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Professional runner explains how Flagstaff became a distance runners' mecca

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Thursday, February 15, 2024 - 10:59am
Updated: Thursday, February 15, 2024 - 11:26am

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Matt Baxter author of "Running Up the Mountain."
NAU Athletics, Soulstice Publishing
Matt Baxter author of "Running Up the Mountain."

You might think of Flagstaff and think about skiing, snow, the mountain peaks. But, if you’re in the elite running world, you probably think of Flagstaff and think of elevation. The 7,000-foot college town has become a long distance runners' mecca in recent years. 

Elite athletes, Olympians and national champions have all come to Flagstaff for its views, trails, and, yes, sky-high elevation to train in — and the Northern Arizona University team has become dominant in cross country running. 

It’s all the subject of a book out now by professional runner Matt Baxter. He and former NAU coach Ron Mann penned "Running Up the Mountain" last year to document the college’s running story. The Show spoke with Baxter about it — beginning with his own story of what brought him to NAU from New Zealand. 

Full interview

MATT BAXTER: Yeah, so I had a bit of a unusual transition out of high school. Typically as an international athlete, you would come to the States as soon as you finish high school. But I left it until I was about 21. And so when I was 21, I didn't have a lot of options available to me to be coming to college in the U.S. And so one of the few options I had was NAU and, and in the end, they were, they were basically my only option. And which is funny to think about now, because obviously how well NAU is doing. But yeah, I, I basically ended up in Flagstaff and NAU just because it, it was one of the few options I had available to me and it actually ended up being the best possible one.

That's interesting. Tell us about your time at NAU, because you were a force there as I, as I understand it.

BAXTER: Yeah, my, my time at NAU was incredible. I walked on to a team that was already really strong and, and performing at a really high level, and we won three national titles while I was there. Our team never lost a cross-country race. I had really special individual performances with 2017, getting second as an individual at the 2017 NCAA Cross-Country Championships. It was just, it was just an incredible time to be living in Flagstaff and be at NAU.

Yeah. So now you've written this book with Ron Mann, who was also a runner at NAU and also a longtime coach there, and I want to talk about that in a moment, but let's first just establish something that lots of people might not know. Which is that Flagstaff and NAU have become sort of like a, a mecca for cross country, for runners, for distance runners in particular, right? What's the, what's the community like there?

BAXTER: Oh, the community is incredible for sure. It's, you can definitely see why athletes want to come to Flagstaff to train. And this has been something which has been building over decades. And I mean, half a century and more now, that we just have tons of trail systems that attract people who have all the facilities you need. And because we have that infrastructure, people want to come and train there.

I mentioned this a little bit in the book. You have an incredible community of general runners, you have the collegiate community and then you also have the professional community, and everyone kind of links up and does little bits together and you could, you could be meeting for a long run and you have, you have people from all those different communities there and it's just, it's just a very supportive, supportive environment and no one kind of acts like they're too good for one another.

You could do a bagel run on on Thursday at 8 a.m. and you have over 100 people there from all different walks of life, everyone meeting up, everyone just has this, this common enjoyment for running and, and enjoying being in the Flagstaff community. And it just works.

Wow, that's amazing. So let's talk about the history of that, which is what you document in the book here. I mean, how did Flagstaff and NAU in particular become sort of a, a mecca for this? How did they become a capital of the running world?

BAXTER: Yeah. You would almost think that Flagstaff should have always been this amazing place to run. But because there just wasn't the research if we're going back to kind of the origins of the program. And we're looking at when "Red" Haberlack got this call to come out and, and start this track and field program at NAU. In 1964, NAU wasn't attractive as a, as a running program because we just didn't know much about altitude training at that point.

And the reason why people really start studying it was because in 1968 the Olympics got awarded to Mexico City. And so suddenly everyone has to focus on altitude training because that Olympics was going to be held above 7,000 feet. And so people started coming, yeah, we had a few athletes come to Flagstaff to train here in the build up for that Olympics. And suddenly everyone start studying it because now you have to know if you're building up for an Olympics, you need to know what the altitude is going to do to your body, how long you need to prepare.

And so that was really around the time when Flagstaff started becoming a place where people thought, OK, altitude training is a thing, this could really have benefits. And so we had a few Olympians come up here then, but even still Flagstaff really didn't start picking up until we started getting, I would say, even to the later '80s, '90s, 2000s, when people really started to come here and altitude training was very well studied and starting to become pretty well understood. And now we're just at a point where where everyone knows and we have people from all around the world coming to Flagstaff to train.

I mean, if you're here in the summer before a world champs or before an Olympics, you'll see people from all over the world who are getting ready for these, these big events and, and who have the potential to get on the podium to be an Olympic champion, a world champion. And they're deciding to come to Flagstaff to train in the, build up to that. And it's, it's just because it's such an incredible place to, to train.

What are the big competitors? Like, I think of running like high country running and I think of maybe Boulder, right? Like there are lots of other places that do this. Does Flagstaff fly under the radar a little bit or is it like the spot in the running world?

BAXTER: Yeah, the, Boulder is a little bit lower, so it's closer to around 5,000 feet. Whereas Flagstaff is at 7,000, there's a couple of different spots. I mean, even if you're looking overseas, a lot of athletes love going to St. Moritz, is a really popular spot when people are building up for a European circuit, there's all kinds of spots around. I think the thing where Flagstaff is particularly special is because 7,000 feet is right around that perfect elevation where you're seeing really good benefits.

But it's also really easy to go high and low. So you could drive half an hour and you could be, from downtown Flagstaff, and you could be up at 9,000 feet up on the peaks. And so there's benefits to being able to train higher and do some easy runs or long runs up there, you can also drive 45 minutes and be down in Sedona, which is around 5,000 feet. It's about the same amount of drive, 45-50 minutes to be down in Camp Verde, which is about 3,000 feet. You can do a road workout down there. So that ability to be able to go high and low is one of the things that really helps Flagstaff stand apart.

Ah, that makes so much sense. That's really interesting. OK. So, before I let you go, Matt, I want to give people a glimpse into the running world, like this distance world that you live in. And you're, you know, a professional athlete in today. I mean, what's like a normal run for you? What's your training schedule look like?

BAXTER: Yeah, I, a normal run usually is just involving me meeting up with my teammates in the morning and typically on easy days, we're getting in 10 to 12 miles in the morning. We might have another four or six miles easy in the afternoon. We're working out twice a week. So, doing sort of hard training twice a week, we'll have long runs. That could be 20-22 miles on a, on a set or Sunday and, and usually across a week, I mean, I'm getting in probably usually around 100 miles when I'm doing some of some of my hiring training.

My goodness. I mean, so, like, just crazy amounts of running involved in this and training involved in this. Tell me, do you have a favorite spot that you hit on your running trails every week where you're sort of like, oh, this is the place I wanted to be and I want to see this view or, or be in this spot, whatever it is.

BAXTER: Yeah. It's funny, I think because in Flagstaff, it's so easy to just run from your front door. That a lot of the times I'm literally just running from my front door out on the urban trail system. But one of the, the loops that I've actually really enjoyed recently is one called Soldiers Trail, which is probably a couple of miles away from my house. And the reason why I picked up on this was because Lopez Lomong, who is a famous NAU alum who was on the cross-country track and field program, he mentioned in the forward to our book, that Soldiers Trail was one of his favorite trails in Flagstaff. And I was kind of embarrassed that I'd never run it. And so I started doing it.

It's about a 5-mile loop out by Fort Tuthill and Flag. So I've been running there and that I loved it. And this is the crazy, like I'd lived in Flagstaff at this point for it had been almost eight years or probably seven and half years before I discovered Soldiers Trail. And, and now it's one of my favorite spots in Flagstaff. So I'll say that's probably the one that I'm enjoying the most at the moment.

Matt Baxter
NAU Athletics
Matt Baxter

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