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High Country Running: Flagstaff's oldest race turns 40!

High Country Running: Flagstaff's oldest race turns 40!

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With the popularity of running in Flagstaff, I would argue we have more footraces per capita than just about any place in the world.

While only a handful of these races tend to last more than a few years, the beloved Dave McKay Memorial Half Marathon and 5K is about to embark on its 40th edition. The race on Aug. 12 is, as always, hosted by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Flagstaff, which is celebrating its 50th year.

What makes Arizona’s second-oldest half marathon so special? A little-known secret is the continuity of dedicated board members who hold the race’s great history close to their hearts. The granddaddy of all Flagstaff footraces is a testament to this dedication.

Half a dozen people have been running or helping organize the race for three decades or more. Dr. Bill Gaylord, Sheriff Jim Driscoll, Dr. Rich Haag, Brian Beamer, Dave Klensin, former Police Chief Pat Madden, and Bill Shaler are the stalwarts who have devoted so much of their lives to supporting the organization’s mission to match children with appropriate adult mentors.

I always thought of myself as the newcomer to the group when I started directing the race 15 years ago. Like any member of the Saturday Night Live Five-Timers Club (, I am proud to join the BBBSF Half 30-Year Club, by far my favorite Flagstaff race when I first ran it in 1987.

The race is the brainchild of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Flagstaff founding father Dave McKay, who sought to use the late-1970s running boom to raise agency funds. Its first edition, in 1978, included a full marathon. Just ask Nat White and former Police Chief Madden about that brutal course!

Despite a change in venue to Observatory Mesa in 2002, not much has changed in 40 years. There are now upwards of 500 participants, rather than the 30 or so who ran the inaugural race. Run Flagstaff also tracks runners with electronic chip timing. A pre-race carbo-load dinner is still offered, now donated by Fratelli Pizza, giving everyone a chance to socialize, rub elbows, and get tips from elites, local Olympians, and volunteers who know the course best.

Aid station volunteers entice you to stop and party with them in the middle of the forest, while taking in the majestic views (Tip: if you are after a personal best, then you may want to avoid this tantalizing trap!).

In a bit of synchronicity, while living on the other side of the country, I ran my first half in 1978, the Westchester, N.Y., Half Marathon. Just 13, I was my town’s youngest participant. The events of that day resurfaced in an old article that recently made its way onto my Facebook page. Pals Steve Rhode and David McKee dubbed this incident from nearly four decades ago “The Great Tretter Mystery,” reopening this very “cold case.” (If you want a laugh, I’ve archived the post on

Sadly, last year Big Brothers Big Sisters of Flagstaff lost our founding mother, Kay McKay. To honor her memory, as well as her late husband Dave’s, the race’s 40th anniversary will offer all half marathoners (including walkers!) beautiful medals upon finishing. Additionally, a throwback shirt design from the race’s earliest T-shirt design will be featured!

So, as we say on every Saturday on our Northern Arizona Trail Runners Association group outings, whether you walk, hike, “yog,” jog, or run, this is an event not to be missed! Please register at today!

Neil Weintraub voluntarily co-chairs the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Flagstaff Half Marathon along with Sheriff Jim Driscoll. Neil is also a big brother to his little RJ in the Williams Elementary School-based mentoring program. Neil wishes to thank all the sponsors, volunteers and especially the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Flagstaff Board for their dedication in supporting this race that helps children succeed across Northern Arizona.

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


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