(This is the 50th anniversary of my first article in Runner’s World magazine. All year I post excerpts from my book, This Runner’s World.)
October 2001. You don’t run cross-country for flat, fast courses accurate to the inch. You don’t run cross-country to have every step watched, as in a track stadium, or to mix with the masses, as on the roads. You don’t run cross-country for the glory, since in U.S. schools it shares a season with King Football.
You run cross-country for the purest of reasons. You run to test yourself against other runners on whatever surface and terrain nature provides – on a course where no car can go and where your family and fans can catch glimpses of you only by running from point to point. You run with teammates in a race where everyone’s result helps or hurts the team score.
Cross-country tests your love of running and racing for their own sake, not for PRs you might set or attention you might grab. Once you’ve fallen for the fall sport, you never stop loving it.
Almost two-thirds of my autumns have passed since I last ran a full cross-country season. My final race for Drake University was the worst, as in the snowbound NCAA meet I trailed nearly all of the finishers.
The pain of that race, of failing the team and of ending a college career this way, soon eased. The fond memories of those seasons remain, and I eagerly refresh them each fall at my favorite running event of the year. It isn’t a big-city marathon or a championship track meet in my hometown, but the Oregon State High School Cross-Country Championships.
Marc Bloom wrote in his magazine, The Harrier, after last year’s overcharged Olympics, “At least we’ve got the warm and cuddly cross-country season to make us feel better.” He loves the running that high schoolers do in this season, since he coaches as well as writes about them.
Marc’s first love is mine as well. The best day of the year to be a running fan in my home state is the first Saturday in November. All sizes of high schools run their state meet on the same course, in multiple races lasting as long in total as my slowest marathon.
This is a gathering of kids who often are ignored or misunderstood in the own schools during King Football season, and where the runners outnumber the fans at most of their meets. Now they come together with runners like themselves to be appreciated for all they do.
Oregon’s state-meet crowd is large by cross-country standards. That’s because each runner brings along an average of two family members and friends. They care about that runner’s race almost as much as the runner does, and dash about the course to grab glimpses of their special athlete.
This is a feel-good meet to watch, if not to run. These runners all seem to start at a dead sprint. Standing close enough to the course to see them sweat and hear them pant, I feel some of what they feel.
I watched a favored girl fall back through the field and wind up in an ambulance. In a boys’ race one of the early leaders was reduced to walking the last lap on the track and dropped to last.
Only two of runners this day were acquaintances of mine. I’d known their parents since their own teenage years. The daughter had been injured all season and finished in midpack. The son was expected to win, but his kick failed him and he placed a dejected third.
Without knowing the other kids by name and face, I knew them by what they were feeling. I hurt for those who felt they’d never recover from this from this failure.
And I celebrated with the winning individuals and teams who felt they’d conquered the world. Feelings run to extremes at this age.
If you ever ran cross-country and want to renew those memories, or if you want to see what you missed by not being a young runner on a team, go to a high school cross-country race this fall. These kids will leave you feeling good about the sport’s future as well as their own. They’ll show you that competitive running in its purest form is still in great shape.
2018 Update. More than four-fifths of my autumns have now passed without a cross-country race. But two of my grandchildren are now doing them for me.
They were years from being born when this column first appeared. Now Paige is running high school cross-country, and Noah is doing the same on his middle-school team. Their races remind me anew of this pure sport’s attractions.
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Next Steps, Pacesetters, Running with Class, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, Starting Lines, and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]