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.”