My First Varsity Cross-Country Race: The First Time I Ask, “Why Am I Doing This?”

Now that my son is on the high school cross-country team, I’d like to take this opportunity to write about my favorite topic: me. Oh, wait, you thought I was going to say my children, or teamwork, or school, or something like that. This must be your first time reading my blog. (Subtitle: “The All-About-Me Blog. Starring Me.”)

I was built to be a long-distance runner. ¬†That’s not just my opinion; it’s science. The November 2014 issue of Runner’s World had a discussion of the nine factors that would allow a human to break 2 hours in a marathon, and their description of the perfect physical specimen for this sounds a lot like me: “He’ll be 5’6″ and a buck-twenty soaking wet.” (Perhaps the first time “me” and “the perfect physical specimen” were used in the same sentence.) Which makes it all the more surprising that I played football my freshman year.

My football career didn’t last long. It turns out it’s not easy tackling or running past someone who outweighs you by 100 pounds. I played halfback and safety, scored one touchdown, made one game-saving goal-line tackle, and traded my football cleats for running spikes at the end of the season. It took a while, though, before I ran my first varsity cross-country race.

I was in 11th grade, happily plodding away on the junior varsity squad, running with a pack of teammates and holding conversations during the JV races. (Handy tip for aspiring XC runners: If you can hold a conversation while running, you are going too slowly. Other handy tip: The cool kids call cross country “XC.”) I recall one Saturday-morning meet discussing a teammate’s previous night: a Pink Floyd concert that kept him out past midnight. He was nearly incoherent; he kept talking about a giant pig flying above the crowd. (Pink Floyd aficionados: This was the A Momentary Lapse of Reason tour, 9/25/1987 at the Rosemont Horizon.)

The next week, my coach pulled me aside and said, “Dudley, I have good news and great news: The good news is I’m moving you up to the varsity. You’ll be our seventh man at the Pow-Wow. Be prepared.” “Wow,” I said. “What’s the great news?” “I’ll tell you later,” he said.

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I still have this 28-year-old shirt from my first varsity race. Still fits me. Strangely, it is a size large.

The Crete-Monee Pow-Wow was a fun cross-country meet (not an oxymoron!) that was unusual in its format. The typical meet has the top seven runners from each team running in one race. At large invitationals, things can get crowded. The first year I ran the Pow-Wow, there were 65 teams, so that’s over 450 runners. The meet organizers came up with a unique way to get around the crowding problem: seven different races, or flights, one for each individual runner on a team. All of the seventh runners would run against each other, then 5 minutes later, all of the sixth runners would run. After those flights were done, the fifth and then fourth runners would go, and so forth until the final flight would pit the best runners from each team against each other. This would mean that we didn’t actually run with our teammates, but the payoff was that, for those of us who were not the best runners on our team, we could still earn a medal or even win a race, since theoretically we were running against people at our level only.

The scoring was different from a typical meet, too. In a typical meet, you add up the places of your top five runners, and whichever team has the lowest score wins. The perfect score is 1+2+3+4+5=15. It is embarrassing to lose a meet when the other team scores 15 points. (I speak from experience.)

The sixth and seventh runners aren’t scored, but they can help by pushing the scores of the other teams higher. In case of a tie score through five runners, you would check the positions of the sixth runners to determine who wins. In the rare case of a tie finish between two sixth runners (if, for example, they came across the finish line together, holding hands and skipping), then the places of the seventh runners would be scored. And hopefully there would be no ties with them. (“Guys, quit holding hands and skipping across the finish line with our opponents! It’s the first rule of cross country!”)

In the Pow-Wow, the perfect score was 7 points; conceivably, a great team can have a runner win every race. The flip side is that, if you are on a bad team and every runner comes near the end in their race, you could score 400 points, and no one wants that. The race organizers also gave out a nifty trophy for most improved team, the team that lowered their score the most from one year to the next.

My XC team that year was not good. There’s no sugar-coating it. We were mediocre. They needed a boost, someone to come forward and light a fire under them, thereby uniting the team and propelling them to greater glory. That’s the reason I always tell people that my coach decided to promote me. Honestly, his thinking was more along the lines of, “Well, this guy’s brother was a halfway-decent runner; as long as he doesn’t trip over his shoelaces, he’ll be serviceable.”

On the bus ride to Crete, our coach gave his usual pep talk and then talked strategy with us. “Guys,” he said, “everyone knows we are not going to compete in this thing, so I have a way to make it more competitive for all of us and allow us to have some individual success. Our first man is going to run a race down, against every other team’s second man. Our Number 2 will run against the Number 3s. And so on.” The first through sixth guys on our team loved this idea and started talking up their chances in their races right away.

I sat there for a while mulling this over. Finally, I raised my hand. “Coach?” I said. “I’m the seventh guy on the team. What do I do?”

My coach’s eyes lit up. “This is that great thing I was going to tell you about. You have the opportunity to run in the top flight against all of the best runners in the state. In your first varsity meet ever.”

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This is actually from my senior year, wearing the gold and blue (note the 3-38 on my shirt, meaning I was the third runner on my team that year). It was raining that day. The guy in front of me looks like a stud.

Wow, I thought. That sucks. But I kept this to myself. I spent the morning watching all of my teammates run their races and have success matching up against slower runners than them, and I got more and more freaked out by having to run the top race as the day went on. What made it even worse was that we had to run through a wooded area that had turned muddy in the previous night’s rain, and a teammate lost a shoe during his run. Like, literally lost it in the mud, never to be found again. What was I getting myself into?

When I toed the line, I looked over at my teammates. One of them gave me a thumbs-up. I felt like raising a different finger to him. When the gun sounded, I sprinted out to position myself with the lead pack. That lasted for about half a mile. Then I faded badly. It’s good to have a mantra when running, and my mantra for this race was, “Please don’t let me be 65th place. Please don’t let me be 65th place.” Etc.

I think it would serve us all if I just skipped over the details of the race. Here are the positive takeaways from my first varsity run: 1. I finished. 2. I did not lose my shoe in the mud.

Oh, and I did not come in 65th place. I came in 58th. Meaning I was better than the top runners on 7 other teams. Unless (and I just thought of this 28 years later) those 7 teams also had their worst runner go in the top race. Well, now I feel bad.

P.S. The Crete-Monee Pow Wow, once billed as the largest cross-country race in the United States, was discontinued after 42 years in 2009. According to an article in the February 26, 2010 Chicago Sun-Times,¬†”The Pow-Wow field peaked at 71 teams in 1978, but has dropped into the 20s in recent years.”

P.P.S. The next year, my team won the Most Improved trophy. I’m assuming my 58th place finish the year before had something to do with that. Maybe that was my coach’s plan all along.