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Experience The Extraordinary Flagstaff Bagel Run

This decade-old group run brings together elites and age-groupers every Thursday morning.

This decade-old group run brings together elites and age-groupers every Thursday morning.

In Flagstaff, Arizona, on the southwest corner of Beaver and Phoenix streets, there stands a rather ordinary bagel shop with a rather ordinary storefront and a rather ordinary name.

The inner walls of Biff’s Bagels are somewhat unordinary, however, adorned with Polaroid pictures of deceased dogs, brought in by loving owners who formerly frequented the canine-friendly shop with their furry friends. But the folks at Biff’s don’t just have a soft spot for dogs—they love runners too, supporting many local running events by donating heaps of bagels for post-race grub.

And once a week, at 8 a.m. every Thursday morning, Biff’s Bagels becomes a truly extraordinary place.

The sun begins to warm the crisp, dry, thin air on a Thursday morning last fall as a quiet calmness permeates the streets of this quaint Arizona town. At five minutes before 8, the quiet calmness outside Biff’s dissipates and the street corner comes alive as one-by-one, dozens of sleek, fierce-looking athletes converge on this previously desolate intersection. The mystic Bagel Run has once again started to materialize and, at around 8 o’clock, this mass of lean muscle slowly begins to move in unison.

The enigmatic Bagel Run—“Bagels” for short—is finally underway. A stream of calculated, confident steps move simultaneously over the pavement as the group exits town through the Northern Arizona University campus, the crushing sound of gravel and rock shifting underfoot on the Flagstaff Urban Trail System (FUTS) alongside the Rio de Flag. Some of the finest marathon and ultramarathon runners in the country are floating at the front of this massive group.

Humble Beginnings

Bagels, which began roughly a decade ago, is the brain child of Team Run Flagstaff founder and Flagstaff’s unofficial “running mayor,” Mike Smith. The run originated as a way to gather local runners and welcome out-of-town runners for a friendly group run. And although Biff’s delicious bagels may have been a large part of the original appeal, there are far more people in attendance for the run than the number of bagels consumed these days.

“When we started [the Bagel Run] we actually had the bagel part be a huge deal, but now it’s just a run,” Smith explains. “We would run, then push together a bunch of tables and have coffee and egg sandwiches. It was about community, bringing people together. When I arrived in Flagstaff [in the early 2000s], no one ran together. There were great people here, it just needed organizing. And there were world-class athletes who would visit but had no way to integrate with the runners and families that actually called the place home.”

The running talent that has frequented the Bagel Run since its beginnings is immense. World-class athletes like Ryan and Sara Hall, four-time Olympian Abdi Abdirahman, 2013 U.S. marathon champion Nick Arciniaga, and power couple Ben and Stephanie Bruce have made, and continue to make, appearances at this Thursday morning event. Super-talented trail and ultrarunners such as reigning Western States champion Rob Krar, and Nike Trail Elite athletes Chris Vargo and Alicia Shay have tagged along for one or more of the runs that this group takes every Thursday morning. Flagstaff staples Ian Torrence and Brian Tinder continuously find themselves near Fort Tuthill or along Switzer Wash during their weekly outing through the southern trails of this running mecca. Out-of-town college cross-country teams training in Flag over the summer have often joined in on the Bagel Run and many elite and Olympic-level athletes from around the world have shown up under the shadow of Biff’s Bagels’ storied walls on a Thursday morning over the years.

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“The guest appearances back in the day of world-class runners was amazing,” quips Smith. “You would be pulling in to park and be like, ‘welp, that guy has run 27 [minutes] flat for a 10K, this should be fun.’ The original crew was Phil Warton, Jared Scott, Mike Friedberg, Chris Gomez, Vince Sherry and myself. On any given Thursday, four would make it out and then you would have someone bringing the guy crashing on the couch, or you would tell someone about it who was in town training, or friends of friends would hop in.”

And so the Bagel Run began: a small crew of local guys joining up every Thursday to log some miles. The original group soon morphed into a larger group, as friends and friends of friends joined in the fun. Visiting runners started to show up on Thursdays and—slowly—non-elite locals got wind of the run and a lively motley crew of runners were frequenting the southwest corner of Beaver and Phoenix streets each week.

The Bagel Run has not always drawn large crowds, however; in late 2012 and early 2013, more than half a dozen years since the inception of the weekly run, Bagels would only see a handful of runners on Thursday morning. Injuries, the diminished presence of the McMillan Elite group—which had encouraged its athletes to attend the run every week—and other runners leaving town affected attendance. But Arciniaga and Torrence, whose attendance has never dwindled, spearheaded the regeneration of the Bagels by continuing to show up despite harsh conditions or limited numbers. Their dedication, commitment and persuasion made a difference. Before long, many runners—both elite and age-groupers— started to come back.

“The numbers started to dwindle for various reasons,” explains Arciniaga. “I showed up every week knowing that if I didn’t, then Ian [Torrence] would likely be running alone. And I knew that he showed up for a similar reason. We met each other and ran 10 miles knowing that having the other as a companion made training through the winter and spring so much more tolerable. Before long we had both convinced other guys and gals in town to come back out and soon the numbers started to grow again and the ambiance of the Bagel Run started to become once again what it was.”

An Appreciation For The Extraordinary

The FUTS trail suddenly and dramatically ramps upward toward the sky, its grade punishing the group of runners. At the apex of the short hill, there is a uniform and methodical—yet sudden and unannounced—halt as the run’s patrons suck in the thin air and people scatter for the nearest tree to urinate. Seconds later, another unuttered command signals the continuation of this march of titans through the forested pine and firs on the wide-trail-turned-singletrack.

The trail deliberately and acutely winds around trees and boulders toward Fisher Point. As the trail meanders, so do the minds of the Bagel runners—questions, comments and banter ensue before bouts of silence take over. All the while, the views of Mount Elden and Humphrey’s Peak and the rest of the San Francisco Peaks leave the runners breathless—literally and figuratively.

“The group moves as one,” explains Torrence. “It does split, but the splits are expected and warranted. But at the same time, there are pace surges that are welcomed and others that are not. Bagels is a good indicator of what is good in our sport. This run embodies the best in both talent and involvement.”

Finally, the group—now splintered and fragmented due to the various paces—returns to Biff’s Bagels piece by piece. There are slower runners who turned around early, elites who zoomed through 10 miles and playful trail runners who stopped multiple times to relieve themselves. Together, on the southwest corner of Beaver and Phoenix streets, they all stretch and talk, laugh and sweat, smile and reminisce—an extraordinary scene in an otherwise ordinary place—before everyone heads off on their separate ways.

“I meet up for the community aspect of the run now,” says Arciniaga. “I want to run with people who I may not be able to otherwise train with everyday. There are seven days a week where I could run on my own and keep my thoughts in my own head. The Bagel Run allows me to get excited to meet up and train with my Flagstaff family.”