Category Archives: cross country

How I came to love cross country

We were driving to dinner, and I was talking about the state meet coming up, and how this girl was DQ’d from regionals for taking off her hair band and putting it on her wrist.

“You really like this sport, don’t you?”, my wife said.

It wasn’t always like that. From what I remember from my school days, the cross country kids were the dorky ones who couldn’t play ball sports. No one really followed, or cared about, what the cross country team did.

So when my daughter announced that she wanted to run cross country her freshman year, and not play soccer, I was initially (and selfishly) disappointed. She’d played soccer on club teams since age 7 or 8. I had visions of going and watching all the high school games for 4 years.

But fortunately I recognized that it would be fruitless to try to influence her. At the time, I didn’t know how important cross country would become to her, and how much I would come to love the sport.

At the very first meet, standing around while the runners were nervously warming up, I watched a girl casually walk over a garbage can … and puke in it. And then go back to warming up. I remember thinking, “OK, this is a bad-ass sport.”

It’s roughly 20 minutes of intense effort (less for the faster runners, more for the slower ones). I can relate to that level of effort, because it’s around the same as our weekly Thursday night time trial. Short enough that it’s painful from start to finish. And long enough that it seems like forever.

What hooked me was the atmosphere and intensity at the meets. The pre-race nervousness, the anxiety on the start line, the starter’s pistol firing and the pack taking off. And then the drama of the race as it unfolds.

Unlike soccer, where the field is the same every week, each cross country course is different, and run under different conditions — rain, mud, heat, cold, hills, puddles. I’ve seen runners lose shoes, throw up, pass out, crumple with injury.

And then there was the girl (against whom my daughter’s team had raced) who finished the 2007 state meet crawling to the finish with a broken leg. (the video is on YouTube but is not for the faint-of-heart)

For my daughter, it was mostly about the team. Individual performance mattered, but overall it was the team. I will always have the picture of the team huddle just before the start.

She was team captain her last 3 years, and I watched her transform from an insecure freshman into someone who took charge and pushed each girl and the team to the best of their capabilities.

Watching those meets had the side-effect of making me want to run in the off-season. Each year since 2007 I’ve run more and more. I’m almost at the point where I think of myself as a “runner” too. So I can thank the sport, and my daughter, for that.

The state meet is today, and I will be checking the web site for results.

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You needed to be a mudder


I was smart.

It was sunny at home, but out of habit I checked the radar before leaving for the regional cross country meet. It was 36 degrees in Boardman with rain / snow. I knew it would be a muddy mess. I grabbed my Gore-Tex hiking boots, swishy nylon pants, rain jacket and gloves. And a change of clothes.

Those spectators who naively showed up in jeans and tennis shoes looked at me with envy. Their shoes would likely be unwearable afterward.

All the rain we’ve had has meant a tough season for area cross country runners. You either got good at running in the mud, or you suffered. Well, you suffered either way, but surely winning made it better.

In the (now 5) years of seeing races on the Boardman course, I’ve heard a lot of people complain about it. It’s always wet. But I like it because with a little bit of running myself it’s possible to see the runners at 9 different points during the race. At the start, standing on a hill about 500m from the line, I can barely get the long line of runners in the camera. When the gun fires the long line gradually narrows as the faster runners move to the front. The pack comes toward you like a wave, up and over the first rise. It looks like one giant organism rather than 120 or so individuals.

It’s an inspiring scene that always gives me goosebumps:

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More than a few runners fell during the race. And some normally fast runners had disappointing results. But as they say, it’s the same course for everyone. Those who rose to the top seemed unaware of the bad conditions. They appeared to be running over the mud while others were slogging through it.

You’ll notice that I’ve not said anything about being at this race under different circumstances — without the emotional investment of having a daughter there running. That is because I did not want to spend half of my Saturday in an exercise in nostalgia and melancholy. I was there to enjoy the experience of the big meet and cheer for her former teammates.

Which is how it worked out. At the end of the race I was pretty well covered with mud too. I didn’t think about it at the time, but on the way home I realized there was a fitting end to the day: in the interest of avoiding turnpike tolls, I had left the course through a different exit than before, and was taking a different route home.

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Revisiting the last race

It feels like it was just weeks ago that I was sitting here writing about tomorrow being the last time I go to a high school cross country race.

How could it be a year? The memory of that race is still so fresh in my mind. I can recall the weather, what I wore, where the team’s canopy was set up, and the details of how that 20-minute race went. But what I remember most is the feeling of walking to the car and driving away, with the course receding in the distance.

It was weeks before I could shake that image of leaving the big race for the last time.

Last time. It seemed so final. I think it took the crazy-stress of college applications to finally make that image lose focus. But now, a year later, the image is just as sharp as it was then.

I will go to the Regional meet again tomorrow, to watch my daughter’s former teammates compete, to talk with their parents, and hopefully to cheer them for finally making it to the state meet.

But more significantly, I want to be able to drive away from the meet with a different picture to replace the one from last year.

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Same as last year, only different


Yesterday’s weather was exactly the same as the fourth Saturday in October 2010. I know this because it’s the weekend of the high school district cross country meet, and I remember every detail from last year. It’s been like this each Saturday in September and October.

Only it’s not “the same” as last year.

For the first time in 4 years I’m not going to all the meets to watch my daughter and her team. Saturdays have not felt right. It’s kind of like when the bike racing season ends and you’re wondering what to do with yourself. Only with bike racing there will be a “next season” not that many weeks away. There are no more next seasons for watching my daughter run with her high school team.

I went to the district meet, to watch her former teammates run. I realized that I miss the whole atmosphere of the big meet: the nervous anticipation, the intensity of the race, the smiles and tears after the race. I never fail to get goosebumps when the starter’s gun fires and the big pack of runners takes off.

In the heat of the race — running out to the far point on the course, taking pictures and cheering the runners — I wasn’t thinking about my daughter not being there. It was only after leaving the race that I started to think about it. I don’t want to feel like I’m trying to hang on to a piece of something that is gone. Maybe there is some element of that, but daughter or not I find these competitions to be compelling to witness.

The team advanced to the regional meet, which is even more intense as it means a potential trip to the state meet.

Now I’m supposed to say something about how fast it all goes by, and how parents should treasure every moment they have while they can. The thing is, I don’t think it makes it easier.

In fact I think it might make it even harder. If you’re not really involved, then there’s not much of a change.

See you at the regional meet.

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