Welcome to the twelfth installment ofThe Story Goes, a monthly column of stories told by Eric Senseman about someone, somewhere in the sport of running. You can find every installment of the columnhere.
Flagstaff has long been considered one of America’s top running towns. Nestled at the base of the San Francisco peaks, perched at seven thousand feet above sea level in Arizona’s high desert, runners have access to hundreds of miles of single-track trail, a cornucopia of flat-to-rolling dirt and paved roads, and an arid ecosystem that stays dry most of the year. Even when it snows in the winter, after a few days, thanks to the heavy beat of the sun and, often, above freezing temperatures, the roads clear and the trails thaw out and the web of non-vehicular foot paths are open for business again.
But even when a snowstorm persists and temperatures remain freezing, easy access to lower elevation and dry conditions remain. Camp Verde, at just over three thousand feet above sea level, and Sedona, at 4,500 feet above sea level, are less than an hour’s drive away. The Grand Canyon, less than ninety minutes from Flagstaff by car, also serves as a winter escape once you dip a few miles below the rim.
This running mecca has become so notorious, and the benefits of high-altitude training have become so well documented in recent decades, that heaps of endurance athletes of all kinds have flocked here permanently, or temporarily for training stints. In fact, Flagstaff is home to several professional running teams, including Northern Arizona (NAZ) Elite, and world-class runners from around the globe make the pilgrimage to this high-altitude oasis throughout the year. A few years back, I even heard that leading up to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, something like half of the four-hundred-plus U.S. Olympians had trained in Flagstaff at some point. While I can’t verify the veracity of that claim, it at least adds to the almost mythic aura of Flagstaff’s storied history as a high-altitude endurance training hub.
Last year, as I was campaigning for a seat on Flagstaff’s City Council (and I should note that I lost that race handedly, as I’ve lost many other races in my life), I was seeking an endorsement from Ben Rosario, NAZ Elite’s head coach . He said he’d put my campaign sign in his yard and he’d vote for me, under two conditions. One of those conditions? If elected, he asked that I try to have a sign installed just inside the city limits that would read: “Flagstaff, Arizona: Home to America’s Greatest Endurance Athletes.”
This all had me thinking: what makes a town a running town?
In 1968, the Summer Olympics took place at a lung-searing 7,382 feet above sea level in Mexico City, Mexico. According to the official Olympic website, “the rarefied air proved disastrous for those competing in endurance events.” Indeed, the men’s winning marathon time was a paltry 2:20:26, and the top American male finished a distance fourteenth place. (Regrettably, women did not compete in the Olympic marathon event until 1984.) Interestingly, in shorter distance running events, athletes reached new heights with some of the fastest times ever recorded. This asymmetry was curious and it led to a deeper exploration of endurance running at high elevations.
Physiologist and world-renowned coach, Jack Daniels, was one of the people interested in exploring high altitude effects on athletic performance. He even consulted the 1968 U.S. Olympic track and field team on the matter. Later in his career, in the early 200s, Daniels moved to Flagstaff, where he was the head coach at the Center for High Altitude Training at Northern Arizona University (NAU). Some of his insights are documented in his famous book,Daniels’ Running Formula.
The very short story is that training at high elevation forces the body to adapt by generating more red blood cells and hemoglobin, which in turn makes endurance athletes, like runners, better at circulating oxygen to the muscles. Basically, it was determined that training at altitude can give athletes a noticeable advantage in endurance sports. Daniels and other top-level coaches sought to take advantage of this performance enhancer.
As the benefits of high-altitude training became known, in addition to Flagstaff, towns like Mammoth Lakes, California (elevation 7,881’), Santa Fe, New Mexico (elevation 7,199’), Park City, Utah (elevation 7,000’), Colorado Springs, Colorado (elevation 6,035’), and Boulder, Colorado (elevation 5,328’) blossomed into sought-after destinations for runners--Olympians and elite runners, track and trail runners, ultra runners and marathoners.
Following the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, increased awareness of high-altitude training effects, American Frank Shorter’s historic victory in the men’s marathon at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, the sport of running went through something like a renaissance. More people started running, the sport saw a significant increase in new road racing events, and top American runners became more well known as events were televised.
The New York Road Runners organized the New York City Marathon and in its first year, 1970, there were fifty-five finishers. Six years later, in 1976, there were 1,549 finishers. In 2019, the last running of the event, there were 53,600 finishers. Similarly, the Chicago Marathon as we know it today began in 1977 with a field of 4,200 runners. Fast forward to present day, and the race fields 45,000 participants.
Due to this increase in interest and participation, running was no longer a sport for elite athletes training in small mountain towns. Running evolved into a sport for the masses. Running towns were no longer isolated to high-altitude escapes like Flagstaff and Mammoth Lakes.
Some years back, I co-authored an annual piece with Meghan Hicks forTrail Runner called “Top Trail Towns”. All around the country we found vibrant running clubs--in Washington, D.C., central Iowa, and southern Missouri. We talked to owners of speciality run stores in Georgia and Utah, Oregon and California. Most of these towns weren’t home to Olympians. Many of these towns didn’t have extensive trail systems, or expansive greenways, and they didn’t host major marathons. Yet there exists--in dozens and dozens of towns around the country--a community of runners who wake up before dawn on a Sunday. They crawl out of bed quietly and go through their pre-run ritual of coffee and a banana or whatever, and they meet a group of other runners at some trailhead or parking lot in their town. And, together, they begin the act of running, slowly warming up with the rising sun. Together, they complete their mileage goal for the day and return home.
And those same runners in these many towns around the country, they sign up for local races that are organized by local running stores. They buy their shoes and gear at those local running stores. In this way they build a running community, and in turn they make their town a running town.
Flagstaff is a shining example of the power of this community, and the making of a running town. Team Run Flagstaff, a community running program for adults and youth, began in 2006 with the help of Jack Daniels and others Flagstaff runners, and continues to this day. Its Tuesday night track workouts, prior to COVID, would regularly welcome over a hundred people. Run Flagstaff, the local run specialty store owned by Vince and Sarah Sherry, puts on a variety of in-store events and offers timing and other services for local races. The Flagstaff Summer Series offers a fun, easy way to explore the local trails throughout the summer, the Downtown Mile is run every Fourth of July, and you can now even run from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon thanks to Ian and Emily Torrence, race directors of the local Flagstaff to Grand Canyon Stagecoach Line race.
So, what makes a town a running town? The runners who live there and the community they build.
You might not have known it, but you don’t have to live in Flagstaff or Boulder or Mammoth Lakes to live in a running town. You probably already live in one, thanks to you, and the many people like you, who make your town a running town.