Phoenix Valley Guide - How the West was Won
Tempe Town Lake offers an easy, flat course and pretty water views.

Feature Story — Winter 2017

How the West Was Run

Endless trails, perpetual sunshine, and inspiring landscapes make Greater Phoenix a runner’s dream

Mountain biking, tennis, golf. Sure, those sports are fun vacation activities. But each of them requires so much... stuff. In our exceedingly busy and complicated world, simplicity is attractive. Downsizing feels good. Unplugging is necessary.

Take running. To do it, all you need are a pair of shoes and a stretch of land. Perfect for jump-starting a day before work; ideal for unwinding on vacation. Here in Greater Phoenix, it’s made even easier thanks to the city’s hundreds of miles of scenic trails, greenbelts, parks, lakefronts, and canal paths. You pack the shoes. We’ll provide the land. Read on to see how three local runners explore on two feet.

Superstition sunrise

By Jeff “10 Minutes” Atwell

The first time I ran six miles without stopping was at the first race I ever entered, the Lost Dutchman 10K Race in Apache Junction. Leading up to race day, my coach had me on timed run-walk-runs and short but brutal fartlek workouts , but never for more than four miles in a single training session.

“Your body will go six when it needs to go six. For now, build strength and stamina,” she said.

And I did, for the three months that led up to the race that led up to my 40th year on the planet. I learned quickly that I’m a morning runner. Partly by nature (get up and go before I can make excuses), but mostly because the desert is at its most spectacular first thing in the morning. So quiet and still, especially against the backdrop of a massive city just waking up. After the first mile, when lungs and heart find a rhythm, the weightless quality of the dry air provides lift.   

During that first 10K, I learned that the body will go six when it needs to go six, and that six is really an enjoyable romp when you pick a comfortable pace and let the desert feed your momentum. At the eastern edge of Greater Phoenix, where civilization gives way to rugged desert terrain, thousands of runners gathered at Prospector Park and watched a big winter sun rise over the Superstition Mountains. Overnight rains had saturated the desert, and during the run we felt the foothills heat up while massive saguaros swelled and creosote bushes put out pungent whiffs of rosemary mixed with menthol and earth.

That’s the beauty of running in Phoenix. Year-round, early risers take their pick of astonishing settings to run hard, run for meditation, run for sanity, run to stay young. Over the years, the feeling from that first big race continues to ring true.

Confessions of a slow runner

By Courtney “Sign Me Up” Kemp

I would best describe my running style as meditative—slow and wandering. I was the last person on my high school cross-country team to cross the finish line. This is why I’m surprised that last year I agreed to join a 12-person running team that tackled a 200-mile relay race across Southern California. (Yes, wine was involved in the decison-making “process.”)

Two months into training, I was questioning my decision. Some mornings when the alarm clock let out its relentless ringing, I would think, “But sleep…” On hot mornings, while trying to run four miles before the heat of the sun was too overwhelming, I would think, “Who does this?!”

But each week, I found myself slowly but steadily running longer distances. And eventually I began to enjoy the training: quiet mornings listening to the neighborhood wake up; running with friends on the mountain at Thunderbird Conservation Park; learning to focus on breath instead of the random foot/knee/hip pain.

I was challenging myself and, happily, finding peace with the whole process. For me, running embodies living in the moment and not dwelling on the things you cannot control—whether it is a blister or the ominously large hill in front of you. This is the greatest gift running has given me. It can be a slow, painful trek at times, but it forces me to look inward, to challenge and respect myself. To persevere.

I finished the 200-mile relay race. Yes, I was still the slowest person on the team. But for me, running is about being present and experiencing the moment, which I very much did.

I still hate that alarm ringing some mornings, but I never regret the decision to wake up, put on my shoes, get out, and run. When I think I can’t possibly run one more block, I take a moment to breathe and keep my feet moving forward.

Mile markers

By Jason “Pour Hard” Wilson

As I slow my pace to an easy jog, I hear my breathing, steady and rhythmic. My heartbeat is strong. Sweat beads above my brow. I take in the sweet and dusty smell of the desert, and I raise my eyes from the trail just in time to see the sun rise over the McDowell Mountains on the east side of Phoenix. 

I’m usually on the trail in the Phoenix Mountains Preserve early in the morning. The front door of my house opens to the preserve, so it’s easy to jump on Trail 100, where I can run for miles in either direction without crossing a road. This is the time of day I love running. Even though the preserve sits in the middle of the city, it’s pure desert, and early in the morning it’s quiet. Depending on which peak I climb, I can see the University of Phoenix Stadium (where the Arizona Cardinals play) glittering in the morning sun, or the downtown skyline against the backdrop of South Mountain, or just a forest of saguaros and palo verde trees.

My favorite part of Trail 100 is that it connects to the SRP Canals, waterways that link one side of Phoenix to the other. The canal paths are a great way for a runner to explore the city. Depending on how I feel, I can choose to run an easy two miles or go for a longer 10-miler. And because the paths are flat, they’re perfect both for an experienced runner to get in a good and fast run and for a beginning runner to enjoy an easy, leisurely walk/run.

When I travel, running is my way to explore a new destination. I get to see things from an on-the-ground perspective, catching details otherwise missed in a car. But no matter where I’ve traveled or how many miles I’ve logged on my feet, I always find myself looking forward to my next run in Phoenix. Because of the desert, because of the city. Because it’s home.

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