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Over the past 17 years, I've rarely had the chance to jump into a local race. During that time, I've happily volunteered for or directly organized more than 100 races.

So when Run Flagstaff's Vince Sherry generously offered me a spot in this year's sold-out El Nino El Schmino 5K, I did not have to think twice.

Given the warm winter we were having, I jokingly told Vince he should have renamed it, La Nina La Schmina.

However, when race day arrived the snow from the last storm was clinging onto the lawns of Pine Canyon, making for a bucolic wintry scene. Add a brisk wind and it almost reminded me of the epic May 2015 Run for the Mountain Summer Series opener. Minus the blizzard.

As Vince corraled the participants at the starting line, I realized I had no knowledge about the course layout. Veteran El Nino runners grumbled something about rolling hills.

As I sized up the competition, I saw many of my usual Soulstice Mountain Trail Run legacy runners. I figured I would draw a few laughs by declaring that anyone who beat me would lose a year of their "legacy" status. None obliged, of course, as they all have well more than 10 Soulstice finishes.

As the siren went off we were greeted by a short rise and then a nice downhill, which I guessed correctly would be short-lived. Sure enough, it was followed by a long uphill grade that had no end.

I remembered the annual advice I give Big Brothers Big Sisters of Flagstaff half-marathoners: "Walk the uphills." So I did, and found the rollercoaster of a race much more enjoyable.

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Crossing the finish line, I could not recall how many hills there were, but thanks to Trish Corbett's Instagram post, the race director somehow packed seven oxygen-depriving inclines into 3.1 miles.

Since I ran without a stopwatch and had not set a goal other than finishing, I was pleased to break 30 minutes. See, when you participate in a race for the first time, as long as you cross the finish line, you have a personal record at that race.

The hills of Pine Canyon left me thirsty and hungry, and thankfully participants were treated to delicious brats, beers, salads and chips in the scenic clubhouse.

With a mental map of the course next year, I'm smashing my personal best. But I will make sure to register early before it sells out even earlier next year so I don't get left out in the cold. I suggest you do too!

Nine years ago, Neil Weintraub had coffee with local running gurus Nat White and Greg McMillan to discuss the need for a local running column. Not long after, the Arizona Daily Sun agreed. Thanks to reader contributions and ideas, the column has stayed fresh and lively for 450 consecutive Sundays! If you would like to write a 500-word column, contact current coordinating editor Myles Schrag at mylesschrag@yahoo.com.

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