Cross Country, We Need to Talk

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.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for the past thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. About a dozen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past eight years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, MA. I've been writing for as long as I've been running. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and after a two-year hiatus, began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. In my experience, writing about running is way harder than running itself. I also still have a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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3 Responses to Cross Country, We Need to Talk

  1. Cross Country is a love, but one that you have to be a participant in. Watching or observing is not the same thing…especially, since as you say the networks can’t adequately cover major marathons or even a race on a track.

    Perhaps that is the reason why trail running is slowly gaining popularity.

    My experiences with high school cross country in the 70’s in Maine was probably pretty different than yours. I would have been on the opposing team that you and your team would have swept away without too many issues. However, for many of us cross country was not about the competition or if we won or lost a meet.

    It was more, much more. It was about learning that we had place at school where we were accepted based on what we did and how hard we tried. Not on what your name was, what address you lived at or if you were the coach’s kid. Running cross country cut out all that.

    Cross country was also place where us outsiders who did not fit the mold of the star athlete and filled the need for many of us to participate in a team sport, beyond the typical mainstream sports. Whose coach’s understood that we needed something beyond what the classrooms didn’t provide to us – a safe place.

    Where our classmates and/or teammates didn’t stuff us in lockers, give us swirlies and all those other things to publicly humiliate so many of us. A place where the misfits, found an island of safety, where our eccentricities if not accepted were at least tolerated or tempered to become relatively socially acceptable and in turn being on a team taught us we could fit in with others, well at least for the most part.

    Yeah, for many of us if you look back at the high school year books the Cross Country teams were an ecletic, if not odd assortment of individuals.

    Many of us who ran cross country in high school ran not so much for the competition. No, the competition was secondary, the camaraderie and a chance at being accepted by others back then was a prime motivation for being part of a cross country team. At least it was for me and many of the cross country runners I knew.

    Maybe that is why trail running, the “grown-ups” version of cross country, appeals so much to so many of us today. Most of us do not look for awards or PBs, we get out there enjoy our run on the trails and I see a great deal more socializing and camaraderie at the end of trail races, than I do after road races. People tend to stay around and cheer, laugh and swap lies more. There is an attitude and different perspective at trail races than there is at road races.

    Is it a remnant of our old cross country heritage and the comfort level it has for us?

    If you look at assortment of people who regularly run trails (not so much the top runners, but the mid-packers, the runners who make up the majority of the field), I wonder how many of those were the same ones that were on cross country teams in high school and are there to regain something that they are missing and find it running trails and socializing with others who share their love of trail running, errrr “cross country”.

    I don’t know about you, but every so often, I stop at my old high school and go run the old course (at least the parts that are still there or runnable) to see, if the magic or more importantly a memory can be brought back to life.

    You know as you are running along and you come to that secret spot, if you place your foot just so on this point of the hummock it will spring you forward, but a foot to either side and you will be up to your knee in mud.

    After more than 40 years, I found that spot last summer and had to stop, look back in amazement as it brought me back to a cross country meet from my junior year and how I passed a much better runner from another school, who just looked at me when I bounded off the hummock, while was going back for his shoe, which was stuck in the mud back on that hummock. Memories.

    Cross country is about the memories we made while doing it, the coaches who protected us/demanded more from us than we thought we had to give and most of all the friends we will never forget. Ron, Joel, Kim, Brian and so many others. We were not great runners, but we ran cross country. 🙂

    Cross country will always be a part of who we are, not just a memory. 🙂

    Thank you for bringing back some memories and sorry for taking off on a tangent.

  2. Jon Waldron says:

    That was a great tangent and a great reminder of why cross country matters. Very well said, sir!

  3. Reblogged this on Aging Runnah and commented:
    Something to think about and more that a few memories brought back to me :-). Is cross country more to people than just a series of races or a style of running. To me it was.

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