The grass is just beginning to dry as the cool air of the autumn morning chills the people jogging along on the field. The place is relatively quiet, with only the sound of foot strikes on the grass and gravel to disturb the morning. Everywhere you look, there is a sense of motion. No one wants to sit still. Instead, people move around in small groups, attempting to stay warm and keep the muscles loose as the time ticks down until the race. The people moving around the course look more like a bunch of layers than anything else; a far cry from what they will look like in an hour. Jogging pants, mittens, and toques are seen on most runners. The only indicator of team unity is a common jacket.
The teams walk and jog the course, somewhat out of tradition, and somewhat to survey the course. They look for the best spots to run, for obstacles to be weary of. A misplaced step could be much more than the end of a race in this sport. There is also the weight of the race. For many, weeks and weeks of training have led to these races. Countless hours spent running in the summer, going on long runs, progression runs, and a variety of runs in between. Now, the training is complete and there is only the race that remains, the end of a long season of running.
Today will be both a reward and the hardest effort of their lives.
While numerous runners are seeking to win the race today, there’s a spirit of friendly competition in the air. There isn’t anything malicious about the sport or those that partake in it. Instead, everyone knows that each runner will run the same course. Everyone will go through the same struggles, the same pain. Time is the only difference. As such, there is a simultaneous feeling of cheering on one’s team as well as everyone else. Cross-country is, above all, a celebration of the purest form of running.
As the time to the race approaches, the runners seems to break from their lethargy. Slowly, layers disappear. What was once a bundle of layers is now an athlete, ready to compete. Jogging transforms into faster drills and strides, showcasing the raw speed and strength of these runners. They are prepared.
What is striking about the group assembled on the course is the ages of the runners. The sport isn’t only relegated to the fittest of teenagers and young adults. Instead, runners of all ages are welcomed, from the very young age of elementary school children to the master runners over fifty. Whereas other sports are more exclusive as one tries to compete, cross-country is more inclusive. It welcomes any runner to mix things up on the course, whether veterans of the sport or just interested in trying the sport.
A sound system alerts the first race of the day that their race will begin in ten minutes. Immediately, teams shed their last bit of extra clothing in favour of being minimal. Some don headbands. Almost all sport the characteristic shorts of cross-country: split shorts. The runners from the team that participate in the first race find their starting box, a staple of cross-country. The rest of the team crowds around, giving the racers some last-minute words of encouragement.
What was once a relatively quiet area begins to be bubble with noise. There’s energy in the crowd as the firing of the starter’s gun looms near. Teams begin their cheers, and the air buzzes with shouts and chants, each team trying to be louder than the other. As each cheer hits a climax and breaks, the team gives the racers slaps of encouragement and steps off of the starting line. The race is about to begin.
People quickly line up in front of the runners, vying for a good spot to cheer their team on. The person with the gun shouts out a final warning that the race is going to start in one minute, and then there is silence.
For the next minute, everyone on the line is silent. Whether reflecting on the moment or mentally preparing for the race, it is unclear. However, no one says a word. Instead, there is this pent up energy that is palpable to everyone on the line. Each racer is ready to spring forward, but they are being held back by that one sound, a crackle in the air. Like the apex of a ball’s trajectory when thrown in the air: one moment going up, one moment still, and then one moment going down. This frozen moment in time is the apex, which seems to stretch on indefinitely.
And then everything comes rushing back into focus as the gun strikes through the air, and the horde of runners surges forward, trying to gain position. On either side, the crowd goes crazy, cheering on the runners.
These first moments are claustrophobic, with so many runners side by side. However, it is about to get worse, for each cross-country course always siphons into a small route, cramming runners into a space for about four people.
After that, the race is on. For several laps, it is each runner against the course. Plus, each corner and turn offers a new battle to be fought. The beauty of cross-country is that each runner can have these small moments in which they can beat an opponent. Instead of everything being about the top five runners in the race, every runner matters in cross-country due to the team component. It encourages even the slowest of runners to battle against the other runners of their caliber. This is rarely found in other sports, and it makes the sport of cross-country special.
Cross-country is only a small portion of the running season, but it is one of the most loved components of a running season. If you ask many runners, the first time they ran was during a cross-country season. This is their roots, which is why so many runners love this sport for the nostalgic aspect of it. However, this sport is also the great equalizer. Everyone runs on a course that is small, allowing small battles to occur everywhere, as well as ample place for spectators to move from place to place to watch the race unfold. Time doesn’t matter so much as where you place. Cross-country is simply the sport that allows people to go back to the reason they began running competitively in the first place: for the love of just getting outside and moving as fast as one can through the environment. No, the course is not a perfectly flat oval that gives one precise feedback about how fast one is running. Instead, a cross-country course emphasizes those with strength and endurance to get through the mud, grass, and hills better than the others.
It’s a beautiful, raw, and pure sport.