By Christopher Cudworth
The air is more than crisp on a late October morning. A chill breeze seems to slide down out of the clear blue sky to the north. It is cross country weather.
140 athletes line up before a backdrop of team and fan busses. There may be 2000 fans in attendance to cheer on their teams. The crowd lines the course before the start, practicing using their aim with their iPhones and digital cameras. Then an announcer with a handheld loudspeaker makes a call for the athletes to gather.
20 teams in an entire spectrum of colors jumps in place nervously before the gun. A whistle blows. The runners set. The gun goes off.
The crowd erupts in both organized and disorganized cheers. Of course no runner in the bunch can really hear their home crowd at this point. The noise is so loud the dogs all seem to spin on their leashes. The pack of runners flows by, their spikes clacking across a short section driveway. A few of the best runners surge to the front. The others queue with teammates or with competitors. The most important skill of all: finding your pace.
In both the women’s and men’s races, the scene is the same. Excitement. Enthusiasm. Mothers and fathers cheering on their children whether they are first or last. Lines of guys without their shirts show up to cheer on the female athletes.
Many in the crowd wait patient and cheer for the runners at the tail end of the pack.
When the last runner passes the final part of the crowd makes its way to the next viewing point. Masses of people lean into the running corridor marked by white lines in the newly green grass. It has been a horridly dry summer. Three months ago the same course looked like a scene from West Texas. One half expected a tumbleweed to come rolling by.
Rains in late summer and early fall finally changed all that, transforming the cross country course to a mixed footing of soft, muddy earth and fast stretches of grass. Runners have been competing on this course in its variegations since 1973. This writer knows well, having been the first to ever win a race on these grounds back in high school.
The sport has changed in some dramatic ways since then. The most positive shift is the participation of thousands of women in the sport. Cross country meets have been transformed by the presence of women runners, whose approach is no less serious, but there is something lighter, more considerate and cheerful now about the mixed crowds of men’s and women’s runners cheering each other on. Call it a sporting grace.
To a longtime observer, runners really haven’t changed a whole lot in 40 years. Most are thin, but today’s cross country runners do tend to have a more muscular build overall, the product perhaps of weight training. There is plenty of serious competition, yet the intensity in some ways has been dialed back. Cross country teams no longer compete three times a week in duals and triangulars as they did 40 years ago. Most teams today have a 10-12 meet schedule whereas the old schedules called for 15-20 duals meets and 8-10 invitationals. That was a lot of competition, and it toughened runners to repeat races, but it could also result in peaking too early or burning out on the sport.
Why cross country greats really do matter
Great runners continue to come out of the high school ranks, the most recent male star in Illinois was a kid named Lukas Verzbicas, a phenom who nearly broke the state meet course record set by an eventual World Cross Country Champ (America’s only such victor) Craig Virgin, (click to watch Virgin win the 1980 IAAF WCCC title in a thrilling race!) whose 13:50.6 time for 3 miles in the Illinois state meet has been approached but never broken.
I was present to watch Virgin win that race. My eyes were wide in amazement watching Craig Virgin crank out sub 4:40 miles around that cross country course in Peoria, Illinois, where the state championship is still held. It is both remarkable and smart that the course has remained the same. Cross country runners can not only test themselves against their fellow competitors, but against every state meet runner for the last half century. And most significantly, they can test themselves in direct measure against the high school times of the greatest cross country runner the USA has ever known.
Why cross country is the purest sport
Cross country is simple and direct. The runners on each team self-select their spots on the varsity through their own effort and based on their own times. If you can beat someone consistently, you’ll most likely get the chance to run.
The courses vary, but the goal is the same. Fine out who can run 3 miles over the same course as everyone else in a faster time. There are no judges to affect the score. No other events to wait for, as in track and field. No drawing off competitors into 1500, 5000 or 10000 meter races. Cross country is everyone together. Just pure, simple competition.
The crowd is part of the purity
The crowd senses this unity, and becomes a form of unity itself, shouting so loud that only the coaches seems to be able to penetrate the wall of sound.
The coaches therefore typically retreat to clean, quiet sections of the course, calling out splits and target objectives. “Stay together. Get up to that (guy/gal) in front of you. Stay smooth.”
There’s really nothing much you can tell a cross country runner other than to try to relax and run faster. There are no lanes to control the racing, but there are hills. There are also trees and roots and clods of dirt, roads and gravel paths and lumpy hard trails. And that is what makes it so pure. Cross country is not perfection, but it is a somewhat perfect test of endurance and will in running.
Cross country throws the natural elements from wind and rain to snow or sleet at you like a real-life video game. Perhaps more people should try the sport for that reason alone. No need for virtual reality when you’re living it.
All these reasons make cross country the purest of all sports. An exciting reason to appreciate human endeavor.
Footnote: Recently this writer received a phone call from a former competitor. Their teammates had kept in touch and were discussing their best rivalries in high school. Finally they decided to call up their biggest rivals and ask them to come run with them at some local forest preserve, to celebrated the wholehearted competition we’d all once enjoyed, and how much it meant to us to be involved in pure sport and competition. In a future blog, we’ll cover what that event was like, what stories emerged and why the rivalry was so hardfought, and so special.