We’re number 2! We’re number 2!

I finally got in a XC race with enough teammates to score! The race was a club/community race a couple hours away and one of my Oiselle Volee teammates had done the tough work of recruiting and organizing a scoring team (4 person team in this case).

I drove down the morning of (over slightly icy roads and through glorious views of snow-capped peaks) and met my 3 teammates as we gathered before the race. It was still chilly but sunny and clear – perfect racing weather! We enjoyed the rare opportunity to warm up as a team, did some panicked pre-race peeing in the bushes (yay for only 1 working park-bathroom toilet and a huge herd of runners :-[), and then lined up in a small grass field for the start. There were about 100 runners in the race and we were several spots deep on the small starting line, shadows blending together in the bright early morning sunlight. We stood and said the pledge of allegiance (which was especially meaningful/nerve-inducing in light of the upcoming election) and then took our ‘ready’ stance to wait for the starting whistle.

“Pweeeeeeet!” The whistle blew and we were off, streaming around the starter and race director who hugged the single telephone pole amid the jostling crowd of runners. I got out well and found myself being swept along the first few turns, legs feeling like they were spinning out of control. At only 400m in we hit the infamous creek crossing, which was less of a creek and more of a deep, rocky ditch that caught several runners unaware. Fortunately my teammates who’d done the course previously had warned me about the tripping hazard and I scampered through without getting tripped up. I then almost ran straight into the back of an older man who’d sprinted the start but was now easing up a bit on the rolling hills. I slipped past him and continued weaving my way along with the rushing stream of fellow runners.

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Looking way more in control than I felt 😛

The first mile was windy, narrow, and rocky, and although my lungs and muscles felt fine I felt like I was running just barely in control, and was a little worried about tripping due to only being able to see the backs of the runners ahead of me and a foot or two of the ground in front of my feet. Thankfully the path widened at the mile mark and I was able to get a bit more room and focus on a group of 3 women ahead of me. We turned onto a small loop for mile 2 that wove through a boardwalk and a long stretch of brush-edged dirt single track. I was holding steady behind the women in front of me coming out of that loop and back onto the wide section, but then got passed by another woman who was moving strongly towards the group. I borrowed some of her momentum to work my way up towards the group going into the single track but didn’t know if I’d actually be able to catch them. We entered the third mile and also started lapping runners who were on their first little boardwalk/singletrack loop.

I tried to gasp a ‘good job’ to each runner I passed as I chased down the pack of women in front of me. I suddenly realized that if I had the air to say ‘good job’ I could probably be pushing harder, and used a little lull in pace as an opportunity to throw in a surge past the entire group of women and towards the two lead women who were starting to pull away in front. The effectiveness of my little burst kind of surprised me – I dropped the group without any resistance and found myself gaining slightly on the woman in front of me.

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Surging past the pack, wheeee!

We came out of the little loop and into the final half mile and I tried to lengthen my stride to see if I could chase her down. As we wound into the final 200m I couldn’t quite close on her, but pushed a final kick as a runner came up behind me, breathing loudly. “Ahhhh don’t let that be that pack of women!” I thought as I sprinted into the finish.

As I bent over feeling a bit barfy I was pleased to see it’d actually been a couple guys that made my finish panicky, and that they’d pushed me to a 20:05 5k! Soooo close to that sub-20 goal! I was even more pleased to get to cheer in my teammates who were sprinting in just a few seconds behind me!

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Goooo Oiselllllllle!!!

There’s just something awesome about finishing a race, hands on knees, and getting to stumble your way to the side of the finishing chute to holler for your teammates! With the first 3 of us in with only a few runners between us and all finishing in the top 15 women we knew we must have scored pretty well out of the the women’s teams. We shuffled back along the finish to cheer in our final teammate and then jogged a stiff-legged cool down before enjoying the post-race spread of yogurt, crackers, and beer.

We ended up placing 2nd for the women’s teams (thus the title of this post) and basked in the post-race pain/glow for a bit with our shiny 2nd-place ribbons before all running off to kids/family/spouses and other weekend activities. With the low-key but competitive atmosphere, my almost sub-20 time, and the joy of racing with a strong team this was definitely one of the highlights of my racing season.

Hurrah for club cross-country and the awesomeness of racing with an amazing group of women!

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Enjoying the 5k pain cave 😛  #headsupwingsout

Success – I embraced the nature over 5 kilometers of steep hills, shin-deep grass, and the occasional ice patch

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Saturday’s race morning started after a fitful night of being woken multiple times by a restless dog and a husband who was really excited about a bear on the patio at 2am. Knowing my alarm was going off at 4:20am, I was much less thrilled about the disruptive middle of the night visitor. Luckily no one was eaten and I managed a few solid hours of sleep before my alarm pulled my out of bed and into the dark morning.

I dressed, grabbed my gear, and drove the two hours to the course, wishing I had thought to make some coffee for the drive.Happily, the sun began to rise over the peaks just as I arrived, pulling me out of my drowsy state and into race prep mode. I registered and quickly started my warm up jog to wake my legs and get the chill out of my hands and feet. I spotted one other gal doing drills in an ankle-length down coat and runner’s cap and figured she might be my main competition in what was looking to be a rather sparse field.

The small group of us – mainly blue-lipped men in skimpy shorts and tank tops and more comfortable-looking women in tights, long sleeves, and gloves – gathered at the start for some pre-race instructions, an ‘on your mark’, and a very exciting send-off signaled by surprisingly-loud mini canon fire!

I took off conservatively, well aware of the steady hill that would take us from about the first quarter mile up to the 1 mile mark. A group of the tank-top men and I slogged up the double-track, gradually spreading out as the hill took its toll.

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The start, and the hill in the background.

The second mile started with a snow-covered switchback onto the only flat bit apart from the start, and then swiftly dove downhill on some frozen dirt single track that wound through gray and yellow aspens. This spat us out into some of the most challenging terrain of the course – deep, uneven grass.

I had somehow ended up in first but kept seeing the gal from the warmup whenever we went around a switchback. Now I was fighting the cold, fatigue from the long first mile climb, and the uneven, momentum-sapping grass to stay ahead of her. I tried to follow the men’s lead on the challenging terrain, sticking to the shortest grass and prancing around the many bumps, holes, and rocks. I rolled my ankle once but fortunately felt it spring right back with just a tiny twinge.

The course brought us tantalizingly close to the finish with about 800m to go, and then sent us around on one more final bit of single track, another section of knobby overgrown field, and then down a steep mowed-grass hill into the finishing flat. I was finally able to stride out and felt the effort, but was determined to stay ahead of the runner behind me who’s footsteps were growing alarmingly close. I pumped my arms through the finish and turned to see a guy finishing close behind and then the gal I’d been racing against.

We all spent a few moments congratulating each other and commiserating over the gnarly course, and then stampeded the concessions stand to get our well-earned muffins and free coffee. I settled on a sun-warmed boulder to sip my coffee and congratulated myself on keeping the ‘curse you mother nature!’ thoughts to a minimum during the race.

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COOOFFFFFEEEEEEE. With melted/dissolved whipped cream 😀

After the (glorious) caffeine kicked in I cooled down while cheering on the middle-school racers and then met up to cheer with a Volee teammate who was coaching a local high school team over the same brutal course. There’s nothing quite like spending the morning after a hard effort sprinting around a cross-country course in the Autumn sunshine cheering for a bunch of speedy young upstarts!

 

Here’s a question for you all! Favorite beverage post-race: hot (or iced!) coffee, cold beer, fizzy sports-drink? Or something more unique?

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A glorious day for racing and cheering

Ready for some woman-versus-nature cross country

“The freedom of cross-country is so primitive. It’s woman versus nature”  -Lynn Jennings, 3x World XC champion

 

I’m hoping to tap into the spirit of that quote tomorrow. I’ve signed up for another race on one of the local high school courses and it promises to be a stingingly chilly battle over hilly, grassy, oxygen-deprived terrain. There may even be snow!

I know the times won’t matter coming off this course, which is honestly a bit of a relief after last week’s race. I’m ready to just get out there with my Oiselle Volee teammate to race our (freezing) legs off over the nastiest, but most beautiful terrain the high rockies have to offer.

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Image from here

 

 

Cross-country: Sometimes it rocks, sometimes giant grass loops of doom chew you up and spit you out

I ran another cross country 6k against collegiate and club athletes this Saturday out in Denver. The course was described as flat and grassy and I was really looking forward to pushing myself to a fast time against the strong field of women. I drove the few hours to the course on Saturday morning, arrived with plenty of time to warm up and take in the big HS/college meet atmosphere, and then shuffled around on the starting line with the other non-collegiate athletes looking for a non-occupied starting box. We endured one non-firing starting pistol issue and then were off!

My thoughts during the race didn’t exactly live up to my pre-race excitement…

During the crowded first mile as we all fought for space on the narrow, chalk-outlined course my thoughts ranged from the semi-positive (“Well at least I’m *near* being on the course here…and have managed to avoid getting shoved into a tree so far!”) to the frustrated (“Holy frack, what is it with these girls cutting in front of me and then slowing down?!?”). I was having some trouble finding a clear path at this point and probably wasted some energy weaving and putting in little burst to get clear. The grass proved to be a more challenging surface to run on than I’d anticipated – it was rough and uneven and kept pushing my legs around, throwing me off balance. Running over a series of awkward bumps that causes your hips to ache and thighs to continually bounce off one another isn’t exactly the best way to feel strong and graceful…

At the 2 mile mark I got clear of the crowd and my thoughts briefly turned more positive. I could see one of the women I’ve run against and placed near about 50m ahead of me so knew I wasn’t doing too terribly and had someone to focus on reeling in. Alas, shortly thereafter a side-stitch slowed me down for a bit. I recovered and picked it back up, picking off a few women, but then got hit with another bout of rough breathing. As we neared the third mile the heat (70, but blazingly sunny) started to wear on me and the good feeling patches started to be outnumbered by the rough-feeling ones. The giant grass loops seemed tedious and unending, lulling me into an inward focus that emphasized the discomfort rather than the clusters of women that I should have been focused on chasing down.

At 3 miles I tried really hard to convince my brain that 1200m wasn’t *that* far but was apparently not very persuasive, as I couldn’t find the gear or motivation to pick the pace up enough to pass the few women that were theoretically close enough to catch. The last 400m consisted of a long straight parallel to the finish straight, a hairpin turn, and then another 200m into the distant finish. I was relieved to have the entire long, agonizing 200m to myself, glad to at least avoid the shame of lacking the will power to fight another runner’s kick in the last stretch. I wobbled through the finish and my jagged breathing tried to turn into little, pitiful cries as I hunched over, hands to my knees. Thankfully some saintly volunteer handed me a lovely paper cup of chilly water and dumping this over my head brought me back to some semblance of a functional human being.

I spent a few minutes chatting with some other women about the race (we almost universally disliked the wonky grass and long-ass finish) and then did the usual cool down thing, with many more breaks than usual. At least my legs were dead in addition to my mental focus! Upon getting home I saw that I had run a bit slower than my 6k a few weeks prior, though on a tougher course. When I looked at times for women that had been at both meets the average change was actually right around 0 seconds, so I was in good company with my small increase in time.

I am still a bit disappointed by my lack of competition-brain during the race, but am glad I travelled to the meet. Even if it didn’t turn out quite as I wanted it was a grueling workout for my lungs and legs, a good experience navigating a crowded course, and a great excuse to run around in my almost-underwear with a bunch of other strangely running-obsessed women.

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Devil’s Dash -first ‘team’ cross-country race since college!

I ran my first cross-country race with a team since college last weekend!!!

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Check out those matching singlets!

Oookay, so we were only a team of *two* and weren’t running for a score, but it was still amazing to have a teammate out there on the course and have someone with which to excitedly discuss the just-completed race. An added bonus – my teammate coaches high school, so we spent our cool down sprinting back and forth on the course cheering for her team as they covered the terrain we’d just raced through.

The race itself was also a blast, although a bit rougher than my last race. We were running in the coaches/citizens/middle schoolers race so everything from bib pickup to the actual start time communications was a little sketchy due to the real meet emphasis being the large high school races. However, we all made it to the starting line decently warmed up, where I met up with my Volee teammate for some pre-race chitchat and strides. We found ourselves surrounded by a surprisingly large crowd of uniformed, nervous middle schoolers and tough coaches and open runners. We both squeezed into the 2nd row of starters after our last couple strides and got ready to take off.

The starter raised his pistol, gave us the ‘ready’ command, squeezed the trigger………………and then lowered his arm with a laugh as the blank failed to go off. The crowd of nervous runners laughed back with a startled giggle as we all tried to settle our heart rates from their sudden, lurching increase that accompanied the anticipation of the brief mad dash that comes with every crowded race start. I still felt my heart pounding in my ears when the starter lifted his arm again, and, as a result, surged a bit too enthusiastically of the line when the gun did actually fire.

The first 100m were crowded and chaotic, with my teammate and I fighting not to get squashed in the mayhem. About 50m in the course began to funnel, and an older man and a younger boy who had sprinted ahead of me both suddenly slowed right as the course narrowed to double-track, causing me to veer back and forth in an adrenaline-fueled quest to get around them. I wasted a bit of energy dashing around them through the weeds, and came around them feeling rushed and heavy-legged. However, I now had a clear view of the leaders, and thought I’d have a better chance of holding a strong pace if I didn’t get stuck in the larger pack. I spent the rest of the first mile feeling like my legs were spinning almost out-of-control, and like my breathing was on the edge of hyperventilation. Negativity threatened to drown my race from the very start, but luckily I have plenty of experience feeling like crud through the start of races and I was able to tune out my brain’s anxious chatter about the heavy legs and already suffering lungs. I later found out I came through the first mile about 15 seconds faster than my average pace, and much quicker than anything I’ve been doing in training.

In the second mile I paid for my over-enthusiastic start, slowing by almost 40 seconds/mile and just struggling through with the hope that I would eventually catch one of the runners ahead of me. It wasn’t the best of times but it was great practice in staying tough when everything seems to be going horribly. The opportunity to cheer on my close-behind teammate on a hairpin turn helped too, reminding me that we were at least in this horrible, painful business together!

Eventually the slower pace settled my breathing and brought some pop back into my legs, and I realized going into the third mile that I was within shot of the 2nd place woman*, a very fit looking runner who’d I’d noted on the starting line. I started picking off middle schoolers ahead of me (sorry boys) and eventually got on 2nd place’s back. I was still hurting but convinced myself to push past her strongly, hoping she’d be convinced enough of my effortless advance that she wouldn’t also pick it up and force me to reeeaaaally work for it. She was hurting badly and let me pass without much fight. I was embarrassingly pleased by this – I was also hurting badly and sure didn’t want to have to repeat the strong-pass-attempt performance!

We finally hit 1k to go and I managed to pick it up just a little more for a strong push into the finish. Just as in the 6k the week prior I could’t pull a kick out of my legs**, but I managed to at least hold pace through the line before stumbling through the chute in a state of nauseated fatigue. As I limped out of the chute I remembered that my teammate hadn’t been far being, so shuffle-jogged back around the finish to cheer her in. She arrived shortly, and we both spent the next 10 minutes trying to fake smiles and pep as her nervous high school athletes quizzed us on the course and asked why we looked so spent from the mild, mostly-flat terrain. “What, no, we feel great!” we chirped as we tried not to puke.

She and I parted ways as she went to prep her athletes, and then joined back up for some fairly challenging cool down work that involved repeated bouts of sprinting followed by cheering. The high schoolers raced amazingly and it was inspiring watching them work together over the hot, rough fields, faces showing the same freshly familiar race strain that my teammate and I had just experienced. It was amazing to have the chance to race and then turn right around to give back to the next generation of cross-country runners with cheers and encouragement.

Here’s to hoping those kids will stay joyfully passionate about the sport and end up as older, but still enthusiastic, racing fools like us!

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*We both got beat by a middle schooler. She broke 20 minutes which is *ridiculously* good for a middle school girl at 6000 feet elevation!

**I know, I know I need to start adding more strides and maybe some little spurts at the end of workouts. But this end-of-race kick used to come so naturally and I keep forgetting it’s gone until that last 100m when I go to shift gears and just…can’t! A little frustrating…

Colorado College Invite XC: things I learned along the way

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This past Saturday I ran my first really competitive/large field cross-country race in over a year and my first cross-country 6k/first race in bun-huggers since college. The combination of firsts-in-way-too-long made for an exciting, nerve-wracking experience. Would I get pooped out the back of the field, left to stumble along in my near-underwear uniform, pale thighs slogging along well behind the pack? Or would I get pulled along by the crowd to a fun, fast race?

Fortunately, the race gods went with option number two and I had a great time on the flat, fast course, chasing down other women the entire race and finishing with a much better than expected 6k time of 24:47 for 35th/92 runners.

Coming back to this style of racing also taught me a few new things and reminded me of some good lessons from the past:

  1. Sleep the night before doesn’t *really* matter. Sometimes I stress about how awful it will feel to drag my butt out of bed super early after a poor night’s sleep, but the experience of a late camp set-up (yes, we camped out the night before), cold night of tossing and turning in the tent, and 5am wakeup followed by a great race reminded me that good pre-race attitude is often more important than the precise pre-race routine. I still tried to get decent sleep the week leading up and made sure to manage more problematic pre-race factors like food (oatmeal a few hours before) and hydration (ran out of water on the hour drive down, not exactly optimal but at least I drank some…). My high school coach used to say the sleep that mattered happened two nights before, and it was good to be reminded of this since I can get a little frustrated with poor pre-race sleep.
  2. Check the porta-potty seat before plopping yourself down. I got up from my 5-minutes-before pre-start pee and discovered that if I’d sat a few inches further back I would have ended up with a lovely pile of someone else’s poo stuck to my rear. Even with the narrow miss (THANK YOU LORD!!!) I made good use of hand sanitizer EVERYWHERE before going on my way.
  3. Trust your body. I got out a bit slow in this race due to my altitude and lack-of-fitness induced sluggish turnover, but then started feeling really good about 800m in. Sure, we still had over 5k to go, but I decided to make a break for the pack ahead and ended up catching up to them and then maintaining that momentum throughout the remainder of the race. If I had let my mind convince me to hang back, rather than going when I felt good, I might have ended up just comfortably running along in the back pack, failing to really push myself and coming away from the race much less satisfied. Obviously this strategy of turning the mind down and letting the legs and lungs have their say has to be modified in longer races, but it felt good to remember how to respond decisively to the little unexpected surges of strength that come during a relatively short, fast race.
  4. Trail races have made me nicer. I kept getting the urge to chat briefly with people mid-race or to offer encouragement to the women around me as we ran. I had to suppress this a bit since they likely would have been a bit freaked out, but I did take advantage of my positive attitude to my competitors to do some fun post-race socializing. Even the most competitive runners are usually sociable and gracious post-race, but it was kind of funny comparing the mid-race attitudes and interactions between this type of race and the more laid-back, endurance-focused trail races that I’ve been doing since last summer.
  5. A coach can’t run the race for you, but they can make a critical difference during the race. I was lucky enough to have MountainMan with me on this adventure and he acted as my coach during the race, yelling encouragement and cues to keep me on track. Going into the last 600m I was trailing two women and had reached the level of discomfort where I was merely thinking vaguely about keeping up with them to the finish. MM yelled “You have two minutes to go, you can pass these two!” and it suddenly became apparent that yea, that was a great goal! “I can do anything for two minutes, let’s chase them down” ran through my head and I immediately picked up the pace to pass the first girl. I didn’t quite execute the plan, getting out kicked by both women in the final 50m, but just the act of going for it was fun and reminded me how helpful it can be to have an outside voice pointing out strength that might be hidden from one’s own mind in the mid-race fog of pain and exhaustion.

Overall I learned or was reminded of some valuable lessons and had an amazingly fun, exciting race that makes me look forward to the rest of the Fall season.

And, most importantly of all, I only *almost* sat in poop!

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What are you all’s most valuable running/racing lessons? Or horrifying pre-race/porta-potty stories?

 

Cross-country on the trails (Eric Spry Memorial 5k race report)

Saturday morning I woke up early to get my race gear together, drive up the ski hill, and watch a bunch of high school kids kick butt on the same course that I would be attempting to survive later that afternoon. It was just a little intimidating watching a bunch of in-shape kids suffering over the course!

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These girls were flying on the downhill…after a mile-long climb to the top

I spent an hour watching the races and then headed down to the start to warm up for the citizen’s race, the whole time accompanied by a weird little weather system that rotated through sun, thunder, rain, and more sun. Lucky for me the weather stopped on the ‘sunshine’ setting for the grown-ups’/non-team race so we spent our time on the start line getting crispy instead of shivering in the rain like half the high schoolers had. As I warmed up I watched a stream of HS kids with ice packs, scrapes from falls, and mud-covered back milling around – not exactly what you want to see when you’re up next!

Before the start we had a brief moment of silence in the start area for the race’s namesake, a former local HS runner who had passed away several years ago, and then gathered together on the line to honor his namesake race with what we hoped would be some gritty racing efforts. The field was small but there were a few gals in the mix who I had raced before, so I knew I’d have some women to chase over the 5k course.

The starter counted us down and I false-started a little before the gun (oops!), but found myself swallowed by the group half a stride in. We all spent the first 50m or so bumping elbows and nudging each other through the narrow start, but then sorted ourselves out by pace as we broke onto open road for the second 100m. The race then turned onto dusty single track for a long 1-mile grind up the hill. At this point I had one girl (a 12yo trail-running prodigy), a HS age boy, the WhiteShirt gal from the last race, and a middle-aged man ahead of me and was pleased to have a few people to aim for during the race.

Unfortunately, WhiteShirt pulled off about 400m into the climb, just as she had last race. On talking to her post-race I learned that she’s a former soccer player and doesn’t warm up for races, so usually has a really rough 1st mile. Ouch :-/  I went by her, a bit disappointed to have suddenly lost the next nearest woman, and at now having to be the one in front getting chased! I turned my sights on the middle-aged guy ahead of me and focused on keeping my pace up over the remainder of the climb.

At the 1 mile mark the course levels out and then pounds down a wide dirt maintenance road for about half a mile. The HS kids were now volunteering on the course and their cheers of encouragement were welcome as I focused on spinning my legs and not falling flat on my face on the bumpy, packed dirt. I skittered around the turn at the bottom and climbed back up for a bit, and then got directed onto a narrow grassy trail through some fancy vacation condos and back out onto the dirt. I hadn’t caught sight of WhiteShirt coming out of the last turn, so started to think that I might actually hold her off for a second place female finish behind the speedy 12 year old, who was now out-of-sight up ahead.

The last mile of the course looks nice on paper with a steady downhill, but in reality is made brutal by the mix of downhill and unpleasant surfaces. The first half is downhill on rough dirt with loose rocks that require some extremely precise footwork to get through without risking injury, and the second half is a quad-destroying steep downhill on a rock-hard paved bike path into a brief uphill finish. I was alone at this point with the man ahead of me out of sight around the bends and WhiteShirt too far back to see behind me. I tried my best to roll down the final asphalt segment while my legs whimpered and my lungs struggled to breathe through the jarring impacts. The finish finally came into sight around the last hairpin turn and I stumbled through, relieved to have avoided my standard habit of getting caught at the end and happy to see that I’d succeeded in beating my goal of sub-24 minutes with a 23:55.

I cheered in WhiteShirt, who came in smiling with a few members of the soccer team that she coaches (yea, she probably could have caught me if she’d wanted to…) and a few other friends running the race. The post-race people-watching was pretty hilarious as a bunch of stiff-legged high school kids weaved between exhausted adults, all of us now suffering from the same quad-wrenching ascents and descents.

I shuffled through a painful cool down and drove home to recover, only to see a message from a friend who I’d been messaging before the race:

“You should definitely come race the [NextSkiTownOver] XC race. I’ve heard it gives that course a run for its money”

 

Oh lord, what have I gotten myself into with these high-altitude, mountain-town XC races???

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At least they didn’t make us run straight up this…