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  • Writer's pictureEric Spitz

Arizona - A Marathon in Every State

Arizona was a monumental adventure for a multitude of reasons back in 2017.

One aspect is that it was my first true solo trip, and helped me understand a lot about my own independence. It also taught me the importance of making connections and listening to people’s stories, as this story may have never happened if I didn’t make a meaningful connection in Boston the year before.

When I ran my first Boston Marathon back in 2016, I made friends with a woman named Amy at my hotel who was from Arizona. We bonded over traveling and running stories over complimentary food offered by the hotel after the completion of the race. I told her of my goal to run a marathon in every state, and without skipping a beat, she told me that whenever I decide to cross Arizona off the list I had a place to stay.

While I usually use RaceRaves to help decide which marathon to do while crossing states off the list, I instead took Amy’s advice, and aimed to do a marathon sometime in the Fall rather than the Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon in January or the Lost Dutchman Marathon in February, as credible and amazing as those experiences likely would have been. I then decided to use another trusted site for deciding which race to do: Running in the USA. After doing some digging, I stumbled across the Petrified Forest Marathon that took place in October. With the website boasting a marathon completely within the Petrified Forest National Park and an intentionally small participant size due to limited registration, I knew right then that I had to make the Petrified Forest Marathon my race to cross Arizona off the list.

Maneuvering around the airport and boarding a flight completely on my own felt a little odd at first, but it didn’t take me long to strike up a conversation with a fellow traveler. The woman who sat next to me on the plane had Denver as her end destination, which was where my connecting flight was headed. Turns out she grew up in Michigan and moved out to Colorado a few years ago, so the conversation topics ranged from traveling and career ambitions to Black Mirror and other Netflix staples. As all good conversations go, time passed by effortlessly, and we made sure to exchange contact info before parting ways. To this day she is still a big supporter in my running and general life activities.

I landed in Phoenix in the early afternoon on Wednesday, October 18. After getting my rental car picked up, I wanted to explore near campus of the University of Arizona in Tuscon for lunch. After talking to a friend who was attending UArizona at the time, she recommended Illegal Pete’s as a solid lunch spot. With the eatery having its original location in Boulder, Colorado, the chain exclusively operates in Colorado and Arizona since that first location in 1995. I’m a sucker for killer Mexican food, and this joint definitely didn’t disappoint.

After getting a taste of what the college town had to offer, I set my sights on Saguaro National Park; a destination that arguably captures some of the best imagery of the stereotypical southwest environment. With the saguaro cactus being the largest cactus in the nation, and the tallest ever recorded standing at a whooping 78 feet tall, the park is an experience all its own to capture the unique landscape and plant life that the state had to offer.

It was during my hike in Saguaro (when I wasn’t busy being paranoid of encountering a rattlesnake) that I met a nice couple who just got back from a vacation in the Hawaiian islands. They were both older wanderlusts, and our conversations ranged from recent travels to career ambitions, with sprinkles of life lessons learned along the way. The husband was the picturesque vision of how I want to be perceived by a stranger in the future, in the sense that he was well-rounded, interesting and never lost that sense of adventure from his youth. The postcard quality sunset that took place during the tail end of our conversations was the perfect cap to my first day exploring the Grand Canyon State.

After getting some recommendations from Amy, I decided to make Devil’s Bridge my destination for day two. According to AllTrails, Devil’s Bridge is the largest natural sandstone arch located in the Sedona area of the Coconino National Forest. The 4.2 mile out and back trail has a diverse assortment of wild flowers and beautiful red rock formations that reminded me of my experience hiking in Utah a few years prior. While it’s not uncommon to see hikers with dogs on the trail, it took me by surprise to see a few Dachshunds braving the trails alongside their owners. Having grown up with Dachshunds, I have a soft spot for them, and it made me miss my red dapple Dachshund Pepper from back home.

Upon rounding the final corner and seeing the collection of hikers congregating around Devil’s Bridge, I was in pure awe of the beauty. The skyline juxtaposed with the red rock and open landscape was well worth the two and a half hour drive and couple miles of hiking. Being the eager and semi-oblivious traveler that I am, I did what anyone would have done in this instance, and made friends with a complete stranger in order for them to take my photo on the bridge. To date, they are still some of my favorite photos captured on my phone of the hikes I’ve done.

The following morning, I wanted to get a sense of the landscape for the Petrified Forest, since my entire marathon would be encompassed within its boundary. Located in the northeastern part of Arizona just outside of Holbrook, the Petrified Forest is over 20,000 acres in size with more than 10,000 years of human history within its borders. According to HowStuffWorks, the area used to be a lush forest where scientists believe that dinosaurs once roamed the area more than 225 million years ago. Over time, floods and perhaps lava uprooted the trees which got buried underneath silt and volcanic ash. After geological upheaval, wind and rain began to unearth the buried trees once more after hundreds of years, the wood buried beneath the ground went through a petrification process, making the wood composed of practically all quartz in material. The rainbow appearance is due to impurities in the quartz, such as iron, carbon and manganese.

After getting a sense for the terrain I’d be racing on the following day within the park, I headed back to the famous Wigwam Village Motel back in Holbrook to pick up my race packet and have a complimentary pasta dinner. When I arrived at the hotel, I didn’t make the connection that these were the Wigwams from the Route 66 videos Joel and I would watch, dreaming of the perfect vacation of taking the drive from Chicago to Santa Monica on America’s historic Route 66.

As I sat outside enjoying my free dinner and admiring the Americana decor of classic cars parked in the hotel’s parking lot, I struck up a conversation with fellow participants of the approaching marathon. One was an individual who worked as a nurse in the area. When my fear of snakes randomly came up in conversation, he eased my anxieties, telling countless stories of individuals he would treat at the hospital who’ve been bitten by rattlesnakes. Most of the ones he would treat were either grossly oblivious to their surroundings or drunk. Or sometimes both. Apparently it’s not uncommon for drunk individuals to have multiple rattlesnake bites on them, because in their drunken state, they become convinced they need to capture the rattlesnake as evidence after being bit the first time. This only results in multiple snake bites, and a funny story from the eye-witnessing nurse later.

Also sitting at the table was a father and son from New York. After telling me of fabulous hiking trails in New York, such as Buttermilk Falls State Park in Ithaca, I got to learn more about this family. The father lost a substantial amount of weight over the years, close to 100 pounds, because he promised a dying relative that he would get in better shape before they passed away. What started as doing his first 5K a few years prior turned into having his first marathon be the Petrified Forest Marathon, which I was lucky enough to be by his side for.

With a stomach full of pasta and my head full of wonderful stories and encounters from the day, I decided to retire to my hotel a few miles away to finish any last-minute preparation for the night. With the Colorado State and New Mexico football game softly playing in the background, I effortlessly drifted off to sleep in anticipation of my sixth marathon attempt the following morning.

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