Overlooking downtown Steam-boat Springs, Howelsen Hill doesn't appear menacing to the eye.
Try running up it, down it and across it.
Saturday morning, cross country runners from across Colorado will take to the 3.1-mile course set up on Howelsen for what Steamboat Springs coach John Smith tagged "Sufferfest."
The Steamboat Springs High School Invitational has developed a reputation as one of the most difficult cross country meets in the state. Saturday, coaches from schools including Chatfield, Aspen, Grand Junction Central, Fruita and Kennedy are bringing their runners to Steamboat for a gut check.
The season is relatively young. Runners are continuing to learn how to best perform on race day, and the course at Howelsen provides participants an unequaled training run.
"It gets you better prepared," junior Mike Gleason said. "Everything after that is easy."
Many schools avoid running in Steamboat's meet because the course on Howelsen is scheduled opposite a Colorado Springs course that will host this year's state cross country meet.
The 3.1-mile course located near the El Pomar Youth Sports Complex is relatively flat and fast with the only significant hill coming at the outset of the race. Steamboat's course, in addition to the higher elevation, is undeniably harder.
"It's up a mountain," sophomore Sarah MacCarthy said.
"It's extreme without the 'e'," Gleason said.
Saturday's race marks the second of the season for the Sailors. Steamboat opened the schedule at Lake County in the unlimited division Sept. 6, when Tyler O'Leary and Jennifer Hooper each won their races, while MacCarthy and Gleason finished second and third, respectively. Matt Legrice and Lauren Lightfoot each came in fourth in the boys and girls races in Leadville.
"Everybody ran well," Lightfoot said.
Smith was looking at the times rather than team and individual placement in Leadville. With the meet held at 10,400 feet, rookie runners learned quickly, and the veterans got a quick reminder of what can happen if they run a poor mental race.
"I care about times and 'Did you listen?'" coach Smith said. "I treat this meet as a glorified scrimmage. It teaches you to listen to what we say and how to run smart. Everything was perfect."
The Sailors may hold an advantage Saturday because they train on the course, but training and competition are two different things. The Sailors take pride in the difficulty of the meet and hope to fare well.
Assistant Gabe Olchen, a former state cross country champion from Middle Park and a Colorado State graduate, ran -- not jogged -- the course and let Smith know it was the hardest course he had ever run, Smith said.
The Steamboat girls are expected to start running at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, while the boys plan to begin their race at 10:30 a.m. The start and finish area is located near the softball fields at the west base of Howelsen Hill.
-- To reach Melinda Mawdsley call 871-4208 or e-mail email@example.com