Jim Walmsley’s Grand Canyon R2R2R (And R2R!) FKT Report

[Editor’s Note: This is Jim Walmsley’s report from setting the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim fastest known time of 2:46:08 and the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim fastest known time in 5:55:20 on October 4, 2016. All photos are by Myke Hermsmeyer unless otherwise noted.]

Jim Walmsley 2016 R2R & R2R2R FKT

Photo: Myke Hermsmeyer Photography

There was a lot of planning and testing I had to do before I knew when and how I could attack the Grand Canyon’s fastest known time (FKT) of the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim (aka Double Crossing or R2R2R) set by Rob Krar on May 10, 2013 in 6:21:47. I planned to do the same route Rob set his record on. This route starts from the South Kaibab Trailhead, descends down into the Grand Canyon to Phantom Ranch, runs through the box canyons at the bottom of the canyon to Cottonwood Campground, climbs back out to the North Kaibab Trailhead 21 miles later, and then runs all the way back. This is a 42-mile route with 12,000 feet of climbing. This is the shortest route across the canyon and when you are talking speed records, it’s the only route. Rob Krar has helped establish this FKT as one of the hardest, most competitive FKTs in the world. He’s completely crushed the ultra scene and I have nothing but the utmost respect for what Rob has been able to do in ultrarunning. He is a big reason why this record is such a big target for many people and why many people don’t even want to attempt it. I would need to be absolutely prepared for this effort.

I chose October 4th, a Tuesday, for an attempt on the R2R2R FKT. October 4th, logistically, gave me adequate time to build a gradual training block coming off of my 100-mile debut at Western States in June. I decided on this date, semi-ambiguously, about two months out. The North Rim water spigot closed on October 15th this year so it had to be before the 15th if I wanted to get any water en route on my FKT attempt. Looking at a Tuesday, I figured I’d have the least amount of weekend travelers still on their hiking trips through the canyon. A Tuesday gave me a window to move it to a Monday or Wednesday if weather didn’t look just right. October 4th also gave me the option to push it back a week and stay even more flexible. When the weather reports finally started coming out 10 days prior, to my surprise, it was shaping up to be the perfect day. I tried not to check the weather very often as to not jinx the good window I might have. Somehow, I picked a perfect day, months out. This was meant to be.

Throughout this year, I’ve kept the Grand Canyon near and dear to my training. All the way back in March, Tim Freriks, Cody Reed, and I all did a monster, 36-mile day in the canyon. We started to make the canyon a staple in our training from there. We made up a rule in our training runs for the canyon that we tried to stick to. When running the canyon on our day trips, “Everything must go out South Kaibab Trail.” This is because South Kaibab is a steep, never-ending, monster of a climb which goes up a mile of vertical feet over 6.5 miles and all FKTs go through it. If you’re a Coconino Cowboy, then you’re going to take on the toughest, hardest routes the canyon can throw at you. (For the record, I’m sure there are some non-corridor trails that might be way harder than this. There is so much to explore in the canyon!) I would try to get to the canyon often during consistent training blocks I had in Flagstaff, Arizona, which ended up being about once a week when I was around. My go-to route has become down the Bright Angel Trail, out to Phantom Ranch, up South Kaibab, and back to the Bright Angel Trailhead on the Rim Trail to total about 21 miles for a loop. I’ve made a segment on Strava for this loop called “Coconino Cowboy Loop.” This is logistically an easy route to knock out on day trips from Flagstaff and I thought it mimicked R2R from North to South pretty well, but put the middle section is after the climb out of South Kaibab. For a month stretch of training for my R2R2R, I strung together several weeks of going to the canyon twice a week. I had prepared my legs and covered every inch of the FKT route a handful of times each, at least. I had to make sure there wouldn’t be any wrong turns on this effort…

After determining the day was going to be October 4th for sure, the next step was making a decision on a departure time. About three weeks prior, I did a training trip on the north side of the canyon, camping with Morgan Elliott at Crazy Jug. I had met Morgan at the Franklin Mountain 50k in El Paso, Texas, and we connected because he was coming out for the Flagstaff Skyrace next. While we camped out there, we did back-to-back days of runs down North Kaibab Trail, to the bottom, and back out North Kaibab. During this time, I got to speak with several of the mule guides on the North Rim. They told me they usually have their clients on the mules around 7:30 a.m. and head down into the canyon at 7:40 a.m. This gave me valuable information to work with. Based off of Rob Krar’s write-up from his FKT, he made it across the canyon, R2R, South to North, during his record attempt in a crazy fast 3:03. I figured my time would need to in the ballpark of three hours in order to have a chance to keep pace on the way back. This means just about everything has to go about perfect. This also pegged my planned start time around or before 4:30 a.m. If I could make it to the North Rim by 7:30 a.m., I would be guaranteed not to hit a mule train for the first 35 miles of my run. This is because I would have to start well before they put mules down in the canyon from South Kaibab Trailhead and I wouldn’t have to worry until I get back on South Kaibab on the return trip.

Now that the date and start time was pretty much finalized, I realized there was another hang-up. A 4:30 a.m. start would mean I would be in the pitch-black darkness of night for at least an hour and a half, including several miles of tricky descending down South Kaibab. So what the heck do I do about that? Clearly, the best solution was to go test out that start time the week before my planned FKT! What could go wrong? I ran with two Nathan Halo headlamps. I wore one Nathan headlamp upside-down, around my waist, and the other Nathan headlamp around my forehead. I wore the headlamp around my waist that way for two reasons. The headlamp around my waist provides a different angle from my eyesight so it enables me to see shadows of bumps and rocks better. I wore it upside-down because right-side-up, the light shines too close to my feet. So upside-down aims the light a little further ahead. The normal headlamp on my head still allows me to look around and spot the trail. The test run the week before went just about perfect. It was a really scary test run, but the time I managed down to the river and the effort level I felt, it worked out flawlessly. I can’t believe I didn’t biff it on that descent. I made it down to the river in 42 minutes and no falls. Woof. Now I just had to hope I could run that well on FKT day and manage not to fall next time too.

Lastly, I had to make a nutrition game plan. I read and re-read Rob’s FKT report. He mentioned he had run the FKT self-supported. I started to plan for a self-supported FKT attempt. I was thinking about sewing in pockets to t-shirts, shorts, anywhere to carry more supplies efficiently. I decided I’d go with one Nathan Speedmax Plus Flask (handheld water bottle) and I needed to carry several bags of my drink powder (one bag would hold one serving) and I would stop at Phantom Ranch, Cottonwood, North Kaibab, Cottonwood, and Phantom Ranch to fill up my bottle with water and drink mix. I talked about this attempt a lot with friends in Flagstaff. While talking about this with several people, my good friend, Nico Barraza, said he wanted to get pictures of me when I was at the North Rim and help document the North Rim turnaround. This now brought up the possibility of receiving aid at North Kaibab. With this possibility, I now started to go back and ask many trusted ultrarunners, young and old(er), to get their opinions on whether to approach this as a self-supported attempt or accept aid at the halfway point. More or less, with the information I gathered and opinions I heard, I came to the conclusion that the R2R2R FKT is about running across the Grand Canyon as fast as possible and by whatever means you may prefer. This tore me up a bit, but I get annoyed with the definitions of self-supported, unsupported, and supported FKTs. It frustrates me that in self-supported FKTs, people can mail themselves aid in boxes on FKT routes and that’s still considered self-supported. Tons of people involved with delivering that mail help to get that box of aid somewhere. Do I try to do it “self-supported” and drive four hours to the North Rim, drop off my own bag, and hope no one tampers with my bag or risk an animal getting into the food and littering in a national park? That seemed like a wasteful, risky move. Something else brought up was that Rob had a pacer for parts of his FKT which is (in my opinion) in a gray area of a fully self-supported endeavor, as well as not great clarity on how he carried his nutrition, or if he stashed nutrition, or if someone helped with his nutrition. I knew I would be approaching my FKT without a pacer the whole way.

After letting things weigh on me, I decided to accept Nico’s offer to be at the North Rim at 7:30 a.m. and I give him a drop box I could access at halfway. I also decided change my initial bottle plan. I decided to increase my bottles to two Nathan Speedmax Plus Flasks with a new idea on refilling up only one bottle on one stop each way. I made a game plan I would drink one bottle from South Kaibab Trailhead to Phantom Ranch, drink one bottle from Phantom Ranch to Cottonwood, and carry one bag of extra drink powder to refill one of the bottles at Cottonwood Campground fountain to take in another 250 calories on the climb out. This would skip one of my refueling stops I had planned and would still total 60 ounces with 750 calories in my bottles. Then I would pick up two fresh bottles from Nico (one loaded with an extra powder to refill one of the bottle at Phantom Ranch on the way back), grab sunglasses, have optional, emergency calories available to take, and I could drop off my two headlamps. I would repeat the same process on the return, drinking one bottle per segment, and briefly stop to refill one bottle at Phantom with drink powder. Two-hundred-and-fifty calories per hour is far less than what I try to take during ultras I have adequate crewing at. To compensate for this, I decided to wear a Nathan Mirage waist pack with a five-serving, soft-gel flask to sip on–one for each crossing. The plan was to do a belt swap at the North Rim as well. This would mean I could take up to 1,250 calories of basically pure, simple carbohydrates each way or about 400 calories per hour. This was my ideal nutritional game plan.

The alarm went off at 2 a.m. on Tuesday, October 4th. Myke Hermsmeyer drove down from Salt Lake City, Utah, to document this R2R2R effort for me. We both got up, I took a shower to wake up. We got the car loaded up and sorted breakfast out to eat on the drive. I had a 200-calorie Apple Cinnamon Raisin Huppy Bar and a 16-ounce energy drink for breakfast. I like energy drinks better than coffee in the morning primarily because it does not get my digestive track going the same way coffee does, if you know what I mean. However, it still gives me that morning caffeine kick, POW! We left just before 2:40 a.m. and arrived at South Kaibab at 4:07 a.m. At about 3:45 a.m., I took three caffeine pills (one serving) and washed it down with the rest of my Huppy Bar and energy drink. I drove with Myke Hermsmeyer and Morgan Elliott, whom had been staying with me in Flagstaff. Elliott drove in a separate vehicle to the canyon to come watch. We were somewhat surprised when we arrived at the South Kaibab Trailhead. There were two other groups of hikers/runners with the same gameplan to start on South Kaibab Trail at this time. They were in more of a rush to start than I was, so they ended up getting onto the trail five or 10 minutes before me. Having two other groups set off on their own canyon adventures actually threw me off because it wasn’t what I experienced the week before and had envisioned for this day. The week before, it was completely quiet at 4:30 a.m. and had an absolutely eerie feeling about it. I had mentally prepared for that complete-solitude feeling from the start. This was just weird for some reason to me. The second surprise was a happy welcome from Alex Kurt with Trail Runner Magazine. He had caught wind of this FKT attempt and ended up showing up as a valuable third-party witness and potentially provide some great exposure if things did go well. A big task was at hand so I just tried to maintain focus. I slammed a 100-calorie gel, stripped down to my Hoka shorts and shirt (sorry no crop top; it was 28 degrees Fahrenheit and the crop top would be dysfunctional instead of helpful), I strapped on my Nathan Mirage waist belt, got my watch ready, and grabbed both of my Nathan Speedmax Plus bottles to go.

"Jim

Photo: Myke Hermsmeyer Photography

"Jim

Photo: Myke Hermsmeyer Photography

Jim Walmsley 2016 R2R & R2R2R FKT

Photo: Myke Hermsmeyer Photography

I started down the canyon at 4:26 a.m. (and change of seconds). I started with my foot on the South Kaibab kiosk, took a deep breath, made sure everyone had their watches ready… And I was off. The descent was fast, flowing, and took precise focus. I quickly passed both groups of canyon runners soon after the first set of switchbacks. It was game on from here and it soon turned completely quiet, completely dark, and I was now fully committed into this endeavor. I had friends now anxiously waiting for me on the North Rim and another group of friends waiting for me on the South Rim (my parents already started on their four-hour trip from Phoenix, Arizona to the South Kaibab Trailhead in time for the estimated finish). They would all have no clue where I would be until I surfaced. I was now in the silence I had envisioned. Me and the big red ditch, stepping toe to toe. I checked my watch regularly for average pace. The week prior I had managed to descend around 8 minute/mile pace to Cedar Ridge and then was able to get that pace down near 7 minute/mile pace by the River. This time, however, it was game day. My senses were heightened. I cruised the most sketch parts of the descent down to Cedar Ridge (1.5 miles) in about 7:15 minute/mile pace. I knew I was going at a fast pace and I was in for a great descent from there. I just had to keep a controlled effort level and keep the day in perspective. One step at a time. Keeping effort level in perspective is THE MOST important thing when going after such a long endeavor such as R2R2R. It was the biggest thing I had experienced earlier in the year at Western States in June. Effort and perspective. The pace I was at felt good. Really good. The fastest descent down South Kaibab to the River on Strava is by Martin Gaffuri in 37 minutes. I ended up getting a Strava split down to the river in 39 minutes… in complete darkness! Hell yeah, we’re out way too fast! Just like a lot of my races this year, this is now going to be a day set up for a potentially huge blow-up. But just like all the other races, I just have to trust that this is the right pace for today. Trust. Don’t limit yourself because you think you’re out too fast.

The Strava segments @walmsley172 was able to pull off in the Grand Canyon during his R2R & R2R2R run are ridiculous but one of the highlights was his 6.4 mile/4,480′ descent in the dark from the South Rim to the Colorado River on the South Kaibab Trail in 39:17. Jim started at 4:27am to avoid encountering mule trains in the canyon (he amazingly didn’t run into a single one) meaning he had to descended the technical trail with numerous exposed areas with high consequences if he fell completely in the dark using two headlamps. The only faster time registered on Strava is by someone who targeted running a fast time on the descent during the day before casually hiking out Bright Angel with his friends. There was a lot of talk before and even after Western States this year about Jim’s technical running ability but after his 20 minute win over US Skyrunning Series winner @moe.trails at the Franklin Mountain 50k (who a few weeks later set the course record at the Flagstaff Sky Race after some training runs with Jim in the canyon) and his new records in the canyon its pretty clear Jim can throw down on whatever terrain is put in front of him. #kingofthecanyon #nevertouchtheground #coconinocowboys #r2r #r2r2r

A photo posted by Myke Hermsmeyer (@mykehphoto) on

Anyone who has ever run in the canyon has learned one thing if they didn’t know it already. You go down too fast, you blow your legs, and you can’t climb back out. But me, I have trained in this canyon. I regularly explained to people there is a new level I feel I’ve reached this year and with that, I have mastered the art of what I like to call “cheating the canyon.” That is, I have learned to withstand bombing down the canyon and having lots of power to climb back out South Kaibab in under 70 minutes. I’ve done this tons of times by now. Our Coconino Cowboy segment I’ve created on Strava stimulates this effect really well. However, this is a Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim FKT and brings up the question of, how many times can I “cheat the canyon?” All I knew was that I would find out. Until otherwise, I will trust in the work I’ve done.

After getting through the bridge, I continued to roll. I took my first split once my foot hit dirt on the north side of the Colorado River, across the bridge. I had finished my first bottle of liquids by now, and I had one more to slug down before Cottonwood Campground. It was important to find as much of a rhythm as I could during the next eight miles. Rob had hit a split of one hour flat from the river to the campground. That works out to be about 7:30 minute/miles. Going into this, I thought that was definitely one of the strongest splits Rob had during his run. This section gradually climbs the entire way from Phantom Ranch to Cottonwood. It is a net climb of just less than 2,000 feet over those eight miles and it even has some sharper hills in there too. It doesn’t sound like much, but it definitely can’t be ignored.

One of the more memorable moments of my run happened during this stretch of the canyon. I ended up coming face-to-face with a mountain lion for the first time in my life! I’ve never been more certain about what animal I saw in the dark! Cats are so elusive and I usually only catch a glimpse or I walk away thinking I may have saw a bobcat or coyote or something. It was absolutely frightening, but so exhilarating! It was a complete fight-or-flight moment. Literally, 50 yards in front of me, I saw some really bright, white reflections. There aren’t many, if any, fluorescent markings on the trail so that got ruled out pretty quickly. I soon noticed those were definitely a huge set of eyes in the middle of the trail. This encounter was in the narrow box canyons just a couple miles past Phantom Ranch. Huge cliff walls were on my left, the Bright Angel Creek on my left as well, and another huge cliff wall was on my right. Literally nowhere for either of us to go. I soon realized these weren’t like any deer eyes I’d ever seen before. This was something else. This was an animal and it was something big. I started shouting at it at the top of my lungs and making loud noises. Meanwhile, I was running full speed at it. It was an amazing feeling. I don’t think I even took into consideration that the mountain lion didn’t have anywhere to go. All six feet and 140 pounds of me, warrior shouting at it, was enough to trigger one of the most athletic things I’ve ever seen in my life. The animal turns to its left, my right, (this is when I spotted a tail, two to three feet long and mostly black colored, and was later able to confidently identify this was a mountain lion thanks to Ian Torrence), and then it made an enormous leap up the cliff wall. I have no idea what it possibly jumped on, probably a little ledge I didn’t even consider was possible. The next mile or so, I was flying! I looked back several times over my shoulder to try to spot those big eyes again and see if it had gone predator mode and started chasing me. Luckily, I never saw those white eyes again and I wasn’t an early morning breakfast on this day. During this section, my Strava data shows where I ended up hitting a 5:22 mile and a 5:45 mile. At first, you may think that’s just normal, weird data from running in the canyon. That could very well be part of it, however, it was probably pretty accurate. Definitely a huge flush of endorphins was pumping through my veins and I was running scared.

I ended up hitting the Cottonwood Campground in a fast time. This would also be the first time stopping to fill up one of my bottles and pour in the drink powder I was carrying with me. It ended up going smoothly which is always awesome because everyone knows sometimes these things ends up spilling everywhere else but inside your bottle. I ended up taking my next split on my watch after I finished refilling my bottle. I stopped at the more northern water fountain in the campground, not next to the bathrooms, the one by the kiosk. My split was 54:46 with the quick pit stop. This was the second split nearly six minutes ahead of Rob’s splits. I knew I’d have about another mile and a half of steady incline to the ranger station at Roaring Springs and where the steeper canyon climbing would start. I started to do the math. About 40 minutes plus 55 minutes, cruise to Roaring Springs, and all I had to do was put together a solid climb out and I may have a crack at the Rim-to-Rim FKT in the process! Holy guacamole! The goal going into this effort was to set a Grand Canyon fastest known time. I had friends waiting for me at the top of North Kaibab, so I could literally call it a day and call it a success. I could easily get a ride back home with them to the South Rim. Then I started thinking if everyone on the South Rim would be excited or kind of bummed that I didn’t turn around to complete the R2R2R? I was thinking about this a lot as I climbed out of the canyon up to North Kaibab Trailhead. I was thinking about finally seeing someone I knew at the top. I was embracing the sun at this time, slowly starting to lighten the canyon around Cottonwood. I knew I had been putting in a big effort up to this point, but I may be able to steal a different FKT this day if I just climbed out solid. I felt strong, but the early morning’s crazy fast descent and push through the box canyon had definitely not been free. I continued to shout and yell to motivate myself to keep pushing. I was shouting one of my mumbled nonsense whatevers at myself, I thought I was alone while doing this, only to turn one of the blind corners to completely scare the bejesus out of two hikers. I laughed a little bit and just mumbled (probably with drool running down my face), “Sorry, I thought I was alone.” In reflection, that makes me chuckle, just being an awkward moment that people can most likely relate to? Or at least appreciate? I’m the only one, aren’t I?

As I got close to the North Kaibab Trailhead, Nico Barraza starting shouting at me, encouraging me along. It was great to hear someone’s voice, but it threw me off a bit. He was supposed to be posted up to take some pictures on the trail at this point, but his voice felt like it kept moving further up the trail the more I climbed up the trail. I thought I heard him from here, but then I’d get there, and I would hear another shout from further above. Little did I know, this was another classic example of an “Oh, shit!” moment from an aid station, “He’s here!” I couldn’t even prep my own, personal aid station to be completely ready for the pace I was on. Nico was with his friend Kelly, where they were trying to set up for a shot off of Coconino Lookout about a half mile down the trail. That’s when they spotted me and Nico ditched the shot (and Kelly) to start running up to the kiosk as one of them was supposed to be at the top to document my arrival on the North Kaibab Trailhead for the FKT. Luckily Nico isn’t too bad of a runner himself and still beat me to the top. I got up there soon after, really gassed. I touched the kiosk and looked at my watch. It read 2:46:08 for my R2R from South to North, the positive-elevation-gain direction. The North Rim sits at 8,200 feet, while the South Rim sits at 7,200 feet. Despite being the wrong direction to run R2R, this time broke the official (overall) R2R FKT set by Rob in 2012 of 2:51:28. I felt like my legs were in the hole and it wouldn’t be smart to go back down into the canyon. I was explaining to Nico that I had accomplished my goal and set an FKT in the Grand Canyon; I didn’t need to go back into the canyon. I was hurting. I was trying to make eye contact with someone there, hopefully suggesting I could get a ride with them back. No one really seemed to have any sympathy and I was probably thinking words more than actually speaking words at the time. I took more time than I should have refueling, switching my bottles out, grabbing a sip of coke, waiting for someone to offer me a ride to the South Rim, and debating what I wanted to do from here. I decided to grab a swig from the gel flask I had been wearing on my waist all morning. I carried a 500-calorie gel flask on me and didn’t even bother to slug any of it down while I was running South to North. I decided I didn’t want something around my waist on the way back so I didn’t grab the fresh belt with the new 500-calorie gel flask. I would try to manage what I could just off of the 500 calories of drink powder that was in my two bottles (250 calories per bottle) plus the one 250-calorie drink-powder bag in the pouch of one of the Nathan bottles.

At this point, I didn’t know exactly what Jamil Coury was doing up at North Kaibab. I had heard he’d be up on the North Rim helping crew and pace Michael Versteeg on his Arizona Trail FKT attempt. Michael started his FKT attempt a day or two before my run in the canyon, and by now, he has completed his new, amazing FKT on the Arizona Trail. Way to go, Michael! I just assumed Jamil would be busy with that, but he managed to find time for when I was expected at the North Kaibab Trailhead and take some video. He was a welcomed familiar face. I soon grabbed my two Nathan handheld bottles, took a split on my GPS watch (this is why the split on Strava shows 2:48:50; I had over a two-minute stop at the trailhead) and I headed back down into the canyon. To my surprise, Jamil managed to follow me down North Kiabab for almost 2.5 miles to the first bridge. At this point, I was really glad to finally get my silent, solitude moments back with the canyon, but Jamil caught some cool video. It’s definitely special to share part of my R2R2R journey with people who weren’t in the canyon with me that day, even if this was one of the slower, lower moments of my day. Check it out!

Initially, I viewed this descent as the moment when I wanted to break away from Rob’s splits to get ahead of his pace. That plan was pretty much garbage about five minutes into my South Kaibab descent when I started the day. It was still garbage about one minute into descending North Kaibab. My legs were feeling the day. I changed the plan to relax on this descent until Roaring Springs. When the descent started to mellow out, I would then try to find a faster rhythm again and make up some time. I ended up making up good time and hitting Cottonwood’s water fountain in 46:43 compared to Rob’s 51:08 split. Even more importantly, my legs started to come back to me.

I continued rolling through Cottonwood only taking a split on my watch. I finished my first bottle by this point, just like my first crossing of the canyon. My second bottle would be sipped on throughout the next section to Phantom Ranch. The next 7.5 miles were uneventful, but fast and flowy. That’s exactly what I had hoped for. I continued to regularly check my watch, looking at average pace through the box canyons. I was flirting around 6 flat to 6:10 minute/miles for the majority of this segment until I hit Phantom Ranch. I was continually sipping on the one full handheld at this time. I knew it was important to keep fueling for the final climb out of the canyon.

When I hit Phantom Ranch, I stopped to refill up one of my bottles right next to the restroom. As I was filling my bottles, I had happy feet, dancing, with the urge to have to go pee really bad. I had stopped and the water faucet was on full blast, not making things any easier. I looked to my left and the bathroom was wide open with no one around. When my bottle filled up, I quickly poured the drink powder from the bag I had into the bottle and twisted the top back on. With my dancing feet, I threw both of my bottles on the ground and darted into the restroom. As I started to go pee in the urinal, it hit me, I had to go more than just pee. I looked out the door that I didn’t bother to shut, ran over, slammed the door shut, ran back to the toilet next to the urinal, and took care of number two. I can literally say I took a poo on my R2R2R FKT attempt. That’s a +1 kudos point in my book! I got out of the bathroom calmly and composed. I picked up my bottles, looked at my watch, it read just about 4:20. I literally had nearly an hour and forty minutes to run a mile-ish to start the river-to-South Kaibab Trailhead climb and get the hell out of here. Off we go! I took another split just before putting a foot on the black bridge. It read 51:57 and included my detour at the Phantom Ranch restroom. I started to break it down for the rest of the way. I knew Rob had managed about 1:30 on his final climb out. I knew with fresh legs, all by itself, 1:30 is nothing special. But at this point, I was praying that I could manage anything close to 1:30. It was a climb I’ve become very familiar with over this year. I’ve run it dozens of times. I knew I just needed to break it down to each section of the climb to make it manageable. River to Tip Off, Tip Off to Skeleton, Skeleton to Cedar Ridge, Cedar Ridge to the top. Take it one segment at a time. Just. Keep. Moving.

Jim Walmsley 2016 R2R & R2R2R FKT

Photo: Myke Hermsmeyer Photography

I was grinding up this climb from the start. I managed pretty well up until somewhere around Skeleton Point. This is where I hit my first moments of the hike/jog-pain phase, but I was still moving. Then, just below Cedar Ridge, a hiker heard me grunting and yelling at myself while I powerhiked up some switchbacks. He made eye contact with me and said, “Can I please offer you my goldfish? Please? I think you should eat some goldfish. Please!” He could tell I was in a bad spot at this point. It was a nice gesture, but I looked at him and thought, Look man, I don’t have a drop of spit right now to even think about trying to eat a god-damn cracker. Pretty sure that all came out as another mumbled grunt, though. Just had to keep moving. I was in a deep hole and I didn’t want anything. I think this is an example in ultrarunning, when you really reach a beautiful, pure moment of survival. These are the moments when you’re broken, out of liquids, no food, don’t even want to eat food, gone rogue. It’s all about conquering something simple. It’s about a distance. Literally one step at a time. Jog what you can. Keep moving forward, hiking when jogging might kill you. Just move forward. I couldn’t let the entire day slip away! These are also the moments I’ve learned; I tend to move better than anyone else. I feel terrible, I feel like I’m not moving, but I try to harness an inner primal ability to pull every bit of heart out of my body. I think of all the people who believe in me. I push through these moments for them. I push through these moments for myself. It doesn’t even matter why. Just keep moving forward! It’s simplistic. It’s truly one of the pure beauties of ultrarunning. It has the ability to strip you down and reveal what you’re really made of. Don’t limit yourself. Want it.

"Jim

Photo: Myke Hermsmeyer Photography

"Jim

Photo: Myke Hermsmeyer Photography

It was a really hard grind for several of the last miles up South Kaibab. I felt I was prepared for the mental challenge. I had hoped I could hold up better physically. Luckily, I wanted it bad enough. Once you crest Cedar Ridge, it’s not long before someone with a good eye might be able to spot a runner from the top of the trailhead. I kept this in mind as I knew my parents and my friends where anxiously waiting for this moment, hoping for the best. I mustered what felt like a decent jog from Cedar Ridge. I knew I had the first ever sub-six-hour R2R2R in the bag at this point. I just had the formality of climbing the rest of the way up the last couple switchbacks. WHY?!?!? I kept following the sounds of the cheering from above. It was awesome. It was terribly painful at this point. But one of the best sights I’ve ever seen. The end was here. I walked in the last few steps to the kiosk at the South Kaibab Trailhead and slammed my hand down on it like a contestant from “American Ninja Warrior.” I finally got to collapse on the bench that’s around the kiosk. That. Hurt. A lot.

"Jim

Photo: Myke Hermsmeyer Photography

Jim Walmsley 2016 R2R & R2R2R FKT

Photo: Myke Hermsmeyer Photography

Myke Hermsmeyer, Morgan Elliott, and Alex Kurt had been waiting the whole time, all of them with their own stopwatches on. My mom and my dad had made it there in time for the finale. My local Flagstaff supporters, Squirrel’s Nut Butter’s Chris Thornley and Huppy Bar’s Lyndsay Hupp were there alongside, cheering and waiting for me too. It was a special moment for all of us.

"Jim

Photo: Myke Hermsmeyer Photography

"Jim

Photo: Myke Hermsmeyer Photography

"Jim

Photo: Myke Hermsmeyer Photography

"Jim

Photo: Myke Hermsmeyer Photography

The R2R2R has been something I’ve talked about for a long time now. It was so special to be able to set aside a specific training block to focus on this and have it all come together. I went in not knowing if I could do it or even if I could get close to Rob Krar’s record. I couldn’t have asked the Canyon to give me a better day to go for this record. It blows me away how everything seemed to come together so delicately and perfect. I’m so thankful for everyone who came and supported me for this record attempt, good or bad, and believed in me and continues to believe in what I can do. I want to approach more and more of what I do with the mentality, “Run without limits.” To me, this means to not be afraid to do what’s never been done before. To block out naysayers and embrace the believers. To follow your heart and trust in the training you’ve put in. Trust in your abilities and shoot for the moon. In “The Pursuit of Happyness,” I love the scene when Chris Gardner (Will Smith) is telling his son, “Don’t ever let someone tell you, you can’t do something. Not even me. You got a dream, you got to protect it. People can’t do something themselves, they want to tell you, you can’t do it. You want something, go get it. Period.” Embrace the people who believe in you, surround yourself with positivity, and go get it!

"Jim

Photo: Myke Hermsmeyer Photography

Jim Walmsley 2016 R2R & R2R2R FKT

Photo: Myke Hermsmeyer Photography

Splits
  • South Kaibab Trailhead (kiosk) to Colorado River (north end of bridge): 40:30
  • River to Cottonwood Campground (water fountain): 54:46
  • Cottonwood Campground to North Kaibab Trailhead (kiosk): 1:13:34
  • North Kaibab Trailhead to Cottonwood Campground: 46:43
  • Cottonwood Campground to River: 51:57
  • River to South Kaibab Trailhead: 1:27:47

*Splits taken from South Kaibab kiosk, north side of the black suspension bridge over the Colorado River, Cottonwood Campground water fountain, and North Kaibab kiosk

**Strava data here

Sponsors

Thank you to my sponsors Hoka One One, Nathan, Drymax Socks, Squirrel’s Nut Butter, Huppy Bar, and Team Run Flagstaff.

Gear

  • Shoes: HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 2
  • Apparel: HOKA ONE ONE t-shirt, HOKA ONE ONE shorts, DRYMAX Maximum protection road socks
  • Hydration: 2x NATHAN Speedmax Plus Flask bottles (swapped for two identical, fresh bottles at North Kaibab Trailhead), 1x NATHAN Mirage Adjustable Belt (left at North Kaibab Trailhead) holding ~5 serving soft flask of gel
  • Nutrition: 1x Apple Cinnamon Raisin Huppy Bar for breakfast, 6x Powder mix into bottles (250 cal, 60g sugar, caffeine, BCAAs), ~2x gels (100 cal, 20g sugar, caffeine, BCAAs), 7x caffeine pills (caffeine blend)
  • Lights: 2x NATHAN Halo Fire Runners’ Headlamp, 288 lumens each (one on my head and one upside-down, around my waist)
  • Anti-chafing: Squirrel’s Nut Butter

Call for Comments (from Jim)

Please ask questions in the comments below. I will try to follow this thread the next week or so and get back to questions to further explain anything as I’m sure I’ve created more questions or left plenty unanswered questions about this run.

Jim Walmsley 2016 R2R & R2R2R FKT

Photo: Myke Hermsmeyer Photography

There are 47 comments

  1. AJW

    Jim, thanks so much for this report. I appreciate the detailed emotional descriptions especially. And that primal feeling you describe on your final ascent, I can totally relate to that. It is so great that you shared this with the community!

  2. Michael Franks

    Did you use a homemade gel and powder mix? Or are you just not mentioning them because they don’t sponsor you? Thanks.

    1. Jim Walmsley

      I used GU Roctane Energy Drink Mix, Tropical Fruit, 250 cal, 60g Carb, 320mg Na, 50mg K, 35mg Caffeine, and a 1900mg Amino Acid blend. Currently, I don’t have a nutrition sponsor so I just called it a drink powder in my report.

  3. Brent

    Great report and amazing run! I especially love your philosophy. No a priori limits. Just get after, shoot for the moon, and see what you can do. Can’t wait to see what’s next!

  4. Jon Paulding

    Congratulations on an incredible accomplishment!!I hope your 2017 includes another shot at WSER and other lofty goals! Don’t get injured!!

  5. Lauren

    Hey Jim. I saw on instagram the night before (possibly a few nights before) your FKT attempt that you were altering your trail shoes. What were you trying to do? Might be useful for all of us :) Maybe you can help Hoka perfect their shoes for specific terrains!

    1. Myke

      Probably from my Instagram story. Jim ran in unaltered shoes but has been testing different mixtures of Hoka road/track shoes with various treads using his roommates woodshop so he can provide feedback and recommendations for upcoming prototypes he’d like to see.

    2. Jim Walmsley

      Myke is correct. I’ve played around with the Tracers a little bit to add some tread, but I don’t run in them for anything of much substance. I like the Hoka Tracers a lot and I’m hoping Hoka makes a light weight, similar shoe with a bit more tread than what’s currently on the Tracer. One of the reasons I chose to go with Hoka over other shoe brands is getting to see a lot of the prototype shoes that come through on the NAZ Elite team’s feet (they’re a pro distance, road and track club based out of Flagstaff, sponsored by Hoka). Hola takes their feedback, as well as many of their athlete’s feedback very seriously and they’re really, really awesome to work with. There will definitely be some awesome shoes coming down the line from Hoka soon!

      1. Lauren

        Myself and a few others commented that it was a good idea to post that instagram video of you doing that; because getting your ideas on the shoes would be helpful. I run in Hokas and I commented how I would be nervous running the canyon (which I hiked for the first time two weeks before the FKT) in Hokas cause the wide/high sole may clip a rock, etc. I wish they could keep the cushion but make them less high (silly, I know) because it makes me unstable on rocky terrain. Congrats on your accomplishments. I met you at JFK last year with my bf (Jared Burdick) and you were so nice :) Love following your progress!

        1. Jim Walmsley

          Hey Lauren, thanks for the message. Hoka shoes are usually only about 5mm more cushion than most shoes and usually just more cushion in the forefoot. Challenger ATR 2s are 31mm heel, 26mm forefoot. Speed Instincts are 25mm heel, 22mm forefoot. Nike Wild Horses are 28mm heel, 20mm forefoot. Brooks Cascadias are 27mm heel, 17mm forefoot. Hoka shoes typically have a wider base to help prevent rolling your ankle. They also cup the foam around the heel a little to add more stability in that manner as well. However, yes, they are slightly higher, I’m just making a point it usually gets exaggerated with Hoka shoes. I’ve been experimenting, alongside Hoka, with a trail type version of the Tracer which is 24mm heel and 20mm forefoot. On another note, the Grand Canyon is actually a very non-technical trail for the most part. Nonetheless, I still run technical trails in Hokas all the time! Hope this helps!

  6. Bethany

    “It’s truly one of the pure beauties of Ultrarunning. It has the ability to strip you down and reveal what you’re really made of. Don’t limit yourself. Want it.” Awesome quote, Jim, and one of the main reasons I’m still drawn to this sport. How much do we really want it when it gets really, really, really hard. Great report!

  7. GM

    Really amazing accomplishment and tremendous report, an exciting read and funnht , too; thank you. What do you do on the really washed-out sections of SK, is your stride long enough to hit those boxes dead center, or do you try to run on the sides?

    1. Jim Walmsley

      GM, I usually never hit the boxes dead center as the divots tend to be too big and its asking to hyperextend your ankle or tweak your knee. I usually try to run along the sides of the divots when I’m running down hill or even on top of the rocks that line the trail. Uphill, I tend to step up on the logs, having to be careful not to hit too many with the same leg too many times in a row, if I’m stepping up every other step.

  8. EG

    WOW. I can’t be more impressed. A group of us ran it last weekend and it took us 14hrs. Jim, best of luck, you have a bright future ahead. Stay healthy!

    Did you consider climbing Bright Angel or was it a no go since it is longer?

    1. Jim Walmsley

      Bright Angel Trail is about two miles longer, but the majority of that distance is running along the Colorado River at the bottom. The advantage of BA is there is water along that route and it’s why the park service recommends taking BA on your trip out of the canyon. Two miles further would mean you’d have to average the rest of the climb at least 2 minutes per mile faster than what you could do out of South Kaibab, assuming you can run the two miles along the river at the bottom in 7 min/miles. It’s just not a smart bet when you’re tired. People also underestimate that the climbs up both routes are actually very comparable. Most people tend to falsely think BA is much more gradual. So yes, I considered it, but ultimately, it’s easy to rule out as not the best route option for an FKT attempt.

  9. phil Jeremy

    Fantastic write up, cant believe you saw a Mountain Lion! Still don’t know how you descend SK so fast in the dark, those divots are tough, you are a beast. Did I get this right that you climbed SK with no water ?

    1. Jim Walmsley

      I refilled my bottle one last time at Phantom Ranch during that pit stop, but I was out of water before I hit Cedar Ridge (1.5 miles away from the TH)

  10. Ricky F

    Hi Jim,
    Think we are running out of adjectives that capture your running accomplishments and nothing but respect on your latest record! When you are completing these large training blocks ahead of a race or FKT attempt am curious as to what is the most taxing? When doing 120 or 120+ miles per week does it take more of a mental or physical toll on you? Are there ever days when your legs just don’t have it or the minor pains become major ones? Also, thank you for this detailed write up and all the transparency into your life and training! Truly amazing!!

    1. Jim Walmsley

      Hey Ricky, simply put, it all fluctuates. Some days can be really taxing to just get out the door for my run. Other days, I plan something I get excited about, whether it be a group run or workout. Variety in trail running really helps keep things spicy for me; it’s not as monotonous as training for a track event. Physically, I consider myself extremely lucky this year and have been injury free for over a year now. That consistency with health is always a big part of how to gradually improve and keep building. There are many days, however, I have aches and pains. I usually cross my fingers and wait it out for a little while and just monitor anything abnormal. If it hasn’t been altering my stride, but it stays around for a week or so, I’ll typically start to look into treatment for it then. If treatment isn’t helping, then I’ll consider some down time depending on my schedule. Sometimes down time is the right call, and other times I’ll just manage it until a better time comes along with a race schedule to treat it and take a break. Always address an injury or issue though, whether you’re running or not. Without working on it, time off can be a lost cause. Lots and lots of days I just head out the door with just trying to shuffle around on my route. Sometimes my legs get out of the funk, sometimes my legs just feel like garbage and it is what it is. Consistency is the key to building fitness long term so all those days count towards something. Lastly, I am no doctor or expert. These are just my made up rules of thumbs that are completely arbitrary and what I tend to go by.

  11. JT

    What you accomplished is just unfathomable! Nice job digging out of the pain cave & breaking the record!!
    I will be attempting my 1st double crossing in April …do you believe 250 calories per hour is a minimum?

    1. Jim Walmsley

      JT, my recommendation is go in with a game plan for more than 250 calories, mostly carbohydrate based. I typically shoot for anywhere from 400-600 calories per hour. That doesn’t work for most people, though. I would argue that’s the ideal route. Plenty of runners have found other alternative fuels because of diets, beliefs, GI issues, whatever it is. I believe carbs (simple sugars) are king for fuel if you can stomach it. I had a game plan for more, but I didn’t stick to it. I think I may have had a better final climb if I was more strict on my original game plan. Ultra events are eating contests, too!

  12. BB

    Jim, great report.

    It sounds like you hit SK down too hard and it came back to hit you on SK up. Maybe 45 min down and 70-75 min up? Especially considering SK-NK is typically slower than NK-SK. If you got the pacing just right for the entire run, where do you think you would have ended up time-wise?

    1. Jim Walmsley

      BB, perhaps you’re right. Perhaps not. You never know until you try! From my experience and takeaway, I believe a low 5 hour R2R2R is totally possible and right around the corner with even better, more specific training, better execution on fueling, and crewing in the canyon. It just becomes a matter of wanting the FKT enough to focus on it THAT obsessively.

  13. Steve Peterson

    Wow! Truly impressive Jim. That must have been deeply gratifying. In your quest to push your limits remember – “Talent is it’s own reward and the recognition or renumeration (sponsorship etc.) has only a passing relationship to it”.
    If you ever find the powders and gels getting too sweet you might try E-fuel & gels. They are less sweet and higher sodium.
    Stay healthy, try to avoid the over training/racing syndrome so prevalent the days and enjoy!!

    1. Steve Peterson

      Ha! In re-reading sorry if that sounded preachy or like I rep e-fuel. Just wishing you the best and
      hoping to help. And lol, the Park Service is probably upset you scared the bejesus out of that cougar, how inconsiderate ;-)

  14. Derek

    Jim,
    It’s great to read the whole story. It’s revealing (in a good way) to hear you ponder the meaning of FKT and self supported. It really is a testament to your values and character. Keep up the good work as this is a well earned accomplishment. Hope to see you back up in Montana for a race or two in the future (if anyone can set a new BRR record you can do it!) We are pulling for you.
    Best,
    Derek

  15. alison

    > ‘I continued to shout and yell to motivate myself to keep pushing. I was shouting one of my mumbled nonsense whatevers at myself, I thought I was alone while doing this, only to turn one of the blind corners to completely scare the bejesus out of two hikers. I laughed a little bit and just mumbled (probably with drool running down my face), “Sorry, I thought I was alone.” In reflection, that makes me chuckle, ‘

    wow, this struck me as incredibly inconsiderate. just because you’re running fast doesn’t mean you’re the only one there!

    from the park service: “Being quiet and respecting those who seek serenity helps everyone enjoy the park.” see e.g. https://twitter.com/GrandCanyonNPS/status/789828706273333249, https://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/courtesy.htm#CP_JUMP_2580096

  16. Joey Wilson

    Jim, what percentage of your training is done at an easy aerobic pace vs more intense paces where you push your heart and lungs? Can you give us amateurs any advice on how to train in this regard? Lots of easy days? Lots of speed work? Thanks and congratulations!

    1. Jim Walmsley

      Joey, I honestly don’t worry about percentages of aerobic vs intense paces in my training. First and foremost, I believe volume and consistency are going to be the biggest benefits for any runner. I have repeatedly told people, I wouldn’t be able to coach someone else the way I can train myself. I do a lot of my runs based off of what I think I need to improve on for specific races. If I feel like I need more speed for a race, JFK for instance, my favorite workout is mile repeats with ample rest (at elevation). It’s more important to hit faster times than it is to make a speed workout into an aerobic workout. The long run is going to be the bread and butter of most of my weeks.

  17. Brett Carter

    Your adventures and mindset open the realm of possibilities for us all. Big congrats! Question- Do you get enough sodium and other electrolytes from the Roctane drink and gels or did you supp with tabs? What about Western also?

    1. Jim Walmsley

      Brett, I find between taking the roctane drinks and roctane gels, I do not need to supplement other electrolytes. I didn’t supplement electrolytes for R2R2R nor States. I have found several combinations of different drink mixes plus some sort of gel usually will do it for me. When I first started doing that, I would still carry my own electrolyte pills “just in case.” I don’t even carry electrolyte pills on me anymore.

  18. caper

    Very nice…book marked. Not sure how I feel about the self-supported question. On one hand I do believe fully self supported is tougher, but if its just as drop box of fuel it’s not the same as someone meeting you ever 10m or so with food/clothing etc. Either way, I’ve wanted to do this for sometime…you’re giving me inspiration.

  19. Sean

    Just one question, buddy. Why didn’t you fill both bottles at Phantom Ranch before your climb up SK? I’m thinking 40 oz of liquid + 500 calories would have helped a bit more on that climb than 1/2 of each of those amounts.

    You’re the man. Congratulations, my friend!

    1. Jim Walmsley

      I can’t say for sure. I didn’t have an extra drink powder on me and I didn’t want to carry the extra weight and I didn’t take into consideration it was getting warmer. I think I didn’t fill up both bottles because in my original plan, I would’ve been carrying an extra 500 calories in a flask with gel. I decided I didn’t want something on my waist on the way back so I left that belt at the North Rim. In retrospect, you bring up a really good point. That would’ve definitely been beneficial to down a bottle very quick and then sip on the other bottle. Usually, I find running with two full bottles to be quite a bit more taxing than just one bottle, although, I felt really comfortable at States this year carrying two bottles basically the whole way.

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