NOTHING IN SPORTS APPROACHES THE VISUAL BEAUTY or visceral joy of running through the woods. As someone who has participated as both athlete and coach, I consider the atmosphere surrounding cross-country races to be electric! Nowhere is this better demonstrated than at the New Prairie Invitational, a high school race in Northwestern Indiana. More than 2,000 runners appear on a Saturday morning in September for this event each year. As many as 3,000 appear to watch, claims New Prairie coach Doug Snyder. Mostly these are friends and family of the runners--and a few fans like me. The New Prairie Invitational costs only one dollar for entry; where else in sports can you find a bargain like that?
While runners warm up, spectators stake out positions surrounding the finish line in the center of a broad athletic field. The course criss-crosses this field, marked with white lines and arrows to guide the runners, also with ropes in key areas to keep the crowds from pressing too tightly. At several spots the course (4,000 meters for girls; 5,000 meters for boys) swerves in and out of the surrounding woods, temporarily separating the boys and girls from their screaming fans.
On the edges of the field near the high school to the west, the several hundred teams competing erect brightly-colored tents with names of schools emblazoned on them: Twin Lakes, La Crosse, Portage. Throughout most of the morning, competing runners can be found resting inside and around the tents, or jogging nearby while waiting their time to head to the starting line. Many of these young runners wear T-shirts listing titles won and bearing messages exhorting themselves to success: "Slow and steady wins the race--except in cross-country." Or: "Cross-country: Hard work. Dedication. Success. Great Friends. It doesn't get any better."
A collection of races
THE NEW PRAIRIE INVITATIONAL IS NOT A SINGLE RACE, but rather a collection of races (seven in all) for boys and girls in three different divisions, based on size of the school. Each school enters only seven runners, but there also are races for reserves allowing everybody a chance to compete. Ten or fifteen minutes before the start of each race, runners and their coaches migrate from the tents to the starting line at the eastern edge of the athletic complex, maybe a quarter mile from where most spectators stand. Once positioned, they stand nervously in front of a backdrop of trees, green during the Invitational in September, but tinged with cooler autumnal hues at qualifying meets later in October that lead to the State Championships. The young runners are clad in bright, primary colors: reds, purples, blues, greens, yellows, oranges. The names of their schools are emblazoned on their singlets to which are attached identifying numbers.
Several minutes before the start of each race, most coaches position themselves in front of the line, separated from their runners by 50 or 100 yards. Meanwhile, the official starter stalks the line, making sure that teams are positioned properly in their boxes. Tim Creason, a metal products manager from New Buffalo, Michigan, has been serving as starter for the New Prairie Invitation for seven years. Creason checks to see that everyone on each team is wearing identical uniforms, but not wearing any jewelry. Dress slightly different from your teammates, or forget to remove a watch or a necklace, and you risk disqualification.
Satisfied that everyone is in compliance to the rules that govern the sport of cross-country, Creason mounts a stepladder that allows him to peer down on the runners assembled on the line. "Run out!" he announces. At the command, each team sprints forward in a group then stops at their coach to clasp hands in a circle for a final pre-race cheer. This moment is called the Run-Out, but traditionalists know it as "The Shag." As far as I can determine after having quizzed numerous coaches, The Shag may be unique to Northwest Indiana. Runners don't do The Shag in other parts of the country--or even in other parts of Indiana.
Lightning and thunder
AFTER THE TEAMS JOG BACK TO THE STARTING LINE and gather themselves, Creason fires the gun. If you are gathered among the spectators and look closely, you can spot the smoke and start your stopwatch. If not, your first indication that the race has started is a ripple of color as the runners sprint forward. Then comes the echoing retort of the gun. It's like seeing lightning and hearing thunder.
I love the excitement of the Shag, the color of cross-country, the fun of seeing young runners during their moments of glory. You couldn't ask for more from any team sport. Indeed, as the T-shirt proclaimed, "It doesn't get any better." But attending the New Prairie Invitational, as I try to do each fall, evokes both glad and sad memories, since I now watch only as a spectator, not as a participant in the ritual.
As an athlete I competed on the local, national and world level, winning individual and team championships, earning medals and trophies and respect from my peers. But the several years I spent coaching the young boys and girls that I see each year running at races such as the New Prairie Invitational ranks as a high point in my career. I can't attend a cross-country race on an autumn morning without hearkening back to the joy that comes with running through the woods.