Like any good adventure, we wake up in the dark of the night and are on the road before dawn. Drinking stale motel room coffee, we drive to the String Lake Trailhead in Grand Teton National Park and meet our taxi, which will take us back to the other end of the Park to begin our point to point journey on the Teton Crest Trail.
As we drive an hour back towards the South side of the Tetons, I look out across a starry sky and think shit, we’re about to run all of this? 40 miles is far. Due to a road closure, we take a detour to access Granite Canyon, which is normally the entry point for the Crest Trail. Unfortunately, the Trail Run Project app leads us to the driveway of a mansion just off of the ski hill and we shrug nervously. Err- this doesn’t look like a trailhead. Perhaps you could drop us off at the tram instead? We ask our taxi driver. He kindly obliges. After returning to the base of Teton Village, we find the correct trailhead and at 6:30 a.m., we are officially on our way.
The initial ascent up Granite Canyon is moderate and surprisingly runnable, and as we gain elevation I wonder what the mountains have in store for us today. Us: myself, Rebecca, Stephanie, Kristen. Stephanie knows Kristen and Kristen knows me and I know Rebecca, but if there is any sense of nervousness about completing the Teton Crest Trail together when we have never actually been on a group run, let alone all known one another prior to the day before, it quickly dissipates on the drive from the Front Range to Jackson. Road trips and epic adventures have the funny effect of forging deep bonds among individuals in short amounts of time.
Seven years ago, right after graduating from college, and long before I was a trail runner, I lived in Jackson, Wyoming. I have only returned twice since I left, and today I will see more of the Grand Teton National Park than I had ever seen while living here. Returning here always evokes bittersweet memories of a bygone chapter, where I saw friends every day, worries were few, and finding a place to rent in the ski town was actually possible.
I am nervous about our undertaking, wondering whether I will be able to finish. This isn’t the farthest I have ever run, but I am easily the slowest runner in the group. I am thrilled to be included, and secretly intimidated. My mind oscillates between soaking in our surroundings, memories of carefree days when I was a ski bum and trying to keep up with the group.
At the top of Granite Canyon, we run past Marion Lake where backpackers take a morning swim in the bright, blueish-green water. Just past the lake, we reach Death Canyon Shelf, a relatively flat plateau around 10,000 feet with views of Idaho to the West and the Tetons to the North and East. The miles breeze by as we run among the wild flowers. I settle into a comfortable pace and we alternate between mindless conversation and silence. This is the sweet spot of a long run: neither tired, nor over-exerted, nor hyper-focused on mileage, simply present.
At Sunset Lake, we see a marmot with a fat wad of grass in its mouth and enjoy a light misting of rain. Just past the lake, the most beautiful patch of dense wild flowers appears: pink, red, yellow, purple and orange stretching on for yards. From afar it looks like we are running towards a tapestry arranged in the middle of a field. We linger here, stopping to take pictures and record silly videos of one another. Past the flowers, we begin another ascent until we reach a second plateau with views of the jagged Tetons.
Because the Crest Trail runs on the West side of the Tetons, which are commonly viewed from the East, we can’t actually identify each mountain. Err is that the Grand? No, wait that must be the Grand! Or maybe that one! From behind I can’t tell which mountain is which,someone says to the group before we start laughing: mountains don’t have a ‘front’ or a ‘back’ just a side are accustomed to seeing.
We round a corner and have out first view of what I have been waiting to visit for the last seven years: the Schoolroom Glacier. It is an odd feeling to finally see something in person after having seen it pictures for so long. The glacier is named Schoolroom for its “textbook” glacial features, but the reason for its fame is the neon-turquoise lake below which resembles a caldera filled with radioactive water. How anything like it naturally forms is hard for the mind to digest; simultaneously beautiful, bizarre and menacing. With views of the lake, we descend Hurricane Pass until only the walls of the lake are visible.
At the bottom of the pass we stop to filter water and rest. We have run about twenty-five miles and despite my feet beginning to ache, I still feel mentally strong. We continue to descend until we hit a junction between the Crest Trail and Lake Solitude Trail. By this point in the day, mid-afternoon, it is hot. The shade is brief, and the wind is fleeting. We are prepared for bad weather, but none of us anticipate sweating under a hot Teton sun. The trail here is littered with tourists who have come from Jenny Lake. I half-heartedly entertain thoughts of how easy it would be to shave off the last climb and some miles and descend the Lake Solitude Trail.
Past the junction, we begin our last climb of the run, with approximately 3,000 feet of gain. We have around thirteen miles left, which gives me both relief and anxiety. It’s only a half marathon! I think to myself. It’s still a half marathon the other side of my brain retorts.
We climb in silence. The sun is relentless. Sooner than expected, we reached Lake Solitude: lush, large, inviting. Someone suggests we go for a quick swim and we enthusiastically agree. I strip down to my shorts and sports bra and carefully navigate the mossy rocks. Respite! Relief! The cold water soothes my aching body. I could go for a lounge chair and a cold drink, but we still have ten miles left to go. Reluctantly, I dry my feet and lace my shoes.
Looming menacingly to the Northeast is Paintbrush Divide, a major misnomer, as the Divide has no wildflowers but is rather a chossy rockpile with a trail zigzagging up. It is now time to climb it. Ascending the pass, I hit a physical and emotional low and fall about 100 feet behind the group. Fatigue, muscle pain and self-doubt take over. The sun continues to beat down and I feel nauseous.
Trying to take my mind off the climb, I look across the valley to Micah Lake, nestled in a boulder field about 500 feet above Lake Solitude and seldom visited. I think back to a day seven years prior when I hiked up to the lake and was mesmerized by the bright blue water. It feels strange to return to a place so many years later and discover that I can still remember how I had felt in a moment of time long since passed. I wonder what my former self would think about today’s undertaking.
Slowly I climb until reaching the group waiting for me at the top of Paintbrush Divide. We can see Mount Moran to the North and a foreboding, dark cloud looming just over head. The merciless sun finally disappears and it cools off drastically.
I’m feeling optimistic, Kristen says. I don’t think we’ll get stormed on. Elated to have reached the top of the last pass, we agree.
As we descend the rocky pass I take deep, meditative breaths to placate my stomach. Suddenly we hear a BOOM and a light drizzle begins to fall from the sky. Because we are on the final seven-mile descent, we are not concerned about the storm and figure it will pass quickly. I feel like vomiting but do my best to continue jogging at a constant pace. BOOM. The thunder rumbles again, getting louder. Lightning lights up a dark sky. The rain goes from a drizzle to a steady downpour. Leading in front once again, my pace increases. The rain cools me off and despite being drenched, I begin to feel better than I have since leaving Lake Solitude.
As we begin to descent back into the trees, the lightening gets closer and the rain turns to hail. Oddly, I am grinning, overcome by exhilaration. My nausea is miraculously gone. I run faster. For the first time in my five years of trail running, I experience the elusive second wind. We run around puddles forming in the trail until they grow so large that we run through them. We yodel into the distance and we take turns yelling HEY BEAR! HEY MOOSE! to any wildlife hiding around the bend. What would feel terrifying or downright miserable had I been alone feels thrilling in the company of others.
With only a couple miles left to go, the rain shows no signs of abating. Our shoes are filled with water. We set a goal to outrun sunset. Finally, we run towards an empty parking lot, the tourists long gone for the day. Smelling and looking like wet dogs, we take a selfie, open a bag of pickle flavored potato chips, get in the car and drive past a mesmerizing sun setting behind the Grand Teton. We shower, eat Domino’s pizza and cheesy bread on the queen-size beds in our cramped motel room, and promptly fall asleep.
The next morning over bagels we reflect on the run and discuss our next adventure. Glacier National Park 100k? Stephanie suggests. Rebecca and Kristen are intrigued. I volunteer to be your crew I say. I’m not ready to think about another run.
After breakfast Kristen, Stephanie and Rebecca head to the Teton Wilderness for a recovery run and I stay behind in town to catch up with an old friend. Afterwards, I make my way to a park at the base of Snow King Mountain. I lie in the grass and allow my mind to wander, absolutely devoid of anywhere to be or anything to achieve for the time being.
I reflect on the fact that when we set out on a long run, we have no idea what story we will ultimately tell by the end of the day. And just like us, the story and its significance will evolve with time. I drift in and out of sleep and dream of jagged peaks, wildflowers and frivolous banter. I dream of thunder and lighting and hail and an unabating sun, but here in the grass under a warm blue sky everything is perfect and so I continue dreaming.