Excerpt: Everything All at Once
2021 Outsider of the Year Steph Catudal’s new memoir, ‘Everything All at Once,’ offers a raw look inside the paradoxical landscape of grief and surrender, love and loss of her father, and nearly her husband, endurance athlete Tommy Rivs
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It was late afternoon, one week before his cough started, when Rivs left for the Grand Canyon. The cicadas had just begun their end-of-day chorus as Derrick Lytle pulled up to our house in a tan minivan, his bare foot, tinged copper from red rock sand, hanging out the driver’s window.
Though Rivs usually ran the Grand Canyon alone, today he was joined by his adventure-videographer friend, who had come down from southern Utah to run a longer variation of the infamous Rim-to-Rim- to-Rim route. Their plan was to run across the canyon and back along Bright Angel Trail, a grueling forty-eight-mile trek of unforgiving terrain with over eleven thousand feet of climbing. A multiday bucket list journey for most hikers, this was a somewhat routine ten-hour run for Rivs and his endurance athlete friends.
Derrick slowed his van to a crunching stop as though he had all the time in the world, stepping out onto our unpaved driveway with a broad grin stretched across his sun-worn face.
“I don’t know, man. I think women in this town dig the idea that I might be a dirtbag dad,” he said in drawn-out syllables, introducing the rental as his “Babe Mobile” while tucking a strand of hair behind his ear. Rivs and I laughed, appreciating the irony: Derrick was, for the moment, married only to the desert and his independence. His baby—a converted live-in 4×4 truck he’d spent years building out—was in the shop for repairs.
After a brief meeting to prepare gear and food, Rivs and Derrick left for the South Rim of the Grand Canyon just before sundown. Rivs often preferred to run the canyon at night—partly to avoid the staggering heat, but mostly to remind himself that he wasn’t afraid of the dark.
As an empath, he learned at a young age that sustained movement was the least destructive way for him to metabolize emotional pain—both his own and that which he absorbed from others. He found reprieve from the heaviness only outdoors and through sustained physical exertion.
“I don’t run to be fit,” he once told me. “I mostly run to not hurt so much.”
I always imagined he left some of his pain at the bottom of the canyon—as though he’d negotiated physical anguish for emotional relief, unburdening himself among the igneous rock and cottonwood trees. Whatever heaviness held him before, he always returned from the canyon a little bit lighter, with gratitude for the life he was able to live and a quiet reverence for the space in which he found it.
This time was different.
When Rivs came home with Derrick the following afternoon, he was shaken. There was a soft fear in his eyes as he hobbled out of the Babe Mobile—the kind that bends inward, imploding in the acknowledgment of one’s mortality. I’d seen this look before, just not on him.
“That was rough. I actually thought I might not make it out,” he said as he peeled his salt-stained hydration pack out of the trunk.
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After a long shower, Rivs laid on the spare mattress we’d put in the basement for Derrick. With eyes half shut he explained his descent down Bright Angel Trail.
He felt short of breath the entire night but tried to brush it off, convinced that his body would sort itself out along the way. It wasn’t until fifteen miles into their run—a few miles past Phantom Ranch campground—that Rivs finally stopped running. He was overheating and couldn’t keep his heart rate down. He couldn’t catch his breath.
“Sorry, man. I think I’ve gotta cut it short tonight. Something just isn’t right,” he said, and Derrick agreed in his calm, laid-back manner. Slowly, they started back towards the van rather than continue on to the North Rim of the canyon.
But they only made it another half hour, back to Phantom Ranch, when Rivs said he needed to rest again. Weak and disoriented, he laid himself on an old picnic bench, struggling to breathe.
As a seasoned athlete with an academic background in exercise physiology, Rivs had a good understanding of the human body and how it worked—especially under physical stress. That night, unable to regulate his body temperature and with his heart racing at a rate inconsistent with his fitness, Rivs assumed he was suffering from heat stroke. Even after sundown, the Grand Canyon in June was a quagmire of stagnant heat, with temperatures hovering near 100 around the clock. Tonight was no different, with the Phantom Ranch thermometer reading a stifling 99 degrees Fahrenheit.
By midnight, after spending an hour on the picnic bench sweating through cold chills, Rivs knew that if he didn’t get out of the canyon soon, he’d likely die right there beside the Colorado River. Both he and Derrick had spent enough time in dangerous situations to know that the bottom of the Grand Canyon was not a place to be when things weren’t going right, especially during a global pandemic. With all national parks closed due to COVID-19—the Grand Canyon included—tonight there would be no park rangers, no mule trains, no helicopters, no rescue teams to call.
Feverish and disoriented, Rivs picked himself up off the bench and forced down a burrito before starting on the five-thousand-foot ascent.
The climb out took ten hours—a stretch of switchback trails that he normally completed in less than two.
“I really didn’t think I was gonna make it,” he confessed that evening, the two of us squeezed next to Derrick on the mattress. Rivs kept shaking his head in disbelief.
After a takeout meal that he hardly touched, Rivs asked if I’d inflate a blow-up mattress for him in the basement, where it was cold and dark.
He slept for eighteen hours straight, long past Derrick’s departure the next morning.
The basement became a refuge in the days that followed. Rivs’s headache and fatigue grew so extreme he found it hard to even make it to the bathroom. Bit by bit I brought down pieces of our home, from Rivs’s favorite blanket to snacks he wouldn’t eat and even our only TV.
Concerned with usurping medical attention when the state was drowning in COVID-19, he was adamant about not going to the hospital. Instead, he maintained that hospital beds should be left for those who truly needed them. People in far worse situations were being denied emergency treatment, and he didn’t want to add to the problem.
He may have been stubborn, but he was not opposed to medical intervention. Nor was he a novice when it came to making accurate diagnoses and triaging patients—skills he had learned in his physical therapy program. During the first week of his illness he went to two urgent care car-side appointments, where he was instructed to go to the ER—which he did not. He did not want to sit in a COVID-19-filled emergency room at the Flagstaff Medical Center, which, at that point, was one of the most overwhelmed medical facilities in the nation.
“I can’t go, babe. That’s where people go to die right now.”
Despite the lethargy, profuse night sweats, splitting headaches, and the occasional blood-stained urine, Rivs assured me that he would just “rest it off.” Endurance athletes put their bodies through such duress that illness is quite common in the days following extreme exertion. At least that’s what he told me, and I believed him. I always believed him.
In the end we blamed his symptoms on fallout from heat stroke. That is, until his cough started.