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Celebrating High Altitude Training

Robin Lyon is busy preparing for this month’s Half Ironman World Championships in Las Vegas. She made the cut after placing first overall in the 28th Annual Mountain Man Olympic Distance Triathlon. The event was held on the last day of the Summer Olympic Games, where conversations about training in Flagstaff enjoyed a world stage.

Many people are just hearing about the benefits of training in this Northern Arizona mountain town, something Robin Lyon has known about for years. “Training in Flagstaff has increased my lung capacity and my ability to compete at any altitude, whether sea level or high altitude races such as Imogene. And it has increased my VO2 max [maximal oxygen consumption] level, so I’m able to work at a higher intensity for longer periods of time than I used to do,” she explained. While Lyon and her family recently relocated to the Valley, the runner will continue to train and compete on the mountain along with other world-class athletes.

As dust continues to settle after the Summer Olympic games, some Flagstaff business owners are looking to the 2014 Winter Games and the next Summer Olympics in 2016. That makes sense for a city at 7,000 feet that has earned a reputation among people who want to train at elevation.

Sean Anthony watched the recent games with pride. As director of HYPO2, a Flagstaff sports management company, he played a significant role in Olympians’ training. “We [Flagstaff] sent almost 150 athletes from 22 countries, and these athletes went on to win 23 Olympic medals and 74 top ten finishes – those are just extraordinary results. I can’t think of another community anywhere in the country that can lay claim to supporting so many athletes,” said Anthony, who thinks exceptions could be cities with Olympic Training Centers like Chula Vista and Colorado Springs.

Eight years ago, Northern Arizona University’s Center for High Altitude Training was designated a U.S. Olympic Training Site, but university budget cuts forced the closing of the center in 2009 and Flagstaff subsequently lost its rings. Today, Anthony is working with members of the community, including Flagstaff Medical Center, to bring the Olympic designation back.

Anthony was employed by NAU’s High Altitude Training Center. There, he discovered he loved working with people from around the world, which was part of his motivation for starting HYPO2. He still works closely with staff members who facilitate the use of campus training facilities like the Wall Aquatic Center.

HYPO2 also works closely with businesses and service providers. “Whether you are talking about sports medicine practitioners, Summit Center, Flagstaff Bone and Joint, or massage therapists like Flagstaff Sport Massage, or Arizona Shuttle, they all contribute a piece to the overall package that makes [Flagstaff] a successful place for athletes to train,” Anthony said.

High altitude training is big business. When NAU’s Arizona Rural Policy Institute conducted a study of HYPO2’s economic impact in Coconino County, the figures were impressive: in 2011, an estimated $1,057,697 was spent by HYPO2 and its clients. The biggest portion of the pie was lodging, which accounted for nearly $600,000 last year.

Flagstaff’s Embassy Suites staff knows firsthand the economic benefits of high altitude training. Director of Sales Jake Rodriguez tells Flagstaff Business News that housing HYPO2’s athletes has been a pleasure and an economic boon. “HYPO2 has been a fantastic business relationship for Embassy Suites because they understand the give and take of a partnership,” Rodriguez said. “High altitude training absolutely benefits the local economy.”

Greg McMillan’s work also boosts the local economy. He moved to Flagstaff five years ago because he wanted to start an Olympic training team. After comparing 15 high altitude communities throughout the United States, his short list included Big Bear and Lake Tahoe in California and Colorado Springs.

“I had a long laundry list for what I felt would be the optimal situation for long distance runners and part of that was altitude, so check that one off easily,” said McMillan. “By the research, Flagstaff falls into the optimal altitude [for training] – between 6,500-8,000 is considered perfect.” McMillan says the bonus is being able to escape winter weather with a short drive to Sedona.

Another consideration that helped put Northern Arizona at the top of his list was the medical community. “Flagstaff, for being this high, has really great medical care relative to the other cities we looked at,” said McMillan. “And obviously, for distance runners, staying healthy given the amount of training they do, was important.”

His businesses are McMillan Running, which includes online training programs, and McMillan Elite. He works with a long list of Olympians and top athletes including Nick Arciniaga, Brett Gotcher, Stephanie Rothstein and Ben Bruce. McMillan says he enjoys living in Flagstaff with his family and he looks forward to a future working with endurance athletes who want to train at altitude.

Anthony agrees. HYPO2 recently joined the Northern Arizona Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology. “They are going to help us manage growth and have a solid business foundation for what we do,” said Anthony. “We will be cultivating very systematic approaches to recruiting teams, hosting teams, following up, and leveraging everything in ways that we haven’t done before.”

Anthony believes the tremendous growth of athletes training in Flagstaff in 2010 and 2011 is part of a trend, and many more athletes from around the world will discover the advantages of training at 7,000 feet. He is optimistic more people in the community will embrace Flagstaff’s identity as a unique high altitude training site and the many benefits that come along with it. FBN










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