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Grand Canyon from Horseshoe Mesa

The view of Horseshoe Mesa from near the top of the Grandview Trail in the eastern part of the Grand Canyon.

FKT. R2R2R. Ultrarunners have their own code, and it seems to consist of capital letters and repeating numbers.

Taylor Nowlin proved her mastery of the code Nov. 21, when the 26-year-old ultrarunner claimed the fastest known time for a woman on the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim run. When she returned to the South Kaibab Trailhead after 7 hours, 25 minutes, 58 seconds, she broke a record by Ida Nilsson that was only five days old.

“I wasn’t initially planning on going for the R2R2R FKT this season,” Nowlin told me. She targeted it after The North Face 50 Miler in San Francisco was cancelled due to wildfire smoke. “It’s such an iconic run, and a record that’s been held by true trail-running legends like Darcy Piceu, Devon Yanko and Bethany Lewis. When I found myself with the time to run it and the fitness to do it justice -- I had to take it!”

A college steeplechaser who took up trail running in 2014, Nowlin moved to Flagstaff in May.

“Being around so many talented athletes is a huge motivator, and the trails here are incredible,” she said. Plus, there’s that canyon. “When I walk out of the forest and feel the massive crevasse in the ground in front of me and think, ‘Pretty soon, I’ll be all the way down there,’ that never gets old. The same goes when I look up to the rim from the river — only that’s scarier.”

This 42-mile run, with more than 11,000 feet of elevation gain, is a formidable challenge. And it was about 18 degrees when Nowlin left her car at 6 a.m. “Layering for a long effort with huge elevation changes is tricky,” she said. “I had to carry everything I needed to stay warm at the rims while adding as little weight to my pack as possible for running between the two.”

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Plus, the canyon itself intimidates. “It swallows you up and feels infinite in spots. To keep it feeling manageable, I thought about running from water stop to water stop, and really celebrated when I arrived at the halfway point on the North Rim and at Phantom Ranch before my last climb out.”

Taylor ran without pacers, but her coach and partner, Nico Barraza, crewed her at Phantom Ranch, and two of his friends gave her water at the North Rim. “There’s no way I could have gotten the FKT without them. It’s amazing what getting yelled at to ‘eat more’ by a familiar face can do when you’re bonking and nowhere near done!”

She also credits Barraza for structuring a training plan that includes strength training and gravel cycling, enabling her to run 60 miles a week or more without injury. “Having someone hold me accountable makes a huge difference in my consistency, and I think my race results (and canyon run) reflect that.”

What does 2019 hold for this codebreaker? She’ll be taking on new courses, as well as returning to the Lake Sonoma 50 and Speedgoat 50K where she made the podium this year. “And I’ve gotten into gravel cycling, too — so fitting Dirty Kanza and SBT GRVL into my running schedule would be sweet!”

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Do you have a column, tip or idea for High Country Running? Run it over to coordinating editor Julie Hammonds at runner@juliehammonds.com, or tweet her @highcountry_run.

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