Flagstaff, city of runners

Flagstaff, city of runners
Flagstaff, AZ

Flagstaff, AZ

Before I arrived, I had thought of a theme for my tour of the US – I could visit the running cities, which have the sizeable bonus of being liberal areas, too; Boulder, Bend, Eugene, Austin, all calling out for a visit. As it worked out, I’m only going to Flagstaff, but I’m glad I did, this is my kind of place-small, quirky, friendly. It is noticeably fitter than other parts of the US, lots of athletic outdoorsy types around, though a small population or spread out trail running areas mean I haven’t seen runners everywhere. It isn’t just for running, either – Flagstaff is at just under 7000 feet, putting it right in the sweet spot for altitude training, but that also makes it icy and with snow-capped mountains for skiers.

Runners moving fast, on the other side of the road from me
Some average runners, at the university.

In 2004, Northern Arizona University‚Äôs Center for High Altitude Training was designated a U.S. Olympic Training Site, but university budget cuts forced the closing of the center in 2009. Picking up the baton, though, two professional running teams are now based there, with Ryan Hall, Andrew Limoncello the most familiar names for me, running for Team Run Flagstaff, with Northern Arizona Elite also based there; local races must be a little tasty. On reflection, I’m kind of glad I’m not here when a race is happening, I’d have to have a go, but would be some way down. On my third day here I met a German at the hostel who is doing his MBA in Texas and acting as assistant track coach – he’s not quite performed to his potential at the marathon, a 2:31 not quite in keeping with a 67 half. Just another runner, passing through. It isn’t just the Americans (and lone Brit), either, with a news article saying that Flagstaff “sent almost 150 athletes from 22 countries, and these athletes went on to win 23 Olympic medals and 74 top ten finishes“.

The old downtown area is charming, too. The Amtrak service was giddy, full of excitable announcements about Spring Break, but didn’t do us any favours with time – we boarded at 6:15pm in LA, and got to Flagstaff at 4.30am. After I’d waited in the railway waiting room to avoid the iciest time of day, though, I checked in at the hostel, dropped my bags and wandered around. The hostel is a five minute walk from the station, just in the historic downtown but the wrong side of the tracks for most of the action. Businesses more than a five minute walk further away from the tracks were either closed or struggling, while those on the other side of the tracks looked in rude health. The place is notable, too, for having no chains other than a Pita place. All the chains are there, but they’re on historic route 66, where drive throughs abound for those who aren’t stopping for a run. In town it’s all quirky individual shops and (mostly) healthy eating, plus North Arizona University having a district all to itself, South of where I was staying.

Sign for a restaurant, Brix, and Carriage House, An
Brix is a restaurant. I wonder if he’s any idea how fucking busy I am? (This now-ancient joke courtesy of Team America: World Police.)

I loved the place on sight. Though winter might be a bit brutal – with a chill in the air, everywhere had heating on, and it was some mighty powerful heating. Add that to signs in car parks warning of falling ice and snow and waiting snow ploughs and it doesn’t quite make it onto the ‘list of places I would like to live’ at first sight, but it’s not far off.

The place isn’t perfect, looking to have more than average numbers of homeless and dispossessed people too – the Christian mission round the corner was always busy – but it has a young and vibrant population and a love of craft beer, with decent running and a mission to connect up existing trails to make a 43 mile loop round the edge. After a nap in the afternoon to make up for having had little sleep on the train, I went for a run, finding it tough but not as bad, nowhere near, as Ethiopia. It gets my vote for lifestyle and training, for sure.

An intersection, with a snow-capped mountain behind, under a blue sky
City with a view.

Los Angeles

Los Angeles
Los Angeles, CA

Los Angeles, CA

What a difference a night makes. LA in the daylight was transformed from a dark, teeming overwhelming uber-American city, streets filled with drummers, a rap battle between tattooed and pierced youths, a trumpter and occasionally an overpowering smell of urine, into a bright and sunny city with smiling natives, tourists taking photos and the sun glinting off theatres. And an occasionally overpowering smell of urine, but you can’t change everything.

Tall central tower, City Hall.
Oh man, City Hall.

I headed out for a run, heading north. When I looked at the map last night, all I could see were city blocks, but I noticed a park just north of Union Station. That was only a mile or so away, but after I’d run two I had only found Chinatown. I was on the verge of heading back and looped a city block to wait for the lights to change, but then remembered Lonely Planet’s words, that ‘distances in LA are vast’ and figured the park was further than it had looked. Along the side of a freeway and there, suddenly was a parched piece of land with a stiff climb up to a small park. Radio hill is a failed park, I think, visited mainly by a few homeless people seeking sanctuary and with drinking fountains long since knocked out of order. I pressed on, though, and ducking under the freeway I found myself in a noticeably nicer neighbourhood, much more ‘LA’ though still not in amongst the really swanky houses. Passing a school I noticed a sign to Elysian Fields park off to the right. The park has some great climbs in, lush grass and baseball diamonds for the Little League. One other runner waved as he headed out, and a student looking out over the city waved hello from his hilltop spot as a dog walker drove by, dogs ears waving excitedly from the window. “I like your office!” I should have said to the student, but thought of it too late. I nearly had a run of under 30 minutes but ended up being nearly an hour and a half, and I got a view over the Dodgers’ stadium to boot.

Metal surreal sculpture outside the Museum of Contemporary Art
MOCA.

Changed, checked out and with luggage left at the Amtrak station, I walked through Grand Park, which follows the American tradition of literal naming in being definitely a park. It was busier than it had been when I ran through – with a sudden deviation of the “ooh! park!” kind – in the morning, people enjoying the sun and the view of city hall on a beautiful day. Perhaps the park is named for its view; if you make it up to the top end, looking away from the theatres behind looks over a gushing fountain to city hall with a green grass carpet in between.

I needed lunch and could only see a Subway, but then spotted that the policeman eating in the square I was crossing had sushi. Tutti Frutti advertises frozen yoghurt but does more than that and I had the LA roll sushi, feeling I was in the mode. Walking through Bunker Hill I skirted the edge of MOCA, the Museum of Contemporary Arts and explored the library, which was huge and funky, with a quirky gift shop to add to its appeal. It was too beautiful a day to be indoors for long and conscious that I would soon be in a potential dull British spring, bedevilled by people joking of any bright day “ooh summer’s here” or, worse “ha, did you enjoy summer, that was it”, I squatted in a pretty square. At one point my view as I crossed arias was of a long straight road, tower blocks to either side, as a school bus crossed and a police car turned behind it, a cop’s arm hanging out of the window. It was almost too American.

By 5 I was in the station, ready to hop on the train and begone. I’d barely scratched the surface of the city, but seen sights that will live in my mind. Sometimes whizzing through a place is a great way to give your brain a quick kaleidoscope image to remember it by.

Angular silver lines of the Walt Disney Theatre
Walt Disney Theatre. Home of LA Phil.

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