The Loneliness of the Cross Country Runner?
Alan Sillitoe never ran cross country.
Not a step. If he did, he’d know that there is no loneliness in being a distance runner. How could there be? Loneliness on a team with 6 other people? In race with 100, 150, 200 people? No, there’s just a bad assumption of the solo distance runner, plodding through practice all alone, quietly suffering in isolation.
That’s not the cross country I know. For me, cross country is the ultimate team sport, not football or soccer, or basketball. Yes, believe it or not, distance running is a team sport. How can that be, when each person runs by themselves? Surely no teammates do any running for you? And yet, that’s the beauty of it. No one can run a step for you, but every step you run contributes directly to the team effort.
There’s no hiding in cross country. A basketball team can avoid passing to the girl with the terrible jump shot. A football team can design plays that go again and again to the best players on the team. In soccer, half the team never gets in the game. In cross country, it’s you and your teammates. Every runner you pass is directly reflected in the scorecard. Run well, and you score low. Run poorly and you score high. There’s never a bunch of zeros after you name. It’s effort for direct results. Tangible and meaningful. Watch the Kenyans run at the World Cross Country Championships and report back if you still have doubts that it is a team sport.
But that’s just one part of it. The other is that there is never loneliness is training with your teammates. Warm-ups, stretching, long runs, intervals. It can be done alone, of course, there’s no denying that. But the best teams are just that – teams. They run together, they stretch together, they win together. I dare anyone from any sport to tell me how an hour spent on a field throwing a ball at each other will bring you closer than an hour tempo run next to your teammate.
That common suffering brings you closer. You learn about your teammates, their strengths and weaknesses, but that’s no different than other sports. What’s unique about distance running is that at the end of the day, you still want to beat your teammates. You want them to break in practice. And they want to break you. You want them to suffer and they wish the same on you. So you spend countless hours of back and forth, competing with your teammates, as if it were a race. Then, on Saturday mornings, you put that aside and get ready to make another team suffer.
So Mr. Sillitoe, reform school running aside, there is nothing lonely about toeing the line with 6 of your friends, ready to do battle with 200 other runners.
Photos: 2010 MOC Team Champions Hillsborough HS and Christian Brothers Academy
Photos by Dennis Smyth for NJRunners.com