Smells like cross-country

August 12, 2010

There was a change in the air recently.  Last week, I clicked the leash around Josie’s neck, stepped outside , and stopped momentarily before shuffling off into the pre-dawn light of the morning for another run.

“Do you smell that, Josie?  It smells like cross-country.  I think practice will be starting soon.”  And it did — practice started on August 9th.

My athletic career, such as it was, started when I was in the third grade.  That was the year my mom signed me up for a community recreation basketball league.  That is when people started to notice that I had some above-average ability on the court.  More true to the point, I believe they just noticed that I had some above average height which, as everyone knows, give a person an advantage in that sport.  My height, my freakishly long arms, and probably my older brothers showing me how to dribble with either hand and how to shoot not like a girl since I was about 4 years old, all came together to provide me some opportunities for some success at an early age.  And so, from that point on, I identified myself as a ball player.

Flash forward just a smidge to the summer before I entered the eighth grade.  I had reached my full height by then, and I towered over most of my classmates.  Things were changing from a puberty standpoint and my center of gravity was getting a bit lower as my curves just started to develop.  I was going away to overnight basketball camps for a week or two that summer.  And I started to run.

I think I can still run my first route in the dark, in my sleep, one hand tied behind my back.  2 miles that I ran faithfully, every day.  And I gradually got faster every week, every month.  And at some point, my older brother Dave suggested I think about going out for cross-country the following year.

Cross-country is a team sport and an individual activity woven into one.  It’s grueling at times — it’s usually the hardest physical thing that a teenager would have done by that stage of his/her life.  In Iowa, the season starts in August, in the crazy heat and humidity, and ends with the State Meet at the very end of October — and at least one year we ran that with snow falling.

I’m a middle aged mother of 3 who has done a lot and endured a lot since my time on the cross-country team, but I remember, as clearly as any memory I have, those early mornings when I got out of bed in the dark morning hours, laced on my shoes, put on a sweatshirt, and jogged a half-mile to practice, to meet my teammates, my coach, and, I guess myself, in a way.

It is difficult for me to try to describe what cross-country did for me.  I have to assume that if you have participated at some point, you get it.  And if you didn’t, well, I don’t think there is much I can say that will resonate with you.

I believe that, as adults, a lot of who were are and how we behave is connected to our experiences as children and as adolescents.  This is a part of getting healthy habits established early, and of having some structure, stability, success, and so on.  Educators and coaches know this, and so do most parents that knock themselves out getting their kids on solid ground with healthy life habits an early age.

As I reflect back on my life and what got me from point A to point B, I have a feeling that being involved in sports in general, and cross-country in particular, continues to be a huge part of who I am today.  I still love to do challenging things.  I love to get up early.  I respect other people who invest themselves to that extreme in the activities they choose to pursue.

There are many things I could write to serve as examples of what it was like, and how transformational it was for me, but I think I will start with just one example:

When I was a freshman, we still had the “junior high” concept instead of the more common “middle school” concept.  This meant I was in school across town, and my mother had to pick me up and drive me to the high school to join practice about 30 minutes after the older girls had started.  There were 2 other girls who also did this, although they came from the other junior high in our town.  I was the only one from my school.

Our coach expected us to complete the same workout as the older girls, even with a late start, and even though we were younger than the rest of the team.  (Would that happen today, in the same circumstances?  We’ll never know.)  And obviously, starting late and running the same workout meant that we were out there about 30 minutes after the rest of the team had called it a day.  (Interestingly enough, it’s just now occurring to me that our coach also had to stay late for us.  That gives me pause.)

Our practice field was a large quasi-squarish/circle-ish half-mile loop around the football practice fields.  (It’s still called The Loop by current team members, and probably always will be.  And grass will never grow again on the well-worth path that countless runners have carved into the packed dirt.)  On the very far end of the loop, opposite of where we started each interval, and where the coach stood with his handful of watches used to time each group, the path dipped down a small hill, and runners disappeared from sight.  And that is where one of the most important events of my life took place.

We were running a set, we 3 youngsters, out past 5 pm, all of our teammates having headed home for the day.  We were having a tough day; it was warm, it was a tough workout, and we were just kind of fed up with being there.

I don’t remember who decided to start cutting corners out there, stepping inside the ring of flags placed there to mark the boundary of the loop.  I hope it wasn’t me, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t.  (It was more Jessie’s style, really.)  But I was a follower.  And we started cutting the corner, making it easier on ourselves, cutting down how far we were going.

It wouldn’t have taken a genius for anyone to realize what was going on.  We didn’t look like we were running any harder all of a sudden, but the clock wasn’t lying and it indicated we were faster.  Our coach put it together and started walking out to intercept us.

I have a reputation for being a bit of a goody-two-shoes/teacher’s pet sort of gal.  And I am not embarrassed to say that even now, thinking back on the look of disappointment in my beloved coach’s eyes I can still feel the sting of shame for having let him down.  But he had a choice to make, and I’m grateful now, as an educator myself, as a parent, as a human being, that he chose to teach us right then and there, instead of chewing us out or putting us down.

“Do you know what you’re doing, girls?”  (We looked at our shoes.)  “You are not just letting me down.  You are letting your team down.  And you are letting yourselves down.”  He went on to explain that everyone else had done the whole workout, and since we were a part of the team, we needed to be able to look the others in the eye and know that we had gone through the same hardship they had, and we also came out stronger when it was done.

There was more, undoubtedly.  But at this stage of the game, at this point in my life, the part that stuck with me was his statement that I was letting myself down.  You see, I think that’s what cheating or taking the easy way out in any circumstance does, more than any other form of harm.

If I don’t go the full distance, if I don’t push myself to the very point that I can’t go anymore, then I’ll never really know what I can do.  Maybe I can’t do very much, when it’s all said and done.  But I want to know what my limits are.  I want to give it my best shot and see what an honest effort gets me.   I have never cheated again, since that day on the field.  People who know me know that when I say something, when I do something, I  give the best I have at to offer at the time.

It’s funny.  To this day, when I’m running, I never cut any corners on my own routes.  I don’t stop early, not until I actually reach my house.  That is how I honor my coach and the lesson I learned so many years ago.

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