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Arizona’s Hidden Gem: Training And Playing In Flagstaff

Thinking about planning a training camp once the winter’s over? Flagstaff, Ariz. may be the perfect spot for it.

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Thinking about planning a training camp once the winter’s over? Flagstaff, Ariz. may be the perfect spot for it.

This story was originally published in the 2011 September/October issue of Inside Triathlon magazine. It has been edited for web publication.

The training destinations of choice for competitors preparing for the upcoming season continue to be Boulder, Colo., Tucson, Ariz., and San Diego. But for those adventurous souls who don’t want to follow the crowds yet need a place to train during the summer months or need a spot for a training camp, here’s an inside tip: Flagstaff, Ariz. It’s an inexpensive town that offers spectacular riding and running on lightly traveled mountain and high desert roads. At 7,000 feet above sea level, it can provide an even greater red blood cell kick than Boulder, which sits at about 5,500 feet. And for friends, family or significant others tired of the whole Lava Java tri-geek scene, the natural wonders of Flagstaff and the abundant tourist destinations within an hour’s drive of the city will keep them entertained while you swim, bike and run.

Flagstaff, or “Flag,” as the city’s known to locals, is already a Mecca for mountain bikers and professional runners. But it’s also one of the best-kept secrets among Ironman athletes living in Arizona, largely because its indoor 50-meter pool at Northern Arizona University, where Australian and Japanese national team swimmers come for weeks at a time, is the perfect complement to its great running trails and well-paved roads.

“It’s an untapped treasure,” said long-course pro Chris McDonald, who lives in Tucson and visits Flagstaff to train with his wife, Marilyn. “I can’t figure out why more people don’t go there. I really can’t. We’ve been to Boulder five or six times and I keep saying to Marilyn, ‘Why does everyone keep coming to Boulder?’ I can’t figure it out, especially the triathletes, because there’s very, very limited pool space in Boulder.”

Besides giving your red blood cells a kick, Flagstaff’s thinner air can help you improve your running, swimming and cycling mechanics, as you have to enhance your overall efficiency to stay out of oxygen debt in the thin air. This enhanced efficiency is one of the few things you’ll retain long-term when you come down from altitude, McDonald says.

RELATED: Getting There – Flagstaff

“It’s more difficult to do things there, so you get better economically,” he said. “You get better technique in swimming because you have to. Otherwise, you can’t breathe.”

Short-course ITU pros such as Simon Whitfield and his Canadian squad, and Chilean national triathlon squads make the trek to Flagstaff several times a year. But long-course athletes are the ones who can make the most out of Flagstaff’s extensive network of roads and trails.

“I always used to say when I trained at altitude and I went back down that I felt like I had something in my back pocket—that I had the trump card, because it’s so much easier when you come back down,” McDonald said.

Nick Martin, a physician who grew up and still lives in Flagstaff, was one of the first Ironman pros to take advantage of Flagstaff’s long-course training options. A local legend who still shows up with his old-school tri bike on the Saturday group rides, Martin finished seventh in the 1987 Ironman World Championship. Finnish triathlete Pauli Kiuru, who finished second in Kona to Mark Allen in 1993, trained in Flagstaff for several summers. And Torbjørn Sindballe, third in Kona in 2007, came to train in the summer of 2008. Despite the few Ironman pros who have found their way to Flagstaff, the area has yet to become a destination spot for long-course pros, says Martin, perhaps because it isn’t well known, relatively hard to get to and, without a critical mass of triathletes, the training can sometimes get downright lonely.

“The ones who came here were the ones who liked to train alone,” Martin said.
But that’s beginning to change. Leanda Cave and her husband, Torsten Abel, also an Ironman pro, spent six weeks in Flagstaff this past summer to get ready for Kona. They say it’s one of Arizona’s hidden jewels for Ironman athletes. Cave’s favorite long ride is the Wupatki-Sunset Crater ride, which is windy, remote and exceptionally hot in the summer months, making it a perfect simulation of the conditions she’ll encounter in both the Ironman World Championship 70.3 in Las Vegas and the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. On this 82-mile loop, riders descend some 2,300 feet in 33 miles as they travel north of Flagstaff to the high desert surrounding the native ruins at the Wupatki National Monument. Then, a steady climb into the pine forests and lava flows takes them up the flanks of the spectacular 8,000-foot Sunset Crater Volcano. The route then descends rapidly through windy mountain roads before hitting the highway and steady climb back to town. For shorter rides, Cave likes the 64-mile Lake Mary-Mormon Lake loop, which has no stoplights, freshly paved roads, a wide shoulder and a flat-to-rolling terrain that allows you to stay in your aerobars for the entire ride. Her favorite climb is the 28-mile out-and-back ride up to the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort. At 9,200 feet, the view is spectacular and the roads on summer mornings are nearly traffic-free. Some Ironman pros combine the Mormon Lake loop in the morning with the Snowbowl climb to simulate the fatigue they’ll feel late in the race.

A weekly hard-core group ride meets every Saturday morning at 9 in front of Pay ’n Take, a bar co-owned by triathlete and local attorney Paul Brinkmann, who sponsors many of the road riders, triathletes and running races in town. Known widely within Flagstaff’s endurance community, Brinkmann is probably the best source of information for visiting triathletes. Says McDonald: “I’ve had people contact me who are going to Flag and I just tell them straight away to go into Pay ’n Take and ask for Brinkmann. [He’ll tell you] everything you need to know and point you in the right direction.”

For runs, the sky’s the limit.

“What makes Flagstaff unique is that the places to run are relatively flat and not very rocky,” said Ian Burrell, a professional runner raised in Colorado Springs, Colo., who’s lived and trained in Flagstaff for two years.

Not only is it a better place to run than Boulder, he claims, but “Flagstaff in the summer is the best place I’ve ever trained—for the places you can run and the flat terrain. There are definitely hills if you want them. You pretty much have any type of run that you want there.”

One of Burrell’s favorite spots to run on trails within the city limits is Buffalo Park, a two-mile loop on wide and relatively flat trails with markers every quarter mile for speed work or tempo runs. If you’re a fast runner, famed running coach Greg McMillan brings his world-class runners out for the fast-paced “Bagel Run” on trails that run partly through Northern Arizona University. It starts on Thursday mornings at 8:30 in front of Biff’s Bagels, where you can pick up a well-deserved breakfast following the run—if you don’t get dropped. For intervals, there’s the Tuesday night track workout at 6 at Coconino High School coached by Mike Smith, one of the top marathon runners in the nation. The session occasionally attracts some of the world’s best runners. On a recent June evening, Matt Tegenkamp, the American record holder for 2 miles, and Lopez Lomong, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan who famously carried the American flag at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, stopped by the workout with distance running coaching legend Jack Daniels.
Smith says it’s best to go easy and avoid any intensity until you get acclimated to the altitude, which usually takes about three weeks. That’s also what the Ironman pros do.

“For me, the first couple of weeks are just low volume, low heart rate, just get used to living at altitude, then build into it,” McDonald said. “If you’re a low-volume, high-intensity trainer, high altitude would be really tough.”

Cave agrees: “Even when I’m completely adapted to the altitude, the intensity stuff is way too hard at 7,000 feet.”

But the altitude faint of heart need not worry: Flagstaff is one of the few spots in the country where you can quickly drop to lower elevations, allowing you to practice the “live high, train low” training method. Flagstaff athletes often drive 30 miles out of town to Sedona, known for its red rock sandstone formations and New Age spiritual retreats, because it’s at a less taxing elevation of 4,200 feet and they can get the physiological benefits of fast intensity. Some athletes even go all the way to Phoenix, which is about two and a half hours away, to do their hard efforts.

The easy access to lower elevation is what makes Flagstaff such a special place, says McMillan, and it’s why he brings his professional runners there to live year-round.
“A lot of runners go up to Flagstaff and just do base work, rather than speed training,” pro runner Burrell said. “Then they’ll go down to sea level to do the faster stuff.”

Some triathletes do this weekly—but only because they don’t live in town. Patrick Bless, an Ironman pro who works as a full-time engineer in Phoenix, is a frequent weekend visitor to Flagstaff during the summer months. He does his long rides and runs in Flagstaff on Saturdays and Sundays when daytime temperatures in Phoenix soar to 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Living in Phoenix allows him to fit in his shorter, high-intensity workouts indoors or in the cooler mornings and evenings during his work week. While he spends only two or three days a week at a time in the thin air of Flagstaff, he believes that the repetitive exposure to altitude is a huge benefit to his race performances.

One’s response to altitude is highly individual; Cave and Bless say many athletes have trouble sleeping in the first few nights at high altitude, which can affect recovery. Because your body is working harder at altitude, you’ll also likely lose weight, says Bless. If you’re visiting Flagstaff to train for an extended period, Ironman pros recommend making sure you don’t have any iron deficiencies before you come up. It’s also a good idea to increase your intake of red meat and other iron-rich foods when you get there because your body is building more red cells. And don’t forget to hydrate. The high desert air around Flagstaff is extremely dry. If you’re not on top of it, the combination of dehydration and altitude can put you into a tailspin quickly.

“A lot of times when you’re running and it’s cooler, you don’t sweat much, so you don’t think you have to replace the fluids,” Burrell said. “But you have to make sure you’re really pounding the water. That’s one of my biggest recommendations.”

Also, bring your cool weather cycling gear, such as gloves, vests, arm warmers and even tights. Summer temperatures in Flagstaff typically reach the high 70s or 80s in the afternoons. But if you’re heading out the door first thing in the morning, you can expect temperatures in the 40s. It’s also a good idea to stuff a rain parka and waterproof cycling jacket into one of your jersey pockets if you’re going for a long ride. In July and August afternoon monsoon storms become commonplace around Flagstaff, bringing torrential downpours, high winds and sudden drops in temperatures on days that start out warm and sunny (something I learned the hard way after a windy, chilly and very wet ride with Bless and Brinkmann back to town from Sunset Crater one afternoon). But the mornings are almost always dry, so Bless recommends getting your rides in early during the late summer months.

There are plenty of activities to take part in between your workouts. But if you’re looking for five-star restaurants or martini bars, Flagstaff isn’t the place. It’s a small university town with a granola-tattoo-distance runner/mountain biker vibe that’s known more for its coffee shops, pizza parlors and burger joints than its nightlife, which is practically nonexistent. Instead, have fun with the happy hour crowd at the Lumberyard Brewery or Pay ’n Take, which offers $2.50 pints of craft beers. Or take in one of the planetarium shows up the street at the Lowell Observatory.

“The cool thing about Flagstaff is that there are so many things within a day’s drive to check out—there’s Lake Powell, the Grand Canyon, Sedona, Bryce [Canyon National Park] and Zion [National Park],” Burrell said. “It’s kind of a cool experience just to spend a summer out there not just to train, but to explore. Northern Arizona is one of the prettiest parts of the country.”

But, he added, “If you are going up just to train, there aren’t too many better places than Flagstaff.”

Click here to learn more about getting to and traveling around Flagstaff.