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Bethany Lewis and Her Grand Canyon Double Crossing FKT

An interview with Bethany Lewis about her Grand Canyon Double Crossing fastest known time.

By on November 14, 2011 | Comments

Two weekends ago, Bethany Lewis became the fourth woman to break the women’s Grand Canyon Double Crossing fastest known time in 2011. Her time of 8:15:51 improved upon Darcy Africa’s 8:25:26 set back in April, which bettered the mark Krissy Moehl and Devon Crosby-Helms had set just four days prior.

We thought you might want to know about Bethany and her record-setting run, so here goes.

iRunFar: Congratulations on your new women’s Grand Canyon Double Crossing fastest known time. However, before we get into that, tell us a bit about yourself, both personally and running-wise.

Bethany Lewis: Well, I started running competitively in high school and continued in college but swore off long distances and stuck to the 800 and mile events, despite obvious signs that I was not a gifted sprinter.  I ran my first road marathon as a fluke with some high school teammates after the spring track season was over.  I was eighteen years old.  I was supposed to bike with them as company and, the morning of, found out that bikes weren’t allowed.  I ended up shuffling through the miserable thing in 95 degree heat.  It only made me more resolved never to run long distances ever again.  This attitude persisted through college (the longest event I ran was the 5k in cross country) but started to change when my husband and I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail after college.  I guess I discovered then that I loved the outdoors and adventuring.

However, living in Iowa City for medical and public health training didn’t suit a trail running habit very well.  So I road raced throughout those years, running distances from the 5k to the marathon and coming within a minute of the Olympic B standard qualifying time for the latter.  It was a frustrating endeavor because I repeatedly got injured doing the training volume required of running a fast road marathon and never felt that I could maximize my performances on the roads.  But then we moved to Utah.

Utah has been the best thing ever for my running.  I’ve dumped the heart rate monitor, the watch, the track intervals, and now I get out a map on the weekends to plan fun new routes.  I bike, I ski, I yoga (all poorly) and don’t train according to much of any schedule nowadays.  I didn’t race much the first few years of living here because of the demands of my residency training.  Then I had a child and, during my pregnancy, REALLY started to feel the itch to race again.  So I signed up for the Moab 55k, my second ever ultra, when I was about to pop and was feeling physically miserable.  [Editor’s Note: Bethany ran the Muir Beach 50k last year as well as the Red Hot Moab 55k, the Pocatello 50k, and the Speedgoat 50k this year. Her only non-victory was placing second to Anita Ortiz at Red Hot Moab.]  The remainder of 2011 has been a balancing act between my husband’s work (he’s a psychiatry resident), his long runs (he trained for and got 2nd in the Bear 100, his first 100 miler), my work (I’m a dermatology resident), my runs and races, and our sweet little one-year-old daughter, Ada.

iRF: Now that folks know something about you, what was your motivation for going for the R2R2R FKT? Had you previously run in the Grand Canyon?

Lewis:  The idea came from my husband, who pays much more attention to the ultrarunning world than I and had run the R2R2R before.  He came home from running it last spring fully confident that I could beat the record set by Darcy Africa.  I was not so sure as it would be the longest run I had ever done and I feared I would majorly bonk along the way.  My own motivation for trying for the record waxed and waned even throughout the run itself, thanks to non-ideal starting conditions.

iRF: Your Grand Canyon Double Crossing FKT was unique in that you started from the North Rim. Did you choose that for logistics? In the future, would you go from the other direction?

Lewis:  We chose the North Rim solely because we live in Salt Lake City and my husband had no time off work so driving to the North Rim cut 3+ hours off of the drive.  I think this direction suits my running personality because I am a horrendously chicken downhiller and a pretty good climber.  So ending on a longer climb seemed like an okay idea.  But, really, we just couldn’t get any time off so we ran from the North Rim.  Simple as that.

iRF: How did the first half the run go? Any difficulty with snow on the North Rim? Did you have a sense of whether you were on pace given that previous record splits were in the opposite direction?

Lewis:  The first 20 minutes of the run I publicly announced that I wasn’t going to go for the record attempt because the conditions were so icy that we were primarily hiking.  Then, however, the trail smoothed out and we comfortably ran fast down the remainder of the North Rim, coming into Phantom Ranch at around 8.5 min/mile pace.  I didn’t feel great, however, because I don’t think I’ve run that many miles in a row at such an even fast pace without stopping in years.  I train primarily in the Wasatch so I am always changing up my pace to walk up hills.  My body felt disturbingly tired at Phantom Ranch and I was definitely not talking about any record-breaking at that time.  I didn’t time the run myself because I always find a way to turn off my watch accidentally mid-run so my husband kept track of splits, etc.  I finally started to feel my legs focus while heading up the South Rim.  I was conservative up the South Rim, again, because I was stressed out about bonking in the second half.  So I was pretty shocked to hear that we’d reached the South Rim in 3:47 (my husband had somehow worked it out that 3:50-3:55 was “on pace” for a record – don’t ask me how he came to this conclusion).  I felt really good and totally relaxed at this point.  And this is when I started to allow myself to think about breaking that record again.

iRF: How about the second half? Did you have any company?

Lewis: The journey back down the South Rim was a lot of fun: stellar views, conversational and encouraging hikers, a couple more mule trains that we’d had to pass on our way up…  My husband was with me the entire time and I never felt as though we pushed the pace during the 7 miles down the South Rim.  We reached Phantom Ranch in something like 5:07.  We decided at this point that the next 7 miles – relatively flat up to Cottonwood Campground – were the crux portion of the entire run.  If we could run these at a pace under 10 min/mile then we could power hike the remaining 7 miles and possibly get the record.  So we took off far too fast for the next 7 miles and suffered later for it.

My mood definitely reached its nadir just before Cottonwood Campground when we ran into some of our group who were on the return portion of their North Rim-to-river-to-rim trip.  My legs weren’t that tired but my brain was after pushing it from Phantom Ranch.  We filled up on water one last time and started power hiking even some of the flatter portions of the last 7 miles of the North Rim.  It felt great to just not run any longer.  I felt very strong hiking but, because I wasn’t timing the run, I really had no clue how long we had been going or whether we were on track for a record.  My husband was giving me very minimal information about how long we had been going and I was definitely not asking for more details because I had convinced myself it wouldn’t happen!  When we reached the Supai Tunnel I felt I knew for certain that the record was out of reach.  I thought it was 3 miles from the top (in actuality it is something like 1.5 miles).  After that point, I primarily kept up my pace simply to keep warm (it was 13 degrees and snowing at the top of the North Rim).  So, I was totally flummoxed when I saw the trailhead signs earlier than expected, yelled to my husband that we’d arrived and he told me that his watch said 8:15.  By the time we got his camera phone out to document the event it was 8:15.51.  I was pretty shocked and overwhelmingly excited.  Oh, and absolutely freezing.

iRF: Can you tell us about your logistics? What did you do for food and water?

Lewis: I carried a Nathan hydration pack for the first time and it worked fantastic.  I filled up about 3 times (twice at Phantom Ranch, once at Cottonwood Campground on the return portion) and was only without water for the last mile of the South Rim descent.  I also used salt tabs for the first time ever, once hourly.  I also kept up pretty well on Shot Bloks (maybe 5-6?), 1 Honey Stinger bites package, my first ever Honey Stinger waffle, one Gu, and one Clif bar.

iRF: What was your favorite part of your FKT?

Lewis: Just quietly running with my husband.  Also experiencing the journey with good friends and fun adventure partners.

iRF: What goals do you have on your calendar for next year?

Lewis: My immediate goals are to do more ski touring and some cross country ski racing this winter.  Then, next spring, I’d like to try my first 50 mile race.  I really like the sound of the San Juan Solstice, but haven’t committed to anything yet.

Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.