Words and images by: Stephen Kersh
Running with: Grayson Murphy & Will Baldwin

One of the more appealing aspects of running must be its lack of variance; a completely logical activity not liable to change any time soon. The grey area in the sport — the most pure version of the sport — is almost non-existent: start your timepiece and discover what you’re willing to push your legs, lungs, and mind to accomplish. It is a sport controlled by time. And while the running guru who rejects time in totality certainly exists, time is our common tongue.

The non-nuanced time-in-relation-to-running questions will always have their place in society.

“What’s your marathon time?”

“What can you run a mile in?”

These provide some sort of grounding for the runner who isn’t quite as far in the weeds as some of us. As emotionally devastating as it can be to conjure up your marathon, your mile personal best, it’s one of those situations in life where you just nod and smile.

But where nuance overlaps time in the continuum of running is where we get to have some fun.

It can be a lap of your neighbourhood two-mile loop. It can be a traverse of your local mountain range. It can be just about anything you put a watch on. Today, though, it’s about A1 Mountain Road in Flagstaff, Arizona.

In the rolodex of runs that have been given one-name status in Flagstaff, A1 carries a different sort of lore. Mainly because if you’ve done the run, you have a time associated with your name. You can’t wash that off, so you better make it count.

And that’s the thing. People make it count. I remember my first run on A1 in 2015 hearing about how Wesley Korir, the 2012 Boston Marathon champion, had run A1 at 5:45-per-mile pace. Or how Abdihakem Abdirahman, a man not needing an appositive, had clipped the last few miles at sub-5-minute pace. And how Olympian Janet Cherobon-Bawcom has goaded countless A1ers into diving into paces far above their pay grade. The lore is what this run is all about. The validity of the stories, not so much.

A1 sits at 7,000-feet, with over 1,000-feet of vertical gain during the run, and it is (nearly) 21 miles long. These stats favor no one. It’s a lollipop loop with three, distinct 6.9-mile segments.

The loop starts just off Interstate 40, and you run side-by-side with the highway for nearly a mile before the dirt road cuts right leading to a wooded Ponderosa Pine forest. A strange way to start such a famous, scenic run, but Flagstaff is full of quirky juxtaposition so it seems quite apropos.

In the first segment, an at times nearly-unnoticeable climb puts fatigue in your legs. Your watch is spitting out splits that don’t seem consummate with your effort so, as any runner would do, you push harder in your struggle with time.

This comes just in time for the next section: a friendly 6.9 mile loop where you can now really open it up. After the steady climb of the first segment, the generous initial downhill of the lollipop portion of A1 can bring your legs back to life, but it probably will just reinforce the impending fatigue. Popping out of the tall pine trees, an all-time view of the San Francisco Peaks awaits as you cross the halfway point of the loop. A flat couple of miles provide the momentum for a rather nasty climb to connect you back to the final segment.

Starting at 12.5 miles, the hill begins at a popular-backwoods-DIY shooting range. I’m not sure if its the consistent pop of semi-automatic weapons, or the burning desire to get to the top of the climb, but one of the two tends to make you start the climb with a bit of unwarranted vigor. At almost a mile long, the grind sucks you of whatever energy you had reconstituted during the last couple of kind miles.

But then, by an act of a higher power, you’re at the top of the climb and all you have left is that same 6.9-mile segment you started with and this time, it’s downhill. It’s easy to write it off and make an agreement with the road that it will run itself, that you can’t be bothered to exert any more energy today. Somehow though, that’s never been the case. The gradual downhill is a reprieve, but it comes at a cruel junction of time and distance. It’s a short enough stretch of running where you can push yourself to snag the time goal you’ve had lingering in the back of your mind for the last two hours. And so you will yourself to churn out a few more miles. Downhill miles! They should come at no cost.

The price of those miles isn’t fully realized until you’re sitting blank-faced in your car, staring right back at the road that you tried to make a deal with earlier in the day. Swear words are dropped in exhaustion, a curse for A1 is muttered.

A1 Mountain Road will always be a 20.7 mile run and will always hold a few hours of your life in its confines. It is our arena to square off against the stories we’ve heard and the ones we tell ourselves. And that will never change.

Based in Flagstaff, Arizona, Stephen Kersh is generally consuming running in a written, visual, or physical way.