I am now a cross-country coach. Three times a week, I run three miles with 21 St. Monica middle-schoolers. We run up hills, around trees and through the wooded paths of local parks. I had run cross country competitively in high school and college, but a serious injury to my ankle in the middle of college left me unable to run with any kind of speed. While I used to live and breathe competitive running, the injury relegated me to recreational running on the streets around our house, and in the fifteen years since college, I hadn’t thought too much about cross country.
But now, thanks to Jacob, who likes to run and needed a coach for his team, I’m back in the cross-country world. This time, though, I’m looking at the sport from the perspective of adult and coach, rather than adolescent and competitor, and I have found that I’m startled by what I see. While Robert Fulgrum boiled his life lessons down to a kindergarten classroom, I am discovering something similar: Everything I needed to know, I learned on a cross-country course.
Cross-country taught me that in life, very few people are the best in their field. Beating everyone else is actually quite rare. Unlike most sports, a cross country meet doesn’t end with one winner and one loser. Most meets have ten or more teams, with as many as a hundred or more runners in a race. At the start of the race, there are usually fewer than five runners who have a shot at winning the whole thing. With so many competitors without a chance of winning, success in cross-country is defined differently than it is in other sports. To succeed in cross- country is to beat your own best time. I remember once, as a new (and slow) high school runner, my coach being more excited about the minute I chopped off my time than he was about the varsity boy who came in third. Cross-country taught me to compete against myself—to not worry too much about the line of runners either in front of or behind me. They had their races to run, I had mine, and we came to the starting line with different abilities and goals.
Cross-country taught me not to be afraid of pain. Running fast for a short distance is fun. Running fast for a long distance is counter-intuitive. The body sometimes screams to stop. But cross-country requires runners to meet the pain head-on. Runners learn how to embrace pain and how enter into it. Cross-country taught me no worthwhile goal is met without some pain.
While pain in cross country is physical, I believe that my years running in the rain, in below-zero temperatures, and sometimes even while sick, allowed me to transfer the embrace of physical pain to the embrace of emotional pain when I’ve needed to. Three times my husband and I have had to give back foster children we had come to love. Looking back on those experiences, I recognize that in my pain, I nevertheless found a rhythm. I somehow found my place within the pain — to hurt in the last quarter of a race is to honor the first part of a race well run. Likewise, the hurt Bill and I felt in giving back our foster children honored the love and good times our family had with those children.
Cross-country taught me I won’t always have a fan base. High school and college kids do not flock to cross country meets as they do to football games. The most important parts of a race often happen in the middle of the woods, where there may not be any spectators. Cross-country taught me about doing your best when no one is watching, because even if no one else knows you slowed down, you know it.
Cross-country taught me that there are uphills and downhills and you rarely have one without the other. It taught me that there’s a time to work hard and a time to coast and use gravity. Cross-country taught me about faith. Most of the time, you’re running along not able to see the finish line and you just have to believe that it’s there; that at some point, you’ll be able to see it.
Cross-country taught me that if you fall in the mud or slip in a stream, it’s really not such a big deal, because the race is long enough to allow for a mistake or two. Cross-country taught me that while a strong start and a sprinting finish are helpful, more crucial is running hard for much longer middle portion of the race.
Most importantly, cross-country taught me about commitment. In the bang of the starter’s pistol are a hundred runners’ unspoken promises to finish the race.
I doubt that the middle-schoolers I coach will see their cross country races as any sort of metaphor for life. I didn’t see the connection myself until I stepped away. The ten- to fourteen-year-olds I coach will be thinking that all they’re learning is how to run uphill, how to make it through a side ache, how to slice a few seconds off their personal record. They’ll be thinking that all they’re learning on the cross-country course is how to run a little faster each week.
That’s what I thought, too.