Throwback: Musings Of A Rookie XC Dad

I am reposting one of our most popular editorials ever.  It is a timeless piece of content, that will serve those freshmen parents well, as it had last year.


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?


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  • RalfKramden / 2 Years Ago
    Excellent article!!
  • bobpsy / 2 Years Ago
    ditto! but another great aspect to XC and Track for that matter is the mutual respect different teams and individuals have for each other, many kids have formed friendships with kids from all different schools and when the race is over you always see all the athletes congratulating each other, it really is a great atmosphere.
  • matthewsmom / 2 Years Ago
    Thank you so much for this article as a parent of a senior runner it has been an amazing 4 years of watching my son and his teammates meet their goals and work to achieve them! I am proud and honored to be a XC MOM!!
  • PeterJ / 2 Years Ago
    Thanks, Glen H, for a really terrific article. We too are "rookie" XC parents. Our daughter played 7 years of premier level travel soccer in the Manhattan Soccer Club, which she loved, and then discovered a passion for track in 8th grade. When her soccer coach gave an ultimatum to choose between the two sports (she was only 14!), she chose track, dropped soccer entirely, and she now runs XC too. What a difference! As great as the team sports like soccer and baseball can be (and there's no doubt they can be), in the "pay to play" era, the experience is often degraded by the influence of parents, politics and money on tryouts and playing time. XC and track are cleaner, "purer" athletic experiences by far - no rigged tryouts in XC! - and, as you point out, wonderful team sports as well. Thanks for putting it out there, and good luck!
  • BrewsterXCMom / 2 Years Ago
    Great article!
  • Glen_H / 2 Years Ago
    Thanks everyone for all the great comments. And thank you Kyle for posting this. These kids are an absolute inspiration. I can't wait to see what comes next.
  • kaminskij / 2 Years Ago
  • PeteSander / 2 Years Ago
    Glen just completely read my mind. Peter started running in tenth grade, he played soccer for about 8 years before that and I think I made it to 2 of his games. Since he started running I think I only missed 2 of his meets...It has been some of the most fulfilling and exciting times of my life watching Peter and his FRIENDS (team mates) grow and improve...If you really want to understand cross country runners and thier parents, this is a must read...
  • pjkay / 2 Years Ago
    you are so right Glen H. The word that I kept coming back to as I read your article was fulfillment. I function in a state of sensory overload all week that is draining, yet I feel immediately refreshed when I stand in the midst of these terrific kids on an autumn afternoon. I possess no statistics to support my opinion, but the perserverance I witness weekly from front to back of pack makes me believe there are a lot of bright futures on those trails, irrespective of running ability.
  • EAMTB / 2 Years Ago
    Well said! We've loved watching our daughter run from 7th-12thgrade, in a sport where hard work and guts can take you where talent alone cannot. Now those qualities have carried her to D1 college competition, and we're enjoying the same qualities of sportsmanship, work ethic and camaraderie at a whole new level:)
  • friendofthedevil / 2 Years Ago
    Thanks for putting this on the ga.milesplit front page, Bruce. This read is definitely worth it....
  • geoffhennessy / 2 Years Ago
    Glen, the best is yet to come. And don't forget folks, every time a soccer kid switches to cross country an angel gets his wings. Ciao!
  • geoffhennessy / 2 Years Ago
    Glen, the best is yet to come. And don't forget folks, every time a soccer kid switches to cross country an angel gets his wings. Ciao!
  • turtle0307 / 2 Years Ago
    @geoffhennessy Thank you for this article, as the proud mother of a Sr. whose been running since 8th grade, I feel exactly the same way. I have a huge sense of pride & tremendous respect for my daughter & her team mates & am so proud of how far they have come. Seeing them cheer on the competition & what good sports they are is heartwarming. My daughter started xc as something to do & now its a part of who she is & she's hoping to run in college. Thank you again for your wonderful article & good luck to your son in his xc career.
  • LHSdad / 2 Years Ago
    This is beautifully written, and expresses so much of what I've felt watching my son compete at the high school and collegiate level as a distance runner. I played football and baseball, and I have other kids who've played soccer and competed in gymnastics. Yet, it is running which resonates with me at such fundamental level even though I was never much of a runner myself. Running builds and reveals character like no other sport: in academics, in relationships, in life.
  • smitdi / 2 Years Ago
    Thanks for this article! You have beautifully and succinctly described described our sport! I have a 7th grader just starting out, and a junior in the midst of his 3rd season, and it really is monumentally fulfilling to see them work hard and improve.
  • XCMomandCoach / 2 Years Ago
    Can't agree more! Now that my daughter has moved along and is running in college, I'm assistant coaching with her former HS XC Team. Love the sport, love the kids!
  • piercecollege / 2 Years Ago
    Observations from a Rookie XC Mom

    I read with interest the much publicized, well-deservedly, post by a rookie cross country dad concering his child’s interest in running. He wrote about the purity of the sport, and about allowing his child to succeed and fail on his or her own, all of which is true for the most part. Dads tend to think about these things.

    As a freshman mom, I think about other things. I dwell on the minutae. Like why don’t the girls’ shorts-if-you-can-call-them-that come in sizing big cover their rear ends? And do they need a bikini wax at age 14? How do those boys get so skinny? Do they eat? Do they all have eating disorders, or are they blessed with unusually quick metabolisms?

    Why is the workout time always a mystery? Don’t the other kids have families with other things going on? When the team travels, how do they possibly eat healthily? When confined 5-to-a-hotel or condo room, is it better for your freshman son to share a bed with a senior boy, or should he just sleep on the floor? When will the bus return? Do I really have to pick him up at the airport at midnight when school starts at 7am? When my kid is hurt in a race but no one sees, like the proverbial tree in a forest, is he actually injured? Like the Supremes song, they keep me hanging on.

    Running dads especially, whether they ran, still run, or just enjoy watching their children compete, talk about how their sport doesn’t involve judgment, just numbers. Swimming and time trial cycling are same way of course, but something about running gives us a superiority complex and a memory like a computer after evenings on milesplit and runnerspace. Dads know the school record in the watermelon run for every team in our league, who won the Oregon Class B 5000m championship in 1977, and that heroic Steve Prefontaine hadn’t been drinking when he crashed his car into a tree.

    As a mom, I think about how and if my kid will be socializing with this wonderful group of young people on his team, how they all are excellent role models, and if my son will someday be the same kind of by-example leader as the current captain. I stress out sometimes over why he couldn’t have just stayed home instead of running with the flu. Does it matter if the freshman team loses a race? Or does it matter more that my son finds this one frosh race more important that his long-term personal success?

    I wonder how my son can run this quickly if half of his genetic material comes from me. I think, should we tell the coach my DS had a root canal the other day, how he expects to be good now not later, and how he analyzes courses, times and splits—just like his father before him. Mostly, though, to my son’s relief, I say little and think a lot, mostly about how much I love being the mom of that quiet freshman. All of you xc dads, you know the type.