Story and images by Ashley Arnold
The open road that stretches out before us is flat and surrounded by desert as we wheel our way toward Arizona. I sit in the passenger seat as my best friend and training partner—my trail sister—Gina Lucrezi drives her XTERRA. We have been exploring the American Southwest en-route to the big hurrah of our trip—the Grand Canyon. While we’ve traveled all over for trail races, we’ve never been on a road trip together…until now.
I first met Gina while I was an editor at Trail Runner magazine and she was my PR and marketing contact at Inov-8, a shoe company hailing from the North East. We were little more than professional contacts who e-mailed each other now and then, occasionally mentioning our own running experiences as a point of “small talk” in work-related conversations. We lived on opposite ends of the country at the time: She lived in Boston and I lived in Carbondale, Colorado.
When we met in person, it was at the U.S. Mountain Running Championships in North Conway, New Hampshire, in 2010. We were both there racing and neither of us had a good day. A nagging injury forced her to drop while I just struggled through the race never quite able to get my legs to turn over or my mind to settle. We bonded over misery I guess, our dissatisfaction with our respective performances. And then I think we ate chocolate—the stuff by which all strong friendships are bound.
Gina moved to Carbondale the following year to take an advertising job with Trail Runner. We became roommates and almost instantly became the kind of friends that felt more like long-lost sisters.
When we arrive in Flagstaff, Arizona, it is late enough that we can’t make out much in terms of the scenery around us. The peaks exist simply as soft, almost disappearing silhouettes against a cloudy, smoke-filled night sky.
Despite the fact that forest fires rage just outside of town, Flagstaff is a beautiful Ponderosa Pine island with snow-capped peaks in the middle of desert. It’s a laid-back, honest-feeling mountain town with easy trail access. What’s more, it’s about an hour’s drive from the Grand Canyon. So being here means our destination is, at least figuratively, “in sight.”
The morning of our Grand Canyon run we make our way along the rim to the South Kaibab Trailhead, where we start our descent. I have to be honest here: I’m not all that impressed. It’s early in the day, and still, throngs of people are walking the upper sections, taking photos on the rim. There are far too many cars in the parking lot. Perhaps it’s the spectacle of the thing, the fact that the Grand Canyon is so often described as so unbelievably stinking amazing, that I deflate even more than I expected when I see it.
I can’t help but think about all the less crowded and far more spectacular places I’ve visited in the American West. Places so remote I don’t have to say “excuse me” to pass anyone, because there isn’t anyone. As we descend the seemingly endless switchbacks that take us farther and farther down, I feel annoyed.
Gina, on the other hand, is marveling out loud at the folds of gradient-hued red rock landscape that jut all around us, at the almost 7,000-foot drop from rim to river and the complete amazement she feels about how this thing got here in the first place.
I keep my distance, feeling like I need to contain my disappointment within my personal bubble, and I back off the pace a little to let Gina bound ahead. We are maybe halfway down when she stops and insists I go ahead. I sort of sigh and feel myself jolt as I lose momentum and try to stop. I’m not sure I want to lead. A couple seconds later, though, and I consent and pull ahead.
Suddenly my mood shifts. Just like that. The hiking crowd has thinned marginally and the lazy, winding river is within sight.
“OK, this is pretty cool,” I say to Gina.
“Right?!” She responds almost before I can get out my words. Almost like she heard them before I even had a chance to say them, almost as though she had offered me the lead knowing it would help me see what she was seeing, help me change my mood.
Perhaps this is a good time to mention the “woo-woo” bit: We’re both convinced we’re psychically connected, that we’re trail sisters because we have a karmic sister history. A psychic actually confirmed this theory once. She explained at length our former-life sisterhood and our irrefutable link in this lifetime. Despite how different we are at times, we can’t help but remain friends.
It’s true, I think. And this Grand Canyon example is just one of many instances when one of us does the other one’s thinking seconds before. You could argue, yes, that this is also just the case of truly good friends. But you get the picture.
We pause to snap photos and take our time at the bridge on the other side of the river. We switch off the lead again and Gina pulls in front, taking us on a short, mid-run out-and-back to an area called Phantom Ranch where we fill up our water.
“Sometimes I think about how incredibly lucky we are that we can do this,” I say as I pull my pack back on. “We can see so many beautiful places by just running through them. And I think if we’re not careful, it’s easy to take it all for granted.”
“I know,” Gina says. “It is easy to get caught up in the goal of a run and forget to really see where you are.” She’s referring to training for races and the blinders that sometimes overtake us when we’re following a rigid training plan. These thoughts are good reminders. They linger as we move ahead.
The day wears on and the heat increases, and Gina, who is coming off of a week with the highest training volume (including a 50-mile race) she’d perhaps ever had, starts to feel bad. She is exhausted—on top of her not-so-favorite running conditions (heat). I, on the other hand, start feeling better and better. I want to run faster and notice myself getting restless to push the pace. I had relaxed most of the previous week and therefore had logged fewer than half the miles she had before even touching the canyon. On top of all of that, hot and bone-dry climates are my favorite places to run.
We cross the river twice and then head up toward Bright Angel Trail, a route that will ultimately slope upward and take us back to the parking lot after a solid 21 miles of Grand Canyon running. I decide to lead us up the climb then, telling her to follow my steps, thinking she will just fall in line with the pace. But almost immediately, I start getting ahead.
I run a few minutes and stop, looking back. She is still moving but struggling to keep pace. I’m not sure what to do. I hear a nagging little voice telling me I should push hard up the climb and meet her at the top. At the same time, something else is telling me to wait.
“I don’t know what’s wrong. I just can’t move.”
“It’s OK. You put in a huge week before this. Let’s just walk and jog every other switchback.”
And so we do. It’s a long way out of the canyon. And by the end we’re both sun-soaked and dehydrated.
“Thanks, Ash,” Gina says, sounding deflated.
I smile. “Of course! We came down here to do this together, good day or not.” Time and geology might be able to split the very earth apart into a mile-deep chasm, but friends stick together.
Because for all the amazing beauty of a broken landscape like the Grand Canyon, there is also something beautiful about connection, about a shared experience. You know, the truth is, while trail running is often a solo sport, it isn’t always. Sometimes it’s just like a road trip: a fast way to see a whole lot of country with a really good friend.
This article was originally published in Women’s Adventure magazine‘s Fall 2014 issue.