NPR contributor Elissa Ely crossed paths with an unexpected group on a hike into the Grand Canyon. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

NPR contributor Elissa Ely crossed paths with an unexpected group in the Grand Canyon. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

I was hiking into the Grand Canyon with my middle-aged friends, feeling full of admiration for my own fitness. I was also feeling contemplative surges, composing Haiku between strides, modest and pretentious little momentos to carry back to civilization:

Cicada chiding,
Butterfly below the rim,
Great wall of China.

I liked the poetry, and also, the companionable presence of unknown neighboring hikers. Someone would catch up to someone else, saunter briefly alongside them, banter a bit, and fall apart. We were strangers, descending the great path of history together.

Then half a dozen men ran past at top speed. They were the width of pogo sticks, and agile like mountain goats — only in the wrong vertical climate zone. Not one was short of breath. Each seemed more cheerful than the last. They held water bottles in their hands, and were without shirts. One was eating a banana.

Our paths down history were taking different descents, and from my position, theirs seemed ludicrous. Running the Grand Canyon at top speed is the opposite of writing Haiku. There was no time for conversation. As the last racer sped past, I managed to yell, “how far are you all going?”

“Rim to rim to rim,” he yelled back, over an emaciated, mountain goat shoulder. I thought there must be an echo. He must have meant rim to river, or, at the very most, rim to rim. My own group was hiking seven miles to our campsite, and already we were bushed. Rim to rim is 14 miles. Rim to rim to rim is 21 miles. With or without the banana, that’s not fitness, it’s insanity. It’s unsustainable.  It’s anaerobic conditions only primitive single-celled organisms survive.

Yet each man looked so purposeful, so transported, he seemed to be running and flying at the same time.  Rim to rim to rim. They were crossing thousands of millions of years in a single long day. This was not a journey for the fit middle-aged. I was looking at immortality.