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Flagstaff ultra champion and the ‘magic of trail races’

Growing up in Flagstaff, Ariz., Austin Horn was familiar with the running scene. He recalls knowing that people there enjoyed the sport “for some reason.” Horn, however, fell in love with soccer and played from age 4 through eighth grade, dreaming of playing for a professional team.

“As I got into middle school, the team was getting more competitive,” Horn says. “I wasn’t having as much fun because I wasn’t there just to compete and try to win. I realized that soccer wasn’t the thing I was most passionate about and finally decided to quit and join the cross country team instead.”

While seemingly an innocent decision, it’s one that has shaped Horn’s life since.

“I don’t know why I ever chose cross country over all the other sports at my school, but it was one of the best decisions I ever made and will always be grateful for,” he says. “I realized that I could have some potential with running if I stuck to it. I was hooked and haven’t regretted it for a second.”

Finding joy on the long run

Horn continued that path, running cross country and track through high school. But he was drawn to longer distances, racing 10K and half marathons between school seasons.

As a high school senior, Horn set a goal to run a marathon before graduation. Working with his coach, they developed a plan to train for it while finishing track season. A week before graduation, he crossed the 26.2-mile race off his list.

“I finished a few minutes off the Boston qualifying time for my age, and instantly knew I’d try it again to hit that mark,” he says.

Knowing he wanted to run longer distances, Horn headed to Northern Arizona University to study exercise science and train for marathons. “I worked at that for a couple of years before discovering the magic of trail races,” he says.

Horn went through a typical progression: 50K, then a 50-miler three months later and a 100K two months afterward. “I was in love with the sport and wanted to continue exploring where it could take me.”

Success drives motivation

Even before he became a runner, Horn was aware of the Imogene Pass Run. It’s more than just a race for Horn, it reflects his growth in the sport. Each year a couple hundred Flagstaff runners migrate to the San Juan Mountains in Colorado for the point-to-point race. The 17ish mile race traces a route which connects Ouray and Telluride by way of the Imogene Pass.

“As I started running longer races I knew I had to run this one,” says Horn, who lowered the time in his first Imogene Pass race by about a half hour, going from 73rd overall to top 10. “It was my first taste of mountain running, and after that first time I was hooked. I love that race and try to go back every year.”

Horn learned about his potential from that mountain race. In so doing, he committed to mountain running and exploring trails around Flagstaff, setting aside road racing.

“When I returned that second year and bettered my previous time I really surprised myself,” he remembers. “I knew I could run it better, but coming down the back side of the mountain into Telluride in 10th place I was filled with this energy and emotion I hadn’t ever experienced in a race before. I felt so proud of myself for doing something I wasn’t sure was ever really possible. This moment helped me learn to not define limits on my potential in my head, but instead just set out and see what I’m capable of. After this race, I did start to think I could be competitive in trail running if I worked hard, believed in myself, and went all in chasing my passion.”

While finishing at NAU, Horn converted a small van into a tiny camper to travel and race all summer after graduation for 10 weeks. In the spring, he strategically decided not to do any races and save himself for the barrage of summer races.

To say that it paid off is an understatement.

“I really wanted to make sure my body was healthy and ready for this summer of epic mountain runs,” he says. “when I sign up for a race I always try my best. If I’m going to spend the time and money to do a race, I want to give it my best effort. I believe that I owe it to myself, the race directors, and volunteers to come prepared and try my best. I know how much work race directors put into their races, so I feel I need to honor their hard work when I race. I think that is part of why I have not dropped out of any races yet.”

Working with Coach Roche

Since August, Horn has been working with running coach David Roche. “It’s been amazingly helpful. Over the past couple of years I’ve had difficulties staying motivated during the long winter months of training. Ever since I started working with David, his philosophy of running happy has really helped me find the passion again and stay motivated to do what I love every day.”

Roche creates a training plan for Horn — and so much more.

“I am much more relaxed and less stressed about whether or not I’m training enough,” he says. “Since I started working with David I’ve really been learning how to race all over again. I now am treating my races as celebrations and working on figuring out that difficult balance between racing my own smart race while also trying to make moves and be competitive. I’m sure I will always be learning from him and am looking forward to many more years of working together.”

As successful has Horn has been early in his career, he understands that it’s the process that matters most.

“His coaching has helped me become a better person by teaching me my results don’t really even matter, but instead what’s most important is enjoying the process, the people, and the memories I make along the way.”

Back-to-back successes

Under Roche’s guidance, Horn nailed back-to-back races, finishing second (behind Roche) at Quad Dipsea and then winning the 10-mile McDowell Mountain Frenzy just a week later.

“Luckily, everything about Quad Dipsea felt like a dream and went incredibly smoothly,” he says of his goal race for the fall. “The race was probably the strongest I have ever felt throughout an entire ultramarathon. But the real surprise was how quickly I recovered. Two days after the race I wasn’t sore and was so stoked about the weekend I had.”

He didn’t put any pressure on himself for McDowell Mountain.

“I looked at this race as more of a tempo run and wanted to just have fun and see how fast I could do it. I didn’t have any mental or physical challenges leading into McDowell since my body felt totally recovered and my mind was so on such a high from a great race the weekend prior.”

After the races is perhaps when Horn needed Roche the most.

“I had two weekends of great races that really surprised me with my physical capabilities at the time,” says Horn. “It was hard going back into my normal life back home of work and training after two magical weekends. Unsurprisingly, coach David completely understood and allowed me to rest more than planned to give me a couple extra days to reset.”

‘Running on trails just feels right’

Horns’ bucket list resembles that of most ultra runners: Western States, UTMB and others. “I’d also really love to run some of the classic skyraces in Europe like Zegama and Ring of Steall some day.”

For now, he is signed up for Bandera 100K in January and then focus on a series of summer skyraces like the Broken Arrow Skyrace 52K, the Barr Trail Mountain race, Tushars Mountain Runs Marathon, the Rut 50K and — of course — Imogene Pass Run.

Horn has come a long way from the soccer fields in Flagstaff to a competitive ultra and mountain runner.

“It’s hard to really pinpoint one ‘why’ as to the reason I run trail and ultras now because there are so many reasons I love it,” he says. “When I’m running on trails it just feels right, like that’s one of the things I am meant to be doing. I often think about how I want to live my life. I want my body to be well used when I die. I don’t want to live with any regrets about not doing something because it seemed too difficult. I want to live while I can with trail running, and experience all the wonderful people and places along the way.”

Speed drill

Name: Austin Horn

Hometown: Flagstaff, Ariz.

Number of years running: 9

How many miles a week do you typically run: I probably average around 60

Point of pride: Finishing third place at the Imogene Pass Run on my fifth (and still counting!) time running it. It’s my favorite race.

Favorite race distance: Right now I’d have to say 50K or 50 miles. But I really just prefer anything with a beautiful course and lots of vert!

Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: I always try to end runs with a big smoothie (if the weather’s warm enough to justify a frozen drink). My go-tos are chocolate banana, or watermelon and mint.

Favorite piece of gear: Nike Wildhorse 5s. I use them for almost everything.

Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I rarely listen to music while running, but I’d have to go with Run by RIVVRS right now, or anything by Mumford & Sons or Lord Huron.

Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: The African proverb “if you want to go fast, go alone If you want to go far, go together.”

Where can other runners connect or follow you:

• Instagram: @Ultra.Austin

• Strava: Austin Horn • Facebook: Austin Horn … or just find me out on the trails!

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