Looping around Flagstaff: A 45 mile FKT on the Flagstaff Loop Trail
The clock is still ticking as I slow to a shuffle and then to a walk on the side of Woody Mountain Road. I’ve run 38 kilometers (almost 24 miles) and am just barely past the halfway point of the Flagstaff Loop Trail. I tell both my heart and head to calm down and, in that moment, decide one thing for sure. This is the last time I’m going to do this.
See, this is the third time I’ve attempted to run the 72km (45 mile) Flagstaff Loop Trail. I’d originally discovered it shortly after arriving in Flag back in June by simply perusing the Fastest Known TIme site and stumbling across what looked like a doable trail that looped around the entire city. Always a sucker for routes that seem to accomplish something aesthetic and tangible (e.g. get from one point to another or circle around some big mountain or city), it struck me as a route I could get psyched about. The FKT on the route, 6 hours 23 minutes and 34 seconds, an average pace of 5’19 per km or 8’33 per mile, seemed in my wheelhouse, and so I set off for my first go-round full of the exuberance and naivete that both got me out the door and would force me to pull the plug a few hours later.
Basically, I got lost. I’m not a trail runner but one of the things that real trail runners will tell you is how important it is to know the course you’re trying to complete, especially when you’re attempting an unsupported, unmarked FKT. I ran way too far off course to be able to recover and still run under the FKT, and with my goal out of reach, I cut out to the highway and ran home.
A month later, I was more prepared, had run most of the loop piece-meal, and headed out at the crack of dawn for take 2. I mostly kept on course this time but simply ran out of water (and energy) too early in the route, around the 45km mark. I once again found myself totally fried and staggering home feeling sorry for myself.
I’d basically resigned myself to never completing this oh-so-visually-pleasing circumnavigation. But then I finally started to feel my fitness coming together in the last few weeks. With a few longer trail days under my belt and a cooler stretch of weather, I decided to give it one more go.
But now it’s pitch black, the sky still full of stars and I’m driving out Rt 89 to where the FLT cuts under, then crosses over Rt 66 and then enters a small dirt parking lot where I’ll begin this final FLT FKT attempt. Yes, this will be the last time I try this. I’ve already decided that.
By the time I pull in, get myself ready to go, (my little bub ultra-running belt carrying 13 gels, about 1.5 liters of liquid (containing an additional 960 calories), my phone, ID, some cash, and my rental car key,) walk to the cow-catcher that’ll mark my start and finish line and press stop on both watches (just in case!), all but the brightest celestial bodies have disappeared into the light of pre-dawn.
Ultra-running (and ultra trail especially) can be a bit anticlimactic. I’m all amped up, stoked to finally be giving this another go, and then I explode off the line… at a slow trot. Unlike the marathons or track races that I’ve become accustomed to for the past 15 years, there is no immediate sense of effort and oxygen debt. Instead, I think of the first few miles, hell, the first hour, as an extended warm-up. A gentle way to wake myself before the sun cracks the horizon.
Being a loop, the FLT can be run either CW or CCW and can be started/finished from anywhere on the loop. I’d planned to start in this particular spot so that I’d run what is -- for me -- the most challenging terrain at the start. The trail begins gently following a smooth singletrack through an open field and pine forest before climbing up towards Mt Elden and merging onto the Forces of Nature Trail (cool name, right?). This section, which climbs and drops while skirting around the south side of the mountain, is by far the most “technical” of the route, i.e. it’s more winding, narrow, full of rocks, and generally forces a runner (especially an inexperienced road-guy like me) to focus a lot more and slow down lest catch a toe and somersault onto the rocks.
As I climb through the forest, first hitting the light of the sun as the temperature begins to rise, I’m glad I’ve laid it out this way. I’m full of early-run energy and gusto and unconcerned by the slower pace as I navigate this section. The route opens up a few times, with spectacular views of Flagstaff to the south, and I’m genuinely having a great time.
There’s a short intermission along the Pipeline trail, much smoother, before syncing up with the aptly named Rocky Ridge Trail which leads down the last more technical descent to the northwest corner of the loop. Before starting this descent (about 1h40 in), I take my first sip of liquid, as the cool morning had kept my thirst at bay so far. I feel fine as I head down and I’m excited knowing that the most technically challenging part is already behind me.
Having broken my finger earlier in the week in a bad fall coming off the Inner Basin Trail, I’m conservative on these pieces and mostly focus on not falling (again). It’s a welcome sight to spy the bottom, the trail-head parking lot that marks the beginning of the fastest and most “runnable” chunk of the course from Schultz Creek all the way to the other side of the airport.
The loop can be basically divided into three approximately equal pieces (each around 15 miles). In the direction I ran, you’ve got the chunk Rt. 66 to Schultz (the most technical), then from Schultz to the Airport (very runnable with one significant climb up Mars Hill), and then the final piece from the Airport back to 66 (fairly runnable, rolling single track). As I begin this middle section, my average pace is fairly slow (right around average FKT pace) but I know I’ve got plenty of time to bring it down on what should be the quickest stretch of the route.
I run up Mars Hill and feel solid, but am already beginning to feel thirsty. I’d basically given myself one bottle per aforementioned chunk, and I’m really wishing I had more than that. By the time I’m up and over the hill, down the smooth, fast descent on the other side, I’m already just about done with my mid-chunk bottle and I’ve got at least an hour of running until I’ll start the last third.
The route takes an inexplicable (to me; anyone want to explain?) right-hand turn here and runs a miserable 5km extension along the side of Route 66 and then back to Woody Mountain Road. I have no idea why this is here (as one could just continue straight onto Woody and skip it) and there’s almost no “trail”, but I’m feeling very sorry for myself during this stretch as I begin to feel pretty tired, pretty thirsty, and I’m not even yet at half-way.
When I finally get to Woody Mtn Road (around 38km), I actually stop and just walk for a bit. I’m thinking very seriously about bailing again. I’m not running as fast as I expected. I’m barely past the midpoint, with 3 hours of running left, and I’m already dangerously low on water. I am just not having a great time out here right now.
But I also know that I really don’t want to, won’t, do this again. I’ve come this far. This is the day I’m going to do the loop if I’m ever going to do it. And so after walking 100m or so, I turn off the audiobook, turn on the Phish, and start jogging. I’m finally going again.
The next stretch is the most familiar as it overlaps with many of my daily running routes around Ft. Tuthill. I’m able to relax and even enjoy this stretch as the kilometers seem to click by a bit more naturally. As I run the long ugly stretch along the side of the airport, I’m still thinking hard about dropping out. Finally, I cross Lake Mary Road and begin the last chunk, nearing the point of no return.
There are no major street crossings and not much cell service, so I know that each kilometer I run through this forest is making it harder to back out. At some point soon, it’s going to be quicker to just finish. The going is still slower than I expected. The trail is beautiful but monotonous.
Still, I have moments where -- all of a sudden -- I find a tiny bit of bounce and pep in my stride and think “Yes, today is the day. I’m going to do this.” And then others where I look at my watch, realize how many minutes, hours, of running I still have left and think there’s just no way I can do it. I’m slowing down. It’s getting hotter. And I’ve once again brought nowhere near enough water or calories.
There’s an impossibly long stretch of nondescript forest singletrack that finally spits the trail out onto a long dirt road right around 64km (40 miles). I remember looking at the map ahead of time and thinking “it’s going to be so fun to run down that smooth dirt road with only 5 miles to go!” In reality, I’m still barely hanging on and those 5 miles seem like an impossibly long way.
There’s one more steep climb right after that and a final few miles of rolling forest singletrack. I’m waiting and waiting to see the dip below the underpass that means there’s less than a mile to go. I know I’ll finish -- even if I have to walk -- but I’m aware of how close I’m going to be to the FKT. With 10 miles to go, I’d been on pace for about 6h20, but now it’ll be very close to that 6h23 mark.
Finally -- finally! --- I see the underpass (I have to open and close those cow-proof gates on each side, losing a couple of seconds) and then climb up to the pavement and follow the route my car had taken 6 hours and 20 minutes earlier that morning. I “kick” home, running under 8’00 mile pace for the last couple minutes and that’s what makes the difference as I stop my watch back where I’d started: 6 hours, 23 minutes, 1 second.
A 45-mile FKT broken by only 33 seconds.
This was an embarrassingly emotional and important day for me. As counter-intuitive as it might seem given that I’m writing this for a very public audience, this day was completely about my own internal goals and motivations. I got no prize money, no bonus from my sponsors; there was no crowd of spectators as I finished; on paper, this really wasn’t that big a deal.
But for me, this was something that -- for whatever reason -- I decided I really wanted to do back in June and struggled mightily to accomplish by the narrowest of margins. There were moments of real suffering out there, but it’s that ability to manage that suffering, get through those dark patches, that makes running so personally fulfilling to me (and, I’d guess, to so many others).
This one really was a gift to myself. And despite desperately wanting it to end, to be able to teleport back to my car and let everyone know “eh, I tried but it just wasn’t going to happen today,” I am grateful for those moments. Because these days, these moments are a reminder: If I can face another steep little climb, another mile, another minute, and really deal with it, find my way to the other side, I’m pretty sure I can manage whatever else life throws at me.
Full splits, etc.: https://www.strava.com/activities/4177941846/overview
Didn’t drink til ~90 min (at the start of Rocky Ridge)
Carried ~1.5L of liquid
12 gels (6x honey stinger caff (32mg), 1x maurten caff (100mg) at about 5 hour mark, 5x non caff maurten and Honey Stinger)
=~2200 cal / 6h23 = 343 cal/hr
=~412mg caffeine = ~65 mg/hr