4-day running camp in Flagstaff

I drove up to Flagstaff on Thursday afternoon to attend a 3-day McMillan Running training camp. Since I drove up in my Tesla, I had a mild case of range-anxiety. Fortunately, Flagstaff has a Tesla super-charger. In theory, I can recharge my car in less than 30 minutes.

At the camp, I expected to learn about various training tactics, race planning, fueling during the race, nutrition, proper form and a host of other running-related topics. For the entire 4 days, we were led by McMillan coaches:

Greg McMillan: Greg is the main guy at McMillan Running and has an enormous wealth of knowledge about running. He is a regular contributor to Runner’s World.

Andrew Lemoncello: Nicknamed Lemon, he is crazy fast with long legs. Lemon has competed in several world championships including the Olympics at various distances. His running-style is one of the smoothest I have ever seen.

Jen Puzey: Jen works for Greg. Jen is fast. She is trying to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. She needs to run 2:45. I’m pretty sure that she will!

Emily Harrison: Emily is an Olympic marathoner and a 50k world champ (2014). She’s super friendly and has loads of wisdom for running long races.

Ian Torrence: Ian has run 198 ultra marathons and won 53 of them. Obviously, he’s fast and definitely crazy!

Buffalo Park Loop

Day 1: (Thursday, June 9, 2016): On Thursday afternoon at 3PM, I met with the McMillan Running group at Buffalo Park in Flagstaff. There were about a dozen of us with a full crew of coaches ready to look after our every running question. Nestled i in the mountains with coniferous pines, Flagstaff sits at an elevation of 7,000 feet. The weather was sunny, cool and breezy. I had left the 100+ degrees behind in Phoenix and was enjoying the 70-degree air. At this elevation, running would be tough but I was excited to be here with fellow runners. For the next 3 days, all we would do is run and talk about all kinds of running-related activities.

The main Buffalo Park loop is 2 miles. It is a relatively flat course but it finishes with a short downhill followed by uphill. After brief introductions, we all started the first loop together. It was clear from the first run that there would be three distinct groups of runners. I’ll call them the fast runners (around 3-hour marathoners), the mid-speed runners (around 3:25 marathoners) and the slower-runners (beginners, half-marathoners and/or 4-hour marathoners). I fell squarely in the mid-speed runners. It was clear that running at this altitude was difficult. I was breathing heavy from the beginning but managed 2 loops at a respectable 8:48 pace.

Buffalo Park Trail, Flagstaff

We gathered for our first classroom session at NACET as we ate a light hummus and falafel dinner. I would become friends with a few of the runners over the next few days. In particular, I became friends with John (Florida), Nes (Massachusetts), Sharon (also Massachusetts but moving to Chicago soon) and Jocelyn (West Virginia). John is fast. Nes and Jocelyn are just a bit faster than me. Sharon is more of a beginner. We talked about running all weekend. I can’t imagine anything better!

Day 2: (Friday, June 10, 2016): After barely sleeping the night, I was up early to for a tough, hilly, rocky run on Schultz Pass. We saw a group of high school kids running with their coach. They all looked fit and fast. I wondered if one of them would be in the Olympics in 4 years.

Schultz Pass Run – High School kids training
Schultz Pass Elevation Profile

The first half of today’s run was straight uphill. My heartrate was flirting into the 150 from the first mile. The air was thin, the temperature was cool, the terrain was a combination of smooth trail and rocks. We criss-crossed a brooke as we ran towards the northerly direction in the coniferous pine forest. I was in the second group of runners. Nes was ahead of me, Jocelyn slightly behind me. My pace for the first 3 uphill miles was well above 10-minutes-per-mile. Coming back though, it was well below 8:30 per mile. All in all, I ended up running short of 6 miles.

After a quick breakfast back at the hotel, we gathered for a session on fueling by Ian Torrence. I was glad to hear that he recommended CarboPro for calories. He also recommended electrolytes from a brand called Skratch. I have to try Skratch.

Schultz Pass Trail

The rest of the day was spent at a strength-building session at Peak Fitness, a round-table Q&A session with all the pros and a fun lecture by Lemon about quick hacks to become faster. Basically, it was a session on alternative, sometimes unproven methods of building mental and physical strength. The message was “you should do whatever works for you!”

Q&A Lessons from Day 2 of McMillan Running Camp

Day 3: (Saturday, June 11, 2016): Early on Saturday morning, we met at the NAU track for a track and video analysis session. This was easily the funnest session of the weekend. I wore my fast Saucony A6 shoes. I love the track atmosphere. With bleachers on both sides, sunny skies and puffy white clouds, green grass in the middle of the track and a few random elite athletes practicing their intervals and hurdles, the atmosphere was electric. After a few stretches and a shot jog, we started the video taping analysis. First from the back, then from the front and finally from the side, our running style was recorded to be analyzed in a classroom.

Gorgeous day on the track at NAU

After this session, John and I decided to run around campus for a few miles. NAU has running trails all over campus. I loved every moment of it!

Another view of the track at NAU

We gathered for the video analysis session next. Posture, stride length, cadence, arm-swing, hip-drop, rhythm, etc. etc. were all analyzed. I was quite happy to hear that I had near perfect running form, near perfect rhythm, cadence, stride length and run flexibility. Except for a slight distortion in arm-swing, I didn’t need to work on anything. “Ya, but I am not fast” was one of two thoughts that rang through my head! The other was, “I can’t even touch my toes!” Oh well…

The rest of the day was spent on various miscellaneous lectures about running, conditioning, rules and a goal-setting session. The short-term goal-setting exercise was simple for me:

  • Goal: Berlin Marathon on September 25, 2016 in less than 3:45.
  • Challenges: I’m getting slower, not faster. My previous two marathon finishes have been 4:15 (New York) and 4:00 (London).
  • How to overcome these challenges: Prepare and follow a solid race plan; pray for lots of luck!
  • Positive mantra: Relax and Flow!
As soon as I got home from Flagstaff, I signed up for a 14-week Race Plan with McMillan Running. I am waiting for it to arrive.

For dinner, I met up with Kristi and Mike who were in town for a hike. Also joining us was Cassie (Kristin’s cousin) and her brother Brady. Cassie had just moved back to town. We had a fun time talking about Cassie and Kristi’s boyfriend escapades while drinking at The Toasted Owl and eating excellent pizza at Pizzicletta.

Day 4: (Sunday, June 12, 2016): On my final day in Flagstaff, we met early in the morning at A1 Mountain Road for a long run. As we gathered for instructions, a bunch of world-class athletes were warming up around us. Flagstaff is a premier training ground for some of the world’s elite track-and-field athletes. Some were training for the Olympics, some were training to qualify for the world championships, all were in amazing shape and were definitely fast.

Forest Route 518 – at the start

We started running parallel to the highway (I-17) and uphill. As usual, there were three sub-groups within our group. John and some of the elites were in the first group followed by me, Nes, Jocelyn and Arletta. The final group had Sharon, Jen and a bunch of other slightly slower runners. We took a right turn up the hill with Nes and Jocelyn in front and me closely behind. At the top of the hill, the elites passed us. They were running relaxed with easy, long strides. They looked smooth and unlabored. I felt a pang of envy as I admired their form. I was happy to be running behind the elites though in this lovely pine forest at 7,000 feet in perfect running weather. My pace was just above 9-minutes-per-mile but I felt good.

At around the 3-mile mark, Nes stopped and turned around. I caught up to Jocelyn and we ran together for the next mile-and-a-half. At exactly 4.5 miles, we waited a minute or so for Arletta to catch up and then we turned around to head back. It would be all downhill now. My pace quickened. I ran a little ahead of Jocelyn. I could stay in this pine forest forever. A few birds flitted about but I couldn’t make out what they were. They were from the warbler family, I think. A saw a woodpecker knocking on wood and flying from tree-to-tree. With about half-a-mile to go, a couple of elite runners sneaked up behind me and startled me. As I finished the 9-mile run, it occured to me that run-camp was almost over.

Jocelyn and Arletta running – A1 Mountain Road

Stephanie Bruce and Matt Llano were the two runners who had sneaked up behind me in the last half-a-mile. I made small-talk with them. Stephanie is trying to qualify for the Rio Olympics. She has a 10k race in Oregon on July 11. If she finishes in the top 3, she is in. I will root for her! Matt is a 2:12 marathoner. Wow! Just wow! I only talked to them for a few minutes but both are super-cool and super-friendly.

Elevation – 9 miles on Forest Route 518

I have found that all runners and triathletes, even at the pro level, are accessible, friendly and nice. Why can’t this be true of athletes in so-called “mainstream” sports? I guess fame and money gets to you!

Stephanie Bruce and Matt Llano – soon-to-be Olympians

Our group met up for brunch at the Toasted Owl (same place where we had a drinks with Kristi and gang the night before). I sat next to Jen Puzey. She’s trying to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. She has to run a 2:45 (or faster) marathon to qualify!

Soon it was time for goodbyes. I’m certain that I will keep in touch with my new-found friends (especially Nes, Sharon, Jocelyn and John). I will root for them at every race. I hope that our paths cross again soon.

I drove back home on Sunday afternoon rejuvenated and revved up to run. I can’t wait for my new plan to arrive from McMillan Running.

As I write this, it is exactly a week since I left running camp. It is expected to reach 120 in Phoenix today. It’s a far cry from the perfect weather in Flagstaff, but there is always a treadmill. The contrast between running on a treadmill at the gym versus running in the pine forest of Flagstaff at 7,000 feet couldn’t be more dramatic. Oh well…

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