Early on in my training for last year’s USATF Cross Country Club National Championships, I began to realize something was different about the sport. But I couldn’t quite articulate what it was.
The event was held in my adopted hometown of Bethlehem, PA on the campus of Lehigh University in December. To help prepare for the race and to better understand what goes into the training of a collegiate cross country runner, women’s track and cross country coach Deb Utesch, invited me to a tag-along for a practice run on the Lehigh course.
Now this is not just your typical cross country course. The course, at the Goodman campus looking out on South Mountain, holds a unique place in American running lore. It was the site of the 1979 NCAA Men’s Cross Country Championships, thought by many to be the greatest field in collegiate cross country history– – and quite possibly the most historic national sporting event ever held in the Lehigh Valley.
In the race that day was a field of runners that had already set or would go on to break the half-marathon world record (Michael Musyoki), the course record for the Fifth Avenue mile, which is unbroken to this day, (Sydney Maree), and the American records in the 10,000m (Mark Nenow), 3,000m (Rudy Chapa) and 2,000m (Jim Spivey).
And those guys weren’t even close to winning.
That’s because the field included the defending NCAA champ Alberto Salazar, who would go on to set the world marathon record not long after this day at Lehigh, his final college cross country race.
And Salazar, who came in second, wasn’t even close to winning.
The title went to the indomitable Henry Rono, who wasn’t just the best American college runner of 1979, but singularly, the world’s top distance runner of his day.
How good? He arrived at Lehigh with four different world records that he had broken in an unparalleled span of 81 days. He beat Salazar by a full 8 seconds.
Ed Bosch recounts the race in this excellent blog post from MileSplit.
The Lehigh women’s team I ran with didn’t concern themselves with all that history. They were more intent on the present moment: preparing for the Patriot League Championships, which were less than a week away.
They generously took turns slowing down and running with me for a stretch, sharing their thoughts about their running careers and what cross country meant to them. These women were dedicated and hearty. Real runners, committed to their training and tougher than I was or ever would be.
What made cross country so compelling to them?
“It’s so raw,” said one team member as we previewed the Club Nats course, the same one that they run their meets on. “It’s not about hitting a time. It’s just, ‘get out there and go’.”
I heard this over and over—how pure the sport was and how it was running reduced to its most natural and competitive. These women were a new of generation runner, but with an old school mindset.
Yet when I asked what was the #1 reason they liked cross country so much, it wasn’t the challenge of the course that I heard about most. It was each other.
“It’s a real team, not like the track team where everyone kind of does their own thing and then they add up the points at the end. “We all are in it together. We do the same thing, run the same distance.”
It’s that team experience that bonds them to the sport and keeps them committed to each other. “I have sciatica, but that’s not the kind of thing that would stop me. It’ll hurt but I can get through it.” Every single team member I spoke to told me of some kind of injury or painful condition that comes and goes.
“The toughest girls I’ve ever met,” explains one team member. No one wants to let her teammates down by giving up.
As we come back to the starting point and I catch my breath, I am glad that it is they who are doing the talking and me the listening. It is here that the toughness I witnessed in them gives way to something else. The team pulls together for a group hug and cheer before departing. For some, their next race will be their last home meet of their college careers.
It was then that it hit me what made these runners (and with them, the sport) different than the good people I run with at 10Ks and half-marathons.
“I’m gonna miss my team,” I hear rise from their huggy huddle, along with a chorus of giggles. “I wuv you guys!”.
Seeing these stone cold, rock hard athletes melt like they were again little girls at a sleepover, it was clear why runners like these women endure the pain and cruelty of the sport while their college classmates are off partying and studying and partying. It’s not about the money (fewer than half were on athletic scholarships) or the fame (this isn’t beach volleyball). It’s not even about feeling good (every team member I talk to described some kind of injury or medical condition they had to overcome to keep running).
It’s about wuv.
My experience at the Club Nats meet, as well as an in-depth look at why the love of cross country races isn’t just for high school and college kids, will be published by Runners World in the upcoming September issue.