Flagstaff

An illustration from the new book “To Imogene, a Flagstaff Love Letter: One Town’s Long-Distance Romance With an Iconic Trail Run” by Linda Sherman. (Courtesy image)

The Imogene Pass Run is almost a rite of passage in the local trail running community. Signups for the 17.1-mile run from Ouray to Telluride sell out in minutes. Six hours southwest of Telluride, however, Imogene Pass has an even bigger reputation.

Since 2001, the town of Flagstaff, Arizona, has sent more racers to Imogene each year than any other town, including Telluride. To help explain the race’s popularity, editors Julie Hammonds and Myles Schrag collected testimonials, poems, drawings and stories from more than 70 Flagstaff racers in their recently published book, “To Imogene, a Flagstaff Love Letter: One Town’s Long-Distance Romance With an Iconic Trail Run.”

“No American footrace has a more intimate relationship with one town than the Imogene Pass Run does with Flagstaff, Arizona,” Schrag wrote in the book’s introduction.

The tradition started more than 20 years ago, when a few runners from Flagstaff discovered the Imogene Run. The word spread. Today’s prevalence of Flagstaff runners was not entirely happenstance. After her first Imogene Pass Run, Susie Garretson, who founded the Flagstaff Athletic Club with her husband, decided that the Flagstaff running community should be better represented.

“I had it as a mission,” Garretson said in an interview with the Daily Planet.

After her first race, Garretson requested 200 paper applications to hand out at the athletic club. It took two more years until Flagstaff signups surpassed all other towns.

The signups are digital now, and after decades of races, the Imogene Run holds significant memories for many Flagstaff participants. Flagstaff running legend Fon Cordasco ran Imogene more than 20 times before she passed away in 2016.

“I always teased Fon because I always called her the Queen of Imogene. She was doing it before anyone was,” Jerry Diehl said. Diehl was a close friend of Cordasco and has run in Imogene several times himself.

The year of Cardasco’s death, her oncology nurse, Chris Gomez, ran Imogene wearing Cardasco’s bib. That story inspired Schrag to start the project that eventually became “To Imogene, a Flagstaff Love Letter.”

“Myles really realized there was something going on at Imogene that was bigger than people running up a mountain pass,” Hammonds, his co-editor, explained.

Both Schrag and Hammonds were freelance editors and decided to form their own publishing company, Soulstice Publishing. The book — published, printed, designed and illustrated locally — was released on Sept. 4, right before this year’s Imogene Run.

“The stories I think would resonate with anyone who’s done IPR,” said Hammonds. “It’s a whole gamut of human experiences.”

For Diehl, the annual Imogene Run is a time of transition and transformation.

“That’s why I call IPR my Individual Personal Reflection. It’s the compilation of the year, the past moving into the future,” he said.

Linda Sherman, the book’s illustrator, claimed that this year’s race was her last Imogene Run. At 75, Sherman is officially the oldest female finisher.

“I got kind of excited because of the book. I went back and looked at the records, and there were no females in the 75-plus category, so I thought a woman needed to do it,” Sherman said.

To train for this year’s race, Sherman, who spends half the year in Norwood, hiked in the high country above Telluride with her husband. “He was my coach and support crew,” she said.

Now that the book is complete, Sherman said she is quite happy with the final outcome.

“It just came together so well,” she said. “That was really exciting. I just think it’s a beautiful book, and I feel good being able to make a contribution. Some of the people spoke so eloquently.”

Dawn Begley agreed.

“It turned out to be 10 times better of a book that I even thought. They just put so much heart and soul into it,” she said.

Begley’s last Imogene Run was in 2012. It was the eighth race for Begley and the fifth race for her mother, Pat Taylor. Two weeks later, Begley’s mother was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.

When Begley saw the notice in the Arizona Daily Sun for Imogene submissions, she decided to share the story of her last race with her mother, which she titled “Best Race Ever.”

“It was very difficult to write, but it was a story that I wanted people to hear. A lot of people wondered why I didn’t do Imogene again,” Begley said.

During the race, as her mother was struggling up Imogene Pass, the Flagstaff community rallied to help her finish.

In her contribution, Begley writes, “One of the best things about Imogene for someone from Flagstaff is that someone else from Flagstaff is usually nearby.”

For Begley, writing the story helped her mourn the loss of her mother.

“It just helped me finish the process of grieving,” she said.

After the book was published, Begley sent copies to her mother’s friends. The year after Begley’s mother died, Sean Hickey and Michelle Wesson ran her ashes up Imogene.

Begley’s story was one of the first that Hammonds read when receiving book submissions. The piece, and the “bond between mother and daughter” stuck with Hammonds.

“People’s lives are changed up there. I know it’s not unique to Flagstaff, but that’s where we live. That’s the beauty of it,” Hammonds said.

“To Imogene, a Flagstaff Love Letter” is available locally at Between the Covers and online at soulsticepublishing.com.