Trail to 50k: Road Trippin

One way to know you're a true runner, or crazy, is when you plan trips just for running. And that's exactly what Tom Cirillo did this summer as he trains for StumpJump later this month!! Here's his recount of the adventure (Try not to get too jealous!)

At the end of July I traveled to Flagstaff, AZ for some running in the Southwest as I prepare for StumpJump. I arrived in Phoenix on the morning on July 22nd, got my car, and didn’t waste any time. It’s about two hours from Phoenix to Flagstaff and there are some good spots to run on the way up in the Oak Creek and Sedona areas.

Day One: Woods Canyon Trail

The Woods Canyon Trail is off Highway 179 and heads into the Munds Mountain Wilderness Area. The setting is quintessential Southwest. Red rocks, cacti, lizards, low scraggly pine trees.

The trail begins at the Red Rock Visitor Center, which has good amenities and maps. The trail looked pretty easy to follow in the guidebooks and I wasn’t worried about getting lost. I started off on a gravelly road that ascended gently before giving way to rockier terrain made up entirely of sandstone. The trail got steeper but was still runnable – the elevation ranged from 3,900 feet at the beginning to 4,300 feet at the turn-around point. I didn’t feel any effects from the altitude here, but I anticipated that changing when I was running in Flagstaff later in the week. About 2 miles in I came to a strange looking gate-like contraption that I thought was made of barbwire – this couldn’t be the end of the line. It was actually a cattle gate and after fussing with it for a minute or so I got it open. The trail follows a creek bed and never got so steep or rugged that you couldn’t run at a decent clip. At a little over 5 miles cacti and other brush overtook the trail and it was time to head back. The trail was beautiful but fairly uniform with no noticeable landmarks and I got semi-disoriented on the way back, finding myself down in the actual creek bed or higher up on the canyon wall than I wanted to be. But I knew if I kept the creek to my left (south) I wouldn’t get off course. Had to backtrack a few times but never too far and once back to the cattle gate I was in the homestretch. Great first run in AZ, but I wanted more mountains.

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Day Two: Humphrey’s Peak

After Woods Canyon I drove up to Flagstaff through Sedona – I’ve been to Sedona a few times but seeing those sandstone rock formations never gets old. You don’t need to get out of the car for some jaw dropping scenery. I stayed the night in Flagstaff and the next day decided to go all out and take on Humphrey’s Peak. At 12,633 feet it’s the highest point in Arizona (129th in the USA, there are a few more mountains to climb…). I had researched this trail pretty carefully in guide books and online – it’s a popular training route for Western States Endurance Race competitors, many of whom live and train in Flagstaff. A great thing about Flagstaff is that so many trails are only a short drive from downtown. The trailhead is northwest of the city at the top of Snow Bowl Road (there’s a ski resort here in winter). Contrary to Woods Canyon, my starting elevation here was 9,300 feet – the run started off on a flat stretch through a small mountain meadow, but I was huffing and puffing 10 seconds in… ouch. However, the ragged breathing subsided after about two minutes. This was something I noticed during every run on this trip – 90 to 120 seconds of tough going right at the start and then feeling fine breathing-wise after. This trail was tough – straight up, straight down.

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As much “power hiking” (i.e., walking) as running. The terrain didn’t make things easier – big rocks, lots of roots. It was visually stunning challenge and my favorite trail in Flagstaff. The trail is mainly in the Kachina Peaks Wilderness and takes switchbacks as you gain elevation through a pine forest before opening up after 3 miles or so. Humphrey’s is part of the San Francisco Peaks and breaking out on to the ridgeline connecting them was one of the best moments of the trip. At 4 miles you arrive at a saddle between the summit and Agassiz Peak to the southeast which can be reached by the Waterford Trail. The view is brutal and breathtaking.

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I stopped at the saddle to rest and was approached by an older gentleman who was hiking. He asked if I was an ultra-runner and I said I was trying to be one. I told him that I was training for my first 50K and we talked for a while about the trails in Flagstaff and elsewhere in Arizona (he was from Phoenix). He had run his last 100-miler (Javelina 100 – I looked him up on ultrasignup) at age 70 and now considered himself retired – pretty amazing and inspiring. We set off on our separate ways as I turned north towards the top. The San Francisco Peaks are part of a dormant volcano field and all the mountains in this range are remnants of a hypothesized San Francisco Mountain that once towered 16,000 feet before blowing its top 220,000 years ago – these are fairly young mountains. The point of the geology lesson: igneous rock was way tougher to run on than the red sandstone at 5,000 feet lower altitude in Sedona – it was slippery, loose, jagged, and had zero give to it. Humphrey’s has several “false” summits and I churned out that last still-ascending mile over boulders and gravel in a blazing 31:57. Obviously I was sweating profusely on the way up but after reaching the summit and stopping for a bit to collect myself and eat something I was cold and dry since the wind was really gusting up there. The view was amazing. Looking north you can see the Grand Canyon if you squint. I ambled down without incident and got ready for day 3.

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Day Three: Fat Man’s Loop and Elden Lookout

The morning of day three I did a tempo workout in Buffalo Park (flat dirt loop trail with lots of runners doing speed type workouts). In the afternoon I hit the east side of Flagstaff to do the Elden Lookout Trail. I enjoy terrifying myself so I had googled “mountain lions, Flagstaff” the previous evening. The first result was a news story dated to the end of May titled “Climber stalked by mountain lions on Mount Elden.” More research told me that mountain lions track their prey from behind then descend on it from a tree while going straight for the throat. Sounds painless, certainly less painful than Humphrey’s Peak had been. In fact, there have only been 12 fatalities due to mountain lion attacks in the United State in the last 100 years. When asked about this topic my park ranger friend with whom I was staying said “Why would they want to eat you when there are so many deer around?” I thought, what if they’re hungry and there aren’t any deer around? Anyway, I was still gonna do the trail, which begins off Highway 89 just a few miles north of residential East Flagstaff. It was a steep one. You start on Fat Man’s Loop, so named because there is a small passage through two rocks at one point that would be a bit of a squeeze for Andre the Giant… I don’t know who names these things. From mile 2 to the lookout tower at mile 3 there’s 1,000 feet of elevation gain, but not as rugged as Humphrey’s. High point on this trail was about 9,300 feet. There was a light rain the whole way up and then a full on storm at the top, I hit the deck at an especially loud thunder clap but remembered from my research that mountain lions are more likely to attack humans when they are stooped over because they resemble deer. I popped up, figuring lightning strike was preferable to mauling, and got back to the trailhead and out of the weather. Late July is monsoon season in Northern AZ and just about every afternoon there were short-lived storms.

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Day Four: Campbell Mesa and Grand Canyon North Rim

On Day Four I ran at Campbell Mesa. This was not too wild, just a nice park southeast of the city – some rolling hills, dirt/sand surface. Not long after the run I left for the North Rim of the Grand Canyon where I was going to stay for the night with my park ranger friends. The plan was to check out parts of the park in the afternoon and then tackle some of the North Kaibab trail the following morning. Flagstaff is the closest city to the Grand Canyon but it’s still almost four hours to the North Rim (I hear they’re working on that bridge over the canyon). I didn’t mind the drive – the Vermillion Cliffs off Highway 89 heading north are something else.

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Got to the North Rim in the afternoon and did a quick jaunt on the bridle path around the visitor’s center, cabins, and ranger buildings. This was a flat, well-maintained gravel road, also the only trail where I took a fall. The visitor’s center is on a promontory between Bright Angel Canyon and Transept Canyon which juts out into the Grand Canyon.


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After the run I met my friends for dinner and got a scouting report on the Kaibab trail. My plan was to run down about 5 miles to a spot called Roaring Springs and back up. There are several rest areas on the way down with shelters, bathrooms, and drinkable water.

Day Five: North Kaibab Trail

I got an early start because it was going to be hot – nowhere near as humid as Nashville, but close to all-time high temps for the North Rim. The starting elevation was 8,300 feet and I would descend to 5,000 feet at Roaring Springs. The full North Kaibab trail goes 14 miles down to the bottom of the canyon (the trail beginning from the South Rim is 7 miles to the bottom and could probably be done in a day). North Kaibab does not start in the Grand Canyon itself, but in Bright Angel Canyon and only enters the Grand later. While looking at the map, I realized that I made it about a third of the way to the floor Grand Canyon and the Colorado River – that was humbling. The trail was loose sandstone with the occasional set of wooden steps, fairly runnable, though the constant switchbacks made going pretty slow – didn’t matter, I wanted to take it all in. One thing I loved about this trail was the names of various overlooks and waypoints: Coconino Overlook, Supai Tunnel, Red Wall Bridge, Roaring Springs, etc. Towards the bottom of my run where the trail encounters Roaring Springs and prepares to veer west things leveled out and the curves were gentler than the switchbacks had been – I loved running with the canyon wall on one side and drop-off on the other. After turning around at Roaring Springs I decided to push it a little bit on the way back up and I felt good during that 3,000 feet of climbing – still slow miles, but able to move way faster than I was going up Humphrey’s. After wrapping up the run I hung around the park and visitors’ center to bid farewell to my hosts and then headed back towards Flagstaff.

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Day 6 et alia:

I was leaving in the morning so I just did a quick run in Buffalo Park. Flagstaff is an excellent city off-trail too, if you visit and are looking for some fun places to eat and drink I recommend the following: Crown Railroad Café or MartAnne’s (get the chilaquiles) for breakfast, pizza at NiMarco’s or, if you want a fancier place, at Pizzicletta, best brewery and burger was Lumberyard Brewing Co. (all their beers are named for trails near Flagstaff), a place called The Museum Club on old Rte. 66 has a weird but cool vibe (it’s home to about 100 taxidermy specimens of Arizona wildlife) and has good live music. Running in Flagstaff was a great experience and I hope it will go a long way for StumpJump. The area offers such a multitude of trails that you could go a lifetime without running one twice.

NRC: Ok, who's booking their flight to Flagstaff??!! Thanks so much for the awesome write-up, Tom! T-minus 3 weeks and 2 days until StumpJump!!