The same summer I went vegetarian, I quit soccer and joined the cross country team. The two events were unrelated, but at soccer practice they talked about how I’d “changed.”
Little did they—or I—know that the transformation had barely begun. Every high school athlete has stories about their team and the adventures they had, but it’s becoming more and more clear to me that there was something different—special—about cross country, aside from the fact that everyone thought we were crazy or stupid.
I respect anyone who puts their effort into a team or physical attempt of any kind. But I think cross country is an especially brutal mind game. My parents told me they felt like they were abusing me when they dropped me off at pre-season practices in the afternoon heat of August, especially considering the dramatic lamentation I went through daily: “It’s going to be so hot and we’re doing snakes/repeats/sprints today. It’s going to be miserable.” And I’d be miserable all day, dreading the coming pain of a hard workout from the moment I woke up and leaving practice feeling bright and light and in love with hard work.
I was definitely dramatic. But I felt like it was my prerogative as a member of the cross country team, along with pasta nights and getting a 10/10 on the gym class mile. I ran outside for miles at a time. I loved to hate it. I think we all did, which is a questionable way to build character, but a quick way to build companionship. The shared disdain of Thursday workouts and conspiring to get out of additional running made us feel more unified than any team cheer ever had. You have to all be on the same page when you’re planning an illicit grocery store run during your LSD (long, slow distance) day at practice. You need one person to look out for coaches, one to decide how long you can spend inside, one to make sure no one puked up the three donuts they just ate. So yeah, teamwork was essential here. It paid off when we sat on the benches in front of the store, out of view of coaches who surely had some idea of what we were doing, enjoying our feast.
Despite the way we often attempted to deceive our coaches, they gave many of us a great gift. Every person on that rag-tag cross country team was treated as a competitor. From the state champion to the 40-minute 5k finisher, we were expected to work and take care of ourselves as athletes. Coach was forever there to create personalized workouts to accommodate and challenge both those with gold medals and those with dud knees. Because everyone got to run every race, there were no benchwarmers. Everyone always competed, both against themselves and the other team, regardless of their finishing times.
And so cross country was something that affected everything we did during those summer and fall months. We stood in ice baths after practice, either blasting music or playing Heads Up, packed close together and inhaling each other’s sweat, hands in cartons of Goldfish crackers. We went home and packed our race bags with sunscreen and dry socks and ate our bananas for the potassium content. Dairy was practically sacrilege on race days and Thursdays, so much so that one year, my friends brought in a cake the day before my birthday instead of on it, letting me finish their explanation with “because of the meet.” We woke and gulped glasses of water, and though we never got enough sleep, we at least tried before race days.
On Fridays we finished practice (not as hard as Thursday, but rarely easy) and too-quickly stretched before heading to the Home Ec. room for Pasta Night, a weekly feast for both the middle-and high-school teams, prepared by generous parents and gobbled down too quickly by sweaty and hungry runners.
And we got better. Each of us saw our quadriceps grow and our race times shrink from August to November. We saw race splits even out and hills seem far less steep than they once had. We had every bit of evidence that the work we put in meant progress. For me, it was never winning races, but going from a slogger to a front runner. It was seeing the other runners fall behind me on hills. It was finishing a race with a killer sprint.
And as much as we all claimed to hate this brutal sport, most of us came back. Year after year we showed up beneath the big tree, dropped our bags and water bottles, and began our warm up laps. And year after year we were treated as contributing members of the team and taught ourselves how to get stronger, with leg lifts or electrolytes or mantras. The small victories were celebrated right along with the championships, and everyone ate their giant burger at Fudruckers when it was over.
I recognize the value of this now as my identity as an athlete fades and I become a casual runner. Despite the fact that I’m no longer racing regularly, I think in terms of weekly workouts. I incorporate strength and think about splits when I run. I remember to avoid dairy before a workout and to eat a banana after. While I no longer have a coach keeping me accountable for running all year, I still do. Sometimes irregularly, sometimes slowly, sometimes with horrible form. But I do. And I remember the things my coaches told me when I was 14 and unconvinced that running two miles under 20 minutes was even possible. I recall that I didn’t need to have speed or skill or even experience for them to take me seriously. They just did. So why shouldn’t I?
So when I decide I’m going to write a book or become a professional actor or learn a language, I’ll look past the fact that I haven’t done it yet and just do it. I take my drive seriously and I do the thing. That’s the biggest gift I think those generous and patient coaches gave me. They gave me permission to take myself seriously. It’s not a matter of participation awards and making everyone feel good. It’s a matter of making people aware of their potential, because without that, how could they ever reach it?