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Standing on the San Francisco Peaks and looking west sparks a special feeling. A landscape marked by dramatic beauty, the largest ponderosa pine forest in the world blankets an ancient volcanic field that extends out into the horizon, often finding its way to auburn sunsets just waiting to be soaked up.

It’s a feeling of love for the outdoors that, for many, began when they were kids, and one that makes the Kahtoola Uphill a truly local and memorable Flagstaff event.

When it started in 2007, the idea for the Kahtoola Uphill was simple: climb a mountain, encourage human-powered movement and have some fun. What began with 25 people (mostly friends of Kahtoola) has transformed into a community celebration with three courses and roughly 300 participants.

In those first few years, as the race found its legs, it also became a fundraiser. Kahtoola, a company dedicated to enriching people’s lives through outdoor experiences, partnered with local nonprofit Friends of Camp Colton in support of Camp Colton, a local youth environmental education program nestled beneath the San Francisco Peaks.

It was a natural fit. Danny Giovale, Kahtoola founder and owner, as well as Hilary Childs, Kahtoola marketing and Uphill race director, both Flagstaff natives, attended Camp Colton as kids and walked away with an early appreciation and respect for the outdoors.

“What I love about Camp Colton is the character-building experience it provides. Being away from home and immersed in nature can be a transformative experience for kids at an early age,” Giovale says. “It made perfect sense for Kahtoola.”

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In the past decade, the Kahtoola Uphill has raised more than $200,000, with 100 percent of profits from each race supporting Friends of Camp Colton and a fellowship program that gives low-income students the opportunity to experience the camp. In 2017, funds aided the construction of two sustainable and handicap-accessible cabins.

Helping kids learn to value and connect with the natural world is a cornerstone of the event. Those early experiences can root a sense of childhood wonder that is hard to outgrow. It might also explain why costumes are such a big part of the Kahtoola Uphill.

Camp Colton and Ga-Ga Ball might be reserved just for kids, but the outdoors and costumes are two things that never are. Tutus, silly hats, wigs, onesies, an imitation Rob Krar and beyond — it all comes out when the uphill community gathers on the mountain with a familiar energy that is all-at-once wonderful and weird.

The Kahtoola Uphill is a celebration. A celebration of good mountain fun, community, the incredible cause it supports and those early days that made us love the outdoors. You can feel it just by standing at the starting line.

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Andrew Wisniewski is the communications associate for Kahtoola. He’s a Flagstaff native, aspiring ultrarunner, journalist and former Ga-Ga Ball champ whose love for the outdoors was also shaped by his experience at Camp Colton as a kid.

Do you have a column, tip or idea for High Country Running? Run it over to coordinating editor Julie Hammonds at runner@juliehammonds.com, or tweet her @highcountry_run.

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