Because the world’s problems feel smaller at the bottom of a 500-foot-deep abyss
We shiver and hobble on frozen feet that feel like stubs as we navigate the slick, water-polished stones and squish through mud within the slot canyon walls. We are hundreds of feet below the surface of the earth. Despite our discomfort, we’re laughing hysterically because our running form is horrendous.
“Andrew, you look like Quasimodo,” I tease as his feet land in a wide half-squatting stance.
He looks over his shoulder, “Are you sure you’re a pro runner, Mo? Look at that stride!”
After about 50 water crossings (some waist deep) through icy pools that consume the canyon floor, we finally crawl out of the shadows of the underworld and into the Utah sunlight. While we rest in the warm sand, I remove my soggy shoes that feel like ankle weights and sprawl across a rock like a lizard. Petroglyphs of bighorn sheep are strewn across the canyon walls around me.
Meanwhile, Andrew Burr scrambles up the rock to figure out how the ancient natives got in and out of this place, searching for Moqui steps and even warmer temperatures above the rim. I wonder why he’s not tired yet.
Let me be clear: No matter what he tells you, it was all Andrew’s idea to run Buckskin Gulch. It’s the world’s longest slot canyon at approximately 15 miles long, and we extended the distance with Wire Pass and Paria Canyon to make it roughly 30 miles car-to-car.
After our sufferfest around Mt. Blanc last fall with ultrarunner Jenn Shelton, I thought Andrew (a climbing photographer by trade) would never run again. We’d miscalculated our route in Italy during a snowstorm, which led to a near-hypothermic experience, and afterward, Andrew was laid up with a double ankle injury for nearly a month. The 75+ miles with 20,000+ feet of vert that we completed in three days on the Tour Du Mt. Blanc was Andrew’s longest run ever. Before training for it, he’d never covered more than six miles. It marked the farthest multi-day running mileage of my life, as well. Neither Andrew nor I had done any long running expeditions since.
At 6 feet tall and 200+ pounds, Andrew isn’t exactly built like a runner. And yet somehow he’s able to keep pace for hours with my 5′ 8″ 120-pound track runner stride, making us an unlikely but well-paired running team. These things considered, attempting the Buckskin Marathon defied all training logic (you know, things like building your mileage and long run distance slowly), which is exactly why we wanted to do it. Not preparation, no problem. What could go wrong?
In this canyon, a typical flash flood could go from 0 to 20 feet of water in just minutes.
A lot, actually. Buckskin Gulch is one of America’s most dangerous trails. (Run it? Map it here!) The canyon is no more than 10 feet wide at its narrows, reaches up to 500 feet deep, and drains via a massive watershed (including the Paria River and surrounding streams), making escape during a flash flood nearly impossible. Signs of this natural phenomenon were ever present throughout the run with high water lines clearly defined, fallen logs wedged between its walls, and massive boulders marking erratic rock fall. “If a six-foot-deep flash flood swept through here, Mo, you’d be gone,” said Andrew.
In this canyon, a typical flash flood could go from 0 to 20 feet of water in just minutes. No one is safe. The best precaution for running this route (and any slot canyon) is to watch the weather closely and avoid flash flood season (July through September). We manage to skirt both and enjoy a dry, warm winter day.
Once finally dry and an episode of the screaming barfies—typically reserved for activities like ice climbing—left my hands and feet, Andrew and I set off running again with at least 13 more miles to go. The best thing about a run like Buckskin Gulch is that it’s impossible to get lost. You travel one way in and one way out, guided by the canyon walls. I run along, hypnotized by every twist, texture, and turn, focusing on the mystery around the next bend. Forward is the only direction.
I never let my gaze wander too far from the candy-colored rocks beneath my feet, but staying upright is still a challenge. On the first fall, I catch my foot on a rock, almost save it, land my other foot in some sticky mud, and belly flop across like a kid on a slip-n-slide.
Andrew stops and turns back to see me lying face-down in the mud laughing. When I stand up, chocolate-colored mud streaks across my bright blue running kit, face, hands, and legs. “Do I look like a real trail runner now?” We giggle and start up again. I fall more times than I can count and Andrew trips a few times, too. It’s Russian roulette with obstacles underfoot and miraculous scenery overhead. To look up is a gamble, but who could resist it?
The truth is, there is joy in suffering.
We hoot, holler, and laugh the entire way until our cheeks literally begin to seize up with smile cramps. Curious backpackers wait around the bend of the narrowest sections to see what all the commotion is about. We blaze past them, shouting hellos. Neither of us is out of breath. “Andrew, you’re in better shape than at Mt. Blanc.”
“Well, it helps that we aren’t running over three mountain passes a day this time,” he says.
The truth is, there is joy in suffering—a philosophy that Andrew passed along to me after Mt. Blanc. But there wasn’t much suffering happening at all on this run as we enjoyed the simple process of placing one foot in front of the other, splashing through puddles, leapfrogging over boulders, and feeling the freedom of being tucked safely away from all the problems of the world above us.
We reach the confluence of the pale jade green Paria River where the canyon walls widen. Here, we lose any notion that this is still a trail run and begin our river dance through ankle-deep water. When we do hit land or a sandbar, it lasts for no more than 50 meters before we must once again get our feet wet. Andrew tries to count how many times we do this but loses track at a couple hundred. A zephyr (warm desert wind) picks up and blows through the opening between walls. When we cross the river for a final time, our relief does not last long as we hit a never-ending path of silty, fine, red sand. Not rivers, rocks, nor mud can match the agony that is trudging through sand when you’re exhausted.
We cheer each other on and smile through the pain.
We are past 26 miles now, and I finally begin to see the real hurt on his face. I don’t admit it, but my back is starting to kill me—even my lightweight backpack sits like a burden as it bounces up and down. We cheer each other on and smile through the pain.
To distract ourselves, we keep our eyes on the canyon walls in search of one final tract of petroglyphs, the Bear Wall. Andrew notices an area, so we veer off the sand trail to an even sandier dune and climb up toward the wall. “Nevermind, nothing to see here, Mo. Sorry,” he turns around, defeated.
“Wait!” I point up. “Above your head!” It’s a faint petroglyph of a deer or antelope. As our eyes shift across the rock, a landscape of more animals, rivers, and mountains reveal themselves.
As we shuffle away, still smiling, the conversation shifts to “Where is that damn yellow Jeep?” and “I need a beer.”
The canyon seems endless until we crest a small hill, and just like that, the finish of our Buckskin Marathon is near. Like the real runner he is (no matter how much he denies it), Andrew can’t help but pick up the pace and sprint toward the end. I chase after him, but even my track speed can’t steal the win from him today as he leaves behind a trail of dust, hollering aloud and waving his arms in the air. He stops at the Jeep and collapses on the ground, eyes shut and smile wide.
I veer straight to the trunk to pull out two ice cold IPAs and crack them open. I finally sit down and take a deep breath of the clean desert air as I look up at the cloudless sky, which was hidden from sight for most of our run. Trails like Buckskin Gulch take us far away from the common roads and bullshit of our daily lives to places of hidden beauty where we can clearly see our own capabilities. The darkest recesses, cracks, and fissures of the earth, like this 500-foot-deep canyon, magnify the light when we finally reach it. We sit up, high-five, and sip on our beers, celebrating another sufferfest.