Sweat pours from everywhere imaginable as the sun beats down on me. My head is pounding from the agony of pushing my body to its limits. My arms are cramping up. My legs feel like warm Jell-O. And there's still a mile to go. A whole dang mile. As physically taxing as it is, it's even harder to summon up the mental strength to carry on. Why do I put myself through this torture? Because I'm a cross country runner.
People who do high school cross country know the feeling I'm talking about. It's near impossible to go through a race and not feel like that. So how and why did I get here?
I came from a really small school, and we didn't have very many stellar athletes (or very many athletes at all). So whenever we'd run the mile in middle school, I'd be at the front. Because of this, when I was scheduling what to do to fulfill my PE requirement for high school, I thought cross country was a good idea. After all, I was fast (or so I thought), it was easy (or so I thought), and it wouldn't be much of a time commitment (or so I thought). I signed up for JV Boys, and prepared for a cakewalk.
Needless to say, from the first practice, I knew it wouldn't be a cakewalk. After throwing up and getting lost outside of school, I wanted to just quit. And after spraining my ankle at camp, I did.
It took a lot of soul-searching, but after freshman year, I decided that PE was really boring, and that I should give cross country another shot. However, I was still really scared. I knew how hard the sport was now, and I knew that I'd have to put a lot of work in if I wasn't going to quit again.
My training that summer was very gradual. I started out running the block around my house, just 800 meters at a time. In a few weeks, I could do it twice without stopping. Then three times. Then four. Then I tried running on the track. By the end of July, I was ready to face my coach and start going to practice.
Then the soreness came. I could hardly move for days after a practice. The pain went so deep into my legs that I was almost constantly icing them. I kept wondering, "What could I be doing wrong?" When I asked coach, he told me that soreness was a sign that my body was building itself to be stronger. He told me "Running is like mouthwash. When you feel the burn, you know it's working."
I made very slow progress with running. For a long time, I was the slowest guy on the team. I could hardly do a whole workout without stopping or throwing up. But I kept doing it. Not because it felt good, but because I was hoping that it would feel good one day. Not because I was fast, but because I was hoping that I would be fast one day.
It was the undying support of my teammates that kept me going that first year. Ask anyone on my team what their favorite part of the sport is, and they'll say, "the close-knit, family aspect of the team." They'd cheer me on during every race as I passed by. They'd ask me how I felt I did afterwards. They'd give me tips on how to do better next time. And I'd do the same for them.
Over the years, cross country has benefitted me more than anything I've ever done in high school. It's given me new sensibilities to fitness and athletics that I would never have had. It's given me so many leadership opportunities as a veteran runner on the team, being able to help and support new runners in the same way that I was supported when I started out. It's even given me chances to interact with kids from all over the state who run, kids from tons of different backgrounds that all are getting together for a common goal.
So let's fast-forward to last Saturday, when I was running the Sunny Hills Invitational. The sweat was getting in my eyes. I was cramping up in my arms from all the swinging. Even my feet were hurting from all of the steps I was taking. I wanted so much to just stop, to just drop out. But when I reached the two-mile mark, I saw my teammates cheering me on, and my coach yelling that I was just on the cusp of getting my goal time. I knew that if I wanted that time, I had to crush this last mile.
And so I did. I ran that mile like it was the last mile I'd ever run. The pain was so horrible. I felt myself slowing down even though I was putting in more and more effort. But I kept fighting. And barely -- just barely -- I got not only my goal, but also a medal (my third medal ever). Coach ran up to me after the race for a high five, and he was almost as excited as me.
I'm not the fastest kid on the team -- I don't even come close. But I still give everything I have to the sport. I'm only competing with myself. And I'm winning.