You don’t necessarily need to read a book to recognize the running-centric nature of Flagstaff. Just step outside, on the roads or trails, and it becomes self-evident in the purposeful striding (elites) and dogged loping (the rest of us) of the masses going all hypoxic in the rare air.
But to grasp the full extent of Flagstaff's long-running affinity for running, you must pick up a copy of the new book, To Imogene, a Flagstaff Love Letter, edited by Miles Schrag and Julie Hammonds.
Though hitting the finish-line tape at just over 200 pages, it is an exhaustive and entertaining chronicle of the hundreds of Flagstaffians who, like a migratory horde whose path is written into its DNA, descend upon western Colorado each summer to participant in the Imogene Pass Run, a 17.1-mile sufferfest that for decades has captivated runners in our fair mountain town.
You may wonder why, with the multifarious trail races from which to choose in the Southwest and beyond, runners here make a trip to Telluride and Ouray, Colorado, to slog uphill to the heights of 13,114 feet, then careen down in a tumble of razor-sharp rocks. To Imogene answers that question not so much with a definitive reason — though Schrag, in his introduction, draws parallels between the two outposts on the Colorado Plateau — but via anecdote and reminiscence, tales both poignant and funny.
To Imogene is a pastiche assembled by a vast stable of runners-turned-writers in a delightful melding of genres ranging from straight-forward essays, to poetry, to email exchanges, to a Mad Libs homage. There is cohesion in this disparate narrative, thanks to Schrag and Hammonds’ deft sorting into chapters extending the romantic metaphor, such as “You Had Me at Hello” (Flagstaff’s early Imogene adopters) and “I Just Can’t Quit You” (veterans who return every year).
Because the book is an omnibus, and because it could qualify as a coffee-table tome with slick pages and full color photos from races past and evocative watercolors by Linda Sherman, it seems meant for dipping in and out of, reading snippets and then returning later for another round. Read in one-sitting, though, you might be overtaken by an uncontrollable will to log onto Imogene’s website on that June 1 sign-up day and add to the Flagstaff contingent.
The book’s audience is, understandably, Flagstaff’s large running community, but To Imogene may appeal to locals to whom just thinking about running is tiring enough. That’s because the personality of the town shines through — the passion for the outdoors, the almost spiritual relationship with the mountains, the camaraderie fueled by endorphins and IPAs.
Will To Imogene play in Peoria (Arizona or Illinois)?
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Probably not. But that’s fine. Flagstaff wears its quirkiness and insularity like a shiny post-race medal.
What stays with the reader are the jarring juxtapositions. You have essays by elite runners, such as Kate McGee, whose account, “Running Wild,” details her bid to win the 2017 race, next to humorous and touching travails by back-of-the-packers, most notably Melody Delmar’s fraught yarn, “I Did IPR in Checkered Vans.” Both pieces, in their ways, celebrate both will and endurance with an abiding joy in simply making the effort. (Spoiler alert: Both women ended up achieving their goals.)
You also are treated to Sheri Young’s poem, whose title is too bawdy to print here, that’s serves as a “frenemy” letter to the race. Her final two redemptive lines invoke the spirit of the endeavor: “They said I would crush it — not quite, but it did not crush me/ I kept moving.”
Stories such as those read like breezy, finely honed narratives to be recounted around the post-race bar in Telluride. And that’s fine. Few attempt a chin-pulling sociological deconstruction of the inner motives and group dynamics of hundreds of people from the same town partaking in ritualized behavior. It would spoil the celebratory vibe emanating off the glossy pages.
Occasionally, though, contributors self-reflect. Carrie Butler’s essay, “We All Need a Ctrl-Alt-Delete on Life,” is the best example. She writes: “You quickly discover the common denominator that binds us — a communal health and vibrancy gained by living, breathing, and running in Flagstaff. … For so many of us, the run lets us shake out stresses and center ourselves again.”
Yet, there is a competitive aspect afoot. Not necessarily a yearning to win the race — though several locals have ascended to the podium — but to be the municipality with the most entrants. How that goal came into being is detailed in Susie Garretson’s bluntly tiled piece, “Flagstaff Should Be First!”
Garretson recounts that, after participating in the 1995 race and learning that Flagstaff had the third-highest number of entrants behind Denver and Boulder, she made it a mission to recruit more locals. The race director gave her 200 applications, and she posted them in her business, the Flagstaff Athletic Club. Two years later, Flagstaff was, indeed, Number 1.
But, as To Imogene details with such thoroughness, it’s the journey, not the results, that matters most.