On my right, I have my sophomore sister Eleanor squatting and low-key dry heaving on the starting line — adrenaline has never sat well in her stomach. To my left, I have junior Lucy Hoffman, jumping up and down slapping her heels — her signature “Cotton Eyed Joe” dance move.
Behind me are the seven other girls on varsity cross country whose faces show a mix of crying and nervous laughing. And then there’s me, corralling these crazy people around me in a huddle to pep talk them, yet internally stressing about how the finish line seems 3.1 miles too far away.
“If you get tired and start hurting, look up, find your teammates, and think of each other,” Coach Tricia Beaham always tells us.
This is the sole reason I love cross country more than track. During cross country, my nine best friends and I are all bound together through the same 20 minutes of living hell: racing a 5K. We’re able to relate to each other about one common race — something impossible to do during track.
I’m a middle-distance runner in track. I’ve never hurdled or sprinted, so I don’t know what it’s like to fear hitting a hurdle or not properly getting out of the blocks. In cross country though, every single one of us knows what that burning sensation in your lungs feels like, and we’ve all had that “what if I just walk?” thought cross our minds mid-race.
I’ve often heard that there is no way to compare cross country and track, and in terms of the actual sports themselves, I agree with that. They differ in types of events, in the workouts and in the team atmospheres. Track is a sport that fosters a team atmosphere, as everyone cheers on all the events and supports the team as a whole. But for me, collapsing into sweaty hugs at the finish line in cross country solidifies the familial atmosphere present in cross country more than track.
I’ve gone to state more times in track than I ever did in cross country, and admit that racing only a half-mile sounds refreshing compared to the 3.1 miles I’ve been racing for the past eight weeks now. However, having to rely on each runner during a cross country meet and the longevity of a 5K that mentally bogs runners down is what teaches us to motivate each other.
I love being able to grab Lucy’s hand for a second during a race, or look up and see Eleanor motioning for me to come run beside her. In track, we are all dispersed into different events and there isn’t enough time during a race to have these brief, yet meaningful moments.
Since we all race a 5K in cross country, we’re prescribed the same workouts from the start of our summer running program in June to the end of the season in late October. For me, this plays a huge part in shaping the closeness of the team: we’re forced to spend at least two hours running with each other six days a week. All this time together allows us to learn everything about each other on runs from how our days went to the Shrek character we relate to best. In turn, we inevitably become best friends.
While the training is a big part in our bonding, it isn’t the only thing that makes the cross country team so tight-knit. Every Friday night in the fall we indulge in excessive amounts of fettucini at team carbo-loads. Eating and joking with everyone about how “shrecked” we’re going to get in the meet the next day makes us buddies not just laced up in our spikes, but slouched on the couch too. Our “carbo loads” in track are pretty much non-existent — only a few distance runners will go out for Noodles and Company before an important meet.
The cross country team’s closeness is present in all aspects of the sport — figuratively and literally. On the starting line, 10 of us are crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in a box three feet wide. But these claustrophobic moments are also why I love cross country. It’s so much better to be surrounded by people on the starting line who you care about and who motivate you, whereas in track at the starting line I’m sharing a lane with other teams’ runners which makes me even more intimidated and nerve-wracked.
Maybe it’s because I did it first, or maybe it’s because it’s 10 times as painful, but cross country has always stood out more in my mind compared to track. Cross country is not an easy sport— there are times during interval workouts that I question why I’m even running. But getting to share the pain with my best friends has made it all worth it.