Alicia Vargo didn’t plan to set a fastest-known time (FKT) in the Grand Canyon earlier this month. In fact, until two days before her attempt on November 8, she wasn’t even sure she was going to try.
Vargo, 35, of Flagstaff, Arizona, is a former road and track runner. She turned to the trails in 2013, after a series of devastating events that began nearly 10 years ago, when her husband, Ryan Shay, died of a cardiac arrhythmia during the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon. Vargo (then Shay) had been on the brink of qualifying for the Beijing Olympics in the 10,000-meter run, but the aftermath of Ryan’s death left her shattered. Injury and burnout soon followed.
Looking for a way to give her life new purpose, Vargo opened her house to elite runners who came to Flagstaff to train at altitude. Ironically, as professional road and track runners filtered through her guest rooms, she found herself more and more drawn to the mountains.
“It was something completely new,” she says. “It challenged me … and I could focus on that challenge rather than this immense weight of grief and loneliness for Ryan.”
During the years that she operated what affectionately became known as “Shay Hostel,” only one of the athletes to stay with her was a trail runner. His name was Rob Krar.
Thanks to inspiration drawn from speedy locals like Krar, Vargo found herself intrigued by the Grand Canyon, which lies just an hour from her house. She began running there regularly, and soon decided she’d like to attempt a fastest-known time. But a quickly-filling race calendar got in the way.
Over the last four years, Vargo has racked up podium and top-10 finishes at several big ultras, including the Moab Red Hot 55K, the Flagstaff Skyrace, the Chuckanut 50K and Spain’s Transvulcania 77K. In September 2016, she also got remarried, and, in July of this summer, had a baby.
So, when Vargo’s friend, Ida Nilsson, 36, of Sweden, suggested a single crossing of the Grand Canyon earlier this fall, Vargo balked. She was still recovering from childbirth and the exhausting first few months of motherhood—she had averaged two or three hours of sleep a night, nursing 18 to 20 times per day. In the past year, she had only done one run over 20 miles— “and it was miserable,” she says.
Nilsson, whom Vargo had competed against in college and then trained with after college, convinced her to come along anyway, and keep pace for as long as she was able.
Intrigue outweighed doubt.
“With the recent lowering of both [R2R and R2R2R] FKTs by fellow Flagstaff runners Jim Walmsley and Tim Freriks, I have been more curious what women could do if they started challenging themselves against the Canyon with the same tenacity and specificity that the guys have been doing for a long time,” Vargo says.
She agreed to tag along on Nilsson’s run, and invited another running partner, Kristi Knecht, 34, also of Flagstaff. It would be the longest Vargo had been away from her daughter since she was born—a fact that caused Vargo more stress than the record attempt itself.
“I’ve had many runs in the past few months where I have panicked about being away,” she says. “Those runs ended up being my first speed workouts because I was so frantic to get back to her.” She saw a rim-to-rim run as a chance to practice letting go of that anxiety.
Early on the morning of November 8, 2017, the trio set off from the North Rim. Vargo planned to take things easy on the descent. “I was afraid that if I rolled an ankle or fell, I wouldn’t get to the South Rim in time to nurse my daughter,” she says. She tucked in behind Nilsson and Knecht, and tried to settle into a relaxed pace.
To her surprise, she floated down without trouble, thoroughly entranced by the stunning views.
“I kept gasping with every turn,” she says. “I’m sure the ladies weren’t too amused with my whooping and hollering but I couldn’t help soaking in something so special.”
At the bottom of the North Rim Trail, the terrain flattens out, and Vargo and Nilssen sped up, setting a pace that Vargo describes as brisk but relaxed. “Ida and I just fell into a controlled rhythm and quietly clicked off the miles,” Vargo says. “It reminded me of workouts we had done together years ago—just really compatible and effortless.”
On the climb up the South Rim, Nilsson settled into a power hike; Vargo, who calls herself a terrible power hiker, broke into a slow running cadence. “I was still feeling pretty unsure of my fitness and climbing ability, so I tried to stay as relaxed as possible, light on my feet with calm breathing,” she says.
She ran ahead of Nilsson, expecting her and Knecht to catch up. They never did.
Family and friends waited a mile below the rim to cheer on the trio. They had also told everyone else on the trail about the record attempt, and as Vargo ran up the final climb, hikers offered cheers and high fives.
“All of that encouragement put a smile on my face,” Vargo says. “I wasn’t thinking much about the FKT, but just how thankful I was to be healthy and out having so much fun.”
Ultimately, Vargo reached the South Rim just a couple minutes ahead of Nilsson and Knecht, and cheered for them as they worked their way up the final switchbacks.
All three finished nearly 30 minutes under the previous record, set by Bethany Lewis in 2011. Vargo’s time—3 hours 19 minutes 23 seconds—is a new fastest-known time.
“It was awesome to try to run a fast time through the Canyon,” says Vargo, “But that was really only part of the experience. After years of struggling … in my personal life and with health issues, I don’t take opportunities like this for granted.”
[Editor’s note: A week and a half later, Nilsson would go on to win the North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships in San Francisco, California, for the second year in a row.]
An important note about Grand-Canyon running etiquette, from Alicia Vargo:
Currently, there is a lot of tension between runners and hikers, rangers, the National Park Service and mule drivers. The Canyon is a gift that we share with everyone else that visits. Many visitors to the Canyon spend months or years planning their trip. Runners must make sure that all visitors are able to experience the Canyon in a peaceful manner. Practically speaking, that means that runners need to yield to hikers, move around other groups carefully and slowly and stop for all mule trains. If you want to run fast in the Canyon, do not run the corridor trails at peak hours; run early in the morning, in the evening or on the non-corridor trails, which are much less busy. Even then, the same rules apply. Runners yield to everyone, at all times.