Cross Country, we need to talk.
We’ve known each other for a very long time, been through a lot together… You were my first and favorite sport in high school. You were the reason that when I was just a skinny freshman, there were seniors who knew my name and looked out for me. You were the reason I ran over the summer and looked forward to the start of school in the fall. You gave me a reason to work hard and endure more than I thought possible. For four years, my closest friends were the ones who shared long runs through Amherst, Pelham, and Hadley, 800m repeats on the grass over by the stadium at UMass, and bus rides to small towns all over the Pioneer Valley. Remember how against most schools, we would sweep the top places, all but laughing as we crossed the finish line far ahead of the local talent. Against one or two, we competed against runners just as tough as we were, and those epic meets still linger in my memory forty years later.
Cross country, I know we had a falling out when I took time off after high school, when I stubbornly ignored the form letters from coaches who wanted me to run for their University teams. But I needed my own space, you know? And so eventually I ended up at a small liberal arts college with no varsity sports. I’m sorry I didn’t stay in touch. It’s probably useless to say it now, but I want you to know that I would sometimes go on solitary runs in the hills to the west of campus and remember you with affection. Even though I didn’t show it very well, I still cared for you.
It was years later that we patched things up between us. Even though it was road races that drew me back to the sport of running, it wasn’t long before I rediscovered the joys of racing on your soggy courses on misty October days, or charging up and down your steep hills on frigid November mornings. With all the perks and popularity of 5Ks, 10Ks, and Marathons, I made it a point to make time for you, and you in return gave me some of my most proud and memorable races.
It was almost fifteen years ago that I became a coach, and committed myself to introducing others to your rough and wild pleasures. It was a great satisfaction to see others get to know you, falling head-over-heels in love even as they were falling head-over-heels in mud.
But something’s changed.
I don’t know, maybe it’s me, but lately I don’t feel the same quickening of the pulse when you come around. Maybe you noticed, but I didn’t run any cross-country races last year. I’m sorry to say this, but I didn’t really miss them, either. And then, a few days ago, your World Championships were held in Guiyang, China. This ought to have been a big deal for anyone who loves or loved the sport. Instead, it barely registered.
It doesn’t help that World XC happens in late March, when the world’s attention is shifting to spring marathons in London, Boston, and Rotterdam. It doesn’t help that Indoor Track has become a legitimate season, not only in North America but also in Europe. The old idea that Cross Country was a sport for building up one’s strength during the long winter months when nothing else was happening has become obsolete these days.
It was fortunate, I suppose, that the folks at LetsRun made it a point to offer extensive coverage of the championships, because otherwise, we might not have even noticed they were taking place. But then, the races were thoroughly dominated by East African nations, prompting many to wonder whether Americans could ever compete unless races were held in sub-freezing temperatures with the course under six inches of snow.
I don’t know, maybe if the races were easier to watch? But at a time when the networks can’t even cover a mile race properly, it seems to be asking a lot that they would ever be able to cover a cross-country race. And, honestly, what kind of audience would they get?
Sorry, I know I should focus on the positive. You’re still a wonderful high school sport, with high rates of participation across the U.S. You’re still a refuge for kids who didn’t find an athletic outlet anywhere else, kids who aren’t strong and quick but possess determination and a talent for hard work and endurance. It’s a shame that most of those kids don’t continue running Cross Country after high school, but at least they’ve learned to love running. And for the few that do run Cross Country in college, well, it’s still a great sport, especially when you have a venue like Franklin Park where you can really follow the races.
But after college, then what? Do serious runners or recreational ones have any use for you after their school days? Are you essentially a youth sport, to be left behind for marathons, half marathons, military-style obstacle course runs, and zombie apocalypse runs that grow in popularity each year as your popularity fades? I mean, more than half a million people in the U.S. finish a marathon each year. I don’t mean to be cruel, but how many adults participate in a cross-country race?
Maybe for most runners, you’re just a youthful fling, but not a long-term relationship. But you and I — we have more history than that, and I’m hoping we can make this work. For my part, I promise I’ll enter some races next fall. And for your part, it would help if you could finally make it back into the Olympics.
I guess this is hard for both of us, but it’s better to be honest, right?
Let’s keep talking.