waddling, side-stepping, and changing my stride length over and over again to keep them from locking up. Skeleton Point came and went after what felt like hours; no shade nor shelter there, nor a soul to be seen.
I heard voices up ahead, finally. About a mile up from Skeleton, two day hikers were having a discussion. I stopped and chatted briefly, told them my situation, and they nodded; they were going to hit Skeleton but were running very low on water. I gave them a bottle and they gave me a salt packet. I mixed it in my bottle and slowly sipped it down. The temptation to chug was very high, but I knew my stomach would reject that. Slowly sipping, I continued back up.
As I climbed, the weather cooled. As I neared Cedar Ridge, I heard more voices. A runner, holding two bottles of vitamin water, was convincing a few day hikers to turn around and go back up. She saw me coming up and immediately knew what was going on. She trotted down, handed me a bottle, and just said, “Drink. How you feeling? Can you still walk? Do you know where you are?” Like shit, like shit, in the shit, thanks. She smiled and trotted down past me to look for stragglers. I think she’d taken it upon herself to see if anybody out there needed a hand. Bless her.
I walked past Cedar and started to trot. I couldn’t walk anymore, and with the jog, even psychologically I felt significantly better. I made it up another quarter mile… half mile… and as the final incline came into view, back surrounded by tourists just popping down to check out the view, I heard a peal of thunder. Turning around, I saw half of the Canyon cloaked in clouds, sheets of rain drenching the paths I had just hiked up. I felt the temperature drop a solid fifteen degrees in about five minutes.
Nature, you’re an asshole.
* * *
So, lessons learned:
1) Double checking your pack isn’t enough. Rookie move.
2) Stick to your cutoffs. I started too late, and should have modified my plan accordingly. Stupid ass pride. I’m going back to getting myself a coach who can tell me when I should and shouldn’t do stupid shit.
3) Never trust a weather report. Assume it will be worse than expected, always.
4) Perception of fatigue and temperature can be liars. Running downhill at the pace I was in the dry heat, I had NO idea how hot I actually was. The headwind generated by my running had me feeing cool and dry, even when the temperature crept up close to triple digits and my core temperature was climbing.
5) Just because you feel great and can run doesn’t mean you should. On the climb up from the river I should have stuck to a walk, focusing on efficiency. I was already borderline hyponatremic, but hauling ass up that hill raised my temperature so much that I was chugging water as much to stay cool as anything else. Heat exhaustion was setting in, compounding the issues from low electrolytes. In many ways, good fitness exacerbates this issue; all my cardiovascular conditioning was doing was letting me move faster and generate more heat than I could shed.
6) Even if you know all this shit, stuff still happens. When it does, all you can do is take stock, get yourself to a neutral rallying point, and address the problems one by one. I’ve done a dozen runs in worse conditions, but a series of small events piled up. Deal with it.
7) The human body has its limits. No amount of hardcore attitude, faux badassery, or any other bullshit can overcome the cold, hard facts: some of these sports and hobbies can easily kill you, even if you know exactly what you’re doing. Accidents, bad luck, or even a single absent-minded mistake can set you down a train of events that can result in catastrophe.
8) HOLY SHIT THAT WAS AWESOME. I’m so doing rim-to-rim next month.
About the Author:
Alex Viada is the founder and head coach at Complete Human Performance. He is also the author of the acclaimed book Hybrid Athlete, one of the most hunting applicable training manuals available today. You can learn more about Alex and the Hybrid Athlete concept at Complete Human Performance or by listening to Episode 77 of the Beyond the Kill podcast.