Ron Marinucci January Column: "Joe Burns at the Grand Canyon"
by Ron Marinucci, Jan. 3, 2022
“Slow Joe” he calls himself, with more than little self-deprecation. I don’t know about “slow,” but at age 64 Joe Burns is still out there running. In fact, last October he and about three dozen others traveled west to run the Grand Canyon. But Burns’ running started long before October.
“I started running back in 1975, just for fun,” he recalled. He didn’t run in school. “I just started for some reason. I would go three or four miles a few days a week.”
Then, he remembered, “In 1981, I wanted to get ready for a ski trip and spent some time with friends at the indoor track at the South Macomb (Community College) Campus.” His friends were runners in high school and college. Training with them, “Slow Joe” got pretty fast, posting a 4:54 indoor mile.
“I continued for a few more years, but when we had children, my running faded away.” He laughed as he told this story. “I started back in the mid-90s when, out of the blue on a hot July day, my daughter (Carrie, a pretty good runner herself!) told me to put on a shirt because my belly was TOO BIG! So I went upstairs, put on a shirt, stepped on the bathroom scale, and saw 254 pounds. Holy Smoke!” He recalled, “I was 205 [pounds] when I ran the 4:54 mile. So I slowly started back up and started running races.”
Carrie was again a motivator when she ran in junior high school and high school. Dad said, “I have not stopped since.”
Now Burns tries to “get in 100 miles a month.” Those are fewer than his peak years due to an injured right knee. “A third MRI is scheduled and I’m hoping to see some improvement.”
Along his running way, he has become a Detroit-area ambassador for Medals for Mettle. M4M is a program which collects runners’ and other endurance athletes’ finishing medals and then distributes them to folks who are battling serious illnesses and conditions, such as cancer. The medals acknowledge the courage and spirit of these fighters. Burns said, “I’m heading into year fourteen, I believe.” M4M will soon deliver its 10,000th medal in the Detroit area. “This has been so much fun to see how the running community has continued to keep this going for so long. We can all be proud.”
“Grand Canyon, WOW! Bucket list for sure,” he gushed. “It started as an idea based on a friend running it last year and wanting to go back. Well, that led to one person saying ‘I want to go,’ then another, then another…then me. The next thing we knew thirty-five or so of us made reservations at Bright Angel [Arizona] for the first weekend in October.”
Arriving on Saturday, they ran a few short trips down into the Canyon. They followed this with “a few miles on Sunday [to] get familiar with the park.” Different group members had several trails from which to choose. Burns opted for “a Rim-to-Rim,” from North Kiobab to the Colorado River and then up the Bright Angel Trail.
They woke early Monday morning for a 4:30 start. “Everyone started and finished that same day. The last of our friends climbed out of the canyon about twenty-one hours later.”
Burns recounted his day. “For my trip, Rim-to-Rim, we started at 7,200 feet [above sea level], descended about 4,700 feet, and then climbed back up 5,800 feet or so to the top of the North Rim which lies at 8,250 feet.”
The elevation change wasn’t the only challenge. “At the start we all had coats and gloves.” He almost shivered again, “Brrr. It was cold.” The coats and gloves weren’t needed eight hours later. “The temperatures by noon were around 90 degrees.” He admitted, “This made the grind up the north side quite difficult.”
Burns’ own adventure required about twelve hours, “maybe a little longer. I must tell you every single minute was a blast. Seeing everything from pitch black to the early light moments of the sunrise to having the light of day open the grandeur of the canyon was indescribable. The river crossing was spectacular as you come out of a dark tunnel to full daylight and a bridge tied to a sheer rock wall.”
He noted, “I always stopped to look back to see where we’d had just been. The colors, the height of the canyon…..”
Burns also cautioned, “You must be prepared for this. The grind up that North Face seemed to never end.” The friends met weekly for stair repeats at Bloomer Park. And he “beat the crap out of my legs at Stony Creek with hours of going up and down every hill out there.” Still, he admitted, “There was no way to prepare for the lack of air in 90° heat at 8,000 feet.”
He cited “our planning. What everyone in the group researched paid off.” This included the number of calories that would be needed, hydration requirements, and more. “I drank well over six gallons of fluids,” he said, “including the best lemonade ever at the Phantom Ranch [stop].”
He carried two 20-ounce hand bottles and had a one and a half quart bladder in his backpack. He also had electrolyte powder packs and energy bars. He conceded, “I needed every calorie and ounce of fluid I could find.” But he quipped, “The awesome thing was once we finally dragged our tails up and out of the North Rim, we had friends there to meet us and they had doughnuts—just for me—to congratulate us!”
Will he return, do it again? “I will go back for sure. But next time I will go down the North Rim and up the Bright Angel Trail.” He laughed, “We kept cursing all those going down the North Rim with their giggles and smiles as they passed us toward the end of the day while we kept climbing!”
He also would like “to enjoy all the views going the other way.” But he added he’d “train harder” with longer and tougher workouts, “four hours of hell and misery each training session.”
So, “Slow Joe,” do you recommend running the Grand Canyon? “Heck yeah!”
(Photos below provided by Joe Burns.)