Track and distance runners trained in Flagstaff preparing for the high-altitude 1968 Mexico Olympics. Shortly after, our local amateur running community began to evolve, one runner at a time.
Many of the first local runners were faculty at Northern Arizona University. The George Kyte Classic Invitational Cross Country meet that attracts college runners from across the state is named in honor of a professor of history. Math professor Bob Packard won many masters events around the country, setting records along the way. There were only a few of us off-campus street and trail runners, and no running clubs -- until the Sisu Striders.
Scott Baxter organized Flagstaff’s first running club, the Sisu Striders, circa 1974. In this loosely connected group, membership was defined by a common interest in running plus a white, cotton T-shirt with the Finnish word “sisu” (endurance) in blue on the front and the Finnish flag on the back. Lasse Viren, the famous Finnish distance runner and winner of four gold medals in the 1972 and '76 Olympics, inspired the name.
Scott, a noted Arizona climber, operated a small store from a house just north of the Northern Arizona campus, on Beaver Street. Called the Alpineer, it specialized in climbing equipment. Although not focused on running gear, it was the first Flagstaff store to support a running club.
The club existed for only a few years, but it sponsored one notable race that is still etched in my mind: the Schnebly Hill Climb. The route followed the dirt road east of Sedona to the edge of the Mogollon Rim. It is an 11-mile, round-trip run including a 1,300-foot climb, great views and an exhausting effort.
This next story will give you insight into the informality of “organized” races in the early 1970s. Scott, even as race organizer, ran the first Schnebly Hill Climb, and we had quite a duel for first place. There might have been 10 or 20 runners -- which was an unusual sight back then, especially in Sedona.
Well, Scott decided not to run the race the next year so he could devote his energy to managing the event. But we runners can relate to that adrenalin rush before a race starts. It overcame Scott, and at the last minute he gave someone else the starting gun. In an instant, he dropped his Levis to run the race in his boxer shorts, finishing second overall. It didn’t even draw attention from the five spectators and 25 runners.
There’s much more to tell about the early years of the Flagstaff running community. My point here is that the Sisu Striders and the running clubs that followed have catalyzed a growing running community. These clubs, past and present, have put Flagstaff on the map as a runner’s paradise. More importantly, these clubs have introduced and encouraged runners of all ages and abilities to join in the social and healthy outdoor activity that is so good for all of us.