People often ask which sport I did first – was it swimming? biking? running?
Long before I knew what a transition area was or how to do a brick, I was a runner – but not just any ordinary runner, I ran cross-country.
Growing up, I took lessons in several sports – dance, soccer, swimming, tennis, and gymnastics. Though I had a mean backhand and I could walk the balance beam with grace, I didn’t seem to have the innate talent to pursue any sport much further than the basics.
Enter high school where I was exposed to a variety of clearly very popular sports, including flag football, field hockey, modern dance, softball, square dancing, badminton, and bowling. Never first picked for the ball-related teams and not much of a bowler, there was one thing I was a surefire success at – I could outrun most kids on any given day. And so, my cross country career began.
Raise your hand if you were on cross-country. Now, look around. Not too many of us out there. But I bet when you meet someone, and you find out that they too ran cross-country, you feel an immediate connection. What connects us is not just the camaraderie you feel after hundreds of miles, but the shared understanding that they also know what it’s like to run 1200 meter repeats in a grassy park, what it's like to follow the white line into the woods, and what you mean when you say ‘It smells like cross country.’
1200 meter repeats
Cross-country is the most brutal of high school sports. There’s no ball, no equipment, no goal posts, no energized team dynamic – just you, your mind, and the path ahead of you – and a bunch of other stick thin kids doing the same. The only goal was to run, keep running, don’t stop, and if you can pull all of that off – at least place in the top 10.
Cross-country would meet everyday after school to run about 10 miles, or maybe 8 or maybe 12 – in cross-country you didn’t keep track, you just ran. Each day, the coach would have some gut-wrenching, foot-flying workout for us to endure until 6 pm. Most often, it involved pounding the pavement for 2 miles up to a grassy park to do 1200 meter repeats around the park until you rolled your ankle on a divot, passed out, or threw up. Maybe we did 5, 6, or even 8 of them? It wasn’t how many – it was how well you kept up. After 3 – 4, the carnage would begin to pile up under a shady tree. The shin-splinted, the dehydrated, the asthmatics, and sadly, the too heavy to be running in the first place. If you made it through all 6 – your reward - run the 2 miles back. If you didn’t make it through, you were in for a long walk back.
There was no water, no sports drink, no gels, no fancy shoes, no heart rate monitors. Chances are, you ate ho-ho’s and chocolate milk for lunch. Pre-race meals? Try a 3 Musketeers bar. Post-workout recovery? Does a cupcake count?
And here’s the thing – we were overtrained? Nope. Did we ever get injured? No way. Burnt out? No. In a rut? Not likely. Successful? You bet. You see, I went to the school of cross-country superstars. While I was pushing out a snail-paced 5:56 mile, they were running 5:03’s. They were state champions, varsity vixens. Me? I was just some junior varsity runner that might as well have ridden the short bus to the meet, licking the windows along the way. But being fast, being a winner – none of that really mattered. What mattered was the run. You were just happy to be running. Forget your times or who you beat. The best part was getting out there after school, with your friends, and going for a run. And almost anyone on the team could have been your friend. We shared a common passion, and more importantly a hell of a lot of miles together. There was an undeniable camaraderie that came from our shared suffering and shared passions that came through in 1200 meter repeats or any distance on any given day.
The white line
It takes a certain type of person to run cross-country, or, you just run enough and it turns you into someone else. Most of us were borderline nuts to voluntarily elect to run that long and far after school on nothing but high school-charged fumes and fury, while the other half of the team was made up of masterful anorexics that probably ate nothing more than a grape for lunch. I sort of straddled the line between the two groups.
We followed the white line. Sometimes the white line took you through a beautiful, rolling park with a course winding through the woods and around a lake. Sometimes the white line took you up what seemed like a 10 percent grade hill, 10 times. The white line would lead you wickedly through the mud or veer off into a pile of goose crap. Regardless, you followed the white line for nearly 3 miles until you reached a chute, where you’d stop, sweaty and beaten, dry heave a bit, get an instant headache, and think to yourself that you couldn’t wait to do it again.
A cross-country runner knows what it’s like to stand on white line with 50 other runners, the air heavy with anticipation waiting for the word ‘go’. They’ve tasted the excitement and the opportunity that comes from following the white line. They know what it’s like to believe that your hard work, your confidence in following that line will take you to some place better than you started, some place better for yourself.
The smell of cross-country
It was late September of 2004, I was traveling with my husband, Liz Attig, and Eric Ott. All very different people, but one thing in common – we all ran cross-country. We were walking outside, the autumn air crisp with leaves falling around us, when Eric said, “It smells like cross-country.” We all looked at each other and we all got it. The smell of cross country is one of my favorite smells – it’s the smell of autumn, opportunity, hard work, and being young.
On late fall days, when I find myself running along the trail with fading sunlight and cool autumn air, I smell cross-country. I am instantly taken back to a time when the pleasure was in the run – not in who you passed or how far you went – but in the miles you passed along the way. We would pass them with conversation, stories, problem-solving, or my favorite - just the quiet of our own feet moving forward on the path. In late autumn, as the season would wind down, our coach would board us on to a bus to the local forest preserve – Herrick Lake. We divided into our groups, separated only by pace but joined by a shared interest in enjoying the soft surface, the falling leaves, and the fun of a Friday afternoon run. Our group was small, with me, Rita, and Jennifer, and we would start off in any direction and go where the path would take us. We were young, we had no mental map of the forest preserve, no clue where the path would lead but a trusting that we would somehow run full circle and safely finish where we started. I remember one day in particular late in the season of my senior year, a day that sums up the lessons learned from several seasons of these Friday runs. The path through the tall trees opened up into a rolling meadow of grasses filling the landscape ahead of us. Above us, the sky was torn between two feelings – a thick blanket of bluish gray clouds approaching from the south while the sun speckled the sky from the north. The contrast of these two skies was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. The sky was ominous, something severe was certainly on its way but we continued to run with disregard to anything other than the task at hand, disregarding the looming storm and instead seeking the sunny, warm shelter of the run. There are times now, as an adult, that I find myself running that same path in Herrick Lake, with a great appreciation for the ability to get lost in a run, get lost in my own thoughts and head, to completely push away any other distractions or storms looming in my mind and focus on the task at hand – the pleasure of the run.
Cross-country is more than a sport, it’s a lifestyle, a mindset that sticks for a lifetime, that makes you tough to endure, and strong to succeed. So which came first – the cross-country runner or the triathlete? It’s hard to say. The same mental endurance and physical toughness that comes from cross-country is inherently a part of any talented triathlete. And who knows, perhaps I was destined for triathlon long before I even put on a pair of running shoes. Perhaps it was meant to be.
But one thing is for certain – I am grateful for my cross-country roots and that day in 1991 when I showed up after school with my running shoes on, ready to run.