Arizona’s Hidden Gem: Training And Playing In Flagstaff

  • By Kim McDonald
  • Published Nov 26, 2012
  • Updated Nov 26, 2012 at 4:10 PM UTC

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.

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