It's considered by many to be the Mecca Run. Some train years for the 24 mile journey that descends to the floor of the Grand Canyon, includes a ten mile trek across the base and finishes with the long and difficult ascent back to the top. It's called the Rim to Rim, or R2R, and it's a brutal trek.
Crossing the Grand Canyon isn't just a walk in the park. In fact, park officials actively discourage R2R crossings because there's a high potential for heat stroke, dehydration, hypernatremia and rattlesnakes. The range of temperatures during the day can fluctuate by close to 100 degrees. Plenty of advance planning is required to secure your lodging and train for such an extreme event. Start now and you can spend the winter running up and down stairs and daydreaming about your upcoming spring vacation.
But for Larry, it was just another adventure to pursue on a whim.
He was passing through Arizona on his way to Utah when he started planning. He stopped at REI and bought some trail shoes, a water filter and a few Power Bars. He was at the South Rim and planned to run to the North and stay in one of the lodges on that side of the canyon. He'd park his car near the scenic overlook at the South Rim, run the canyon, spend the night in a lodge and trek back to his car the next morning.
Things were going swimmingly for the runner. He reached the North Rim before dark and felt the sense of accomplishment that always accompanies such a journey. And with a full night's rest he'd be back on his way back across the canyon early the next day. That is, if any lodges had been open.
"It was early May, so the lodges weren't opening up for the summer season for another week and I didn't know," he told me. "So I ‘sprinted' back across the canyon in the dark. I had the Power Bars but my stomach was locking down and I couldn't eat and needed rest. The canyon floor is littered with rattlesnakes so I climbed high onto a rock and slept for a few hours."
As he finished his story he took another bite of his gobernador taco and said he couldn't remember if he had a flashlight.
It is at this intersection of harrowing adventure and casual indifference where guys like Larry live. He told me of a fifty mile trek through the desert, embarked upon with nothing more than hope and a new pair of shoes, and he couldn't remember if he had a flashlight to light his path during that dangerous night.
Larry ran his first marathon at 19 and he's completed over 100 marathons and ultra marathons since. For his 50th birthday he celebrated by running a 50 mile race and capped it off running the Boston Marathon. For the past few years he's focused solely on 100 milers, culminating this year in his quest to complete the "Grand Slam" of ultra running: four 100 mile races held at different locations across the country completed over the span of three and a half months.
He trains lighter than most, often only putting in 40-50 miles a week whereas others run upwards of 80. He doesn't look like an ultra runner, especially as we sit enjoying chips and tacos at various Mexican food restaurants around town. He's slender, and certainly in shape, but doesn't have the gaunt, emaciated look that you might expect from someone that runs one hundred miles in just over a day.
He speaks with a casualness that belies his intensity and has a natural prodding communication style suited for someone whose curiosity led him to run ahead and hike the Grand Tetons with only his Tevas and a walking stick. He'll chip away at your defenses with his easy nature and peppering questions. Because the man that longs to know what's on the other side of the mountain also wants to know everything he can about those he's acquainted with.
He's in a perpetual state of motion, shuffling his fork over his knife and back again or looking side to side around the room. There is a liquidness about him that gives you the sense that if you reach out to grab him he wouldn't be there.
He continued in an almost stream of consciousness flurry. He told me how runners are allowed a "pacer" from mile 50 to the finish to keep them company and sometimes sane. Runners will sometimes start hallucinating on the long run so a pacer helps pass the time. His wife Anabel, a champion runner as well, is often Larry's pacer but she gets bored and runs ahead. "I'll pass runners in the night and ask them if a lady has passed recently."
"That's my pacer," he tells them.
It is Larry's term for the times during the run when energy levels are depleted and the runner just wants to lie down and go to sleep. In order to overcome, it is necessary to shock the body by consuming several hundred calories, which is easier said than done. "Lots have stomach issues, but fortunately mine is pretty strong," Larry said as he finished off another taco. "Most will ingest some energy gel packs but I like to eat a sandwich."
I asked him what he thinks about during those long hours alone. "Usually it's just ‘why the hell am I doing this'," he said with a laugh and a jolting slap on the table as he shifted in his seat. "Why do you?" I asked. He told me after he completed his first that he'd didn't think he'd ever do it again. So I asked again, "Why do you go back?"
"It's natural to see if we can do it, but when we do more than one, I guess that's when it might not seem normal." He laughed and said when he gets to a race he often looks around and wonders what issues the other runners have. "We are all running from something," he said, but not everyone agrees. "I get into arguments all the time with other runners because most say they are just looking for the famous runner's high."
"Anabel runs for release," he said. Larry and Anabel have a special needs son so "she runs to get away from the doctors and the stress and the challenges that come from life."
Others might run to quench an addictive thirst. "There is this wonderful feeling of accomplishment in the first few days after a race, but then it wears off," he said. "So you want that again."
"That's what we're all looking for."
Reconciling Life's Juxtapositions
I went for a run this morning and thought about Larry and others. I thought about the different challenges that so many face: some minor, others overwhelming.
My three mile jaunts are lazy angels dancing on the head of a pin when compared to the treks that Larry and his ilk make, but the thirty minutes alone help to clear my head nonetheless. During my run I also thought about another recent meal I'd shared with an inspirational acquaintance and mistakes I've made along the way.
Stuart Scott and I were introduced to one another under less than ideal circumstances, but we've kept in touch and still communicate periodically. Before Game 2 of this year's NBA Finals I met Stuart and his girlfriend for breakfast at their hotel on the River Walk.
It was completely casual and relaxed. Later, after describing the visit, a friend said "it sounds pretty lame," which is 100% true and also made the morning absolutely perfect. We spent very little time discussing sports or professions and instead spent our time talking about what's most important in life. We talked about our kids and favorite cities and the best shows on TV.
He carries himself with understated confidence, and in contrast to Larry his movements are measured and precise. While listening, he focuses in on the speaker to capture every word. Years of interviewing athletes taught him that I suppose. And the man famous for his eloquent slang is actually rather quiet and reserved when the cameras are off. He wasn't interested in playing the role of "famous guy," choosing instead to have pancakes and hang out with his girlfriend and a dude from San Antonio.
I never planned on writing about that morning because that's not why we met. I wasn't having breakfast with ESPN Anchor Stuart Scott, I was simply having breakfast with Stuart.
But the juxtaposition of life's events can at times be overwhelming. Stuart's speech at Wednesday night's ESPY's was powerful and moving. It was also heartbreaking to learn that he'd spent the seven days prior to the evening in the hospital. During that time I had greedily sent him a text message offering congratulations and clumsily inquired about writing a feature story. My ambition at times is regrettable, and the words I choose unfortunate. Stuart didn't need my congratulations for fighting cancer. He just needs my prayers and promise to keep fighting for him when he's too tired to.
And as of this writing one of the greatest men I've ever known and one of my best friends in the world is in a hospital bed in San Antonio facing a very difficult and scary situation. It is so hard to fathom because just last Thursday we had dinner together and discussed the Spurs and places we want to visit.
Attempting to reconcile the different struggles we face roils inside me. Everyone can either make it to the other side of the mountain, or give up. I know all three men in this story to a varying degree, and know that none will choose the latter. I find comfort in that.
The Grand Slam
The "Slam" consists of officially finishing the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, the Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Run (where human runners and horses compete), the Leadville Trail 100 Mile Run and the Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run all in the same year.
Each race has various requirements for qualification and selection. Larry has qualified for the Western States 100 four times, but this year was his first actual attempt as he made it through the lottery process for selection. Completing Western States set the stage for his quest to complete the Slam. Thirty runners began the journey but six dropped out during the Western States 100. The Vermont 100 is scheduled for Saturday and Larry is one of the 24 remaining vying for the Holy Grail of endurance racing.
But just like that rim to rim run Larry attempted a few years ago, he has a problem.
"I felt something in my knee pop at about mile 15 at Western States," he told me. "I went ahead and finished it out, but it really swelled the next day."
After processing the fact that Larry ran 85 miles, basically on one leg, I spread some habanero sauce on a flat tostado broken in two. The absolute grandeur of the task was completely watered down by the way in which he delivered the news. An 85 mile run, completed on what has now been diagnosed as damaged cartilage and bone on bone bruising, spoken to me as if he was asking about the weather.
Perhaps it's to mask his disappointment, or perhaps it is a disconnect between what he considers to be extraordinary, but he often seems more interested in the fact that I'm not wearing a suit to our lunches than the stories he tells me about his runs.
But either way he's off to Vermont on Friday to try and slog through. Larry will soon be on the trail with only his thoughts, a bad knee and a burning desire to continue running.
There is No End
If I've learned anything from these last few days it's that there is no end. Regardless of what happens with Larry and his knee in Vermont, he'll find a way to keep finding the other side of the mountain. "I think I might get a bike," he told me as we discussed next steps after the Slam is complete or his knee completely gives out.
And I'll go home tonight and listen to my boys play. They often throw in a "BOOYAH" in their unending quest to empty every toy bin in the house. I don't know exactly where they picked up the term, but it is part of their vocabulary now, and was introduced into the modern vernacular by Stuart Scott so many years ago. Every time I hear them shout it I think of Stuart's strength and courage. And with any luck I can channel a Pavlovian response as a reminder to myself to try and be a better man.
But first I'll stop by the hospital and see Keith. I might pick up a few books on the way or I might just sit there with him for a while. If he's awake maybe we'll start planning a Rim to Rim trip.
And perhaps another meal.