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Know the West

Endurance runners in the Grand Canyon are missing the point


When I was 18, back in the swinging '60s, I ran with equally driven friends through the Grand Canyon, going from the North Rim to the South Rim in a single day. Our trek involved traversing the 14-mile North Kaibab trail, the 7-mile South Kaibab Trail and the Old Bright Angel Trail, 14 miles of pretty rough trail.

Some five decades ago, that kind of thing was an anomaly. Visitors rode mules down and back, while hikers took their time, usually camping or staying overnight at Phantom Ranch. If anyone wanted to go rim to rim, that was considered a multi-day backpack, certainly not a day trek.

Somehow, over the last 10 years, what's known as R2R and R2R2R (rim-to–rim-to-rim) has become de rigueur for extreme athletes seeking ultimate bragging rights. In 2014, runs from rim to rim increased by 25 percent, and on one bright day, 300 runners were observed starting their back-and-forth trek in a three-and-a-half-hour period. On popular weekends these days, up to 800 hikers move through the Inner Canyon, and 400 to 600 of them are running hiking or running fast as they go rim to rim or even rim to rim and back again -- R2R2R.

What, you might ask, is the problem? A major issue is trash. Runners don't carry packs, and many don't wear pockets. Electrolyte bottles, once emptied, are ejected; packets filled with flavored gel, which substitute for food, get blithely tossed.

The second issue is elimination. Outhouses are scattered along the Inner Corridor at convenient intervals, but they are designed for 50 to 200 users per day, not 300 per hour. If the line is too long, the trail seems to suffice for runners in a hurry.

Then there's trail etiquette. Uphill traditionally has the right of way, just as in four-wheeling, mountain biking and hiking. When passing, it is polite to say, "Excuse," or "On your right." It is not proper to shove past muttering, "Out of the way, rookie." Mules, of course, have the right of way, period. It is not prudent nor does it lend itself to a longer lifespan to argue with an animal that weighs 2,000 pounds and has 63 chromosomes.

Finally, there's time. If all that matters inside the Grand Canyon is the speed of one's crossing, there is no patience to wait in line, to yield the right of way, to assist an injured companion. An acquaintance laments, "Would they run through the Louvre?"

An overwhelmed Park Service recently imposed new regulations on this phenomenon. Any group of day-trippers that advertises, requires advance sign-up, or is being compensated by participants is now required to get a permit to go below the Tonto level, or about 4,000 feet below the rim. The group also cannot number more than 30 people.

Enforcement will be a challenge. Ask a hiker how far he or she plans to go? The answer might well be, "Oh, just a mile," as opposed to "All the way." A few years back, a young woman was cited for bringing an organized group of runners, several of whom had to be rescued at great expense and peril. "Oh," said she. "This isn't an organized run. Just 89 of my close, personal friends."

I'm competitive and I walk pretty fast, so it took me a while to figure out that speed is overrated. But now I get it: The more time you spend in the canyon, the more your ego diminishes. Time slows alongside the Colorado River. Rocks demand close scrutiny. You see universes contained in a sand dune.

This is a sacred place. It is the place of Emergence for the Hopi, the Peaceful People. They were charged to wander the world and return to the Center, and there they remain, on Hopi mesas. It is the place of Emergence for the Zuni. The story of their migration is written on canyon walls. The Havasupai still dwell within the canyon. I have learned that it is important to pause when entering this world, to approach the canyon with respect and gratitude.

Recently, I stood on the North Rim as night fell, and a runner swaggered toward me. "I just finished a rim to rim; took me 11 hours!"

"We're starting down tomorrow," I told him. "We'll take five days."

He snorted. "I don't know what you're going to do down there for five days." What will we do? Look, feel, discover lost worlds? The possibilities are endless, if you're willing to take the time.

Marjorie "Slim" Woodruff is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. She lives in Grand Canyon National Park, where she is an instructor for the Grand Canyon Field Institute.