I ran cross country for two years in high school. I did not join the cross country team because I was good at running or because I loved running. I joined cross country because the captains of the wrestling team were also the captains of the cross country team. They told me I should run cross country with them to get in shape for wrestling season, which was my ‘A’ sport.
I joined my Junior year. It was a small team. Barely enough kids to field a team maybe 8 to 10.
The school I went to was a small prep school in New England. Yes all those pictures that pop into your mind when I say “small New England prep school” are true. It was beautiful, and small and clique-ey, with rich kids and all that. It was a fabulous education and I was a ‘towny’; one of the kids from town who went as a day student.
My Trigonometry and Calculus professor was the coach. At some point in the misty past he had been a runner. He was a quiet, bookish man who smoked a pipe.
We were all required, at the start of the season, to order and buy two pair of running shoes through the school. They were from a west-coast company called Nike and there we got Waffle trainers for practice and waffle racers for meets. The good runners had their own shoes. Most of the front runners wore spikes.
We raced on Wednesday afternoons and Saturdays. Home and away. There was no standard 5k course back then. Each school had their own course and they were all different lengths in a general distribution around the 5k distance. Most were shorter. All of the courses were off road and some were rough, like steeple chases.
If you’ve never seen a high school cross country meet it is quite a spectacle. The kids line up in corrals in a line across a wide front start, typically in an open field. At some point in the first ¼ mile or so, typically the other side of the field, the course narrows to single or double path. This means that right out of the start everyone sprints as hard as they can to get position when they are funneled into the trail.
Then, because most 16 year olds have no sense of pacing it’s just an question of running as fast as you can and trying to hang on before you pass out at the end. For the majority of us in the mid-pack there was no strategy other than “Run!”
There were tactics that I still use today. Things like angling for position when you know the course. Using your strengths whether they be down hills or flats to pass competitors. Passing on tight corners so they can’t see you slow down ahead. Passing with authority to break their spirit.
Right from the start I loved the practices which consisted of team runs around my home town roads. Since I loved the practices so much my enthusiasm, not my talent, landed me the 5th man on the varsity team. Our Captain Fitzy was a very good runner and typically placed first or second. The co-captain Tim was also strong. The rest of us were mediocre and did what we could.
I don’t remember ever being all that concerned with winning or losing because my spot on the team was a bit of an afterthought and I usually didn’t score.
I remember long rides to meets in the school Van with the coach smoking his pipe. The signature smell of “Borkum Riff” tobacco. I remember we taped our laces so they would not untie.
For home meets we used to finish on the football field, sometimes at half time of a game. I remember one meet I was having a good race, but hyperventilated in the last couple hundred feet of the football field and was ingloriously passed by many runners as I wobbled and weaved to the finish. I remember an invitational meet in Cantebury Connecticut at the beginning of the second season where I injured my achiles in the race, a precursor of future achiles problems. I remember falling down in a muddy corner in the league meet and being trampled in the mud.
I remember racing in an early snow squall that froze on our bare quads as we raced in shorts and singlets.
For the most part I hated the racing part. Cross country races were all anaerobic pain. The stress of standing in the corral waiting for that 20 minutes of pain was awful.
I did like the practice. And I did like the running. And I learned that I could run, so that later in life when I needed to turn to that friend, running was still there.