My upcoming article in Runners World will tell you what it was like to run in the 2014 USATF Club National Championships, my first cross country race in 35 years. But let me give you an advance hint.
The best part of running cross country isn’t the race itself—I mean there is only so much fun you can have when you are anxious, pushed to your physical limits and fighting for your dignity against fanatical men in spikes.
Let’s put it this way—no one is wearing a Turkey costume or carrying a POW-MIA flag in this race just to be seen. They have traveled a great distance for one reason: to beat you. To leave you muddy, tamed and irrelevant. To make your team sorry they brought you in the minivan.
Yet despite this dog-eat-dog mentality (or because of it?) running cross country is maybe the most alive you will ever feel as a competitive distance runner.
If you thrive on that kind of competition—and miss racing that close to the edge of insanity—then get yourself signed up immediately. This year’s Club Nats race is in San Francisco on December 12. Click here for information on the race and registration. Runners will be crushing each other like grapes on an I Love Lucy vineyard episode.
For me, the best part of cross country was the simple beauty I found in training that got me out of my rut and into the woods. I loved how the sport bonded me to a group of like-minded, hardy souls who were willing to unquestionably band together and suffer the consequences of that association for better or worse; for uphill and down; for grass or gravel. And I got a uniform.
As a guy who played on team sports from his early Pop Warner football days, running has often felt like an outsider activity. Something I did to escape, to build my own strength and endurance, to test my own will. Races were mostly just interesting ways to measure my progress, banter with my buddies and appraise the latest in tight-fitting fashion wear.
Not since my high school, cross country and track teams had anyone given me a team uniform with the expectation that I would do something important while wearing it.
And it’s not just me.
The shared love of team drives the sport at every level, including a boys and girls high school team from Orchard Park, N.Y that I met last fall. At the time, we were in the same New Your City subway car after I watched my old high school team, Notre Dame High School (Batavia, NY) compete in the Manhattan College Invitational at Van Cortlandt Park, the capital of American cross country racing.
“How are the cross country guys different than the football guys?”, I had addressed to the girls on the team, as I pondered what girls in my class may have thought of me back then. Laughs all the way around. A few whispers and giggles into each others’ ears. No one wanted to speak up. Except the boys, of course. “We’re smarter!”, exclaimed one boy.
“Smaller arms,” I heard from a girl behind me. More laughs all the way around.
There was apparent unanimous agreement that they preferred cross country to track. “It’s not just going in circles like in track,” said one of the more logical boys. “We have parties together with the girls every week,” said a wiser one, with noticeably greater enthusiasm. “You can’t not love cross country!” he added. His English teacher may have not approved, but he had found his tribe early in life and was loving it.
You think this is just a kid’s game? You couldn’t be more wrong. Masters runners, including athletes who have already tasted running’s greatest rewards, are lifted by the spirit of a cross country team. “It was the best team experience of my life,” said Amby Burfoot, who was a member of the Wesleyan University track and cross country teams when he won the Boston Marathon in 1968 (and famously, at least in the legend that I heard during my daughter’s campus tour at Wesleyan a few years ago, attended class the next day).
But the team that Amby thinks about as his greatest experience wasn’t at Wesleyan. And that was no ordinary team– it included future fellow Boston Marathon winner Bill Rodgers and Jeff Galloway, one of the most famous running authors and icons of the running boom. For Amby, his dream team came than 40 years later than that.
“It was an over-60 cross country team that I ran Club Nats with a couple years ago. We were all cut from same cloth. Brothers competing as one in big national meets,” he explains. “Add to that, knowing we have all shared running for so long in our lives. How much running meant to us. And at that age, at least one person is always hurt. Everyone trying to help each other. Being there for each other. You overcome so much and it is a very powerful team experience.”
To read more about the love of cross country running at any age, get your copy of Runners World on August 4 when it hits newsstands across America. The online version will be available several weeks later through a link here at TakingMulligans.com