Considering I used to run cross country in high school, I think it is fitting that I now fancy myself an aspiring artist; sometimes 5k is all you can shoot for. Running competitively in high school was one of the most memorable elements of my teenage years, right up with buying the seventh Harry Potter book at midnight and then binge reading it in what was a blur of cliché climaxes and disappointing dénouement (yes, I’m still bitter). Cross country is a misunderstood sport perfect for misunderstood youth. Despite its reputation as being geared towards skinny, awkward kids unable to handle the rigors of “real” sports like football or quilting, I’d say there isn’t a single athletic activity that is a challenging, demanding, painful, and rewarding as cross country. Only the toughest of competitors need apply; pansies can go grab a helmet and some shoulder pads.
See, mentally stable people don’t run cross country. It’s a sport for loners and weirdoes who don’t mind being trapped inside their own heads, for those that can endure both the physical stress of running and the mental stress of constantly thinking, “Wait, why the hell am I doing this? This is horrible.” There’s no glory in cross country: no bubbly cheerleaders shaking pom-poms, no rabid fans tailgating at the starting line, no way of using tales of your semi-athletic prowess to land a hot prom date (turns out the ability to finish really fast doesn’t impress the ladies). Cross country is a sport for kids that thirst for unrecognized, anonymous, unappreciated accomplishment, the type of kids who will either become software engineers or psychopaths with rambling, incoherent manifestos. In short, cross country is the best damn sport there is (and that there ever will be, unless a national interest in naumachia can be reinvigorated).
This probably will come as a shock to no one, but being on the cross country team was not “cool” at my high school. Sure, certain participants had some measurable amount of social clout, but that respect tended to be derived from happenstance handsomeness or involvement in other, more popular sports that didn’t require unsightly short shorts. For multiple years my team won state…not the actual championship, mind you, but the award for highest team GPA. We were given hideous sweatshirts to commemorate the accomplishment, which we all wore with dorky pride. The sweatshirts might as well have come with twenty-sided dice, pocket protectors, a hidden compartment to store acne medicine in, and a lifetime pass for romantic rejection. We didn’t care, though; we earned those celebratory signifiers of geekery.
The collection of nerds at my high school didn’t just “happen” to run cross country. It is a sport the actively attracts smart-yet-strange kids because geeks love challenges and cross country is the most difficult sport in the high school landscape. Yes, laugh all you want former football
jerks players, but it’s true. People who denigrate cross country are people that have never actually tried it. Running is something kids in other sports dread, the punishment dished out by the coach at the conclusion of a subpar practice. In cross country, that’s all practice is. There’s no variation, no drill rotation, no water breaks, no focus on refining “skills.” You just run until it hurts, then you run some more. Trust me, it isn’t as easy as Forrest Gump made it look.
Yes, there isn’t any physical contact in cross country, but that doesn’t mean it is any less taxing. Sure, there are no bloodthirsty linebackers looking to decapitate you or beluga-sized centers throwing elbows in the post, but in a way absorbing that kind of pain is easier. That type of discomfort is external, inflicted by the opposition; it is something you expect, something you use as an inspiring or galvanizing force. In cross country, the only person that hurts you is you, which sounds like something a hack counselor would say regard to teenage depression, but it’s true. The only way to do better, to accomplish more, is to choose to put yourself through more agony, to actively decide, “Hey, it feels the lactic acid is eating away at my muscles like some sort of aggressive necrotic disease, but I’m going to push myself harder because I’m a complete lunatic.” It isn’t exactly an easy decision to make.
Another reason why cross country is the toughest sport is that even though there is a team component when it comes to scoring meets, cross country is an individual endeavor. You can’t rely on one star guard to start draining three-pointers or one dominant bowler to shatter wickets. You are isolated as a runner; you’re success is yours but so is your failure.
It’s very Ayn Rand-ian. You can’t blame refs or teammates or any of those other go-to targets for displaced responsibility; it’s all on you. Nerds like cross country because of this aspect; it’s the flip-side of why they loathe group projects. There’s a certain thrill in knowing you’ll either sink and swim based on only your own merits and effort, which I’m sure is even scarier if you’re a beginning swimmer but that’s beside the point.
There’s no safety net of teammates to pick up the slack when you start slowing down at the two-mile mark. Your success is all on your skinny, pimple-ridden, bony shoulders. Geeks thrive on that type of challenge.
That isn’t to say, however, that there isn’t a wonderful communal component to cross country. While the pain of the race is individual, the bonding over that shared experience links the whole team together. Since it was considered such a lame sport at my high school, my cross country team never had the ego issues the plagued the teams in the “popular” sports.
Everyone knew where we stood on the social scale; we were the kids with the dorky short-shorts, with jerseys so low budget the freaking name of our school was misspelled, with the non-matching warm-up attire and the ugly shoes that reeked of sweat. On the school day of one particular race we dressed up as pumpkins is a humorous display of team solidarity, wearing those jack-o-lantern trash bags over our clothes in what was an act that surely set the world record for being the utmost antithesis of an aphrodisiac. It’s sort of hard to get bigheaded in that situation. It’s like oozing hubris over your Settlers of Catan skills.
Looking back, I’m certain not a single member of my cross country team could have taken any other athlete in a fight. We maybe could’ve stood a chance going up against the thespians in the theater program, since they were only armed with their abilities to clumsily emote and to give creepy hugs, but that’s about it. Winning physical confrontations isn’t the ultimate sign of toughness, though.
Isn’t that the underlying message of the scene where Obi-Wan gets struck down by Vader? (Uhhh, SPOILER ALERT if you’re one of the five people in the world unfamiliar with A New Hope.) Yes, there is an undeniable physical component to toughness, but the mental element is just as critical.
Running cross country strengthens your resolve like no other sport, and you don’t have to unnecessarily risk shattered bones or a lifetime of concussion repercussions to experience it, which sorta supports the whole idea that smart kids gravitate towards the sport. Sure, running endless miles in shorts that would make a 1980’s NBA player blush didn’t earn me any social glory, but it is a formative and gratifying experience I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world (well, except maybe a better Deathly Hallows epilogue).