26. Cross Country Isn’t for Wimps

26. Cross Country Isn’t for Wimps

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners

Cross Country Isn’t for Wimps

My sport is your sport’s punishment.

Let’s be honest. When you think of the cross country athlete, the term “tough guy” isn’t exactly the first thing to jump into your mind.

There are no bone-jarring collisions and no broken bones. Runners can be sidelined by a hangnail or a sore toe. They can be knocked out of action by a head cold, a bee sting or a bout with hay fever.

Runners don’t even talk much trash, and you never hear of a race being suspended because of a brawl.

Truth be told, cross country is a sport inhabited by tall, skinny people like me, most of whom wouldn’t survive a fraction of the physical abuse that occurs on the gridiron.

But that doesn’t mean cross country is a sport for wimps. Far from it.

Perhaps what makes cross country such a tough sport is the price it exacts from its athletes. There’s no resting, no taking a play off or relying on your teammates to pick up your slack.

Stand at a finish line and you’ll understand what I mean. Finishers rarely stride across the line. They wash over it like drift-wood, completely emptied of all energy and will. Some stumble and some collapse. Some are carried out by race officials.

This is not a sport for wimps.

This is a sport for the stout of heart. This is a sport for those who are willing to discover the limits of their endurance and then push themselves beyond it, knowing that the runners panting just behind them are prepared to do the same.

Several years ago, I witnessed an odd delay while watching the California High School Cross Country Finals at Woodward Park in Fresco, CA. The Division I runners were left to mill around the starting line nervously, stretching and taking practice sprints while they waited for the signal to take their marks.

Finally, the event announcer explained the cause of the delay. The final Division V runner was still on the course, and Division I couldn’t start until he got out of their way.

“Just now finishing,” I thought. “At the 33:00 mark?”

As he made his way around the final bend and up toward the finish, a smattering of applause arose from the athletes at the starting line.

What a sight it was. Straddling the starting line were some of the fastest cross country runners in California, mere seconds from the biggest race of their lives. Several yards away was this poor kid, holding up the action as he struggled to complete his race a full 8 minutes behind his nearest competitor.

And the Division I runners were cheering him on.

I didn’t understand at the moment why they were doing it, so I chalked it up to good sportsmanship. It wasn’t until after I’d watched several hundred other runners wash over the finish line that I grasped what the ovation was all about.

It was a show of respect.

Runners understand how demanding cross country can be. Hundreds of hours of training. Cramps, nausea, vomiting, burning lungs, blurred vision, and wobbling legs.

They recognize that anyone with the guts to go through what it takes to compete at any level deserves respect, regardless of how fast he runs. Not that they demand respect for themselves. They don’t.

But they do give it freely to those who run alongside them.

That’s the unique camaraderie of cross country. It’s the camaraderie that comes from sharing the same foxhole.

~Bob Dickson

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