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Reflecting on Sobriety Between the Grand Canyon’s Rims

One woman marks seven years of sobriety by attempting to run the Grand Canyon’s 47-mile Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim trail run in one push. It all sounded great and symbolic. In theory. 


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Hiking up to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, I bent over my trekking poles and stared at my filthy shoes, trying to slow my overworked heart, and that’s when my mind went dark. 

The sun warmed my back, a warning of the extreme heat that was about to consume the canyon. I still had five miles to climb, straight up to 8,000 feet, and I could not take another step.

You knew this was going to be hard, don’t get down yet, it’s too soon, you just have to keep moving, I thought as I felt the change in my mental state. I was not even halfway yet. In an effort to stay present, I’d make myself stop and soak in the view of the stunning, tree-lined vertical rock that made me feel insignificant. But no matter how much I tried to focus on the positive things, my body screamed with paralyzing leg cramps, my vision went fuzzy, and my skin felt like it was being cooked. 

It wasn’t even noon yet. 

I looked up to see how far I was from the top, speckles of tiny human bodies appearing on the edge and then quickly disappearing, like ants on a mission. 

“There’s no way I’m going to get that far. I don’t think I’m going to make it,” I said out loud to no one. 

The Dream of the Canyon

One year ago, during the height of the pandemic, when we were all stuck in our homes and desperate to be anywhere else, I started to dream about running the Grand Canyon’s Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim in one day. As a seasoned ultrarunner, I’d often take running trips as annual vacations. Doing something challenging forced me to train and stay focused. What better place than the otherworldly Grand Canyon? Why not run the whole damn thing, twice, as only an ultrarunner should? 

I started planning from the comfort of my bed, researching the best times to attempt the double crossing. I read that water access on the trail was turned on on May 15, which coincidentally was three days before my anniversary: seven years of sobriety. 

“It’s meant to be!” I exclaimed to my dog beside me.

I booked five nights at Bright Angel Lodge and constructed a year-long plan to train and prepare. The 47-mile run would start at Bright Angel trailhead on the South Rim, at 7,000 feet. The trail descends 9.5 miles to the canyon floor, crosses the Colorado River, then traverses through “The Box,” the infamous section of towering canyon walls, notorious for feeling like an oven. The trail transforms into rolling hills as you start climbing, ending with a strenuous 8-mile hike up to the North Rim, for a total of 23.5 miles out. 

(Photo: Amy Willis)

Then, I’d turn around and go back, doing it all over again. 

To be clear, this wasn’t my first attempt at a very long run. After getting sober in 2015, I immediately jumped from a road marathon to a trail 50-miler, and haven’t stopped running since. I had experience going for the long haul, but I had never done anything as extreme as running through the Grand Canyon, and never self-supported. 

This run scared me. There would be no aid stations, no EMTs, nobody to rescue me other than by helicopter. While talking to a coach who had done the route several times, the single piece of advice that stuck with me was: “There’s only one rule to running the canyon: you have to get yourself out.” As doubt weighed on my mind, the thought of celebrating seven years sober won. I could not think of a better, more life-affirming way to memorialize this accomplishment.

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Drinking as Escape 

On May 18, 2015, I looked in the mirror and was disgusted with who was looking back. My eyes were dark and lifeless. I was a shell of a human. Extremely hungover. It was a Monday morning, and I was late for work. Again. I promised myself I would not drink on work nights anymore, but had been betraying myself for the past ten years and was used to waking up with shame. After a night of being sick from large amounts of vodka, sitting at home, alone, something inside of me screamed: Enough is enough. You need help.

Only 31 at the time, I knew this problem was only going to get worse. It was clear that I could not stop on my own, so I made my way to a 12-step recovery meeting. At once, the weight of shame, guilt, and the endless cycle of disappointment lifted. I was not alone, and never had to drink again. There was another way to live that didn’t involve self-destruction, suffocating pain, and misery. I was ready to do whatever it took to change. 

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Since that day, I have not picked up a drink, but I’ll admit there are times when I struggle with temptation. When the pandemic hit and I could no longer attend meetings with other people in recovery, the dark parts of my mind started to take up more space. Isolating at home for days on end created the perfect conditions for an alcoholic to sit and drink all day, and that thought crossed my mind. 

Drinking is an escape. It’s a moment of peace, a moment when worries and stress slip away. Eventually, as it deteriorates the brain and lowers inhibitions, it also erodes the soul and turns into something much more sinister. It robs you of your light, your personality, your purpose. It makes you do things you would never dream of, and it leaves you with nothing but the shakes and an obsession of wanting more. 

Fortunately, I made it through with online meetings and stayed sober for those two long years. As a reward, I was going to treat myself. I was going to run the Grand Canyon.

The Big Ditch

The day had finally come. It was only me and another friend, Lise, who would make the journey. She had done the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim before and was an experienced outdoorswoman. 

At 3 a.m., we headed down the trail, headlamps leading the way. The pitch-black canyon led us through 20 layers of geologic history. Once we hit Indian Campground, the canyon started to awaken, unveiling the landscape around us. At once I felt protected. Fears subsided with the first glimpse of light. The sky blanketed everything in a purple glow and birdsong filled the air. We were both in high spirits, our bodies felt strong, and we continued to trot along, miles ticking by. 

Running through the canyon is indescribable; some call it spiritual. The walls hover around you both as protection and threat. We noticed the shadow from the sun against the canyon getting shorter and shorter. It was coming for us. 

Lise felt good and ran ahead to the North Rim. I had slowed significantly and would meet her at the top, eventually. But the climb took almost everything out of me, and we weren’t even halfway. A friendly park ranger checked in on me motionless, resting on my trekking poles. 

 

We noticed the shadow from the sun against the canyon getting shorter and shorter. It was coming for us.

 

“You are overheating and you need to rest,” she warned. “When you get to the top, take a few hours rest and try to take a nap. Once you come back down, the sun will have moved, and you will be in shade the rest of the way.” She had seen her fair share of struggling hikers on this stretch of the trail and had solid advice, but deep down I knew that taking a few hours to rest was never going to happen. I thanked her and kept hiking. 

Don’t be stupid. You don’t want to get stuck out here. I don’t think I can do this, my mind circled. 

It had been almost nine hours and the thought of having another 23.5 miles to go stopped me in my tracks. In ultras, you should never think about how far you have to go. I finally made it to the top, complaining and airing my woes to Lise. I scanned the road, hoping a shuttle would appear and end my misery, allowing me to quit. 

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After drinking two bottles of Tailwind, cooling down, and discussing how to end the run with Lise, she convinced me not to. In the past few years, I had quit. I’d DNF’d after attempting to run 100 miles, twice, and also failed to run a 50-miler. I always quit when things get hard, and it’s precisely why I keep challenging myself with ultras. I’m not just training my body not to quit, but my mind as well. 

“Getting and staying sober is way harder than this. You can’t quit,” Lise told me. “Think about what you’ll tell people when you get home.”

She was right. I grabbed my pack and strapped it back on. Before I could change my mind, we were headed back into the canyon within 10 minutes of arriving.

The Return

The rest of the run was a long slog of putting one foot in front of the other. Temperatures hit the high 90s and there was no shade for hours, but I was proud of myself for not quitting, for locating a newfound energy that fueled me. I was determined to finish. 

As afternoon faded to evening, the temperature loosened its grip, but my body was exhausted. We decided Lise would run ahead for fear of running out of calories, and I would continue to hike until I made it to the top. The last eight miles felt never-ending.  

Fight, Amy, Fight. The voice in my head turned aggressive and demanding. You’re so close, you’re going to finish this. As the sun dipped and darkness fell, I strapped on my headlamp and put on my windbreaker, like a soldier gearing up for battle. Only three miles from the top now. Alone in the dark, I couldn’t let my mind wander anymore. I gave it one last push, wobbling as I alternated trekking poles. Finally, I saw Lise sitting at the top of the South Rim with a Coke in her hand. 

Finishing in 17.5 hours, I was proud of myself for sticking with the highs and lows – physical, geographical, and psychological. And for not quitting. 

Like the canyon, sobriety is filled with ups and downs, light and darkness, endless fears and doubts. It is a long, winding path of uncertainty, a test of willpower. Committing to the path and believing in yourself is where the training comes in, and allowing others to help you along the way is crucial to making it out alive. Recovery has taught me to let people in, to help me carry the load. Our short time here is for living fully, for having experiences that make us believe in something greater than ourselves. The Grand Canyon did just that. It taught me that I am stronger than I could imagine. Even when I am descending through layers of pain, I will eventually emerge from the darkness more capable and more confident than the person who dropped in.