Cross Country: the Other Fall Sport

story and photos by James P. Hughes

Cross country has a beauty and drama all its own.

Fields of pumpkins and color-splashed hillsides. Crisp air and the tang of apple cider. The crunch of leaves underfoot. It’s glorious autumn in the Finger Lakes and with it, of course, the return of football, soccer…and cross country. Yes, cross country.

Do I love football and the other sports? Sure! Like so many others, I savor the atmosphere of bright stadium lights, colorful banners, stands packed with rabid fans, and a blaring press box describing the action on the field below. But, the worthy sport of cross country, taking place in relative anonymity, demands dedication, respect, and appreciation as well. It can be something special.

There are no stadiums here; the action takes place on wooded trails, open meadows, and steep hillsides. There are no roaring crowds; the fans, far fewer in number, often lose sight of large portions of the race itself, save the start and finish. Yet, as fall arrives in upstate New York, scores of runners train vigorously to race over the region’s challenging terrain. It’s a sport made for the season.

In the interest of full disclosure, your scribe some time ago coached high school cross country for more than a decade. Perhaps I’m not the most objective source, but those exposed to the sport over time discover cross country has a beauty and drama all its own.

Many runners have a love-hate relationship with cross country. Its demands are many: long tedious training sessions, sore muscles, inclement weather. In the way it tests an individual’s perseverance and limits, it can become a metaphor for life. Yet, cross country has its moments of great satisfaction as well, even euphoria: a “best ever” finish, defeating someone you have never beaten before, being part of a team triumph. The race itself is ever intense and grueling, even lonely. Its reward can be as simple as a ribbon, a crisp apple or a bottle of water.

An inner strength must be developed and a desire to test your limits. In the middle of a race a runner becomes an “island unto one’s self.” There’s no one to help, no substitutions, and no timeouts – only the pain of a maximum effort to get to the finish line as fast as possible. Along the course a runner may have to run through mud, a creek bed, or even snow late in the fall. Individual battles for position toward the back of the pack are every bit as intense as those at the front. One challenge follows another. It’s all about overtaking that next runner…can you do it on the next hill…or in the final kick at the finish?

Don’t expect a lot of sympathy along the way from coaches and others. As one runner related: “In one of my first cross country races, I had gone out too fast and midway through was suffering. As I passed my spectator brother along the course, I mumbled, ‘I can’t do it…I can’t.’ His curt reply was, ‘You can still talk, so you can run.’ I never complained again to anyone during a race.”

In the midst of a competitive race, with no break, mental toughness becomes just as important as physical strength. Pain in cross country is a given: aching muscles, pounding in the chest, gasping for breath. To defeat the pain a runner must learn to “fight through it,” to be mentally tough. An anonymous runner once quipped, “Cross country is a mental sport…and we’re all insane.”

In the end, despite its many challenges and slim media recognition, cross country engenders great team camaraderie and personal strength. For the runners themselves, from youngest to oldest and least to most experienced, the essence of cross country is not only satisfying, it’s addictive. The season is here. Runners nervously “loosen up” at the line. The starting pistol is raised. “Runners set”…BANG!