By Keith Harrington
I have to admit. Before last fall, I had never watched a cross-country race. Heck, I had never even written about cross-country in my blog. It was just a sport that I didn’t even give any thought to. Then one day my stepson Terrence came home and announced that he was planning on going out for the Hartford’s Tanager’s cross-country team. This surprised me since running was typically something that he nestled away severe disdain for. However, Terrence has become very dedicated to improving his craft, and I can now honestly say that cross-country is my new favorite high school sport to attend in person.
Friday night at the Granville at Greenwich football game I was chatting with the two young ladies from Whitehall who keep the stats for the Golden Horde. They picked up that gig because one of their dad’s in on the Granville coaching staff. They are both three-sport athletes for the Railroaders, so I am quite familiar with them having covered their games multiple times.
When they asked what sport, my favorite was to cover, I am sure they were hoping I would say Whitehall softball. Although I do love covering their talented team they were surprised when I replied, “Cross-country!”
“You’re being sarcastic right?” one of the girls asked. Her friend just laughed.
I thought to myself, man…..I didn’t think they knew me quite that well? I do have quite the sarcastic side.
“I am dead serious,” I told the girls. “100 percent.”
They still looked at me like I was full of something that is discarded from the rear end of cows all over Washington County, so I felt obligated to explain.
First of all, I have been to nearly every race Terrence and Hartford and have competed in this season. I have been to league dual meets and huge invitationals with hundreds of competitors, and even more fans. I enjoyed every one of them tremendously. Know why? I could just go and enjoy the races. I didn’t have to bring sound cancelling headphones to block out the white noise. Cross-country meets are high school sports the way it was designed to be.
When runners take off at the start of the races, all the spectators applaud and yell positive well wishes as the runners head out on the course. As the competitors come to the finish line, everyone, whether it’s a runner from your team or not is cheering them on and clapping for them. Every student-athlete, whether they finish first, tenth, 50th or 100th feels like they are being supported. Runners that complete the course in 40 minutes get the same respect as those that finished in 16 minutes.
There are a couple moments that are stuck in my mind that have helped cross-country win me over. Last year at the Vermont State Championships a Poultney runner was still out on the course. I believe he may have been the only runner remaining on the course. Even though the Blue Devil runner finished significantly behind the rest of the field, his teammates, and runners from other schools, even some parents from other schools, were all their urging him on. When he entered the shoot the runner sprinted to the finish line, never giving up.
Another example happened just a couple of weeks ago at a meet in Saratoga. A Hartford runner was still on the course at SPAC. With the sun going down and darkness setting in her teammates went out to meet her when she got close to entering the shoot. The momentum they generated clearly helped her to finish strong. Turns out she was not the last runner on the course as four or five others came in behind her. All the remaining fans rooted them on to the finish as well.
Perhaps the best part about cross-country is that even if your team doesn’t do well, you can still perform well as an individual. Maybe your team doesn’t accumulate enough points to win, but you can still place first. Your school may not even have a complete team to be scored, but a race can still be successful for you. Even if a runner finishes further back in the field, they can still set their own personal records. There are always goals to shoot for.
There also seems to be a camaraderie and respect among the runners that compete against each other in cross-country. At one recent race, one of the top girl’s runners in the Adirondack League from Corinth came up to Terrence after the race, slapped his hand and said, “Hey, thanks for pushing me so I could keep my pace.” Great stuff right?
Now that I have lauded the characteristics that have drawn me to cross-country, let me tell you what I never see at one of these sport’s events that also makes it great. I never have to listen to any parents yelling at the coaches, officials or runners in a negative way. No one ever complains that it’s the coach’s fault the team or their kid isn’t doing well, or the ref’s calls are cheating their team.
I have never heard anyone at a cross-country meet yell, “If you taught him how to stride better, he would win more.” Or “My daughter wouldn’t be way back in 35th place if you knew how to train her!” It just doesn’t happen.
There is also never any complaining about the officials. Of course, because there aren’t any, except for a starter, someone folks at the finish line and course attendance that make sure the runners navigate the course properly. My point is, you can attend the meets and not have to listen to someone who doesn’t know the rules in the first place criticize the officials, even though the refs are usually right more times than not.
Obviously, another thing that is never mentioned at a cross-country event is playing time. No parent or student-athlete ever has to complain about not getting to participate even though they are putting in the same time at practice as everyone else, as it usually goes. All the runners who show up with their school to compete at any cross-country meet get a bib with a number on it and get to race. There are no benchwarmers. If Rob Schneider and Jon Heder had been in cross-country runners instead of baseball players, they wouldn’t have had a movie.
When I was driving home from my parent’s house this afternoon after our weekly Sunday dinner, I heard a radio spot sponsored by NYSPHAA. It said, “Encourage your child to participate in high school athletics. It is good for their health. And its fun!”
It made me shake my head and laugh. Healthy? Fun? The message is the correct one, but sadly it’s not being bought in to. Maybe if they all ran cross-country I thought.
So, there you go. I made my statement, and I am sticking to it. And I provided the evidence to back it up. Cross-country is my new favorite high school sporting event to attend. It is refreshing to go watch a sports contest where, well……I can just peacefully enjoy watching a sports contest. I repeat, it’s what high school sports is supposed to be!