Dakota Goes to the Grand Canyon: A Record of Yore

[Author’s Note: The following is an excerpt from a much longer story about the Grand Canyon and my experiences in it. Given the new record set by Rob Krar of 6:21:47, the specifics about my record don’t carry as much weight. Nevertheless, I think it’s a worthwhile read, if only for entertainment value. A lot of FKTs have been broken lately, and the inspiring trend doesn’t seem to be letting up anytime soon. I hope to contribute to my own records in the future, but this week perhaps a look at the past won’t hurt.]

November 2011. Seven guys in two cars driving across the desert. Destination: the Grand Canyon. Goal: Fastest Known Time for the double crossing. At least that was my goal, again. The seven other guys on the trip just wanted to run around the Grand Canyon. Most of them had never been to the canyon before, and none of them were trying to make a career in running. They just wanted to experience the area on foot. I, on the other hand, wanted to be the fastest person to run from the South Rim to the North Rim and back again.

Before you stick your nose up at my competitive approach to the Grand Canyon, let me make my defense. I chose to challenge myself in the Grand Canyon because few other places inspire me to be my best. I am competitive, sure, and I want to win races and set records, but my values dictate the way I go about reaching those goals. Nowhere in the world has higher value for me than the Grand Canyon. I want to compete with others and challenge myself to see how far I can reach, but the reason I choose to do so as a mountain runner instead of, say, a basketball player or bike racer, is because I love to be in wild and beautiful places. Every athlete has a competitive drive, but mountain runners have one more standard: quality. We simply love the mountains, and the mountains come first.

Dakota Jones and Max King - running Grand Canyon - March 2012

Dakota Jones and Max King running the Grand Canyon in March 2012. Photo: David Clifford

To be completely honest, I am as competitive as anyone else. But being the best in mountain running is more than just being the fastest. Being the best is also being the smartest in a dangerous situation; it’s being the strongest at times when failure is not an option; it’s never forgetting the beauty and simplicity and sheer authenticity that make this sport so great. But most of all, as the great Alex Lowe said, “the best mountaineer is the one who’s having the most fun.” The same goes for mountain running. And for mountain runners, few places are as much fun as the Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon from South Rim

One of Dakota’s pics of the Grand Canyon from South Rim the weekend of his then FKT.

We awoke the following morning to freezing temperatures and several inches of new snow. Beginning at first light, I had to pick my way down several hundred vertical feet to avoid slipping on ice. Once below the snow line, however, the trail was merely damp and I was able to make good time down to the river. The run up the other side is always beautiful. It begins in a narrow, winding canyon that gradually gains elevation over several miles, twisting and turning through the basement rock.

Once the trail climbs above the Tonto layer, the landscape is much more open and one can see the greater canyon above. A perennial stream runs through this section and fosters shrubs, plants, cactus and cottonwood trees, as well as a multitude of animal life both large and small. That November the foliage was blooming one last time before closing up for the winter, and the bright greens and yellows and reds of the canyon bottom complemented the stark sagebrush of the surrounding desert. At Roaring Spring, the trail began to climb steeply up to the North Rim, and I was able to continue running uphill until deep snow forced me to hike. At the rim I paused briefly, took a photo of the trailhead sign, and then started off down at a brisk run.

The snow was nearly a foot deep at the rim and by then melting into a muddy mess. I sloshed my way back down through the layers of time until I got below the snowline, and then I really let ‘er rip. Descending from the North Rim quickly is one of the best ways to gain time in a double crossing record attempt, since that section consists of 14 miles of almost completely downhill trail. I charged down the trail, not even stopping to refill my water at Roaring Springs. Encountering my friends along the way I only had time to shout a greeting before I was around the next switchback. I made a point to eat consistently through this section to keep up my energy, and I felt good all the way back to Phantom Ranch. I knew I had a good chance to break the record.

Not surprisingly, the view upward from the river is intimidating. Particularly if you have already run about 35 miles at high speed, the thought of that brutally steep 4,500-foot climb up to the South Rim is heartbreaking. Nevertheless, I pressed on, hoping for some hidden reserves of strength. I was able to maintain a running cadence almost to the Tonto level. Above the Tonto, I alternated between running and hiking, but by the climb up to Skeleton Point– a savagely steep 1,500 foot step that brings hikers up to a ridge jutting out from the South Rim–I was finished. My legs were toast; my lungs were shot. Blood pounded in my brain. I couldn’t keep it up. I resolved to hike the rest of the way to the rim.

I was able to run more once I crawled over Skeleton Point, but the climb had taken its toll. I had given up the idea of setting a new record. I desperately wanted to be finished and forced myself to continue hiking uphill just to get it all over with. The sun beat down and the rim loomed far above. I had lost all hope when a hiker coming down the trail starting cheering me on. I looked up, confused. I knew my pace didn’t indicate any sort of record attempt. Yet she cheered me on nonetheless. And as I passed more hikers, they cheered me on, too.

They knew I was trying to go fast. They knew I had already been to the North Rim that day. Am I really that famous, I thought? Are normal people aware of Grand Canyon FKT attempts? Whatever the cause, I found my heart lightened by this outpouring of support. I felt a surge of energy and began to run and hike harder, checking my watch all the time to see if a record was still possible.

The answer to the question of how I was famous became clear as I ran, probably pale, definitely breathless, legs heavy with lactic acid, along the final switchbacks toward the rim. It was my friend Aaron Marks. “Slow Aaron” himself, who had run to the river that morning, knew I was running hard somewhere behind him. So he had started informing people he passed about what I was doing, and asking if they would cheer me on. I came around a bend, high-fiving hikers, to see his smiling face, and he started running with me. The final four switchbacks were long, steep and icy, but I forced myself to run the whole way. As I crested the rim and collapsed at the foot of the trailhead sign, I stopped my watch and looked around. The snow and ice from earlier was steadily seeping into the hard ground. A few birds flew circles high above the canyon. A squirrel chattered from a nearby branch.

When I had caught my breath I looked at my watch: 6:53:38. It was then a new record by about six minutes. I looked at Aaron and wanted to say something important, but all that came out was, “thank goodness that’s over.” We sat for a while, contemplating, and then got up and walked slowly off to the cafeteria, passing by tourists who had no idea I had just run across the canyon so fast and who, in all likelihood, didn’t care at all. That was okay with me. I hadn’t done that for other people. When I turned around for a final look at the canyon, I was able to pick out the side canyons I had just run, and I found that I knew intimately that trail which had once been just a dream in the darkness.

Dakota Jones - running Grand Canyon - March 2012

Dakota Jones in the Grand Canyon, March 2012. Photo: David Clifford