Even though her family had moved to California after she completed her standout prep career at Boulder High, Kelsey Lakowske figured there was no better way to heal her ailing back than a return trip to her hometown last summer.
After winning a pair of Class 5A state cross country titles for the Panthers, Lakowske endured a somewhat idle and injury-plagued first year at Duke University. Yet once the familiar trails in and around Boulder that she'd run a thousand times before worked their magic on Lakowske's back, the standout distance runner returned to Duke this fall and put together a remarkable cross country season for the Blue Devils.
In November, Lakowske earned All-American honors after placing 20th at the NCAA cross country finals. The feat came on the heels of Lakowske overcoming a sacral stress reaction, which essentially is a back impingement that often is a precursor to a stress fracture.
Lakowske's effort helped lead Duke's women's team to a seventh-place finish in the team standings at nationals, the program's best performance since a third-place finish in 2005.
"It wasn't really until the summer that I found my groove," Lakowske said. "I went back to Boulder last summer and it was a good time for me to get back there. I can't even say really how fantastic this fall was. I couldn't have asked for a better season.
"But to me the team aspect was the most exciting. I think we still have so much potential and I think this isn't all we're capable of. Duke has never won a cross country title. I want that and think we can make it happen."
Lakowske redshirted during the 2011 cross country season and was working out with the Blue Devils' track and field team last spring when the back ailment first flared. Although she had yet to appear in a track meet, the injury shelved Lakowske for the remainder of the spring, casting a potential cloud over her first competitive season for the Duke cross country squad.
The experience taught Lakowske that competitive cross country at the collegiate level is a battle of attrition as much as it is a continual battle with the stopwatch.
"Really going into this fall my main goal was just to stay healthy," Lakowske said. "I think that's the biggest challenge in college. It's not always about who's the best. It's those who can stay healthy that sometimes have the most success.
"One of the reasons I chose this school was that the coaches are great. In high school I could maybe push too hard, too fast. You push for something to happen because of stuff like recruiting instead of just training and letting those moments happen."
Lakowske's 20th-place time of 20 minutes, 3.4 seconds at nationals marked a new personal-best 6-kilometer time for the Boulder alum. Along the way Lakowske also collected All-Southeast Region and All-Atlantic Coast Conference honors. She also has embraced the challenges of competing in the classroom at a prestigious academic institution like Duke, as Lakowske was named to the ACC Academic Honor Roll for the 2011-12 school year.
"I know I probably sound like I'm gushing, but I'm grateful to be able to go here," said Lakowske, who will compete for the Blue Devils' track team this spring. "Besides being on a great team, I'm honored to be part of an academic environment like this because there are a lot of very smart people here. There are such high academic standards, it can hurt the ego sometimes but it really is great. There are so many opportunities you can receive through there."
Follow Pat on Twitter: @prooney07