FLAGSTAFF – Nearly nine years ago, on June 2, 2014, journalist John A. Kissane hailed the northern Arizona city of Flagstaff as one of the “new running meccas” in America while penning an article for Runner’s World, one of the top publications covering the sport.
Since then, the statement has become presciently true.
The city – which sits at 7,000 feet elevation and is nestled away in the ponderosa pine trees of Coconino National Forest – has morphed itself into the center of the running world. Flagstaff has turned into a haven for some of the fastest runners for distances ranging from 100 miles to 800 meters.
At the same time, the city has also become home to one of the greatest dynasties ever seen in the world of college sports: the Northern Arizona University men’s cross-country team. The Lumberjacks have won six of the past seven NCAA championships.
A deeply ingrained culture of running has formed in the city, one that is welcoming to all skill levels. From ragtag groups of blue-collar workers who run together on Wednesdays and end their night with a stop at their favorite brewery to entire professional teams that are based in the area, Flagstaff has become a destination for many runners.
How did this area, a city with a population of about 77,000 in northern Arizona, gain such a reputation in the running world? The answer stretches back farther than first imagined by those in the running community, all the way back to the 1960s.
The history of running in the area
Before he moved to Flagstaff in 2016, then 20-year-old Matthew Baxter didn’t know much about the area.
The New Plymouth, New Zealand, native knew the area was at 7,000 feet elevation and somewhat resembled his hometown, but his knowledge was limited to that. Baxter – who holds the New Zealand High School record in the 3,000 meters – was set to be on the NAU cross country team in the fall of 2016, joining a program that was relatively unknown at the time.
NAU was essentially his last and only option, Baxter said, as he had taken two years off from school and didn’t have much in terms of a recruiting profile. The decision to attend the school would end up changing Baxter’s life.
It took about six months for Baxter’s body to adjust to the altitude before the results began to match his fitness. The season culminated in his 11th-place finish at the NCAA cross-country championships in November, helping lead NAU to its first national title in school history.
In cross-country, the scoring system works in reverse to what most sports fans are used to. The lowest score wins the race. For example, first place is awarded one point. Points are only awarded to finishers who are competing with teams; individual athletes are pulled out from the results.
Senior Futsum Zienasellassie was the first finisher for NAU in fourth place, running 29:49 on the 10,000-meter course in Terre Haute, Indiana. The Lumberjacks scored 125 points to beat out second-place Stanford, which scored 158.
Thus, a dynasty was born.
The next year, Baxter finished runner-up at the national meet to steer the Lumberjacks to their second consecutive team title in 2017. Since then, NAU has only lost once at the NCAA Championships.
Baxter ended his career as one of the most decorated runners in school history, being a part of three national title-winning teams in cross-country and running the sixth-fastest time in the 10,000 meters on the track.
When he graduated from NAU, Baxter opted to remain in Flagstaff as he signed a professional contract with the Northern Arizona Elite team sponsored by HOKA, a running shoe company, in January 2019. He has been running professionally since then and most recently competed in February at the 2023 World Athletics Cross Country Championships, where he represented New Zealand.
In 2022, Baxter and Ron Mann, a former NAU cross-country coach, began work on a book project, “Running Up The Mountain: Northern Arizona Altitude, Lumberjack Attitude, and the Building of a Distance Dynasty.” The pair set out to capture the history of cross-country at the school and chronicle the timeline of the running history in northern Arizona.
It was originally thought that Flagstaff began to gain its reputation within the running world in the 2000s when training groups first started to use the area as a training base due to its altitude. But that wasn’t what Baxter found.
“The history of running in Flagstaff extended back further than I realized,” Baxter said. “Basically, we had Olympic-caliber athletes who were training in Flagstaff in the 1960s. I didn’t realize that around the 1968 period that people were looking for a place like Flagstaff to train, but that’s exactly what happened.
“One of the coolest things I found out was that in 1968, before the Mexico City Olympics – because Mexico City is at 7,000 feet – people were coming to Flagstaff to train in the build-up. It was the first time an Olympics had been held at elevation that high. Flagstaff held a track meet in 1968 and you had over 100 Olympians who came, competed at that meet and then went to Mexico City. For me, that was an incredible thing to learn. Like wait, 1968? I feel like Flagstaff’s running history probably only has been around for 20, 30 years maybe, but it’s been a way longer process.”
Baxter said that American George Young, who won the bronze medal in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the 1968 Olympics and used to hold several American and world records from the two-mile to 3,000 meters, was one of those athletes who first used Flagstaff as a base for training. Young grew up in New Mexico but attended and competed at the University of Arizona while in college.
Another one of those early-day athletes who first arrived at Flagstaff was fellow American and Olympic competitor Jim Ryun, who was attending the University of Kansas at the time and ended up winning the silver medal in the 1,500 meters at the 1968 Games. Ryun, the first high school athlete to crack the four-minute barrier in the mile, is widely hailed as one of the forefathers of American distance running.
Jack Daniels is another notable figure in the history of Flagstaff who worked at the Center for High Altitude Training at Northern Arizona University. He was one of America’s foremost running physiologists, distance coaches – he worked with Ryun – and the author of the widely-followed book “Daniels Running Formula.”
The location certainly played a role in Flagstaff elevating itself as a premiere destination for distance runners. Its built-in geographical advantage is hard to top. But there are other forces at work making this happen.
One of those forces is HYPO2, whose company mission is simple: keeping Flagstaff “at the front and center as the best possible place on the planet for altitude training.”
The science of altitude training
HYPO2 is a sports management company that helps teams from all around the world when they come to Flagstaff to work out. Part of what makes Flagstaff’s location special is that it’s in “the sweet spot” for altitude training, said HYPO2 physiologist Dan Bergland.
Too high of elevation, like at 9,000 feet, and there can be negative consequences as the body will be working too hard. Sleep patterns can even be affected at high elevations. Too low of elevation, like at 3,000 feet, and there will be no real benefit from training. Flagstaff, at 7,000 feet, sits in the zone that is just right for endurance athletes.
“Live high, train low,” is a common model for those endurance athletes.
The nickname “live high” means actually residing at a high elevation and “train low” means going down and doing workouts at a lower elevation. Flagstaff is ideally situated for this particular method of training as nearby Cottonwood and Sedona, which sit at between 3,300 and 4,300 feet of elevation, are not too far of a drive. It’s common to find Olympic-level athletes working out on the track at Mingus Union High School and Sedona Red Rock High School.
The data so far has shown that altitude training creates an advantage for athletes.
“The benefit from coming to altitude is that there is less oxygen available,” Bergland said. “There’s the same amount of oxygen at altitude as there is at sea level, but the oxygen is more spread out (at altitude) … your body basically says, ‘Hey, we don’t have enough oxygen. We need more.’ Well, how do we do that? We create more red blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen.”
When athletes come down to sea level after living and training at altitude, their body benefits from the extra oxygen available. More oxygen is delivered to the muscles.
Because of the additional oxygen, this allows for a boost in the athlete’s performance. In other words, it’s a power-up increase in a video game.
“It’s not as if everything feels so much easier,” HOKA Northern Arizona Elite professional runner Lauren Hagans said. “It’s more like your body can handle much faster paces at the same effort. Nothing feels ‘easy.’”
As the physiologist at HYPO2, Bergland – who has been with the company for 10 years – works with a number of sports federations. The Australian and Canadian track and field teams are frequent clients.
Bergland provides a number of services at HYPO2, like carbon monoxide rebreathing testing and lactate testing, to help guide teams to see how the altitude is impacting their athletes. The company also serves other sports, like swimming. The British and Dutch swim teams have worked with HYPO2 many times, to name a couple.
HYPO2 is also a business, and Sean Anthony, the CEO and founder, handles that aspect. Anthony travels to other countries to attend athletic symposiums and forums to promote Flagstaff as an altitude training site.
“It’s really important to keep Flagstaff on the map, to attend those sort of things and represent not just HYPO2, but represent the region in terms of being an altitude training mecca,” Anthony said. “It’s really just preaching the gospel to people in terms of touting the benefits and advantages of not only using altitude, but using HYPO2 in order to cater to the needs of those athletes coming to altitude. It’s our way of keeping Flagstaff on the map.”
Anthony got his start working in the business of altitude training when he joined the Center for High Altitude Training at NAU in 1996.
The Center for High Altitude Training, which opened in 1994 and was eventually designated a United States Olympic Training Site, played a key role in helping promote Flagstaff in the world of athletics. According to the Center, 213 Olympic and Paralympic medals were won by athletes who trained there since the 1996 Games in Atlanta.
Anthony worked there until the Center for High Altitude Training shut down in 2009 after funding was cut off. That’s when HYPO2 was formed, where Anthony has continued the mission of the Center for High Altitude Training. By making the switch and removing the constraints that came with public funding, Anthony said the decision has benefitted all involved.
“It really was to privatize the operations of the Center for High Altitude Training, to take it away from the university in a setting where it was a private entity that we could just do a lot more for the athletes,” Anthony said. “And it really ended up being a win-win-win.
“The university won because they no longer incurred the costs of running a program, but still got all the revenue from all of the teams that we would bring to campus. The teams won because we would be able to provide a lot more for them than we could as a university department in terms of providing a vast array of support services that were very difficult to deliver. And then we as an entity won because it made more financial sense. We could actually make more money as a private entity. And if you’re in business, you gotta make money.”
Simply put, any sports federation that wants to come to Flagstaff to do a cycle of altitude training will most likely deal with HYPO2, or at least cross paths with the organization.
HYPO2 will help coordinate logistics, like setting up housing options and providing services ranging from nutrition to chiropractic work. The company has been instrumental over the past decade in helping maintain Flagstaff’s status as an elite location for altitude training.
With the city becoming well-known in the running world, many professionals have flocked to the area. One team is entirely based in Flagstaff, HOKA Northern Arizona Elite.
The running culture of Flagstaff
Ben Rosario first arrived in Flagstaff in March 2012 after he and his wife, Jen, sold the stake they held in specialty running stores in St. Louis and made the trek west.
There was only one professional running group at the time, an Adidas-sponsored group coached by Greg McMillian. As for individual athletes, there were some who had come to the area to train. Athletes like Paula Radcliffe – the British runner who holds the world record in the women’s marathon – and Abdhiakem Abrdirahman – an American distance runner who was a five-time Olympian – both did stints there.
Weldon and Robert Johnson – the co-founders of a popular running blog, LetsRun.com – came to Flagstaff and started the website while living in the area. So Flagstaff already had prestige in the running world. But it has certainly seen a rise in the last decade as more and more professional athletes and groups came to the area.
“It pales in comparison to what is going on now,” Rosario said of the changes since he moved to Flagstaff.
Northern Arizona Elite was the next team to come in January 2014, founded by the husband and wife pair. Ben had worked in marketing for McMillian before making the move. The McMillian group was coming to an end as the contract with Adidas was set to expire and the coach wanted to focus more on his online business, Rosario said.
That left a number of talented runners in town with no team. Ben – who was a very talented runner of his own with a lifetime best of 4 minutes, three seconds in the mile and 2:18 in the marathon – moved into a coaching role. Using the money from the store buyout, NAZ Elite was started.
The next year was when the sponsorship from HOKA came. One race early on in the team’s history, the Chevron Houston Marathon, became a key point in that deal.
“When Kellyn Taylor ran 2:28 for her debut, which was the sixth-fastest debut at that time in early 2015, that gave us a lot of leverage,” Rosario said. “Actually, we had three different shoe companies looking at us at that time, and we went with HOKA.”
Since then, the team has grown to 18 athletes. In their existence, NAZ Elite runners have won 15 national titles in two countries. The team also is involved in the community, hosting group runs, doing its part to build up the culture of the sport in Flagstaff. They just recently completed constructing a high-performance center, which serves as a headquarters for their athletes and will be used for future community events.
With the presence of elite runners, Flagstaff has become unique in the sense that you might pass by an Olympic gold medalist, like Norway’s Jakob Ingebrigsten, or an NCAA champion, like NAZ Elite’s Olin Hacker, on a random Wednesday run.
The atmosphere that has been built in the area is special.
“There’s a high percentage of people here in town, runners and non-runners, that know this is a mecca,” Rosario said. “They’re aware that professional athletes are coming here to train and live, and they’re proud of it, they celebrate it.
“There’s a large running community based around the local running store, Run Flagstaff. There’s Tuesday night speed workouts that people go to. And then when there’s a big event, like the Boston Marathon or the NCAA Cross Country Championships, or the Olympic Trials, the community gets together and watches, and celebrates the athletes that live and train here in Flagstaff.”
At the moment, Rosario roughly estimated that about 35 to 40 professional runners live in Flagstaff. That may seem like a small number, but the overall pool of true professional distance runners is relatively low to begin as prize money is spread out across many competitions and sponsorships are hard to secure.
But at any given time, there could be up to 50 to 100 professionals in the area who are training, Rosario said. The Nike Bowerman Club and New Balance Boston are two of the many clubs that come to Flagstaff.
One of those athletes that came to live in Flagstaff full-time was Hagans, who has been in the area since 2020. She spent time in Boulder, Colorado, another popular location for altitude training, before coming to Flagstaff. While the elevation is certainly important, the culture played a role in her decision.
“It’s awesome. That was actually a big draw to move here,” Hagans said. “I think it’s really fun. You have all these athletes. There’s this joke, ‘Everyone ends up here at some point.’…It gives me more energy just to have so many people around training for different events and have different workouts that you know everyone’s working really hard. That’s fun for me.”
Another allure of Flagstaff for runners is the sheer volume of roads and trails that are available to train on, providing a vast array of options to choose from.
Just in the Flagstaff Urban Trail System (FUTS) alone, there are 56 miles of trails. FUTS plans to add more in the future, working up to 130 miles. One particular road and a popular route, Lake Mary Road, goes for over 50 miles. Another one, Woody Mountain Road, which is unpaved, extends for 32 miles.
The history, the location, the science of altitude training and the culture of running in Flagstaff have all had a profound effect on the local college: Northern Arizona University. The Lumberjacks have quietly put together one of the most impressive runs recently seen in the timeline of collegiate athletics, claiming six of the past seven national titles in cross-country.
NAU’s dynasty in cross country
Mike Smith first arrived in Flagstaff in 2006 after finishing graduate school. Smith, who competed in cross country and track and field while at Georgetown University, asked his good friend Greg McMillian what was the best place to train for a marathon. McMillian answered with Flagstaff. That was all Smith needed to hear to make a move.
Soon, Smith began work at the Center for High Altitude Training with Jack Daniels, a physiologist. With no background in sports science and a bachelor’s degree in English, Smith’s time at the Center for High Altitude Training was a formative one as he got to learn under the tutelage of Daniels.
“That was a new experience for me,” Smith said. “It got me thinking about coaching, how you make people faster. My time with Jack was such a different way of looking at things. I had been an athlete myself. But I hadn’t come at it from the angle of science … It began this spiral in my mind about the nature of adaptation and the body. When you start thinking like that, there’s no turning back.”
After six years of living and working in Flagstaff, which included a stint at HYPO2 with Anthony, Smith built on the seed that was planted at Center for High Altitude Training and decided to head back to Georgetown for a coaching position. There, Smith worked his way up to the director and head coach of the cross-country and track and field programs.
But Smith’s departure from Flagstaff was short-lived as he returned in 2016, joining NAU as an assistant coach under Eric Hines.
In an unusual set of circumstances, Hines and Smith actually overlapped for the fall season in 2016. Hines helped Smith in the transition of head coaching duties. Typically, the current head coach will not assist in a situation like this, something for which Smith was deeply appreciative as he was taking over a team that had just won its first national championship after the cross-country title in 2016.
“That was super special,” Smith said about the first win. “It showed these things are possible for a mid-major program going against Power 5 teams. That was a big thing, just showing it was possible.”
Since that first title, the Lumberjacks have put together two three-peats. NAU won in 2016, 2017 and 2018 before falling to archrival BYU in 2019. Three more followed in 2020, 2021 and 2022. The most recent championship was the closest and most dramatic of them all as NAU beat Oklahoma State University on a tiebreaker 83(3)-83(2).
When it comes to the foundation of success for the cross-country team, Baxter – a founding member of the dynasty – attributed about 50 percent due to the location. Smith roughly agreed with that. Being at 7,000 feet is a built-in advantage most of America doesn’t have. But the reasons go deeper than that.
During the championship run, Smith worked to develop a culture. The word culture in sports is intangible, there’s no statistic or measurement to show for it, but history has shown that it plays an integral role in the success of teams.
Instead of focusing on the objective of winning itself, Smith said he has tried to make NAU the most enjoyable place for distance runners who perform at a consistently high level. That involves having a mental performance coach, Shannon Thompson, who helps athletes deal with the stress that comes with hitting times in workouts and races.
In the process of building the culture at NAU, the Lumberjacks have won national championships with recruits spread out across their class rankings.
From prospects like Tyler Day in 2015, who was in the middle of his recruiting class, to Nico Young in 2020, the five-star runner who broke the high school indoor 3,000-meter record, NAU has become a national powerhouse in the sport with all kinds of recruits.
“We’re really trying to find people who are good matches for our program and the style in which we do it here, and that’s not for everybody,” Smith said. “One of the top recruits in the country may be a really fast runner, but may not be a good fit for our culture. That’s a big piece – making sure it’s not just who we say yes to who, but it’s also who we say no to as well. I’ve been proud over the years to pass on athletes that aren’t good matches for our culture, and really putting our culture at the front at what we are doing.”
That culture places emphasis on the collective as opposed to the individual. Every cross-country athlete crosses the finish line and receives a placing, so rational thinking would have one worried about their own performance. But at NAU, the goal is to view everything in terms of the team.
As junior Drew Bosley, who recently set the NCAA record in the indoor 3,000-meters on Jan. 27, described it, egos are “left at the door.” Part of leaving the ego aside, no matter how many state records you may have set while in high school, Bosley said is giving it your all.
From Bosley’s perspective, the nonchalant attitudes modern star runners can have is toxic in the sport.
“That’s one of our mottos, ‘Make it a cool thing to try as hard as you can,’” Bosley said. “Let people know, ‘I’m all in on this. I got my whole heart into this. I’m not afraid to not get what I want or be heartbroken, miss qualifying for a meet or not win this race. Regardless of that, I’m going all in.’”
That type of mindset has fueled the Lumberjacks to great heights and represents the impact that Smith has had on the program. It also poses a great question.
How long can this type of success be sustained? Flagstaff isn’t going anywhere; it’s always going to be at 7,000 feet in elevation. So, can the Lumberjacks keep winning?
“We’re going to be in the hunt every year as long as Coach Smith is the coach, we keep recruiting, and old guys like myself keep teaching the younger guys the right way to go about it,” Bosley said. “I don’t see our team going anywhere.”