90. Each Step an Offering

90. Each Step an Offering

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners

Each Step an Offering

Take a breath of the new dawn and make it a part of you.
 ~Hopi Proverb

Inspiration

It’s 1:30 in the morning, only a quarter mile into what is planned to be a 44-mile day, and I have already stripped down to my shorts and T-shirt. The Colorado River snakes its way through this canyon 5,000 feet below me. Moving over stone, my shadow keeps me company as my feet crunch down the South Kaibab Trail. I remind myself of the Hopi Indians, a Puebloan people who live nearby, and their belief that running can be a form of prayer. Each step is offered as a sacrifice to a loved one, and in return they ask the Great Spirit to match their strength with some of His own. I have never attempted such a big run, but motivated by my mother’s recent victory over cancer, I am inspired to try the Hopis’ way, offering each of my steps as a sacrifice to my mother’s renewed health, with the hope of better understanding my experience of facing the unknown.

Preparation

Getting ready for a long run is straightforward. I increase my mileages, test my gear, familiarize myself with the route, and gather the proper foods to fuel my efforts. I ran throughout the spring, visiting beautiful places and accumulating big miles as I anticipated my pilgrimage. Despite my training, I felt my confidence swallowed by the Canyon as I approached its rim. Could I pull this off? Is this what my mom felt when she was diagnosed? Does our preparation ever match our challenges?

The Power of Community

When illness arrives it is easy to feel alone. Looking beyond our sense of isolation, we recognize groups of people who share our experiences. Heading alone into the Canyon, I was surprised to see another headlamp illuminating the trail a few switchbacks below me. When I caught up I was greeted with a friendly “Good morning.” My loneliness evaporated; other people were on this path. Each time I had an encounter it refreshed my sense of shared mission and community.

Where are My Boundaries?

My first big landmark was the Colorado River. I glimpsed it as I descended, a silver ribbon defining the canyon bottom. Without its presence, my plunge would have felt like a tumble into nothingness. I remembered my mother deciding which doctor appointments were significant, which treatments would mark her progress. Finding ways to segment our experiences, we can handle overwhelming tasks. Inspired by what we have accomplished, we can face what lies ahead. Crossing the river I knew that one small part of my adventure was complete and I would now begin my 14-mile, 6,000-foot climb up to the North Rim.

Beauty Everywhere

Passing silently through Phantom Ranch on the north side of the river, I felt like the phantom himself. I was solidly entering the meditative mind and flowing awareness that running brings. Night-blooming flowers laced the air with perfume and iridescent insects flitted about in my headlamp’s beam. Bright Angel Creek rushed invisibly past me on its way to the Colorado River. As stars began to melt away into the dawning sky, I found that unlike my experience heading into the Canyon, I was alone. I imagined my mother finding herself in the dark hours of a sleepless night, achy from chemotherapy, having to source the beauty of her life, the distant love of her friends and family to get through those times.

Illumination

Although morning brought with it stunning sunshine, temperatures dropped as I neared the North Rim. Ponderosa pines and aspens slept; the North Rim was not yet open for the season. As I lay on my back gnawing on a Lärabar smeared with Hammer Gel, feet propped up against a rock, I took a moment to reflect on my journey. I reminded myself that halfway is just that, exactly as far from the beginning as from the end. I recalled the celebration my parents had after reaching chemotherapy’s midway point. Does completing half our task truly mean we will be able to finish it? An energizing breath followed my sigh of relief and I packed up to cross the canyon again.

One More Time

Gazelle-like, I bounded down the North Kaibab trail. Tackling this, the longest leg left in my journey, I considered that I had already covered 22 miles and experienced 11,000 feet of elevation changes. My mom must have had moments of total inspiration; getting good test results as cancer withered and died in the face of chemotherapy had certainly provided feelings of fearlessness. I had my reflective parasol anchored to my shoulder strap, my iPod pumped Abba into my ears, and I took time to appreciate that I was passing through one of the greatest places in the world. In the same moment I was aware that the temperature was approaching the predicted 102 degrees, I would soon be surpassing my longest training run mileage, and my food was beginning to repulse me.

Times Change

Passing through Phantom Ranch again was now a social event. Campers finishing breakfast seemed surprised to see me as I trotted across the Canyon for a second time. These people were not like the hikers with whom I had earlier shared my path. They reminded me of the caring people who offered, “Oh, I am so sorry to hear about your mom’s illness,” or the acquaintances who tried to show compassion, though ultimately felt uncomfortable dealing with the dark specter of cancer. Their support was mixed with a sense of relief that for now, they would only have to visit with suffering, not actually be its host. A cold green river had replaced the silvery ribbon I crossed eight hours ago and my pace slowed as I ran along its shore.

Will This Ever End?

At Indian Gardens I broke down and vomited my last energy bar and most of my water onto the hot sand. Though I shared the cottonwood tree’s shade with other travelers, no one said anything about my condition. I had to accept that a journey’s end is a definite place and I was not yet there. Eventually I would be able to mark the completion of my quest, but my mother’s journey could have numerous finish lines. Cancer might find new hiding spots, allowing her to slow down and walk for a stretch; however, her race might have to be run again. Feeling alone and unable to completely reenergize, I let the nausea pass and then got up to finish my prayers.

Back Where I Started

Fortunately, the people in my life who have dealt with cancer have all outrun their sickness. The difficult journey forever changes their lives. Eventually, their suffering gives way to renewed health and life continues. During my run through the unknown each step had been an act of gratitude, an offering to the Great Spirit. As I surveyed the Grand Canyon from its South Rim, it was clear to me that life is just a series of journeys, one linked to the next, each ultimately bringing me a little closer to where I started and each one leaving its imprint on my life.

~Eli Shostak

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