10 pairs of running shoes in varying degrees of cleanliness circled in a tight group alongside the road.
The owners spread their arms around each others shoulders in camaraderie while their eyes locked on their coach, Greg Coplen.
"Take some gratitude moments," he said. "This won't happen again with this specific group. It's a pretty awesome deal. You're laying the foundation for the people who follow after you."
Among the 10, seven with tight ponytails and colorful attire gently nodded. They absorbed Coplen's words, knowing that they were making history as Valor Christian's first team to qualify for Nike Cross Nationals.
"We're going to run this one for the seniors, who we'll be saying goodbye to for cross country," Coplen continued. "Before it lightens up for track..."
"We're not losing anybody!" Ashley Jones quipped with a smile and twinkle in her eyes, leading the group to share a laugh.
It would be one of many, as the squad endured their final pre-NXN workout Tuesday afternoon in good spirits. With the day's instructions set: minute intervals at race pace, they were off.
They ran down a vacant dirt road that was still drying from last week's heavy snow, just beyond the most southern tip of Denver where the hills roll south into the abyss between the capital and Castle Rock.
It was unlikely that clean shoes wouldn't survive this run.
Their ponytails dangled back and forth in dark blue hues of silhouettes while the sun descended into the mountains, taking the warmth with it. They filled the spaces around them with laughter, as if the impending race - Nationals - held no qualm over them.
And while they were just days away from the biggest race of all of their young careers, there was something decisive lingering in the air. It wasn't fear or anxiety, it was confidence.
The confidence may surprise some - as Valor has to be the Darkest of Dark Horses to line up on the starting line in Portland for Nationals, but they trained and raced through the season knowing that they had two semi-secret weapons they'd get to unleash at Nike Cross Regional, as Lanie Szuch and Isabella Prosceno - two transfers who had to sit out the regular season due to CHSAA rulings - would get to race alongside them.
They knew all along that they were much stronger than they appeared. The only real question they had for themselves was How Strong?
Next Page: Realizing Their Potential...