Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Tue, 18 Nov 2003 23:14:15 -0500

Kids Who Care

RUNNING COMMENTARY 493

(rerun from November 1994 RW)

Kids don't run anymore. Kids don't care about running. Kids see it as boring, a sport better suited to their parents and grandparents.

That's what I'd heard for years. That's what I'd written more than once.

The problem with that theory was that I hadn't checked it out by going to a high school cross-country race in all the time I'd been thinking this. I'd only seen the statistical evidence that youth performances were slipping both locally and nationally.

Then one Saturday, a rare free afternoon opened on a weekend. I had no writing begging attention, no house or yard chores to do, no kids of my own to haul anywhere.

The sun shone after a rainstorm. The air had the bite of early fall to it. This was a perfect cross-country day, a day to bring out the kid in me.

The best days of my youth were fall days. The best season to be a runner was cross-country season. A visit to a big high school meet in Eugene reawakened those good old times.

Two of my worst races now supply some of my best memories. I ran twice in the NCAA Cross-Country Championships, which didn't mean as much then as it would now. The meet was still so small in the early 1960s that any team could enter without qualifying, and my two races there ranged from fair as a junior to poor as a senior.

I was a true mid-packer in 1963 as an equal number of runners led and trailed my 120th-place finish. The next fall, running on a snow-packed course that would have been perfect for cross-country SKIING, I slipped 100 places lower.

Back then I cared desperately about placings and about carrying my load for the team. I thought my cross-country career had ended in dismal failure.

But as years passed and runs slowed, my outlook changed. I came to see those two NCAA meets in particular, and cross-country seasons in general, as my happiest and proudest running moments.

It doesn't matter that I beat only 20 fellow stragglers in my last big meet. What counts was being there at all, running the open country with teammates and against the best young runners this nation had to offer then.

Those days are decades behind me now. But I can still go back to recall them at meets like the Oregon State High School Championships.

I can stand beside the course, closer to these runners than is possible at track meets or road races, close enough to hear them breathe and smell them sweat, close enough to see their looks of resolve and despair.

I can stand among a surprising number of fans. They came to the Eugene meet by the thousands, jamming traffic as they lined up to pay for parking.

Most of these people weren't generic fans of running. They were family or friends who came to support one special runner.

The only one I knew was a boy named Matt. Like all other runners here, he wore the same look of desperate caring about his finish position that I'd worn at his age.

Matt looked downcast the last time he passed my viewing spot. He was placing much farther back and helping his team less than he'd hoped.

Nothing I could have said just then would have made him feel any better. He'll need more time before he can look back on this as one of his best days.

Anyone who cares this deeply about a race will never forget it. As long as young runners keep caring this much, the sport's future is in fine shape.


UPDATE. Cross-country remains the one place in this sport where time seems to stand still. The most recent race I attended looked just like those run in 1994, when this column first appeared -- or in 1964, my last college season. That's a plus.

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