Sometimes the most amazing trails aren’t trails at all. I should know: my proudest speed records and FKTs (Fastest Known Times) are on routes that barely deserve the title ‘trail’. They are remote, they are rugged, they are difficult, and many of them are barely runnable. For some reason, I seem to thrive in extreme environments. The higher, the steeper, the slower the terrain – the more I enjoy my runs. Case in point: I hold various mountain speed records including Argentina’ 22,868ft Aconcagua, Colorado’s 76-mile Pfiffner Traverse and China’s TransQilian 105-kilometer mountain course.
It should come as no surprise then that, as COVID restrictions began to ease in early summer, I started to look around my own backyard for a similarly rugged, difficult objective. I didn’t have to look far. I live in Kanab, Utah – a small town in the heart of Colorado Plateau’s high desert wedged between Zion, Bryce, and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Our county consists of more than 4,100 square miles of incredible, mostly public, lands. There aren’t any high-altitude summits where I live but there is a plethora of awesome off-trail adventure running to be had.
I had my eyes on some extraordinary Grand Canyon routes for a while but that would have to wait. Backcountry access in Grand Canyon National Park is still off-limits while pandemic concerns remain acute. So instead of running across the Grand Canyon, I set my sights on a slightly smaller but equally rad canyon: Buckskin Gulch and the Paria.
Buckskin Gulch is North America’s (and potentially the world’s) longest slot canyon. *****POSSIBLY LINK TO BUCKSKIN VIDEO HERE ***** Its implausible narrows run continuously for fourteen miles, and the walls can reach up to 500ft deep. Buckskin Gulch has been called one of the world’s most dangerous hikes due to its susceptibility to flash floods; f there is a rainstorm anywhere in the long drainage upstream from the slot canyon, the gulch can turn into a raging torrent with no options for escape. Monitoring the weather and making conservative calls is essential when tackling a route like Buckskin.
May 16 was my day. The weather was clear with not a cloud on the horizon anywhere in Southern Utah. I’d been cooped up indoors for two months trying to steer a small guiding business through Covid and was itching to stretch my legs. The route I decided on enters Buckskin Gulch through Wire Pass Trailhead in Utah and, after passing through 12 miles of slot canyon, exits the gulch in a southerly direction where it terminates at Lee’s Ferry after around 45 miles.
There was just one challenge: I was in no shape to run 45 miles. Yes, I tried to stay active throughout Covid, but my longest runs in March and April were in the not-very-long-at-all 4 to 6-mile range. Well… sometimes the heart knows better than the mind. Even though I was radically undertrained and knew that I would be in for a bit of suffering, I was craving the focus and mindful freedom that comes with hard, long effort.
That’s why, at 11:30am on May 16th, I cinched down the straps of my Ultimate Direction pack fully loaded with 3,000 calories and emergency overnight gear in case of a severe bonk or sprained ankle, and set out jogging from Wire Pass Trailhead. The day was hot, and I was looking forward to entering the slot canyon and running through the belly of the earth for the beginning third of the route.
Running through Buckskin was an otherworldly treat. My initial trepidation over being undertrained was replaced by a broad permagrin on my face as I swiftly moved through the cool inviting subterranean paradise that is Buckskin Gulch. Sections of difficult footing were interspersed with miles of smooth, soft dirt. I made good progress. A short 3 hours and fifty minutes later, I exited Buckskin at the junction with the Paria River. 14 miles down, 31 to go. I turned right, downriver along the Paria, and headed for Lee’s Ferry.
To my great surprise, the wheels stayed on for the next 15 miles. I was no longer in a slot canyon now, but the Paria River corridor is a stunning desert destination in itself. Following the Paria meant I sometimes waded in the river. My feet were always wet, but I continued to make good progress as I steadily moved south.
Of course, that’s no how the story ends. A severe training deficit will eventually make itself known, no matter how seasoned an athlete you may be. In my case, my lack of training caught up with me right around the 50-kilometer mark. My pace cratered on the final third of the route and I eventually limped to the finish in 14 hours and 44 minutes.
I gratefully crawled into the back of my pickup truck to catch a few hours of shuteye before heading back to work.
Was it painful? Yes. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. I was pathetically slow on this FKT mission, and my body confirmed what my mind already knew: my training base coming out of Covid wasn’t where it’s supposed to be. But you know what? That’s OK. It still felt amazing to be out there, to do something hard, to forget about the world for a little while, and to dig deep to find that natural resilience and ability that we all carry in us.
My job in the Buckskin-Paria corridor wasn’t to put up a Fastest Known Time that is untouchable. It was to try something hard that I wasn’t sure I could do right now, and to reclaim some of that pre-Covid sense of self and sense of possibilities. And that’s exactly what I did.
By Suzanne “Sunny” Stroeer
Follow Sunny’s adventures on Instagram at @sstroeer