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?