When Jeffrey Eggleston arrived in Flagstaff, all he brought with him were a couple pairs of running shoes, some résumés and a backpack.
Like many professional runners, Eggleston wanted the benefits of training at altitude and, specifically, a running-friendly atmosphere. He's one of about 15 to 20 athletes -- Aaron Braun and Mike Smith are two others -- who have found their way to Flagstaff, living here year-round while sustaining a career and training at 7,000 feet elevation.
But it's not an easy road. For athletes who come to Flagstaff -- including the dozens of part-time residents -- or other high-elevation spots like Boulder, Colo., Albuquerque, N.M., and Mammoth Lakes, Calif., it's a constant struggle to make ends meet. For those who don't have a sponsorship, it means competing on a near weekly basis for prize money while working a part-time job.
"The majority of emerging elite distance runners live beneath the poverty level," said Greg McMillan, the founder and coach of McMillan Elite, a collection of elite runners who live and train in Flagstaff.
"In fact, many who could potentially race for the U.S. in national competition ... those athletes live off of $500 to $1,000 a month that they make working part-time jobs. Most of them don't have health insurance. All of them are very well-educated and could easily enter the work force and go the normal path, but they choose to chase their dreams."
EGGLESTON: THE POST-COLLEGIATE GAMBLE
From down the road in Phoenix, to Duluth, Minn., to Pittsburgh, Eggleston has had to crisscross the country to earn a living.
"I was pretty much nomadic," Eggleston said. "I would go race-to-race. Wherever I could get into a race, I'd travel to it and try to get some money from it to support myself.
"It was a gamble sometimes. I wasn't making a ton of money at the time and was like, 'Can I afford this plane ticket?'"
After graduating as an unheralded runner at the University of Virginia, Eggleston, 26, didn't harbor Olympic aspirations until he spent time away from the sport. But after a promising 10th-place finish at the USA 20-kilometer championships a few months after college, Eggleston rekindled his love of running. He then did a brief stint with a professional team in Michigan before coming to Flagstaff in 2009, where he planned to work toward the marathon.
"There's no better place in the U.S. to train," Eggleston said. "We're all trying to achieve great things here."
Continuing a running career isn't a decision made lightly, and Eggleston believes it's only for those who can fully commit to it.
"All post-collegiates are at a crossroads of whether they're a really good runner or somebody who just loves running and wants it to be a part of their lives," he said.
Shortly after arriving in Flagstaff, Eggleston met Jack Daniels, who was then the director at the Center for High Altitude Training. Under Daniels' guidance, Eggleston developed into an elite runner and won several road races across the country throughout 2009 and '10 -- all while working part-time at the Flagstaff Public Library.
A job hasn't hindered Eggleston's training. He manages to run twice a day, before and after work, for a weekly total of around 150 miles. He also acts as his own agent and has brokered all of his sponsorship money.
For two years, Eggleston would typically run a race every other weekend. After continued success, he's able to slow down and be more selective with his racing schedule. He won the Pittsburgh Marathon in May -- which earned him $9,000 -- after being hired as the pace setter. In June, he ran a personal-best time -- and the fourth-best American time this year -- at Grandma's Marathon in Duluth.
Now, Eggleston will compete as part of the U.S. marathon squad in the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, in August.
Despite an uncertain couple of years, he wouldn't have done it any other way.
"I love the way I've worked my way up to get where I am," he said. "Hopefully in another year, maybe I'll be on an Olympic team."
BRAUN: RUNNING FOR BABY
Living at 7,500 feet in Alamosa, Colo., Aaron Braun, 24, didn't need to move anywhere to train. However, shortly after graduating from Adams State, a Division II college with a student body under 4,000 where he was a 16-time All-American, Braun was having a hard time finding sponsors to support himself.
That's when he reached out to Greg McMillan, whose McMillan Elite group finances its members through a sponsorship with Adidas.
McMillan created the team four years ago as a way to train American distance runners. After starting with two athletes, the group has blossomed over the years as it makes its way to next year's Olympics.
"My job is to provide opportunities to emerging elite athletes who wouldn't otherwise have it to stay in the sport and then try to develop them to the point where they are valuable enough to a brand," McMillan said. "Sometimes that's a short process, sometimes that's a very long process. It's just the nature of how people run."
Braun joined the team last fall with an entry-level sponsorship that has since grown into a more significant long-term contract. It was good timing for Braun, who was living off his savings, couldn't find a job and later found out that his fiancee was pregnant with their first child.
"There were times where I would worry about it and stress, but I basically had faith that I was going to make it," Braun said. "I was seeing the steps happen in workouts and a couple races, and I knew, with enough opportunities being provided, that I would make it sooner or later."
McMillan said there's nobody more motivated than Braun. Shortly after learning of Annika's pregnancy -- the two married in June -- Braun ran a third-place finish at the USATF 15k Championships thanks to his baby-to-be.
"It was really good motivation for me," Braun said. "You have to prove that you can provide for your family and there were times in that race where, had I not been thinking about it, I might have settled in and just been satisfied with being good. But for that race, (the baby) was a real motivating factor the last mile or two."
Not all of the athletes are as lucky as Braun. His move to a self-supporting contract was a relatively short process and about half of the McMillan athletes have earned them. The others still have entry-level contracts and work part-time.
It took Brett Gotcher two and a half years to gain full-time status, while Nicholas Arciniaga -- who owns the third-fastest U.S. marathon time this year in 2:11:30 -- was the fastest after earning his in seven months. Stephanie Rothstein is currently the lone woman on the team to have one, which she received in a year.
As for McMillan, he receives a stipend from Adidas and makes most of his living through his website, where he coaches runners across the country. He and his wife, Tracy, spent their life savings to start the team.
"I didn't do it to make money," McMillan said. "It was the right thing to do and the sport needed it. I've never seen it as my paying job, so any financial reward I've gotten from it has just been icing on the cake."
SMITH: BURROWING INTO FLAGSTAFF
When Mike Smith moved to Flagstaff to train for the 2008 Olympic Trials marathon, McMillan warned him not to have too many activities going at once.
Smith didn't listen. After an All-American career at Georgetown and a few years teaching 5th grade at an elementary school in Washington, D.C., Flagstaff was Smith's self-described "running vacation." He's on his fifth year.
"I've probably thought about leaving 10 different times, especially early on," Smith said. "I was always looking for jobs."
Since arriving in town, Smith, 31, has woven himself into nearly every facet of the running community while trying to maintain his Olympic dreams. He works as a waiter to help pay the bills and also served as Daniels' assistant at the Center for High Altitude Training.
"It was like Yoda," Smith said of sharing an office with Daniels. "He had 300 years of stories to tell. I did a lot of listening."
What started as a two-hour-per-week job eventually transformed into a more substantial role and transitioned into others. He became the director of the Olympic-sponsored community running group Team Altius, which is now a non-profit called Team Run Flagstaff after the center closed and the group lost its funding.
He considers his day job to be HYPO2 Sports Management, which organizes training sites for international teams and athletes in Flagstaff. He also coaches runners online through Daniels' Run S.M.A.R.T. Project.
Despite being pulled in every direction, Smith still finds time to run "100 miles and whatever I can squeeze in per week."
Although he was part of McMillan's original team, Smith said he never fully considered himself a professional runner. He is always connected to all things running in town, but his own personal achievements have not been his sole focus in several years.
Nonetheless, the 2012 Olympic Marathon, or the U.S. Trials at least, is still a goal. Even if he can't dedicate as much time to running and recovery as some other athletes, it won't stop Smith from trying.
In May, after finishing a Friday night shift at the Tinderbox Kitchen at 11:30 p.m., Smith got up at 3 a.m. and won the Prescott Whiskey Row Marathon in 2 hours, 37 minutes and 36 seconds. He then got back into his car and got back in time for his 3 p.m. shift at the restaurant.
"Some days you go in and you've run 20 miles, can't feel your legs, you're dehydrated and then you have someone like, 'Can you please top off my ice tea?'" Smith said. "It's a crazy way to try to make a living. You better love it otherwise, guess what, it's not going to be long."
Smith's tirelessness is the exception to the rule, however. At his age and work schedule, it's hard to imagine many elite runners doing the same.
"Most athletes know when their time has come," McMillan said. "You look at U.S. distance runners, they usually reach their peak between ages 28 to 32 and you can carry that peak for, usually, three to five or six more years, physiologically. Psychologically, it depends if they still have the fire, the desire, the resources to keep going."
Smith has those, as do many who live in Flagstaff and manage to get by financially while chasing Olympic glory.
"They're doing something that's amazing," McMillan said. "They want to put USA on their jersey -- they want to represent us. When they travel the world right now, it says Flagstaff, Arizona, beside their name. They take pride in that, but the money is so minimal that it's surprising that as many keep doing as they do. We lose most of our good runners because of the financial situation."
Jacob May can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 556-2257. Follow him on Twitter @JacobBMay.