As I sit here and type the fifth and final installment of my weekly reflections on my time spent with NAZ Elite and the running culture of Flagstaff, I’m struck by the stark contrast in my current surroundings, and the change in mood that this change has invoked.
Gone are the innumerous pines that stood outside my window and bespeckled every walk, run, and drive, which added life and color to mountains surrounding the city.
Gone is the communal and welcoming city of Flagstaff, the alluring mecca of runners and adventurers alike; the home of harriers and a home to hopefuls, each seeking much and taking even more back home – wherever home was.
Gone are the chilly mountain mornings and quiet mountain nights, each filled with the soft pitter-pat of both rain and footsteps on the mountain roads and trails.
Gone is the community of twenty-plus dreamers from every corner of the country and the professionals that ran alongside them each Thursday and Sunday morning, each equal in his/her quest towards greatness, whether large or small.
But, most importantly, gone is the team whom I shared minutes, hours, and days with; the team I dreamt with and the team I prepared with; the team that molded me and that hopefully I molded in return; the team which toiled and prepared long before me and will long after as well.
Gone is my internship, and gone is my time with HOKA NAZ Elite – yet the memories and lessons stick, branded in my mind and memory so boldly and vividly that, even now, almost a week since my departure, the smallest detail of every interaction and every run sticks. The lessons were plentiful and the observations bountiful, meaning that my time and tutelage under Coach Ben Rosario had served its purpose: to inspire and prepare the next generation of coaches.
Through the generosity of many, I have returned from my tenure in Flagstaff more prepared than ever before to do as Rosario has done for me: to share information, ideas, and tactics meant to guide generations of athletes to the highest levels of sport, and, perhaps most importantly, the highest levels of sportsmanship too.
This sport does not evolve or grow without an open stream of information or a collaborative approach to coaching and data; rather, quite the opposite. Without a collaborative mindset, the future of coaches and depth in American distance running is left in the hands of few, at the expense of many, as information is not given the opportunity to spread and the very ideals of sport are lost to overgrown egos and an overbearing drive to win at all costs.
At times like this, I often think of the Olympic creed – a fitting reminder while involved with a team with goals to represent that very message:
“The most important thing is not to win but to take part, the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle”
Below is my last edition of my moments in the mountains with NAZ Elite:
WEEK 4 (cont.)
Thursday morning was to be my last Bagel Run with both NAZ Elite and the rest of the Flagstaff community of runners – not forever, but rather indefinitely. As usual, it was filled with different faces than the previous week, making it a wildly different run than the last.
Some of the more familiar faces were still there, however – local marathon stud turned ultra/trail runner Nick Arciniaga was once again present, having already completed many miles before the run, only to continue for several more afterwards as well; the usual NAZ Elite crew, featuring a prepped and primed Scott Fauble, who was getting in a shorter jog before his flight to Iowa for the Bix7 Mile race; the usual collection of collegians, many of whom had become friends over the past several weeks; and a new face (at least for me) in Thomas Rivers Puzey, another local marathoner often seen trodding along with Nick and the rest of the Flagstaff ultra crew, which I would later found out operate under the banner of the “Coconino Cowboys.”
Rivers was a new but exciting face – much like many of the Flagstaff folks, I had followed him on various social media networks for several years, as his long and idyllic running posts that were laden with sweeping descriptions of the natural world and aided by quotes from many of the late yet great literary figures of both the new and old world captured the literary side of my running obsession. And, much like everyone else, he was friendly and open to the many runners surrounding him that morning. Like Nick, though, he was already fatigued by the time he showed up – much of the ultra crowd does the majority of their 120+ mile weeks in singles, and accumulate their miles on a multitude of surfaces, paces, and crowds.
Through paces that were a bit quicker than my liking, I tagged along with him, Nick, Matt Llano, and several others for my last 10 miles of carefree group running, and learned a bit more about the dynamic of many of the athletes in Flagstaff. Everyone was familiar with each other, despite the vast differences in sponsors, race focuses in backgrounds – again, it was evident the equalizer effect of the Flagstaff running community was present year round, and not just in the summer. The camaraderie was palpable, as was the familiarity that they all displayed with one another.
Though Scott Fauble had already departed upon my return back to Biff’s Bagels, he left an energy of excitement that I found myself unable to shake. As I had discussed in the previous entry, his hardlined focus on his upcoming race was already beginning to show itself, and the same could be said on the Thursday before his departure. Though his demeanor was relaxed, it was still readily apparent that he was a man on a mission this week, with a singular focus on mind: another podium finish at a US Championship, another chance to duke it out with the best, and another chance to test his stones before his approaching debut marathon.
FRIDAY- workout 1
My last Friday in Flagstaff featured my longest, yet most exciting morning yet – I was able to get the full coaching experience by frequenting three workouts in three separate locations with five different athletes, plus several others who came and went.
Part of the coaching experience thus far had been centered around a singular group with athletes that were on relatively the same page – yet, in many situations, this is rarely the case. So, because of this, Ben gave me the opportunity to frequent all three, in an effort to not only check up on each athlete, but to see the variations in training regimens and schedules for each runner. The thought of watching workouts for nearly five hours was yet another moment in time where I had to remind myself that I was, in fact, “working.”
At 6AM, I joined Matt Llano and Rivers in the same neighborhood that the rest of the marathon men and I had frequented just two weeks before, and Matt was now doing the very same workout. Accompanied by Rivers, Matt would not be all alone – he would have the ultra guru by his side and the young learner watching from the start line.
Once more, this workout was not meant to be super taxing, as Matt was to use it accordingly before another sharp build in mileage and workout difficulty. Truthfully, Matt’s conditions could not have been any better – it was a cool 60 degrees with a constant drizzle that made for ideal running conditions. This no doubt affected the ease at which he was able to complete the session.
Once again, I witnessed a marathon pro click off 51-second 300m intervals with ease, and showing next to no signs of fatigue or discomfort. A smooth and efficient runner, particularly at the marathon distance, Matt kept ideal form and motion for every repeat. Oftentimes, I try my hardest to look for the slightest inkling of fatigue in order to tell when an athlete is truly wearing down; that day I found none. Those workouts are to come, though – but I would not be present for them.
Luckily for me, though, the observation and facilitation was far from over – I then made my way over to the local middle school to watch Stephanie Bruce and Kellyn Taylor complete an even easier session of 10 x 20 seconds hard, another speed-oriented staple of NAZ’s training that is designed for one thing: to get the athletes moving, focusing on form and fluidity in motion throughout the session. The women were still in the early stages of their buildup, so progression towards more taxing workouts would take time – but it would come nonetheless.
If anything, it was a time to visit and become more acquainted with some of the members of the team that were still foreign to me. Though I had several interactions with both Stephanie and Kellyn, I had not been able to observe much of the dynamic of their side of the team due to conflicts in scheduling and their own separate buildup from the men – something Stephanie herself had vocalized to Ben. We all agreed that I should observe them too.
Upon my arrival, I was placed in charge of camera duty for Steph, as she is perhaps the most experienced social media aficionado of the team (she boasts nearly 68k followers on Instagram alone). In this day and age in sport, facilitation of social media has become perhaps one of the most important factors of any athlete’s brand and ability to attract sponsors, so I took my job seriously and played photographer for the duration.
Throughout the session, I was reminded of Ben’s philosophy for sessions such as this that acted as more structured strides: to look and feel efficient when moving quickly, something that marathoners many times become unfamiliar with. Perhaps that is part of why many of the marathoners of NAZ Elite boast such diverse resumes and PR’s – they focus on aspects of training often neglected in a traditional buildup that places a heavy emphasis on miles, miles, miles, and less on the aspects that create a more well-rounded runner such as comfort with mile-paced efforts, explosive and athletic movements, and races throughout the cycle that keep the athlete engaged and familiar with shorter distances against a different crop of competitors.
As expected, the session was successful, and as the women (and Ben Bruce) headed out for the remainder of their morning effort, I made my way over to Lake Mary Road where Aaron Braun was engaging in by far the most difficult session of the morning: an 18-mile workout with a total of 8 miles at steady-state effort (5:15 per mile); four miles steady state at the beginning, followed by 10 miles at 6:00 pace, and concluded with another four miles at steady-state pace.
This was one of the workouts that I was hoping to witness – one of the truly fearsome marathon-specific sessions that usually make it into the videos, tweets, and pictures of both coach and athlete. Sometimes another local elite will ask to join a session of the athletes – this was not one of those sessions. Brauny would have to endure this pain alone, but these were the grueling sessions that make for both physically and mentally fit athletes come race day.
Truth be told, I missed most of the show – my time spent at the two previous workouts overlapped with much of his session. However, I did get to see the final three miles of Brauny’s workout – “the most important miles” as Ben would later explain.
“Everything before those final miles are essentially a warmup. He can do four miles at 5:15, just as he can do 10 miles at 6:00 afterwards. We do this workout for the last four miles – that’s where it get’s tough.”
This lined up with much of the previously outlined philosophies of Ben’s marathon training: the athletes must endure fatigue, and then practice pushing through this fatigue at high-intensities in order to prepare themselves for the eventual “wall” in the marathon. Ben is confident in this approach, and it has shown in their previous marathons – now they simply needed to continue this trend in the debut of Fauble and the PR-hunts for the rest.
Upon the conclusion of his segment, Brauny’s assessment of the workout lined up with Ben’s hopes: the first four miles were uptempo, but not overly taxing; the ten miles were more boring than anything else; and the last four miles were difficult, but doable. Mission accomplished, and it was accomplished well. Now all eyes turned towards Fauble in his race the next morning.
In all honesty, I missed the live stream of the race – my own oversight had caused me to sleep in an hour too late to watch the massive success that was the Bix7 for Fauble. However, I awoke to a storm of positive tweets from NAZ Elite athletes, the team account, and retweets from others, each exclaiming the good news in their own words: Fauble had secured yet another runner-up finish at a national championship, rolling with the punches and making moves of his own to secure another stellar finish against an impressive field.
It’s easy to say that I wasn’t surprised by this – even with my somewhat limited experience, it was easy to tell that something special was in the works for the young gun and relative rookie of the squad. There was a level of intentness visible in each workout and session that hinted towards something great on the horizon, in ways that aren’t entirely explainable. There was a quiet air of excitement at the potential promised in Fauble by both Ben and myself, as we had discussed several times prior in my month in Flagstaff. His focus, coupled with the experience and camaraderie found in his teammates, hinted at immense success for the entire team down the road, as greatness often facilitates further greatness in teams of any caliber. Fauble is simply a piece of this, as is everyone else; each are contributers to the success that defines them and that feeds greater success – already the team was 2 for 2 in build up races, and Fauble represented a third point of success for the athletes to race after him. With each subsequent race, the athletes become more confident in not only their training, but themselves as well.
The energy is palpable nearly all the time, and even now, as I type this final entry in my home in Springfield, Missouri, I still feel that energy from afar. This team is chasing down greatness at the highest levels, and each will have their own taste of victory and success in the coming weeks and months as they prepare for their ultimate focus in Chicago, Frankfurt, and elsewhere.
Such was the final workout of my final week in Flagstaff, the dreamscape mountain town that played host to my many adventures and experiences that have shaped me into a runner, learner, and teacher reborn, thanks to the kindness, generosity, and inclusion of many. The experience that I have partaken in was designed to enable and educate the next generation of coaches and contributors to our beloved sport, and I have been incredibly fortunate to learn and interact with my heroes, idols, and now friends.
Sure, I learned about physiology, workouts, and running science, but I view that as a secondary benefit to the true lessons learned in my time with NAZ Elite.
The lessons I view as most important have to do with the interaction and education to be found in athletics, and how to operate and win with people. Ben’s tutelage has shown me of the necessity of a coach to be a listener, teacher, and friend to the athletes around him/her; to be a colleague rather than a commander. I have been shown what a community approach to training can truly do for athletes of all caliber, and the necessity of those surrounding the athletes to support an environment that values inclusion, opportunity, and passion for the sport over simply beating others. In essense, I’ve learned that we should not lose sight of the ability of athletics to be a source of community and learning in our endeavor to compete and perform well. While competition has a place, we should not sacrifice culture, character, or community for a win-at-all-costs approach.
Perhaps most importantly,though, I learned that the many details in our sport, whether physiological, mental, mundane, and fundamental, can and should be shared. I was given access to every detail of a world-class team comprised of world-class individuals without restriction, and I am better for it. However, I’m not the only beneficiary in this exchange – I can say with certainty that NAZ Elite benefited from this exchange as well. By opening their doors to the outside world and accepting interns like Veronica and myself, they’ve directly impacted the future of the sport for the better. They’ve inspired others both directly and indirectly, and showed that even the highest levels of athletics can be transparent and accessible to the general public. These lessons were taught to be and exhibited nearly every day by Ben Rosario and other coaches like him, from the collegiate coaches I met to the private coaches that helped recreational and semi-professional runners alike.
I can only hope to carry and share these lessons with others, much like they have been shared with me during this internship.
Hopefully this blog has supported the same transparency and education that NAZ Elite has shared with me. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you all for reading and allowing me to share this transformative journey in our transformative sport.