Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Flagstaff's Strava Itch

"The 'note' takes mere milliseconds to arrive, but the sting lasts for days." - recently dethroned Strava CR (course record) holder

It has now become abundantly clear that Strava has passed from fad to tradition in our budding mountain town of Flagstaff, Arizona.  What once was a customary climb to a peak or ridge now attracts a growing history of published footprints and battles fought against ethereal ghosts.  From national champions to world champions, from trail 100-mile victors to Olympians, from seekers to destroyers, the Flagstaff Strava overall segment leaderboards are a veritable who's who of the talented and accomplished.

Strava segments are user-created and user-edited.  Segments are designated portion(s) of a route where Strava users can compete against themselves (past efforts) or other users for time.  Segments can be listed publicly or privately depending on the creator's preferences.  Strava is a tool that isn't for everyone, however, it can certainly come in handy if you're looking for incentive to push harder on the trails and roads or looking to connect with other runners.  Public segments can be explored thus sparking inspiration to seek out new trail adventures.  The drive to be atop the leaderboard also breeds lively, local rivalries.

Flagstaff and its surrounding mountains are covered with Strava segments.  Here are my top ten (and a few added bonuses) based on nothing more than my own opinion. 

1) Buffalo Park Loop (counter clock-wise)
Buffalo Park

And we'd be remiss if we didn't include Buffalo Park finish strong, the final climb on this Buffalo Park 2-mile loop.  It's been the undoing of high school, collegiate and professional runners from all over the world.  Both records are owned by NAU alum David McNeill.  He sports a 13:25 5K PR and seems to always perform better at altitude.  Good luck taking either of these segments down.  UPDATE as of press time:  Scotland's Andrew Lemoncello (see Poo Pond Climb below) just took down McNeill's segment time as of 6/9/2015.

2) Poo Pond Climb
 Sewage treatment ponds in Flagstaff's Rio de Flag.  The setting for this segment.

This segment is short but deadly.  It's often included in the infamous Bagel Run and is part of the 800-mile long Mexico to Utah Arizona Trail.  I had the pleasure of witnessing this record being set from far behind during a recent Bagel Run.  Andrew Lemoncello, current CR holder and 2008 Olympian, was heard two miles later gasping, "I'm still trying to catch my breath."

3) Woody Mountain Road Climb
Woody Mountain Road

This ever-popular forest road meanders south from Flagstaff up and over the shoulder of Woody Mountain and then on to Rogers Lake.  The climb is a mile, but at 7000' it always leaves you breathless.  CR holder and 2:11 marathoner Nick Arciniaga said this about his recent best effort, "It was a week out from the Boston Marathon and I was in full on taper mode.  I was feeling good and Woody Mountain became Heart Break Hill for the day."

4) Heart Trail
Heart Trail

What goes up must come down, so I've also included the Descent of Heart Trail.  If you're ever thinking of running Zane Grey 50 Mile local ultrarunners will direct you to this trail.  If you enjoy Heart then you might enjoy Zane.  Have a miserable time and they'd advise you against heading down to the Mogollon Rim on race day.  In Flagstaff there's no better way to introduce yourself to crappy footing (roots, rocks and ruts), steep terrain and exposure to the high altitude sun.  Well-known locally, but not yet nationally, trail running stud Art Degraw cleans up on Heart.

5) Schultz Creek Trail Ascent ("Y" to Lincoln Logs)
Schultz Creek Trail

Again, the downhill is just as fun! Schultz Creek Trail Descent (Lincoln Logs to "Y")
Invented to encourage time trialing, these ONB (out and back) smooth single-track segments were split in two to provide rest for those wishing to run each 4-mile segment in "full beast mode."  adiUltra athlete Brian Tinder holds the CRs in both directions. "I live two miles from the Schultz Creek/Schultz Pass 'Y,'" says Tinder.  "I can bop up here on a whim and lay down tracks. Most runners must drive to the start, I get a good warm-up before diving in."

6)  Sunset Climb
Views from the top of Sunset Trail

Classic Flagstaff single-track!  This ascent is the deadliest climb on the Soulstice Trail Run course.  Women's CR holder, JFK 50 Mile winner and 2:32 marathoner Emily Harrison comments on this segment, "I'm from northern Virgina. We have tough climbs there, but nothing as smooth as the Sunset Trail.  I love running uphill at top end.  I set this record during the Soulstice race and made up for a lot of lost time on the lead guys."

7) Kendrick Peak climb trail #22
Kendrick in winter

The 4.5-mile climb is single-track, but has excellent footing.  Running downhill is just as important to master.  The Kendrick Peak Descent offers an excellent opportunity to test those quads.  Though Kendrick is hard to miss on the northern Arizona skyline and has been standing here for eons it has now just become the newest heartthrob in the "elite" Flagstaff running community.  Art Degraw, once again, has laid his claim on this mountain.

8)  Snowbowl Base to Mt. Humphrey's
Arizona's high point
We'd definitely be remiss if we didn't mention our mind-blowing backdrop and Arizona's highest mountain.  Have you run the HURT 100 Mile or Squamish 50 Mile?  Add in the lung-popping altitude and you have the roots and slipperiness of these two events on both the ascent and descent (Escape from Humphrey's Peak) of Mt Humphreys.

9)  Brookbank Mile Climb
Signage on Brookbank

Chris Vargo said this of his CR run, "Colt and I had a disagreement that morning.  He just doesn't listen to anything I say.  I needed to go out and release my frustrations. Brookbank filled the bill.  Needless to say, Colt and I made up. I can't stay mad at him for long."
Brookbank Baby Bobbleheads is the aptly-named descent of the climb. If you like dancing on rolling rocks then this segment is for you.  Side note:  Rumor has it that this trail may soon become extinct.  The US Forest Service may soon realign the trail to eliminate erosion problems and the formation of said baby heads.  Better get on it quick as this CR may stand forever once the trail is decommissioned.

10) Mt Elden LO Rd Climb (Gate to East Towers)
The start of the uphill segment.
 "I've stared at these gates many times.  Now a little throw up gathers in my gullet when I see 'em." - Jacob Puzey

 The awesome sweeping views from the top of Mt. Elden.  The segment ends at the towers seen here.

The reverse direction is just as challenging if running fast - Mt Elden LO Rd Descent (East Towers to Gate).  There are two summits to Elden:  Dubbed East Towers and West Towers.  Not all quality efforts show up on the East Tower segment because some runners go west. However, Lookout Suckkahs (a smaller segment glimpse of the ascent) let's you decide who the fastest is on the uphill forest road. 

Bonus #1a & 1b - The "trail-less" segments:  Bootleg trails are a part of any mountain town.  Some are accepted, others are not.  Flagstaff is in the process of reviewing bootleg trails that should become incorporated into the official trail system.  Here are two segments that won't show up on any official map, but may on a Strava segment search.

a) Private Reserve
 Yes, you'll run up that cliff.

He takes his running seriously and if there were ever a segment that he'd claim as his own, it'd be this one.  "The key is knowing the segment intimately," say Rob Krar.  "Once I hit the meadow on top, I open up my stride and collect the CR there. This is my favorite climb in Flagstaff and is part of one of my favorite running routes."

b) Slay the Ginger -  This segment is part of the growing-in-popularity loop named Afternoon Delight.  After today's ascent, CR holder Chris Vargo was heard muttering, "This climb gets worse each time I do it."

Bonus #2 - The Oldham Steps 

 An aspen growing along the volcanic boulders that cast their shadows on the Oldham Steps route.

This is my personal favorite.  I start from home and after a few miles on the Flagstaff Urban Trail (FUTS) and a pass through Buffalo Park, I tackle this short and sweet 6-mile loop.  It's also part of the Flagstaff Monday Night Hill Runs.  Now that it's no longer a secret, I expect to see some new CRs on this loop segment.  By simply eying some of the other smaller segments on this loop, like Arizona Trail Climb, I can tell things will get real soon.

Bonus #3 - The under-appreciated and unknown.  If there were ever a climb that was overlooked, it's O'Leary:  O'Leary all the way
 The start and end of the O'Leary segments.

 After roughly a half-mile you can see where you must go.

The O'Leary Free Fall is the ascent in reverse.  With nothing but soft cinders under your feet, you can really open up on this descent.  Road and trail runners alike can enjoy this non-technical, but steep climb to gorgeous views of the San Francisco Peaks.

So there you have it.  Do you have a favorite segment?  Share it in the comments section below.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The 2015 Running of the Zane Grey 50 Mile

This year Zane Grey 50 Mile Race director Joe Galope assigned me bib #12.  A significant number.  If I finished I'd pull even with Steve Olson with most Zane Grey finishes.  Olson collected his finishes between 1999 and 2010.  I could bring nothing less than my "A" game this year.  Zane is not a race for the faint of heart or unprepared.  With roughly 10,000' of gain, rocks that are better described as broken roller skates and manzanita that both want to shred clothes and draw blood the course can simply be described as a relentless haunted house of horrors.  See what I mean below...

Zane was also a stepping stone to this year's Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run in which I'll be participating.  To finish Zane in good standing and feeling good would build confidence as I closed in on the final two months of Western training.  In order to accomplish this I did five significant things:

1) It all starts with intelligent training.  I employed the help of McMillan Running Ultra Coach Emily Harrison to develop the plan.
2) Improve running-specific strength.  I work once a week with Dr. AJ Gregg of HYPO2 Sport here in Flagstaff.
3) Along with the coaching, Emily would also serve as my dialed-in and efficient crew.
4) Host a training weekend on the Zane Grey course.  I covered the 50-mile route in two days to refresh my memory and temper the legs and mind to the "house of horrors."
5) Work with Meredith Terranova in developing a bonk-proof and nausea-free race-day nutrition plan.

A snapshot of the past few weeks of training, punctuated with quality workouts and long runs.

 Strength work at HYPO2 Sport under the watchful eye of Dr. AJ Gregg.

Coach and crew - Emily Harrison

A two-day training run on the course with fellow Zaner's Justin Lutick and Chris Rennaker.

 The perfected race-day nutrition plan provided by Meredith Terranova.  
Thanks also to Carbo Pro.


Nothing more to say than it was a great day.  For the spectator it was cold, but for the runner the weather was perfect.  Sprinkles, overcast, and high's in the upper-50's (though I did miss the hail, wind and thunder in the evening that nailed some of the runners).  Energy, legs, and motivation held together all day.  I finished my 12th Zane Grey, crossed the line in 10:12 (my 2nd fastest time in ten years), and took home the Master's trophy.  On to the photos...

 Pre-race smiles (Brian Tinder, me, Lutick, Rennaker)

 Zane Grey's familiar start line assemblage.

 Arriving at Geronimo, the first aid station at 7.5 miles.

 Down the hill to Washington Park (mile 18).

 Low clouds obscure the Mogollon Rim at Washington Park.

 Fellow adiUltra teammate Brian Tinder leaves Fish Hatchery (mile 33).

 adiUltra runner Jason Wolfe is joined by his awaiting pacer, Rob Krar, at Fish Hatchery.

 Cool photo of two cool guys (Krar and Wolfe).


 Sharing quality blanket time with adiUltra speedster Josh Brimhall who finished 4th in 8:49.  
Lady adiUltra runner Paulette Stevenson would also compete, but would end the day early. She said this about the day, "Well baby having to Zane isn't exactly the smartest idea. Made it to mile 33 with some postpartum issues (aka completely undertrained having nearly taken a year away from trails due to injury and child birth). No regrets, though! It was a fun day catching up with old friends. The day would not have happened without the amazing support of the best of friends Sabrina & Jamil . These two are some of the best people out there. So thankful!"

Post-race cheers and beers!!!  Thanks New Belgium!

The equipment and the trophy.  Thanks Nathan and adidas!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014


She was the dog that was supposed to live forever.  However, this was the only command she would disobey.

I found “Z” at the Jackson County Animal Shelter in Phoenix, Oregon.  Along with her brothers and sisters, she had been left in a cardboard box along a city curb.  It was love at first sight…Wrapped in a pink and white striped knitted blanket, she remained in the back seat of the car on the way back to my home in Ashland, Oregon.  That would be the last time she’d ever ride back seat.

She was named after Zoroaster Temple, a tall rock monolith located just east of Phantom Ranch in the Grand Canyon.  Anyone who's looked over the Canyon's edge or trampled down its trails has seen it.

I placed Zoroaster in small metal kennel the first night in her new home, but she cried for hours and hours.  I relented, opened the kennel door, and she crawled into bed with me.  That was the beginning of a wonderful relationship.  From that day forward Z slept, ate, ran, walked, worked, and drove by my side.  A leash was a seldom-needed tool (to the chagrin of many) and used only to make others who didn’t know Z feel more comfortable.  She was like Velcro to my side.

I worked at Rogue Valley Runners in Ashland at the time and Hal Koerner, the running store’s owner, was a true dog lover.  Z came to work with me everyday, even while being potty trained.  And while Hal loved dogs, he also loved a clean store.  I know Z and I tested his patience more than once with the accidents that would occur while I was busy with customers.  This is where I believe Z learned her social skills.  Store employees lauded over her and she greeted every patron with a bark and wag of her tail.  As I plundered the back storage rooms looking for shoes she would keep the customers distracted up front.  We made a good team.

Z and I made the move to Flagstaff together.  She helped pack and unpack our belongings and then patiently watched me develop as a running coach, writer and race director.  She loved Flagstaff and its people.  Before they knew my name or story, people would first come to know me as the guy with that awesome black and white dog. 

Water is a rare commodity in this desert mountain town, but Z knew where all the water holes were.  When we’d run far into the mountains during the monsoon season she knew which rock on which trail would hold the July rains the best in their nooks and crevasses. She had an uncanny way of randomly disappearing and reappearing soaking wet in even the driest of places.  She was a smart one.

Zoroaster logged miles…many, many miles with her father.  We criss-crossed the country on foot.  From the trails below Mt. Ashland, the high Sierra Nevada mountains of California, the rugged paths of Virginia’s Massanutten Mountains, the red rocks of Sedona, the shores of the Missouri River, to the lofty heights of Flagstaff’s Humphreys Peak.  She made her longest journey at this past year’s Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run Training Camp when she covered 30 miles with me from Robinson Flat to Foresthill.  She made it look easy. 

She was my biggest and loudest cheerleader.  She was always disappointed that she wasn’t invited on race day and she’d make that perfectly clear at each aid station and finish line with her disapproving howl, “I wanna come with you Daddy!”  Yet she always waited for me.

Anyone who has met Zoroaster and driven with me can attest to this: She was always a front seat dog.  Anyone that rode shotgun was guaranteed to get a lap full of Z.  She was literally my co-pilot.

I guess the lumps started appearing this past July, but at only six years of age I couldn’t believe the turns that would follow. She ran her last real run on October 21st, 2014…a 10-mile loop on Observatory Mesa (one of her favorites due the number of mucky cattle tanks along the route) and we ran fast.  The surgeries and their subsequent recoveries were brutal on Z.  Then the limping started, then the swelling, and the whimpering and the inability to lie down comfortably followed.  She could no longer join me in bed and so I moved to the floor to be with her.  We lost sleep and cried together at night.  She spent Christmas Eve at the vet.  The deal was sealed a few days later after a visit with a dog oncologist in Phoenix, AZ.  I was shown the ultrasound and the tumors that had gained an irremovable hold in her lymph nodes and pressed painfully into her bladder and back.  I bought the chemo meds, but decided that my baby girl had endured enough and set them aside unused.

Yesterday, in the early morning hours, I drove Emily, Super Bee and Z to the Schultz Creek Trailhead, one of Z’s favorite runs, and parked the truck.  Z got out, smelled the base of a ponderosa and a clump of grass, and then laid down.  I coaxed her down the trail a few more feet, but that was all she had.  She was done.  We drove to the vet, the folks that she had always seen for her regular check-ups and the more recent battle with cancer.  You know your dog has left an impression when the receptionist begins to cry and her doctor can’t keep it together.  I held Zoroaster in the same pink and white striped knitted blanket I brought her home in back in Ashland six years earlier.  I thanked her, told her I was sorry and that I love her, and then watched as she took her last breath.  I looked deep into her big wide eyes and watched the light, the light that I loved, leave her body. 

Zoroaster will always be my Moment of Zen.  She will be with me forever, but my life will be eerily silent and lonely without her.  When her cremated remains are returned I’ll stir up a posse of those that enjoyed her company and head to the Dry Hills Lakes or the summit of Mt. Elden, two places that Z frequented a lot, and spread her ashes into the wind.  She’ll become a flower, a ponderosa, or just float on forever.

I am grateful for the support I have received during all of this.  I thank you all.  Friends and family have all come forward to help and, more importantly, to listen, just like you are now.  My good buddy, Justin Lutick, told me yesterday that Z has left me in good hands.  He’s right.  

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Two Decades of Racing - The 2014 JFK 50 Mile

There we were, still parked in front of a coffee shop in Hagerstown, Maryland, at 6:15AM on this very frigid JFK 50 Mile race day morning.  We sat, heat blasting, but still shivering while waiting for the java joint to open its doors.  Had this been a race I'd never run before, had I been solo, or with runners I didn't know I suppose I'd have been worried about getting to the race on time or getting lost on the way to the start.  However, I was at ease.

I was surrounded by guys I'd logged hundreds of training miles with.  Josh Brimhall sat in the driver's seat.  Josh, owner of Red Rock Running Company, traveled from Las Vegas to start his third JFK.  James Bonnett, who flew in from Phoenix, was finally starting a race he's always wanted to run since he began participating in ultras at the age of 9.  I had just met Montanan Jim Walmsley, but after hanging for a night of pizza and beer I knew he was a kindred spirit.  In the adjacent parking spot Eric Senseman had his seat reclined and eyes closed.  Eric had just spent the past few months training in my hometown of Flagstaff, Arizona, and I enjoyed giving him the tour of our local trails as he settled in.

I'm no stranger to the JFK 50 Mile.  It was my first ultra in 1994 and I've returned every year since.  With the exception of a DNF in 2007, I've finished each year.  This year's race would be my 20th finish.  I've amassed 16 sub-7 hour finishes (a JFK record), 10 top-10 finishes, placed 3rd three times and 2nd twice.  Still, my course PR of 6:09:27 continues to be pushed from the top 50 performers list and I fear 61 seconds (the amount of time I was behind 2004 winner Paul South) is as close as I'll get to winning.  It's all good though...I'm honored that I've been able to become a part of this race's deep history.

61 seconds...see the little figure in the background.

So, yeah, I found myself composed and very happy to be here once again, among good friends, and getting ready to roll up South Mountain to the Appalachian Trail.

The race was a success.  Finishing my 20th JFK in under 7 hours was pretty damn sweet.  The adiUltra Team claimed the Team title.  We had come and done what we set out to do.  A special thanks to David and Cheryl Harrison (Emily Harrison's parents) for crewing me along the way and to JFK race director Mike Spinnler who continues to invite me back year after year.

Find the 2014 JFK 50 Mile results here.

Great coverage by Andy Mason in the Hagerstown Herald here.

More coverage on JFK's history by Matt Flaherty and Eric Senseman at Running Times here.

Now for some photos:

The 52nd JFK front line moments before the start in Boonsboro, Maryland.

Passing the miles among the rocks and leaves on the Appalachian Trail.

Running across the grass field at the Gathland Gap aid station (mile 9).

AdiUltra Team runner Jim Sweeney passes through Weverton (mile 15).

AdiUltra Team runner James Bonnett passes through Weverton en route to his first JFK finish. 

Just following the other guys' lead at Weverton aid station.

AdiUltra Team runner Josh Brimhall on the canal.  He'd end his day at mile 34 due to some wickedly painful Achilles tendonitis.

Refueling at Antietam aid station (mile 27) with the help of David Harrison.

Montana's James Walmsley comfortably puts in miles on the canal.

Phoenix, Arizona's James Bonnett finishes in 9th place in 6:22:36.

Walmsley wins his first 50 mile race in 5:56:31.

Getting high fives from adiUltra teammate Jim Sweeney near the finish line.

Just a few more steps to complete #20.

High fives to Bonnett and Walmsley.

20 finishes!

The 2014 JFK 50 Mile top ten.  adiUltra Team members Walmsley (1st), Sweeney (8th) and Bonnett (9th) collect their hardware with the other fast guys.

Team adiUltra wins the men's team title. (left to right: Bonnett, Torrence, Sweeney, Walmsley)