It was pitch black save for my small head torch. It was not as cold as last year as I stood there alone collecting my thoughts. I knew from my research that this trail was more severe and difficult than the North rim but a shorter distance. I thought of a phrase that US ultra athletes use in extreme circumstances ... they talk about 'getting it done'. It was time for me 'to get this done'.
And of I went into the Abyss. The first kilometre was steep but fairly smooth but after I reached Ooh Aah point (called so because you stand and look out over the canyon and go ooh aah .... they should have called it Shiiit! cos that's what I thought).
The trail now became very uneven, rutted and steep, I had to really concentrate in the darkness, the one good thing was that I could not see the 6000 feet drop off right next to me but I could feel it.
I noticed a few hikers who had started earlier than me, it was weird but magical seeing their head torches moving down the trail in the darkness below. It was all 'Howdy' and 'Have a great day' as I passed them by. My concentration hardly wavered as it was so easy to fall. The trail had huge hollows in the ground which made it simple to twist or break something ... which would not be very clever stuck way out here.
After about 30 minutes dawn broke and I felt a little more comfortable as I could now see where I was going. The colours were beautiful and I would like to have stopped awhile and taken it all in but I had a long way to go so I kept moving.
Suddenly out of nowhere a guy appeared from behind a tree and scared me half to death. 'Gooday mate how's it going?' An Aussie of course and a hell of a nice guy who was hiking the same route I was running. He took my picture and after a brief exchange we said our farewells but within 10 seconds I tripped and fell to the ground hard. 'Jesus mate are you okay?' ... I checked, I had a few cuts and bruises but otherwise I was just a bit shaken. 'You better stop talking and concentrate mate'... sound advice I thought.
I now tried to pick up the pace as I had been far too slow in the darkness. After an hour the steep descent started to affect my quads but due to all the strength and conditioning I do it wasn't a problem. The river now loomed into view below me; it is just stunning. There is a point (see picture) called 'Tip off' and you can see why.
I eventually made it to the bridge feeling good but annoyed that it had taken me 20 minutes longer than I had anticipated. This was due to the darkness but luckily it would prove to be a double edged sword as later I would benefit.
I now traced the river all the way along to the base of the climb out and made good pace for the first time all day. I now felt calm and relaxed and let myself enjoy the experience. I felt grateful that I had completed the descent as I had been worried about it for some time. It was as hard as I had expected but perhaps a little longer.
I now felt very determined to make up for lost time on the 5,000 feet ascent up the Bright Angel trail. I picked up the pace and climbed the Devils corkscrew really well. Half way up I came across 6 female hikers just as I was taking out my super cool Black Diamond trekking poles. I snapped one shut and one of the girls shouted to me - 'Oh my god what an awesome pole you've got'. I didn't know where to look ...so I smiled and decided not to give a response (though I had many).
Just as last year many people shouted encouragement and asked where I'd started from and what time. When I told them, the comments ranged from 'Totally awesome' ...to ' looking good'... to 'you got this'.
I had decided before I began that no matter how tired I felt I would run the small creek up to Indian Gardens really well. Its one of my favourite spots, beautiful and calm and for awhile you can't see the canyon and it just feels like you are running along a small stream somewhere. Its magical, I can see why the Indians used to live here.
When I reached Indian Gardens I refilled my water pack for the first time that day. I had eaten and drunk very little but felt fine. The sun was up but I was still in shade due to the height of the Canyon and this was the benefit of starting in the dark. It was harder at first but easier later as I was not running in hot sun. I now began the final ascent up Bright Angel Trail and although I was tired I felt really strong and capable. The fact that I had done this before helped enormously because I could pace myself much better and I was not fazed by the climb. I now passed many hikers who were struggling with their heavy packs and not for the first time today I was grateful for my fitness and strength which enabled me to move swiftly.
The final great wall of Coconino sandstone slowly came into view and I knew that once over that I was home and dry. Its a daunting piece of rock as you climb up but you just press on and keep moving. Half way up an Irish woman stopped me and said - 'Are you Phil and have you got a wife waiting for you at the top?' ...'Yes' I said a little surprised. 'Well she told me you'd be the only one running up and to get your arse into gear as she's waiting'.
We both laughed and off I went .. except I was now under pressure!
The time passed quickly, whereas as last time it had dragged and thanks partly to the shade and partly due to my fitness I climbed from the river to the top in just over 3 hours which was 30 minutes faster than last year.
And so after 5 hours and 15 minutes I finally made it to the top. Sue asked, 'How do you feel?' My response (as I am 61 this year) was that 'I might be getting a little old for this kind of thing' ... however after about 10 minutes I was already thinking of my next adventure.