My first cross country race was in 1974. We raced at a high school in a neighboring town. The school was Rippowam High School, but everybody called it “Rip”. On the first day of High School (10th grade in our town) I had joined cross country to get in shape for wrestling. I showed up wearing Jack Purcell tennis shoes, and ran a four miler on the first day. I crawled, literally, from our Oldsmobile up our flagstone walk that night. Two weeks later, we were racing.
The bus ride to Rip was roughly 40 minutes. I was extremely nervous. The upper classmen were loose and joking. I wondered if they took this seriously. I knew our team was good, one of the top teams in the state, but they seemed distracted. Nobody talked about the race. As we got closer, maybe ten minutes out, the bus got quiet, and the guys started preparing. The strong mentholated smell of analgesic balm filled the bus as everybody started working it into their calf muscles. The kid in front of me took repeated pulls from a bottle of Energol. We pulled into the lot and our driver shut the bus down. Our coach didn’t say a word. He just stayed in his seat reading a paperback. The upperclassmen slipped out of the bus as noiselessly and alert as a pack of wolves. No words were spoken as they dropped off their kit bags at the base of a maple and headed off, together, to warm up. Focus continued to narrow. I watched and learned.
Our races were three miles then, and most of them were road courses close to the schools. Very few courses were in parks, on trails, or golf courses. Rip was mostly roads, but started with an 800m lap around the athletic fields. We did our runouts, settled in to our box, and the starter fired his pistol. Our uniforms were red, Rip’s were green. I knew enough to stay at the back of our pack, but the pace felt terribly slow. I watched as the top seven or eight runners from Rip pulled away from us and stretched out a 150 meter lead after 400m. I wondered what we were doing. I did the math, quickly, and figured at this rate we’d finish about a mile behind. In a three mile race. I wanted very much to move around to the front of our pack. Was it really up to me to lead a chase? I stayed put. We ran by our coach as we finished the field loop. He didn’t say a word as we turned out the drive onto the road. I was beginning to feel the front of our pack pull away, four or five guys easing ahead with no apparent change in rhythm or effort. I had no choice but to let them go.
After the mile mark, we began to climb a noticeable hill. I looked ahead and noticed we had closed on the Rip runners. Some of them were walking, and all of them were suffering. As one of us would pass, they’d start to run, fitfully, stopping in a few strides to walk and curse. Eventually, I began to go by them one by one, until there were no green shirts left ahead of me. Even so, by the finish, I was roughly a half mile behind our top finishers.
They waited for me at the finish, and laughed at me as I dry-heaved in the chute. I didn’t mind. It was the right kind of laughter. I recognize it now whenever I hear it; that laughter is a release, acknowledging the comradery of shared hardship.
I learned a few things that afternoon that I seem to use and share almost every week. To begin with, watch and learn from those who’ve been there before. Trust proven leaders. Narrow your focus until the gun. Wishing is not training; you’ll never outperform your preparation. Don’t panic. Know your role. Go as hard as you can. Wait at the end of the chute, not on the course, for your teammates. Finally, sometimes laughter beats the heck out of sympathy.