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Grand Canyon: Bright Angel to Phantom Ranch and Back with Camp Chaski 2021

July 22, 2021

Greg Lehman is the Lead Ambassador of the Chaski Pride Program and works as a Field Experience Representative at HOKA ONE ONE. He enjoys exploring and racing on a variety of different distances and terrains. He is honored and proud to share his words, photos, and video about visiting the Grand Canyon at the end of Camp Chaski Flagstaff for our blog!

A lot happened the day my friends Zandy, Brandon, and I shared my first run at the Grand Canyon on June 13, 2021: plenty of bonding, a few animal encounters, an expansive variety of terrain, significant heat, and me popping my left ankle at mile 9 of a 20-mile journey. And, of course, all of it steeped in some of the most beautiful natural grandeur on the planet.

This was also extra special since the three of us, our friend Bret (who did Rim to Rim with his cousin, excellent work, bud!), and more of our teammates got to see the Grand Canyon as a bookend to our first Camp Chaski running retreat. The camp was also my first running retreat, and also my first time getting to Flagstaff as a runner.

With all of these wonderful things going for me, I went into the day with no shortage of gratitude for the people and places I’d been lucky enough to enjoy for almost a week.

For our Grand Canyon adventure, my friends and I decided to take Bright Angel Trail to Phantom Ranch and back. The trip had to start early, and the low temperatures that started the day were greatly appreciated while they lasted, since the highs that would find us later were at top of mind.

Our journey into the park began with sighting a massive elk and wild horses on the road to the trail head. The elk was playing and munching from a tree at an intersection, and the horses were milling about some twenty feet or so from the road, hanging out, eating, and just being a family, which felt like positive signs.

We got ready, triple-checked the essentials we would miss, dearly, if we forgot them, and started off with a spectacular morning. The sun took its time getting up, but was definitely thorough about baking everything in sight as we got closer to the bottom of the canyon.

I had been texting my friend Chris previously about meeting up for our Grand Canyon run. We first met at Coldwater Rumble 100 in January where he paced my friend Cody to victory, and there might be people who love running more than he does, but I can’t imagine it’s a big number.

Timing is what it is, Chris and I missed each other, and I started the run down with Brandon and Zandy until we stopped at the first bathroom.

I was waiting outside when Brandon nodded up the trail and said, “Woo, look at that.”

I looked up to find a blur of a person, blue like Sonic the Hedgehog and paced like him, too, taking the downgrade at a sprint, arms out and hollering.

The start of the trail is what I’d call fairly technical, but this person was taking to it like it was lane one.  

Brandon and I stood there, slack-shouldered and amazed. And, of course, when I recognized who it was, I knew it couldn’t be anyone else.

“Chris?!” I shouted.

“Greg!” roared Chris.

I felt like his airbag as we caught each other in a bear hug, and after a quick and enthusiastic round of intros and conversation we all took off together. We went too fast, which is terrible practice in the canyon, but thrilling, and it’s hard to think of a better first run with a buddy, and was a good part of why this was one of my favorite runs, ever.

Rolled ankles were a frequent and ruthless nemesis when I used to skateboard in my teens and early 20s. The pattern is less regular now, but shows up every so often in my running game. Unfortunately soft tissue takes a while to get back to full capacity, as I understand it, and there’s nothing fun about waiting around to get back to what you love.

We were at just over 9 miles after the Colorado River (it has to be seen in person, but getting in is even better) and, on a hard right turn, the wrong angle twisted my ankle enough to get an audible pop.

I said a lot of things, loudly, as my mind went straight to weeks of inactivity, my friends carrying me out of the canyon, even a helicopter ride. I’m endlessly grateful that the sound and initial pain was scary, but everything was still strong enough to take my weight.

Extra thanks and hugs to Brandon for lending me his Black Diamond Distance Zs poles until I felt like extra support was unnecessary. I own a pair as well, and they earn their pervasive presence among athletes, and sterling reputation in practice, with ease every time.

After about half an hour I was able to run a bit, but opted to hike out the remaining 10+ miles to avoid the risk of injuring myself further.

We were easily in the triple digits for the rest of the day, some of the hottest temperatures I’ve been in, all in a place where you can’t get a bad view. A light breeze followed us most of the way, and did wonders at softening the impact of a cloudless day in June in the canyon.

The bighorn sheep I met on the home stretch, like the elk I came across in Hualapai a few days before, was beautiful, weary of me, and packed with muscle.

We step into the homes of local wildlife when we get on any trail, and they deserve our respect, and ample room to keep living their lives, with as little interruption as possible. I was happy to let the sheep take the lead on when I could pass by, and appreciate the blessing that each one of these encounters has been for me.

This was a hard and beautiful day, which is to say a day I enjoyed, and one I’ll never forget.

At the end of the trail it was all hugs and high-5s with Zandy and Brandon, and I’m grateful that we all came away from the canyon in one piece and smiling.

On the ride back to Flagstaff we talked about how invigorating it is to be among like-minded people at times like these, how rare it is to pitch something like a 20-mile adventure in the Grand Canyon starting before sunrise, and get a response that is not only ready, but excited to do so.

Camp Chaski at Flagstaff was exactly that, which was an absolute dream situation for me. I’ve missed big getaways like this for a long while now, and I’m endlessly thankful to everyone who made the Grand Canyon and Flagstaff overall a true joy for me. More time with all of you and these beautiful places can’t come soon enough.

— Greg Lehman

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