120 runners are lined up across the starting line at the girls regional cross country meet. At the starter’s signal they crouch and ready themselves for the start. The gun fires and the long line quickly forms into a pack, with runners jostling for position. Elbows are thrown and runners are pushed.
Standing at the slight rise about 200m from the start, the mass of runners moves toward us. You can hear the pounding of 240 feet, even on grass. Family, fellow students, and fans line the course and ring cowbells. I’ve watched my daughter play a lot of sports over the years but none of them has a scene that compares to this.
Of those 120 girls on the start line, only those on the top 4 teams or top 16 individuals will run again the next week at the state finals. Stakes are high.
The course and conditions on this day are a true test. I run back and forth to different spots on the course to take pictures, but mostly want to watch the drama and not be distracted by the camera. I hear a number of parents talk about girls being sick all week but still insisting on racing (count my daughter among them).
The best spot on the course is a short-but-steep, muddy grade. Some runners slip and fall. The smart ones find the firmest ground just over the edge of the course lines. They have no regard for the fans crowding the course; we are forced to step back.
Those who can power through the mud begin to separate themselves. The rest try to find the strength to not give up; they are faced with a cold, wet slog to the finish. The fans cheer for all of them, down to the last runner.
In the end, there are more tears than smiles. Several girls lose shoes and finish the race in muddy socks that will never again be clean. One is carried to the medical tent by her teammates. One faints after the finish. Another is bent over, vomiting. One sports a large clump of mud in the middle of her forehead — apparently the result of a face-plant.
No one can doubt that the most deserving are going on to race again next week.