Monday, March 26, 2012

Tales to Tell

Aaron Ells, contemplating his
Transrockies race story.

Race stories begin when you’re still in the race: “Why did I do this? I must be crazy?!?” “That old guy went around me like I was standing still!” or, “I feel like I could run at this pace FOREVER!” While you sometimes hear others verbalizing similar thoughts, the full stories will be told at the finish line and beyond.

You hear the stories before a race begins, while lacing your shoes prior to a TRF Tuesday evening workout, and at social gatherings. You share your own stories and look forward to hearing others’ latest experiences. Race stories describe an individual’s trials and tribulations, successes and failures, whether the race was on the road or the trail. Most race stories are never captured in written word, rather told and retold, taking on lives of their own, some even having the potential to become part of our community running lore.

Me? I love to tell a good race story. And until recently, my stories had a recurring theme: a good-natured account of my own limitations. You see, I was born with the pain gene. When something becomes unusually difficult, that gene triggers a voice in my head.

“What are you doing? This hurts! Ease off the accelerator!” Such is the opening paragraph of nearly every one of my race stories.

It was different after entering a 5K snowshoe race recently, featuring all of the local running glitterati entered in the 10K. Fortunately, I was able to hang with the lead group until the 5K/10K split, about 2.5 miles in. As the 10K racers turned right, I headed left, back to the finish. Looking over my shoulder, I was alone. And. Something. Happened.

While my lungs seared and my quads felt like lead, the voice controlled by the pain gene remained silent. Victory was within my reach and I grasped it. My 1st place medal became my one-and-only, and it’s proudly displayed in the top drawer of my dresser. In the end, winning and losing for me weren’t that different—just varying degrees of a race experience and the opportunity to tell a good story.

Life is often measured by experiences. For runners, it may be a series of experiential races and we measure what remains steady: nutrition, training, racing, the seasons. Winter runs in Sedona become muddy spring runs along the trails surrounding Flagstaff. The Summer Running Series begins, and then too quickly culminates with War Dog and Soulstice Mountain Trail Run. The brilliant blue skies and crisp days of autumn lead us back into the fourth season, replete with dull pewter skies and deep snows. Through it all are good races and bad, each with their own stories to be told.

While Flagstaff is 60,000 residents strong, our running community feels small, tightly knit and easy to join. Some of us love to show our racing cards, while some hold them close to their chest until they’ve crossed the finish line.  We have varying degrees of success and varying personal definitions of what defines success for a runner.  I don’t know who said, "A race is a work of art that people can look at and be affected in as many ways as they’re capable of understanding,” but I bet they’d tell a great race story.

Aaron Ells is a member of the Team Run Flagstaff Board of Directors.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Team Behind the Team

Karen Haubensak, TRF board vice president
and humble triathlete 

When an organization grows as rapidly as Team Run Flagstaff has in the past couple of years, it’s no long feasible for it to be a one-man (or woman) show. In March 2010, it became clear that TRF needed a team behind the team, so a board of directors was created.

The board is a group of runners just like you who responded to Coach Mike Smith’s call for help two years ago. While Tuesday night workouts were (and continue to be) the club’s main event, we had a vision to do more. At that time, 10 of us committed to helping move the organization forward, with Mike serving as the organization’s executive director and head coach.

Since that time, we've achieved nonprofit status, were awarded grants from private foundations and government agencies, have held fundraisers, and created new local races. We started Step Into Running—our beginner program—which has become increasingly popular in the Flagstaff community, helping to extend our reach. TRF went from a membership of around 30 members to more than 200 in 2011—we’ve set a goal of reaching 300 team members by the end of 2012.

Our nine board members now volunteer their time and skills to everything from website development and communication to race management, finances, and team gear orders. We love being part of the club and contributing to an organization that is thriving in our community.

Of course we are always looking for help. If you have an interest in any projects, there is always an opportunity to join a committee and lend a hand. We are grateful for all support. Just send an email to and let us know what area you’d most enjoy working. We’d happily welcome you to the team!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Team Run Flagstaff: Then and Now

Mike Smith: working hard for TRF.


It’s with great pleasure that we welcome you to our team blog—just another way to stay connected and hear the voices that make our running club. Team Run Flagstaff’s mission is to “provide opportunities in running for those of all levels of interest and experience through organized training, coaching, and educational offerings.” When we wrote this mission we envisioned a platform to create community through running, whatever shape that might take. Our hope is that our website and blog help strengthen that very community we share.

TRF’s colorful and brief history has survived highs and lows because we’ve stayed true to this mission. We began in December 2006 at NAU’s Center for High Altitude Training, a result of brainstorming ideas to bring Flagstaff residents together through activities at our Olympic Training Site. The director at the time asked resident physiologist and head coach—the great Jack Daniels—and myself, a lowly hourly employee, to put our heads together.

At the time, I was already coaching an after-school kids’ program and from this, we came up with the idea to create an adult and family version of the same concept. We decided to offer weekly workouts based on schedules written by Jack and allow community members to participate in track sessions supervised by him, our world-renowned coach.

I remember Jack cracking open one of his huge filing cabinets and different types of training schedules being stacked and sorted. I could tell his mind was just flying. We’d structure a variety of workouts with Vdot paces, we’d call it “Team Cirrus” (something about high clouds, I remember him saying) and he’d call a good friend who could make up some singlets and shorts for us.

Done deal?

Well, “Cirrus” got changed to “Citius,” which got changed to “Altius,” a nod to our high elevation. To better align with our relationship with the U.S. Olympic Committee, Alitius was derived from the Olympic motto: “Citius, Altius, Fortius” (Faster, Higher, Stronger).

The singlets? They showed up in bright yellow and orange.

“I sure like coaching people in bright colors,” Jack said. “It’s easy to spot you in a crowd.”

Team Altius original kids' program.

I wasn’t sure what to make of this. Would it work?

Sign ups began in December 2006 for Team Altius. The center’s director and I manned a table at the NAU Skydome and people trickled in, to our delight. We had 20 sign ups—kids and adults. We were off.

By April 2007 we had 30 members and our Tuesday night track workouts were the focus as we tinkered with the format so that all participants—no matter their speed—could run intervals together and regroup. Sometimes I would step back and watch Jack time everybody. It seemed surreal: a Flagstaff summer evening with 20 people jogging around and a world-famous coach yelling splits. I knew Flagstaff was special, but I never felt it as much as I did driving home those Tuesday nights, thinking about what I just witnessed.

Northern Arizona University shut down the Center for High Altitude Training in January 2009 amid a budget shortfall in a precarious economic period.  With that closure came the loss of Flagstaff’s U.S. Olympic Training Site designation from the USOC (one of only 10 sites in the U.S.), the loss of funding for the U.S. athletes who trained through the center, and the loss of the central coordinating structure that brought in international teams to Flagstaff for the previous 15 years. It also meant that the center’s employees, including Jack, were without jobs. He moved from Flagstaff shortly after. I consider one of the greatest losses in the closure was Jack himself. Even the office furniture was gone one day.

Jack Daniels and Mike Smith
Stubbornly, the one thing to survive the closure was Team Altius. We kept meeting at NAU, and when we couldn’t meet there any longer, we met in Buffalo Park. We didn’t charge anything. People just wanted to run together, and we didn’t need much to make that happen. When the USOC took the name “Altius” back we were not only without a home, but also without a name. When it got too dark to meet in Buffalo Park in fall of 2009, enough was enough. We hung on as long as we could, I thought. 

But then a group of committed volunteers brought us back from the dead in early 2010, as Team Run Flagstaff, and we have never looked back. We saw 200 members in 2011 and we’re on pace for our goal of 300 members in 2012. We’ve got programs and events filling a very busy calendar, we’re a 501(c)(3), and of course our Tuesday nights are more popular than ever.

I think back to the old days of Altius, with 20 or 30 people showing up considered a big night, and just last Tuesday night we had 110 runners on the track. TRF is a part of Flagstaff that is here to stay.

The theme of organizing people together through the shared experience of running was the reason we began, the reason we kept going, and it’s our mission now. We’ve grown and thrived due to the support of you, our friends, volunteers, participants, members, and supporters. Thank you. Our membership is so incredibly diverse. Whatever your reason, whether it’s fitness or just fun, you’ve chosen to be a part of a vibrant community brought together through running. You’ve experienced what it’s like being a part of the team out there, pushing each other together; the satisfaction of a hard effort spent in the company of 100 other friends. We’ve grown because of you.

To those that have been with us since the start, to those who have just begun, we’re so glad you’re with Team Run Flagstaff. We thank you for your support and look forward to enjoying running with you. See you soon.

Mike Smith is the founder, executive director, and head coach of Team Run Flagstaff.