NOTE: This is the second in a three-part series: Part I is the Physical Level; Part III is Training + Logistics.
Ever since I made the decision to say goodbye to my old running self, I have been in a pretty good space, mentally. I've been swimming and strength training and hiking and biking. For the past three months, I've even been running a little bit: 20-35 minutes, twice a week on a flat gravel path.
Part of that ease has come from the fact that I haven't given myself an opportunity for comparison. I'm solo for most of my workouts. When I swim with the local master's team, I am solidly in the middle of the pack. Good enough. When I get passed (as I do often) during my 3-mile jaunts, I could care less; I am out here RUNNING.
And this Grand Canyon adventure was not just about going Rim to Rim; it was also about a little mental readjustment. I still very much feel like a BAMR; I will always make exercise and my physical health—and as such, my mental health—a priority.
I still classify myself as an athlete, but if I'm being honest, that identification currently feels more fragile than I'd like it to. For about 20 years, I entered a running race or triathlon at least a handful of times a year. I didn't necessarily love to race, but I craved pinning on the bib and being part of the athletic crowd at the expo, in the corrals, at mile 12. That was all the validation my athletic ego needed.
Even when I crossed a finish line later than I wanted to, I still crossed the finish line. I got the medal, made the memories, felt the momentum of the crowd and just plain felt good.
I ran the Philly half marathon over 1.5 years ago, and I am 99% sure I'll never return to a straight-up road race. Even though I rationally know that, it kind of hit me like an avalanche as I took my requisite pre-event gear picture: How will I feel when I don't pin on a bib?
I had kind of shoved that question into the back of my brain, and let it hibernate there.
The good news: for 95% of the Canyon trip, I was good. The mentality that one grows as an endurance athlete—just keep moving forward; eat + drink regularly; there will be low moments so expect them; there will be high moments so appreciate them; think about how you want to feel at the end of the race when you feel amazing at the beginning—came in handy multiple times.
Jo and Jess (the J-Team) were also integral to my staying present and grateful. Jess is the epitome of Be Someone on Whom Nothing is Lost and Jo falls right in beside her. Sometimes I would see her stopping and looking over her shoulder. "I just want to be sure I see everything," she explained. Oh yeah, we're only in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Thanks for the reminder.
Yes, the J-Team would definitely admit that I was a little bit dictatorial about not lingering too long, but that was mostly because of the unknown: How hot would it be in the Box? How long would it take us overall? Was one of us going to run into a big issue? I wanted to give us as thick of cushion of time as possible just in case we needed it.
But that other five percent of the time was, I admit, tough for my athletic ego.
At one point, as we were descending, a fit woman came flying down the trail and passed us. We said hello, and she said something like, "I'm just excited for eight hours of quiet today." My mind immediately leapt into the comparison game: Eight hours? She's going to cross this whole thing in eight hours? Why aren't we going faster? We need to go faster. Could I cross in eight hours? Why didn't I train harder? I kept my thoughts to myself.
The second episode came later in the day. We were leapfrogging all day with a dad (who is a cyclist when he's not hiking the Grand Canyon) and his 17 year-old daughter, who runs track and cross country. They were really friendly and chatty—she was the one who recommended the non-negotiable Ribbon Falls—and it was like running into old friends each time we saw them. They'd typically pass us on the trail, then we'd see them again at a rest area.
The last time they passed us, we were headed up the north side. I tried to hang with them for a bit--the J-Team and I were kind of strung out, and I knew we would gather up again sooner than later. As the daughter sped ahead, I stayed on the dad's heels for a bit in a non-aggressive (and hopefully non-annoying) way. My breathing got a little faster, my legs let me know they were being challenged, and the relentless sun overhead made it all feel harder than it should.
I could've pushed myself to keep up; I know it was physically possible. But I soon fell back and slowed down. I just didn't want to push. I didn't want to hurt. I usually feel that way in races—I'm good, no need to pick it up—and never really think twice about it, but in the Canyon, the sentiment carried way more self-judgment and -criticism than it usually does.
I'm guessing because when I was meh about my pace in a random half-marathon, I used to count on another race around the corner to rectify things--even if I adopted the same mentality in the next race. There was always the opportunity to pin on the bib, to cross the finish line. My life isn't over: There will always be more opportunities. It's just that they don't feel as accessible to me now.
Maybe those two incidents don't sound like much, but right now, they are as vivid in my mind as Ribbon Falls was. They were both integral reality checks in this pivotal chapter of my BAMR life. I was reminded that switching from athlete to adventure mode isn't just like turning off a bathroom light my kids leave on. I kind of thought it would be (#dangit). I also kind of hate that I am giving them so much attention, but identifying + owning them is more valuable than denying them.
The eight-hour crosser? She said one more thing, something that, when I slow my thoughts and tell the judgmental Dimity to STFU, truly soothes those prickly feelings like aloe on sunburn.
As she powered by us, she mentioned that she could never find two friends that would do something like this with her. When I think of her saying that, I feel like I won the BAMR lottery.
Thank you, Jess and Jo, for allowing ALL of me—the disciplinarian, the comparer, the athletic ego, the bad singer—to come through the Canyon with you. All the pieces of me are very grateful, and wouldn't have missed a minute of it.