Observations from a Rookie XC Dad
Submitted by Glen H.
As a former high school track & field athlete, a loooong time ago, I was always aware of cross-country, but it was never of any particular interest to me as a sport. I was a thrower and avoided running in any form like the plague. My distance was 7-8 feet across a circle, and my coaches were hard-pressed to get me to train for anything much longer than that.
This year my oldest son is a freshman in high school and is in the midst of his first season on his schools cross-country team. He has two seasons of modified track & field under his belt, where he did quite well in both the 1600m and the discus while we waited to see which events his growth trends pointed him toward, and two fairly lackluster seasons of modified cross-country. This season, however, he's begun to show some real progress as a cross-country runner, and watching him improve and develop has become one of the most fulfilling experiences I've ever had as a parent.
A by-product of my going to my sons meets and watching him develop is that I've discovered some really cool things about this sport that I was never aware of until I became more closely involved in it. These are just a few observations of mine, from the perspective of a rookie XC dad.
Cross-country is about the most "pure" sport there is.
I think that a big part of that is the objective fairness and simplicity of this sport. There's no equipment or implements. It's just body against body. The athletes all start at the same place and they all finish at the same place and whoever gets there first is the winner. They run up the same hills and through the same mud. When it rains, it rains on everyone. Perhaps some elbows are thrown in the scrum at the start, and bodies may get tangled up moving into the narrow paths along the course, but that can happen to any athlete on any given day, and it's a part of the game. It's fair.
In other sports referees or umpires become directly involved with the game and the athletes as a matter of course, because that's their job and it's what the rules dictate. In figure skating or gymnastics, a panel of judges evaluates the athletes and offers a score based upon a certain set of standards.
In cross-country, the athletes get a starters pistol at the beginning and a time-keepers click at the end, and in between those two signals they are left alone, with their own individual training, strategic instincts and guts, to either succeed or to fail on their own merits, without interference and without being subjected to the standards of a judge.
That, to me, is pure sport. That's as fair as it gets.
Cross-country kids are some of the toughest athletes you will ever meet.
Like I said earlier, until my son began competing seriously this season I never really paid much attention to cross-country. When I was on the track team in high school (early 80's), I competed in shot/discus/hammer, and to me distance runners were for when I needed an extra 120lbs. on the bench press bar when I did high weight/low rep workouts. I really don't know what the "social/sports hierarchy" is in high school in the 21st century, but back then football, basketball and baseball were "King", and track and cross-country were a fair way down the list of sports from a "status" perspective.
Let me tell you something.....
In the past 6 weeks or so that I've been going to meets, I've realized REAL quickly that these kids are some of the toughest, gutsiest, most hardcore athletes out there. They are so strong, and so fit, and so dedicated to achieving their goals it's mind-blowing. They put their bodies and their hearts into this sport, and when you see them finish their races, choking and puking and collapsing after having given everything they have to give, you cannot help but be overwhelmed by how amazing they are as athletes.
My 47 year old body could, in theory, hit a fastball or make a three-pointer or even kick a field goal. Certainly not at the competitive level of even an average high school athlete, but I believe I could "do it".
There is no way imaginable that I could do even the slightest imitation of what these young men and women do on a cross-country course. Even when I was their age and at the top of my game as a thrower I couldn't, and if I tried to now I'd probably die. It hurts just pondering it, and I have nothing but the deepest respect for each and every one of these incredible young athletes.
Cross-country, as a sport, is far more compelling than I ever imagined.
The simplicity of cross-country that I pointed out earlier, while making my point in the context offered then, can be very deceptive from a casual spectator's perspective. To the uninitiated, which I was only a few week ago, it looks very basic. A whole mess of kids line up in a field, then a gun goes off and they run off into the woods. Then, about 16-18 minutes later, they run back out of the woods, cross the finish line and go eat snacks, buy t-shirts and hang out with the other kids while they wait for the other races to happen.
I'm finding in my first season as a XC parent that there's so much more to this sport than meets the eye.
As I watch my son and his teammate's progress and improve as individuals, I'm getting a greater appreciation for the team aspect of it. I constantly find myself on MileSplit, looking up stats and results from meets to see how the boys stack up against other teams in the area and what they need to do to get better as a team now and in the future.
From an individual perspective, I check how my son is ranked amongst those he's competing with now and those he'll be seeing over the next three years as he continues forward. I look up course guides for upcoming races to pass along to him so he can familiarize himself with new courses. I can't help him with his “running”, per se, because I don't know the first thing, and fortunately he's very well coached by people who do. But I try to help him with the mental side of it; going over his races and the courses with him, trying to get him to see and understand what he did well and where he can be better, trying to get him to find the depth of his “guts” as he progresses competitively, etc.
The bottom line is, I'm finding myself embracing this sport, which was previously all but unknown to me, in a way that I never imagined I would. And I think it's something that I can see myself continuing to follow, even after my “parental obligations” to it are finished.
What's not cool about that?