There are many “disciplines” in running. These include cross-country, track, road, trail, fell, marathon, ultra-marathon and just plain insane. But the two sports in which many runners get their start are in cross country and track.
Cross-country running is now offered to runners as young as five years old. Locally, our Accelerators running club holds summer cross country meets to encourage youth running. These low-key meets are held in a park where the grass gets trampled down by dozens of small feet. The sport continues into middle school, where kids now have organized programs for boys and girls. By high school the sport of cross-country is held with state finals finishing up in November.
Cross-country is a liberalized form of running. It takes place in all kinds of environments and locations, and these often vary by the week. A three-mile course may be flat or hilly. It may take place in a park or on school grounds. Some courses cut through woods and even traverse small streams. The beauty of the sport is its textures.
40 years ago, there were many cross-country races held on golf courses. But as the sport of golf has gentrified in its conduct, and become much more protective of its literal turf, there seem to be fewer races held on fairways. It was a great tradition to run on golf courses. The grass was cut smooth and the environment was well-groomed. You could often see the runners across several fairways and fans could trot back and forth to different vantage points. if you didn’t feel like running after the runners, you could always yell across the course.
But then more conservative interests took hold, and many golf courses closed access to runners year round. Liability is one reason given for the ban on runners. Our litigious society produced a fear of being sued for any accidents that might occur to runners at all times of the year. That meant cross country as a sport was chased off golf courses too. Too much wear and tear on the carefully coiffed turf, one must suppose.
At the national and international level, cross-country running takes on the feel of countrified track racing It takes place on dirt or grass, but often the courses are manicured in a way that encourages track-style racing rather than agility and dealing with the environment.
That takes some of the fun and liberality out of the sport. I once raced on a course that had never been used before. Part of the course took the runners straight through a cattail wetland. As I approached that point of the course in the lead, I followed the direction of the flags and sprinted right over the muck and vegetation.
No such adventures occur in track and field unless you’re a steeplechaser. Then you might get your feet wet too. Most everything about track is conducted in a highly controlled environment. The eight competition lanes and hand-off zones are cleanly marked. There are even small numbers indicated which race starts where, and how long it is. 200. 400. 800.
Everything is measured in track. The number of laps determines the distance. Unlike cross country or road racing where runners must choose their line and run the tangents, track reduces those choices to cutting in during waterfall starts.
There are tons of rules in track as well. The field events are nothing but rules and how to measure results. It’s all done by inches and adds up to feet or meters.
Track and field is teaching to the test. Cross country is learning through formative and collaborative means. Runners that excelled in all these sports, such as America’s Craig Virgin, should be admired for the ability to transfer their running talent to all surfaces and situations. In fact, more than 40 years after he set the cross country record on a course in Peoria, Illinois, the record still stands. I know that I’ve written many times about Craig, but other than Frank Shorter and a couple others, few have done so well across so many running disciplines from cross country to track to road. Not every runner can do that.
But it is all still running. One can equally love the liberal sport of cross country and appreciate the conservative beauty of track. One measures the absolute spirit of the competitors. The other measures their absolute performance.
In some way that’s proof that the two sides of a competitive nature can always get along. You may enjoy one more than the other, but you can certainly appreciate why they both exist.
To make you better. As a runner, and as a person.