What the Hill

My wife keeps signing me up for running races. I guess she wants some company during her crazy pursuits. It seems harmless enough so I join her even if I’d rather be doing something less competitive. Those are the kinds of compromises one makes to keep peace in the house, and we’ve been together a long time so something must be working. Anyway she got a great discount on a whole series of races sponsored by a local running store because she bought them as a set. Wait, is this a geography blog or a running blog? Don’t worry, I’ll work geography into this. They’ll share equal billing while I examine an interesting overlap.

Clarendon Day

Clarendon Day 5K
Clarendon Day 5K. Photo by John Sonderman on Flickr (cc)

The Clarendon Day 5K in Arlington, Virginia came next in the series (map). My wife actually ran both the 5K and the 10K back-to-back, although as I mentioned, sometimes I question her sanity. Nonetheless, 5 kilometres (3.1 miles) seemed quite enough for me on Sunday. We could walk to the starting line from our house so I couldn’t find a reasonable excuse to skip it even if I tried.

Running came to me only recently — really the last couple of years — although I enjoyed hiking, biking and other outdoor activities well before that. I discovered pretty quickly that I could run decently well, at a respectable pace although not spectacularly, and I generally finished just barely within the top ten percent for my age group. Ditto for Clarendon Day, 4th out of 48 in the geezer man category.

I got a great time, shaving almost a full minute from my Personal Record, finishing in 20:46 with a 6:41 mile pace. I’d never completed a 5K with a time of 20 minutes in front of it nor managed to keep a pace with a 6 in front of it until then. How was that even possible? Gravity.

Clarendon Day Elevation
Clarendon Day 5K Elevation Elevation
via Pacers Running

Some readers might remember the race I described in Regurgitated. I ran down that same steep hill and then back up! This time the course only went down the hill. I wanted to finish with a sub-20 which is one of those iconic 5K milestone times. Sadly, I think I left any possibility of that behind me long before I took up running. I’ll have to be content with those age adjusting calculators. They said I might have finished sub-20 if only I ran a couple of decades ago.

St. George Marathon

Finish Line
Finish Line. Photo by Nate Grigg on Flickr (cc)

Using gravity seemed almost like cheating. However, those times counted just like any others certified by USA Track and Field and other organizations. People have long used terrain to boost their PR’s especially for marathons. I heard of a race awhile ago that went almost completely downhill, the St. George Marathon. This point-to-point race (map) ran from the Pine Valley mountains into the city of St. George, Utah. In this marathon, runners began at an elevation of 5,240 feet (1,600 metres) and finished at 2,680 feet (815 metres). Nearly eight thousand runners signed up for this event held each October.

I don’t know how they could do it. My quads felt tight after the steep mile of my little neighborhood 5K. I couldn’t imagine how one would feel after running downhill for a full marathon. They probably couldn’t walk for a week.

Mount Charleston Marathon

Mount Charleston, Nevada (35)
Mount Charleston, Nevada. Photo by billy kerr on flickr (cc)

Just a couple of weeks ago, someone I know told me he intended to run the REVEL Mt Charleston marathon next April in Las Vegas, Nevada. This one descended even more rapidly than St. George on its path from mountaintop to city streets (map). Runners began at 7,633 feet (2,325 metres) and finished at 2,507 feet (765 metres), dropping nearly a mile in elevation. Race organizers described it as "incredibly fast and remarkably beautiful."

Why would people subject themselves to such a sustained and drastic 4% downhill? The organizers left no doubt.

Featuring a smooth downhill slope and spectacular scenery in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, this race will be sure to help you set your PR and finally hit that Boston Qualifying time

They even offered a helpful chart that showed finishers at Mt. Charleston averaged 3:57:26 versus 4:28:54 for those at St. George. This race was all about people wanting to qualify for the Boston Marathon. That was the exact reason why my acquaintance will head to Las Vegas too. His current times fell just shy of BQ and he needed that extra boost.

Apparently This is a Thing

Plenty of other downhill marathons hoped to scratch that same itch. It’s quite an honor to qualify for Boston and BQ times are brutal. A simple understanding of geography and terrain could make all the difference between running Boston next year or watching from the sidelines. Just the first page of search engine results produced a long list of possibilities.

I don’t have a burning desire to run a marathon. However, if I do someday, I doubt I could ever achieve a BQ time even with a sharply downhill course. Maybe I could age into it though. The 80 and Over BQ seemed reasonable if I can hold things together long enough.


The first chill of autumn finally reached my home here in the northern hemisphere, signaling winter wouldn’t be too far away. It seemed odd to think about drifting snow when I didn’t even need a jacket until recently. I’d been banking a topic for just such an occasion, a place that invoked wintertime bliss. Snowflake seemed like such a lovely name. It appeared on a map of north central Arizona (map).


Arizona Snow
Arizona Snow. Photo by Julius Whittington on Flickr (cc)

I first spotted Snowflake while researching an earlier Twelve Mile Circle article, Playing Games. My mind wandered over to Snowflake when I noticed its proximity to Show Low, a town named for a card game. I placed a mental reminder that I should examine Snowflake later to see if climatic conditions matched its promising name. Quickly it became apparent that it did not. My eyeballing of a Köppen climate types map of Arizona seemed to place it in type BSk, designated for "cold semi-arid" climates. These areas tended to get quite hot in the summer despite its name, with considerably cooler although dryer conditions in the winter. That didn’t seem to bode well for potential snowflakes. In fact, the town of Snowflake admitted that it only received "modest amounts of quickly-melting winter snowfall."

It did note that visitors could try their hand at cross-country and downhill skiing at the nearby Sunrise Park Resort. However, that involved a 60 mile (100 km) drive into the White Mountains. Those snowflakes probably wouldn’t be related to any of the snowflakes in Snowflake.

The town name didn’t come from its climate.


The Snowflake Monument in Arizona
The Snowflake Monument in Arizona. Photo by Ken Lund on Flickr (cc)

Actually I learned right away that the origin came from a much more interesting source. The theme fit perfectly with the strange twists and turns that so interest the 12MC audience. Snowflake traced its founding to two Mormon pioneers, Erastus Snow and William Flake. They simply combined their names to create Snowflake. I could think of a lot of surnames that would produce much worse combinations. Maybe that will be a future topic. Anyone with entertaining fictional names should feel free to place them in the comments. Maybe we can start our own town.

About Those Founders

Erastus Snow
Erastus Snow. Photo by brewbooks on Flickr (cc)

So Snow + Flake = Snowflake. Now we know the secret and we can end this article, right? Not so fast. The two people involved, Snow and Flake, were pretty interesting too.

Erastus Snow probably made the greater contributions to the LDS Church. Snowflake represented only one of his many achievements. He became a missionary during the earliest days of the Church, including his outreach in search of converts in Scandinavia in 1849. Snow also held a number of Mormon leadership positions and served on the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He led efforts to establish Mormon colonies all over the southwest including Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, as well as founding the city of St. George in Utah. He also served as inspiration for the naming of Snow Canyon State Park and Snow College in his honor, and his bust stands outside of the St. George Tabernacle in St. George (map).

William Jordan Flake, while not quite as accomplished, still achieved a lot in his lifetime. His parents joined the LDS while he was a young child and he traveled across the continent as an overland pioneer when he was nine years old. Brigham Young called on him to establish a settlement in northern Arizona in 1877, so he set off on that mission, meeting up with Erastus Snow and founding Snowflake the following year. His renown came later, briefly serving time in the Arizona Territorial prison in Yuma for polygamy. Flake lived a long time, surviving into the 1930’s when he passed away in Snowflake, the town he inspired. He left numerous descendants including United States Senator Jeff Flake from Arizona, his great-great grandson.

Inland Hurricane

Hurricanes often hit the eastern part of the United States, generally on the Atlantic side or the Gulf of Mexico coast. Sometimes they move inland, weakening as they push away from open water although sometimes causing massive flooding. I was pretty sure none of them ever made it all the way to Utah though. Yet, a random Twelve Mile Circle visitor dropped onto the site from the City of Hurricane in Utah and once again I found myself wondering about that odd situation. It had nothing to do with the visitor of course, the ebb and flow of the Intertubes explained all that, instead I wondered why anyone would call a place Hurricane so obviously far removed from the possibility of such a calamity.

Hurricane, Utah

Sunrise, Hurricane, Utah
Sunrise, Hurricane, Utah by dakman on Flickr (cc)

The naming of Hurricane, Utah (map) wasn’t nearly as dramatic as the name that was selected. A local historical marker explained a series of mundane events.

In 1863 settlers on the Upper Virgin River whose lands were being washed away, made preliminary surveys for irrigating and occupying these lands. Erastus Snow, David H. Cannon and Nephi Johnson came down the hill over an old Indian trail, with a heavy buggy drawn by mules, using ropes to keep it from tipping. A whirlwind took the top off the buggy. Erastus Snow exclaimed, "Well that was a hurricane, we’ll name this hurricane hill." The fault, bench and town were named from this event.

I concluded, a city of fifteen thousand residents got its name from a gust of wind observed by someone who obviously never experienced a real hurricane. Case closed. Can I end the article now?

I did find one fascinating feature, the Hurricane Canal. Southwestern Utah was a harsh, dry landscape not particularly hospitable for farming. Irrigation became a necessity for those early Mormon pioneers. When more people moved into the area they started to envision a canal from the Virgin River as a way to create additional farmland. The men of Hurricane tilled the soil every summer. Then, each winter between 1891 and 1904, they traded farm implements for pickaxes and shovels. By hand, over many years, they dug a 7.5-mile (12.1 km) canal. Their handiwork included twelve tunnels through solid rock. The canal fell into disrepair many years ago although it later became a popular hiking trail maintained by the Bureau of Land Management.

Hurricane, West Virginia

Welcome to Hurricane
Welcome to Hurricanecc)

West Virginia wasn’t exactly noted for hurricanes either, although the aftermath of such storms occasionally made it that far inland with torrential rains and flooding. Maybe I could cut them some slack. Nonetheless, the origin of this Hurricane was similarly mundane. It did have a famous name attached to it ever so tangentially it so I took some solace.

In 1774 a party of surveyors, commissioned by George Washington, traveled down the Kanawha River until they came upon an area at the mouth of a creek where they found trees all bent in the same direction. They called the location "the place of the hurricane" after discovering the bent trees. The creek became known as Hurricane Creek and by 1811, according to early Virginia maps, the town of Hurricane Bridge appeared…

Its ultimate success came much later, particularly with the construction of Interstate 64 and owing to its ideal spot between the cities of Charleston and Huntington (map). Three thousand people lived there in the 1970’s. More than six thousand people live there today.

Hurricane, Missouri

Hurricane, Missouri

There were many more places named Hurricane than I ever expected. Most of them were tiny, insignificant crossroads, like the one in Missouri (map). This one, however, might explain the logic behind several others, so bear with me for awhile. The State Historical Society of Missouri explained,

Hurricane Creek: A large creek in Crooked Creek and Lorance Townships, which flows south and empties into Crooked Creek near Lutesville. It runs with unusual swiftness and violence when a heavy rain falls, making passage across the creek impossible or dangerous. This speed is likened to a storm or hurricane in violence, and hence the stream received this name. It is commonly pronounced “herricane” and is so spelled once in the County Court Record. (Robbins, Wiggs, County Court Records)

The village of Hurricane (map) was named for the creek of the same name that flowed nearby. Let’s keep that in mind.

Hurricane Mills, Tennessee

Hurricane Mills, TN
Hurricane Mills, TN by Brent Moore on Flickr (cc)

I never determined exactly how Hurricane Mills got its name although I devised a theory based upon the previous item. I consulted an 1886 source, Goodspeed’s History of Tennessee that mentioned a local Hurricane Creek.

The county is drained and well watered by numerous. small streams, the prominent ones being Duck and Buffalo Rivers, Tumbling, Hurricane, Blue, Trace, Big and Little Richland, White Oak, Indian and Bear Creeks. Of these Hurricane, White Oak, Big Richland and Blue Creek, furnish excellent water-power for driving machinery.

The same source later referenced "G. W. Hillman’s Hurricane Mills" that was used as a mill for "flour, corn [and a] woolen factory, etc., on Hurricane Creek." These all implied that Hurricane Creek had some power behind it, and I figured it demonstrated the same raging characteristics when flooded as the creek in Missouri. Whatever. That wasn’t even the most interesting feature of Hurricane Mills, the settlement that grew around the mill of the same name.

Hurricane Mills (map) didn’t have any name recognition beyond the local community until the 1960’s when Country Music legend Loretta Lynn bought an old plantation home at that spot for her growing family. She was born into poverty in rural Kentucky during the Great Depression, literally a coal miner’s daughter, and rose to superstardom in a multi-decade career that continues even today. Loretta Lynn’s ranch turned Hurricane Mills into one of Tennessee’s most popular tourist attractions, with several museums, a campground, motocross races and concerts. Some consider it a laid-back Graceland. Loretta Lynn herself performs there several times a year, now well into her eighties. She’s practically a hurricane all on her own.