How Ida Nilsson Clocked a Grand Canyon R2R2R FKT
Five years ago, the Swedish runner was beset by long-term injury. This past weekend, she set a new bar for traversing one of the most iconic landmarks in the U.S.
Ida Nilsson had the trail all to herself when she pushed off from the Grand Canyon’s South Rim just before sunrise on the morning of November 16. The first rays of sun crested over the chasm as she made the 5,000-foot descent to the river below. But the 37-year-old Swede didn’t pause to take it in. She was on a mission to set the fastest known time on the canyon’s famous double crossing, the rim-to-rim-to-rim (R2R2R).
Roughly 42 miles later, with 10,000 feet of climbing and descending under her legs, Nilsson returned to the South Kaibab trailhead. Her time of seven hours, 29 minutes, and 16 seconds bested Cat Bradley’s 2017 record by 23 minutes.
Nilsson has been at the top of her sport since 2015, when she earned a surprise second-place finish at Sweden’s Ultravasan 90K, followed the next year by first-place finishes at the ultra-competitive Transvulcania 77K, the Rut 50K, and the North Face Endurance Challenge Championships 50-miler. But her rise to elite status was not as abrupt as it seems.
Nilsson grew up in Sweden in a family of runners, and competed on the roads and the track from a young age. As an undergrad at Northern Arizona University in the early 2000s, she earned two NCAA titles and ran her way to all-American status in track and cross country 11 times. The university is just a 90-minute drive away from the Grand Canyon, but at the time Nilsson wasn’t running on trails. She hiked in the canyon and reserved her speed for the track.
It was injury that first led Nilsson to the trails. After a few years of successful post-collegiate running, including a seventh-place finish in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the 2006 European Championships, she suffered a stress fracture in her hip that persisted for four years. “I thought I wouldn’t be able to run again,” she says. She moved to northern Sweden, worked seasonally as a waitress and outdoor guide, and spent her free time hiking and ski mountaineering. By 2014, when years of (relative) rest had worked their magic and her hip began to heal, “It felt more natural to explore in the mountains than to go back to track,” she says. She started running again—this time on dirt.
A few years later, Nilsson is a full-time professional ultrarunner, with a third-place finish at the 2018 UTMB-CCC 100K under her belt, among top finishes at other major races.
So it was only a matter of time before the Grand Canyon called her back. In 2017, she returned to her old stomping grounds for a rim-to-rim (single crossing) attempt with friends and pro ultrarunners Alicia Vargo and Kristy Knecht. All three broke the existing FKT by nearly 30 minutes. (Vargo finished just a few minutes ahead of her friends, and holds the official record.)
Nilsson was training in Flagstaff again this fall, in preparation for the 2018 North Face Endurance Challenge Championship 50-miler. But on November 13, organizers announced that the race was canceled due to smoke from the Camp Fire, which is devastating Butte County, California. Nilsson was hardly disappointed. “I wanted to do the double crossing last year,” she says. “But I was running TNF shortly after, so it wasn’t good timing.” The last-minute race cancellation created the perfect window to tackle a different long-standing goal.
Three days later, she was standing at the South Rim with two handheld water bottles and a few gels, ready to tackle the FKT. She started conservatively, pacing herself for the miles and vert ahead. The tactic worked, and she arrived at the halfway point feeling strong. “I thought I might even be able to do negative splits on the way back,” she says. Stomach cramps forced her to stop several times just after the turnaround, but by the time she was back down to the river at the bottom of the canyon, she was within a couple minutes of Bradley’s record. On the flat runnable stretch of trail between the river and the climb up the South Rim, Nilsson built her lead.
Still, the record didn’t come easy. The final 5,000-foot climb is brutal on tired legs, even for experienced Grand Canyon runners and record chasers at peak fitness. “It always feels long and hard,” Nilsson says. This time, afternoon heat and electrolyte depletion took their toll. Out of nowhere, her left foot started to cramp. Nilsson’s race for negative splits turned into a race to hold onto the record.
When she finally tagged the South Kaibab trailhead with a healthy margin on Bradley’s record, Nilsson says she felt happy and relieved.
Likewise, Bradley says she was excited to hear that Nilsson had brought down the record. “I knew the record was going to go down sooner rather than later,” she says. “Records are set to be broken.”
Nilsson herself thinks the women’s record can go even lower, though she probably won’t be back to beat her own time. “It’s more fun if someone else breaks my record,” she says. “Then I can go back and try to do it faster.”