This feature on elite-level runners, including Olympic hopefuls, training at high altitude in Flagstaff, Arizona, appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun in May 2004.
House of runners
By Ed Odeven
You walk into the garage and amble past a pile of 20 pairs of well-used running shoes, shoes that have trodden on Flagstaff’s roads, trails and paved tracks more times than that guy used to remind us “it’s time to make the donuts.”
You head into the kitchen for a glass of water and spot a poster of Ethiopian star Kenenisa Bekele above the sink.
This is, you immediately discover, a casa of runners. Elite-level runners. And they know something many residents of this mountain city might overlook.
“Flagstaff is the best place to train in the country,” said Weldon Johnson, who served as Paula Radcliffe’s pace-setter when she set a women’s world record at the 2002 Chicago Marathon (2 hours, 17 minutes, 18 seconds).
After a Thursday morning workout at Lumberjack Stadium, American steeplechaser Anthony Famiglietti reclines in a chair. Canadian marathoner Peter Vail lounges on the sofa. Hawaiian Matt Holton, who coaches with the Northern Arizona Trail Runner’s Association, converses with the others.
This is downtime. Just before lunchtime.
At this time you’re probably swamped by phone calls and preparing for afternoon meetings at the office. These guys, on the other hand, just relax.
The TV is on. The fellows catch a rerun of Wednesday’s Diamondbacks-Giants game. Just weeks before, when Kenyan distance runner Patrick Kiptum, who had a distinguished collegiate career at Oklahoma State, was staying at the house reruns of “Matlock” and “Murder She Wrote” and other 1980s dramas were watched again and again.
This is the Flagstaff townhouse of Johnson, co-founder of http://www.letsrun.com, an Olympic-caliber marathon runner. Yes, the Weldon Johnson who competed at the past two U.S. Olympic Marathon trials but has been plagued by injuries in recent years. He moved to Flagstaff in 2000 and returned on a full-time basis the following year.
This is a mini-hostel of sorts. Individuals keen on taking advantage of high-altitude training stay at Johnson’s place, located in the Brannen Homes neighborhood off Lone Tree Road, for days or weeks at a time.
Since 2001, when Johnson, his twin brother Robert, who coaches at Cornell (N.Y.) University, a British fellow and two others shared a one-bedroom apartment, word has spread that Johnson wants dedicated runners to train with him in Flagstaff and, if needed, have a place to stay. He now has a four-bedroom residence, which Yugoslavian runner Janko Bensa has also stayed at recently.
“I’m the only guy consistently there,” Johnson said in a phone conversation from Colorado Springs, Colo., where he’s undergoing physical therapy for his knees. “A couple roommates will move out and I’ll be like, ‘I have a room in my house’ and I’ll get 10 e-mails.'”
Yes, indeed, Letsrun.com is a Web site people are paying attention to, according to Famiglietti, Johnson said it gets an estimated three million hits per day.
This is how Vail found out about the house.
Living at his parents’ home in Texas, Vail, a former soccer player at Texas Christian University, considered two options in preparing for the Canadian Olympic Marathon Trials, which were held Saturday in Ottawa: Go to Utah or Toluca, Mexico (elevation 8,924 feet).
Instead he opted for Plan C.
“Weldon’s trustworthy,” Vail said. “I didn’t have to know him personally. I knew about him and people knew him and he posted and said he had a room available.
“I contacted him the next day and was on the plane two weeks later.”
Johnson typically charges an individual $350 per month for a room. But, for example, when Scott Kennedy and Josh Henderson, two middle-distance runners from the Pacific Sport Victoria Endurance Center in British Columbia, arrived with their teammates for a monthlong training camp at Northern Arizona’s High Altitude Sports Training Complex in April, they could not afford the estimated $1,000 bill to stay at the hotel with their teammates.
These two up-and-comers do not receive funding, a housing stipend, from the Canadian government. They must make ends meet on their own.
Fortunately, they had an alternative.
“At Weldon’s house, he let them share a room, which was like ($350) divided by two … and they had fun,” the 29-year-old Vail said. “They got to eat with us and they got to play their Nintendo every day and watch hockey.”
Famiglietti, an abstract-expressionist painter, received a financial break, too.
Instead of shelling out the money for this month’s rent, he’s painting a 10-foot tall self portrait of himself for Johnson.
“He’s a true gentleman,” Vail, who won the 2003 Reykjavik (Iceland) Marathon, said of Johnson.
This house’s current occupants aren’t the sport’s glamorous posterboys, like retired star Carl Lewis or current standout Michael Johnson, the bona fide superstars that Madison Avenue advertising executives drool over.
They have struggled to make ends meet while pursuing their dream of Olympic glory.
In recent weeks, Khalid Khannouchi, who ran the fastest marathon debut in history (2:07.10 at the 1997 Chicago Marathon), trained with Vail, Famiglietti and others in and around Flagstaff. While Famiglietti, Vail and Holton smile at the thought of just being on the same trail as Khannouchi, they also appreciated the opportunity to hear Khannouchi tell stories of his humble rise to stardom —moving from Morocco to Brooklyn, washing dishes and training in Manhattan’s Central Park in the bitter cold of winter after a long day at work.
“One thing that I was talking about with Khalid is that I had to struggle so much,” said Famiglietti, a New Yorker who attended the University of Tennessee. “I’d come up here and live in a hotel room by myself. I’d use my last $100. I’d have to almost hitchhike home and then compete and was just barely eating. Khalid was like, ‘I was doing the same situation. I took my last $1,000 to come up here and train so that I could do (a) marathon.’
“You don’t kind of feel that it’s all in vain. You understand that even the best guys in the world had to go through that same situation.”
Famiglietti will compete in the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in July in Sacramento, Calif. Before that pressure-packed meet, he plans to participate in an Oregon invitational next weekend and then head to Rome for a meet and perhaps a couple others in Europe and in the U.S.
In the meantime, he’s sticking to what’s gotten him this far: his routine.
“I have a really kind of person-specific regimen,” Famiglietti said after a short, casual jog at NAU’s Lumberjack Stadium track. “Everybody reacts differently to being up here at altitude, and it took me three other occasions of coming up here to figure out what was right for me.”
In a 2003 interview with the Daily Sun, Famiglietti recounted the euphoria he experienced in winning the steeplechase at the 2001 World University Games in Beijing. It was the first victory by an American in an international steeplechase event since John Gregory’s victory at the 1991 World University Games.
“My future dream is to duplicate that feeling and situation in the Olympic Games. I really know I can do it,” Famiglietti said at the time.
Back at the house, meanwhile, lunchtime is quickly approaching. So it’s no surprise that the topic of food comes up.
The fellows playfully laugh after someone reveals Johnson consumes many of his meals at McDonald’s or Del Taco.
Then Vail, who developed a strong liking for ugali, a steamed corn meal that’s a staple of the Kenyan diet when he lived in Sweden, points out that when Bensa was in town — he’s back in the Valley living and working right now — and was training vigorously with the Yugoslav (running around 120 miles per week) they would alternate between three buffet-style restaurants: Eatza Pizza, Souper Salad and Mandarin Buffet.
And then it’s his turn to chime in.
“That’s what’s so funny,” he said. “We are so different in terms of what we eat. Darin (American steeplechaser Darin Shearer, who’s also been training in Flagstaff) will be making a salad … and cooking a nice big stew. I’ll just go throw in some Stouffer’s French bread pizza into the oven.
“He’ll be flashing on me in the morning because I’ll be eating Pop-Tarts and Ego Waffles while he’s eating something healthy. He gets mad.”
It’s not just eating habits that give these elite runners their own distinct identities.
After an hour or so, Vail and Holton still appear content to sit around in front of the TV, but Famiglietti starts to get fidgety. He stands up and shows a couple visitors what he’s been working on: a couple paintings, one of which hangs from the wall.
Then he brings over his self-produced CD entitled “Starts the Party,” which was recorded spontaneously — just one take per song. He describes it as electronic, ambiance music.
Making music helps Famiglietti take his mind off the daily stress of preparing for the Olympics. But without a doubt, he relishes the opportunity he’s had staying at Flagstaff’s House of Running, experiencing the camaraderie of similar-minded individuals.
Or as he put it: “You’ve got to really be on your toes and think about what you’re doing. It’s kind of like in the Renaissance when you had a bunch of writers or painters together talking. Really good stuff is going to come out of it.”
The same could be said for Johnson’s decision to host runners from near and far.