When I dropped my son off for his first practice with his cross-country team a few weeks ago, I had no idea how popular the sport was among the students at his school, St. Pius X, a Catholic school on the north side of Indianapolis, Indiana.
I only knew that my son, a seventh grader, liked to run.
I knew the benefits of running-from the physical to the mental and emotional. Children who participate in cardiovascular exercise -- such as running -- have better health and higher grades than those who don't exercise.
But running wasn't something I associated with middle- and elementary-school age kids -- until I dropped off my son and saw dozens of kids stretching with their coaches.
You have to be in the third grade or higher to participate in cross-country at St. Pius, which includes grades kindergarten through eight. There are about 300 or so students between grades three and eight -- and nearly 60 of them are on the cross-country team. That's 20 more than a year ago.
The popularity of cross-country is good news for the kids and their parents at St. Pius -- for a number of reasons.
Kids who run cross-country are getting exercise. For most of the 1 and a half to 2 hours or so they are at practice, they are running, often in nature: up and down hills, through the woods and over creeks. They are not playing video games, texting, or watching television.
In cross-country, boys and girls run together on relative equal footing. They run the same distance and belong to the same team. Boys and girls are not considered separate and unequal, as they are in other sports.
The coaches on my son's cross-country team stretch and run with their team during practice. The coaches smile easily and praise comes often.
If you were a cross-country coach, you would be smiling, too.
Cross-country coaches don't have to listen to the endless complaints from parents about why their son or daughter isn't starting or playing a certain position. In cross-country, everyone starts, everyone runs.
Unlike other sports, cross-country is comparatively inexpensive and safe.
The Associated Press reported on August 28 that nearly half of U.S. parents said they're uncomfortable with their child playing football and other contact sports because of the growing fear of concussions and other serious injuries.
Such fears don't exist in cross-country. If you get a head injury running cross-country, you're probably not running the proper way.
Most kids who play football, basketball, baseball and other team sports are finished with the sport by the time they enter high school.
Running is a lifetime sport.
Running may be a kinder and gentler sport but it's still a competitive sport. My son wants to win as much when he's in a cross-country race as he does when he's playing baseball and basketball.
I don't know if the rising number of kids running cross-country at my son's school represents a trend.
But I hope it does.