I didn’t think much about the cross country team when I was in high school. I certainly never gave any thought to joining the team. Running was, at best, viewed as a necessary evil in our lacrosse and football practices. We’d all run a few laps around the practice field as a part of our warm-up, and at any point during the practice there would typically be a player or two circling the field, sentenced to running laps to atone for the transgression of missing a block or dropping a pass. And, we’d usually finish practice with a series of wind sprints, aptly named “suicides”. But, running was always ancillary to the real sport. Real sports, after all, involved physical contact, and protective gear, and time spent in the weight room bulking up.
Jeez, that all actually sounds sort of … um … un-macho, now that I think about it.
Cross country, on the other hand, involved no contact, the runners wore only tank tops, shorts and running shoes, and they were all thin as rails. As an increasingly girl-concious 14-17 year old, I wanted to put muscle on my 150 pound frame, not take weight off of it.
And about the girls – the cross country team was co-ed! What was up with that?
How little I knew. With every one of my daughter’s cross country meets that I attend, I become more and more impressed by the sport, and those that compete in it. A runner can’t hide behind a helmet and pads, or the effort of teammates. Instead, stripped nearly bare, the runner is all alone. Teammates, coaches and a handful of spectators may cheer, but at the end of the day the runner is all alone – left to push through the pain, or … not. The clock will tell the tale, and the clock won’t lie.
Apart from wrestling or boxing, cross country is actually the most macho sport that I can think of. I was reflecting on this at a recent meet, as I took in the motivational slogans that adorned the backs of many teams’ t-shirts. “Trample the weak, hurdle the dead.” “My sport is your sport’s punishment.” “The pain of discipline hurts less than the pain of disappointment.” “No excuses.” These kids mean every word.
The real clue is how these athletes look at the end of a race – eyes glazed, gasping for breath, knees wobbling, a few throwing up. We might have had flashes of that kind of dedication on the lacrosse or football field.
But for cross country runners, it defines the sport.