Cross country running means hills, mud, wet feet, mostly cold weather but also a great sense of satisfaction when you cross the line. These days I’m a big fan of cross country running, but that has not always been the case.
As a teenager, my relationship with it was ambiguous at best. I did most of my run training in the massive forest near my house, sprinkled in with multi-event training indoors. School PE lessons had an added healthy dose of running around said woods and I enjoyed that. But I never warmed up to racing over the country.
During one of my first races, I had gone off too quickly and came past my mum panting: “I can’t go on.” Her reply was curt: “You can still talk, so you can run”. I was unhappy but continued – and never ever spoke during a race again, at least not to either of my parents. Over the years, cross country became part of the routine. Every winter, I would run 5 or so races and was desperately looking forward to running fast on the track. I never much enjoyed it though. The low point came when I collapsed during a race while in the lead with no recollection who carried me to the finish and the first aiders. The collapse was due to a sudden temperature change and an oncoming illness, but after that cross country was connected with a lot of anxiety.
When I went to Boston University to join their Track & Field programme, I never had realised how big a part cross country running would play. The college year has effectively 3 distinct seasons: cross country (September-November), Indoor (December-March) and outdoor (April-June). I wasn’t best pleased to have a 5km cross country race every 3 weeks with no sprint work, after all, I was a sprint-based middle distance runner. I tried to talk the coach out of having me do all that long stuff, to no avail. I hated it in my first year. Only today, I can appreciate that possibly without the cross base, I would have never made it through to June in one piece.
My relationship to cross changed during my fourth and last year. New students had joined and we had a great group with the potential to make it to the NCAA Championships as a team for the very first time. We had gone to New York, Van Cortland Park. I never much liked the course and much less did I like the New England Championships. However, one of the girl’s boyfriend said how he looked at the back end of the course as a rollercoaster you just needed to ride. I liked the image. I got out well a bit more aggressive than usual, but sensible. We got to the back part and someone shouted: Ride the rollercoaster, ride it! And that was it.
Something clicked and off I went. I finished as a scorer for the team somewhere in the high 20s. Just to illustrate the magnitude of this: in the years before I was lucky to find myself in the 50s. Suddenly, I loved it. Just like that. The next race was the qualifier for the NCAA Championships. The most important race. I was positive, full of enthusiasm and had one of my most miserable races. On my home course. I was devastated. How could this be?
The other girls had had stellar races and just days later we were told we had qualified for the National Championships. That same evening I got a phone call from the coach. I still remember what he said: Christine, I’m taking you. You won’t be part of the starting 7 though, but I know that if I have to pull you in you’ll be outstanding. Talk of mixed messages. I cried. It’s funny a couple of years earlier I would’ve been delighted to just be reserve. But cross country is very much a team sport and being the reserve felt like not being part of the team. How things change.
At the championships, I warmed up with the girls, pep talked them, stayed loose. The girls were just about to head over to the start when I saw our coach legging it shouting at me to put my spikes on. What!? One of the girl’s had collapsed, I was up. Right then time to pull it off. I wouldn’t say I had a stellar race, but I came home 4th for the team, meaning I scored. I was elated and my coach had the biggest, knowing smile on his face. These two races changed my perspective of cross country entirely. I love it.
In fact a year with no cross country is now a wasted year even more so when you don’t have a team. The last couple of years I’ve been very much on my own when it came to cross country and we hardly ever got a team together. However, since moving I have a team again. In fact a big team and it’s awesome.
Why am I telling you all this? Yes, cross country is hard work. It’s dirty. But it is one of the few athletics events where all shapes and sizes and ages participate, where no one is more important than someone else, where from a team perspective everyone is important, where world class runners suffer just the same as the average Jo. It’s got fantastic camraderie and over the country, no one will ask you what your PB is. Point is: cross country is fantastic to build your strength and basis for the summer and it’s a social experience. And sometimes it will transform the way you see and experience running. Point is: cross country is for everyone and you should give it a go.