Home >> An Open Letter To A First-Time Cross Country Runner

An Open Letter To A First-Time Cross Country Runner

by John Barbour

Dear High School Freshman,

I understand that you’re considering trying out for cross country. Good. Do it. Don’t wait.  Go see the coach. Today. Because when you become a cross country runner you become not only part of a truly great New England athletic tradition, but you get to be part of the finest and most pure sport on planet Earth.

Years ago, in junior high, I passed a local golf course and saw a pack of college runners flash by. I knew what they were doing was “cross country”‰ÛÓI wasn’t exactly sure what that meant, but I knew that I wanted to do it when I got to high school. We’re told that when the great miler Jim Ryun first went out for cross country, he wasn’t sure what it was, either. Maybe that’s you.

Or perhaps you have some experience running with a youth club and already know the exhilaration of running hard through the New England autumn. Either way, there’s no better way to spend your afternoons, and the effects will stay with you for life.

A few days ago I pored through some boxes of stuff I hadn’t looked at for years, and the big surprise was finding my high school running scrapbooks. As I looked at the first few pages the feelings and sensations of freshman cross country season came pouring back. 

At times it was really, really tough; in the early stages I was working hard and getting sore without knowing where it would take me. (Ryun, Cordner Nelson tells us in The Jim Ryun Story, was sore for a week after his first team workouts.) 

I experienced both failure and success in large doses. There were wet and muddy bus rides home after dark from meets, including once when we had to sit on the bus for half an hour, locked out by the football coach while he ranted to his team after a loss. But without question it was the best part of that whole year.

In a sense it was easier to become a runner in 1968 than it is in 2009. No video games chained us to chairs, no iPhones distracted our every waking moment. When we watched the Olympics everyone was glued to track & field (simply “athletics” the rest of the world over) not made-up stuff like rhythmic gymnastics, beach volleyball, synchronized diving et al. 

Schools had daily P.E. classes where “soccer” consisted mainly of running around madly after the ball (league soccer was unheard of). Youth running clubs were nearly nonexistent, but maybe this wasn’t so bad, as we came into high school fresh and eager.

At Junior Olympics meets today the sight of hundreds of young runners is thrilling, though the sound of some coaches yelling at (rather than giving encouragement to) their charges is not. And in 1968 fewer sports vied with cross country in the fall for attention‰ÛÓno field hockey, soccer, or (shudder) cheerleading.

But today is your time: you’re a freshman now, and you deal with what’s before you today. Still, some things don’t change. No matter how much flat-screen HDTV dances before your eyes, or how many downloads you have on your iPod, we human beings are still made of flesh, blood, and bone, and we have evolved (or created, as you choose) as bipeds whose greatest physical talent is to run long distances.

No matter what goes on in the outside world, inside of every human being is a cross country runner waiting to be born. And you know what the greatest thing is? This may be the only sport around where a willingness to work hard, to muck in every day and the day after that, pays off more than innate talent (plus in cross country, unlike team sports, everybody’s a starter and plays the whole game). 

In the fall of ’68 I was exactly five feet tall and weighed 80 pounds. You think I was going to play football? I couldn’t run fast either, but I could go out there and build some endurance. Once I got through that first soreness I could try keeping up with a few sophomores and juniors.

But what about racing‰ÛÓisn’t it scary? Shoot yes, it’s scary.  You’ve just started running and you’re supposed to go out and run two miles on a hot September day fast? I was a nervous wreck and the weather was crazy that first race, but more than 41 years later I remember almost every step and it’s a memory I wouldn’t trade for anything.

So here are a few ideas on how to approach your first high school cross country season, plus a few for your coach to keep in mind (though good coaches already know them).

(1) Listen to your coach, have faith in his or her program, and learn from your teammates’ experience.  Coaches, encourage and support your runners and nurture the beginners‰ÛÓ”tough love” can be valuable, but use it appropriately.

(2) Be patient. The first aches will subside in a few days. Give your full effort each workout and you will improve. Coaches need patience too, especially in those first few meets you’re trying to win. Don’t expect too much of newcomers early (but keep your eyes open for surprises).

(3) In the same vein, start slowly. If it’s your first or second week don’t try to run 10 miles just because the seniors are doing it. Coaches, starting newbies more slowly doesn’t equate to “easy.” In those early fall days of ’68 we just went to a park for an hour to run at our own pace; sometimes for variety we’d end by breaking into teams and doing relays around a pond, which was not only fun but helped us get to know our upperclass teammates.

(4) Run every day. Weekends too, on your own or with some of your new teammates, for at least 30 minutes‰ÛÓmore as you are able, but run.

(5) Work hard. Lest we ignore the obvious, hard work is hard. In the early stages even a small load may seem tough, but do not quit. The work not only makes you stronger, but when your teammates see you giving your best they’ll work hard too, and you’ll have a winning team on your hands.

Finally, to both athletes and coaches, (6) make it fun and enjoy every single day. To be a runner on a cross country team is one of life’s great gifts. Appreciate and make the most of it, and you’ll discover the Great Paradox: that the most difficult things bring the greatest satisfaction.

If you think that pleasure should come easily, or if you crave the blind adulation that accrues to football players, then you’ll have a tough time adapting to cross country. But go out anyway. In a month’s time you won’t be the same person and you will not regret it. You’ll be changed for the better, and you will never look back. Ever.

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