"Ready... Set... Go!"
Head coach Jeff Krause clicked his stopwatch in the air, sending eight girls off the starting line.
On the docket was a comfortable three mile warm-up, followed by some dynamic stretches and 4x400 meter repeats with a 200 meter jog in between.
It's the equivalent of pie after all that turkey and mashed potatoes. It's dessert.
And it must be eaten.
Emily Lamontagne popped off the line and quickly went to work while the sun began its slow descent in the sky behind the mountains to the west.
The once-blue sky turned to various hues of cotton-candy purples and pinks. A classic Colorado evening, excluding the mild temperatures.
But no one was complaining.
Krause, alongside coaches Anne Kraus and Simon Escorcia, eyed the pack cruise around the track.
The high-speed Arapahoe train cruised around the track effortlessly. The culmination of a season of work.
Lamontagne hit the final straight with a poker-face that betrayed nothing. Coach Krause read out the splits as the girls came running in with hints of slight smiles painted across their faces.
"1:20... 1:21...1:22...1:23...1:24... 1:25..."
Within seconds of finishing their fourth and final interval, smiles and a light laughter spilled out of the pack.
If running right around 5:30 pace was difficult, you couldn't tell by the energy still bubbling beneath the surface of every Arapahoe runner.
Oh, the perks of peaking.
With the day's work done, the MileSplit50 No. 4 ranked and CHSAA Class 5A state champion Arapahoe girls headed to the picnic table on the northwest side of the school. The table of which had become somewhat of a hub for their daily workouts.
The meeting spot.
With the workout behind them now, it became clear that there was a very visible balance of intensities. The mood chilled like the cool breeze that drifted over the Denver suburb as the sun took its warmth with it somewhere behind the mountains.
When it's time to run, they run. When it's time to have fun, they have fun.
Whatever the pursuit, they do it whole-heartedly.
What's that clichéd saying?
Work hard, play hard.
Sure, there are nights of driving around and singing along to the National Anthem (True story - "It's probably one of our number-one pump-up songs," shared Lamontagne with laughter.) There are trips to find be best ice-cream shops. There are sleepovers and movie-nights. And there is plenty of laughter.
But when this group of girls toe the starting line of any workout or race, the ladies of Arapahoe go to work.
It's a chemistry that's proven itself in their results.
Trying To Doing
Over the past three years Arapahoe has claimed the Colorado Class 5A State Cross Country title twice, and the one they didn't win -- 2020 -- the program finished second to Cherry Creek. To add to that fact, two years before, in 2018, Arapahoe didn't even qualify for the state meet.
In other words, this team went from watching from the sidelines to winning.
Talk about a turnaround.
Over the past three years, Arapahoe has gone from trying to be a great team, to realizing they already were one. They had to come to the reality that 2019 was no fluke, and neither was 2020.
There was a shift beneath the surface. A rearranging of the tectonic plants. Or, a refocus on the internal over the external.
"This year, we could win, we could not," Cardello explained of their state-meet approach. "But we decided to just to go out there and do our best with it."
And their best culminated with another state title, tallying just 42 points.
While simplifying the approach by just going out there and doing their thing clearly worked, one thing is for certain, and that there's more than meets the eye when it comes to Arapahoe.
While running can often appear to be an individual pursuit, Arapahoe looks at it the way Herb Brooks looked at it when assembling his Miracle On Ice 1980 Olympic gold medalist squad -- it's not about any one individual, it's about the team.
And this team is more than seven runners in the same uniform on the starting line, they're friends.
"We do everything together," Mitchell explained of the team's chemistry. "It makes running more fun."
They're a tightly knit group who are clearly running for each other, and the collective goal.
"We like to carpool to meets as much as we can," Cardello explained. "Because everyone is stressed, but knowing you're all there for each other is important."
Arapahoe wears the camaraderie of shared sweat and tears like a badge of honor -- it's something to be earned and appreciated. And through the shared experience of the pursuit of pain, they've bonded into something so tightly wound, it can't be broken.
And so it each has their spot within the crew, and some have nicknames and a stories behind them that cannot be shared.
(Ok, that last line was a little embellishment for the sake of adding mystery.)
Get To Know Arapahoe
What makes the Arapahoe girls dangerous is their ability to mix and match on the course, and that includes more than just a lineup change. It actually lends itself within the team's names -- there are two Avas, a Carli with a I, a Carly with a Y, and a Anna and a Mia.
Add the multiple nicknames and various personalities that blend like a perfectly cooked home-made spaghetti sauce. The suburb mixture of basil, oregano, black pepper, salt, bay leaf, garlic and sugar.
Oops, I just gave away my mother's secret spaghetti recipe.
Arapahoe is a tessellation of moving parts that somehow always fits.
She has led Arapahoe for much of the season. The junior dropped a personal best of 17:09 at Desert Twilight and then led the squad at the 2021 Colorado Class 5A State Cross Country Championships, where she finished third in 18:01.
Lamontagne was also one of three ladies from the 2019 state championship squad, where she finished 29th. As a freshman, she ran a 19:07 season-best time at the Cherry Creek Steve Lohman Invite.
Then she really made a leap.
Last year Lamontagne finished eighth at state and ran a season best of 17:48 at the Heritage Distance Classic.
Her favorite workout: 400s
There is Ava Mitchell, AKA Mom, AKA Lil' Wayne.
Mitchell ran a PR of 17:20 at Desert Twilight this year and finished two-seconds and one-place behind Lamontagne at state, running 18:03 to finish fourth.
The junior is the second of three that ran on that 2019 state championship squad, where she finished fourth. Mitchell owned a 18:09 season-best her freshman year.
Last year she duplicated her 2019 finish, crossing the line in fourth and she lowered her PR to 17:48 at the Heritage Distance Classic.
Favorite workout: Tempo
Escorcia ran a personal-best of 17:37 at Desert Twilight this year and finished 16th at state, running 18:53.
The junior is the third of three that ran on that 2019 state championship squad, where she finished sixth. Escorcia ran a season best time of 18:06 her freshman year at Liberty Bell.
Last year Escorcia finished 14th at state and ran a season-best of 18:07 at the Heritage Distance Classic.
Favorite workout: Fartlek
Since 2019, Lamontagne, Mitchell and Escorcia have been the backbone of the team.
They've been to the top of the mountain. They've seen its snowy peaks. And this year they've taught the team the route back to the top.
While the trio of juniors give the squad some firepower up front, what makes Arapahoe additionally dangerous on the course is their depth, which includes a trio of sophomores and one senior.
Anna Bridges, Karli Holmes and Carly Perdew -- known as "daughters" to the trio of juniors within the nicknames -- make up the trio of sophomores.
This year Bridges saved her best race for last, finishing 11th at the CHSA Class 5A State Championships. She was Arapahoe's third runner that day. Bridges ran a PR of 18:19 at Desert Twilight this year.
Last year she finished 43rd at state and ran a season-best of 19:52.
Likewise, Holmes (pictured below - bib #60) finished 18th at state this year, where she was Arapahoe's fifth and final scorer. On that day she was The Closer. The sophomore ran 18:20 PR at Desert Twilight.
What's additionally interesting about Holmes is that a year ago she wasn't running. This is her first season of cross country -- and she didn't run track.
Favorite workout: 200s
Perdew (pictured above - bib #74) made quite a leap this year, too.
The sophomore finished 35th at state and ran a PR of 18:29 at Desert Twilight.
Last year she was on Arapahoe's junior varsity squad and never broke 20 minutes. Her season best 5K time was 20:02.
And then there's the lone-senior, Mia Cardello.
While Cardello (pictured above - teal top) doesn't own any motherly or fatherly nicknames, or any odd nickname at that, she wears the coveted "C" badge of team captain on the top-left of her black Arapahoe singlet.
Team Captain is the nickname, perhaps.
"It is an intricate system," she explained of the nicknames with a mischievous smile.
Like several on this squad, Cardello improved drastically this year. She finished 67th at state and ran a PR of 18:51 at Desert Twilight.
Last year she ran on Arapahoe's JV squad and broke 20 once: a 19:32 clocking at the Heritage Distance Classic.
Favorite workout: Not mile-repeats.
Now Cardello is headed into the final race of her high school career, with one of the best teams in the country. The moment is not lost to her.
"I never expected to love running," Cardello said. "Just being around these girls who work so hard, but also have fun doing it, I'm nostalgic."
All Eyes On RunningLane
This Saturday in Huntsville, Alabama, Arapahoe will toe the line at the Garmin RunningLane Championships alongside the best girls squads in the country. Arapahoe may feel like underdogs.
And perhaps not-so-ironically enough, their biggest competition will be coming from home.
Home, as in Colorado.
The depth of Colorado has been incredible this year, and three squads will head to RXC2 ranked in the top five nationally. Four are ranked in the top 20.
There is US No. 3 Niwot, US No. 4 Arapahoe, US No. 5 Cherry Creek and US No. 15 Valor Christian.
By the looks of it, we've got a hotly contested battle at hand.
Arapahoe had a team average of 18:30.9 and a 1-5 split of 54 seconds at the 2021 Colorado Class 5A State Cross Country Championships.
Their average was just under a second behind US No. 3 Niwot, which averaged 18:30.08 to win the CHSA 4A state title.
In the 2021 Colorado State Championships Powermerge, these two teams were separated by single-digits.
"It's going to be very competitive," Mitchell said of RunningLane. "We really want to do our best, and just put it out there."
Just like they did last month at state. And the year before. And the year before.
Arapahoe's girls gain confidence when reflecting on the reality of their past results. And their past results say they're in their right place, at the right time.
Which at this moment was the picnic table by Arapahoe High School.
Shadows stretched over the track and where the ladies of Arapahoe sat Monday evening.
Water bottles and small bags of jackets lay ready for use.
With the sun setting on the day, and the season, the Arapahoe girls looked at their trip to Alabama for RunningLane as one more day to do what they love, with each other.
They know they're ready.
The 2021 Garmin RunningLane Cross Country Championships
How To Watch:
Info: MileSplit will stream a cart cam and multiple shots throughout the course. It will stream all races on Saturday.
7:30 a.m. CST -- Community Race
8:00 a.m. CST -- Blue Boys Race
8:30 a.m. CST -- Bronze Girls Race
9:00 a.m. CST -- Bronze Boys Race
9:30 a.m. CST -- Silver Girls Race
10:00 a.m. CST -- Silver Boys Race
10:45 a.m. CST -- Girls Gold Championship Race
11:30 a.m. CST -- Boys Gold Championship Race
Where: Huntsville, Alabama