So Bruce wanted to run the Railroad Springs Loop in reverse. Shake things up, change of pace, new perspective -- that sort of thing. And since Neil wasn't there to overrule this bold idea, and since a head-shaking Sara seemed too nice to vocalize the possible drawbacks, Bruce won out.
The regular Saturday morning Northern Arizona Trail Runners Association (NATRA) group run, numbering an impressive 26 milling in the parking lot of the Thorpe Road Bark Park, let longtime member Bruce Higgins lead the way. Had Neil Weintraub, the co-founder of the group back in 2001, been in attendance, he undoubtedly would have pointed out that running Railroad Springs in reverse would result in a one-two punch of the rolling hills of the railroad grade with the challenging mile-long Tunnel Springs climb.
Going the other way -- that is, the normal way -- which is what Sara Wagner was thinking, would pretty much dispense with all the vertical in the first mile and a half climb up Mars Hill to Observatory Mesa. That would make the rest of the trek a (mostly) pleasant downhill ramble.
Much better, she figured, for the several newcomers there that day -- one of whom was me.
Regardless of route, runners still had to cover the same ground. And the 5.5-mile Railroad Springs run is one of NATRA's most popular, probably because of its close vicinity to downtown, its relatively short distance and the sun-dappled trails amidst the pines above the Lowell Observatory.
And there's a little history imparted, too, as Higgins halted the runners at the Old Town Spring and at Tunnel Spring to point out two of Flagstaff's first water sources.
The route starts at the dog park, runs along a broken asphalt trail parallel with Thorpe Road, crosses over West Mars Hill Road onto West Montvale Avenue and then to South Spring Street. That city street section, slightly over a half mile, leads to Old Town Spring Park and, after ducking under a fence, to the dirt path running along the railroad tracks.
From there, the rest was all trails. You forgot about the climbing once the train rumbled by. Runners in my group signaled for the horns and were rewarded with several blasts. We tried to race the train; the train won. The climbing began in earnest on the Tunnel Springs Trail, gaining 316 feet in a little more than a mile. Once reaching Observatory Mesa and the Mars Hill Trail, it was either flat or downhill the rest of the way through tall pines — a fun jaunt.
So how did the "backwards" experiment go?
Well, no one got lost. This was good because, the last time the NATRA throng ran Railroad Springs (the regular way), a runner took wrong turns and wound up on a 13-mile odyssey via Snow Bowl Road. That runner, who will remain unnamed to spare embarrassment, made all the turns this time, no problem.
"I bought him a cupcake at Wildflower last time to make up for it," Higgins said. "We really try hard not to lose anybody. But people do get turned around."
Also, no one complained much about the vertical suffering. As is customary in NATRA runs, people of all abilities participate, and the speedier folks up front often will wait at key junctions for those who employee the walk-run option, especially on hills.
Afterward, as the group reassembled at the Thorpe Bark Park, Wagner, a six-time winner of the Soulstice Mountain Trail Run, spoke up.
"This was very unusual today," she told the group. "Usually, NATRA runs are easy and mellow. Honest to God, they aren’t usually so hard."
Higgins, somewhat sheepishly: "It’s all my fault. Sorry. Somebody who usually knows what they are doing leads these runs. What happens is that all the hills were right there together."
Wagner: "It’d be rare to have even one big hill in a NATRA run. We like to make it welcoming to everyone."
Higgins: "Well, it depends. Some of our runs do have a few hills."
Point is, NATRA is inclusive. Flagstaff, of course, is home to some of the world's best runners, be it road, track or trail, but you don't have to be a Jim Walmsley or Stephanie Bruce to run with this group. Ask Laura Huenneke, 64, who lived (and ran) in town for 10 years before mustering the courage to join NATRA. Now, she's a regular.
"I was too intimidated because I was sure I'd be too slow," she said. "But both NATRA and Team Run Flagstaff are welcoming."
Welcoming, no matter which direction the group is led.