Early on I would just go to see who vomits. Which is really out of character for me. I usually can’t abide anything bilious, but somehow, in the runners, it didn’t make me gag, but instead left me with a feeling of awe that was at first unexpected and which later I feel like I became almost addicted to.
When people talk about runners, they usually focus on the Runner’s High. The euphoric feeling afterwards that you can do anything. That you’re gorgeous and invincible and, well, perfect. However, that is not how these runners present when they’re walking beyond the finish line, holding their sides, leaning forward to gently hurl. Still, I find it so captivating, I can’t take my eyes off them.
This is just one of the things I’ve discovered about high school cross-country, a sport that I knew virtually nothing about three years ago. In fact, when my son was a freshman and a dad in town asked if he was playing a fall sport, the dad responded with a snort when I said cross-country. “That’s not a real sport,” the dad said. At the time, I felt like I knew what he meant. You’re not embattled in head to head combat. There is no ball. There’s nothing about it that reeks of good ol’ boys.
I nodded when the dad said that, because, as usual, I wanted to fit in. But if he made the same declaration now, I would snort right back.
Because I would now find that statement dismissive and disrespectful of what these kids endure over the course of their season, and, yes, it’s different than having a drill sergeant for a coach who makes a whole team run suicides for an hour if one kid forgets his mouth guard. There is a soul and a humanity to running a long distance race that I find utterly humbling.
Kids come through the finish line and, even if they don’t vomit (and many don’t), they are in agony; it’s displayed on every pore of their face. There’s not much hooting and hollering; they’re someplace inside themselves and to witness the quietness of it feels both intimate and raw.
Some kids just walk off and back to their groups. They’re finding their breath and calming their legs. Others need to be held, and their teammates rush towards them, two kids flanking on either side. They walk the runner slowly, holding him up, bringing him back to life.
These kids do look like they’ve jut come off a battlefield, like they’re the walking wounded and you can see in their eyes that they’ve just been to a place that they’d never expected to go. It hurts. Some cry. Many walk off for a few minutes to be alone.
I just came back from the team banquet, an event that was about as low key as you can get. Pot luck, field house, no slide shows or trophies. Mostly just pasta and camaraderie.
The two captains, one senior and one junior, spoke about how the boys train six days a week, run four to seven miles every day, in the August heat and the October rain. And, as the team captain said, “when it’s time for a race, there is no one to blame things on. All there is is you and your time.” If that’s not a little microcosm of life, I don’t know what is.
Finally, the captains each told the story of how he’d gotten to cross-country. They had completely different styles, but their tales were similar. “I didn’t make the soccer team…” “I needed to get faster for baseball…” After years of these banquets, I feel like it’s a cross-country refrain. “I’m here because I wasn’t good enough.”
If not for the mortal humiliation my son would feel, I would have stepped right up onto the table at the end of those speeches and sang out a refrain of my own, one that may have been implied but needs to be spoken, loudly, to any and every kid who is willing to test himself this way: Look at you! Look what you’ve accomplished! You guys are plenty good. You’re fucking amazing.
This piece ran on Montclair Patch today and the comment there are very heartfelt. You can see it HERE.