Tim Rossi is chasing lost feelings in Boulder
4:00am, Saturday, August 22nd. Magnolia Road, 15-miles, 1,400+ ft of climbing, situated above 8,000+ ft of elevation.
No bibs, no official timers, no physical competition. Just me and my watch, chasing the shadows of some icons of the running world.
The heavy-legged shakeout the day before, the pre-race meal, the loopy stomach, the butterflies, all those feelings I associate with pinning on a number; they all came back – the feeling I’d been chasing returned in full force: This is what I came for.
But let’s rewind a touch. What the hell is Magnolia Road? Why am I even here in Boulder, Colorado? Am I still broken? What is going on? All extremely valid questions.
The easy one is Magnolia Road, well, actually, Magnolia Drive as we found out. But, none of that really matters because everyone in the running world knows this road by one name: Mags.
This legendary 7.5 mile stretch of unpaved road was first discovered by University of Colorado XC Coach Mark Wetmore in 1991 (according to, well, Mr. Wetmore). Sitting entirely above 8,000 ft (2,434 meters), this surface has become a rite-of-passage for not only the CU teams but everyone from local Olympians to, really, any runner passing through town.
And let me tell you, Mags is unrelenting. The famed pavement-to-pavement route does exactly what says it does – the dirt road bleeds into a paved road on either side and your 15 miles exists in between. But it is not that simple: You can start on East Mags, hitting the uphills on the way out, or you can do what I had decided to do, starting on West Mags where you do the exact opposite (obviously) – downhills on the way out, uphills on the way back.
“East Mags teaches you bravery, West Mags teaches you patience.”
Parker Stinson (quoting someone else)
This is also a good time to note that as part of my decision making I decided to stalk the segment leaderboard. And in doing this, I discovered that people run East Mags INSANELY fast.
Can I run 5:22 pace for 15 miles? Fuck no. But 6:07 pace? I mean also probably not… but maybe?
This is also probably a good place to note that, surprise: 1) not everyone runs with a GPS watch linked to a Strava account and, 2) I am fully assuming that no one else is going flat out on Mags… but, this is something I will come back to.
Before that, we need to look at the state of running around the world. Covid has derailed everyone’s running plans – races have been canceled for the foreseeable future, training groups have been unable to meet, running with masks on your person has become the norm.
For me, the huge silver lining here is I was hurt during the beginning of Covid shutdowns in the US (I wrote, like, a lot of words about this). I felt 0 pressure to get back for a race that had been on my calendar because my calendar had been wiped clean.
But as I worked my way back to fitness, I started to get that itch. The endless PT exercises, easy miles, fartleks, tempo runs, track workouts, I felt like there was something missing.
I also wanted to run with my friends again. I love running, love pushing myself, seeing how good I can get, but the reason I started in the sport is because of the people. Hell, the reason I’ve stayed in the sport is because of the people.
“He and Cassidy had been through what they now called the ‘Trial of Miles.’ As with shipwreck survivors, hostages, and others in dire circumstances, duress fosters an unsentimental kind of intimacy.”
John Parker, Once a Runner
This is where the idea for Boulder came from. Was it a training trip? Partially, but not really. I mean, a training trip with no real races to train for is a bit funny and silly. And that is what made this trip obviously more – it was about hanging with some of my favorite people, doing what we love, and immersing ourselves in a running Mecca. It was about finding that joy again, about making the most of a crazy situation.
So, once we had the trip planned out (2.5 weeks in Colorado, 5 days in Frisco, the rest in Boulder), I turned to the other obvious thing missing in my running – the desire to test myself. I wanted to see where I was (or, more specifically, how much I had regressed during my multi-month interruption). And while virtual races are an amazing option, they simply don’t recreate it for me.
And this is where the idea for Mags was born – I’m an absolutely massive fan of runs that simply cannot be recreated. Whether it’s the Navy Yard “10k” in NYC, Pre’s Trail in Eugene, the Capital City Loop in Melbourne, or any other highly specific local run any of you might have, I find so much beauty in the idea of testing yourself over some run that cannot be recreated anywhere else in the world.
Magnolia Road – 15 miles at 8,000 ft that hundreds of running legends have trod before me, that was what I wanted.
I had no PR for a 15-mile race, nor had I ever run at such a high altitude before. The time I was going to run would ultimately mean absolutely nothing outside of the bubble that is Mags, and there is beauty in that.
This is what Covid presented by clearing the race calendar: an opportunity to be creative and opt for a non-traditional distance, making it more fun and adding some variety in. If I run 13.1 I know exactly what my PR is. But if I run 15 miles on Mags? I have no clue what I am capable of, and that is freeing!
In a sport where so many of us know exactly what our PRs are over any distance from the 800-Marathon, being able to honestly say “I don’t know what I’m capable of,” brings me back to the early days of my running when I had no clue what I was doing. It was… different, and refreshing.
However, I love competition, and this is where the leaderboard came in. Don’t get me wrong, I’m fully aware that very few, if any, of these people are out there are racing Mags (or, you know, they might just not be running with GPS, how many times do I need to add these disclaimers to avoid getting hated on later on?).
I was able to look at that leaderboard, at that 6:48 avg run by Will Leer, the 6:23 avg run by Sam Parsons, or the 6:07 avg run by Fernando Cabada and think ‘what if.’ I was able to set targets.
"Can I run 5:22 pace for 15 miles? Fuck no. But 6:07 pace? I mean also probably not...but maybe?"
And thinking about these bars while running my shakeout the day before, during my pre-race ritual of Chipotle and Ben & Jerry’s (non-dairy Cinnamon Bun, FYI), and on the drive up to Mags at 6am brought it back – the butterflies in the stomach and the dread of what’s to come balanced with the excitement of testing myself, to suffer for reasons that don’t truly make sense but at the same time are the most valid reasons ever.
Standing on that completely arbitrary starting line, alone, taking off with the beep of my watch instead of the crack of a gun; it was in no way perfect, but it was enough.
And as the miles clicked off, 6:03 (1), 5:44 (2), 5:52 (3), 5:49 (4), the feeling seeped in. No fans, but instead the same friends that had trekked to Boulder with me. The same friends that I would usually seek out in the sea of screaming voices on a NYC Marathon day – the ones that I knew truly cared about me.
6:04 (5), 6:13 (6), 6:04 (7).
No competitors to flow alongside, instead the shadows of the past to push me.
6:19 (8), 6:42 (9), 6:31 (10), 6:27 (11).
No reason to continue to drive forward, to dig as the merciless hills turned my legs to mush, while the thin air struggled to reach my burning muscles.
7:14 (12), 6:45 (13), 7:03 (14).
Nothing external, but instead everything inside of me pushing me forward. The suffering, the drive, and internal desire and realization that I simply love this.
Ripping for the sake of ripping.
A failed make-shift toilet paper finish line (nice try guys) and a few extra seconds of running to ensure I completed the full segment, and it was done.
I was left staggering, with a few memories of flowing out on the road completely alone, soaking in the trees, mountains, cows, feeling above the clouds, hurting so bad but loving every moment simultaneously.
Yelling at myself that I felt awesome on the downhill at mile 7.8 before flipping to thinking I feel like absolute shit on the ensuing uphill. That exact thought repeating itself countless times from mile 9-13.5 as the hills refused to give an inch.
Flowing adjacent to Finley and Ben in the car at mile 14, finally realizing I wasn’t going to break, and telling them as much with a few more expletives tossed in. Having RJ, Leigh Anne, and Chris pass me on the final uphill at mile 14.6 that did truly nearly leave me keeled over on the side of the road.
It was all worth it.
“In many ways, a race is analogous to life itself. Once it is over, it can not be re-created. All that is left are impressions in the heart, and in the mind.”
Chris Leer, Running with the Buffaloes
1:35:02 for the full run, 1:34:36 for the segment (turns out I didn’t need the extra running). 1,443 feet of climbing. 6:18 avg pace.
The rediscovery of finding beauty in the suffering, in the struggle, it was worth it. And to be out there was some of my dearest homies made it that much sweeter.
“Mags doesn’t lie”
Again - I have no illusions that I am a better runner than those on the leaderboard: I know that running faster than those past efforts of Sam Parsons, Sage Canaday, Joey Berriatua, Will Leer means absolutely nothing. But, it brought back the energy to look at times that had been run before and chase those legendary shadows. If we were out there shoulder to shoulder, I’d have gotten my ass kicked, but they pushed me nonetheless to suffer alone with the best of them.
And ultimately that’s what it’s about - not being better than someone else, but better than I was. It’s not zero sum - my success or improvement or whatever does not mean someone else needs to lose. We can all win.
Racing may be canceled, but the feeling is still there - you just have to go and get it.
Self-improvement, striving to be more, to be better, isn’t canceled.
That’s what this trip, what Mags, was all about. Engulfing myself in Boulder, thickly enwreathed by individuals striving to reach that pinnacle version of themselves, all while being surrounded by friends that usher in an unwavering joy to the process, it brought the spark back.
It reminded me why I do this, and why I want to keep doing this.