by Ben Rosario
It’s taken me a while to write this review because I want to do this amazing book justice, but I know it’s going to be hard in just a few short paragraphs. So I’ll lead with this; Running Up The Mountain is a must-read for anyone who ran cross country or track in high school or college, anyone who lives or has spent time in Flagstaff, anyone who follows the sport, anyone interested in coaching and leadership, and anyone who loves compelling storytelling mixed with a little history and inspiration. It belongs on your bookshelf next to Once A Runner, Running With the Buffaloes, and maybe Inside a A Marathon (gratuitous plug!).
Running Up The Mountain begins long before the current crop of Lumberjacks were born. Maybe before some of their parents born. But then again, maybe not quite as far back as you might think. The NAU track and cross country program began in 1965, coached by a guy named Red Haberlack. I considered myself pretty well-versed in Flagstaff lore, but I had never heard of Red. Right away, Matt and Ron had pulled me in. I wanted to know more. And they gave it to me. In the first chapter alone, I learned about the old Mt. Elden Drive-In Theatre, that Flagstaff makes a brief appearance in Easy Rider, and that Buffalo Park used to contain actual Buffalo–part of a 163-acre wild west theme park. Matt seamlessly weaves these Flagstaff fun facts into the story throughout the book, always tying the Lumberjacks’ success to the town in which they train.
He also tells the tale of how Flagstaff slowly but surely became the distance running mecca that it is today. From U.S. Olympians Conrad Nightingale, Jim Ryun, and George Young training in Flag leading into the Mexico City Games in 1968 (with some rarely seen photos included by the way), to the Center for High Altitude Training in the early 2000s where Dr. Jack Daniels did his incredibly influential research on training at elevation (and mentored some young kid named Mike Smith), to the countless pros that now call this town home, the book leaves no doubt that Flagstaff is indeed the best place to train in the United States…and maybe the world.
But the overarching narrative throughout the book is the building of the Northern Arizona University distance running dynasty. After Red Haberlack left the program in 1982 and Ron Mann took over both the men’s team and the brand new women’s team (launched in 1980), an already good program took a step toward greatness. Matt tells the inspirational story of the program’s first ever individual cross country champion, Angela Chalmers. He takes readers through the men’s teams of the 90s, including the 1995 squad that came oh-so close to earning Mann that coveted national title when they finished second. We learn about Ron’s departure in 2004, and the John Hayes era that included national titles from Lopez Lomong and Johanna Nilsson. And then we learn about a coach from Zanesville, Ohio named Eric Heins, the coach that would eventually lead the team to its first ever national team title in 2016–the school’s first national championship in any sport.
And of course, for all of you who are fascinated with the current run of championships, the deepest dive in the book is taken into the teams from 2017 through 2022. We learn about athletes like Tyler Day, Luis Grijalva, Abdihamid Nur, and Nico Young. We learn about the NAU-BYU rivalry as only Matt Baxter could tell it. We hear a story that I’ll only tease about Luis after the team gets back from the NCAA Indoor Championships in 2020 that were canceled before they ever happened. And we get behind-the-scenes insight into Coach Mike Smith and how he’s turned the Lumberjacks into one of the greatest cross country teams in NCAA history.
So there you have it…a must-read. Order your copy today!