“Running to him was real; the way he did it the realest thing he knew. It was all joy and woe, hard as diamond; it made him weary beyond comprehension. But it also made him free.” – Once a Runner
Tim Ray was an amazing man, a great athlete, and a good friend. He had a lot of outstanding qualities but the one that stood out the most was how hard he worked, his dedication. He was very driven, in his training and beyond.
This quality especially stood out to me because I see myself as dedicated. But next to Tim, I was the one taking it easy, going home while he did another workout… maybe I was born a better runner than him, but he sometimes beat my run split in races (Of course he always beat my total triathlon time). Not because I didn’t push myself. But in comparison to Tim, it often seemed that way. Tim pushed harder.
One year ago Tim and I undertook our first ultramarathon: we ran across the Grand Canyon and back, Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim (R2R2R). 42 miles, 10,000′ gain, and indescribable beauty and grandeur. He wrote to me a week after the run “it’s almost embarrassing when people ask me about the run because i can’t help but get excited about the canyon.” It was a powerful bonding time, a great natural experience and the best run of my life as well.
This year Adam, Daniel, Sante, and I, Tim’s teammates from the UCSD Triathlon team, decided to run the Canyon R2R2R in his honor. Due to forecasted huge snowstorms, the run almost didn’t happen. But at the last minute, the weather forecast changed dramatically, the run was a go, and I scrambled in five different directions to finish things and make it possible to join. Tough, but I could not imagine not being a part of the memorial run.
As a tribute to Tim’s environmental cause, I would wear the environmentally friendly (bamboo) UCSD Triathlon shirt. As a reference to our camaraderie I would wear my Tri Club San Diego hat that we both wore in the Avalon 50 miler in January. And as a tribute to his psyche, I would push the run hard, very hard. As hard as my body could take.
The internal goal was to go faster than last year’s 11:01. I pushed hard with Tim to get that time last year and took a month to recover. But with more training, experience, and a lot more motivation to make a tribute to Tim this year, I knew I could go faster.
Like all of my recent races, I would go with the Naked Wrist. My camera time-stamps the photos, so though I wouldn’t know my splits while I ran, by taking photos during the run I could figure out the times after I finished. And not knowing the time meant I could honestly always push as hard as possible, never falling into the trap of knowing that I could relax if I was ahead of the goal pace.
The four of us started in the dark on the South Rim. It was below freezing and snows from previous days made the trail icy for the first 5oo or so vertical feet. But once we were sufficiently below the rim, it warmed up to perfect temps for the rest of the run until snow and ice returned again at the North Rim.
My plan was as follows:
South Rim to River descent (7 mi, 4500′): Relax the down, don’t destroy quads yet.
River to North Rim climb (14mi, 5500′): Push it. hard.
North Rim to River descent (14 mi, 5500′): Hammer, destroy quads.
River to South Rim climb (7 mi, 4500′): With whatever is left, go as hard as possible at every moment– i.e. get haggard.
The effort went exactly according to plan. But there was a lot of snow to slow the ascent of the North Rim and my whole body (especially my quads) was aching from a week full of big workouts. I didn’t think we would be coming so I biked far, climbed hard and even did a track workout 36 hours before the run. Not strongly recommended.
Given muscle fatigue everywhere and the minimal sleep I got in order to get things done last minute and make my trip possible, I wasn’t sure how fast my time would be. Indeed, there were steep stretches of the North Rim that I think we had run last year that my quads were too fatigued to run and I had to power hike this time. Also, last time Tim and I traded off being strong and got energy from each other; this year we all ran different paces so I had only myself. I realized I might be slower this time around.
But good effort, not necessarily a good time, was the important thing. I was there to push hard to honor my friend, and I would do the best I could. “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the Gift.”
And I laid it out there, way out there. I will spare you most of the details. But I pushed extremely hard the whole time, thinking all the while that Tim would be pushing harder than me and I needed to keep up. Just like on the North Rim descent last year, where I was going all out and barely hanging on to Tim as he cruised in front of me, focused, seemingly unstoppable.
This year, I was again truly enjoying the beauty of the incredible landscape. And simultaneously, very deeply, suffering. Especially on the last climb. It was hard to not wince, I audibly grunted frequently for well over the latter half of the run, and I even threw up once in my mouth. Still, I kept pushing, even harder, at every opportunity when I felt myself let up a little. If I could go faster, I would go faster.
Last year, we had to hike all of the last climb–it is so steep– except about 40o meters. This time I was able to run about 2 miles of it and powerhike almost all of the rest very fast. It was veteran’s day, and Tim was a veteran. I wanted to push as hard as I could to represent our friend.
Sprinting to the top, I got a tourist to click the photo at the South Kaibab sign atop the icy trail. Unable to talk, I shuffled back toward the car. Minutes later, I looked at the timestamps to find out what time my efforts yielded.
My time: 9:23. More than an hour and a half faster than last year. I went to a dark place internally to push myself so much. But knowing that Tim would be proud of the effort brought me even more light.
Grand Canyon R2R2R is still my favorite run I have ever done. The great difficulty, natural beauty, quality of trail–everything is perfect. I was hesitant to come back to R2R2R because my memories of Tim were so intertwined with it. By coming with our teammates, I was able to face this psychological challenge and to exert myself in a way that I felt fitting to Tim’s memory.