Running has been my compass for navigating life and providing direction for the many paths that I have taken. Although I haven’t always been entirely certain about why the arrow was pointing me in a particular direction, I have trusted my instincts and followed it all the same.

I guess I’d consider my decision to move to Flagstaff in the spring of 2014 to be experimental at best. I was at a crossroads. My professional running contract with Adidas-Rogue Athletic Club had not been renewed, but I was reasonably happy with the way everything else was going with my life in Austin, Texas.

“Maybe I should just take this as a sign and give it up now,” I thought.

While this might have been the more logical, sensible and secure thing to do, anyone who really knows me understands why I ended up in Flagstaff.

The mountains were calling, so I decided to go.

I came to Flagstaff with stars in my eyes, like a budding Nashville musician who packs everything he owns into a car fueled on hopes and dreams. I’d been told that Flagstaff was the place to be for a competitive distance runner in training.

But what exactly was I pursuing? What was my purpose in being here?

A coveted spot on the starting line of the 3000-meter steeplechase final at the Olympic Trials? A fat contract with a major shoe company so that I could finally feel like I had “made it” as a runner?

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As it turned out, what I was truly seeking all along was revealed to me at a place called “Coco.”

My three-year stint of working and coaching at Coconino High School has been filled with growth, meaning, fulfillment and joy. As the cross country and track coach, I witnessed the power of sport as a unifying force, bringing together a diverse group of students and their families in the pursuit of a common goal.

Through my work as a Transition Mentor with the CHS Transition from School to Work Program, my eyes were opened to the unique challenges our youth with special needs face on a daily basis. These coaching and mentoring experiences have been my constant source of motivation and inspiration to remind me that we can always make more of an effort to promote a culture of engagement, participation, inclusion and acceptance in our community.

While I will sincerely miss my Coco family, I find comfort in knowing that the relationships and memories will stay with me for rest of my life. To the students, families, staff and administration at Coconino High School: Thank you for being my True North.

Andrew Benford served as the head cross country and track coach at Coconino High School from 2014 to 2017, where he coached his girls cross country team to a runner-up finish at the 2016 Division III state cross country championship. As a member of Team Run Flagstaff Pro in 2015, he finished runner-up at the Chuckanut 50K and Imogene Pass Run, and represented the U.S. at the World Mountain Running Championship. Andrew will be moving to Phoenix this month to pursue an Occupational Therapy doctoral degree at Northern Arizona University’s Phoenix Biomedical Campus.

Myles Schrag is coordinating editor for High Country Running. He invites submissions on any aspect of the local running scene, as well as submissions for the “To Imogene: A Flagstaff Love Letter” book project. He can be reached at myles.schrag@adinapublishing.com. This is the fourth in a summer series written by elite runners who are bidding farewell to Flagstaff.

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