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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
Photo: Nils Nilsen


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.”

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