Meet Neil Weintraub!
1) How and when did you get into trail running?
When I first moved to Flagstaff in 1986, I was living in a barely renovated chicken coop at the Museum of Northern Arizona. I used to bang my head every morning on the ceiling as I rolled over to put on my running shoes. I would then step out into the biggest backyard of all where a short jog led me into the myriad of endless trails in the Coconino National Forest.
2) What’s your favorite race - both to direct and participate in?
Well, I’m a bit biased, but I ran my first Soulstice Mountain Trail Run in 2001. It was in its second year but only drew 35 runners. It was a challenging course followed by a great post-race party. After way too many beers, a few of us decided to start an email list so we could run together every Saturday and get more runners excited about Soulstice.
That email list kickstarted several friends to found Northern Arizona Trail Runners Association (NATRA), and the following year we inherited the race. Since its 4th year it has been a sell out, and in 2006 I started the lottery for its limited 225 spots. Evidently the secret got out and in 2012 Runner’s World named it one of the top 32 trail races in the US and Canada, most noted for having the best post-race party anywhere!
The run also annually raises about $15,000 for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Flagstaff, helping the organization match mentors with youth at risk in our community so that they succeed in life. Since I have volunteered as a Big Brother for the past 18 years, I’m very proud of that race.
3) Do you consider running to be your therapy? If so, what aspect is most therapeutic?
Yes. While I’m only a weekend warrior these days, getting together with friends and often making new ones every Saturday morning for 18 years is most therapeutic. And of course running in one of the most beautiful places on earth helps as well. Oh, and then the post-run coffee brunches and conversation to wind down after the run. NATRA Saturday mornings are sacred to me.
4) Describe one of your most badass personal accomplishments on the trails. What was going through your mind during it?
My running partner Mark was in the midst of training for the Leadville 100 where I would pace him later that summer. We left his house on Cherry Hill at 5 AM and ran to the top of the San Francisco Peaks and back. During that long day, we covered about 40 miles climbing 5,000 ft into the sky. That still is the farthest I’ve run in a day.
That evening the Gas Giants (formerly the Gin Blossoms) were playing in Wheeler Park. It was a typical chilly summer evening and I had a blanket around me. Surrounded by friends and loud rock music, I had one beer and fell soundly asleep in the park. When I woke up at the end of the concert, I could just see the last light on the top of the Peaks, and I thought dang, I was a badass today.
5) From being raised on the East Coast to attending college in the Midwest, you’ve been all over the country. Besides Flagstaff, which has been your favorite place that you’ve lived?
Well it was Grinnell Iowa, home of Grinnell College. I left the New York metro area behind and fell in love with the flatness of the midwest, its endless cornfields, and all of the lovely and most friendly people anywhere.
6) How long has NATRA been around? What are some of the biggest changes you have seen in the running community over the past years/decades?
We have run together every Saturday without fail since October 2001. We have weathered sub-zero temperatures, blizzards, hail storms, and heavy rains. The average group size has doubled to about 15 runners a week, and it is becoming more common to have more than 20 runners show up. Otherwise the group’s attitude and zest for trail running has remained the same.
One big difference is that we started reducing the distance of the runs as in the early days we had a reputation of being too “hard core”. We have definitely shed that reputation, and lots of run/walkers participate. At the heart of it though is a core of folks who really enjoy just being together in the forest.
7) In addition to Race Director, you are a Forest Service archaeologist. Which job is the toughest? Is there any way in which all of these jobs are similar?
My job as a federal archaeologist is far more difficult. I hold myself highly accountable to the public since Congress allocates funding for the Forest Service. I manage over 7500 archaeological sites in the forest on the south side of the Grand Canyon. It takes a lot of coordination with my co-workers, dozens of volunteers, partners, tribes, and the public to protect, manage and conserve those special places.
I do not look at race directing as a job since I am unpaid, voluntarily directing two races, and voluntarily organizing the 7 race Flagstaff Summer Series package for the running community. All of the proceeds from the two races I direct goes to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Flagstaff and other Flagstaff running community races put on by non-profits.
The real overlap with my job and running is my ability to organize and rally partners and volunteers to help me out. To succeed at both, I need to have sharp communication skills, have the ability to organize teams, and most importantly know what jobs I need to delegate to others. Both jobs require me to build trust and establish long term relationships with folks so that they are excited to come back year after year.
Race directing and my job as an archaeologist are both physically demanding. Running actually keeps me in shape for my job surveying the forest for archaeological sites, and especially for fire season when I often work at the head of the fire safely leading dozer operators who must suppress the fires and help them avoid damaging archaeological sites at the same time. It is thrilling work, and you have to be very fit. At the same time, the job keeps me in shape for running and race directing. At the Big Brothers Big Sisters Half Marathon this year, I counted my steps and covered a 15K! At Soulstice this year, I covered more than the 8 mile course runners did!
8) Do you have other hobbies besides running?
I love photography. My mom did and she passed that art on to my sister as well. I also love cooking, especially for big groups.
9) Uphill or downhill running?
All the same to me. I used to be a strong uphill runner. Not so much anymore. I actually love power walking uphills, and bombing down the inclines.
10) Cats or dogs?
I grew up with a cat and two dogs. Today the answer is cats. My wife Diana is allergic to dogs. I also find that cats don’t need too much attention, unless it as first thing in the morning when they scratch bags or meow at the top of their lungs to be fed, or when they need us to warm up the bed before they jump up and curl up next to us at night. I truly appreciate their nothing seems to phase them attitude - cracks me up every time.
11) Favorite post-run treat?
Saturday brunch with the gang at Wildlower - I love the protein breakfast bowl.
For more information on NATRA please visit their website: https://www.natra.org/