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Running the distance: Why cross country matters



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September 03, 2013 | 02:57 PM
For a lot of sports writers, cross country is the sport they least like to cover.

Even parents, who attend anything else their child does, are hard pressed to find the sport exciting. It’s hard to watch because after the start and before the finish, it’s a challenge to find specific runners unless you’re willing to meet them at various curves in the path where they might come back into view for a few seconds — and that task pretty much requires that you’re a runner yourself. But I actually like watching cross country.

A semi-retired runner myself, I watched my son run cross country and track through high school.

I lost my voice screaming him on and lost my breath trying to keep up with him. When we started running together, we’d sprint when we saw our driveway come into view. I always won.

Until I didn’t anymore.

At first, when we took part in various runs in the area, I was always waiting at the finish line for him to finish. Until I wasn’t anymore, and he was the one waiting for me.

There aren’t too many things more pleasurable for a parent than the first time your son or daughter beats you at something.

It’s like a passing of the torch, a rite of passage.

One of the great things about distance running unlike other sports like football, for instance, is that it can turn into a lifelong hobby.

Distance running doesn’t require much besides a good pair of shoes and desire.

That’s one of the reasons people who don’t do well in other sports are drawn to running.

Just about anyone can become decent if they just have the will to keep on going.

And that’s where the joy of watching cross country comes in for me.

Sure, I like the sprints to the finish line — kids grimacing, putting everything into those last few steps.

But it’s just as exciting to see the kids at the end of the long line of runners.

I saw several kids grow up in front of me during the time when my son ran.

I remember a short, pudgy freshman who walked most of the way when she started. Most of the spectators had left by the time she was done. As those manning the finish line stood patiently by, she was a lonely figure in the distance. I felt terribly sad for her.

Luckily, there weren’t cuts in cross country — which is one of its appeals — so she kept on trying. Practice after practice. Season after season.

Cross country is a democratic sport. You get to play as long as you enter the race.

For that girl, the walk eventually turned into a run and the run became faster and faster.

She never became great, but she made the middle of the pack and her name was even in the paper a couple times. And while I wasn’t there to see it, I’m sure she beamed when the coach gave her a letter at the end of her senior year.

She’d lost weight, gained confidence and learned a sport that she could take with her for the rest of her life. I’ll bet she still thinks back to those days. I wouldn’t be surprised if getting that letter was a tipping point in her life.

The last time my son ran competitively, it was at a track meet. His mother and I sat in the rain in a nearly empty stadium as he finished a mile race on a muddy field.

The week after, I drove an hour to the conference meet in Madison. He’d run conference and beyond every year, even as a freshman, but when I got there I learned the coach had passed him by as a senior.

His high school running days were over.

I drove home in a funk, then sat on our patio just staring into space.

My son opened the back door and walked over to me.

“Thanks, dad,” he said, handing me his running watch.

It was a day of sadness, a sign that he’d moved onto other things.

But it was also a moment where I realized, as a father, that I had been there for a reason.

I showed up because he showed up.

I had the will to persevere because he did.

To be there at the end of the race — any race — is a win for both parent and child.

Cross country a boring sport?

Not for me.

Watching runners fires up the urge in me to run again, and flashes me back to the days when my son and I sprinted to the driveway.

And I always won.

Until I didn’t anymore.

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