ST. GEORGE — At the end of October, St. George resident Crystal McGee was running up the South Kaibab Trail on her first crossing of the Grand Canyon when she had an epiphany of sorts.
“I just felt like, I can do this, I need to do this,” she said. “From that point on I just put my head down and ran.”
McGee was en route to completing a supported quad-crossing of the Grand Canyon, running from North Rim to South Rim to North Rim to South Rim to North Rim again; a feat that only three women, including herself, have recorded – and she did it faster than any of them.
McGee always wanted to run a marathon. But, she said, she didn’t think she would actually ever run one.
“It just kind of happened,” she said of her first marathon.
That was eight years ago at the 2012 St. George Marathon.
In the beginning, while McGee loved running, she said she kept getting injured running road marathons.
“I got tired of that,” she said.
So McGee, who said she usually ran some days on trails during her training, began to focus more on the trails than the road.
“If you run trails, it’s a lot easier on your body,” McGee said.
As McGee switched to trail running, she jokingly said that the natural progression was to work toward ultra running or running an ultramarathon. An ultramarathon is defined as anything longer than the distance of a traditional marathon which is 26.2 miles.
McGee said that people in the ultra running community will often say that running 50 miles is easier than running a marathon.
“In some ways that’s true,” McGee said, “but in some ways it’s definitely false.”
Still, McGee kept running. Her first ultra was at the Zion Ultra, an ultra race that has distances of 10o miles, 100 kilometers, 50 kilometers and a trail half-marathon (13.1 miles).
McGee ran the 100K which is roughly 60 miles, she said. Then McGee did the 100K distance again at the Javelina Jundred in Fountain Hills, Arizona.
Among her friends McGee is also known for tackling other running challenges such as running 23 miles around a baseball diamond, 40 miles without eating or drinking anything other than water and even 24 hours of nonstop walking for 60 miles.
But even with all that under her belt, McGee said she wasn’t brave enough to attempt the 100-mile distance. Then she won a free entry into the 2020 Zion Ultra for the 100-mile distance and decided to go for it.
Unfortunately the race was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and McGee’s goal was put on hold.
That is about when she got a call from a friend who invited her to try for a quad-crossing of the Grand Canyon, she said.
In the ultrarunning world, rim-to-rim or R2R is a notable feat, rim-to-rim-to-rim or R2R2R, even more so.
A post on the Fastest Known Time website which keeps track of the fastest recorded times on famous running routes around the world like the Appalachian Trail or the Zion Traverse said the following of the Grand Canyon crossings:
The Rim-to-Rim (R2R), R2R2R, and R2R2R2R2R (! aka 2xR2R2R) have been huge classics for many years. A speed record here really counts as a world-class performance, as many of the best mountain runners have tested their mettle in the Canyon. The fastest times are typically set by running the North and South Kaibab Trails.
What McGee was asked to attempt was the rim-to-rim-to-rim-to-rim-to-rim or R2R2R2R2R. Five rims, four full crossings of the Grand Canyon totaling over 95 miles and 21,000 feet of ascent and descent.
“I had no intention of doing anything like this,” McGee said, adding that when her friend first approached her about the idea she told him it was the dumbest thing ever.
“But he kept bugging me, like relentlessly bugging me,” she said of her friend.
As McGee started thinking about it more and more, the idea started to give her butterflies, so she decided to go all-in.
The training wasn’t easy. St. George resident and runner Scott Hughes, who ran a portion of the crossings with McGee, said that she battled illness and injury as well as balanced being a wife, mother of five and massage therapist while training for the run.
“She’s an inspiration,” Hughes said.
Very few women are recorded as having accomplished the quad-crossing. McGee said when they were researching it, they found record of a woman who did it in 1998 in about 30 hours.
Then a week before McGee was supposed to do her run, another woman posted on the Fastest Known Time website that she had just completed the feat in 28:48:24.
“Now I had a real time to beat,” McGee said.
McGee started her Grand Canyon crossings with some friends and pacers and quickened her pace. She soon left her pacers and was running alone on track to make her time goal but still uncertain she was going to complete the journey.
It was as she was climbing out of the canyon on the South Kaibab Trail when she decided she could do it, she said.
“I stopped thinking of all the things that made me doubt myself and just ran.”
Even so, it wasn’t easy.
Most people who attempt the quad-crossing start on the South Kaibab Trail as the North Kaibab Trail is nearly 1,000 feet higher, making the final climb out of the canyon more difficult.
For logistical reasons, McGee started on the North Kaibab Trail.
McGee did her first two crossings mostly solo and then met Hughes who ran about 40 miles with her, she said.
Hughes sang the praises of his friend and her accomplishments.
“Crystal is so stinking humble about it,” Hughes said. “She told me that it wasn’t a big deal. I told her that she is a freaking hero that overcame some pretty tough obstacles to accomplish this feat. She just laughed.”
While there were moments where McGee really had to dig deep, there were also times, she said, where she felt as if it wasn’t her body that was running.
McGee said of one moment when they turned off their headlamps and ran by the light of the full moon: “That was really special.”
As she approached the the final part of the climb on her last crossing, McGee said she started hyperventilating knowing she only had about 90 seconds left of climbing “up that crazy mountain.”
McGee finished the feat in a time of 28:11:26 – the fastest known time for a woman on a supported quad-crossing of the Grand Canyon.
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