There’s just something about cross country

Published 10:27 am Monday, November 15, 2010

What is it about cross country? I mean student athletes running off-road and across varied terrain—5K for high school and as much as 8K for college. Why do these kids and young people endure the strain of day after day in training and then the agony of meets — with hardly anyone watching? Why do they do this when if a meet makes it into the papers at all, it is usually on the last page of the sports section? How can they not be offended by being classed as a minor sport, along with track and field, tennis, golf, and wrestling? No all-school pep rallies before meets or mandatory assemblies to praise the winners. And why do they call them teams when they run individually? How does running cross country affect its runners and what does it do for them? Just what is cross country and what’s the point?

I never ran cross country, but our children did. I also learned analogously from the marathons and other road races I have run. I’ve watched high school practices and meets for over thirty years. I listen to runners and coaches, and quizzed them to learn what I didn’t understand. I thought about these matters all the way to St. Olaf College in Northfield on November 5th to watch the state high school meet. I listened to runners, coaches, and families. And I thought about what I saw and heard while returning. This is what I think cross country is about.

It is a minor sport in the sense that serious academic study is in high school is minor. It is minor as disciplined training in classical music is. Serious writing is minor in essays submitted in English classes. Social and emotional maturity are in the minority among high school students, as is also developed leadership skills. Kids don’t go out for cross country to show off or gain fame or popularity. What typically motivates them, or what they thus grow into becoming motivated by, is more serious and substantive than usual for the major sports. In some things it’s honorable to be found in the minority.

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Competition consists of finishing the course as close to the first as their muscular legs, laboring lungs, and rapidly beating hearts will carry them. Top physical condition and effective training for the bodies are basic, but their bodies are but the vehicles. The real runner is inside—the mind and the character. Their dogged determinism compels them on when everything in their bodies is screaming to drop out.

I have the impression they are as interested to learn their own time as they are their position in finishing. It’s their time they take with them into life. They look for PB (personal test). Cross country is one of the few school sports where every contestant, from first to last, can be a winner.

How can an individually run race be considered a team sport? First, in addition to individual rankings, a calculus establishes team results. More critical, I think, is the runners think and feel as team. I regularly see team spirit and mindset in cross country that I seldom see in what we more often think of as a team. The structure of a team is less decisive than its heart and mind. Cross country teams not only run and compete together, they become socially and emotionally bonded.

I recognize a clear social dynamic among cross country runners, which spreads not only throughout an individual team but into competitor teams and across the spectrum of the sport. Clear gratitude is evidenced when one runner beats out another, because the strong competition drives a runner to beat himself or herself. More than simple respect, this inter-personal dynamic creates actual affection.

A critical quality of cross county is it is at once distinct from other sports and distinctive in itself by including both boys and girls in an objective, wholesome relationship.

Coaches in all sports, if it is a sport at all, demand their players congratulate the winning team. With cross country runners, it’s a chosen, inner compelled, and self-motivated personal need.

Not only does the physical activity of cross country prepare for life-long physical fitness and health, the cross country experience itself creates life-long champions in every dimension of life.