The Grandeur of the Grand Canyon

AJW's TaproomA little over twenty years ago, after completing a two-year, around the-world-bicycle trip, my wife Shelly and I settled into a new life in Phoenix, Arizona. For the first year there we did what many young Phoenicians did at the time and enjoyed semi-resort style apartment living in the boomtown that was Phoenix of the mid-90s. Eventually, we settled into a small house in the up-and-coming historic district downtown and enjoyed a great five-year run there.

It was during this time living in this sprawling Southwestern city that I first discovered trail running. Exploring the rugged trails around Squaw Peak and Camelback, South Mountain and the McDowells, and places further afield like Prescott and Flagstaff, I quickly fell in love with the relatively new trend, at least to me, of trail running. I became connected to the local trail running community and enjoyed many a mile with some of Arizona’s most legendary runners.

Jones-Wilkins Family - Grand Canyon

Part of the Jones-Wilkins family in the Big Ditch. Photo courtesy of AJW

In the midst of this entire trail discovery period Arizona’s Crown Jewel remained omnipresent. For a mere 200 miles north of our desert nest was the Grand Canyon and one of the most iconic trails in the world. Shelly and I (and eventually our very young family) made multiple trips to the Canyon during these years and occasionally ventured below the rim. Once, in fact, my parents came out from Massachusetts and we hiked down to Phantom Ranch and back doing the tourist thing of sleeping down on the Canyon floor. In these years I flirted with attempting a Rim to Rim to Rim run but never quite got up the courage to do so. It was not until a few years later once we had moved away that I ventured back several times to make that sacred crossing.

My fondest (and fastest) crossing of the Canyon was in March of 2009. My family and I were on Spring Break escaping the never-ending Idaho winter and I got out early on a Thursday to make the trek. It was my 4th Rim to Rim to Rim and I wrote about it in some detail.

My time of 8:11 was nothing to write home about, but I remained proud of it as I moved on to other running pursuits and eventually moved back east in 2011.

Interestingly, in the years I was running the Canyon somewhat regularly an R2R2R boom of sorts began and over the next few years some of the biggest names in ultrarunning took aim at the Fastest Known Time. On the women’s side, over the course of six months in 2011, Krissy Moehl, Devon Crosby-Helms nee Yanko, Darcy Piceu, and Bethany Lewis progressively lowered the 8-year-old record of Emily Baer from 9:25 down to Lewis’s current standard of 8:15.

AJW - Grand Canyon - hot

AJW in the Grand Canyon on a hot day. Photo courtesy of AJW.

On the men’s side. Allyn Cureton held the record of 7:51 for 25 years between 1981 and 2006 before Kyle Skaggs broke it in 2006 with a 7:37. Then, a year to the day later, Dave Mackey became the first to run the Canyon in under 7 hours with a 6:59. Four years later, wonderkid Dakota Jones ran a 6:53 and two years after that up and coming (at the time) ultrarunner Rob Krar further lowered the record with a 6:21. And so it was with this as a backdrop that Arizona native Jim Walmsley took to the Canyon this past Tuesday.

I spent some time with Jim last month at a running camp in Northern Arizona and was impressed with his focus and drive. Coming from a track background, Jim is a stickler for numbers, but as an Arizona native he also reveres the stark beauty of his home state. An attempt at the Grand Canyon FKT provided a perfect blend of his two passions. And, indeed, his run was truly extraordinary.

Traversing one of the earth’s most beautiful and sacred landscapes in under six hours is nothing short of spectacular. As I “watched” Jim’s run from afar, I, like perhaps many other Canyon aficionados, couldn’t help but look on in wonder. Additionally, I have to admit, it made me long to get back out there to give the R2R2R another shot. Not for any sort of record, hardly, rather just another opportunity to be in one of the world’s truly unique places. In a setting that is at once beautiful and settling I cannot help but think that the extra special nature of place must have an impact on how we move through it. Come to think of it, it might be time for another Spring Break trip to Arizona in 2017! After all, it’s been over 20 years since we lived there, I wonder if it’s changed at all.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Mother Road Brewing Tower Station IPALast month while out in Arizona I asked Jim (a big IPA fan, by the way) to recommend a few Flagstaff breweries for me to try. I managed to visit three and was able to taste five IPAs (NOTE: It was Sunday and Wanderlust was closed). Of the five I tried, Tower Station IPA from Mother Road Brewing was the best. Smooth, fruity, and just the right amount of bitterness. Try it the next time you come back from a canyon trip.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • Have you ever run the Grand Canyon? If so, what did you think?
  • What do you think of the evolution of the R2R2R FKTs?

There are 11 comments

  1. Don Dawson

    Andy 2 points, 1 positive and 1 negative re. Jim’s new FKT. The video shows his insane downhill speed, insane because 1 big slip-up and he could be a gonner. The negative, and maybe you can confirm or refute what I think I saw on the video – it looks as though as he sets off on the return leg he presses a button on his watch, suggesting, to me at least, that he stopped his watch while at the half-way point. Any comments?

    1. Alex

      Probably just “lap timing” on top of the overall running clock, so he’d have individual numbers detailing how long each stretch took, independent of the break.

    2. Luke

      My understanding is that the start and finished were witnessed, so the FKT is calculated from wall clock time, not his watch. So really that wouldn’t matter.

      Also just looking at his Strava, the 5:55:20 is consistent with the Strava ‘elapsed time’ (5:55:19), which uses wall clock time, not the duration you had your watch on for. That’s probably why he tagged that run as a ‘race’, otherwise Strava defaults to the shorter ‘moving time’ (5:46 for Jim), which probably takes out more than just his stop at the rim, but also water refills, getting stuck behind mules, or in my case, just being that damn slow on steep climbs.

      Any GPS device works on precise time hacks from the constellation, not an internal chronometer, so stopping the watch does nothing in terms of actually losing information, it’s just managing how you want it accounted.

  2. Quigley

    I have not done the Rim to rim to rim, but I greatly enjoyed a mellow day hike down to the river and back up with my wife and the stern warning that we received from a ranger that it was very dangerous to go down and up in a single day. It is crazy that Jim managed to do the hike in less than a quarter of a day with a short jaunt up the far side as well. The scenery is sublime, and I look forward to doing the full hike in a relaxing twelve hours or so at some point. I think the more runners out on the Grand Canyon trails the better, especially as there is no chance that the number of people doing the r-2-r-2-r will come close to the number of visitors out on slow and short walks. I hope that Galen Rupp gives the run a try at some point – given that Galen’s 5K pr is something like 12:58 compared to Jim’s 13:52, I would wager Galen could take another 20 minutes (~5%) off the FKT. That seems like a huge margin, but I still can’t wrap my heat around the fact that Jim beat Rob’s time by around half an hour after Rob beat Dakota’s time by around half an hour.

  3. Allen Lucas

    My wife and I did the rim to river and back in a day, and the scenery was amazing. It’s surprising how quickly you can get down and how hard that climb back out is. One thing I hadn’t accounted for was the altitude (7000 feet at the south rim) – between that and the heat, it was torture coming back out. But at least I was prepared – it was stunning how many people would go down and not have lights or a jacket (it got cold really fast once the sun went away) or anything beyond a small water bottle. It’s not hard to understand why the rangers are so discouraging when they hear people are going to try that sort of thing.

    1. Jackson Wolfe Brill

      North to South: you have a net elevation loss (from 8300 ft on the N Rim to 7200 ft on the S Rim), with 14 miles of downhill (on the N Kaibab Trail) and 7 miles of uphill (on the S. Kaibab Trail).

  4. Sean

    I remember my first R2R2R with fond memories. It was in May of 2009 and I did it with my good buddy just a few days after the inaugural Pocatello 50 miler. Our day in the Canyon started chilly, but quickly warmed up about the same time that my buddy’s camera died, which was about 10 minutes after we started. So although we don’t have many photographic memories from that day (although at least one pic did make it into his book), my mental pictures will forever be ingrained in my memory.

    I especially enjoyed the 45 minutes we spent hanging out in Cottonwood Creek on the return trip to cool off my very over-heated buddy, unbeknownst to us, just 5 min outside of Phantom Ranch, where we lazily spent another 30 minutes hanging out and enjoying a Snickers and lemonade. The climb out up Bright Angel was long and even included a bit of a refreshing rain shower.

    Our victorious day eventually ended with refreshing fruity drinks and fries at the bar in the Bright Angel Lodge.

    Perhaps we can enjoy this adventure again together some day, buddy!

  5. Ian Sharman

    I’d like to make R2R2R an annual fun trip (no FKT shenanigans, not that I could run it under 6hrs!). Have done it twice and loved it both times at a relaxed pace, but it’s still a bitch to climb up to the finish. I wonder if anyone counts the South Kaibab out/Bright Angel return as a separate R2R2R record, since it’s longer, but seems to be the way most non-FKT runners opt for, just for variety.

  6. Luca

    Jim’s run in inspiring, as many of the other great run mentioned in the article.
    I wonder if there is any record of FKT of the R2R2R done in winter (Jan, Feb)?
    Or anybody here who did the run in Jan-Feb and that has some info about equipment, logistic, access… ?

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