I often wonder what my life would be like if I hadn’t gotten sick 6 years ago. It’s hard to say, but I honestly don’t think I would be the same adventurous person that I am today. Everyone’s life can be over in the blink of an eye, but when you have a life threatening disease that you have to manage on a daily - no, on an hourly - basis, you have a constant reminder that life is indeed short. For me, it was a wakeup call and it created this insatious desire to push my limits and prove that I could do anything I put my mind to…like running the rim to rim of the Grand Canyon.
September of 2019 was not the ideal time to attempt a rim to rim crossing of the Grand Canyon, but it was the only time my little brother, Sam, and I could schedule our busy lives around to do it. The days leading up to my flight out were nerve wracking as the temperatures at Phantom Ranch were well over 110 degrees and the water pipe running down the south rim was broken. Heat and hydration are the two biggest concerns in a crossing and both were not cooperating. Luckily, even though the temperature stayed extremely hot, the pipeline was repaired the day before we arrived.
Although a rim to rim crossing is dangerous in general, it was extremely dangerous for me. My disease has caused part of my adrenal glands to atrophy and so I can only regulate my cortisol (stress hormone) with steroids that I take orally throughout the day or by injection if I can’t take my oral dose. Steroids mimic cortisol. On a normal day, I take my steroids every few hours to function, but when I run more than a few miles, I take a pill every 40-50 minutes to handle the added stress on my body. If I vomit and can’t keep my oral steroids down, I am supposed to inject with my emergency kit and head to the ER! You can’t function without cortisol. You die without cortisol. So my number one goal was to keep my stomach happy.
As we woke at 4am and made our way to the North Kaibab trailhead, my stomach was tied in knots. I was excited and nervous all at the same time. With headlamps on and our running packs full, we flew down the trail. By daybreak the trail started leveling out and the beauty of the inside of the canyon unfolded before our eyes. I can honestly say that I feel sorry for anyone who has not seen the inside of the canyon as it is truly magical.
We reached Phantom Ranch mid-morning and refilled our water. It was starting to get really hot. The river crossing was the last spot we both could honestly say we felt good.
Now we had to climb our way out of the canyon and the temperature was well above 100 degrees. We were a bit behind schedule and were heading up Bright Angel trail into the “box”, a narrow canyon within the canyon with dark walls that we knew would be the most dangerous section of the crossing for us. Looking back, I should have known that neither of us were eating or drinking as much as we needed. We were both over-heating and my stomach was starting to get queazy.
In was in the box that the inevitable happened; I vomited. It was the first time I had vomited since I was diagnosed. Should I take another steroid in hopes it absorbs and my body calms down? Should I inject myself and hope I can make it out without assistance? I crouched on the side of the trail, waiting, thinking, weighing my options. I decided I actually felt better now that I had emptied my stomach and decided, with shaking hands, to take a large dose of my oral steroids. We sat there for 15 minutes while my body reset and then we started hiking out of the box.
By some miracle, I managed to stay fairly strong the rest of the hike up.
My brother and I were both overwhelmed with emotions when we finally reached the top and saw my husband anxiously waiting for us to appear. We had finished an adventure of a lifetime in 10 and a half hours, with smiling faces covered with canyon dust and sweat.
Six years, thousands of steroid pills and many adventures later, I realize that life rarely goes the way you plan. In fact, it’s somewhat like the canyon; filled with highs and lows, rattlesnakes, ravens, and monarch butterflies, a million switchbacks, and yet so much damn beauty that it leaves you breathless.
Alex Bancroft, Lily Trotters Ambassador