Right about now, as you’re settling in for a little LED tanning session, Devon Crosby-Helms and Krissy Moehl (above) are putting you and pretty much everyone else to shame. The ultra-endurance studs are running together to set the fastest time for a woman going from rim to rim and back to rim of the Grand Canyon, tracing the classic route that starts on the South Rim, goes down the South Kaibab Trail, crosses the Colorado River, ascends the North Rim on the North Kaibab Trail, and then turns back around.
They’ll cover 41.8 miles and 10,710 feet of both down and up, and the record they’re trying to best is 9:25 by Emily Baer in 2003. The men’s record, 6:56:59, was set by Dave Mackey in 2007.
UPDATE: THEY DID IT! The new record is 9:12:29!
Even if you’re a fairly avid runner, Devon Crosby-Helms and Krissy Moehl do this kind of stuff with metronome-like frequency.
Barely a month ago, for instance, three weeks after qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Trials at the L.A. Marathon on March 20 (with a time of 2:43:28), Crosby-Helms, who is 28, ran 100k in 7:46:33 in Madison, Wisconsin. This qualified her for automatic membership on the U.S. National 100k team which will race at the 100k worlds this summer in the Netherlands.
Moehl, 33, is hardly a slouch, either. In a two-week stretch this past February she ran back-to-back 50k trail races, winning one and coming in fifth among women in the other. Each race took over five hours. In 2005, when she was fairly new to ultras, she ran four 100-mile races in a single season, the Western States 100, Vermont 100, Leadville 100, and the Wasatch Front 100, with the second-fastest women’s time (cumulative) ever.
Helms and Moehl are good friends, despite sometimes competing against each other and living in different cities — Helms in San Francisco and Moehl in Seattle. But when they’ve had the opportunity to run together they’ve brought out the speed in each other’s performance and hat’s precisely what they hope to be doing today.
Before they set off we asked them a few questions..
What are the logistical challenges of doing something like this?
Crosby-Helms: Well we’ve done this before, a rim to rim to rim run we did in 2009 along with two other women on a girls’ weekend, and one of the things you learn is that you have to listen to each other. People bonk at different times, one person is stronger than the other at different times, you have to keep yourself strong so you can be strong for each other. And we’re going to do this together no matter what the time is, so we really have to work hard to support each other.
Moehl: You have to train for it and put the hurt on yourselves with lots of hill repeats and running downhill, too, because if you don’t practice going down it’s going to really hurt.
Crosby-Helms: We’re also opposites. I like running downhill and Krissy likes running uphill, so we can really push each other. We run great together for that reason.
Moehl: Another logistical thing is that we’ll have water stashes. But we’ll do this the way Baer did it, so if she was able to tap into water on the North Rim [where there’s a spigot] we’ll do that, too. If not, we’ll just have to carry more.
Devon, you’re a personal chef — yet you have had all sorts of dietary problems. As an athlete with a sensitive stomach this has to be pretty limiting. Athletes know that if they can’t eat well they can’t perform well.
I learned that I have a gluten intolerance but luckily I don’t have celiac’s disease. I’ve been through a lot of trial and error figuring out what food I can eat and what food agrees with me as fuel. I can eat a sweet potato and avocado before a long run, for instance, and that’s really good fuel for me, so what I’d say to anyone, whether you have any dietary issues at all, is to experiment and track the food that works well for you and really study it. What’s like sweet potato and avocado, nutritionally? Just in case you need to access that nutritional profile but can’t get it exactly during an event. A good for instance of the error part of the trial and error was that I was experimenting a lot with my diet when I was in culinary school and I went too far and became vegan, and wasn’t eating enough grains either and still running 100 miles a week and that made my body very unhappy.
Krissy, what about nutrition and you?
I’ve learned over a decade [of ultra-running] that you have to also “train your diet” very specifically. So I’ll actually change my diet as I build toward an event. And it might get very restrictive and not be as fun because it’s fuel, but especially as a woman I’ve learned that I have so much more energy if I’m very careful about my fuel. And it’s not forever, it’s just for this one time period. Also, it’s huge to know how to eat during and after a race. I’m training a couple of athletes now and they had no idea they weren’t eating enough, period, and definitely not eating enough carbs during, and protein after their training, and even that they weren’t doing their fueling before events properly.
What do each of you eat that people would find surprising?
Moehl: My favorite food during a really long event is half a salted avocado. It takes a while to metabolize, but having some fat like that smooths out the spikes and valleys in my blood sugar from carbs you absorb faster, like from Gu.
Crosby-Helms: During an event I used to be like “I’m not gonna eat anything artificial” and now in shorter events I actually crave specific flavors of gels. Doing something like a 100-mile race I need food that’s going to make me happy. I’ve eaten potato chips and M+Ms during races.
Being an athlete is one thing, but what have either of you learned not racing that’s been valuable for you to know as an athlete?
Moehl: Crewing last summer’s Red Bull Human Express [a 2,000-miler by ultrarunner Karl Meltzer retracing the path of the Pony Express]…I learned so much more from this race than from any single, really great event I’ve done. It was 40 days of a four perfect strangers living together in an RV, sleeping five hours a night and turning yourself inside out for this guy running 50 miles a day totally tapping his system. It was an awesome experience, but it was really exhausting. I’ve been working with a doctor doing my blood work before and after races for a whole year and after the Human Express, my blood work was horrendous.
My takeaway from this was pretty simple: If as a high-performance athlete you hear your body and ignore what it’s telling you, you’re going to really suffer. In this sense you have to be selfish or you’re not going to achieve your goals.