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Denali Strabel: Racing Across the Northern Arizona Sky

Making the trek from Anchorage, Alaska to the San Francisco Peaks mountain range high above Flagstaff, Arizona, rabbitELITE  Denali Strabel tackled the unrelenting 39km Flagstaff Sky Race this past weekend, finishing off the podium by a mere five minutes in a 5+ hour race! 

Check out her race report below and find her at the next big competition with fellow rabbitELITE teammate Kate Elliot as well as rabbitPRO Kris Brown at the North Face 50 November 18th in Sausalito, California.  


I recently took a trip to Arizona to test my new found love for mountain racing. I chose to run the 39k Sky Race in the final race weekend for the US Skyrunning circuit.

The 39k was a scenic traverse that ran around Mount Elden before scrambling up to the top of the Agassiz Ski Lift (11,500 ft) and then finishing at the base of the San Francisco Peaks. It was a little over 24 miles and well over 8,000 feet of climbing.

The day started off with a shuttle ride from the Arizona Snowbowl. The bus filled with eager runners, made its way to the start as the sun rose. Conversations of the huge climbs, strange ditches along the trails, and the latest Jim Walmsley sighting echoed in the air but never seemed to break my concentration. I sat quietly with my own thoughts about how I wanted to execute my race; a race that I was well underprepared for. Coming from sea level and racing at high elevation was a huge challenge. But still, I sat as the sun warmed my face with positive thoughts about how I would like my day to go. As we made our way through Flagstaff, I recited my positive mantras:

I would run with love and welcome the pain that was about to take over my legs. I would not fear the fear that comes with running long races, but see this fear as an opportunity to embrace the love I have for being outside all day.

The start of the race was along a dirt path that instantly shot up into the first climb. I stayed calm as drama happened all around me. Within the first few minutes of the race I already heard screams of “Wrong Way!!” and not too long after felt the breath of the U-turn runners down my neck. As I watched the wide-eyed runners sprint past me, I could feel their frustration. I was just about to get down on myself for starting far behind but realize that I would have been right with the spiked heart rate crowd if I had positioned myself up front from the gun. Relieved, I focused on the first climb and watched as the buildings in sight became smaller and smaller. The trail was dusty and had plenty of tedious switchbacks. It was a dizzy zigzag trail that led us into the wild.

The trail was also a picturesque fall scene with plenty of climbs, banked downs, wrenched turns, and obstacles. Yellow leaves fell to the ground as the alpine terrain became more exposed the higher we climbed. The first hour passed like a dream and my next 15 or so miles were executed perfectly. Being from Alaska, hydration was my main concern. I felt on par with fighting off dehydration and my stomach never turned south; I was able to focus on getting calories in at a timely manner. The trail twisted and turned as I found myself clicking off the miles with a rotating group of runners. Each of us had our own strengths and weaknesses; I fell into the downhiller group. With each sighting of a possible descent, my legs would quiver with excitement.

After 21 miles, the course took us from the eventual finish back up the Vertical Kilometer course; climbing well over 3,000 feet in 2 miles. The race had practically flown by at this point and I was feeling very confident. Yet, nothing could prepare me for the suffering of the last large climb. I had studied the course and talked with many people about this ‘climb’ at the end. In my head, it was two more miles of work and two miles of downhill to the finish. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The trail literally disappeared but there was still flagging directing runners up a grade +30% through alpine brush. As I tried to keep my composure, I saw ahead of me a runner sitting due to exhaustion and another guy going forward on all fours.

It was at this moment that all my goals for a top three finish flew out the window as I watched my competition dance up the nightmare while I had a conversation about selling my soul to the devil himself. I had never felt so desperate to have it all end in order for the climbing to be done. “You got to be f*ing kidding me” slipped through my lips as the false peaks laughed at me. The climbs went up, then down, twisted straight back up, down again, and finally the last climb to the top of the chairlift presented itself. Tourists riding the lift cheered me on, as I wanted to shrivel up while they cheered encouragement from their relaxing joy ride. It was hard to believe I had reached the top when I saw the aid station. I made the volunteers promise me that the flagged course was going to the finish and not another mountain. Even with one mile to go, I was ready to hop the chairlift and ride it all the way down to my car.

The race ended with a beautiful yet painful downhill. As I moved closer to the finish, the beautiful landscape disappeared under the tree line. Even though the Charlie horses in my thighs screamed, I found much pleasure in that last mile. I reminisced all that I had been through as my tired feet picked up the pace. The rocky trail lined with snowmaking machines reminded me of many adventures I had gone on back home (minus the machines). It was an interesting trail déjà vu as an Arizona trail reminded me of Alaska; Funny how nature can connect the world. I laughed while all my pain rolled away with the loose rocks under my feet. The thought of only being able to walk once a week four months ago put a smile on my face. And though the sun had found the spots I forgot to put sunblock on, I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else at that moment. It’s funny how much pain and torment we put ourselves through to be able to still smirk while crossing a finish line 5 hours later.



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