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.
In 2004, Northern Arizona University’s 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.
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.