People flock to Flagstaff for any number of reasons, most having to do with this mountain town’s many charms, too boosterish to detail here.
Matt Fitzgerald, however, was one of a particular subset of visitors: runners who come to train in the rare air, in search of enhancing their fitness for later success at sea level. We watch these physical specimens blur past on Lake Mary Road, follow their contrails of dust on the trails, see them shopping for way too healthy foods at the grocery store.
No, check that: Fitzgerald was not another elite professional runner. His motivation for spending 13 weeks in Flagstaff in the summer and early fall of 2017 as a self-described "fake pro runner" was more unusual.
A good, but certainly never pro-caliber runner even in his prime, and a celebrated endurance sports journalist who has authored best-selling books, Fitzgerald embedded with the NAZ Elite training group in hopes of turning back the clock and running a sub-2:40:00 marathon at age 46.
It was something of an experiment. Could a talented master’s runner, given the vast resources of pro coaching and training with elite women and men two decades younger, repel the ravages of time and run better than ever, chasing that elusive PR?
It is an interesting premise and one Fitzgerald explores in his book detailing his 13 weeks in Flagstaff, “Running the Dream: One Summer Living, Training and Racing with a Team of World-Class Runners Half My Age.”
The book is not only a fascinating tale of an everyman among the elites, told with earnestness, self-deprecation and a touch of sarcasm, but it also provides an insider’s glimpse into the inner workings and group dynamics of pro running group on the verge of breakthrough success. And, along the way, Fitzgerald paints a flattering portrait of Flagstaff itself, as a community that values its many trails and outdoors amenities and has a quirky small-town charm replete with restaurants Fitzgerald and his wife Nataki sampled with gusto.
Pretty much all the constellation of NAZ Elite marathon stars are featured — Scott Fauble, Stephanie and Ben Bruce, Kellyn Taylor, Scott Smith — though 2020 Olympic Trials champion Aliphine Tuliamuk had yet to join the group. Fitzgerald rented a room from veteran marathoner Matt Llano and rubs shoulders with other local elites, such as Aaron Braun and Sarah Crouch. Most prominent in the narrative is Ben Rosario, coach and founder of the group, who fashions Fitzgerald’s training in preparation for the 2017 Chicago Marathon.
Also of interest are the satellites orbiting the NAZ Elite planet, such as the Gregg brothers, chiropractors and performance specialists at HYPO2 Sports, a passel of sports psychologists, nutritionists and massage therapists, as well as a stable of local runners, such as Eric (“Big Dog”) Fernandez, James McKirdy, and Bob Tusso, all enlisted to aid in Fitzgerald’s training.
Drama and dedication
But “Running the Dream” is more than just a litany of name-checks and a recitation of one runner’s training log. Fitzgerald spins a seductive narrative story arc, part confessional and part reportorial, that calls to mind the best of participatory journalism. Somewhere, George Plimpton is nodding with admiration.
In his quest to break 2:40 in Chicago — no worries, we will not provide any spoilers — Fitzgerald faced several obstacles, most notably serious groin injuries midway through training, but also his mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and Arizona elite runner David Torrance, a Flagstaff favorite, suffered a tragic death in Phoenix that rocked the group. These ups and downs, not to mention the daily struggle to hit time goals in training, keep a tension front and center as Fitzgerald counts down the days to his race.
Though there certainly is wonky runner-speak peppered throughout the book — time splits, depletion runs, drills and more drills — Fitzgerald does not forget that he is writing for an audience not just of hard-core runners but those who run but still want to read a gripping yarn. So he tries, throughout, to make his quest relatable and humbling, such as his hilarious takes on adapting early on to Flagstaff’s 7,000-foot elevation, in which his “esophagus (is) raked raw.”
His first workout is described thus: “All of a sudden I felt as though I were breathing through a straw. A blind panic seized me, the kind of whole-body freak-out you experience when an improperly chewed morsel lodges in your throat and you know you’re going to die.”
But Fitzgerald adapted remarkably quickly. What may surprise the reader even more is how this established group readily accepts Fitzgerald’s presence. Even though Fitzgerald is a respected running journalist, professional running groups are notorious for their secretiveness — though Rosario has tried to embrace a culture of openness and social media savviness.
In fact, Fitzgerald said he and Rosario are teaming to pen something of a sequel, with the working title “Run Like a Pro (Even If You’re Slow),” which will give more hands-on, nuts-and-bolt training tips for nonelite runners inspired by the original story but wanting to know specifically what workouts and crosstraining regimens to employ.
We contacted Fitzgerald at his northern California home after the early May publication of “Running the Dream” to talk about the book and his time in Flagstaff. The following is an edited transcript of the interview:
Question: You have mentioned that Flagstaff can almost be considered a “character” in the book. How so?
Answer: Some books just have a strong sense of place, and that’s part of what can make a book enjoyable. During the summer I was in Flagstaff, I fell in love with Flagstaff. Many runners do, but it has plenty to recommend it even if you’re not a runner. My appreciation and the lifestyle I was leading there filtered into the book in a very natural way. I would’ve have had to try not to convey those things into the book. Flagstaff had a presence throughout the narrative in much the same way as the people I was surrounded by did.
Q: Why did you choose Ben Rosario and NAZ Elite to train with, when there are other highly successful groups, such as those run by Jerry Schumacher (Bowerman Track Club, Oregon) or the Hanson brothers (Hanson Distance Project, Michigan) from which to choose?
A: I thought I had the best chance of getting a "yes" from Ben Rosario. But it wasn’t just that. It was what was behind the "yes." Based on what I knew about Ben’s approach and the team’s position in the sport, I thought that Ben would get it. He would embrace what I was trying to accomplish. And I was right. There were other options out there and had B and C choices, if you will, but I got a quick "yes."
Q: Was part of your motivation to join NAZ Elite not just to get a PR but to tell about what goes on in a pro training group?
A: It’s one thing for a professional athlete to tell you stories from inside the locker room. But let’s face it, if you’re a nonelite athlete, you can’t relate to the genetic lottery winners. I felt if I did my job right, that I could connect with runners in a different kind of way where they could see themselves in me.
Q: You call yourself an “average Joe” runner, but for someone pushing 50 now, you are pretty darn good. Not everyone has the ability to train even on the slowest days with pro runners. Was your intention to show readers they can train like the pros, if not with the pros?
A: There’s a natural human tendency, not just in running but in all human pursuits, to invest yourself in whatever pursuit only as far as your talent justifies it. It’s a mentality we don’t even question, like, ‘I’m not good enough to take this any further.’ I’m someone who, yes, is an above average runner, but my passion for running has always far outstripped my talent. It’s just a choice I’ve made. I’ve invested more in my running than most people of my ability. And I’ve felt rewarded by it.
Q: You’re a running coach as well as a journalist and have written books on nutrition, too. But you write about learning to eat even healthier while living with the other Matt (Llano). It seems you learned a lot of new stuff.
A: In a way, this experience was humbling. When I left California for Flagstaff, I felt I was already doing everything I felt I knew to do to get fit and race well. And yet, I improved dramatically (in Flagstaff). It made me realize I didn’t know everything or, more than that, I was cutting corners and slacking in ways I really didn’t admit to myself. The diet was one thing. Living under the same roof with someone (Llano) who didn’t make a false move with his diet, I thought I’m going to raise my game. I was a skinny dude when I showed up there, but I still lost nine pounds.
Q: What have you retained in your running regimen in the almost three years since you trained in Flagstaff?
A: Mainly, a no-stone-unturned mentality. I wasn’t able to take 7,000 feet of altitude home with me, I couldn’t take my teammates home with me, but that mentality I could take home and see how it adapted to the constraints of my environment. I knew the worst mistake I could make was to try to keep it going. I knew this was a special moment, I needed to soak it up and relish it and then move on.
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