On the Brink: My Brush With Death While Running in the Rocky Mountains by Wookie Kim

On July 10, 2016, I set out with one of my best friends to run the Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop, a 27-mile trail with 8,000 feet of elevation gain that hits four 12,500-foot mountain passes in the Maroon Bells Wilderness Area near Aspen, Colorado. After a summer of running America, I was excited to return west and tackle another run on my ultra-running bucket list. The run was destined to be great.

But this run turned into the scariest experience of my life. By midnight that same day--17 hours after we'd left the trailhead at 5 a.m., and several hours past the absolute latest we anticipated being on the trails--I was passed out, convulsing and vomiting violently, stuck at 11,000 feet above sea level in the Rocky Mountain wilderness. I would later learn that I had high altitude cerebral edema (HACE), high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), and hyponatremia--and I was on the brink of death.

Thanks to the heroic efforts of my friend, a trio of backpackers, Mountain Rescue Aspen search and rescue team members, Pitkin County Sheriff's Office deputies, and a Flight for Life Colorado helicopter flight team, I made it out alive.

Today, exactly one year later, I have made a 100% recovery on all fronts. My brain is back to normal, my body is back to normal, my spirit is back to normal--I am me again. Not only that, I ran my first 100-mile race(!). I feel lucky and thankful in more ways than I can express. I wanted to share my story, in the hope that it sheds light on the risks that go with adventuring at high altitudes--and how disaster can strike when you least expect it.

http://www.alltrails.com/events/2014/07/aspen-4-pass-loop-backpack

http://www.alltrails.com/events/2014/07/aspen-4-pass-loop-backpack


A PLAN

Everything starts with a dream. Each of us has something we aspire towards, whether it be a promotion at work, an achievement in one's family life, or something else. For me, a lot of my little dreams revolve around running. (I've already explained all of the reasons why I run here.) So when my good friend, Will, proposed a trip out to the Aspen/Snowmass area of Colorado, my first instinct was to identify a dream trail run in a dream running area of the country. I was especially aware that my "Wookie Runs America" running road trip of the previous summer had skipped Colorado entirely. There was no excuse now: if we were going to Aspen, we had to run in the mountains.

With that dream conjured up, plans were set in motion to run the Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop. It had all the elements of the perfect ultra-run: challenging, epic, beautiful, fun, wild.

http://www.hikingwalking.com/destinations/co/co_cent/aspen/four_pass_loop

http://www.hikingwalking.com/destinations/co/co_cent/aspen/four_pass_loop

Not lost on me was that the Four Pass Loop was also popular. Sure, it was in a wilderness area, but we were bound to see plenty of hikers and backpackers along the way. After a summer of running alone (always with a personal locator beacon), I had become attuned to finding runs on which I was more likely to bump into people. Never did I want to be completely alone. There was always safety--or at least comfort--in numbers. This run was no different.


ARRIVAL

I left my home in D.C. at the crack of dawn on Friday, July 8, giddy about the trip ahead. I flew directly into Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, eager to save time by skipping the 3-hour drive from Denver through the Front Range. That was probably my first mistake. For a sea level-living person like me, Aspen, at 7,900 feet above sea level, is at relatively high altitude. And our hotel, which was actually in Snowmass, was even higher, at 8,200 feet. No matter how fit I was as a runner, vaulting straight up to that elevation so quickly had some non-zero chance of messing with my system. Probably a better choice would have been to fly into Denver, at 5,200 feet, and maybe even spend a day acclimating there. (Will had done exactly this, flying into Denver 2-3 days earlier, and exploring the city's breweries until I arrived.)

Still, I felt okay with my decision. I'd spent a chunk of time reading about altitude sickness--how to avoid it, as well as how to recognize and address it if it arose. To that end, I told Will that we should do essentially nothing on Friday to let our bodies adjust. So all we did was catch up over a couple beers, do some work on our laptops, and take a stroll through downtown Aspen.

Catching up over beers and catching up on work.

Catching up over beers and catching up on work.

Downtown Aspen.

Downtown Aspen.

By about 5 pm, as we made our way to our lodging in Snowmass, I felt the first signs of a headache. It was mild, but it was there. I thought it might be the beer. But I'd only had two, and I'd been following up with plenty of water. My urine was straw colored--exactly what I wanted it to be. So I figured it must be something else. It must be the altitude.

I began closely monitoring how I was feeling because our original plan was to run the Maroon Bells beginning at 5 a.m. the next morning--i.e., Saturday, July 9. But by 7 p.m., after a quick dip in the lodge's pool, and over dinner, it had become obvious that that would be a poor decision. I could still feel a headache. It wasn't painful, but it just didn't feel normal. I told Will that I didn't want to take any chances. I needed more time to acclimate. Would it be okay if we pushed back our run to Sunday?

Taking a dip.

Taking a dip.

Will, being the reasonable guy that he is, agreed with my decision. He may have poked fun at me just a tad, but he knew that I knew my body best, and that altitude was the one variable that we had agreed we could not mess with. All the previous times I'd spent at high altitude--elevations between 10,000 and 13,000 feet--I'd never had any altitude issues, not even the slightest of headaches. And I was not about to let this first time mess me up any more than I felt it already was. We ended up going to bed early, at 8:30 p.m. Again, if the goal was to get acclimated, rest and relaxation was key.


ACCLIMATION

Saturday morning, I woke up at around 6:30 a.m., feeling extremely well-rested and ready to take on the day. This was the best sleep I'd gotten in weeks. I immediately noticed the headache was gone, so I decided I'd test out my mountain legs and lungs by going on a short, easy run up the ski slope at Snowmass. I spent about 30 minutes going just over 3 miles, keeping my heart rate low and not even pushing up or down the 700 feet of vertical that I chose to tackle. I was barely sweating, and I felt really, really good. My legs, body, and mind were all in check. I knew at that point that I'd be ready for the Four Pass Loop the following morning.

Running up Snowmass.

Running up Snowmass.

After returning to the lodge, Will and I geared up to go downhill mountain biking. This was something that Will had really wanted to do. I wasn't as dead set on this part of the trip, but I was also curious about the whole experience, as I'd also never done it before. At 9 a.m., we suited up and began going up-mountain in the gondola, and cruising downhill on our downhill mountain bikes. It was thrilling.

Downhill mountain biking pads--AKA the Mad Max life.

Downhill mountain biking pads--AKA the Mad Max life.

Despite all the pads involved, downhill mountain biking is not very strenuous. You practically don't pedal and instead use your momentum to take you down the mountain. The shocks on the bike are really deep, which makes for a relatively smooth ride. The parts of the body that hurt the most after a day of downhill mountain biking were our hands, which had rattled over the various roots and rocks on the trails. One thing that I probably should have accounted for was the altitude. We'd taken the Elk Camp gondola up 6 times to 11,325 feet. It is hard to say if this biking outing amplified any issues. I didn't feel any headaches all day, and we barely sweated while doing this. We also had our Camelbaks the entire day and were constantly hydrating. In retrospect, spending all that time above 11,000 feet did not help.

At 3 p.m., after a solid lunch break, we returned our bikes and pads and headed back to the lodge. We'd seen the New Belgium Ranger Station, and figured it would be fun to work there while carbing up for the following morning. So that's what we did. Over the course of 3 hours, I had one beer, several pretzels, and a hearty chicken dinner. I checked my head--no headaches! By 7 p.m., after a quick dip in the pool, we returned to our room and repacked our gear for the day ahead. We cut no corners. We each packed a dozen energy bars (one per hour for that many hours, even though we anticipated finishing within 10-12 hours). I had my water filter, topo maps, a trail guide, a compass, and gear for bad weather. I even had my emergency bivvy, just in case something went wrong and we got really, really cold. (I joked to Will that I would share the small space with him, if it came to it.) Will brought a med kit. By 9 p.m., we had our eyes shut, excited about the long day ahead.

My outfit for the day ahead. Obviously, it includes a November Project-tagged shirt.

My outfit for the day ahead. Obviously, it includes a November Project-tagged shirt.


ADVENTURE

Sunday, July 10. We rise at 4 a.m., despite Will's protests. I tell him that the more distance we cover early on, the better. Thunderstorms are unpredictable in the afternoon. Plus, I want to leave as much margin for error as possible. The goal is to be done with the run many hours before sunset--ideally by 3 p.m. So we plan to start running from the trailhead at 5 a.m. sharp. We are close. We get to the parking lot at the trailhead just before 5 a.m., but I need time to deal with a pre-run bowel movement (as always). We start at 5:15 a.m., only 15 minutes after our target time. The first views of the Maroon Bells in the pre-dawn cool are stunning.

5:29 a.m.

5:29 a.m.

And just like that we are off! The trailhead is at 9,580 feet, which is higher than where we'd slept, but not as high as where we'd reached by gondola several times the day before. Our first segment has us going clockwise over West Maroon Pass, up to 12,500 feet. We begin making steady progress up towards the pass, passing a brunching moose, and many incredible morning sights along the way.

5:34 a.m. Spotting a moose.

5:34 a.m. Spotting a moose.

5:47 a.m. Still within the forest.

5:47 a.m. Still within the forest.

6:01 a.m. Escaping the trees.

6:01 a.m. Escaping the trees.

6:16 a.m. First light on the mountains.

6:16 a.m. First light on the mountains.

6:17 a.m. Blending in with the wildflowers.

6:17 a.m. Blending in with the wildflowers.

6:20 a.m. Running towards West Maroon Pass.

6:20 a.m. Running towards West Maroon Pass.

Everything feels really good at this point. Our legs are fresh, our minds are clear, we are eager to make progress, and the weather cannot be more ideal. It is just chilly enough that walking feels cold, but as long as we are jogging slowly, we are warm enough.

Our pace is relaxed. I had told Will in an earlier email that the idea was "slow jogging", that "our heart rates would be low", and that I expected to feel completely normal--maybe just a tad sore--the next day. This was not a race. (I wore my heart rate monitor the entire day and ensured we stayed completely aerobic. Unfortunately, I lost the heart rate data, which would have been interesting to analyze, because my watch ran out of battery.)

The serenity of running into the sunrise is one of the best things about trail running. The mountains around us wake up. Light begins to creep down from the tops of the mountains. We soak it all in.

7:53 a.m. The sun is coming up.

7:53 a.m. The sun is coming up.

About 3 hours in, and we are making our first ascent towards West Maroon Pass. The plan on the ascents is to hike. There is no point in burning our legs by running. That risks leaving us out of gas--not something we want to do out here. We take lots of breaks for photos, which adds more rest. Also, Will cannot get enough of the wildflowers. I indulge his desires.

8:29 a.m. Will cannot get enough of the wildflowers.

8:29 a.m. Will cannot get enough of the wildflowers.

3.5 hours in, and we make it up to our first of four passes. The blast of wind that hits us as we crest the pass is powerful. On one side, it is still and warm. On the other, it is windy and chilly. Life is good.

8:50 a.m. Panoramic view from West Maroon Pass--stunning colors.

8:50 a.m. Panoramic view from West Maroon Pass--stunning colors.

We look where we came from.

8:53 a.m. Where we came from.

8:53 a.m. Where we came from.

And we look where we are going.

8:53 a.m. Where we are headed.

8:53 a.m. Where we are headed.

I am still feeling very strong. Not fatigued in the least, not dehydrated in the least, well-fed, and just super happy with how our day is going. The picture probably shows it here, but there are no real signs for concern right now. We are both all smiles.

8:56 a.m. Pass #1 complete!

8:56 a.m. Pass #1 complete!

From West Maroon Pass, we drop about 1,000 feet into Purity Basin and skirt our way northwest under the ridge-line towards Frigid Air Pass. By 10 a.m., we are making the relatively short ascent--the shortest of the 4 for the day--up to Frigid Air Pass. Will recalls that it was during this ascent, nearly 5 hours after we'd started our run, that I hold my head for the first time. Apparently, I deny that I have a headache. I was still fully conscious. I may have held my head, but I certainly do not feel any pain or other cause for concern.

10:08 a.m. Pass #2--Frigid Air Pass!

10:08 a.m. Pass #2--Frigid Air Pass!

The descent from Frigid Air Pass into Fravert Basin is swift and steep. The rocks are slippery, and there is little room for error. These challenging and dangerous ascents later become extremely treacherous once my condition begins devolving. Right now, they are easy, as I'd spent the entirety of last summer tackling terrain just like, or harder, than this.

10:11 a.m. Descending the back side of Frigid Air Pass.

10:11 a.m. Descending the back side of Frigid Air Pass.

Once we are down in the Basin, we make steady progress again towards the North Fork and Trail Rider Pass, which would be our penultimate pass. We are probably 12 miles in at this point. A bit shy of the halfway mark in just over 5 hours. We are off track to finish in 10 hours, but it seems we will finish within 12 hours--exactly within the time scale I had projected.

10:27 a.m. Heading towards Fravert Basin and the base of the 3rd pass.

10:27 a.m. Heading towards Fravert Basin and the base of the 3rd pass.

At around 11 a.m., things slowly begin to go wrong. The first thing I notice is that, as we are traversing Fravert Basin, my running pace has slowed down relative to Will's. Up until this point, we'd been running a steady, consistent pace--together. I don't necessarily feel more tired. I check my heart rate and it's still safely in the aerobic zone. Yet, as we cross the Basin, something just feels off, and I begin dropping behind Will as he cruises ahead. At 11:06 a.m., Will notices that I stumble over several places on the trail with unchallenging footing. When Will asks how I am doing, I tell him I have a headache. I tell him I'll monitor the situation. Internally, I begin thinking, "do we turn around?"

At 11:11 a.m., I take a photo of Will with the mountains near Maroon Peak in the background. It is the last photo I will take that day.

11:11 a.m. The last photo I took that day.

11:11 a.m. The last photo I took that day.


ABORT MISSION

We descend further into the Basin, and begin approaching the base of the climb to the third pass. My head begins hurting more, so we decide to stop, take a water break, take some ibuprofen from the med kit, and then decide on a course of action. As we sit on the side of the trail, I feel hazy. This is not normal. I tell Will we have to abort the run.

We could not have been in a worse location to decide to call it quits. We were almost smack dab at the bottom of the valley between the 2nd and 3rd passes--just about the most remote place we could be on the Four Pass Loop:

This is not a good spot to 

After taking stock of our situation, we see two clear options, and one not-so-clear one.

Option one is to continue forward and finish the loop. At this point, we are about 13 or 14 miles in, so this option would require the shortest distance out to the trailhead. At the same time, I know from having studied the elevation profile in the days leading up to the run that the last two passes--Trail Rider and Buckskin--involve two serious ascents. They will be unrelenting, and will also put us even further into unknown territory. That could be risky.

Option two is to turn around and backtrack the way we came. This requires a couple more miles of distance, but it has the advantage of having only a mini-descent and mini-ascent between the second and first passes. Another bonus is that we are completely familiar with this route and will have the mental advantage of knowing the terrain as we make our way out.

Option three is less well-understood. Looking at the topo map that I had, I can see that if we continue forward but turn left at the next juncture (instead of right up to Trail Rider Pass), we can hit Silver Creek Trailhead. The plus side to this is that it seems shorter than the first two options, and will give us the chance to potentially hitchhike our way to a lower elevation at a faster rate. The big downside is that we know nothing about the conditions of this trail, or how well-trafficked the mining road is, or whether it even makes sense to head further away from a known quantity and deeper into the wilderness.

My judgment is a bit cloudy at this point, as my headache is intensifying, but we are strongly leaning towards option two. We do not want to take the risk of the two major climbs ahead of us. We do not want to take the risk of going off the main loop and heading towards an unknown trail and destination. If we turn around, everything would be a known quantity, and that would also make breaking down the day into chunks mentally much easier.

Almost as if someone hears our plight, two rangers appear out of nowhere. They are heading towards us from the opposite direction. They stop and ask how we were doing. I explain my situation, and they advise us to turn around. (They also confirm that option three is better than option one because the tiny mining town of Marble is at the bottom of the mining road that leads to the trailhead, but that it is still a much worse idea than option two.) We had made the right decision originally, but it is nice to get confirmation from experts in the field.


FADE TO BLACK

It is 11:30 a.m. when we finally turn around and begin heading back up the Basin towards Frigid Air Pass. At this point, I still have my wits about me, and I realize the situation we're in. I am weak, lightheaded, approaching delirium--and we have two passes and several thousand feet to climb. I never imagine that I won't make it back to the trailhead and to the safety of civilization on my own two feet. I know I will struggle, and I know I will hurt, and I know I will feel fear, but I also know I am going to make it out. How could I imagine anything else?

At the same time, I know getting out is no laughing matter. I set my mind to escaping the mountains safely, with Will's help. There is no more time to take photos. We need to move deliberately, because my condition is only getting worse. And the only cure for altitude sickness is to descend from elevation as rapidly as possible. This is now our primary goal because, again, we do not want this day to end in anything but happiness on our parts. (Plus, I have a job to get back to the next day in D.C.)

Beginning at noon, I begin struggling more. My memory of this period is spotty, but Will tells me that I am moving just as quickly as we had been moving before. When we pass the rangers again, they and Will both advise me to slow down. I don't know what has gotten into me, but I'm guessing I probably think that moving quickly up and out of the basin is the most prudent thing to do. I am probably scared that I won't make it out. But with a rapidly deteriorating brain and body, I need to move cautiously, in a way that will not overtax my taxed body. We need, in other words, to find the perfect balance. Around this time, Will offers to take my pack. I take him up on the offer and thank him because every load off my back will help me move quicker. I keep my trekking poles for balance, and we continue uphill.

Just before 2 p.m. and we are at the base of Frigid Air Pass, about to begin the ascent. I feel wretched. I express to Will that I am losing my vision. My biggest concern at this point is falling off a switchback on the ascent over the pass. With my normally decent balance, the ascent would have been no issue. But impaired and wobbly as I have become, I know that stumbling off a cliff is a distinct possibility. This scares me, and I express that to Will over and over again. As we amble up the pass, I fall several dozen times, thankfully mostly uphill, because I am leaning my head and crouching down in that direction. A couple times, I fall downhill, but Will is there to catch me by my armpits.

At 2:30 p.m., we reach Frigid Air Pass. We bump into three hikers. I ask them if they have any spare ibuprofen for my splitting headache. They do, and offer me 3 pills. I tell them about how shit had hit the fan in the last couple hours and I am barely able to put one foot in front of the other. For the first time, I realize how quickly things are spiraling out of control, and I panic. Then, in the presence of these innocent hikers, I break down for the first time. It is a controlled sob, and doesn't last much more than a minute. For the first time, I begin to think that I won't actually make it off the loop alive. I quickly compose myself. I have no energy to waste, especially not on tears. I am more determined than ever to make it out. We thank the hikers, say goodbye, and begin our descent towards West Maroon Pass, which will be our last vertical hurdle to overcome.

Our bump-in with those hikers, and my breakdown in front of them, are the last memories I have of our day on the Four Pass Loop.


RESCUE

I have no memory of what follows, which occurred after I blacked out. The below is based on the chronology that Will later created for the medical professionals who cared for me. It is also based on multiple conversations I later had with Mountain Rescue Aspen and the three backpackers--Erik, Robert, and Shane--who took care of me.

Will notices that my condition improves as we head down Frigid Air Pass and into the basin once more. As we begin the traverse towards the base of the final ascent, I begin moving more quickly.

At 3:30 p.m., we ascend West Maroon Pass--our last major obstacle. If I can get over this, it is literally all downhill from here. I am determined to make it--and am in complete survival mode--so nothing is stopping me. Will notices that I appear more mentally ready for the challenge of this final climb. At the same time, he notices that I struggle to the same degree as our wobbly ascent of Frigid Air Pass.

At 4:00 p.m., we have made it over West Maroon Pass. Miraculously, I have made it over--with Will's help. We are now optimistic that we are going to get off the trail and down-mountain in sufficient time. But as soon as we start descending, Will notices that I do not move nearly as easily or quickly as I did while descending Frigid Air Pass.

By 5 p.m., I cannot walk on my own. I stumble forward like a drunkard while Will follows closely behind me and catches me about every ten steps. This progresses to Will walking next to me with one hand on my neck and another in my armpit.  I begin stopping and asking, "Where do we go?" I do this even when there is one clear and obvious direction.

By 6:30 p.m., I am aimlessly shuffling my feet forward while Will keeps his hands in my armpits, and I lean back. I begin spitting clear spit, and making noises that sound like a precursor to vomiting. I don't say I need to vomit though.

At 7 p.m., I become non-verbal.

At 7:20 p.m., we encounter three backpackers--Erik, Robert, and Shane--heading up the trail as we are coming down it. Will asks them if they can stay with me at the West Maroon Creek Crossing. They agree and help Will carry me to the Creek. According to Erik, at this time, I "looked really bad, and could barely stand." (Erik, Robert, and Shane created a video of the night of my rescue, from which I derived additional information.)

At 7:40 p.m., Will leaves our remaining food and water filter with me and the backpackers. Will crosses the creek and runs back to the parking lot, which is only a few miles away. As he runs, he has thoughts ranging from "I think he's going to die" to "maybe I'm completely overblowing it."

Meanwhile, back up in the Maroon Bells with the backpackers, I begin to vomit, and also experience seizures. Erik, who has EMT training, tries to keep me on my side, to prevent aspiration.

Robert, Erik, and Shane taking care of me.

Robert, Erik, and Shane taking care of me.

At 8:10 p.m., Will arrives back at the parking lot and begins driving back towards Aspen looking for cell reception. By 8:30 p.m., he gains cell service, and calls the Aspen non-emergency number to request help. The operator says that a ranger will call Will back within an unspecified time-frame. Concerned by the lack of urgency, Will calls his parents, who are doctors, seeking their opinions. They insist that this is urgent and that Will needs to call 911. Will calls 911 and insists that I need immediate attention. The Sheriff's Department notifies Mountain Rescue Aspen. At 10 p.m., Will meets the deputy sheriff, who leads him to the Mountain Rescue Aspen Rescue Center. Will describes my symptoms and location to the rescue team.

At 10:15 p.m., according to Robert, I am "status quo--not getting any worse, not getting any better." I continue to vomit, throwing up bile.

By 10:50 p.m., Aspen Mountain Rescue deploys a team of four with oxygen to find me.

At 11:45 p.m., according to Robert, I am "about the same as [I] was before." He believes that the rescue operation won't begin until daybreak, so thinks "we're just going to have to ride it out." (Erik and Robert later recount their anxiety in thinking that no one was coming that night, and that I was going to die.)

Just after midnight, Mountain Rescue Aspen makes contact. According to Mountain Rescue Aspen I am unresponsive, and shaking uncontrollably. I am still breathing and have a pulse, but don't respond to the high-flow oxygen they immediately administer. The doctor in the team takes one look at me and instantly determines to request a medivac--a Flight For Life Colorado helicopter from St. Anthony Hospital in the town of Lakewood, just west of Denver.

Mountain Rescue Aspen--assisted by Erik, Robert, and Shane--work to prepare me for the medivac:

Shortly after 1:00 a.m., the helicopter arrives but can't find a place to land. The team works to clear a 100-foot-by-100-foot bed for the helicopter to land. Another 8 members of Mountain Rescue Aspen arrive. After several minutes of testing landing spots, the helicopter lands at the Maroon Creek Crossing and the team straps me in. By 1:30 a.m., the helicopter takes off for St. Anthony Hospital.

Flight for Life Colorado's Eurocopter AS 350 "AStar" B3 helicopter.

Flight for Life Colorado's Eurocopter AS 350 "AStar" B3 helicopter.

At 3 a.m., the helicopter arrives on the helipad at St. Anthony hospital, where I'm immediately taken into the ICU.


WAKING UP

I can barely recall it now, but the first memories I had after the incident were created as I was drifting in and out of consciousness. I remember feeling like I was drowning. I didn't know it then, but I had been intubated, and the tube that had gone down my airway was triggering a choking sensation. That sensation is what woke me from my coma (or at least that's how I remember it).

When I first gained consciousness, I felt voiceless and weak. Something was down my throat, and I wanted to get it out immediately. Blurry objects surrounded me, but I had no sense of place. When I finally recognized that these blobs were humans, I tried to yell "I'm choking!" to grab their attention. But I had no words. The tube prevented me from speaking. I felt like a soul trapped in a lifeless body. I began moving my arm to yank out whatever it was that was shoved down my throat, but my hands felt immediate resistance. They had been restrained (in what the nurses called "hand jail").

Somehow, I managed to grunt and harrumph and get the attention of a human. I tried my darnedest to sound out recognizable words. "I. Am. Choking." Nothing came out. Finally, someone asked me if I wanted to write out a message. I nodded my head. But as soon as I felt my hands being untied, I instinctively whipped up one hand towards my mouth, clutched the tube that I realized had been stuck down my throat, and yanked at it. And thus began a hospital room tussle. A flurry of bodies surrounded me, and once again put my arms in hand jail. My attempt at freedom had been stymied.

I drifted again into unconsciousness.

When I awoke again--this time for real--I remember hearing familiar voices. I opened my eyes and looked around. Why were my parents talking to me? Why were various friends--including several I hadn't seen in several years--crowded around me? Why was I in a hospital bed? None of it made sense.

But then, a spurt of memories came back. I remembered that I had set out with Will to run the Four Pass Loop. And then I also remembered: something had gone wrong. The details escaped me, but I knew that I was in the hospital because I had not "made it out" as Will and I had originally planned when we decided to turn around and retrace our steps.

Everything was foggy. I appeared to know things, but didn't really know them. And I realized that there were many things I didn't remember at all, at least initially. When someone confirmed that I had been in a coma for 3 days and that it was already Wednesday, I immediately asked for my laptop so that I could let my coworkers know what had happened (as if they hadn't already been informed!). Will passed me my computer, but I pushed it away. I insisted it wasn't mine because my laptop didn't have a brown case, like this one did. After arguing back and forth with Will, it finally dawned on me that I'd bought a new case a few weeks earlier. Sheepishly, I took the laptop back.

I flipped open the laptop and the login screen popped up. I put my hands on the keyboard, index fingers on the F and J keys (just as I'd been taught in elementary school)--and then I stared blankly at the screen. I had forgotten my password. I typed in several common passwords that I recalled using in the past. They didn't work. I also realized that my motor coordination was weak. I switched to typing with a single finger. I typed out several other passwords. These didn't work, either.

I can't remember how things finally clicked again, but my password eventually came back to me a few hours later. The mental energy needed to recall that one double-digit string of numbers and characters was extraordinary. I passed out again.

Trying (and failing) to log into my computer.

Trying (and failing) to log into my computer.


RECOVERY: COLORADO

The road to recovery was hard. And slow. And painful. It involved more doctors and nurses and health care professionals than I can remember (and here I want to show my unyielding love and thanks to each for taking care of me and getting me back on the right track--THANK YOU!). It involved countless tests--ranging from x-rays to CT scans to EEGs to EKGs to other things I cannot even name or even recall. All I have to memorialize this period of my life is the 3-inch stack of medical bills that meticulously catalog the drugs that went into my body, and the treatments my body received, during my hospital stay.

I have a few photos of this grim and painful period of my life. But this photo best encapsulates the mood I was in during my first week at St. Anthony:

That stay also involved rounds of occupational therapy, speech therapy, and physical therapy--all of which I undoubtedly needed. Bit by bit, these sessions brushed off the cognitive cobwebs, improved my shaky motor skills, and helped me speak like a fluent person again. 

At times, I found the therapy silly. I recall one session in which I was asked to do math using a calculator: How much did a set of grocery items on a shopping list add up to? I punched in the numbers, double-checking that I'd pressed the right button, and then triple-checked the response. I knew that each incorrect answer would be used against me (i.e., as a sign that I was still cognitively deficient), so I did my best to avoid messing up. After doing one set of calculations, the nurse who was with me told me I was wrong. I told her that I knew I was right. She matter-of-factly stated that I was wrong. I asked if I could check my work again. When I did, I got the same answer. I talked out loud so she could hear my thought process. After she took the calculator from me and redid the calculation, she sheepishly said she had made a mistake and that I was right. I wasn't a dummy after all.

Occupational therapy flashcards.

Occupational therapy flashcards.

I also found some of the therapy hilarious and surreal. The hospital had a room that was meant to look like a standard apartment. It had a kitchen, a dining table, and all the accoutrements of normal life. My mission, if I chose to accept it, was to cook breakfast, beginning with scrambled eggs, and including toast. I felt awkward putting on a private home economics show, but I did my best to keep my hands steady as I placed the frying pan on the stovetop. Then, I whisked some eggs together and scrambled them. I had proven my worth! (Unfortunately, I had not yet progressed beyond eating a meal predominantly composed of apple sauce, so I didn't have the chance to taste my own creation.)

But mostly, recovery involved sleep. Lots of sleep. Sleep was my default state. All roads led to sleep. If I was bored, I slept. If I was excited, I fell asleep again (probably because I was over-excited). If I was sleepy, I slept. I slept on my stomach. I slept on my back. I slept in my wheelchair. I just kept sleeping.

In the constant cycle of sleeping and waking, I also lost track of time. This was somewhat liberating. But it was also unsettling to think that I had unlatched myself from the regular continuum of life, which proceeds day by day, hour by hour, according to routines and habits and daily rituals--none of which I could maintain while in the hospital.

I benefitted from the constant flow of people. There were my parents, who flew out from Seoul, utterly shocked at the prospect of losing their first son. There was my aunt, herself a doctor, who got another doctor to cover her shifts and her patients, so that I could temporarily become one of hers. There was my girlfriend, who, despite having just undergone surgery herself a couple days earlier, also dropped everything to be by my side. There were my friends--Will included--who made several visits, and some of whom I didn't even know had visited me (because I was still comatose at the time). And then there were all the doctors, and nurses, and nurse practitioners, and all the other people with all the other acronyms and abbreviations and titles and roles and responsibilities and names that I can no longer remember now, even if my life depended on it (but that appear as hidden cast members in my 3-inch stack of medical bills).

I welcomed this flow of people, not least because these were people who mattered to me, and who cared for me, and who cheered me up, but also because it presented a constant flurry of newness that punctuated the dullness of the sterile turquoise greenness that was my hospital room.

In addition to the flow of people, was the flow of flowers, notes, and care packages from friends, family, and coworkers. Somehow, word had gotten around that I was stuck in the hospital, and people from all over the world were sending me things, including a photo album of lots of memorable moments.

My law firm was tremendously accommodating during this time. I was given direct orders by the managing partner to rest up and not spend a single ounce of energy thinking about work. I received many notes from coworkers. I even received an uplifting "get well" video. These little things made a difference.

One thing I didn't benefit from was the hospital food. I would spend tens of minutes perusing the menu, trying to identify foods that sounded appealing, and foods that I knew would sit well in my teetering digestive system. There was often a significant mismatch, and although I aspired to eat the omelette with bacon and croissant, the words that came out of my mouth when I spoke to the food service operator were usually, "I'll take two unsweetened apple sauces, and two bottles of chocolate Ensure. Thanks..."

One of the hardest parts of being cooped up in the hospital was the constant tension between feeling like I was wasting time and feeling like time could not pass any slower. On the one hand, I felt restless and helpless. Being stuck in a hospital bed, practically unable to move, while the whole world passed by was hard to deal with. Even though I knew my body needed rest, I didn't like that I could almost feel my muscles atrophying (in fact, I ended up losing 10 pounds off an already lightweight frame). I was also concerned about my obligations at work. Was I letting my colleagues down by being out of commission for this long? Should I be working while recovering? Was anyone mad that I was gone? The answer to all of these was no, but at times I felt the answer was yes.

At the same time, I also developed the sense that I had way too much time on my hands. I began doing whatever I could to help pass the time. I went onto Amazon Prime and started watching "recommended" movies. Computer algorithms have come a long way, but they weren't good enough here--everything recommended to me was uninteresting. For the first time in a long time, I took control of a TV remote and channel surfed like I had just discovered cable television. I wanted time to speed up, if only so that I could be discharged from the hospital sooner.

After almost a week of being bed-ridden and indoors, the nurse finally let me walk outside. It was still the height of summer, and it was balmy, but I still felt the chills as I waddled through the hospital's doors and into the hospital parking lot. My heart rate shot up with my first steps. I could feel the thump-thump beating in my chest. For the first time in my life, walking was hard. At that moment, the trite saying appeared to be true: "You don't know what you've got until it's gone." 

My first walk outside. You can sense my happiness. Also pictured: the helicopter that saved me.

My first walk outside. You can sense my happiness. Also pictured: the helicopter that saved me.

That moment also triggered new anxiety. Would I ever get back what appeared to be gone? Setting aside getting back into peak physical fitness, would I ever be able to run again? No one in the hospital had ever provided a prognosis. In fact, at this point, I barely even knew what had taken me out in the first place. So much had happened while I was still unconscious, and I didn't have any of my medical records at the time. It was disconcerting not knowing whether my current state (of immobility and languor) would be permanent.

In my second week at the hospital, I appeared to take a turn for the better. Suddenly, the pain no longer hovered over me or clouded my thoughts. I had periods where I felt relatively comfortable. I had passed my wheelchair days, and could walk around the hospital practically without assistance. I think I became more chipper at that point. I may have started smiling every now and then. Things were looking up.

Sporting a bigger grin than my brother.

Sporting a bigger grin than my brother.

Even the therapy began to go really well. I started to enjoy showing off my calculator skills to the nurse who had essentially called me a dummy earlier. I breezed through the flashcards, crushed the map-drawing exercises, and sorted my pills in the pillboxes like I actually maintained a complicated fifteen-prescription drug regimen. I even got the opportunity to "run" wind sprints (at grandfather pace) down the hallway. I began spending time in the hospital cafeteria, and had the occasional friend pop in for a visit. I was beginning to feel optimistic, and less like the downer I'd been the first week.

Eventually, after 10 days of rest and tests and therapy, I ran through some final procedures--EEGs, x-rays, MRIs--all of which confirmed that I was finally ready to be discharged. I could return home and continue my recovery there, instead of in St. Anthony.

In the process of wrapping things up, I finally got a complete picture on what had occurred on July 10. I'd learned bits and pieces throughout my stay, but this time my doctors walked me through the treatments I'd received and my diagnoses from beginning to end. My jaw dropped after hearing everything.

Among other things, I had developed HACE (high altitude cerebral edema) and HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema)--two independently deadly altitude illnesses. Altitude illnesses fall along a spectrum. People reaching high altitudes generally experience some form of altitude illness, usually mild or moderate acute mountain sickness (AMS). Symptoms of AMS include dizziness, nausea, headaches. Mostly, AMS is a nuisance. But at the end of the spectrum are HACE and HAPE, and those illnesses are not to be messed with. (This website does a good job explaining AMS, HACE, and HAPE.)

I had first learned about HACE and HAPE after reading Jon Krakauer's classic, Into Thin Air. I always understood HACE and HAPE to fall into the category of the unimaginable, simply because I associated them with extreme mountaineering of the kind described in Krakauer's book. I was not an extreme mountaineer, and couldn't imagine ever having anything to do with HACE or HAPE. I had also never heard of people getting HACE or HAPE at a relatively low 12,000 feet. So I was shocked to learn that I'd somehow developed both conditions.

All of my doctors were shocked too. Apparently, even St. Anthony Hospital--which is the closest major hospital to the Rockies--rarely got patients with HACE or HAPE. Instead, the hospital would frequently receive patients experiencing milder forms of AMS. That is because even the tallest of the Rocky Mountains don't go much beyond 14,000 feet. In other words, in the grand scheme of dangerously tall mountains, the Rockies are relatively safe.

Only when I began flipping through my medical charts and x-rays could I finally see how grim things had been. This x-ray, taken shortly after I arrived in the ICU, shows that my lungs were filled with fluid--my left lung, almost completely--as a result of HAPE:

My first x-ray upon arrival at St. Anthony Hospital.

My first x-ray upon arrival at St. Anthony Hospital.

My x-ray showed nothing close to a normal chest x-ray. I also learned that, in addition to being intubated so that I could maintain an open airway, I had a separate tube inserted into my lungs to suck out the fluid. In my first couple nights, a nearly full bottle of the following substance was pulled out of my lungs:

Fluid sucked out of my lungs.

Fluid sucked out of my lungs.

It was overwhelming to finally learn all the gory details, and to realize just how close to death I had really been. I recall speaking to one nurse who told me that, based on my critical condition when I arrived, the hospital staff was unsure whether I'd make it through that first night. I had been oblivious to this possibility. It was another humbling moment, and another opportunity for me to give thanks to the work of the rescue team and the medical staff.

(Several months after being discharged, my treating neurologist asked for my permission to use my medical records for a case study on high altitude illnesses to be presented to Colorado's top doctors specializing in altitude illnesses. My neurologist told me that both the extreme nature of my condition and the extremely rapid recovery made for a unique learning opportunity. I obviously granted permission. The case study was presented recently. I was able to view the presentation, but am unable to share details about it.)

On the afternoon of July 20, I hobbled out of the hospital with my mom, headed to Denver International Airport, and flew back to D.C. I was finally home.


RECOVERY: D.C.

The second phase of recovery was pretty unremarkable. One of the first things I did while home was test my running legs out. I wanted to set a baseline and help temper expectations on how long it would take to make my running comeback. After what had felt like months, I put on running shoes and headed down to the gym. Given the summer heat and humidity, I opted for a treadmill--something I only use as a last resort. I was determined to run 2 miles at whatever pace felt "safe". I didn't really know what that meant. My doctors had said I could resume normal activity whenever I felt ready. But it was hard to self-assess readiness. Plus, most of the running I did was not in the normal range. In any event, the 2 miles were painful and took over 20 excruciating minutes, a good 2-3 minutes-per-mile slower than my usual "easy" pace. As a runner, I felt like I was back to square one. I tried not to feel discouraged, and told myself to be patient and build back slowly.

Mostly, I spent my first days at home doing more of what I had become good at while at St. Anthony: sleeping. I was too drained to do much of anything else. I spent entire days sitting on my couch, staring at cloud formations out my window. After about a week of drifting in and out of sleep for 15-18 hours per day, I began to feel like I could reincorporate other normal activities into my routine.

I began socializing with people again. I ventured out to get birthday drinks with old colleagues from Baltimore and my November Project DC running family. I met up with a friend visiting from San Francisco. I realized that these social interactions had just as much healing power as sleeping. So, too, did the opportunities to talk through--almost in a therapeutic way--what had happened out in the Maroon Bells only a few weeks earlier.

Catching up over beers at Right Proper Brewing Company.

Catching up over beers at Right Proper Brewing Company.

At the end of July, to help piece together how events unfolded, and also to convey my thanks, I had phone calls with Will, Shane, and Erik to hear their accounts of the night of July 10. I learned that the experience was just as traumatizing for them as it was for me. Separately, I spoke to Mountain Rescue Aspen's director, Jeff Edelson, who had been one of the dozen MRA team members who took part in the mission. Based on his rundown of the rescue, I realized how perfectly everything had happened. I truly could not have asked for a better outcome. 

Talking to Will, Shane, Erik, and Jeff made me think about all the what-ifs. I thought about how things could have been different at every step of the rescue process--and specifically how bad things could have been if even one link in the rescue chain had been broken:

  • What if I had not noticed that my condition was deteriorating and we'd continued trucking on?
  • What if we'd taken option 3 and gotten lost deep in the wilderness?
  • What if we hadn't bumped into Erik, Robert, and Shane?
  • What if they hadn't agreed to stay with me?
  • What if Will hadn't run and driven as fast as he could to get back to Aspen?
  • What if Will hadn't called his parents for a second opinion?
  • What if Mountain Rescue Aspen had chosen to delay the rescue until daylight?
  • What if the helicopter couldn't make a landing?

I also thought about how I might have made different decisions during my trip that might have helped me avoid the incident altogether:

  • What if I had flown into Denver and spent a night acclimating there, instead of flying directly into Aspen?
  • What if I hadn't gone on that test-run in Snowmass?
  • What if we hadn't gone downhill mountain biking that Saturday?
  • What if I hadn't had any beers in the lead-up to the run?
  • What if we'd been hiking instead of running?
  • What if I'd not taken all those ibuprofens when I started getting a headache?
  • What if I'd had more water during the day? Less?
  • What if I'd recognized my symptoms earlier?
  • What if we'd turned around earlier?

It was natural for me to consider all of these hypotheticals. After all, as a lawyer, that’s my job—to consider every path on a decision tree, to visualize every outcome imaginable. It was a humbling thought experiment, but I was glad to go through with it. This mental--and emotional--processing was a crucial part of my recovery.

In early August, I was finally feeling ready to return to normal life. I met with my doctors to get their opinions. My general practitioner was impressed that I'd recovered so well--and so quickly. My neurologist looked over a recent MRI and was surprised by the results. I showed no trace of anything. I was given the green light to return to work, running, and everything else; I was also told that the whole incident did not limit what I could do in the future. Those were encouraging words.


NORMALCY

In mid-August, I returned to work, the truest sign that life had returned to normal. It felt strange being back. I felt like I'd started over at a new job. I told my story, over and over again, to coworkers, friends, family, and strangers.

Normalcy meant building back my routines: run-commuting to work in the morning, lawyering all day, catching up with friends and girlfriend in the evening, and generally just making the most of life when I could.

To my delight, my return to running was better and faster than expected. By the end of August, I was back to running 20-milers in Rock Creek Park on weekends. By October, I was up to running 30-milers, racing a 50K trail race, and even pacing a friend to a fast finish at the Marine Corps Marathon. On December 17--less than 5 months after being discharged from the hospital--I ran my first 100-miler at the inaugural Devil Dog Ultras.

Showing off my belt buckle after finishing my first 100-mile race.

Showing off my belt buckle after finishing my first 100-mile race.

During this return to normalcy, I developed one new routine. At the end of each day, without fail, I thought one thought: I am incredibly fucking lucky.


TODAY + TOMORROW

This routine continues today. Every day, I reflect on how incredible it is to be alive. Today, it is hard even believing that I was on the brink of death exactly one year ago.

People ask me if the the incident changed my outlook on life. The answer is yes and no. I have no plans to quit my career as a lawyer and become a traveling yogi, nor have I all of a sudden become religious. But I now begin each day with more hope and optimism--and end each day with more gratefulness--than ever before. I think those are significant changes.

People also ask me if I'll ever go back into the mountains. The answer is an unequivocal yes. As much as the past year has made me reflect on the value of life, I also know that a well-lived life requires a series of well-calculated risks. The mountains that nearly killed me are also the mountains that have brought so much joy in my life. That's not something I'm willing to give up.

It sounds reckless, particularly after experiencing so much trauma. But to borrow the words of another ultrarunner, "I’m not sure what level of risk is acceptable for me at this point, but I can say that a life of no risk is unacceptable."

For now, I will continue running at less extreme altitudes. But I know for certain that I will be back in the Maroon Bells one day--better prepared, and better acclimated--to complete the Four Pass Loop.

On My First 100-Miler by Wookie Kim

On December 17 and 18, I did the unthinkable: I ran 100 miles. After 28 hours, 12 minutes, and 14 seconds, I crossed the finish line of the inaugural Devil Dog Ultras 100-mile race, held in northern Virginia's Prince William Forest Park.

When I crossed the finish line, I'd been running for so damn long that I had in fact seen two sunrises. A week later, I'm still trying to wrap my ahead around that thought. When else will I be able to measure the length of an event I've participated in using "sunrises" as a unit?

There's a lot that happened during those two sunrises. But I've written more than enough standard race reports in my life, and I have no desire to write another chronological minute-by-minute narrative of the ups and downs of a race (plus, if I were to truly do that, this race report would be more a race book). Instead, here is my stream-of-consciousness sketch of what it's like to run a 100-miler.

*      *      *

Getting to the starting line is often the scariest part of a race. Until the gun goes off and you're actually thrown into the fray, you are burdened by the expectations, the endless speculation, the knots in your stomach (and in your brain). This race was no different. As my first 100-miler, the Devil Dog caused even more angst than the other ultramarathons I've done. I'd also worked hellish hours for the 3-week period leading up to race day, so was physically and psychologically worn down. I'm thankful that none of this psyched me out from showing up to the start line. That was truly half the battle.

The start line experience itself was also a tad scary. Throughout the night and into the morning, freezing rain had been coming down. The roads were covered with a sheet of centimeter-thick ice (nearby, that ice had caused a tragic explosion and 55-car pile-up). In the parking lot outside the hotel, my race almost ended before it had even begun when I slipped and slided, in my half-awake state, on my way to the car. And at 6 a.m., when the gun went off in the darkness, this is what we began running into:

6:05 a.m. -- it was cold and wet and dark. Practically everything you don't want as you begin a 24-hour race.

6:05 a.m. -- it was cold and wet and dark. Practically everything you don't want as you begin a 24-hour race.

For one and a half solid laps (of 20 miles)--until the rain finally ceased, the sun came out, and the ambient temperature rose enough to begin the thawing process--I ran on trails that might otherwise have been mistaken for a forested luge course. One of my run-buddies that first lap stated it best: "I play hockey. I've been skating all my life. But this? This is f**king ridiculous." He slipped and fell on his butt as he said that (and he slipped and fell another half dozen times while I was running with him).

At least this bridge had handrails. 

At least this bridge had handrails. 

In retrospect, I will always wonder: did the freezing rain actually improve my performance? After all, I ran a freakishly slow first lap, not because I'd planned to, but because I had no choice (assuming, that is, I did not want to break my tailbone by slipping and falling on the ice). Had the ice not forced me at times literally onto my hands and knees (those damn handrail-less footbridges!), I probably would have gone out slightly harder--not so hard that I'd have completely burnt out, but hard enough that I probably would have suffered the consequences later. All I can do is speculate, though. In ultrarunning, it's impossible to separate cause from effect. A million causes get jumbled up with a million effects. All one can do is theorize about the impact that action X, taken 8 hours earlier, had on action Y, done 8 hours later.

Seeking solace on patches of fallen leaves--the least slippery portions of the trail.

Seeking solace on patches of fallen leaves--the least slippery portions of the trail.

The 100-mile experience is untethered from traditional conceptions of time. I wore my watch during the race (or at least until it ran out of batteries, somewhere around the 100K mark), but I practically never looked at the actual time of day. Instead of units of time, I measured my race in other units: calories consumed (or, imagined calories consumed), number of aid stations reached, number of loops left, the self-assessed 1-10 "score of how I'm feeling" I gave myself on a periodic basis. Though I tried to track time, I ultimately could not process what was happening along that dimension.

At mile 40, starting my 3rd loop with Phil, my first pacer--I have absolutely no idea what time of day this was.

At mile 40, starting my 3rd loop with Phil, my first pacer--I have absolutely no idea what time of day this was.

The heart is another guide. The heart keeps us alive (what are we without our hearts?); it kept me alive. And monitoring my heart is what kept me on my feet for almost 28 and a half hours. For a race of this distance and duration, I couldn't let myself run simply "by feel" because it is genuinely hard to distinguish when one is exerting 133 beats per minute of effort from when one is exerting 139 beats per minute of effort. Those marginal 6 beats per minute can make all the difference--especially when extended over a 24-hour period. So every 30 seconds or so, I looked down at the screen of my Garmin 910XT and read my heartrate and adjusted my pace accordingly. My race target was 135 bpm--I had predicted I could sustain this heart rate for the duration of the race. And for the first 12 hours of the race, that's exactly what I did:

Screen Shot 2016-12-25 at 7.33.26 PM.png

But even that was unsustainable. As the mind and body fatigued, so too did the ability to sustain a higher heart rate. My body was going into hibernation of sorts--an attempt to conserve what little precious energy it had left. The last ten hours of my race, I averaged 112 bpm, which is about the level of exertion that is typical for a brisk walk (I suppose that's exactly what I was actually doing). All I could do was do my best to keep moving forward, one footstep at a time. Whenever I took a break, the longer I stood still, the harder it was to keep going. But with 5 miles to go, I knew I had nothing to lose. I was almost home. It was time to go. I pushed and I pushed, and I hit 150 bpm as I broke the tape at the finish line.

At the finish with Race Director, Toni Aurilio, and my prized belt buckle.

At the finish with Race Director, Toni Aurilio, and my prized belt buckle.

Wasn't this a metaphor for life? We come charging out of the gates, energized with youthful vigor, tackling everything that life puts in our path, and then, as the decades pass, that vitality peters away, slowly but surely. And in that last moment before "the end," we try to relive the glory of our youth, do all of the things we previously chalked off as impossible, and leave absolutely everything behind so that we can leave this world thinking, "I have no regrets." And then we cross that metaphorical finish line--and go kaput. The progression of my heart rate is the progression of life.

Early in the race, when I was still charging out of the gates.

Early in the race, when I was still charging out of the gates.

There are 2 moments that stand out as symbols of just how close to the edge I was.

The first occurred somewhere around mile 66.6 (exactly 2/3 of the way through my odyssey, and coinciding with what we may as well call the ultrarunner's devil's number). As I was leaving Camp Gunny, I was overcome by a wave of chills. Why I experienced this wave is unknown to me, especially because it wasn't even that cold. The only conclusion, of course, is that the devil had possessed me. It was causing my teeth to chatter uncontrollably, and the styrofoam cup holding my lukewarm coffee to gyrate and overflow on all sides. I felt doomed at this point. There was no way that I could carry my shaking, shivering body another 33.3 miles to the finish line. Thankfully, Julie, who had been pacing me for this 4th loop, had an extra mid-layer and a hat she could spare. I threw those on and was back to feeling (somewhat) normal--as normal as one can feel when running a 100-miler--within a matter of few miles. The devil had almost succeeded in breaking my spirit. But almost succeeding is still failure. I had won.

This is how I looked at mile 80, after fighting off the chills on the previous lap with Julie (she looks much happier).

This is how I looked at mile 80, after fighting off the chills on the previous lap with Julie (she looks much happier).

The second occurred right around mile 86, as I was approaching Camp Gunny for the final time. By this point, I had been running for almost 24 hours. Even though I'd already changed the batteries to my headlamp once during the race, the second set of batteries was dying. As the light was fading, so too was my consciousness. Instead of chills, this time I was overcome by a wave of tiredness. My eyes were heavy, weighed down by lack of sleep, and probable overexertion. I was literally falling asleep while running. I told Jeremy, who was pacing me this final lap, that I needed to take a nap, however brief it might be. Jeremy--like an owner teaching his puppy the ground rules of coexisting with humans--sternly told me "no." A nap this late in the game was the quickest way to a DNF ("Did Not Finish"). I would lie down, curl up into a ball, close my eyes, and never get up, he said. I knew this risk too. Yet, as I stumbled along in my fatigue haze--swaying from one edge of the trail to the other, like a drunken sailor who is simultaneously trying to find his land legs--I kept thinking to myself, "if I don't close my eyes intentionally, it's going to happen unintentionally and I'll end up with my face in these branches or roots." I told Jeremy that I had no choice--as soon as we reached Camp Gunny, I would nap for 5 minutes. Jeremy reluctantly agreed, but assured me he would not let me sleep a millisecond beyond 300 seconds. We reached Camp Gunny, and I plopped down into a chair, at which point a perceptive volunteer wrapped me in a space blanket. I then tilted my head back, opened my mouth, and fell asleep almost instantly. 299 seconds later (though it felt more like 299 hours), I was jolted awake by Jeremy. After a quick cup of coffee, I was on my way again. In retrospect, this was a brilliant strategic choice. I didn't feel the fatigue haze for the rest of the race. And I didn't face-plant into a tree.

The biggest struggle of the race? Blisters on blisters. Medical tape was what kept my feet intact.

The biggest struggle of the race? Blisters on blisters. Medical tape was what kept my feet intact.

These 2 moments raise an important point: you can't run an ultra by yourself. I had Julie and Jeremy pacing me on my 4th and 5th laps and supporting me in critical, this-could-be-the-end moments. I also had Phil pacing me on my 3rd lap, where, with each step I took, I couldn't fathom the idea of running two more 20-mile laps after completing the present one. And I had Gillian as my "crew"--she was the field general in charge of resupply, logistics, moral support, and kisses. I was making sacrifices, but they were making sacrifices of a different kind to support me. I can't thank them enough for that.

The crew, after the finish--Julie, Gillian, Jeremy, and Phil.

The crew, after the finish--Julie, Gillian, Jeremy, and Phil.

I also had the support from all of the millions of volunteers who braved the cold and the freezing rain to serve us grilled cheeses and quesadillas and chicken broth and PB&Js and potato chips (I love potato chips). Last, it's easy to forget the other racers out there. It was good to know that several friends (Brad, Eryn, and Kurt) were out there on the trails with me. And for so many segments, I was running with others--all of whom were having the same thoughts, and feeling the same sensations, as I. This feeling of camaraderie is just as critical to a successful day as any amount of training and preparation.

In the end, I finished in 13th place. I finished many hours off of the tentative goal I had set for myself. But the conditions were tough. The fact that, of the 110 runners who toed the line that morning, 64 ultimately didn't cross the finish line is one indication of the race's difficulty. A finish is a finish. All I can do is be thankful for the experience, and having avoided a more terrible outcome (e.g., serious injury).

It's easy to view the 100-mile experience as an unrelenting sufferfest. In some ways it is. But in other ways, it is a happy journey. Despite the many dark moments I faced, it was impossible not to smile and find levity in the insanity of it all.

At mile 40, not really believing that I still had 60 miles to run.

At mile 40, not really believing that I still had 60 miles to run.

At mile 60--with another one and a half marathons of trails to look forward to.

At mile 60--with another one and a half marathons of trails to look forward to.

When your run is so long that it breaks your workout tracking app.

When your run is so long that it breaks your workout tracking app.

At mile 100. It was all worth it.

At mile 100. It was all worth it.

The idea of the 100-miler as an adventure--with its bright moments as well as its dark--is what drew me in this time. And I know that it is the pursuit of that adventure that will draw me in again next time. For now, I am looking forward to a break, both physical and psychological, from running. I'll be spending this next week hiking and stargazing with friends in Channel Islands National Park and Joshua Tree National Park. I can't think of a better way to recharge and reflect as the new year begins--and with it, the possibilities of new adventures and challenges in the future.

"Wookie Runs America" + The Trail Running Film Festival by Wookie Kim

I'm proud to announce that "Wookie Runs America"--a short film I put together that summarizes, in 4.5 minutes, my 45-day national park running road trip--is an official selection at this year's Trail Running Film Festival!

I'd always envisioned putting together a video capturing the natural wonders I saw on my trip. So as soon as I finished my trip, I began this process. But given my new job and my lack of experience with any sort of serious video editing, there were several moments where I almost scrapped the project. After almost a year of on-and-off work, I've put together something that I'm proud of and will cherish forever. To think that I'll also be a part of the Trail Running Film Festival--the road tour of which I've attended for the past few years--is icing on the cake. And I'm also a Semi-Finalist for Best Amateur Short--which is a second layer of icing!

I'm hoping to make my way out to Seattle in a couple weeks for the 3-day film festival (my film screens Saturday afternoon), where I'll see "Wookie Runs America" on a big screen.

Here, without further ado, is "Wookie Runs America":

[Note: I still have a gigantic backlog of posts that I've been meaning to write up. I also have a very important story to tell about one of the most significant events in my life (believe it or not, it does not involve this trip). That has been in the works for a while, and I'll still need more time to tell it completely. I'll probably think about scrapping it a few times. But, as with "Wookie Runs America"--and as with any ultramarathon I run--I know I'll eventually get to the finish.]

Day 42: Montgomery, AL + Atlanta, GA by Wookie Kim

I'd spent last night catching up with law school friends in Montgomery. Today would be a busy day. Not only would I be spending the morning exploring downtown Montgomery and visiting the Equal Justice Initiative, but I would also be tracking down a park in which to run before meeting up and staying with a friend in Atlanta. I knew I didn't have that many miles to drive, but was wary of big-city traffic on the approach to Atlanta.

The morning began with a trip to the Equal Justice Initiative--one of the nation's most inspiring criminal justice and human rights non-profits. Jeanne S., who'd hosted me last night, was a law fellow at EJI.

I felt like I'd come full circle. Bryan Stevenson, EJI's founder, had been the first person I'd been inspired by in law school. On day one, he'd come to talk to us fresh first-years about the power of a law degree--how he'd graduated from Harvard Law School and began working in the Deep South to stand up for those who most needed help. Almost four years later, I went to a talk of his in Baltimore, where he discussed his powerful new memoir, Just Mercy.  I spoke to him afterwards and told him about how he'd left an impression on me back in 2011. He chuckled and was glad to hear I was doing well. Now I was visiting the hub from which he had accomplished so much on behalf of so many.

Jeanne greeted me when I arrived at the office, which is in a nondescript building in downtown Montgomery. 

She gave me a tour of the EJI office. I immediately noticed that EJI used its space effectively. Instead of leaving the hallway walls blank, EJI put up portraits of past clients and newspaper clippings of victories. As I walked around the building, I felt like I was on a tour of landmark moments in criminal justice history. That made sense; much of the EJI's recent work has focused on history, and specifically the history of racial injustice and slavery in this country. To that end, the EJI had, for example, created a racial injustice calendar and released a report on the 4,000 lynchings that had occurred during the Jim Crow Era. I saw this emphasis on history on every wall of the office.

Of course, I couldn't leave without seeing Jeanne's own office. It was a little messy, but that could only be a sign that she was hard at work, fighting the good fight.

Before I knew it, it was time to leave. I didn't want to take any more of Jeanne's time. And I also new I had other things to see in Montgomery before heading out to Atlanta.

Outside the EJI office, I saw more of EJI's marks. As part of its campaign to raise historical awareness of slavery and racial injustice in our country, the organization had erected signs in various parts of the city. It turned out that the area I was in had once been used as warehouses for enslaved people.

If there was one (other) thing I was here in Montgomery to see, it was Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. This is the church that MLK led, and the church from which he coordinated the Montgomery Bus Boycott, one of the defining catalyst events of the civil rights era. I was here to visit the mecca. It was grand.

Given that I was in downtown Montgomery, and it was beautiful out, I decided I'd continue walking around. I next proceeded for the Alabama State Capitol, which stood only a block away from Dr. King's church. The capitol steps had served as the pulpit from which MLK had ended the Selma to Montgomery march. 

It was a picture-perfect day. I snapped lots of photos, including several of the Capitol building.

I also took one last glance at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. And then I was off for Atlanta!

I wasn't heading straight there though. I wanted to stop by a National Park Service site before entering the city. My plan today was to run inside Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park in Atlanta's northern suburbs. Specifically, I wanted to run the Kolb's Farm Loop, which would take me through meadows, creeks, and forests that had once served as a Civil War battlefield.

The run itself was neither long nor strenuous. But I was beginning to feel the accumulated fatigue of the trip. My legs felt heavy, and I took more breaks than on even some of the harder runs I'd done this trip. There were also times when I was forced to stop, such as when this stag literally stood in my path.

All along the loop, there were markers at the various locations where Union soldiers had skirmished with Confederate. I had the same thoughts I'd had when visiting other Civil War battlefields: How did soldiers even manage fighting in this terrain? How absolutely terrifying must it have been to be fighting in these woods/meadows/creeks? 

It was a hot day, and I was sweaty, dehydrated mess afterwards. It was also past sunset, and I needed to make it into Atlanta and recuperate before meeting up with my high school friend, Lizzie M., who'd graciously agreed to host me despite returning from a business trip late that evening. On the recommendation of a friend from Atlanta, I parked my sweaty bum down at Porter Beer Bar in the Little Five Points neighborhood. It felt incredibly weird to be in a big--really big--city again. I indulged in a few beers (but not too many to make me tipsy) and downed a greasy burger. Burgers and me have been good friends this summer.

At around 10 p.m., Lizzie texted to say that she was almost home. I made my way over to her house. It had been a while, so we spent a good bit of time catching up. But seeing as she had another flight to catch in the morning (#consultantlife), and that I had a similarly long day of travel ahead of me tomorrow, we called it a night pretty quickly. In the span of about 12 hours, I'd seen two good friends, visited one of the most inspiring legal non-profits I know, and gotten in a solid trail run. I was content.

Things in the Works + Some Podcast Interviews by Wookie Kim

It's been a long time--a really long time! Despite my inactivity, I'm still alive, and I still have plans to bring this trip to a proper ending point (so that the next one can begin, right?). To that end, I want to share the things I have in the works. I also wanted to share two podcast interviews in which I got to chat about my running road trip.

Things in the works:

Final daily blog posts. I still have 5 daily blog posts pending: the last 3 days of my trip--oops!--and then a couple days that happened to slip through the blogging cracks. At this point, these points won't be live updates, but I'm nevertheless committed to finishing them. My hope is that I'll one day put the daily trip narratives into a unified document, as a trip keepsake.

Summation posts. This trip was a learning experience in so many ways. I've yet to sit down and put into words some of my final thoughts. I plan to do so soon. Some topics I plan to write about: my lessons/take-aways, the "best of" lists, defining the word "epic", running economy, how you can run across America, what's next for 2016 (and beyond).

Posts on the National Park Service and our national parks. I'd originally planned to read as much as I could about the NPS and the history of our parks while on the road. That turned out to be an overly ambitious plan. But since finishing, I've begun this work (for example, I recently finished William Tweed's Uncertain Path: A Search for the Future of National Parks) with gusto. I want to share what I've learned and write more broadly about our national parks. This is somewhat of a long-term project, but I think it's even more appropriate in 2016, the National Park Service's centenary.

A video. This blog has hosted so many of my photos, which in themselves capture and convey so much of what made this trip so memorable. But I can't forget about the 400+ video clips I took along the way! I'm slowly beginning to consolidate the diverse landscapes I saw into a short music video. I need to learn a bit about video editing, so this might take a few months. Here is my "proof of concept", which has confirmed for me that this is a project worth pursuing:

A revamp of the website. This is the lowest priority, but I'd like to transform what has functionally been a blog into a resource on the various national parks that I visited. I already have landing pages for the various regions of the country. But there's no content on any of the park-specific pages. I hope--but don't expect--to update these at some point to include descriptions of each park, the trails I ran, and "best of" photos.

Podcasts:

The Ultra Mindset Podcast.  Damian Lynch invited me to come talk on his podcast after he stumbled across my Instagram account. On his podcast, he interviews "people from around the globe who are achieving the exceptional and pushing the boundaries of what is possible for all of us." Specifically, he focuses on the mindset that allows athletes and adventurers to do really cool things. I had such a blast chatting with Damian, about not only the trip, but also what makes me tick--what keeps me motivated each day.

You can listen to the Ultra Mindset Podcast episode here: http://www.theultramindsetpodcast.com/ep/17/

PersoNatalie Podcast. Natalie Kim invited me to talk on her podcast, on which she interviews "a diverse array of people to get a slice of their personal stories – what motivates them and what makes them who they are – in order to inspire thought and action in others." (There seems to be a common theme here...) During our conversation, we talked more about the stories--funny, scary, motivating--by which I (and maybe others) will remember this trip. 

You can listen to the PersoNatalie Podcast episode here: http://www.personatalie.org/?p=315

 

That's all for now. Stay tuned for more soon. And thanks for reading!

Day 41: Selma + Montgomery, AL by Wookie Kim

There's not as much nature to see in the deep south. One would accordingly expect there to be fewer NPS sites in the area. But one surprising thing I've learned is the breadth of historical sites that the NPS protects. A lot of these are in the south.

Despite its wondrous waters, Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas seemed to emphasize the social history of the region--the story of the shifting relationship humans have had with the land, rather than just the land itself. And yesterday, I'd seen Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, which preserved the symbolism of the locus of our first effort to integrate public schools post-Brown

Today would be the third in a string of days seeing such historical sites. Finally making it into Alabama, I ran part of the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail, which memorializes the 54-mile march made in 1965 by 4,000 African Americans who were fighting for the right to vote.

I was grateful to have had the opportunity to catch up with my good friend, Nathan B., who had hosted me the night before in Jackson, Mississippi. I was perhaps even more grateful for the chance to see Manny, who missed me just as much as I'd missed him. Nathan was off to work before I woke up, and instead I woke up to see Manny staring at me, and then playing with my phone and laptop.

I hit the road at 9:30 a.m., which was far later than I'd hoped to hit the road (self-discipline goes down the drain when I'm staying with friends in cities). I followed a truck that reminded me of my friend (his last name is prominently displayed), and made the push for Selma.

I could easily tell when I'd made it to Selma. The Edmund Pettus Bridge--that symbol of the civil rights era--was right there in front of me. It was a picture-perfect day. Hot and humid, but glorious nonetheless.

As usual, I made my way to the NPS visitor center in downtown Selma. It had only been built a couple years ago, and was still a work in progress, but I was able to find the answer to a question I'd had for the past few days: how much of a trail was the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail? The Ranger confirmed one of my fears: there was no actual "trail"--the National Historic Trail was simply U.S. Route 80. And that highway, I learned, had no sidewalk and practically no shoulder. This made me a bit nervous, but I wasn't about to do something different. I set out to run on the National Historic Trail.

I began at the Brown Chapel AME Church. This is where the marchers began. But it was more than that; for a period of time, this church served as the homebase for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In front of the chapel were various markers dedicated to Dr. MLK.  I explored the site, checked all my gear, and set off to run towards Montgomery.

A mile into my run, I was on the Selma side of the Edmund Pettis Bridge. The Bridge, and the gentle Alabama River flowing beneath it, seemed exceptionally serene. Who would've thought that this was the site of "Bloody Sunday" almost exactly 50 years ago? As I reflected on that history, I crossed the bridge.

On the other side, I recognized the location where the stand-off between marchers and police turned violent. Too much blood had been spilled here on March 7, 1965.

There were more plaques and memorials on this side of the bridge. I also saw Selma's welcome sign.

One wouldn't really be able to tell from the surroundings the history of the place. It all felt a little bit drab, as if someone had done a half-assed job of memorializing what had happened here.

And then I began the real run. I was on U.S. 80, and I was headed to "Campsite 1", the farm where the marchers ended the first of their five days of marching. I wish I could say it was an uplifting, energizing run. In reality, I was kind of scared for my life. The road had no sidewalk, and practically no shoulder. And the cars were whizzing by at 60 miles per hour. Any time I saw a car in the outside lane, I stepped off the foot-wide shoulder and onto the bumpy thick grass. While running, I tried to imagine the courage it took for those marchers to begin--let alone complete--that march. Those marchers had far scarier things to confront than speeding cars.

After about 90 minutes, I made it to Campsite 1. I'd covered the distance the marchers had covered in their first day. But now I had to turn around and head back (I didn't have the time or the support crew to do the full 54-mile run to Montgomery).

Even though the sun was setting, the heat and humidity seemed only to get worse. I'd underestimated the weather, and had completely drained my Camelbak. On the way back, I'd have my own (hydration) struggle. The last 2-3 miles back into Selma involved cramping, and the onset of lightheadedness. But I eventually made it back. I passed by what appeared to be a student mural of some kind, with a message that I couldn't agree with more.

As I crossed back over the Edmund Pettis Bridge, I looked back one last time.

By now, the sun was really about to set. The serenity of the Alabama created a mirror that amplified the beauty of this day's sunset.

As I returned to Selma, the Bridge glowed red as the setting sun's rays hit it from a very low angle. It was beautiful.

I was absolutely parched, and absolutely famished. Thankfully, I was off to meet (and stay with) another law school classmate, Jeanne S., this time in Montgomery. I hustled into town, where we (including another law school classmate, Jonathan A.) caught up over pizza and beers. Both Jeanne and Jon were working at the Equal Justice Initiative, one of the most important civil rights organizations of our time.

Running the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail today wasn't the most exciting or scenic experience, but it was one of the more meaningful. And it was great to be able to talk about that experience with two classmates who were continuing to fight the good fight--day in, day out. Physically, I was sapped; mentally, I was rejuvenated.

Day 40: Little Rock, AR + Jackson, MS by Wookie Kim

Today was a rest day--but only for my legs.

I had an excellent night's rest at the Barnhardt's Airbnb out in Hot Springs Village. Their backyard let me take in the sun and the cool morning air. Their cat also said hello.

I made my way back into the town of Hot Springs to get the traditional bathhouse experience, which I'd just missed yesterday. Bathhouse Row was very quiet when I arrived. A couple was taking a morning stroll.

I headed right for the Buckstaff Bathhouse, the only bathhouse that still offered the traditional experience. For $75, I could relive that experience by getting a bath and massage. Obviously, I had to do it.

Unfortunately, cameras and cell phones are strictly prohibited inside, for obvious reasons. But the experience is best described with one word: weird. Throughout your bathing experience, you're guided by an attendant, who follows you around and tells you what to do. All of this happens, of course, while you're completely naked.

The treatment began with a soak in one of the traditional hot tubs. It looked very grand--for something from the 1920s (let's just say I was a little worried about hygiene...). My attendant turned on the faucet, which immediately released a powerful stream of hot springs water. He ladled a little cup and pushed it to my mouth. "Try it." It tasted like hot water. The water continued to fill the tub. "Now lay back." I laid back and relaxed (read: tried to). 15 minutes later, the attendant returned. "Sit up." I sat up. He pulled out a loofah and started vigorously scrubbed my back. "Okay, let's go."

The attendant led me from one tub to the next. This time I was in what was called a Sitz tub. Imagine a small utility sink. Imagine that sink being the perfect size--for just your behind. Imagine being completely naked and having someone tell you to stick your behind into that sink. And then imagine that person, towering over you, reach behind your behind for a knob, release very hot water, and then ask, "let me know when it's uncomfortable." ("Right now, sir.") I (or, my behind) sat in the Sitz bath for another 10 minutes. Those were 10 incredibly awkward minutes. (Here's what a big Sitz bath looks like.)

My attendant led me to the next contraption--the "steam room." I put that in quotes because that phrase is generous for what I was put into. This was a tiny hot box with a rickety metal door on the front. It was really hot inside. I sat there, counting the seconds, wondering how long I'd be inside. As I roasted, I glanced at the door handle and wondered if it were possible to open it from the inside. It got hotter and hotter, but I had no idea how much longer I had left. At some point, the attendant returned and pulled me out. I was a little delirious.

My attendant next tossed me onto a table. He wrapped my body with very hot towels and then covered those towels with a sheet. Now, I was a living hot towel mummy. The first 30 seconds were really hot, but by the time the towels had cooled off slightly, the mummification process was tolerable, even pleasant. I may have even nodded off for a bit here.

Now it was time for the needle shower. This sounds a lot scarier than what it was. Basically, the needle shower is a 5.1 Dolby surround sound experience with water. I entered a shower stall surrounded by little nozzles all pointed inward and shooting hot spring water at high speeds. My attendant instructed me to stand in there and rinse off the soapy water.

After this, it was time to cool off and head to the massage room. A masseuse gave me a 20-minute Swedish massage. After beating up my body for the past weeks, the massage was perfect. 20 minutes later, I was done. I changed back into my street clothes and headed out of the bathhouse. There were large chairs outside, so I decided I need to visually memorialize the experience by sitting in one.

It was noon now, and I was back on Bathhouse Row. I decided I'd eat here before heading to my first destination for the day: Little Rock.

I found the Ohio Club, which happened to be the oldest bar in Arkansas. It was also a former true speakeasy (for a time, it was renamed the "Ohio Cigar Store") and a spot frequented by America's top mobsters. I kind of got that vibe on the inside. The hamburger was delicious.

And then I was off for Little Rock! My plan was to visit Little Rock Central High School, the locus of the first effort to desegregate our public schools after the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board. I'd learned that the high school, which still operates today (in fact, my freshman year suitemate at Yale attended the school!), was managed as a National Historic Site by the NPS. It even had a sparkling new visitor center.

The exhibits were a powerful reminder of the civil rights struggles of the past. As a lawyer, I had a heightened interest in the exhibits. So I spent more time than I normally would inside.

I then headed outside to check out the school. Given that it was only 2 p.m., I expected to see no students. But I found that there were actually a bunch of students milling about outside. I asked one of them whether they were in school, and they said some students had early dismissal of some kind. It was strange to think about how this school had been the site of such an intense and symbolic stand-off--one that ultimately required federal government intervention (11,500 soldiers) to resolve. I wanted to see what the students thought of the school's history, so I approached a small group and asked them what they thought. They said it was cool to be at a school with such history, but that school was school. I asked them what they thought of the constant stream of tourists. They all agreed that they'd learned to tune out the visitors.

I walked around to the front entrance of the school. It was quieter on this side, and I caught a glimpse of the famous school from its grandest perspective.

And then I was off for Jackson, Mississippi! I had plans to stay with my friend, Nathan B., who had worked with me in the Baltimore courthouse this past year and was now working for a different judge in Jackson. After a couple hours, I crossed the Mississippi, that great dividing line for our country. I was now "east of the Mississippi." It all felt a bit symbolic.

Soon, I learned that I was driving through the small town of Greenville, MS in the Mississippi Delta. It was a fortuitous discovery, because I'd recently read John Barry's Rising Tide--which explored the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, one of the (if not the) greatest natural disaster America has ever seen--with Nathan through a book club. I then made a beeline for Jackson, arriving just around 7 p.m.

After drinks with Nathan and some of his coworkers, we headed over to the Mayflower Cafe, which has a long history in Jackson, for dinner. Here, a law school classmate, Shad W., joined. I ate southern fried fish of some kind. It was delicious--exactly what I needed after a long day of driving.

From here, we proceeded to the roof of the King Edward Hotel, where Nathan lived. Nathan and Shad tried to point out the various neighborhoods and features of the city of Jackson. It all felt very small, and very southern. I let them talk, while I marveled at the giant letters from behind.

After catching up with Nathan, it was time for bed. Tomorrow would be another long day.

Race Report: Twisted Branch Trail Run by Wookie Kim

I began this trip with a bang. On day 2, I ran the inaugural Twisted Branch Trail Run--a grueling 100K in the Finger Lakes Region of upstate New York. Normally, I log my race reports on my sport-tracking website. For those who are curious about what my first 100K trail race experience was like, I'm sharing my race report below. I drafted most of it in the days after the race, but I'm only now finishing it. (For the number nerds, here's my Strava data.)

The short version is that I executed one of the best races of my life. I focused on effort (using heart rate as an objective proxy), instead of time or pace, and that (unsurprisingly) led to an outcome that beat my wildest expectations. In just under 15 hours and 8 minutes, I (and my running partner, Jeremy L.) covered 64.5 miles of tough trails. The course had six major hill climbs, including three that were 1,000+ feet. In total, we gained 11,000 vertical feet. From an objective standpoint, this was physiologically the hardest athletic event I've ever done--by a good bit. The Ironman was certainly challenging, but took more than 3 hours less. It also let me use three different muscle groups; with this trail ultra, my legs--and only my legs--took the beating from wire to wire. I'm now well into my transformation from a road runner to a trail ultra runner and I couldn't be happier. Here's to future trail ultras!

Pre-race.

I arrived at the Ontario County Park campground at 12:30 a.m.--a mere 2.5 hours before my alarm was set to go off. Jeremy had already set up my tent, so I immediately passed out. 2.5 hours later, it was 3:00 a.m. and it was time to wake up. I ate 4 slices of white bread with peanut butter to get the digestive system going. I started drinking Tailwind and water to top up my hydration level. Despite the craziness of what was about to happen, I felt very calm. It was a cool morning, and I opted to wear my running pants and fleece while waiting around.

Before we knew it, it was 4:40 a.m., and we needed to proceed to the start. We quickly checked in at the registration table, which had coffee available. Because I'd not made my own, I decided I'd take a small cup. It was exactly what I needed to kickstart my race-day engine. A few minutes before 5 a.m., the RD made a few announcements. I honestly wasn't paying much attention. He directed us to the start line and, at 5 a.m. sharp, the roughly 90 entrants were off!

First half.

Jeremy and I set off into the forest in pitch black. We had our headlamps to light the path in front of us. I'd done a good bit of running at night, but that was almost always on the road or on very easy terrain. This was my first time running technical trails in the dark. It was challenging, to say the least, and required every bit of attention I could give. I tried to use my sense of hearing to listen, like a bat, for what was ahead of me.

After descending through a root-filled forest, we immediately found ourselves climbing a hill. My heart rate bumped above 150 bpm, so I made sure to ease off the gas. My goal going into this race was to target 145 bpm, with a hard stop at 150 bpm. That is, if I went above 150, I would back off until my heart rate dropped below that level. And if I dropped under 145, I wouldn't really change anything, as long as I was feeling comfortable. 

The hills required a lot of fine-tuning of my effort level. Almost as soon as a climb started, my heart rate would shoot up. I would then slow down to a power-hike, and sometimes even a walk, until my heart rate settled. I knew that discipline and patience early on would pay off enormously in the second half. It felt slow, but slow was fine, at least for now. Jeremy stayed close by throughout, and we worked our way forward in what was still a very tight pack. The pack was both annoying and helpful. Annoying because we kept overlapping. Helpful because there was a continuous path of light that we could follow ahead.

At mile 6, we reached our first aid station. It was a quick stop. The sun had not yet risen, and everything was very peaceful. But we made sure not to rush through the aid stations. I refilled my Camelbak to about the 32-ounce mark. We pressed on. At about mile 9.5, we reached our first serious descent. We dropped almost 1,000 feet down from Clement Road to Naples Creek (Aid Station 2). It was fast.

Lisa was at Naples Creek. At this point, Jeremy and I were both feeling really strong. We stopped to refuel, and told Lisa how we were doing, before heading back into the forest. Once inside, we continued to press onwards, I focusing on setting a conservative heart rate-based pace, Jeremy focused on staying close to me. Almost immediately, we hit our first big 1,200-foot climb for the day. Because I was carrying my trekking poles, I deployed them and immediately began pole-planting uphill in a cross-country ski-like way. I could feel the pull in my triceps, but knew that it was better to tire out my arms if I could spare the legs a bit in exchange.

We reached the summit of that hill, and then almost immediately dropped into another 500-foot descent. I bombed down this one, letting my legs turn over quickly, and planting my trekking poles like the downhill ski racer that I used to be. It felt almost like slalom skiing through trees and over roots. The hills were relentless. At the bottom of this one, we passed the 16-mile mark and immediately began climbing Brink Hill, another 650-foot climb. Once we summitted, we popped out of the forest and onto a road for a bit. This was a welcome relief. Running on roads is so much easier, and faster, than running on trails (we would keep an easy 8:00-minute pace on flat roads, but that would be slower than 11:00-minute pace on the trails).

Pretty soon, though, we began another bomber descent. This was by far the steepest descent we'd done so far. I had to do a lot to keep from running into trees, or tripping over roots. Any time there was an obstacle--like a big branch, a stump, or a web of roots--I double-planted my poles and hurdled over as if I were on crutches. (This was a pretty nifty technique, and would come in very handy later in the race, when my feet were so heavy that I was dragging them like one of those sea-bottom trawling devices.) At some point, we were on the forest floor, and we made quick progress on the flat, open surface. That was a nice respite.

At the bottom of this ridiculous descent, we found ourselves at Italy Valley (Aid Station 4)--22.6 miles in. This was where I started cramping. Specifically, my right calf seized up. I knew that this was due to the electrolyte imbalance--what's called "hyponatremia". Basically, I recognized I'd been drinking too much straight water, and not enough foods or drinks with salts. My blood cells didn't have enough electrolytes, and therefore my muscles weren't firing properly because they had no medium through which to send signals from the brain. I decided to pop 5 Endurolyte tablets, partly to overcompensate, but also because I knew I genuinely needed that much. A supporter helped me stretch out my calf. I made sure to put down more food. We were only 5 hours in. I couldn't already be cramping!

We left Italy Valley and began our second 1,000-plus-foot climb. I frankly don't even remember this one. I was still feeling comfortable at this point, but we just had so many hills that it's almost impossible to distinguish them, even if they're particularly big like this one. When we finally reached the top, we realized that we'd basically done a full trail marathon. It had been just under 5.5 hours. It was crazy to think that this was my slowest marathon by almost 2 hours--and we still had another 1.5 trail marathons to go. As we ran along the top, another photographer was there, waiting by an opening in the trees. It was awesome to see the where we had come from (hint: really far).

After descending again, we found ourselves at Italy Turnpike (Aid Station 5)--29.3 miles into the race. We were basically at the halfway point. But we didn't treat this as the halfway point; mentally, we wanted the next aid station at mile 35.6 to serve as the halfway point. It was better for morale to think that our second half was shorter than our first. Somewhere near Italy Turnpike, I signaled to the photographer that things were going well.

Someone told us that the next stretch to the "halfway" point didn't have any major hills. That was true. But what it had instead was ridiculously technical terrain. We had to tiptoe carefully through webs of roots; navigate several mud patches; plow through tall, thick grass (which cut up our ankles and shins); and even hack our way through a full cornfield!

After what seemed like an endless 6.3-mile stretch, we reached Patch Road (Aid Station 6)--our halfway point. This was in front of a log cabin in the woods. A musician was strumming his guitar as Jeremy and I sat in camp chairs pouring cups of ice water over our heads and refilling and refueling. It seems stupid to soak yourself in water, but the ice water was critical to regulating core temperature. By this point, my system was fully revved up and burning full steam--after all, we were 7 hours and 45 minutes into the race!--so I ate everything in sight. Lay's potato chips were my secret weapon. But I took cup-fulls of Coke and peanut butter-filled pretzels as well. And, of course, I took bars and gels for the trails.

We had covered 35.6 miles in 7:45--or just over 13:00-minute pace. We quickly realized that there was no way in hell we would be crossing the finish line in 13 hours (what we'd initially estimated). Even 14 hours seemed unlikely. At this point, 14:30 was our rough time estimate, assuming things continued to go well.

Second half.

All that separated us from our next aid station was a 4.2-mile stretch. This was the shortest stretch of the race, yet it felt like an eternity. We were now approaching mile 40. In this stretch, the rollers were deceptively challenging. We also had one pretty rocky downhill section that challenged the ankles--and our balance.

From here it was all mental. Really, it was all about putting one foot in front of the other--and doing so in a way that overcame whatever obstacles lay in our path. At this point in the race, our leg muscles were so fatigued that we would barely be lifting them with each step. As a result, I kept stubbing my toes on roots, almost face-planting. Luckily, I would prevent a fall by planting my poles instinctively. That did not do anything for my toes, though. My left toes, in particular, got battered to no end. I was wearing the Hoka Cliftons, which is a road shoe and not really meant for trails. I told myself I'd change out into my Hoka Speedgoats soon. As we navigated the tighter forest section, I could smell Bud Valley, our next aid station.

Finally, we reached Bud Valley (Aid Station 7) at mile 39.8. We entered the aid station with Katie, who we had been playing leapfrog with throughout the day. We would generally catch her between aid stations, but she would spend very little time in each aid station and set off several minutes ahead of us. Even though we worked at different rates, it was fun to see her from time to time, and to exchange thoughts about how our races were going. (Katie ended up finishing over 20 minutes before us--seems like her strategy worked!)

I realized that I wasn't cramping at all. The electrolyte pills (Hammer Endurolytes, to be precise) were doing their magic. I shared some with Jeremy to ward off any cramps for the next 20-mile block.

It was absolutely bonkers ridiculous that we still had almost a trail marathon left to run! This was a pretty "dark" part of our race; it was a real challenge just to keep running. To counteract the darkness, Jeremy and I deployed the "aid station-to-aid station" goal-setting process. We broke the race down into aid station segments, instead of thinking about the total distance remaining (which was incomprehensible). So coming out of Bud Valley, all we thought about was hitting Glenbrooke Road. The elevation profile doesn't show anything larger than a roughly 600-foot climb, but the ups and downs (literally, of the terrain) were relentless, and gave our legs absolutely no rest. We had our mental ups and downs as well. For a while, I thought we were cruising. Then, I felt like I was at the bottom of a bottomless pit--the run was that torturous. At times, I felt hollow, like a ghost.

One of our most effective strategies to traverse the remaining distance was also the most simple: alternate running with walking. Because I was wearing my Garmin GPS watch, I could track our distance down to the hundredth of a mile. We'd pick a run interval distance, and then a walk interval distance. Depending on how fatigued we were in the moment, we'd alter the run-walk ratio. When feeling relatively fresh, we'd run 0.25 miles and walk 0.10 miles. At our worst, we'd run 0.10 miles and walk 0.20. In retrospect, it is wild to think about how much our "freshness level" fluctuated, not only over the course of the entire race, but even within the span of a few minutes.

We hit Glenbrooke Road (Aid Station 8) and, as planned, I changed out of my soaked and muddy Hoka Cliftons into my fresh Hoka Speedgoats. Because I was raising my feet less as I was getting more and more fatigued, I was also stubbing my toes more. I knew a few more of my toenails would fall off after this day. Changing shoes was a really good decision (The Cliftons, being road shoes, have minimal to no toebox protection, while the Speedgoats have decent protection), even though it meant wasting a few minutes.

We knew at this point that there was no turning back. We'd made it almost 47 miles, and we weren't about to quit now. We jumped back into the forest and pressed on toward BHB, the penultimate aid station. These were tough miles, and they were also blurry miles. It's hard figuring piecing together what happened from mile to mile. All I know is that we ran them.

At some point en route to BHB, we entered what felt like an enchanted forest. Though Jeremy didn't want to stop (he feared we'd lose what little momentum we had), I insisted that we take some photos. After all, we had no time goals today. We just wanted to finish, so why not take a little time to slow down?

We hit BHB (Aid Station 8) and were surprised by what we found. First, the station was an oasis in the middle of nowhere.  Second, the couple manning the station were in very high spirits. Third, the theme for the station was Irish culture. There were four-leaf clovers and leprechauns. It felt a little bit like Halloween. The display was tacky, but provided perfectly timed comedic relief. We needed any sort of boost we could get to carry us through to the finish.

I don't know exactly where this was taken, but the photographer caught us one last time between Bud Valley and the finish line (Jeremy looks a bit tired).

We were now en route to the last aid station, in the town center of Urbana, which would give us one last time to see Lisa before our final epic 1,000-foot ascent of what I believe is called Brewers Hill. In the 5-mile stretch between BHB and Urbana, we came across a section where we were running on abandoned train tracks. It wasn't hard to maintain footing here, but it was just one more type of terrain that had been thrown at us, and I chuckled at the absurdity of the course's terrain.

We made it to Urbana with no hitches. I was absolutely starving. There was a tray of bacon on the table with about 6 slices left. I took two and scarfed them down. They were so salty and tasty. I asked the volunteers if I could have another one. They said "definitely!" I took a third. Again, it tasted so good. They egged me on: "take them all!" So I stuffed the remaining three thick, juicy slices into my mouth. (Spoiler: I had no stomach problems after this.) I felt a little bit bad for the people behind me, but I assumed they'd be making more bacon for those folks.

It was now almost 7 p.m., and we still had the 4.5 miles and the final charge up and down the 1,000-foot hill to go. We'd definitely be finishing in the dark, so we put our headlamps back on, smiled for the camera one last time, and made for the very big hill in front of us.

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We got lost (for probably the tenth time all day) trying to find the trail over the hill. While retracing our steps, we noticed that a pair of runners was closing in on us. We could tell that they were picking up the pace; very clearly, they wanted to catch us. I don't know what it is about me and racing, but, even though I'd told myself that I needed to run conservatively (after all, I was about to spend another 40 days doing epic runs all across the country), I couldn't help but feel the urge to resist their surge and maintain our lead into the finish.

The final climb was one of the steepest we'd seen all day. There was no way we'd be running this; power-hiking was as fast as we could go. The pitch was so steep that sometimes I'd take a step and almost fall backwards (I was also incredibly fatigued, so that probably contributed to my lack of balance). We climbed slowly, but with determination, and at a steady rhythm. We reached a section with switchbacks and, as we snaked up the hill, we could see the pair of runners behind us--running! Over the next few minutes, the pair got closer and closer. At one point, they were just one full switchback below us. We could hear them panting as they closed the gap. We remained disciplined and kept to a slower, but more sustainable, power hike. Soon, they completely lost steam. We dusted them well before we reached the top of the ascent, and then they were goners.

At the top, we realized that we still had several miles left down the other side of the hill. It was getting dark, so the light from our headlamps was essential. This was a surprisingly treacherous part of the race. The darkness and the leg fatigue made it hard to get over the roots and rocks on the trail. Multiple times, I nearly fell. My trekking poles saved me each time.

We now knew we were finishing; the only question was how soon. We decided to kick things up a notch and finish strong. Where we'd normally be keeping 14-minute pace, we pushed hard and maintained 11-minute pace for the last 3 miles. We were making a hard effort, but we weren't redlining at all.

It was now very dark, especially because we were in a thick forest. Coming down the hill, we could hear the bells and cheering at the finish line. It sounded close, but we couldn't see anything yet, so we knew we had to maintain our composure and descend safely. The worst end to this day would be to trip and fall and seriously hurt ourselves. Finally, just a few minutes after 8 p.m., we emerged from the forest and crossed our last road. We were now on the final stretch into the finish line chute.

In that final few hundred yards, I had flashbacks of the day, and the individual moments that had gone so well. We'd covered such an insane distance, and such an immense variety of terrain, that I was almost moved to tears (this is a pattern: I get emotional with these things). In the final sprint, Jeremy and I joined hands and raised them. We crossed the finish line in 15 hours, 7 minutes, and 52 seconds. We were done.

Post-race.

Upon crossing the finish line, I was in mild shock. Not anything bad. Just a feeling of awe that we'd just conquered an epic course--one that had taken us up and down the equivalent of ascending and descending the Empire State Building 9 times! We'd run through mud patches, rock piles, fresh cornfields, singletrack, streams--you name it.

Despite this, we both felt surprisingly good. For the first time in a while, we'd run a race without thinking about a specific time goal. Instead, we'd followed our heart rates (well, technically mine) and just run a solid, consistent effort without thinking about our exact pace or time. And, unsurprisingly, that strategy likely led to a far better outcome than if we'd said to ourselves that we, for instance, wanted to break 15 hours. Had we employed that kind of strategy, we probably would've burned ourselves too early and ended up DNFing as well.

There were a lot of great things about the finish line amenities. We didn't get medals. I'm a little bit tired of race medals. After the first dozen, they lose their allure. They're also pretty useless, except perhaps as paperweights. Here, on the other hand, we had beautiful, hand-crafted ceramic mugs as mementos. The food was also excellent--there was a real pasta station serving basic pasta, sauce, and bread. Refueling immediately would reduce recovery time. Finally, we were close to a large body of water (Keuka Lake). A cool-off dip was in order (I'm submerged in the back, Jeremy is in the middle, and Katie is to the bottom left).

Jeremy and I finished tied for 16th overall (the official results don't reflect this, but we crossed the line together). We both felt incredibly proud of what we'd done that day. We later learned just how hard of a race, and course, this was. Only 47 runners would end up finishing the race; over 30 starters did not finish (they "DNFed"). Looking at the race history of the race winner, Daven Oskvig, also confirms how hard the race was. Daven normally wins every ultra race he enters, and his past 100K times are in the 8:30 to 9:00 range. Unsurprisingly, Daven won again (by almost 25 minutes) but his time was 11:45--over 35% slower than his typical times.

The experience of training for this race has shown me, more than anything, that I really love trail running. It was obviously also fun to do an even longer ultra race than the JFK 50 Mile, which I'd run last November. I'm not sure I want to go any further than the 100K distance. Jeremy, on the other hand, has been tactfully and not-so-tactfully dropping hints about "our 100 miler next year ;)" (this is a real text message). I don't think I'm ready to take on that challenge just yet (the leap from 100K to 100 miles is a 60% increase in distance!), but I'm at the very least intrigued.

For the time being, I'm going to try my best to get out onto the trails in the DC area, and keep the running fire going. Happy trails!

Day 39: Hot Springs National Park, AR by Wookie Kim

After an incredibly fast-paced and epic 10-day block, I was ready for a rest day. Thankfully, I was heading to the most rest-inducing parks in the country: Arkansas' Hot Springs National Park.

As the name suggests, the park protects a series of hot springs. Those hot springs had been a huge attraction since the late 19th century. Over time, as people learned about the rejuvenating powers of the pure water, the area became a haven for those with the most leisure time on hand--high society. The bathhouses that cropped up along historic Bathhouse Row weren't content with creating their own style; instead, they tried to emulate the grandeur of the European bathhouses that had been flourishing for quite some time. This led to a local arms race, where neighboring bathhouses competed over who could have the grandest of bathhouses.

But the bathhouses eventually grew out of fashion. Today, the bathhouses are basically historical relics. After Hot Springs became a national park, the NPS sought to preserve the bathhouses for future generations to see, but not to use. The area still had bathhouses--and many people still come here to use them--but they were almost exclusively of the modern-day variety (read: spas). There was, however, one holdover from that bygone era: the Buckstaff Bathhouse. This was the only bathhouse to still provide the "traditional" bathhouse experience that people had experienced over a hundred years ago.

I was determined to try out the traditional bathhouse experience at Buckstaff. But, to my dismay, I learned that it closed at 3 p.m. I'd arrived at 3:30 p.m., so had just missed my chance for the day. I then decided I'd change my plans. Instead of taking today as a rest day, I'd run part of the above-ground trails, and then wake up early the next day and stop by the bathhouse before hitting the road for Little Rock, AR, and Jackson, MS, my next two destinations.

Before setting out for the Sunset Trail, a 17-mile loop around the park, I toured the visitor center, which was in, and had preserved, the old Fordyce Bathhouse. It was funny thinking that this place was state-of-the-art back then. Yet all of the devices and contraptions in each of the rooms seemed utterly outmoded. In fact, some rooms looked more like torture chambers or interrogation rooms than bathing rooms.

The men's bathing area had some remnants of the "grand" era. In the center of the main room was a sculpture, and above it was a beautiful stained glass ceiling. The men's dressing room was nice, too.

Believe it or not, the "electrohydric bath" used to be a thing. It's exactly what it sounds like. As one commentator in 1874 described this treatment, "[t]he current set up between the body of the invalid and the hot water of the bath, must awaken new energies and arouse vitalities." I learned that no one had died from the electrohydric bath, but that bathhouses had at some point stopped giving them.

The tour of the bathhouse was also the first in which I saw the social history, and not merely natural history, that the NPS preserved. The hot springs are a unique and impressive geological feature, but the NPS has done a good job of promoting the way in which we humans have interacted with the springs over time.

I learned that, in their heyday, the bathhouses functioned very much like country clubs. Members of high society would gather here during the fall. And the bathhouses had more than just bath rooms. There were make-up rooms for women, game rooms for men, and sitting rooms where both could socialize.

The gymnasium was fun to see, too. Again, it looked a little bit like a room filled with torture devices and techniques. But really it was just an old-school gym. I envisioned members of the elite sweating away while punching away at the punching bags.

The most compelling exhibit was the one on segregation. The bathhouses of the early 20th century exemplified the cruel reality of Jim Crow America. Practically all of the bathhouse attendants then were African American. Despite the grueling effort they put into bathhouse work, they were not allowed to actually bathe in them. At some point, early African American entrepreneurs created their own black-only bathhouses, including, most notably, the Crystal Bathhouse.

This visit was also important because it helped remind me more generally of the relationship between the natural and human worlds. That is, the national parks are just as much about what we humans have done with land--and to people living on that land--than it is about protecting unique geological features. The visit also reminded me that the NPS has one of the hardest missions possible: to provide enjoyment to the present generation without impairing future generations' ability to enjoy the same.

Having had my fill of learning for the day, I headed out, just before sunset, for the Sunset Trail. I wanted to do an easy run and just get a sense of what the terrain looked like in Arkansas. I ended up doing a 7.5-mile run that wound through a dense forest to an area called Balanced Rock and then to the highest point in the park, Music Mountain. The terrain here was nothing close to epic. Epic America, I'd learned, was far to the west. But it was still soothing to run through forests and on easy dirt trails--both things I'm familiar with as an east coaster.

It was almost dark by the time I finished my run. I'd seen an ad for the Superior Bathhouse Brewery, the world's first--and only--brewery to brew beer using hot springs water. I wasn't about to pass up an opportunity to try beer made with hot springs water, so I headed there for a post-run dinner and drinking session.

It was getting late, and I'd booked an Airbnb with the Barnhardts out in Hot Springs Village, so, after determining that I couldn't notice any difference between beer brewed using hot springs water and beer brewed without using that water, I headed to meet my hosts and call it a night. I'd be up early to get my traditional bathhouse experience.

Day 38: Big Bend National Park, TX + Dallas, TX by Wookie Kim

At 6 a.m. this morning in Big Bend, I had to make a choice: (1) reach the Rio Grande in Big Bend but have a ridiculously long drive to Dallas afterwards and (2) head straight for Dallas and still having a long driving day. I chose the first option and couldn't be happier with that choice.

I had plans to stay with Bradshaw H., a high-school classmate, in Dallas this evening. No matter what I did, I'd be in for a long drive. From the park's exit, Dallas was about 550 miles away. But I was already over 30 miles inside the park. And I wanted to drive another 30 miles in the opposite direction on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to the Rio Grande. Specifically, I'd heard that Santa Elena Canyon was a must-see, so I decided to go there.

I broke camp quickly, and hit the road by 6:20 a.m. All was dark, and I felt at peace, just as I had on my pre-dawn cruise through West Texas the day before. The miles I slowly clocked on Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive felt weird; I was driving in the most amazing part of the park, but I couldn't see any of it yet. I knew I'd be retracing my route on the way out, but still.

All the light I had to guide me was on the front of my car. That small source of light was enough to show me the type of wildlife activity that goes on while we humans sleep. Every couple minutes while cruising at 45 miles per hour, I would see another animal. First, I saw a dozen or so rabbits. Here and there, I'd see roadrunners scampering across the road. I saw a white-tailed (?) fox using the human highway as his own highway (even though I rolled close to him, he continued trotting along the edge of the road as I passed him. And, magically, for the first time all trip, I saw, and almost collided with, a lumbering black bear (one of an estimated 50 black bears living in the park).

By 7:30 a.m., the sky was beginning to wake up. I could tell rain was on the agenda today, because the clouds looked dark and ominous. But that made for a more moody and grand landscape. I snapped some photos along the way.

By 8 a.m., I'd arrived at the trailhead to Santa Elena Canyon, which is in an incredibly remote part of an incredibly remote park. The canyon itself was carved out by the Rio Grande, the river that serves as the US-Mexico border in this part of the country. I was on the US side. But if I wanted to (and signs made clear that I shouldn't do this), I could simply hop into the river, swim the 25 yards across, and be on Mexican soil.

(Santa Elena Canyon might as well have been named Rabbit's Canyon because the desert cottontails were running wild here. Every 50 yards or so, I would see a new bunny, sometimes scurrying off the road into the grass, and sometimes just sitting still in the middle of the road as I rolled quietly by. I saw close to a hundred rabbits on my drive. There were lots of roadrunners, too.) 

Without any knowledge of the political history, I recognized that the landscape served as a perfect border between nations. The canyon was massive, and the high walls rose over a thousand vertical feet and extended for miles in both directions. It felt oddly reminiscent of the Great Wall in Game of Thrones. No border patrols would be needed here.

The hike to the vista in the canyon was supposed to be short, under 2 miles roundtrip. But it required crossing the Terlingua Creek, which is a tributary into the Rio Grande, and I couldn't find a place to cross the creek (without getting wet, that is). I ended up having to hike parallel to it. While standing on the creek's bank looking for a crossing point, I noticed a group of about six warthog-like animals. I'd never seen these creatures before, and didn't know their behavioral tendencies, so I shouted at them and stamped my feet. That apparently scared the crap out of them, because they scattered immediately. I got out my telephoto lens, but by the time I'd put it on, they'd already created a big gap. I later learned that these creatures were harmless javelinas.

I eventually found a drier part of the creek and crossed over towards the canyon. I hiked along the US side into the canyon. The sights were nothing short of breathtaking. This felt like the Zion Narrows on steroids. The water was a full river--a "Grand" river--and the canyon walls shot straight up into the sky.

Looking up, I could tell that the rain was going to pour at any minute. I was in awe looking at the contrast between the wisps of clouds that floated in the gap provided by the narrow canyon walls and the dark canyon walls themselves.

I'd never been to Mexico, and this was literally as close as I could get without being there (in another region of this gigantic park, there is a ferry that takes you into the Mexican town of Boquillas--passport required, if you want to return, that is).

It was also awesome to see the rest of Big Bend looking out from inside the canyon. I could even see some of the javelinas from afar.

Right as I got off the trail, the skies opened up. I was thankful that I was back in my car and on the road again, this time headed for Dallas. On the way out, I saw the landscape that I'd missed on the drive in. I saw the famous "Mule Ears", and more of the traditional Big Bend landscape.

And then I was off for Dallas. I had roughly 600 miles to go from this point. On open highway, this might take under 10 hours. But the first 60-70 miles would be inside the park, on 45 mph roads, and there would be other smaller highways I'd be jumping on and off of. I had a long day ahead of me in the driver's seat.

I-40 is not the most scenic of interstates. But, as I leapfrogged from one oil town to the next, the relentless rain clouds created an eerie and mesmerizing landscape in which to drive.

I didn't drive nonstop to Dallas. In Midland, I linked up with my friend, Lowell R., who'd had to bail yesterday on our plan to meet in Big Bend. We ate delicious Mexican food and posed by a photo of President Bush.

The rest of the day was utterly boring. The Central Texas landscape is uninspiring. Just about the only thing I saw besides the flat, barren land were oil rigs and machinery. This was obviously oil country.

I arrived in Dallas after 8 p.m. I was staying with my high school classmate, Bradshaw H., and his family.

I felt a little bit like an awkward intruder because Bradshaw's wife, Charity, was due to give birth in 36 hours (as of this writing, the family now includes a fourth kid, Blythe--congrats!). But they welcomed me anyways. While Charity put the kids to bed, Bradshaw and I caught up over TexMex.

I'd been up since before 6 a.m., and had driven 12 hours, so was utterly exhausted by the time we got home. But I knew that, the moment I'd left Big Bend, I'd ended the most epic segment of my trip. From here on out, I had exactly a week to go, and only two national parks left. My pace would slow down. I reflected on the the segment I'd just finished (which had included my Rim-to-Rim run of the Grand Canyon) and thought how much I'd done in so little time. I felt proud of the logistical feats I'd pulled off during that time to make everything happen--and without hitches!

Before I knew it, I was very sleepy. I hadn't showered or slept in a bed since four days earlier in Arizona. I'd gotten used to that state of affairs, but taking a shower and sleeping in a bed (Bradshaw and Charity were kind enough to let me sleep in their eldest daughter's bed that night) made me realize that I'd missed out on some of the better luxuries of modern life. That night, I fell asleep instantly.

Day 37: Big Bend National Park, TX by Wookie Kim

Today's destination was Big Bend National Park, in an isolated part of West Texas on the border with Mexico. Along the way, I would stop by the artsy desert town of Marfa. Once inside Big Bend, I would make a beeline for the Chisos Basin, where I'd set up camp and then run up to the South Rim to catch views of the Chihuahuan Desert surrounding the mountains. And then I would fall asleep under the brilliant night sky.

It takes discipline to hit the road before the sun rises, but I've loved pre-dawn driving every time I've done it. It is just so peaceful. I had good reason today; my plan was to meet Lowell R., a high school friend who was coming from Midland, TX, at the Chisos Basin in Big Bend by 1 p.m. I left the campground at 5:40 a.m. and cruised in the dark on the open road.

At 6:40 a.m., the sun was beginning to rise. This is when the feeling of peace peaks. It felt so good to drive alone on the highway as the world around me started to wake up.

I had plans to stop in Marfa, TX, an odd town that has developed into a little bit of an artists' haven. I really only had one thing I wanted to see there: Prada Marfa. This is an art installation on the side of US 90 that resembles a Prada store--except that it's just a facade. The Prada company supported the project, and even donated real Prada goods to be put on display inside the store. But, since installing Prada Marfa in 2005, the artists have stuck to their plan of letting the store disintegrate over time into the desert. Totally weird, but totally worth seeing, especially because it was on the way to Big Bend.

Because cell service was spotty, and I didn't know where exactly the installation was located, my plan was to just drive into Marfa and ask a local. About 40 miles from Marfa, though, I saw a flash of white on my right side. I looked over my right shoulder and swore I saw a building that said Prada on it. How could this be? I was still a few miles from Valentine, and another 30 miles from Marfa. Was this a fake? It was just after 7 a.m., so almost no cars were on the road. I U-turned in the middle of the highway and drove back. Clearly, this was it.

I got out of my car and came in for a closer look. As I'd read, the store did have Prada goods inside.

I figured I needed a couple photos in front of the store. I took photos by placing my camera at several points on the shoulders of the highway, but I soon realized that the best vantage point was right in the middle of the highway, and I wanted to give that kind of shot a try. So, I looked down the highway in both directions for cars and, once I saw the coast was clear, set my camera down, hit the timer, and ran across the shot. Here are photos from different perspectives.

What a strange place. But Marfa got only stranger. By the time I'd actually arrived in town, I was ready for breakfast, and proceeded to Buns N' Roses. While finishing up my meal, I got a call from Lowell. He was en route, but had pulled over a couple times to throw up. Last weekend, he'd broken a rib in a dirt bike crash. His recently prescribed pain meds hadn't gone well with some alcohol he'd drank last night. He had to bail. 

I told him that he'd clearly made the right choice. It was still a bummer. Lowell had planned out a pretty awesome 24 hours for me. Also, I was going to ditch the running pack and simply go on an overnight backpacking trip with him. It would've been a nice change of pace, and an opportunity to camp under the night sky from atop the rim of the Chisos Mountains. But obviously Lowell was in no shape to continue driving, let alone put on a heavy pack and go on a strenuous hike into the mountains. As a compromise, I learned that I'd have to drive through Midland on the way to Dallas the following day. I'd try and stop by for lunch in Midland.

Because I now had more time, I decided I'd stop at one more place in Marfa: the Chinati Foundation. This is one of Marfa's primary art museums. Most of the works are viewable only on a guided tour, but since I didn't have the time to wait for the next one, I went on a self-guided tour of the concrete works in the field.

They were what you'd expect from modern art these days...

Basically, Donald Judd put together a series of concrete structures shaped in a variety of geometrical forms and patterns. 

There were signs telling visitors not to step on the works. But I guess those rules didn't apply to grasshoppers.

Having had my fill of Marfa art, I decided I'd head for Big Bend and hit the trails ASAP. As I was driving through town, though, I saw Marfa Book Co. down a side street. I'd heard about this place, and like any good bibliophile, decided I needed to stop. It was cool in there, but I already had a loaded car, so chose not to buy anything.

What an interesting town. I'm not sure I needed more than the 90 minutes I'd spent there, but at the same time I could understand the appeal for artists and other tourists. I passed Marfa's water tower and said goodbye.

At noon, I hit a milestone: 40,000 miles in my Prius. I got my driver's license in 2010, and have only driven this car my entire life. Looking at my trip odometer, I noticed that I'd also broken 8,000 miles. In other words, in less than 40 days, I'd basically driven the distance I'd typically drive in a year. Wow.

I made it to the entrance to Big Bend just before 2 p.m. I still had many miles to go inside, but it was good to finally see the NPS sign.

After driving for a while across the very flat desert terrain, I noticed mountains rising up out of the desert in the distance. I figured these were the Chisos Mountains. My plan was to drive right into the Chisos Basin, snag a campsite there, and then run the Pinnacles Trail up to the South Rim to catch the sunset.

I finally got to the Basin at 3:30 p.m. It was an incredible place. The Chisos Mountains are an example of what are called "sky islands"--isolated mountains surrounded by radically different lowland environments (here, the Chihuahuan Desert). As a result, they provide a bit of an oasis for a lot of wildlife and plant life. The Chisos also have steep and jagged rock faces. In the basin, you could see these faces in every direction.

I hit the trailhead just before 4 p.m. My route today was the Pinnacles Trail up to the South Rim and back. This would be at least 12 miles roundtrip, with almost 3,000 feet of elevation gain, so it wouldn't be an easy run (plus, I'd just run hard up to the top of Guadalupe Peak the day before), but I was determined to get up and down before the sun set at 7 p.m.

The trail ascended at a more gradual, but still steep, rate. I guess I'd been tackling some very steep trails recently, so a merely "steep" trail didn't feel too bad. I made good progress, proceeding up into the peaks of the Chisos.

About an hour in, I'd gotten far enough over the peaks, that I was looking through a gap into the Chihuahuan Desert that surrounded the Chisos. I believe this area is called the Window, which is named so for obvious reasons.

Interestingly, after passing the Window, the trail took me back in between the peaks, and into a moist woodland area. Here, the trees were lush, and I noticed I was following some kind of stream that flowed gently between the peaks. This was not what I'd imagined when I'd thought of the desert.

The weird landscape continued. This was some kind of river corridor--an oasis--right in the middle of the mountains in the middle of a desert. It was pretty incredible to think about.

At 5:30 p.m., I finally hit the South Rim. The view was breathtaking, not because of the aesthetics, but because the contrast was so stark--between the tall, rocky, powerful Chisos above, and the barren, bumpy desert below. It was breezy on the rim, so I put my pack down and let my sweat dry up.

Every direction provided a new set of contrasts. The haze limited how far I could see, but it also provided a contrast in sharpness between things far away from and things close to me. 

It was interesting, too, to see cactus--the plant that everyone associates with desert environments--up in high altitude.

And then there was this lone tree, sitting upright on the edge of the rim, with the best view in town.

I've loved seeing the extreme on this trip. It's the extremes on the spectrum that always have the most power to wow. Here, towards the southeast, the cliff face dropped off almost vertically. Am I not right that this looks very much like Pride Rock from the Lion King?

And then I was on my way back to the Basin. At the top, I'd learned that there was a different route down--the Laguna Meadows Trail--that would still take me to the same trailhead. I preferred to see new landscapes, so I headed that way around the Southeast Rim and down. Along the way, I saw some very colorful and pretty wildflowers.

As I got closer to the Basin, the foothills (?) that I'd been looking down on from the rim seemed more at eye level. I was crashing back down to earth.

Just before 6:30 p.m., I'd made it back to the Chisos Basin. I looked up to see what I'd conquered today. It had been a solid afternoon.

Of course, by now, with almost 40 days on the road, and dozens of hours running on tough, technical trails, my feet have taken a pretty hard beating. I haven't had anything serious--no injuries or pains--but I've been dealing with nuisances like blisters and calluses. One blister on the side of my left big toe was acting up today. (Please ignore my very clean and healthy toes...)

I made it back to the campground and cooked up a quick dinner. I planned to catch tonight's ranger talk on raptors. I liked my campsite for the evening--I was surrounded by the Chisos.

I learned a lot at the ranger talk. I now know what raptors are; they're carnivorous birds of prey that have "3 sharps": eyesight, beaks (used to tear apart food), and talons (used to kill prey). I also learned that Big Bend is the best place in the country to go birding. It has the most species of birds of any national park. Too bad I'm not so good at distinguishing birds.

I returned to my campsite in the dark. When I looked up, I noticed how bright the night sky was. Big Bend is as isolated as places get in the lower 48. It lies on the Mexican border, and the nearest big city airport is over 5 hours away. This makes for a truly wild--and dark--place. In fact, Big Bend is one of only fourteen gold-tier international dark sky parks in the world. Using my very basic camera, and nothing but a couple rocks to prop it up at an angle, I started to tinker with shots of the night sky. I ended up capturing a brilliant night sky, but it was mostly washed out (too high of an ISO setting, or maybe too long of an exposure?). I'd never done night sky photography, so I was really just playing around with settings and seeing what showed up on the screen.

Eventually, I realized that shooting the night sky exclusively was missing part of the beauty of the area. I needed some contrast, and the jagged peaks of the Chisos would provide it. So I took several more 30-second exposures, and managed to catch a couple shots like this. Incredible.

I ended up sleeping under the stars, without my rain fly. I kept my eyes open until the clouds rolled in and blocked my view of the universe. At around 3 a.m., the clouds opened up and rained on me in my exposed tent. I scrambled to put my rain fly on and then fell right back asleep. I was wet, and a bit cold, but I thought to myself how it was all worth it.

Day 36: Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM + Guadalupe Mountains National Park, TX by Wookie Kim

I drove only 200 miles today, which meant I could do more exploring. That also allowed me to visit two national parks in two different states and still enjoy an evening camped out under the stars. This was my kind of day.

The best days are the ones that start with a good meal. Since arriving in the southwest, I've eaten almost exclusively Mexican food. Nutritionally, I just can't find a better package anywhere. Plus, finding small mom and pop places has meant that I can get a lot to eat for not very much money. On the way to Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, I stopped in the town of Artesia to dine at La Herradura. It hit the spot.

One of the fun parts about driving in a Prius is that you get to see all the numbers while you drive. It seems like a small thing, but it probably changed lots of drivers' habits--for the better. By knowing how your car is working, in the moment, you're much more likely to drive in safer, and more economical way. The beauty about starting your day in the mountains is that you can drive over 50 miles at 96.3 miles per gallon.

I made it to Carlsbad Caverns National Park by 1 p.m. This trip's theme has been running, so this park didn't really fit (though there are a few above-ground trails). Still, I couldn't pass up a chance to stop by and see what this place was about. The above-ground drive into the park and to the visitor center was impressive. The blue skies with white, wispy clouds helped.

As with most of our parks, there was evidence of prior eras everywhere. Here was a set of Civilian Conservation Corps buildings. The CCC, which FDR created as part of the New Deal, did a lot in the early 20th century to beef up our nation's infrastructure.

I was determined to get in and out of the caves relatively quickly. After all, I still had another national park to visit the very same day, and I wanted to hit the highlight of that park (i.e., Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas). I decided I'd do a self-guided tour into the Natural Entrance and down to the Big Room. At the bottom, I'd just take the elevator back up to the surface.

The Natural Entrance was large--far larger than any natural entrance I'd seen (I've visited two other cave systems on this trip). I could see why Carlsbad Caverns was so popular.

Before entering, I happened across a small lizard who'd just snagged a fly to eat. I was able to get pretty close to him. He didn't seem bothered by me.

And then I proceeded into the cave, beginning on steep switchbacks. I was surprised because I saw dozens of bats flitting from one side of the cave to the other. We're not supposed to take photos of bats (also, they were flying so fast that I don't think my simple camera could capture them), so I don't have any photos of them.

There were a lot of impressive features in the cave. I also was blown away by the scale of the cave. Each "room" was massive--far larger than the other caves I'd seen.

1.25 miles and negative 800 feet later, I was at the bottom. It was funny to see a small concession stand built right near the Big Room (i.e., the biggest chamber of the cave).

Then it was time to cross into my next state--Texas. Guadalupe Mountains National Park was my destination. Thankfully, it wasn't that far. I think it was under 40 miles from Carlsbad Caverns.

The Guadalupe Mountains abruptly rise up out of the desert. They are "sky islands"--isolated mountains surrounded by radically different lowland environments (here, the desert). The final few miles to the visitor center show this.

It was almost 4 p.m. when I arrived at the visitor center. One aspect of the park that makes it unique is that, unlike most other parks, Guadalupe Mountains doesn't have any roads going into or through the park. Moreover, there are no real "points of interest" on the highway outside the mountains. As a result, anyone who wants to see much of anything has to actually get out of his or her car and hike (or run) in. This was exactly my kind of park--one that forced you to get on your feet and explore.

Here, I was determined to push for the summit of Guadalupe Peak. The trail was 8 miles roundtrip, and involved 3,000 feet of elevation gain. It would certainly be tough, especially in the desert heat, but I couldn't pass up an opportunity to cross off another "highest point in in the state". So I filled up my Camelbak and set off.

The ranger I spoke to at the visitor center was skeptical that I'd finish before sunset. She mentioned how the brochure lists the hike as taking 6-8 hours, but that a fit person could finish in 4 hours. I told her I was expecting to finish in about 3. She didn't believe me. I figured I'd show her that it could be done.

As a result, I suppose I was more conscious of my time on this run. I decided I'd take photos of my view at specified times. 15 minutes in, I was already way above the trailhead parking lot.

At the 30-minute mark, the parking lot was even more distant.

And an hour in, I'd made it "around the bend" and was looking up to the final face of the peak. From here, I couldn't even see where I'd come from.

As I neared the summit, the views became awesome. The contrast between the Chihuahuan Desert below and the Guadalupe Mountains I was on was stark.

One of the highlights of the park is El Capitan, which is the signature peak of West Texas.

I continued charging up to the summit. I obviously couldn't "run" all of it. But I managed to run most of it.

Finally, I made it to the summit, 8,751 feet above sea level and the highest point in Texas. It had taken 1 hour and 13 minutes. I'd easily break 3 hours. In fact, I'd probably break 2 hours if I ran at a decent pace on the descent.

There's a monument here to signify this high point. And there's also a register in which you can write a note and see all the thousands of people who've summitted before you.

At the top, I met a group of hikers from Oklahoma City. As I gazed at the desert expanse below, I chatted with them. After 30 minutes of taking it all in, I decided to descend back to the trailhead and to return to my campsite. I wanted to eat dinner and catch the evening's ranger talk (which ended up not happening). Even at a comfortable descending pace, I managed to get down in just over 45 minutes. Excluding the time spent enjoying the views at the summit, I'd taken just a tad over 2 hours to cover the trail.

The descents are actually the least enjoyable part of a mountain run. You'd think that it takes less effort, but even so, the descent is often the most hazardous. Because you have gravity working with you, you're more likely to lose control of your speed. As a result, you might screw up your footing, or make other missteps. Also, it's hard to leave the summit because everything generally becomes less spectacular. By descending, you're really coming back "down to earth"--and sometimes you don't want to do that.

I camped in the Pine Springs Campground at the base of the mountain. I was a little upset that the ranger talk didn't happen. But instead I sat under the dark night sky and looked at the stars.

Day 35: White Sands National Monument, NM by Wookie Kim

When I made my itinerary for this summer, I implicitly attached expectations to each stop. I knew the Grand Canyon would be grand, and I knew sites east of the Mississippi would, for the most part, not be grand. But there have been some places that have blown those expectations out of the water. White Sands National Monument, which is a gypsum sand dune area just a few miles west of Alamogordo, NM, is one of those places.

I left Lakeside, AZ late. I had about 400 miles to drive today, so that was a poor decision. I made the most of my time on the road. I came across a curious place called Pie Town. I stopped at the Pie-O-Neer. Apparently, Pie Town was named because pie was the main attraction of this town when it first popped up--people passing through would know to come here for a slice. I had the New Mexico apple pie (it has green chiles and pine nuts in it, too), and it was delicious. Worth the stop.

And then I cruised to White Sands National Monument. As has been typical lately--when I've been driving extended distances and also feeling the building fatigue--I arrived late in the day. It was 5:30 p.m. by the time I got out to the dunes. The sun blazed and painted the normally white dunes orange.

This was an incredible place. Unlike traditional sand dunes, the dunes in White Sands are made of gypsum crystals. White Sands is the only gypsum dune field of its scale in the world. So what allowed this to happen here and not elsewhere? Apparently, it has to do with the nature of the Tularosa Basin, which is somewhat unique in that no water flows out of it. Gypsum is water-soluble and normally flows out of a basin towards the sea. Since the water that arrives in the Tularosa Basin ends up staying here, it evaporates and leaves behind gypsum.

I learned from the ranger at the visitor center that the sand was pleasant to walk on. She mentioned that local university track teams would occasionally come out here to do workouts. I asked her if there were any hazards to running barefoot and, surprisingly, she said no. With that endorsement, I decided to run barefoot (and shirtless).

Another unique aspect of the monument is that there are really no trails. There's a scenic loop drive, but you're encouraged to get out wherever you want and just walk on the dunes. It was fun to find my own area and be the only one leaving footprints on a fresh dune.

The sand was cool to the touch. Gypsum is also unique in that it doesn't absorb heat well. So, even though it was scorching hot, and the sun had been beating down on the area all day, the sand was actually cool.  It was unlike any sand I'd ever stepped on before.

I liked being here at sunset. The whiteness of the sand provided the perfect canvas on which to see the long shadows that any vertical objects created. If the angle of the dune was right, my shadow extended hundreds of feet.

More than anything, the place was just peaceful. I'd gone off the road for just about half a mile, and I could barely see anyone or anything but sand dunes. The sunset also added a degree of serenity--I felt like the day was ending and everything was beginning to rest.

Looking more closely at the sand, however, you could see signs of life. One thing that has fascinated me about the deserts is how wildlife survive here. I saw traces of such wildlife while walking and running the dunes.

Of course, all the photos make it appear as though the dunes are not, in fact, white. I think the setting sun has to do with that. The reality is that the dunes are quite white. A close-up, and color-corrected, shot shows just what I mean (ignore my mangled, battered, ugly runner toes--and my sandal tan). 

And then it was time to run. I took some photos first, but then I went back to my car to drop everything but my cell phone (in case I got lost, the GPS would still work). I then proceeded to roam freely on the dunes, running in whatever direction I felt like running. It was incredible.

In fact, I thought to myself how useful it would be to have dunes like these near me. I'd have the chance to occasionally run barefoot and really feel the earth beneath my feet. It would be a great way to improve running form. I was still feeling drained from the R2R (this was 2 days later), plus it was getting dark, so I ended up running only 5 kilometers.

By the time I was done, the sun was dipping below the mountains on the horizon. Again, I felt completely calm--just like the landscape around me.

I meandered back towards (what I hoped was) my car. Each time I looked back, I saw a more impressive landscape.

From the hot desert (though by now it was slightly cooler), I proceeded back through the town of Alamogordo, ate a quick meal at a Mexican restaurant, and then drove up into Lincoln National Forest. There, at 9,000+ feet, I set up camp and watched the night sky before falling into a deep sleep.

Day 34: Petrified Forest National Park, AZ by Wookie Kim

I slept in this morning. I'd just run the Rim-to-Rim in the Grand Canyon, so I deserved it. Still, I woke up naturally at 6:30 a.m. Instead of cooking pancakes, I decided I'd try and get breakfast at the North Rim Lodge--eggs and sausage would be a nice recovery meal. I ended up eating huevos rancheros. Just what I needed. My table had an awesome view of the canyon. I took one last look before heading out.

I was now heading almost 400 miles to Petrified Forest National Park. Leaving the North Rim, I ended up passing over the Navajo Bridge, which marks the eastern edge of the Grand Canyon. 

The bridge also marks one of the boundaries of the Navajo Nation. One of the aspects of our national parks (and of our nation's westward expansion) that I've wanted to learn about but haven't is our country's treatment of Native Americans. It's too easy to focus on the white explorers who "found" so many of the geological features that now make up our national parks without recognizing that westward expansion for one group simply meant displacement and marginalization for another group. I'll be adding this to the list of things that I want to look up after the trip is over (embarrassingly, I haven't even had the time to do the basic historical research on the National Park Service!).

I've taken thousands of photos now on this trip. Sometimes, I take a series of quick snaps and hope for the best. Other times, I slow down and really think about the photography principles I learned during my REI outdoor photography class. I know there's a school of thought that we should put away our cameras from time to time to truly experience the wonders of our parks. But I've often found that it is the camera itself that helps me truly see and feel a park. The conscious process of framing a shot makes me hyper-aware of every little detail. And, in searching for that perfect shot, you become more creative, and look at the environment from new perspectives. At the Navajo Bridge, I looked down and noticed the shadows crossing over the Colorado River and its banks. The algae-filled (?) green river provided a unique contrast with the reddish sand. This wasn't the "standard" shot of Marble Canyon, but it was a special one for me.

Of course, the Navajo Bridge also provides the more traditional view of the Marble Canyon area. The green water made the view particularly otherworldly.

Then it was time to make my way to Petrified Forest. While cruising on Arizona's open road, I mindlessly forgot to slow down in a work zone. A state trooper pulled me over (for the first time in my life), and I got a hefty speeding ticket. The rest of the way to Petrified Forest, I drove super carefully.

It was 5 p.m. when I arrived at the visitor center. The park closes at 6 p.m., so I knew I'd have to make my way through the scenic drive quickly. I was thankful that the park had two entrances--I could drive straight through to the other end in the hour I had left.

My first stop was the Painted Desert, an area of badlands inside the park (and also extending into the Navajo Nation). The setting sun painted the landscape today too.

I hopped back into my car and sped (within the 45 mph speeding limit, of course) to the next viewing point. An old car sat as a monument for Historic Route 66, one of the first highways in our national highway system, and a symbol of the road life.

I thought I'd be the only one leapfrogging from observation point to observation point. Turns out I was wrong. There were several groups of latecomers who were trying to cram everything in at the last minute. One pair--what looked like a mother-daughter combo--trailed me. Each time I pulled out of an observation point, their car would pull in. We'd wave at each other. In fact, as the hour winded down, they even started asking if it was "worth it" to stop at a point of interest. It was like a little game. 

Driving for the last 15 minutes out of the park, I saw impressive badlands. These were a reminder of my time in the North Dakota badlands in the first week of my trip (i.e., what felt like ages ago!). Seeing such a similar landscape reminded me that, no matter how different the various regions of the country were, there were always common links and common features uniting them all.

One of the coolest stops I made was the Agate Bridge. This is a spectacular example of what it means for something to be "petrified". Essentially, a petrified object is one that has avoided the normal process of decay. All living things decay naturally--if exposed to oxygen. The petrified forests here consist of fallen trees that were covered in silica and ash that prevented decay. Over time, the trees hardened, while the softer rock around it washed away. What's left behind are stone replicas of those trees--and Agate Bridge was a particularly massive tree.

The park had several vistas from which you could see massive "forests" of petrified trees. The quotation marks are there because I didn't realize that the forest was a desert landscape dotted with tree trunks and segments. I was somehow expecting to see a standard forest. This was one of the only parks where knowing about the formation process was essential to grasping the true beauty of this place. Otherwise, I'd see this view below and think very little of it.

Other viewpoints provided opportunities to get close to the petrified trees. Despite their petrified nature, they looked very much like regular, living trees. There were warning signs all over the place--instructing visitors not to pick up, or stand on, objects, and to stay on trails--but I saw one too many visitors violating all of these rules. How shameful.

Without even realizing it, 6:00 p.m. had rolled around. The park rules required that, at that point, everyone needed to get back in their cars and head to the nearest park exit. So I did.

As the sun set and the landscape darkened, I grew more relaxed. I'd missed a few of the longer stops (i.e., stops requiring lengthy walks on trails), but I felt like I'd made the most of a very, very brief visit to Petrified Forest National Park. And I was happy.

Day 31: Zion National Park, UT + Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, AZ by Wookie Kim

Today was two days before my attempt to run the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim. I wanted to take it easy. Because I'd arrived late to Zion the day before, I was doing Angels Landing this morning, before heading to Page, AZ to see the physics-defying Horseshoe Bend. I'd end the day early and stay at an Airbnb right below Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. I wanted to shower and sleep in a bed right before taking on the R2R.

I woke up super early--early enough so that I was at the shuttle bus at the Zion visitor center by 6:45 a.m. The first shuttle came around at 7 a.m., and I made sure I got onboard. There were a surprising number of hikers at this time. I guess it made sense; this morning was the first day of the fall season. During the summer, the first shuttle had left at 6 a.m. Now, people wanting to do some of the longer hikes (e.g., in the Narrows) would have one less hour to spend in the canyon. It would be imperative to get on the 7 a.m. shuttle.

After 20-30 minutes, we were at the Grotto stop. This was where the Angels Landing trailhead was. As soon as I got off the bus, I wasted no time. I deployed my trekking poles, tightened my fastpack, and immediately got into my running stride. I wanted to get out slightly in front of the pack of hikers that had already gotten onto the trail. But, critically, I also did not want to go at a hard--or even medium--pace; saving energy for the Grand Canyon was my biggest priority.

Yet I found my heart rate creeping up more than I'd hoped. It was simply too much of a thrill to see a tall platform way up above me. I really wanted to get up there--and fast.

I briskly ran the first 3/4 mile or so, which is almost entirely flat alongside the Virgin River. After that, though, the trail turned into a series of mean switchbacks. I knew that if I tried to run these, I'd be adding fatigue to my legs--the very fatigue I was trying to avoid two days before R2R. So I ended up power-hiking, and relying on my poles far more than I normally do. I looked down. Only one person was anywhere close to me. Everyone else had yet to even hit the switchbacks. And I wasn't even sweating.

But then I got to what's knowns as Walter's Wiggles. Walter Ruesh was Zion's first superintendent, and he created this switchback staircase to get up to Angels Landing. It looked a bit out of place, but I marveled at it from an engineering perspective.

I was making good progress, and I knew that no one would catch me. In other words, I'd be the first one to the summit. But I also realized I had another thing to worry about--the sun. I wanted to be on top of Angels Landing before the sun's rays hit it. Basically, I wanted to watch the sun light up the canyon. As I continued the ascent, I could see the sun beginning to light up other parts of the canyon.

Soon enough, I reached the beginning of the notorious final half-mile stretch to the summit. This section has you crossing a narrow sandstone isthmus with a 1,200-foot drop on one side, and an 800-foot one on the other. The NPS had installed support chains that you could hold onto, but I had a feeling it would be as scary as people had said it would be.

When I began, I was definitely nervous. I was envisioning sections of the trail where you necessarily had to hold onto the chain. 

But as I ambled along, I realized that that wasn't the case. The chains were definitely helpful at every point in that segment of trail, but it was never, to my mind, necessary. And that just meant that I could let go from time to time. Of course, each time I let go, my palms started sweating.

In 49 minutes, I'd comfortably made it to the summit. The sun was lighting the tops of the canyon walls, but it had yet to hit Angels Landing. I'd succeeded in beating the sun! I took in my first views of Zion from high above. It was as impressive as I'd heard.

l forgot to mention, though, that I technically was not the first person to reach Angels Landing that morning. Benjamin Rusnak, one of the artists-in-residence in Zion; his wife; and a friend were already on the summit when I arrived. I couldn't figure out how they'd made it, since private cars can't drive on the canyon road. It turns out Rusnak's housing is right at the Grotto; they didn't need to wait for the shuttle. Another group of hikers were ahead of me on the trail, but I caught up and passed them. I was still confused as to how they got there. Let's just say they used creative means...

I spent a lot of time up there. One of the best parts of climbing mountains and getting up high is the time spent staying up. Looking down, you could see how effective the shuttle bus system was--there were no cars clogging the road, and the sole vehicle on the road was a shuttle bus.

Soon, Angels Landing was starting to fill up. The fit hikers trickled in, and then, all of a sudden, in the span of 10 minutes, a dozen more hikers made it. Naturally, it got noisier and less serene. But I guess that's the trade-off when you go on one of the most popular hikes in the entire NPS system.

There were also more than humans up at the summit. There were a bunch of chipmunks scurrying about, trying to catch falling crumbs from the bars that everyone was eating. They were pretty sneaky. I found one darting all around my pack (luckily he didn't get inside). At one point, I thought out loud that this place should be called "Chipmunks Landing". Several hikers from Australia laughed and agreed that that would be an entirely appropriate name.

There was also a fun little rock pyramid on the far end of Angels Landing. I climbed up it.

I was hoping to stay longer, but I did have one time constraint: I needed to check out of my campsite by 11 a.m. It would take time to descend, take the shuttle bus back to the visitor center, walk to my campsite, and break camp. So after about 45 minutes--too soon to see even one third of the canyon light up--I said goodbye to everyone I'd met at the top and headed back down. On the way down, I made sure to check out new views of the canyon. On this trip, I've been surprised numerous times by how I see different things and see things differently just by reversing direction.

Another fun aspect of seeing the same thing again is how the time of day evolves and affects your view of the landscape. Shadows are one of the most obvious things that shift over the course of the day and dramatically alter one's perception of a landscape.

Height has an effect, too. On the way up, it was hard to get a sense of the scale of Walter's Wiggles. On the way down, they looked like an absurd human conveyor belt. I forgot to mention that, by the time I was back down on the Wiggles, the trail was packed. There were dozens and dozens of people slowly hiking up to Angels Landing. I was glad I'd gotten up there quickly--and left relatively early too.

On the way back, I stopped at the museum and watched the park video (I figured I could sneak it in before needing to vacate my campsite). I learned more about the geology in the region and how the Zion Canyon formed out of the Colorado Plateau (this feature, by the way, was entirely new to me).

At 10:45 a.m., I was back at the Watchman Campground. I once again processed just how awesome the campsite's location was, and then I packed everything up and got ready to hit the road. Oh, I had a homework assignment to complete first, which involved taking a selfie, so I did that before leaving.

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I realized that I hadn't eaten lunch. Normally, I would've just nommed on bars and snacks until I got to a town that had food. But today was not a normal day. It was two days before my R2R attempt. I needed to be fueling up--packing on the calories and just feeling well-fed at all times. I decided I'd backtrack towards Springdale and eat lunch there. I had a delicious wrap at a cafe there, but when it was time to enter and pass through the park to get onto the Zion - Mount Carmel Highway, I encountered an insane amount of traffic. I tried to imagine what Zion would be like if private cars had unlimited access to the canyon road. It would be a nightmare.

Eventually, I made it back into the park, and I proceeded onto the Mount Carmel Highway on the east side of the canyon. I've gotten really good at taking no-look, blind photos while driving.

Soon, we entered the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, which, when completed in 1930, was the longest of its kind in the U.S. It was an engineering feat, one made even more impressive by the various galleries that let drivers catch glimpses of the canyon while driving (perhaps a dangerous distraction?).

When I popped out on the other side of the tunnel, the whole landscape looked different. It just felt different.

I also saw my first bighorn sheep. They'd been eluding me all summer--I'd finally seen one!

I continued through smaller tunnel segments. This was a really scenic and fun drive--one of the best to date.

Almost at the end of the scenic highway, I came across a pullout spot right by Checkerboard Mesa. And then it hit me: this was the exact same spot where we'd finished the hike in the Barracks. I'd somehow made it out of the canyon and up to this pullout, where buses were waiting with endless supplies of water. In short, seeing this pullout brought back a lot of memories, both good and bad.

And then I was out on the open highway again, this time off to Page, AZ.

Just about the only thing worth doing in Page is visiting Horseshoe Bend in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. This feature was simply stunning, jaw-droppingly so. I wanted to linger, but it was scorching out, and I didn't want to generate any more fatigue in advance of the R2R. So I left pretty quickly.

I made more one more stop before checking in at my Airbnb. That was Lake Powell. What's mind-boggling about Lake Powell is how much water there is in it, even though everything else in the area is parched. The lake shone--it almost glowed--in the strong sunlight.

It was late afternoon now. I proceeded to my Airbnb and met my host, Janiece. After showering and unwinding for a couple hours, I realized that it was the night of the blood moon lunar eclipse. I sat on the porch to observe. I caught a glimpse of the eclipse as it was happening.

Unfortunately, as the eclipse continued, the clouds began rolling in and obstructing a clear view of the moon. So, when it actually turned blood orange, I could barely see it. It was an ironic end to the day. I was in one of the most isolated parts of an already isolated area, and therefore was in prime stargazing territory. But I ended up basically not being able to see much of the details of the eclipse. Sometimes that's just the way things work.

Day 30: Zion National Park, UT by Wookie Kim

After catching a spectacular sunrise in Joshua Tree, I'd finally made it to Zion National Park, in southwest Utah.

I'd been here before, but under very different circumstances. The law firm at which I'd worked as a summer associate after my second year of law school goes on an annual "firm hike", almost always always on an epic scale. In the summer of 2012, the firm chose to tackle The Barracks--a remote, out-of-NPS-boundary, hike that is essentially a souped-up, harder version of the ever-popular Narrows. It was the most incredible day hike I've ever done, and also the hardest. We tackled record-breaking summer temperatures that made for a hard (and, frankly, dangerous) hike. But everyone made it out alive, so all's well that ends well.

I'd had my Zion experience from down in the canyon, but now I was back to see the place from a different perspective. This time, I wanted to be up above it all, on the famed Angels Landing.

The drive, at 360 miles, was long--a harbinger of the even longer driving days to come. That meant I didn't arrive at the park until almost 4 p.m.

I set up shop at my site in the Watchman Campground. I'd just spent the night at Jumbo Rocks in Joshua Tree--the first campground that was a destination in itself--so I was even more surprised when I saw how beautiful the scenery was here in Watchman.

Because I'd arrived far later than expected, I didn't think it made sense to tackle Angels Landing on the same day. Part of my hesitation was due to logistics. Unlike most parks, Zion prohibits private car traffic on the main canyon road during the busy season. Visitors get around by using a very efficient shuttle bus system. I couldn't rely on simply driving right up to the Angels Landing trailhead. I needed to factor in the transit time to get there by bus. It just didn't make sense to start such an ambitious hike so late in the day. Moreover, I was two days away from arriving at the Grand Canyon and I didn't want to rush the run and end up fatiguing myself for the Rim-to-Rim.

But I wasn't about to do nothing, either. I decided on a compromise solution: I'd hike something easy today, and then tackle Angel's Landing early tomorrow morning. That way, I'd feel like I hadn't wasted a day. I opted to hike the Emerald Pools Trail. I hopped on a shuttle bus, got off at the Zion Lodge stop and began the 3-mile roundtrip hike.

The beginning of the hike took me along the banks of the Virgin River. It was this river that had, over countless years, carved out the epic canyons of Zion. That fact was hard to believe, because the river looked weak and powerless--a mere trickle!

As I meandered along the river, I saw an emaciated mule deer. I felt really sorry for it. It was feeding, but clearly it wasn't doing a good enough job of it. I wondered if he or she was sick.

On a hike, I obviously have more opportunities to soak things in. I suppose I'm slightly more aware of my surroundings than when I'm running. It was a nice change of pace. At that moment, I was thinking very much of the time of day. The sun was beginning to set, and that meant that the inner canyon would be lit up differently. It was cool to see those differences, as they really highlighted certain features.

The hike itself continued up a gentle slope and passed a few of the emerald pools, which I found, quite frankly, unimpressive. I think part of the issue was that the water level was very low, so there weren't really much in the form of pools to look at to begin with. Any water that existed didn't really even look the color emerald.

One thing that impressed me, however, were the hanging gardens and other canyon-based plant life. Basically, there were parts of the canyon walls that had seeping water. And anywhere that there was water seeping out, there were plants.

At the Upper Emerald Pool, there was little puddle on a big rock. I tried to take a photo of the Zion canyon wall's reflection in the puddle.

The hike ended pretty quickly. And then it was time for dinner. I wanted to catch the ranger talk that evening. Having just spent time at Astrocamp in the San Jacintos, I was particularly intrigued by the topic (i.e., "The Great Journey: A Glimpse Across the Galaxies"). To ensure that I'd make it back to the amphitheater in time, I ate at a Thai restaurant just a half-mile outside the park in Springdale.

The talk itself gave me flashbacks to the couple astronomy classes I took in high school. They were very rudimentary, but I realized I knew far more about the night sky than a lot of the audience. I've thoroughly enjoyed the ranger talks, partly because you never know what to expect from each ranger, and this one was no less enjoyable. The main takeaway: we humans are a really, really, really small part of the universe.

After the talk, I went back to my campsite and got ready for bed. I was planning to wake up very early and catch the first shuttle bus to Angels Landing. Further, my goal was to be the first person reaching the top that morning. I figured that, as long as there wasn't any super-crazy ultra runner on the same bus, I'd easily beat everyone to the top. Before going to bed, I tried taking a few photos in the moonlight. I captured the stars (and clouds) directly above, as well as several of the Watchman, a 2,500-foot tall jagged spire. The combination of full moon and long exposure time created a funky set of photos.

On backlogs. by Wookie Kim

I haven't posted much recently. That's because I've been on the move--like, really on the move.

I left the North Rim of the Grand Canyon late Wednesday morning. It is now Sunday night in Dallas. In that 4.5-day span, I've done, among other things, the following:

  • marveled at the variety of petrified objects in Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park;
  • run barefoot and shirtless at sunset on an endless sea of gypsum crystals at New Mexico's White Sands National Monument;
  • camped at 9,000 feet in New Mexico's Lincoln National Forest;
  • watched bats flying around in New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns National Park;
  • taken in the spectacular views from Guadalupe Peak--the highest point in Texas--in Guadalupe Mountains National Park;
  • seen Donald Judd's concrete works at the Chinati Foundation and Prada Marfa;
  • made black bear, javelina, grey fox, and roadrunner sightings in Texas' Big Bend National Park;
  • slept under a brilliant starry night sky (that turned into clouds and rain, to my surprise, at 3 a.m.) (also in Big Bend);
  • ascended to the South Rim of the Chisos Mountains (also in Big Bend);
  • hiked over the Rio Grande into Santa Elena Canyon (again in Big Bend);
  • visited and dined with friends in Midland and Dallas;
  • and drove over 1,950 miles (including 660 today alone) to do the above.

I don't know how I managed to do all of this in the last 4.5 days. But I did. Unsurprisingly, this has made for an exhausting week; I'm sleep-deprived and fatigued. Still, I have absolutely no regrets; I could not have asked for a better week.

I'm now making my way east back to Washington D.C., my new home. It's crazy to think that, a week from today, this trip will be over. I still have so many photos and stories to share from the past few days. Over the coming days, I expect to have some time to clear up the backlog of posts that has accumulated.

Tomorrow, I head to Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, where I plan to go for a short run before bathing in the hot springs and getting a massage. Let's call it a spa day. 

Day 33: Grand Canyon National Park, AZ (Rim-to-Rim) by Wookie Kim

Running the Rim-to-Rim in the Grand Canyon was not the longest, or the hardest, run I've ever done, but it was the most epic. (Remind me that I need to define what I mean by "epic", a word I've thrown around all summer but haven't fleshed out.) Maybe a narrative of my day will shed some light on why I say this.

I rose at 3:30 a.m. My goal was to be on the trailhead at some time between 4:30 and 5:00 a.m. I had to be on the South Rim by 1:30 p.m., because that was when the last Transcanyon Shuttle was departing back for the North Rim. If I missed that, I would be stuck in my running clothes 220 miles away from my car and campsite (and, yes, the North Rim and the South Rim are that far away by car!). I anticipated taking between 6 and 7 hours, but wanted to budget in even more time just to be safe. After all, strange things can happen in the canyon.

I expected to be the only person up at the ungodly hour of 3:30 a.m., but I was surprised to see several campsites with flashing headlamps. I guess it wasn't that surprising--there are day hikers who start the previous morning and finish after midnight, and there are other R2R runners like me. In fact, the ranger in the backcountry office had mentioned that on a pleasant weekend day, the NPS estimates that roughly 1,000 R2R runners hit the trails. Apparently, the number of R2R runners has grown rapidly--so rapidly that the NPS is tinkering with a permit system, something that has already been implemented for large-group runs.

I immediately set to making a hearty breakfast. I pulled out the big guns today--chocolate chip Birch Bender pancakes. These things are insanely delicious, and also pack a caloric punch. I also sipped a bottle of Tailwind, another crucial ingredient to my nutrition plan. I went to the bathroom, too. This, as before every big run I do, was a huge relief. At 4:15 a.m., just as I'd planned, I was ready to head to the trailhead.

I drove over about a mile to the North Kaibab trailhead. This was the sole route down into the canyon from the North Rim. On the other side, however, there were two routes up to the South Rim, the South Kaibab and the Bright Angel trails. I planned to take the Bright Angel trail, even though it was longer, because it, unlike the North Kaibab, had water spigots along the route. I wasn't going to risk climbing 7 miles out of a canyon, and after having already run 14 miles down to the river, without the opportunity to fill up water. All told, I'd be running 23.4 miles according to the map. Of course, one can never truly follow the trail at all times. Additional distance gets added here and there. I was anticipating a 24-mile day. 

At the trailhead, I made last-minute clothing choices. At the campground, it was in the mid-50s. Here, however, it was even colder, probably the high 40s. In fact, I was already starting to shiver. I didn't want to carry too much, if any, cold weather gear, but I decided I'd begin wearing gloves and my rain shell. The water-resistant shell provided just enough protection from the whooshing wind to stop my shivers. I'd also packed a space blanket, just in case it got really really cold. I was now ready to set off!

But I immediately encountered a problem I hadn't expected: I couldn't find the trail. It was still dark, and I couldn't see any signs or posts indicating where the trail began. I followed what looked like railings and almost headed down what looked to be the trail until I realized that it was labeled something else. I turned around and followed the same railings to the other end. It ended and the trail descended, and I with it. I was now on the North Kaibab, dropping into the Grand Canyon.

The initial miles were surprisingly slow. I'd already been planning to take it very easy going down to the bottom of the canyon. I didn't want to blow out my quads on the steep descent. I also didn't want to risk falling off the edge in the dark. Even with these two factors in mind, I moved at a snail's pace. I didn't realize just how difficult it was to navigate a bumpy, rocky, sandy trail in very low light. I wasn't able to use my peripheral vision to discern the obstacles ahead of me. I also had trouble perceiving the variations in depth due to the undulating trail. As a result, I stumbled frequently. Thankfully, I'd brought my trusty trekking poles. Any time I stumbled, I put my pole down to regain balance.

At 5:05 a.m., I realized I'd descended a good bit already. I could see the faint outline of the opposite wall of the side canyon I was descending. With the moonlight, and a 10-second exposure, I captured it.

Of course, everything around me was still dark. But seeing a glimpse of the canyon wall confirmed that what I was doing was very real. It was an odd feeling, not being able to tell where I was, but knowing that I was descending very rapidly into one of the grandest geological features in the world.

Eventually, I made it to the Supai Tunnel. I couldn't really even look at it, because it was so dark. But I felt good that 2 miles had gone by and I hadn't even noticed. At 5:45 a.m., I crossed my first bridge.  

Just before 6:00 a.m., I'd finally made it past the forested switchbacks and into the canyon  proper. It was still dark, but long exposures revealed the immensity of the canyon. The trail snaked along the canyon wall. It was impressive engineering, for sure.

As official sunrise (6:15 a.m.) approached, my visibility grew. I looked over my shoulder towards the North Rim. It finally hit me that this whole R2R thing was really happening. There would be no turning back now.

At 6:15 a.m., I was at Roaring Springs, 4.7 miles into my day. Roaring Springs roared exactly like its name. This was the source of all water to both rims. It was impressive to see it pouring out of the side of the canyon wall.

Even though it was now past official sunrise, the inner canyon was still very dark. Looking up, however, I could see the brightening sky. This contrast made this endeavor feel even more epic; while all the world was lighting up, I was deep in the bottom of a canyon, still wrapped in darkness.

By 6:30 a.m., it was getting ever-so-slightly brighter. I could finally see the inner canyon in all its glory. And it was truly glorious. I'd seen countless photos of the Grand Canyon from the sky or from the rim, but this was really my first view of the canyon from deep within--3,000 feet below the North Rim. It was an awesome feeling to be running the entire length of this side canyon down to the Colorado River, and then back up to the other side!

Being deep inside the canyon also meant that I could pick up on the plant life. The stream (was this the Little Colorado River?) that the trail followed provided ample water for lush vegetation.

By 6:30 a.m., I was snaking along the tall canyon walls. Each bend showed something new.

When I turned a bend at 6:36 a.m., I caught my first glimpse of the bottom of the South Rim. What made this moment so special was that the walls of the box canyon that I was descending still had not been lit by the sun. It looked as though someone were telling me exactly where I needed to go. Like a fly, I motioned for the lighted canyon wall.

Eventually, I passed Cottonwood Campground, where I refilled water for the first time all morning (the pump house water spigot was off--the pipe burst had, in fact, affected the water supply!), and took a short break. I was now just under 7 miles into my day. I still felt comfortable and completely in control. I now set to my next segment--the 7.2-mile stretch to Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Colorado River. I'd been told that this stretch was flat and easy--a good place to pick up some speed. I began cruising, following the trail as it continued to snake along the canyon wall.

At 7:10 a.m., the inner canyon was still quite dark. But when I looked up, I could see the sun was creeping down the canyon walls.

I was determined to minimize my time in the scorching sun. It would already be scorching hot the deeper into the canyon I got. Yesterday, it had reached 104 at Phantom Ranch. Today, the high was 99, so it was slightly cooler. But that was still hot.

The final stretch to Phantom Ranch was a thrill. I felt like I was on a rollercoaster trail ride. The trail snaked in and out between the canyon wall and the stream below.  

At some point, I noticed what seemed like a water fountain. Then, I saw the pipe. Clearly, this water was not natural. It was probably water that was leaking from the burst pipe. I was glad I'd brought filtration, and that I'd started with--and maintained--a massive Camelbak reservoir.

As I ran, I also saw evidence of the canyon-forming process. Of course, the main force creating the Grand Canyon is water. The Colorado River (and other water sources) has been carving this canyon over many years. But water alone hasn't created this entire canyon. The walls have had to crumble in order for the canyon to widen. Here, I could see a rockslide of sorts. I was watching the Grand Canyon become even grander.

Really, there was just so much to see as I ran. As I said, every bend led me to something new to marvel at. By 8 a.m., I had a sense that I was almost to the very bottom of the Canyon. I could smell Phantom Ranch around the bend...

By 8:10 a.m., I'd made it to Phantom Ranch! I was now 14 miles in--well past the halfway mark, at least in terms of distance. Effort-wise, I was probably right at the halfway mark; the ascent would take far more effort than the descent I'd just completed.

Phantom Ranch is an oasis at the bottom of the canyon. There's a canteen, and several bunkhouses. It's an incredibly popular stopping point for R2R hikers--so popular that it sells out the first day of the season. 

I had an important task to complete here at Phantom Ranch: drop off the stack of postcards I'd written the day before. As I've mentioned, the post office at Phantom Ranch still packs out mail by mule. Apparently, it is the only post office that still uses mules. Mail that gets sent from here is stamped to indicate this unique carrying method. I'd written several dozen postcards, and I'd carried them down to the bottom of the canyon. I wasn't about to forget to send them! After buying a few extra stamps (I'd written so many that I'd ran out!), and a few postcards, I finally dropped all of them into the satchel. Hopefully, the mules are reliable and the postcards get to where they need to go. 

I also drank my secret weapon beverage--a can of Coke. Even though it is heavy for what it provides nutritionally, I always carry a can on long days. There's just something about Coke that is incredibly refreshing right in the middle of a hard day of running. The caffeine boost also doesn't hurt.

Just after 8:30 a.m., I was back on the trail, heading the last half-mile or so to the Colorado River itself. I could immediately tell why people loved Phantom Ranch. It was incredibly lush and peaceful. 

Right before reaching the Colorado, I saw a board with a missing person posting. This was a reminder that the Grand Canyon isn't to be underestimated. I knew that, even though I had roughly 10 miles left, I still needed to run conservatively and practice safe running.

Right by the post, I saw a unique sight. There was a cactus with what looked like red peppers growing right out of it. Was this some kind of symbiotic relationship? It was weird.

Finally, at 8:40 a.m.,I reached the true bottom of the canyon--the mighty Colorado River! The Silver Bridge was my route across and to the Bright Angel Trail. I crossed the bridge, fearful that it might collapse and the roaring river would sweep me away. Truly, looking down, you could see just how powerful this river was. I guess it now made at least some sense that this river could carve the Grand Canyon.

As I was dilly-dallying by the bridge, a father-son duo approached. I learned that the son was only 10 years old--and they had just come down the South Kaibab Trail and were planning to ascent back up the Bright Angel Trail. I couldn't believe that a 10-year-old was doing this hike (probably around 16 miles plus the canyon wall)! It turned out that the dad was a pretty serious ultrarunner. Go figure.

It was now 9 a.m., and I could sense that the sun was finally going to hit me dead on. I'd been incredibly lucky to have avoided the sun for most, if not all, of the morning so far. I knew that the sun would change the game. I put my camera away and decided it was time to ascend the Bright Angel Trail and get to the South Rim.

My next real target was the Indian Garden Campground. This, like Phantom Ranch, was an oasis in the canyon. But I had 4 miles of switchbacks to ascend before I got there. I set to work, power-hiking the steeps, and shuffling up the flatter inclines.

Climbs are always the most epic part of any run. The symbolism of the ascent is powerful. But the climb is also where the effort comes in. Not 15 minutes after I'd begun climbing, I looked back and could see that I was already beginning to rise up out of the bottom and up the canyon wall. I could see parts of the North Rim off in the distance. I'd conquered so much of the canyon already.

Every now and then, I'd look down to see what I'd climbed. The switchbacks, as always, are the most fun to look at. They make everything seem that much more badass. 

At each turn, I couldn't resist stopping to marvel at the distance I'd covered. The canyon walls drifted in and out all the way to the horizon. I simply couldn't get enough of these views.

Just before 10 a.m., I noticed a shift in the landscape. Everything seemed very, very green. I sensed that Indian Garden was very near, and that's because it was. There were a ton of hikers resting here. Some had been camping here, and others were simply stopping by. I filled up my water again. I was now 18.2 miles in, and it was time for the serious ascent to begin.

I had roughly 4.7 miles to go. In that distance, I'd climb over 3,000 feet back up to the South Rim. Believe it or not, this incline isn't insanely difficult. I'd done climbs on this trip that were far steeper. But the climb would be unrelenting. Moreover, much of it would be exposed to the sun. I could get hot, and my body could reach overexertion, very quickly. I prepared myself for a hell of a climb.

At 10:15 a.m., I was in the belly of the beast. I looked up and gazed at the layers of sedimentary rock that constituted the South Rim. I was climbing up to the top.

Now it was all about finding a good climbing rhythm. I used my trekking poles to tap one out, and I set one foot in front of the other almost as if I were marching. Each footstep was deliberate. I was moving right up the canyon wall. At 10:25 a.m., I looked back again. I was rising out of the narrow area and into the wider canyon. 

Soon, I was trailing a bunch of hikers. Now that I was getting closer to the rim, there were just more people around. Presumably, some had descended from the South Rim earlier that day and were hiking back out. It felt a little strange to be surrounded by so many people again. Aside from a dozen or so people I'd crossed paths with, I'd spent the entire morning practically alone. As I continued up the trail, the switchbacks got ridiculous, almost Escher-esque. This is what made Bright Angel so bright, I thought to myself. 

At 10:40 a.m., I was really really getting close. I'd told myself that as soon as I hit the 3-mile resthouse, I'd crank it up several notches. Basically, the run had been surprisingly easy so far. Granted, I'd chosen to run conservatively, but I honestly didn't expect to be so in control and fresh nearly 6 hours into my R2R. I knew I was very close to the top. There were throngs of people now. So if I passed out, someone would notice. I decided to treat the final 3-mile, 2,000-foot ascent as a hard tempo workout.

What this basically meant was that, for basically the first time all trip (remind me to write a post about running economy--something that has been critical to the success of my summer), I would let my heart rate soar way above the limits I usually set. Where 150 and maybe 155 beats per minute was my previous ceiling, I now opened myself up to whatever heart rate I could sustain for the roughly 45 minutes that it would take to get out of the canyon. I set to work. My lungs began to burn, and my legs were on the verge of cramping. I was basically running up a steep incline that most people were ambling along. I let the adrenaline carry me up the trail. I kept looking back over my shoulder, and I kept seeing an ever grander view of the canyon I'd come so close to completely conquering.

My heartrate was leveling out in the mid- to high-160s. With a fresh body, this would actually be quite low. But with 6 hours of R2R in my system, my body simply couldn't sustain an effort higher than that for very long. Ironically, I was forced to stop for a mule train--the first I'd seen all day.

At 11:05 a.m., I could sense that I was nearly there. Truthfully, it was very hard to tell how far I still had to go. It seemed that every time I thought I was there, I turned a switchback and saw a whole set of new switchbacks. In the shadows, you can see a new set.

Also, for the first time all day, I felt very emotional. I was almost in tears. It wasn't because of the pain of the run. Rather, I was so moved by what the day had provided that i simply didn't want R2R to end. I suddenly wished I were still at the bottom of the canyon, beginning the ascent once again. It was then that I decided I'd be back again one day--this time to run the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim (AKA the R2R2R).  

At 11:12 a.m., I felt really, really close. My legs were burning up. I was now definitely feeling the fatigue. I told myself that this was where I got stronger as a runner--by pushing through the pain, no, creating pain where none had been before--so I had to keep pressing on. Looking back once again, I couldn't believe I hadn't made it out of the canyon yet. The North Rim is at a higher elevation than the South Rim, yet it looked like I'd already reached a point higher than the North Rim.

At 11:20 a.m., I knew I was close. I could practically see the end of the trail just a few hundred feet above me. I booked it. I was determined to empty the tank--to leave everything behind in the canyon. 

When I passed a sign for the Bright Angel Trail, though, I had to stop. This was an incredible trail, and had provided an incredible morning. I needed a photo with the sign.

And then I was making the final push. At roughly 11:30 a.m., I made it out of the Grand Canyon. I'd completed the Rim-to-Rim. Based on my Garmin GPS, it had taken 6 hours, 49 minutes, and 31 seconds. 

You'd think that I'd have been overcome with emotion at this point. But, really, I wasn't. More than anything, I was just happy. Happy that I'd conquered the Grand Canyon. Happy that I'd completely immersed myself in the immense, beautiful, and grand Grand Canyon. Happy that I'd ran an incredibly smart day, hydrating and eating like a pro. Happy that I'd made it to the South Rim with ample time to nom on food before getting into the shuttle back to the North Rim.

There were a bunch of people who were resting at the trailhead. A group had just finished a R2R hike that had taken 4 days. They couldn't believe I'd done it in just shy of 7 hours. They took photos and video for me. Then they took their own photos of me. Others did too. In the ultrarunning world, R2R is actually not that unique of a feat. But I guess to the average person, it's an otherworldly feat. 

I spent 30 minutes at the trailhead, just trying to wrap my head around the day. It had started with the thrill of running in complete darkness, it had continued with my relentless pursuit of the next bend in the canyon, and it had finished with a powerful push up the canyon wall. The 7 hours had passed by so quickly, and at the same time, it felt like I'd started eons ago.

I also read all the trailhead information--something that I hadn't done at the beginning because I couldn't find it. Of all the parks I've visited, the Grand Canyon definitely has the most serious set of warning signs around. 

At noon, I was ready to aide my body's recovery process. I went to the Bright Angel Lodge and sat down at the restaurant. I asked my server to give me the most filling meal on the menu. It was a stew. I demolished it. I then asked her what the most filling dessert was. It was a bread pudding. I demolished that too.

While waiting for my check, I noticed that my pack was covered in salt stains. I forgot to mention that, despite how comfortable the day had been overall, it had still been quite hot the entire time. I'd sweat a lot. I'd also excreted a lot of electrolytes. I was glad I'd brought--and taken--almost a dozen electrolyte pills throughout the day. Aside from the final tempo climb, I'd not once felt any sort of cramp or strain in any of my muscles. 

It was now 1:00 p.m., and I needed to check in for my 1:30 p.m. Transcanyon Shuttle ride back to the North Rim. This would be 220 miles, and would take almost 5 hours, because we would be driving to the easternmost point of the Grand Canyon and crossing the Navajo Bridge to get back to the other side. I laughed when I thought about Rob Krar, one of the top ultrarunners around. He held the records for both the R2R and the R2R2R. He could make a crossing in under 3 hours, and a double-crossing in under 7. Maybe he should start a piggy-back shuttle service for people who need to cross the canyon more rapidly.

Before packing myself into the van, I took one last look at the Grand Canyon from the South Rim. The sky was surprisingly free of haze. I could trace the Bright Angel Trail all the way down into the bottom of the canyon, and then I looked at the jagged inner side canyon that constituted the North Kaibab Trail. I had conquered all of it today. How amazing. 

The Transcanyon Shuttle added to my day. The entire van was filled with people who either had just finished, or were about to start, a R2R hike of some kind. Although there were no R2R runners, I felt a common bond with every passenger, because even an R2R hike is no small feat. We shared stories about our days, talked about past and future travels, and just had a surprisingly fun time. The 5 hours also took us through many more impressive sights, including various segments of the Grand Staircase, such as the Vermilion Cliffs.

Just after 6 p.m., we'd made it back to the North Rim. I got dropped off at the North Kaibab trailhead. In the daylight, I could easily see where the actual beginning of the North Kaibab trail was. I'd missed it completely because of the dark. I read the sign and decided it was time to shower and eat.

I was overjoyed that the North Rim had coin-operated showers. I was gross, covered in sand-soaked sweat, grime, and salt stains. After showering, I headed to the North Rim Lodge's saloon. For several hours, I drank celebratory Grand Canyon pilsners and IPAs while chatting with the bartender and others at the bar. I ate a roast beef sandwich, and then I ate some pizza.

By 8:30 p.m., I was getting sleepy. I headed back to my campsite in the North Rim Campground, put all my dirty clothes away, and cralwed into my tent. For the first time all trip, I went to bed without setting my alarm. I didn't care what was on the agenda tomorrow--I deserved a full night's rest, and I was about to get it. 

On being two steps ahead. by Wookie Kim

I know people often talk about the value of being present, or "in the moment". I think I've had ample opportunity to be present while on this trip. Those moments have been rejuvenating and liberating, and I've cherished them. At the same time, the truth is that I'm oftentimes not living in the moment; I'm thinking two steps ahead.

Here are some examples. While I'm running a technical trail, I'm not looking directly at where my feet are landing. Instead, I'm scanning as far down the trail as I can see, and using my peripheral vision to process the obstacles directly by my feet. When I spend 3-6 hours out on a trail, I'm sipping constantly from my 100-ounce Camelbak reservoir, even if it's cold or I don't feel thirsty, because I know that the failure to stay hydrated today means I'll start tomorrow more fatigued. I also run surprisingly slowly on the trails--so slow, in fact, that if you were to have a phone conversation with me, you wouldn't even detect that I'm running. Running this slowly today means I'll feel fresh tomorrow. As I make my way around the country, I'm often sketching out a mental map of rough directions to my next-next destination, and not simply my next destination because knowing that second destination will help me better plan my route to and through the first.

Basically, I think two steps ahead for good reason. This trip is simply too long and complicated for me to complete it while living completely in the present. That would be like a juggler refraining from throwing the next ball before catching the one already in the air.

As with anything in life, balance is everything. The overall arc of my trip requires me to always think two steps ahead. But I try to infuse opportunities where I'm completely present, and have nothing to do but feel the dirt crunching beneath my feet, observe the presence of wildlife, embrace the cool mountain air evaporating the sweat off my skin, and soak in the beauty of the natural world that envelops me.

Runner's World Article by Wookie Kim

I realize that there are people who are following my trip but don't use Facebook or Instagram. If you're one of those people, you may have missed this development: I was profiled by Runner's World last Friday.

Megan captured the atmosphere of the trip perfectly. I thank her for that.

It has been fun to share the experience with others, and I look forward to continuing to do that going forward.

Thanks for following along!