On the Run in…
Thin air and breathtaking views have made Flagstaff a hot spot for international runners.
For years, Flagstaff, Ariz., was one of the best-kept secrets in the endurance sports world. Nestled at the foot of the San Francisco Peaks, this quaint mountain town sits at an elevation of 2,134 metres, providing breathtaking views of the surrounding Coconino National Forest. “Flag” as it is referred to by locals, has evolved into one of the premier altitude training locations in North America. Thanks to its high elevation and proximity to neighbouring desert climates, Flagstaff experiences low humidity and mild daytime conditions throughout most of the year. Late spring to early fall are ideal times to visit, however, as significant snow accumulation and frigid overnight temperatures can make winter running a challenge.
Local elite distance runners have long regarded Flagstaff as a mecca of endurance training. However, only over the last two decades have international athletes begun f locking to the region to soak in the thin air and spectacular surroundings. A mere 2.5-hour drive to Phoenix, and less than an hour to the red rock town of Sedona, there are easy sea-level and mid-range elevation escapes from the heartquickening altitude of Flag. The close proximity to these lower elevation training locales allows athletes to “live high and train low,” a performance-enhancing strategy employed by many of the world’s top distance elites. Canadian track, road and trail runners alike routinely incorporate northern Arizona altitude stints into their yearly training plans.
The number of serene running routes in Flag seem endless. As its name suggests, the Flagstaff Urban Trail System ( futs) weaves its way throughout the greater Flagstaff area, linking the downtown core with various national parks and periphery attractions. This non-motor vehicle system offers more than 90k
of paved and groomed dirt trails, ranging in technical difficulty. The diverse terrain offers something for almost every level of runner, and the abundance of options means that you rarely need to compete for space or quiet.
The two mile crushed gravel loop at Buffalo Park offers a relatively f lat alternative to the more challenging trails in Flagstaff, making it a popular choice for faster tempo runs and short, off-track interval training. The park ’s vast, open meadows provide sweeping panoramic views of the San Francisco Peaks, which remain snowcapped almost year-round.
Originating from a common trailhead, the Campbell Mesa Trail System has five loops of varying distances, from 1,500 m to just over 9k. Runners wind their way through the fragrant Ponderosa Pines and scramble up gentle rocky inclines with stunning views of Mount Humphrey towering in the distance.
Those willing to brave the Humphrey’s Peak Trail can expect epic vistas. At 3,850 metres, Humphrey’s summit is the highest in Arizona. A word to the wise, however: take your time with this expedition. With over 914 metres of elevation gain throughout the 7.2k ascent, this trail packs a punch for those inexperienced at high altitudes.
With a thriving independent food, drink and arts scene, downtown “Flag” is a great place to get a dose of urban mountain culture. Visitors can hit up one of many breweries or coffee shops just off of legendary Route 66 to take in some local music and a postrun beverage. Flagstaff ’s rugged natural beauty, friendly residents and funky neighbourhoods combine to create a worthwhile southwestern experience. Kate Van Buskirk is a professional track and field athlete competing for Team Canada and Nike. She specializes in the 1,500m and 5,000m events.
OPPOSITE The Observatory Mesa Natural Area, a several-thousand-acre park. Enter via Thorpe Park or Lowell Observatory, both about a half mile west of Flagstaff. Behind are Fremont Peak and Humphreys Peak, the hightest point in Arizona OPPOSITE BOTTOM The singletrack Hangover Trail starts at the base of Schnebly Hill Road about a half mile east of Sedona and works its way around the butte in the background offering great views LEFT A Sunday Long Run along one of the Coconino National Forest dirt road around A1 Moutain ABOVE The volcanic Babbit Ranch near SP Crater is located about 32K north of Flagstaff within the San Francisco Peaks volcanic province. The SP Crater Marathon is run in late February.