40 Years on Foot
40 Years on Foot--The first 40 years of the Tucson Trail Runs
by Ross Zimmerman, with comments and clarification from Jennifer Avilés (former wife of Ken Young, our founder)
The 2017-2018 schedule was the 40th season of scheduled runs in the mountains around Tucson, Arizona. Our series is the oldest of its kind in the country, I believe. The Tucson Trail Runs exist because the recently deceased Ken Young got a faculty job in Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Arizona. Ken had learned how to run trails with the legendary Rick Trujillo in Colorado while doing doctoral and postdoctoral work at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Tucson has more trails ringing the metropolitan area than any other city in the country. Ken noticed. He started exploring those trails. He found the remarkable series of maps of the Santa Catalinas, the Rincons, the Santa Ritas, and Chiricahuas created by the Southern Arizona Hiking Club. I doubt TTR would exist in anything like its current form without those maps. Here’s Pete Cowgill’s account of the mapping project. It took an amazing amount of time and effort by SAHC members to hike all the trails with a measuring wheel, which if done carefully is more accurate than most GPS tracks.
In November of 1978, Ken staged the first scheduled Mt. Lemmon Ascent. Take a look at Ken’s origin account for more detail. I turned up for the first TTR Esperero Canyon Loop in March of 1979. Ken, Jim Shea, and Bob Martin were there. I’m the only one of that group still alive. As we approach 40 years of TTR, it seems good to describe how we got here. I’m on the short list of people who are still around who actually trained with Ken and got to know his perspective pretty well. Remarkable guy—brilliant, sometimes irascible and hard to get along with, driven by compulsions to do remarkable things like his multi-year running streak and the obsessive record keeping of runs that has became a global resource today. Ken and I got along well. I learned a lot from the man.
Ken was hyper-competitive. The focus of the original TTR run series was very much on competition and race times. He actively recruited the fastest runners in the area to come out. When he became concerned about the possibility of cheating on out and back events, he instituted a system of colored/numbered wristbands. You were assigned a wristband at the start. The first runner to the turn around left his or her wristband. The next one swapped theirs for the one the previous runner left. The last runner brought home two wristbands.
TTR predates all running belts, packs, and other hydration and supply-carrying gear. A TTR runner, John Cappis, invented the first running belt (the LiquiPac) because he only had one kidney. It was the forerunner of all the gear you have available now. Because it’s pretty darn hot in Southern Arizona in the summer, the local runs in the series started in early October. Initially that was a run at the Grand Canyon, although a few years later that was replaced by an ascent of Mt. Wrightson in the Santa Ritas south of town (That’s since shifted to early September). On Wrightson, there was usually good water at Bellows Spring, somewhat over half way up Old Baldy Trail. By late October it was cool enough to attempt Bear Canyon Loop, since we didn’t carry water. Mt. Lemmon Ascent was in November. Winter Bear Canyon in early January. Cowhead Saddle in early February. Tanque Verde Loop in late February or early March. Esperero Canyon Loop in mid-March. Mica Mountain Marathon at the end of March. Then spring Mt. Lemmon and Wrightson Ascents in late April and early May respectively, once almost all the snow was gone. Spring Wrightson evolved into the Multiple Wrightson Massacre in later years. Various versions of runs at the Grand Canyon have been included in the series, typically in October or early November, or late March or early April. Lately, those haven’t been a part of the formal schedule.
Key aspects of Ken’s original concept and format have carried forward. The Tucson Trail Runs don’t have entry fees, as of this writing [TTR will have a $5 annual entry fee beginning Fall 2022] . There were no aid stations except for water from springs, streams, and snow. Today, we do have aid on some of the longer, newer routes where there are accessible road crossings, typically only at one or two spots. Originally, you were very much on your own, although maps were provided at the start. I can’t remember any mention in the pre-race instructions of calling out Southern Arizona Search and Rescue if someone was lost. That did happen once when two runners doing Mt. Lemmon Ascent got to Romero Pass, decided to go down the other side, found a phone, called their wives for a ride home, then didn’t contact Jennifer Young to let her know where they were. That led to language in newsletter 6 that people needed to check in or they would no longer be welcome. No awards or glory, although that changed a bit when Ken devised a Grand Prix for the major runs with a set of patches.
The only way to know when and where the runs were was to get mailed Ken’s annual newsletter, or by word-of-mouth. We only knew for sure who would turn up when they signed in on race morning. We talked about times, but only had complete listings when Ken sent out his next newsletter. He would make xeroxes (heard that word?) of portions of the SAHC maps with the route of interest. I prepared for the runs in the first year or two by buying all those maps and studying them carefully for hours. If you haven’t already, take a look at the scanned copies of those original newsletters.
Ken married Jennifer Hesketh in the early 1980s. They co-administered for several years. There was some amount of dissatisfaction with Ken’s very directive leadership style and some of his rules. In summer of 1984, Ken and Jen decided to step back and let others manage the series. Initially, that was Laura Lusk. In 1986, Bob Deeran and Gordon Neal became series co-administrators. Gordon left to ride his bike around the world a couple of years later, then to work in Houston, then Colorado Springs where he is today. Laura, Bob, and Gordon added a few runs, like Wasson Peak, but largely carried forward Ken’s schedule, format, and style, albeit less intensely competitive. Their efforts to sustain the series were crucial to its survival post-Ken. Ken stayed involved until he moved to California in the 1990s. He stayed in contact once we started using electronic communications. Bob Deeran died of cancer in 1999. Mica Mountain Marathon has been called Bob’s Run in his memory.
Gene Joseph and Ross Zimmerman took over series administration in the early 1990s. We’re trying to remember exactly how early. We know we were managing things in the 1992-1993 season when Rick Fisher asked if the Tarahumara runners he had brought up from the Sierra Madre Occidental could use our series to train for U.S. ultramarathons, which resulted in the book Born to Run by Chris MacDougall, a remarkably incomplete account of the Tarahumaras’ ultra exploits— http://www.digitalteamworks.com/canyons/Tarahamara/ApacheTarahamaraRacingTeam.htm and http://www.nutritionequation.org/sources/born-to-run/.
We (Gene and Ross) had a somewhat different vision for the series. We wanted to emphasize inclusion, but we still kept track of times. Most of the runs traverse portions of the Wilderness Areas of the Coronado NF and Saguaro NP. The federal legislation creating Wilderness Areas specifically prohibits organized athletic competitions in the wilderness. There are limits to group sizes on the trails without special use permits, which would probably be unobtainable anyway today in Saguaro National Park. Ken, an avowed anarchist, wanted to ignore federal jurisdictions and authority. That resulted in his running a Tanque Verde Loop in reverse after the Chiva Falls Fire that closed the trail from the normal start at the east end of Speedway up to Doug Springs. He figured if he started from the other end, he could sneak out safely at Speedway. Instead, he was chased to ground by Park Service enforcement officers on the road and ticketed. When we took on the series, we talked to NF and NP staff, told them what we were up to, and made sure we were staying within the guidelines for small group events that didn’t require a permit. The Forest Service guy commented our runs were the perfect low impact use of the Santa Catalina Wilderness Area.
We also thought each run should have a Run Director who took responsibility for the event. The rest of TTR liked that approach. After a few years, an RD or two with Hash House Harrier background started sharing refreshments at the run’s end. That went over so well that we adopted the concept for all the runs.
Initially, we used Ken’s model of a once a year schedule mail-out. We started sending out a tentative schedule before a summer potluck, then firmed up details at the gathering, with a second final schedule mailing afterwards. A key concept was that a run required a Run Director to be included on the schedule. When the Internet became a real thing, we quickly realized that getting everyone on an email list was much superior to snail mail. In the mid 1990s, Ross acquired a good handheld GPS and started making tracks of our routes, then crafting maps to print out and share with the runners based on those tracks combined with mapping software instead of photocopying chunks of a printed map. Those maps ended up on the ttraz.net website that Ross originally set up. A few years later, Betsy Duran crafted a great online database with its own website.
On January 8th 2011, Ross’ son Gabe Zimmerman was killed in the mass shooting that wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, for whom Gabe was Outreach and Constituent Services Director. In the aftermath, Ross and Gene (who had known Gabe since his birth in 1980) decided to hand TTR administration off to Dallas and Renee Stevens. After a year or two, Ross and Gene were asked to take series administration back. We were amenable, but decided it was important to spread the load across more volunteers. A group led by Mike Duer took charge of the schedule, the most important part of TTR. Bruce Johnson became the Run Director Liaison. Angela Greynolds took the lead relative web presence, redesigning our website. Dallas continued to manage results records, then handed off to Angela. Kathryn Nealy was our first trail work liaison. Mike has been covering that since Kathryn left for medical residency [John Mollenhour has been doing that job for many years now]
These days, the number and diversity of runs has increased dramatically. Some of the new routes use trails (like the Arizona Trail) that didn’t exist when Ken created the original series. Ken’s first published schedule in 1979 had 10 runs. The 2017-2018 schedule had 26 runs, which included all of Ken’s runs except for the spring edition of Mt. Lemmon Ascent and the Grand Canyon Traverse. Six of the newer routes were devised by Ross, and the others were contributed by other TTR members who had a route they wanted to sponsor.
People still pay attention to times, particularly on the original routes, which have some very speedy Fastest Known Times (FKT). Several things have changed. Many of the trails are not as runnable as they were 40 years ago, or have been changed. On Bear Canyon Loop, there are a number of spots where runners must break stride over sections that have have eroded and/or changed. Cow Head Saddle trail has been rerouted in several spots after fire in the 1980s, increasing the distance from 16.8 miles to at least 17.1 miles, which affects three of our runs. A portion of the Lemmon Ascent route trail was completely destroyed by the Aspen Fire in spots and rebuilt with some redesign. Another factor was that Ken actively recruited some very good runners to attempt the original routes. Top runners from all over the state showed up. The men’s FKT on Bear, 1:49, was set by Thom Hunt, UA’s star runner at the time, who went on to run professionally. Also, the population of runners doing the runs today are on average older than in the early years. Ken was an older guy in his mid 30s when he started the series, and Al Cureton from Williams, AZ, was an ancient 43 years old when he became the first person to ascend Lemmon is less than three hours. Al also set a Grand Canyon Double Crossing FKT that stood for decades. Like it or not, everyone starts to lose some leg speed in their mid 30s, although they can still put in strong efforts on all our routes.
In April 2016, Catlow Shipek and Mike Duer created the closed Facebook Group Tucson Trail Runners. Practically all the TTR conversation has now shifted to that forum. The Facebook group has resulted in many more TTR members, although it’s unclear how many actually participate in the runs. It’s caused a much livelier set of discussions, with members advertising their plans for training runs on routes like Blackett’s Ridge Trail (which was one of those trails that didn’t used to exist…). Gene and Ross have become much less active in series administration. Mike is taking the lead with TTR in a variety of ways. The 40 year mark seems an appropriate time to remember where TTR has been.
Here are some comments and clarifications: Ken and I were married in 1981. Bob Deeran passed away I believe in November of 1999.
Kathy Shipp (now Howard) was the first woman to participate in the series and the first woman to travel to the Grand Canyon for a single in 1979. In 1980-81, 19 women ventured out to run the trails. As more runners joined the series, particularly the three major runs scheduled two weeks apart - Tanque Verde then Esperrero then Mica, Ken added the Triple Crown achievement for those three to the mix of the fastest combined times.
I think it might be of interest to note that Ken arranged the first Canyon single crossing in 1979. In late November 1980 Kathy Howard and I joined Ken to run a Double via the Kaibab Trail over and back while Ross and his first wife Emily waited for us at the South Rim with their son Gabe in tow. I "dropped out" and turned around at Cottonwood Camp while Ross trotted down the South Kaibab Trail to accompany Kathy out. The following year a group of Californians who Ken and I met when Ken went over to run Western States that previous spring came over to join us for the double including Jim King and Bjorg Austrheim-Smith, the 1982 Western winners. Some of those runners complained about our rocky trails. Also in 1982, Ken and I, with the assistance of five other trail runners, organized (still no entry fee!) the last formal Grand Canyon Double Crossing by 49 people from all over the United States with the permission of the National Park Service. After that, groups would go up on their own to run the Double in the spring and/or fall and still do.
Fall 1982 saw the first Mt. Wrightson Massacre, an event Ken gleefully organized to see who the mountain could defeat. I recall that those of us who participated being told what after-the-fact what seemed like hilarious tales of difficulties encountered.
The 1983-84 season saw the introduction of other people to serve as run directors while Ken and I continued to oversee the series. Ken was becoming more involved with national and international record keeping for both road and long distance track. This included the controversy over Alberto Salazar’s New York Marathon World Record that Ken disallowed because the course was found to be short (https://arrs.run/HP_NYCMa.htm). Laura Lusk, who my husband Enrique and I literally ran into her here in Tucson last Spring on a trail in the foothills of the Rincons when she was down for a visit, took on the coordination for the 1984-85 season with again individual run directors.
Bob Deeran and Gordon Neal took over the coordination in 1985-86. (They shifted back toward directing the individual runs themselves-- Ross Z). Ken continued to run in the series while I backed off quite a bit to spend more time administering the National Running Data Center and coordinating the activities of my two children.
My son Michael completed Mt. Wrightson in 1983 when he was 12. The following year Ken created a junior division in the newsletter to recognize several boys including Jim Shea's son, Kevin, who accepted the challenge in 1982 when he was 11. Jason Mawhinney raced up in 1:19:36 when he was 14! 10-year old Billy Mericle summited in 1:36:24 in 1981. [Do youngsters still come out or was it the parents like Patty Mericle and Jim Shea who brought them out?).
Relative his international recording activities, Ken’s National Running Data Center was the official record keeper for all running distances and long distance track for The Athletics Congress (TAC). Ken also pushed certified courses and was instrumental in the establishment of the rules including, wind aided marks.