I’ve always wanted to write about Cross Country, and the complex & fascinating mental process that goes into a race. Here goes. Enjoy!
Time seems to slow to a crawl as the crowd hushes, and in that eternal instant, your mind goes blank. Although there are 200 other runners lined up beside you, waiting in perfect silence, a wave of solitude passes over you. Like a tiger about to pounce, you stand poised, with one leg behind, and one ahead, toe touching the fresh line of chalk. You are keenly aware of even the gentlest breeze–after all, your worn, thin jersey provides little insulation, and your shorts stop a good 10 inches above your knees. Yet, you do not feel cold. Instead, you are completely focused on one thing: the man with the pistol. He raises his pistol arm.
“RUNNERS, TAKE YOUR MARK!”
Anxiously, you shift your feet.
He raises his other arm.
Any lingering nervousness and second thoughts evaporate as you wait with baited breath for th–
Without thinking, you spring from the starting line at a full-out sprint, your legs pumping with stunning automaticity. The cheers and chatter of the spectators on both sides are nothing compared to the thunderous roar of feet pounding all around, and the rushing of air as you dash through a tunnel of runners. Gradually, your mind takes over, and you regain control of your own legs. You dodge and weave, passing as many other runners as you can, before you settle in, pushing hard, yet breathing steady, at your race pace. By this time, you have crossed a large field, and you follow the chalk trail into the woods. As you look up, you notice a chain of runners in front of you. Quickly, you decide that you will try to pass five of them before you emerge from the woods at the 1.5 mile mark.
As the woods close around you, you speed up slightly to catch up with the runner in front of you. Black jersey, seems to be breathing pretty hard. He slows a little as you approach and you quickly pass by him without a hassle. As you slowly work your way up the chain, the trail becomes narrow and windey. Purple jersey is next in your sights, and he seems to be going strong and–wait! He stumbles on a tree root while rounding a corner. He doesn’t fall, but this destroys his momentum. Now’s your chance! You speed up again to pass him, putting a safe distance behind you before you return to race pace. You look ahead again. Red jersey is going strong about 10 feet in front of you. From his form, you can tell that he is holding back a bit. You decide to stick with him for a while before striking ahead. He will not let you pass without a fight.
You pick up your pace a bit to keep up with him. He hears you coming, and as you expected, defensively moves directly in front of you. You shift, so as to shadow him at an angle, but you cannot think of passing him right now. The trail is too narrow, and your sudden change in pace has caused a dull gnawing pain in your side. Without sacrificing your speed, you take a moment to check your breathing, and notice that it has become uneven, and shallow. At this point, you do as you have trained yourself to do and start playing the 3rd track from Coach’s Enya CD in your head. As you start taking full steady breaths again, courtesy of Enya’s hearty Celtic beat, the sideache ebbs. It won’t dawn on you until after the race what a ridiculously silly habit this is. But, silly or not, it works. You hear someone ahead calling out times. Hmm… must be the mile mark. They call out 5:55 as you run past. 5:55 is a little faster than usual, but you are still feeling relatively good.
However, it would appear that your red friend is still feeling good too, and you know that you will have to push yourself to the limits and beyond if you want to beat him. Ahead, you see daylight: the end of the woods. However, a steep upward climb separates you from the open trail. You decide that this is your time to attack. As you approach the hill, you lean forward and sprint with all of your might. Evidently, red hadn’t been expecting this display of energy from you, and you blow past him with ease. You reach the top of the hill, heart pounding, and realize that you had just taken a gutsy, and calculated risk. While you are now halfway through the race, and passed up red by a longshot, your charge up the hill was exhausting. You begin to feel your faster-than-average pace catching up with you. As you coast downhill back onto the grassy field, you realize that the next one and a half miles will be an uphill battle. A mental fight to the finish.
Your lungs are burning and your legs are beginning to feel like dead weight, but you force yourself to keep moving. As you follow the trail along the fence, you notice that you are approaching one of your teammates. He too, looks as though he is hurting. As you come alongside, you summon the breath to choke out a hoarse “Keep it up, bud.” After a short pause, he responds with an equally hoarse, “You too.” Even in an individual and somewhat solitary sport such as Cross Country, there is room for teamwork and encouragement. You notice that the trail continues on the other side of the fence, as the runners at the front of the pack fly past. A short distance beyond them, you catch a welcome sight: a chute lined with plastic flags. The finish line. Less than a mile to go, you determine. With this optimistic realization, a second wind hits you, and you push forward once again.
Rounding the end of the fence, you become aware of someone coming up fast right behind you. Red’s back. In seconds, he has passed you up, and is plowing forward with a vengeance. You have arrived at the moment of truth. You could coast to the finish now, and still wind up with your best time yet. Or, you could use of every ounce of energy and beat the red guy. Of course, you opt for the latter. One is rarely capable of making rational decisions after running for more than 2 miles. The brain just doesn’t respond well when it has to share that much oxygen with the legs. You speed up, until you are neck and neck with red. He is visibly annoyed by your determination, and leans in, in an attempt to cut you off. However, you quicken your step and hold your ground.
By now, you are rounding the final corner into the homestretch. Some 400 meters stand between you and the chute, and you realize that neck and neck won’t work in the chute. Someone has to break away.
300 meters. You feel something change within your body. You no longer feel tired or sore or achey. As the tidal wave of adrenaline crashes within you, your mind once again goes blank. As at the start of the race, your legs start pumping automatically. You feel your arms flailing at your sides. You hear your parents and friends cheering you on, but they sound distant and incomprehensible. The chute seems to draw closer and closer, and you are only aware of one thing: That you are moving faster than you have ever moved before. Red is fighting with every last ounce of strength: He was saving his energy for this very moment. The chute is approaching rapidly, much as the ground must look to a sky-diver in a free-fall. 20 meters. 13 meters. 7 feet. With one final push, you propel yourself into the chute and cross the finish line, a split-second ahead of red.
You stumble out of the chute, and lean over, hands on knees. As you fight to catch your breath, sweat stinging in your eyes, you hear your parents and coach talking to you all at once, congratulating you. Somebody hands you a plastic bottle. Without hesitation you unscrew the cap and drink. Water? No, too sweet… Gatorade. Lemon Lime. Greedily, you drain the bottle, as the endorphins start to kick in. Wiping your mouth, you gesture at the stopwatch that your coach is holding. In a half-coherent mumble, you ask for your time. Fortunately, your coach seems to be fluent in half-coherent mumbling and responds to your question: 18 minutes and 41 seconds. A personal best, by 25 seconds. Chatting and comparing times with your teammates, you slowly make your way back to the chute to cheer on the runners who are still finishing, regardless of the jersey that they wear.
It has been nearly six years since I ran in my last Cross Country meet, but these images and memories are still vividly fresh in my mind. As pathetic as it sounds, I even got nervous just writing about those moments before the race. The 5K Cross Country race is a battle, to be sure. You need to push yourself physically, and when that becomes too difficult, you need to push yourself mentally. I think this is an apt metaphor for life and school as well. You cannot simply coast. The most rewarding end calls for hard, even exhausting work in the meantime. I need to constantly remind myself of this, particularly as I come into the “homestretch” of the school year. I hope this is something that all of you will consider, as well.
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” 2 Timothy 4:7