Sedona Poopgate: The Dirty Details

“Evidence suggests that multiple runners defecated at the school concession stand where the track bathrooms are located”

By Jonathan Gault
February 25, 2022

Running, more than most sports, seems to have a strange overlap with poop. Maybe it’s because one of the sport’s biggest spectacles, the big-city marathon, is conducted without timeouts and on public roads, leaving little room to hide when nature calls. Maybe it’s because a particularly bad case of diarrhea is known as “the runs.”

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Whatever the reason, running has produced more than its share of poop-related stories, from Paula Radcliffe winning the 2005 London Marathon after stopping to go on the side of the road to the “Mad Pooper” leaving stool samples on Colorado lawns in 2017 to Shalane Flanagan ducking into a porta potty during the 2018 Boston Marathon to Marty Hehir finishing 6th at the Olympic Marathon Trials in 2020 and running a 2:11:29 pb despite losing 20 seconds to a bathroom break. Shit happens.

And now we have Poopgate, the controversy that erupted on Tuesday with a tweet from Tinman Elite‘s Sam Parsons and resulted in a 200+ post messageboard thread on LetsRun.com and a story in The New York Times. Yes, the paper of record, whose slogan proclaims “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” has determined that Poopgate meets that criteria.

And with good reason. It may sound silly that, on the eve of the USATF Indoor Championships, one of the biggest stories in running is centered around a mysterious dookie, but the consequences for anyone who trains in Flagstaff — a group that includes dozens of the world’s best distance runners — are very real.

Coaches Stephen Haas and James McKirdy Help Get to the Bottom of Poopgate

So what is Poopgate, and what is the fallout? LetsRun.com spoke with three members of the Sedona/Flagstaff running community to set the record straight: Stephen Haas, an agent with Total Sports and head coach of Under Armour’s Flagstaff-based Dark Sky Distance team; James McKirdy, coach of McKirdy Elite in Flagstaff; and Jennifer Chilton, who as Director of Facilities & Operations for Sedona-Oak Creek Unified School District oversees use of the Red Rock track.

Haas working with Edward Cheserek on the streets of Flagstaff

Flagstaff’s reputation as a training mecca is well-known, with its 7,000 feet of elevation and lengthy trail system drawing some of the world’s top distance runners for training camps (Olympic champions Jakob IngebrigtsenMo Farah, and Matthew Centrowitz have all trained there in the past) in addition to hosting pro groups like Dark Sky Distance, HOKA NAZ Elite, and McKirdy Trained and collegiate powerhouse Northern Arizona University. And for a number of years now, the track at Red Rock Jr. Sr. High School in Sedona, Ariz., located roughly an hour south and at a more modest 4,350 feet of elevation, has been where Flagstaff-based athletes have gone when they want to hit faster track sessions.

The combination of lower altitude and proximity to Flagstaff have made the real estate at Red Rock extremely valuable. Pros used to just show up and use the track when it wasn’t being used. But starting last year, pro groups were expected to pay to reserve a window of time to use the track. And even before Poopgate, that system was starting to buckle.

“The amount of resources it was taking the school for people to keep using the track, opening the gates, opening the bathrooms, it was becoming an issue for the school,” Haas says.

“The school has been dealing with disrespect for a while now,” McKirdy said, “whether it was athletes going into the school or athletes using the parking lot to relieve themselves or athletes using a field as a dumping ground for their waste.”

Then, one day recently, came the incident that Haas describes as the straw that broke the camel’s back. Poopgate.

“Evidence suggests that multiple runners defecated at the school concession stand where the track bathrooms are located,” Chilton wrote in an email to LetsRun.com.

The identity of the pooper(s) is unknown — Haas says he isn’t even sure it was a runner — but a few signs point to it being someone unfamiliar with the track usage policy. First, the bathrooms are meant to be unlocked when the track is reserved through the proper channels. Second, frequent visitors to the Red Rock track know that there is a hotel across the street with public bathrooms that can be used if the ones at the track are locked. Clearly, the recent incident crossed a line.

“The people we have to work with at the school are now having to clean up human feces, that’s not really their job description,” Haas says.

While the specific location — right in front of the locked bathroom — made the most recent incident particularly egregious, it is not the only such incident to occur on school grounds.

“Evidence suggests that defecating on school property in another location has been a long-term occurrence (hopefully in the past), likely as a result of businesses/organizations not properly renting the facilities so that the stadium is appropriately staffed and bathrooms are opened for renters and then locked at the end of an event by assigned employees,” Chilton wrote.

That leads us to the situation now. While Chilton specifically said that professional running groups are not banned from the Sedona track, their access has been effectively eliminated as the school district will not be accepting new reservations for the time being (this is also due in part to the spring sports season at Red Rock, which began on February 7 — the track cannot be booked while school is in session or while it is being used for athletic practices).

Chilton describes the focus on excrement as a “red herring.”

“My focus, largely ignored, is and has been student safety and student priority in use of the track,” Chilton wrote. “It’s the kids’ track.”

Pro Groups Look for Alternatives

The news that the Sedona track is no longer available — Haas says he was told access to the track will be restricted through the end of the school year (May 19) — sent many Flagstaff-based coaches and athletes scrambling, with Haas fielding calls from national federations worried about where their athletes would train during altitude camps.

“This track and where it sits is a very, very important track in global running,” Haas says.

With that in mind, Haas has been in contact with other leaders of the Flagstaff running community, such as NAU coach Mike Smith, NAZ Elite coach Ben Rosario, and Sean Anthony, founder of HYPO2, a company that organizes Flagstaff training camps for a variety of sports. On Tuesday, the group will make a presentation at a Sedona-Oak Creek school board meeting with a plan to create a more workable solution regarding use of the Red Rock track.

“The school just wants a little more organization on how this is all run and making sure the school is taken care of,” Haas says. “…There’s a lot of things that we can do better and we’ve gotta figure this out. But from the school’s standpoint, [this is] not a permanent situation.”

Haas has also been part of a venture working to build a private, all-weather track for pros to use in Camp Verde (one hour south of Flagstaff) but track construction can be expensive and in any event, that track, which has not yet been built, would not be available to use anytime soon. So for now, Flagstaff-based pros will have to decide between elevation (the NAU track in Flagstaff is available but it’s at 7,000 feet), surface (Camp Verde has a track at 3,100 feet, but it’s a dirt track), and distance (Phoenix is at just 1,000 feet of elevation but is a two-hour drive from Flagstaff, one-way) when electing where to do their track work.

Haas is confident the school and the running community can reach some sort of agreement in the coming weeks.

“I feel like the school, the [track] coach, everyone down there at Sedona, they like having the pros around if the pros respect the track and we don’t have problems we’ve had the last couple weeks,” Haas says.

“The solution is simple: just strictly complying with existing requirements, rules, and expectations, and prioritizing students,” Chilton wrote.

There is a larger lesson here for the elite running community in the United States, many of whom are reliant on public tracks: be respectful.

“I think it’s incredibly sad that [in] the running community – and this is an issue that goes everywhere, this is an issue in Boulder, this is an issue everywhere – a few people feel they that have the right to disrespect the school property the way that it has been done,” McKirdy said. “And it really gives the rest of the community a really bad name. Most of the professional groups in town are very respectful and they’re honorable and it’s really sad that Sedona High School has had to put up with this. I fully support whatever decision that they make.”

Discussion: Poopgate update: “Evidence suggests that multiple runners defecated at the school concession stand”

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