I’ve played all sorts of sports: Football, baseball, basketball, and I just don’t get cross country. It doesn’t even seem like a sport at all. You get out there and you don’t even run fast — you just jog. What kind of athletic skill does it take to jog for 2.5 miles? I get that I wouldn’t want to do it, but it just doesn’t seem that hard to me.
– M. T., Gilroy
I have to admit that if you think of what an athlete should look like, long distance runners usually don’t quite measure up. Especially in high school. They’re skinny, they have no muscles, and it seems like, even though they run outside all the time, that they’re all pale.
That said, though, there are many different athletic skills. Take golf, for example, which really doesn’t involve a whole lot of physical activity — you take a swing about 90 times in a four-hour span. How hard is that?
Well, I know just how hard it is because I could never play the bloody game. (I took 90 swings in about nine holes.)
There’s also the issue of having someone try to stop you. In many sports, there is a human being trying to keep you from doing what you want to do; in other sports, like track, the competition is primarily with yourself.
But there is one thing common to all sports: the ability to push yourself beyond what you think your limits are. A lot of times this involves pain, and I would argue that cross-country runners have to suffer more pain than almost any other high school athlete. The idea, after all, is to go as fast as you possibly can for a long time, and if you’re not pushing yourself to the point that it hurts, you’re not doing it right.
On top of that, many cross-country runners have to deal with shin splints, blisters, hip pain, and all sorts of nagging ailments that come from constant pounding on pavement and feels.
So at its most basic level, cross-country is survival of the fittest. You have to be tough, in a certain way, to avoid getting those repetitive stress injuries, and you have to have a high tolerance for pain. (Have you ever thought that a cross country runner is having fun while running a race? They all look like they’re getting injected with a particularly excruciating poison and are just hoping the pain will end soon.)
Then, of course there is talent. The ability to run fast is a skill, and though it’s easy to appreciate Usain Bolt in the 100-yard dash, it’s really only a difference of degree, not of kind, for long distance runners. Successful cross-country runners have a certain economy of style, and the best seem to just glide — so many joggers plod along, seeming to pound the earth with their entire body weight at every step. The phrase “light on your feet” definitely applies to quality cross-country runners, and not everyone can make that claim.
Speaking of claims, I’m not going to make one that suggests that cross-country runners are the best athletes around. But what they do is a combination of mental toughness and physical skill that deserves all the praise it earns.
I notice, for example, that you didn’t list cross-country as one of your sports, and I can guarantee it was never one of mine. It just hurt too much, and I quickly moved on to a sport where the pain wasn’t nearly as great. I wasn’t very good at that either, but at least it didn’t hurt so much.
Clay Kallam has been an assistant athletic director and coached multiple sports and a handful of high schools throughout the Bay Area. To submit a question for Behind the Clipboard, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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