In what might be one of the world’s greatest running records ever set, Jim Walmsley broke the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim trail running record on Oct. 4 by completing the 42-mile roundtrip in an astonishing 5 hours, 55 minutes and 20 seconds.
While it’s impossible to compare that to other eye-popping records such as Dennis Kimeto’s 2:02:57 world record in the marathon or David Rudisha’s 1:40.91 effort in the 800-meter run, Walmsley’s remarkable run certainly belongs in the same conversation—at least given by how much and how dramatically the record was broken. He took 26 minutes off of the previous Fastest Known Time set by Rob Krar (6:21:47) in 2013. That means he averaged 8:27 per mile over a trail route that includes more than 22,000 feet of vertical change, including a 5,000-foot ascent over the final 7 miles to the finish at the South Rim.
The 26-year-old Walmsley, who grew up in Scottsdale, Ariz., and ran collegiately for the U.S. Air Force Academy, also broke Krar’s Rim to Rim record running south to north on the first part of his roundtrip. After starting from the South Rim at 4:27 a.m., he covered that section in 2:46, roughly 5 minutes ahead of Krar’s 2:51:28 mark from 2012. That’s about 7:54 mile pace on terrain that includes a massive, 4,000-foot climb to the North Rim.
Walmsley’s mile pace might seem slow to seasoned road or track runners, but they’re quite fast for running on trails—especially when you consider the difference between his downhill and uphill mile paces. His Strava data shows that he was flying on the downhill section off the South Rim, averaging about 6:20 mile pace for the first 13 miles, including a 5:22 mile from mile 9 to 10. In all, he recorded 17 mile splits under 7:00 and he ran 25 of the 42 miles in 7:59 or faster. (See Jim Walmsley’s Strava data here.) Walmsley’s uphill mile pace was in the 10:00-13:20 range, with two mile splits of 17:33 and 17:02 on this final ascent back to the South Rim.
Those are amazing numbers, for sure, but to those who have run across the Grand Canyon and back at any pace, they’re astounding.
“That’s freaking crazy,” said Dave Mackey, who was the first runner to break 7 hours running the Rim to Rim to Rim route in 2007. “It’s an amazing record. Can you imagine what he can do in some of the 100-mile races? I thought Krar was setting the bar pretty high, but Walmsley has set it even higher.”
The Grand CanyonRim-to-Rim-to-Rim run is a bucket-list item for many ultrarunners, but it’s also one of the world’s top tasks in the Fastest Known Time universe. But running across the Grand Canyon and back is grueling for anyone who attempts it, both because it badly beats your legs up on the long steep downhills and crushes everything else on the monstrous uphills. At 42-miles long and just around 22,600 feet of elevation change, the grandiose route is a scenic masterpiece showcasing the vast and diverse geology that comprises the Kaibab Plateau. From the South Rim to the North Rim and back, the iconic line is brutally beautiful and sits revered by all runners who have ever dropped inside the Canyon’s walls.
Walmsley dressed to run light and fast, wearing a moisture-wicking short-sleeved T-shirt, running shorts and a pair of Hoka One One Challenger ATR 2 trail running shoes, while carrying two hand-held 20-ounce water bottles (which he re-filled at water spigots along the way).
Krar was among the first to congratulate Walmsley once he got word of the new record, tweeting out: “Congrats to @walmsley172 on setting a new Grand Canyon R2R2R FKT in an unbelievable 5:55:20, and R2R FKT in the process!”
Although Allyn Cureton’s 1981 Rim to Rim to Rim record (7:51:23) record lasted for 25 years, it has now been broken five times in 10 years. Kyle Skaggs (7:37, 2006), Dave Mackey (6:59:56, 2007), Dakota Jones (6:53:38, 2011) and Krar (6:21:47, 2013) turned in great performances, but Walmsley’s effort is of a different magnitude. Cureton also set the one-way record in 1981 (3:06:47, running North to South via North Kaibab and South Kaibab) but Krar took that down in May 2012 with his 2:51:28 effort, only to have Walmsley smoke that one too.
(In case you’re wondering, the women’s R2R2R record is 8:15:51, set by Bethany Lewis in 2011. The double Rim to Rim to Rim record is 43:31:00, set by Jason Vaughn in 2013. Vaughn’s mark was set en route to becoming the only person ever to complete a triple Rim to Rim to Rim undertaking, doing so in a mind- and leg-numbing 43:31:00.)
After a solid high school running career (including a 23rd-place finish at the Foot Locker Cross Country National Championships in 2007), Walmsley was a good college track runner at Air Force from 2007-2012, with PRs of 13:52 for the 5,000m and 29:08 for 10,000m. Those times might suggest he could run a fast half marathon or marathon, but his best half marathon is 1:08:08 and he’s never run a marathon on the roads. But Walmsley has won numerous ultra-distance races since moving up from shorter distances in 2014, including the JFK 50-miler in Washington D.C. in 2014 and the Lake Sonoma 50 in Healdsburg, Calif., this past April.
Walmsley has seemed to have found his niche in ultrarunning, but not without a few dramatic blow-ups. At the 2015 IAU 100K World Championships in the Netherlands, Walmsley took off crazy fast from the start and built a 5-minute margin on the rest of the field, leading through the 50K mark in 3:05:20 (5:57 mile pace). But he would eventually blow up badly and retire from that race after about 70K. He was on record-setting pace at the Western States 100 in late June, only to go off course near mile 90 and lose more than 45 minutes trying to find his way back. He backtracked and eventually finished in 20th place, but it left a lot of runners wondering what might have been.
From the moment Walmsley set his sights on the Grand Canyon record a year ago, he never doubted his ability to achieve the unthinkable.
“This one is for Arizona, my friends, and my family who have supported me from day one,” Walmsley said moments after he emerged from the South Rim.
On Tuesday, the torch was passed. A new King of the Canyon has been crowned, and his name is Jim Walmsley.