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High Country Running: The 20th Soulstice Mountain Trail Run abides

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As we prepare for Flagstaff’s beloved Soulstice Mountain Trail Run on Oct. 12, I’ve been recalling the race’s many twists and turns over its long history. Despite multiple trail reroutes, a lawsuit that temporarily forced a change of venue, necessary forest-road improvements to help log the overgrown forest and most recently, the Museum Fire, Soulstice abides.

The original 11.5-mile “long” course followed Upper Brookbank Trail to Lower Brookbank and then across Dry Lake Hills before following Little Gnarly to the finish line. This was the route of the first five races, which were held in 1997 and from 2001 to 2004. In 2002, we added the 6.5-mile “short” course to attract more runners.

About three weeks before Soulstice in 2005, I was notified that a lawsuit in California against the United States Forest Service meant my permit for the race would be suspended. (See the Arizona Daily Sun article from Oct. 11, 2005, for details.) I was heartbroken. Soulstice was already selling out, and it would have been a huge loss for our fundraising efforts on behalf of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Flagstaff. Wendell Johnson saved the day by welcoming runners to the Flagstaff Nordic Center’s trail system.

With the indoor facilities and power at the Nordic Center, I seriously considered making this Soulstice’s new home. Runners, however, insisted the race return the following year to the Sunset courses.

The following year, Forest Service officials notified me that the traditional course had to be altered to avoid privately held land in Dry Lake Hills. We redesigned the course to follow the Dry Lake Hills “cutoff,” the steep, ankle-twisting but scenic drop that led runners to Dry Lake Tank, right before the big downhill of Little Gnarly.

While the course essentially remained the same between 2006 and last year, several trail realignments helped speed up times by creating gentle switchbacks that replaced poorly eroding vertical climbs.

Three years ago, when engineering crews made road improvements for logging operations, the rugged Little Gnarly downhill became known as the Little Smoothie Speedway. The one section that remained true to form was the infamous uphill on the last quarter-mile before the finish line -- which can break even the most seasoned trail runner.

Earlier this year, due to trail closures as a result of helicopter logging, I redesigned the course to go up Sunset Trail and return via the long switchbacks of Little Bear. Runners seemed nervously excited to take on the new half marathon and 8.1-mile courses — until the Museum Fire thwarted that plan and sent me back to the drawing board.

After laying out several alternatives, I came up with a course that I think will be as exciting and fun as ever. The big change is the short course, which will be a 7.5-mile loop starting on the Arizona Trail. Long course runners will find some pieces of the route to be familiar and some entirely new. The race is sold out again and I’ve encouraged all entrants to become familiar with the course in advance. That way, despite the latest changes, the 20th Soulstice Mountain Trail Run will put even more soul in everyone’s stride.

Neil Weintraub cofounded Northern Arizona Trail Runners Association in 2001 and has directed the Soulstice race since 2002. NATRA hosts free group runs every Saturday. Visit and click on “next run.”

Do you have a column, tip or idea for High Country Running? Send it to coordinating editor Julie Hammonds at


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