Why Your Kid Should Run Cross Country

This is a special back-to-school post directed towards all you parents out there because, you know, I’m so well qualified to give parenting advice. It’s no exaggeration to say that running cross country (and to a lesser extent indoor track) completely shaped my high school experience and made it the positive 4 years it was. After all, I became friends with my 2 co-best men at my wedding because of XC (OK, I first started getting to be better friends with Johnny during indoors, but it all solidified with XC).

My co-best men and me at an XC awards night.

My co-best men and me at an XC awards night.

I first met my teammates during summer captain’s practices, which took place twice a week. I was nervous as hell as a pre-frosh walking up to the group of lithe athletes stretching, only semi-quasi-kind of knowing one of the captains and no one else. Despite my fears, I wasn’t ignored, I wasn’t hazed, I wasn’t looked down upon even in my Nike Cross-Trainer sneakers (I thought, hey, it’s cross country, of course you wear cross trainers). Instead, they took me under their collective wing and encouraged me to just stick it out even though it would hurt. The best advice I received, and the best advice I’ve received to date, was to “just keep running, no matter how slow you’re going, don’t walk if you can at all help it.”

Captains Ben Tobin and Erik Malstrom-Thwaites along with Coach Tom Butterfield.

Captains Ben Tobin and Erik Malstrom-Thwaites along with Coach Tom Butterfield.

To this day I can remember the course we ran, it was only 5K, the “old race course,” but man it hurt like hell. Part of the course involved climbing a neverending mountain. Alright, it wasn’t a mountain, it was a long incline, but it was honest to goodness my first ever sustained run uphill. Despite my slow speed pace, no one left my side, no one tried to get me to push beyond myself, and no one grumbled. After what seemed like an interminable, exhausting period of time, we finally reached the kickboard that signified the end to almost all our training runs, a blessed occurrence. I was dead tired but I knew I’d be back for more both for the encouragement I received from my new teammates and from the sense of accomplishment I had in completing the run. I went home and promptly hit the coach couch with a combination of a heating pad and ice. I hurt.

As the summer progressed, other freshmen, and upper-classmen, joined our ranks. I got to know people before I even set foot in a classroom and bonded with other incoming freshmen I’d never met or only knew in passing. After I got my legs under me, I even started to take on more of a role in encouraging kids my age to stick it out through the first few hard runs. The first major test came in my first ever race, a 2.something mile cross country-style summer series race at Wickham Park, the perennial site of a large invitational and the state championships due to the relentlessly hilly nature of the terrain. Mention Wickham to anyone who has raced there and they’ll get a certain look in their eyes when you know they are thinking about the first steep hill that you must attack about 100 yards from the mass start line. There’s no faking it at Wickham. I showed up in my cross trainers, which weighed roughly 10 pounds each, and learned how to pin a bib on. To this day, there is something ritualistic about pinning on a bib that gets me ready to race, which is why I almost never will do so the night before a race. Let me tell you, I struggled. I struggled up the hills. I struggled down the hills. I struggled on the flats. Oh, and it finishes up a long hill, of course. Just as I was finally lurching towards the finish, I saw my teammates lined up at the finish line, cheering me on, which lifted my heart and legs and spurred me across the line. Whenever I’m at a race now with club teammates, I always try to hang around the finish line to cheer on anyone who comes in after me.

Making a turn at my first XC race, the Sheehan Invitational.

Making a turn at my first XC race, the Sheehan Invitational.

I can’t say other fall sports wouldn’t provide the same level of camaraderie and mutual support, but having played hockey and lacrosse, I’d go on record as saying it wouldn’t get any better than cross country. Runners, in general, are nice people. We support one another in our pursuits. We want each other to succeed and, by and large, we want to do everything we can to foster the love of running in others that we feel ourselves. Moreover, although not all runners are exactly Mensa candidates, we do tend to be a pretty thoughtful bunch that trends towards the smarter than the dumber end of the spectrum.

I should also add that I learned how to compete intensely without carrying over that intensity to my feelings towards my competitors. My school had a very strong rivalry with the cross-town high school, Conard. It would have been unheard of to socialize with someone who played the same sport as you but went to the wrong school, unless you were a runner. Sure, we wanted to dominate each other, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t be friends off the race course. One of my best friends now, in fact, went to Conard.

Action Jackson checking out at Green Mountain Running Camp.

Action Jackson checking out at Green Mountain Running Camp.

Whenever I get a whiff of the scent of fall, when I feel the crunch of leaves beneath my feet, I think back to my early cross country days and the joy of racing. XC taught me perseverance, how to be a good teammates, how to compete, and how to endure pain, none of which I’ve mastered, all of which I strive to be better at. I made life-long friends over many miles together, in fact I just saw one teammate get married in Colorado with another one attending with me.

The recently betrothed.

The recently betrothed.

Of course, I may have had a unique experience, but I’ve met too many runners throughout the years that have confirmed my impressions of runners as a whole to think that is the case. I started high school with the confidence that cross country gave me, and I couldn’t be more grateful to my former teammates, and the sport, for that.

Check out the sweet, custom-painted XC tie!

Check out the sweet, custom-painted XC tie!

Run Happy.


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One Response to “Why Your Kid Should Run Cross Country”

  1. Wilford Says:

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