Leo Lloyd, 55, has run an 18-mile loop in the Grand Canyon every spring for 35 years.
The tradition began on a spring break trip with two of his Fort Lewis College professors and has become an unofficial event embraced by close friends and co-workers at the Durango Fire Protection District, where Lloyd has worked for 15 years.
As an “unofficial” gathering there is no need to register with the National Park Service, but you wouldn’t have known it based on the group’s reception this year.
It all began when Lloyd sent information to a handful of friends that made its way to Facebook.
“At the end I say ‘oh by the way if you’re confronted by a friendly, well meaning park ranger say you’re not associated, this is not an organized run, and you do not know this Leo character,” with a smiley face.
But obviously they all did know this Leo character, who’s been in Durango since 1980 when he moved from Montana to attend FLC and pursue a degree in molecular biology with a plan of going to medical school.
His father, also Leo, and mother, Connie, graduated from Durango High School, and the family would commonly visit the area during the summer. Lloyd has a sister Stephanie and brothers Joe, who owns the Durango Joe’s coffee chain, and John, who lives in San Diego.
While attending FLC, he took an emergency medical technician class and began working part time for Mercy Medical Center in 1984, riding on an ambulance.
Lloyd took the job to improve his chances of getting into medical school, but when that didn’t pan out he took a full-time position. He went on to become a paramedic in 1987 and a registered nurse in 1992.
It was during that time that he became interested in mountain rescue and began volunteering with La Plata County Search and Rescue.
“It was meshing with a lot of interests that I already had with climbing,” Lloyd said.
Lloyd spent nine years with AirCare, a medical flight program that responds to emergencies via helicopter and transports critical patients in airplanes, in Farmington.
On Sept. 2, 1992, barely three months after the program started, a helicopter he was on went down during a call to rescue an outfitter who had stroke symptoms in the Weminuche Wilderness north of Vallecito Lake.
“It seriously injured both the pilot and my partner, and I ended up with a broken arm, but it happened so late in the day that we weren’t rescued until the next day,” he said.
Lloyd and his injured partners, who had spinal injuries, spent the night in the backcountry while a member of the outfitter’s group traveled 13 miles to relay what had happened.
“It was one of the harder things I’ve ever been involved with … I was really the only one that could move,” he said.
There was a nurse among the outfitters who was able to help him care for the injured.
“There were no fatalities, but there were certainly some career changes and lifelong medical problems,” he said.
The incident led to changes in the program, and pressure from relatives for him to reconsider the dangerous profession.
“If I would have taken months to decide that, I probably wouldn’t have done that. But literally within a couple weeks, I was back at work,” he said.
Lloyd continued to work in emergency medicine and became more involved in technical rescue. He eventually left AirCare to pursue other opportunities before joining the newly formed Durango Fire & Rescue Authority in 2002 as an EMS captain and coordinator of the Technical Rescue Team.
In 2012, he was promoted to EMS training captain, ensuring members are up to date on training to maintain medical certifications.
Lloyd also got an opportunity to instruct for Rigging for Rescue, through which he travels internationally to teach technical rescue techniques.
In January, he spent a month in Phortse, Nepal, training Sherpas at the nonprofit Khumbu Climbing Center, focusing on safety techniques for high-altitude ascents and emergency rescue practices.
“We were giving them the skill sets to increase their safety margins on these big mountains,” Lloyd said.
He called it one of the most difficult and rewarding experiences he’s had.
“It was one of the most challenging instructional venues I’ve ever been placed in – no classroom, no A/V equipment. It was all with translator and flawless modeling,” Lloyd said.
Lloyd and his wife, Susie, have three sons: Kendall, 25, Andy, 21, and Kaden, 18, and he says his sons help him stay active and keep up with his physical training regimen for the fire service.
Which brings us back to the Grand Canyon hike, which Lloyd said propelled him into backcountry and outdoor adventure.
The first tip-off that something was up this year came when he drove through the entry station and a ranger commented on him being from Durango.
“I could tell that they were waiting for me to get there,” Lloyd said.
The group met at a nearby restaurant and a trio of park service SUVs converged on them.
The rangers marched Dan Noonan, Lloyd’s former boss at the fire department, outside for an interview and asked the runners why they were at the park.
“I’m going, ‘Oh my gosh, I cannot believe this.’ So I just sit there,” Lloyd said.
After about 30 minutes, Noonan was released and told Lloyd he needed to talk with the park service employees.
“So I get up and they realize ‘that’s him, there he is right there,’ and it felt like El Chapo or something finally got apprehended,” Lloyd said.
He put the rangers worries to rest and apologized for the ending on his flyer. The run went off without a hitch from there.
Despite the incident, Lloyd said he doesn’t intend to stop the run, even saying he would crawl the trail if needed so he can reach his lofty goal.
“My goal is to do it 50 years in a row, and then I’ll reevaluate.”