“It’s kind of ironic. As a runner you think you’re invincible. You run, have a good time, work hard, and never think something bad will happen,” ultrarunner Dave James reflects softly. James is supporting his long-time girlfriend, Amy French, who is also an ultrarunner, in a fight against breast cancer. A decade-plus ago, James also saw his then fiancé die of cancer, but says that the shock’s still there. “I guess some of it’s the luck of the draw, but I’m grateful Amy still has some health insurance. If we were still on the road with the RV…” he trails off at the thought.
James, now 43 years old, hasn’t raced since 2015. Before that he won two USATF trail 100-mile national championships, ran as fast as 14:20 for 100 miles on trails, and competed at the 2011 and 2013 Trail World Championships. He raced with a big personality and a big smile, but speaks calmly now. “I guess I’m not as egotistical as I used to be,” James concedes. “I was trying to hold up this image that I was this great runner.”
“We bought an RV in mid-2015,” he recalled of that time. “Amy moved out to Flagstaff, Arizona; she was a massage therapist then. We got an apartment and it was so expensive.” I interject about the cost of an RV, and he explains the then monthly costs of each. “We had a Chevy Trailblazer then, so I went in and asked, ‘What can the vehicle pull?’ They said 7,000 pounds, so I said that I wanted a 7,000-pound RV. It blew up pretty quick,” he laughed. “We went all over the country, found some gigs online, and then worked at Mount Rushmore for a while. I drove a van resupplying and in the winters we came back to Arizona and got on with the Grand Canyon Conservancy. It was just minimum-wage stuff, but it was cool, fun.” James and French both work at the Grand Canyon retail operation now. “It’s the official non-profit of the park,” he explained of the Grand Canyon Conservancy’s role. “We made $12 million pre-pandemic and donated $6 million of that back. There’s bigger philanthropy to it than just retail.”
In late 2018,” he pauses to catch the right year, “We were living in the RV, a few people had left, so we threw our names in the hat and were offered housing in the park [as Grand Canyon Conservancy employees]. Nobody owns a house in the park, it’s really cheap rent, a tiny two-bedroom duplex. We’re a half mile from the Bright Angel Trail.”
The geography is beneficial to the running couple, but that’s not the only theme. “I think in late 2018 was the last time I went Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim,” James says of the famous Grand Canyon hiking and running adventure. “There were sections of the canyon I’d never gotten to, never were on my radar before, less crowded, more technical. That’s where I mostly go now. Tomorrow I’m going to explore an old miner’s trail someone told me about. They’re real trails, but just not on a map,” he stops while I ask about his fitness, and then answers with a laugh. “I still love to bomb down to the Colorado River and come back up. I wouldn’t say I’m fit, but I go for a few hours. Usually I run home [from work] for lunch and then run back.”
I ask about the significance of the Grand Canyon, if it holds greater meaning to James. “Some of it was just luck, but I’ve always had a connection. It was close when I lived in Flagstaff, a familiar place. I started coming here in 2005 too, as part of the healing process from when my fiancé died. It’s a special place, very healing, but last year, with everyone going through COVID-19, you can’t escape reality even if you live in a beautiful place,” he said. “The whole park was closed from mid-March to June. I’d go out for a run and there were no human beings, it was a little creepy. It’s still not normal crowds again yet, but it’s getting there.”
James says that French is about halfway through the treatment process, after a June 2020 diagnosis, and is staying Monday through Friday in Flagstaff for her current treatment. “It’s radiation now, not chemotherapy, an x-ray-beam thing five days a week, localized, directed at where the cancer was. Because she’s so young, hopefully this will really knock it out and be more preventative for anything else. She’s really tired, but her hair’s starting to come back,” he said of the current progress. James himself earlier pursued a career as a medical doctor, and again thinks about the possibility. “This opened my eyes, you know I never finished, and some of it was that running was going so well. I always wanted to go back to school. I’m old, I’m 43, but with COVID-19 and Amy’s cancer, it’s great to live here, but there are no guarantees. We’re tourism-based. I think about going back to school, I want to stay positive. I cut out alcohol, and that helps my ability to think more clearly. I turned to it way too much during the pandemic and her diagnosis. We’ve been together six, almost seven years. We’re not married but we have a comfortable life. We make our decisions together,” he said of the future possibilities.
I reference the GoFundMe fundraiser currently benefitting French and James’s voice spikes with feeling as he answers. “Everyone’s got issues, but it’s just incredible support. The other day, this race director from Austria made a large contribution. I haven’t talked to him for five years. This community of runners, it’s just great,” James shakes his head in appreciation. “We chose to go off the grid [from the running community] some and don’t regret it, but this community has been very helpful.”
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