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The Essence of Cross-Country

by Hal Higdon

Leaves, shades of gold and brown. Stripped cornfields. Migrating birds. Skies, gray. Air, chilly. Wind. Hills. Sharp turns. Ground, rutted and bumpy. Elbows colliding. Shoulders bumping. Snot hanging from noses.

Such is the essence of cross-country.

Allow your attention to lapse, and you land on the ground, as did at least one mid-pack competitor in the Big Ten Cross-Country Championships at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana last weekend.

Instructing nearly a hundred runners waiting patiently behind the line in assigned boxes, the starter promised to call the field back if anyone fell in the first hundred meters. But fall later in the race, and you're out of luck. Someone caught a spike on a rut or rock. Surrounded by bodies on all sides, you need to sense obstacles, not see them. Arms and legs whirling, the runner somersaulted and bounced back up.

The essence of cross-country is that it's a contact sport: contact with the ground, contact with teammates and fellow competitors. Contact with your inner being.

An overlooked sport

Years ago, I used to attend Big Ten events with some frequency, because my son Kevin ran for Indiana University, but after he graduated I lost track of cross-country in that conference or elsewhere. Cross-country is generally an overlooked sport, newspapers rarely reporting results. The Chicago Tribune would not carry a single line on the Big Ten meet the next day. Sports reporters focus on events where 80,000 spectators show up in stadiums on Saturday afternoons, and I guess I can't blame them. But a thousand or so spectators did appear at Purdue either because someone in their family was running, or because they were runners themselves with nothing better to do on a Sunday morning. That's what brought me to Lafayette. The Purdue course, carved out of woods and cornfields by head coach Mike Poehlein, offers great viewing angles. Moving quickly, you can see the runners rush by you, even in the woods, at numerous points. In more open areas, you can watch the pack (pelaton in biking terms) rolling over a landscape that might have belonged in a Grant Wood painting.

In the women's race, a bevy of babes in blue with yellow "M's" on their singlets (read Michigan) asserted themselves in front for a few kilometers, then vanished off the screen while two green-clad runners (read Michigan State) left everybody far behind. Michigan hung on for the win, however, three points ahead of State. In the men's race, the lead pack was nearly everybody running, someone new in front every few strides nearly to halfway. Then a half dozen runners in white and red (read Wisconsin) surged, and that was it for the team competition. Michigan State's Michelle Carson was the women's champion (5000 in 17:24.0); Wisconsin's Matt Tegenkamp, the men's winner (8000 in 24:01.9).

Those statistically inclined can find complete results on the Purdue website, but I cared little who won or lost. I just visited Lafayette to absorb the atmosphere and see some good-looking young people running through the woods, the essence of cross-country. That gal who did trip will have a chance to redeem herself in a couple of weeks. The Great Lakes Region Championships are scheduled for Saturday, November 16, also at Purdue; the NCAA Championships are Monday, November 25 at Indiana State University in Terre Haute. If you're anywhere near and have nothing better to do, maybe I'll see you there.

Hal Higdon is Senior Writer for Runner's World. This article was written as a "Bell Lap" column on the online version of that magazine.