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

Thu, 19 Apr 2012 04:58:01 -0400

Pure Sport

RUNNING COMMENTARY 933

(I’m marking this newsletter’s 30th anniversary by revisiting one piece weekly from each year of the publication. This week’s is from October 2001. It also appears on Facebook on the “Joe Henderson’s Writings” page.)

You don’t run cross-country for flat, fast courses accurate to the inch, or to set PRs that mean nothing except if you repeat a race on that same course. You don’t run cross-country to have every step watched, as in a track stadium, or to mix with the masses, as on the roads. You don’t run cross-country for the glory, since in U.S. schools it shares a season with King Football.

You run cross-country for the purest of reasons. You run to test yourself against other runners on whatever surface and terrain nature provides – on a course where no car can go, and where your family and fans can catch glimpses of you only by running from point to point. You run with teammates in a race where everyone’s result helps or hurts the team score.

Cross-country tests your love of running and racing for their own sake, not for PRs you might set or attention you might grab. Once you’ve fallen for the fall sport, you never stop loving it.

Two-thirds of my autumns have passed since I last ran a full cross-country season. My final race for Drake University was the worst. In the snowbound NCAA meet I trailed all but a few of the finishers.

The pain of that race, of failing the team (by not scoring) and of ending a college career this way, soon eased. The fond memories of those seasons remain, and I eagerly refresh them each fall at my favorite running event of the year. It isn’t a big-city marathon or a major track meet in my hometown, but the Oregon State High School Cross-Country Championships.

Marc Bloom wrote in his magazine, The Harrier, after an emotionally overcharged Olympics, “At least we’ve got the warm and cuddly cross-country season to make us feel better.” He loves the running that high schoolers do in this season, since he has coached as well as written about them.

Marc’s first love is mine as well. The best day of the year to be a running fan in my home state is the first Saturday in November. All sizes of high schools run their state meet on the same course, in six races lasting as long in total as my slowest marathon.

This is a gathering of kids who often are ignored or misunderstood in their own schools during King Football season, and where the runners outnumber the fans at most of their meets. Now they come together with runners like themselves to be appreciated for all they do.

Oregon’s state-meet crowd is large by cross-country standards. That’s because each runner brings along an average of two family members and friends. They care about that runner’s race almost as much as the runner does, and dash about the course to grab glimpses of their special athlete.

This is a feel-good meet to watch, if not to run. These runners all seem to start at a dead sprint, and pay later with pain.

Standing close enough to the course to see them sweat and hear them pant, I feel some of what they feel at an age when feelings run to extremes. I hurt for those who think they’ll never recover from an imagined failure. And I celebrate with the winning individuals and teams who think they’ve conquered the world.

If you ever ran cross-country and want to renew those memories, or if you want to see what you missed by not being a young runner on a team, go to a high school cross-country race. These kids will leave you feeling good about the sport’s future as well as their own. They’ll show you that competitive running in its purest form is still in great shape.


UPDATE: Even while coaching young runners the past 11 years, I’ve never guided any through a cross-country season. Maybe that’s just as well, because my teams might not have succeeded in the way that running success is usually measured.

I would have made this season a respite from the time obsessions of road and track racing. Cross-country distances would have been odd and approximate. We would have marked no miles and shouted no splits.

The home course would have been hilly, rough, sometimes muddy and always slow. Competition would have been pure, runner against runner and against the elements, not the clock.


[Many of my books, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from Amazon.com; (2) as e-books from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; (3) as printable and shareable PDFs from Lulu.com. The titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only).]

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