Last week I wrote a story about cross country runners, because I wanted to get into the mind of what makes high school distance runners tick. Why do they put themselves through such a grueling sport? Are they really as bonkers as they seem?
I’m allowed to say that, and the story was near to my heart because I ran cross country all four years in high school. To this day, whenever people ask me why I ran, I don’t really have an answer. I say most of the same things the runners I interviewed say. All my friends ran, going to meets was really fun because no one on the team took it seriously so we would just hang around ringing cowbells obnoxiously and eating free snacks, plus I got a weird joy out of seeing how much I could walk in practice without the coach catching me.
(That last part is not what any of the runners I spoke to said. They were all much more dedicated and awesome than I was, and I applaud them massively.)
The other day I was at my parent’s house in Vinton when I decided to go for a run. I went by a big group of teenagers running in a pack and knew instantly it was a high school cross country team.
Seeing them out on the course where I spent many afternoons made me reminisce not fondly on my four years on that same team.
I’ve been asked a dozen times to run a 5K - “for fun” they always say - and the thought of running in another race knots my stomach up the same way it did in high school every day before a race and I can’t bring myself to go through that again.
So when I passed by the cross country team the other day, I realized it was a Tuesday, the day before a meet, and actually laughed out loud because I know exactly how the conversation before practice went. I can remember having that conversation vividly.
Me – Coach, we have a meet tomorrow, so today’s gonna be an easy day right? Just like a mile or two and some light ab work? I’m so excited.
Coach – Hahaha.
Me – What’s so funny?
Coach – It’s a regular season meet. It means nothing. There are no easy days.
That day we did 1,000 meter repeats, which was running two miles to the place where the coach had measured out 1,000 meters, and having to run that 1,000 meters under a certain time over and over again. Usually seven or eight or 30 times (slight exaggeration) until we’d all lost all will to ever move our legs again. Then we ran the two miles back to the school and finished the day doing “light hill work” until we could actually hear our thigh muscles begging for mercy and started to wonder what horrible thing we had done in a past life to deserve this punishment.
Every cross country team has that one runner who complains A LOT. That was me!
Of course, we all went to the meet the next day, our legs shaky with half a bottle of ibuprofen in our system, and of course we all ran our best times of the year because literally nothing about cross country makes sense. But that was the good thing about that coach. He pushed us not because he wanted to, but because he wanted us to see our potential in ourselves. And we did. I never had a coach who made me simply want to be better the way he did.
Okay, maybe I didn’t hate cross country all that much. But there were some days…
The thing that I found after talking with so many runners for my story is that a lot of cross country is just bonding over shared misery. There are days like the one I described above that are terrible but terrible in a good way because at the end you feel really accomplished and also most of the time on days like that the coach would have popsicles waiting for us in his office when we were done, which was nice.
But sometimes that shared misery is just plain old misery. I don’t think (I truly hope) any of the runners in this area experienced my worst day of cross country misery, but I want to tell the story anyway. This is the story of the worst cross country practice I ever attended.
My freshman year I had a different cross country coach who was not so great. Never was tough but fun. Never had popsicles for us. Truly terrible all around.
I was sitting in the cafeteria for lunch when the rumors started swirling. I should point out the coach at the time was also the wrestling coach, which says a lot about his ability to teach a bunch of skinny kids how to run 5Ks.
Often times he would tell his wrestlers who were on the cross country team what we would be doing on practice that day. And that day was definitely one we needed to know ahead of time.
Two words – vomit comet.
Everyone had heard about the infamous “vomit comet” that the cross country team had to run every year, but we all thought it was just a myth, and we were in the last weeks of the season so we all thought we missed the torture.
We did not.
Vomit comet was a simple concept – everyone on the team went to the track and would have to sprint one lap over and over again. Boys had to finish in under 1:15. Girls had to finish in under 1:30. If everyone on the team didn’t, you ran another one.
And you kept running laps until someone upchucked. Once someone did, practice was over.
(Also, I know what you’re thinking. Why were the laps timed and everyone had to finish in under that time if you knew you were going to have to keep running laps anyway? And to that I say I HAVE NO IDEA! Literally nothing about this day made sense.)
So, as high school students, there are three ways we could have handled the news of an impending vomit comet:
1. Toughen up and say “Let’s go!! No pain, no gain!”
2. Just get on the bus and go home.
3. Spend the 15 minutes between the final bell and the start of practice filling our stomachs with as much milk, ice cream, candy and Mountain Dew as humanly possible.
I will give you a guess what we, as 14 year olds, chose.
I scarfed down an entire bag of pretzels so fast Joey Chestnut would be asking me for advice on my technique.
We ended up running 13 sprinted laps, with everyone on the team trying our best to… well you know after every one.
The worst part was no one actually did. The coach got super mad at us for trying to force it so he told us to stop and instead made us all take off on a long run as punishment for sullying the good name of the “vomit comet.”
I think he just realized the terrible optics of a coach maniacally watching 30 kids all desperately trying to bring up that day’s tater tots on the football field. I can’t imagine that’s something administrators would take kindly to.
You’ll be not shocked, I’m sure, to know that that coach wasn’t long for the cross country coaching world. I’m shocked any of us showed up the next day.
Anyways, there are two kinds of coaches, and my first cross country coach was the bad kind. But my other coach, like the coaches I’ve seen right here in our area, are the good kind. The ones who want you to want to be better. Not because it’s makes them look good, but because they want you to see the fun in improving and being the best you can be. That’s why I loved writing my story last week so much. The coaches here want kids to see distance running as more than just something grueling. They want runners to get it, and they want you to fall in love with pushing yourself and getting that sense of accomplishment.
Bassett Head Coach Kevin Underwood said it best. “Give me two weeks, two weeks or one meet, and they stay every time.” It’s a weird sport, and often misunderstood, but once you try it, you fall in love a lot easier than you think.
Obviously, I still run on my own so I guess I didn’t hate cross country that much. I have also never… you know from running, so that’s a success.
Just please, never ask me to run a 5K.