Obstacle Course

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Ultra marathons are endurance- defying races of 50 or 100 miles. One of the toughest and most (in)famous of these races starts in Death Valley and goes 100 miles to the top of Mt. Whitney — the lowest and the highest points in the continental United States. They require a certain type of dedication and masochism.

So (don’t ask why), I decided to run one to celebrate an upcoming landmark birthday. Not the Death Valley-Mt. Whitney death-fest, mind you, but the Grand Canyon Rim-to- Rim-to-Rim, a 48-mile run that drops 4,600 feet from the south rim to the Colorado River, then climbs 5,600 feet to the north rim, then reverses itself for a return to the south rim.

The Grand Canyon is an intimidating and dangerous place, with few water sources. Temperatures at the rim on a winter’s morning may be in the teens, but in the 80s down at the Colorado River by midday — a 70-degree swing. But summertime can be the real killer. Morning rim temps of 50–60 degrees can lure the unsuspecting down trails to places where, by early afternoon, when the full intensity of the sun reflects off the painted walls, temperatures can top 120. Rescues are common, particularly of French and Asian tourists impulsively drawn in by the magnificence and ease of access.

Luckily, my birthday falls in November, when temperature extremes are lessened, so my wife and I planned our run during Thanksgiving break. We started our ultra at 4 a.m. and covered the six miles to the Colorado River by 6. It was still dark, but we were right on schedule. Still, we had 36 miles up to and back from the north rim, with a final six-mile climb back to the south rim.

Down by the river, at the Phantom Ranch ranger station, a ranger asked to see our permit. Now, although permits are required for overnight camping stays in the canyon, day hikes don’t require a permit. So we told her we were “day hiking,” which, by any reasonable definition, we were. She looked us over, eyeing our fanny packs and water supply, and asked, “Are you running Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim?”

We said we were, and she notified us that Rim-to-Rim- to-Rimming was prohibited. I hate confrontations with government bureaucrats, so I told her we’d reviewed all the public notices to ensure that we complied with all NPS regulations — and I told her so nicely — and said that we hadn’t run across that particular prohibition. That’s when the exchange got interesting.

She explained that publicizing such a rule might inspire the unqualified to attempt the feat, possibly resulting in an increased number of NPS rescues. Silence settled upon us. All the possible convolutions of twisted bureaucratic thinking, and all the possible counterarguments, flooded my mind. How could keeping a regulation secret deter anyone, much less be effective? I dreaded responding to such a catch-22 without starting an endless exchange that would worm-hole us into the middle of a Monty Python skit.

Fortunately our tight time schedule forced wisdom to prevail. I fixed her understandingly in the eye and said, “Well, if you’re not going to arrest us, we’d better get going so we make it out in time and don’t become part of the problem.”

Seemingly at a loss for words, hoist on the horns of a dilemma, unable to reconcile regulations with facts on the ground — a decent person — she sighed and waved us on our way.

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