This morning, 200 runners gather at the Flagstaff Nordic Center for the annual Soulstice Mountain Trail Race. They come from Flagstaff and several states every year to challenge themselves by running the highest elevation race in Arizona.
But what has become a Flagstaff tradition almost didn't happen today. Since 2001, Soulstice, put on by the Northern Arizona Trail Runner's Association, has taken place at Sunset Trail head on the San Francisco Peaks. Every year, the U.S. Forest Service has approved a special use permit for the event, capping the race at 200 runners.
This year, the agency approved the permit but a few days later suspended it. The reason? A Federal District Court judge ruled in favor of several environmental groups who argued the Forest Service must allow public comment on such events as weddings and races. Such activities have historically been allowed to happen without public comment because the impact on the land is minimal.
"It's not the Forest Service's fault at all," said race organizer Neil Weintraub. "This is a much bigger issue and it's not a local thing. They're (Forest Service) just following what they've been told to do."
Wendell Johnson, owner and manager of the Flagstaff Nordic Center, immediately offered his facility for the race. So, early Monday morning Weintraub and Johnson took a peak at what would be the 10-mile long course and the 6-mile short course.
It couldn't have worked out better. Johnson had just hosted a duathlon and the short and long mountain bike courses proved perfect for today's race.
"The runners are going to be really challenged," said Weintraub. "And there's more fall in the air."
The single track trail for both courses winds through pine trees, cutting through massive aspen grove stands. Runners will race under a canopy of golden leaves, reaching elevations well over 8,000 feet. Those elevations are similar to the old course.
Many local runners were heartbroken when they heard Soulstice would be moved. But most are happy it's still taking place.
Nancy Riggs, an avid runner and a geology professor at NAU, said she's running today's race regardless of location.
"The Sunset Trail version is really hard and challenging and I have been training for it for quite some time." said Riggs. "So it's certainly a disappointment, but I'll go run at the Nordic Center instead. It'll be fun."
From the specially designed Soulstice poster to the handcrafted metal trophies, everything for this year's race was geared for the Sunset Trail course. But Weintraub said now the awards will feature a metal cut out of a runner implanted in an aspen tree.
"Of all the things that could have played out, this couldn't have turned out better," said Weintraub.
He plans to poll this year's race participants to find out if they want to keep the race at the Flagstaff Nordic Center or try and return the event to its original home. Regardless, Weintraub says wherever the event takes place, it will still be a celebration of fall and good fun.
Soulstice Mountain Trail Race
When: Today, 8 a.m.
Where: Flagstaff Nordic Center
Long Course: 10-plus miles
Short Course: 6 miles
After the race: Enjoy beer, goodies and a raffle.
For more information, visit Northern Arizona Trail Runner's Association Web site at www.natra.org
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