Late August summer mornings are made for cross-country, with their damp warm air, piercing sun from the east shining down on lush, freshly mown grass. Though this particular late August morning wasn’t as hot as some, it was still hot. The course for the day’s race meandered through the mostly unshaded grounds of South High, either North High’s sister or rival school depending on who you talk to.
After the starting shots rang out, echoing against the school’s brick walls, the race swarmed off into the distance behind a speeding Gator. I pictured the North girls spread out behind it: Sydnie in front charting the course for Natalie, Lydia, Hannah, Vidhi, Mollee, and Caitlin, all scattered further back throughout the pack.
As I surveyed the school grounds before me, my focus broke when I spotted Coach James out of the corner of my eye. He hustled past with his clipboard in hand, jogging toward his chosen vantage point.
“Hey! Salty!” he said with a hug and then blurted, “Syd’s out. She’s at the doctor, sick!”
Sydnie, the number one runner on the team, the one aiming for a berth at the State meet this year, but most importantly, Sydnie, the leader of the North girls’ cross-country team, was not there at the first big meet of the season.
“It’s ok, though! This is an opportunity for the other girls to step-up,” he said as he ran toward the sound of the Gator.
One of the things that makes cross-country so compelling is that it’s at once an individual and a team sport. Each team has a vibe and each team member has an important role on the team whether she knows it or not. Sydnie is North’s leader. She literally leads her teammates through the course, sure, but more importantly she orients them. At the first big meet of the season, it seemed particularly poignant that Sydnie was not there to lead the way.
Half-way Through One-third
Half-mile in and the lead pack, absent the black and orange of Sydnie’s uniform, fanned out into a denser crowd of teenagers who were (mostly) determined to maintain or improve their positions. Some looked relaxed, some looked to be straining already, and somewhere at the top of the middle masses were three North teammates, the first to appear in black and orange: Natalie, Lydia, and Hannah. If they planned to use the power of the pack, they were executing perfectly.
Behind the trio, somewhere smack in the middle of the race, running without any teammates, but far from alone in a big pack of girls, was Vidhi, looking quite strong and intensely focused. And then a few minutes back, just before the swarm trickled away, I saw Caitlin on Mollee’s heels again.
A half-mile in and everyone looked good, but then again, it was only a half-mile in.
Pack running is one of the ways cross-country runners can leverage their teammates to not only perform better as a team, but to perform better as individuals. However, pack-running, unless the runners are underperforming relative to their abilities and only focused on place, is not ideally employed throughout the entirety of a race. For one, unless all the runners in the pack are of equal ability or, again, one or more are underperforming, some members of the pack will not be able to hang on to the strongest member of the pack.
By a mile into the race, the North packs were already breaking up. After bravely going out with her teammates Hannah had dropped back a little. Behind Vidhi, who was still on her own, Mollee had moved significantly ahead of Caitlin. But Natalie and Lydia, they were glued side-by-side, blazing the trail for their teammates.
The Pusher and the Puller
Natalie and Lydia, in some ways they seem very similar. They are both intense, driven to the pursuit of excellence, and motivated to compete. It’s hard to say what motivates either of them, but I can say both of them are at least partially intrinsically motivated, meaning something inside themselves propels them forward.
In other ways, they are so different. Junior Natalie runs like a warrior, stoic and guarded, with intense eyes and regal posture. Sophomore Lydia runs joyfully, her face is open and warm. That’s not to say she isn’t serious, though.
As they raced together, Natalie pulled as Lydia pushed. Together they formed their own pack, advanced their cause, filled the void, and led their team.
With about a mile to go, they came by one last time before the finish. Natalie, with Lydia right next to her, continued to lead the way for North. Hannah was struggling a little more, but valiantly holding on, followed distantly by Vidhi who looked very strong and steady holding her own. And then Mollee! Mollee had moved up even more! Mollee was on fire! But that meant Caitlin was all alone.
The biggest gap between any of the North girls was between Mollee and Caitlin. This was surprising, but seeing Caitlin forging ahead and looking strong, it was obvious that Caitlin wasn’t struggling at all; Mollee was performing at a new level.
Every single one of the six North girls ran a season best, improving her 5k time over the course of five days by at least a minute. And each North runner fought for place as she barreled down South’s flag-lined straight-away to the finish line. Every single one. Not all of them successfully fended off their competitors, but they all tried mightily.
Natalie intently lead the team from start to finish, pulling Lydia, who came in thirteen seconds later, to almost PR on the second meet of the year. Hannah hung on for third on the team. Vidhi had the biggest kick of the day, taking down girl after girl on her way to a more than three-minute improvement over Monday. Cinnamon missed getting a shot of Mollee heading to the finish because she didn’t expect her to run more than seven minutes faster than the last meet!
Five minutes after Mollee, finishing her second ever cross-country race, was Caitlin. In a bigger meet, like this one, some teams do not run their less experienced girls. Some teams are so big their developing girls run on a JV squad. But for a Division I school, North has a relatively small team and every girl counts. Caitlin was out there mostly with others from small teams and some runners with almost no team. Many of these girls, particularly the ones most struggling to keep contact with the very back of the swarm, dropped out, but Caitlin and another girl were left at the back of the race to duke it out to avoid being last. Despite giving it everything she had, Caitlin came in last.
If focusing on the team aspect of the sport inclines you to feel sorry for Caitlin, don’t. She earned a personal best, almost one minute per mile faster than she did five days earlier, and I bet she learned a lot in her battle to the line too.
The Pushed and the Pulled
After the race, I saw Natalie and asked her if she felt good. Her reply was a very characteristic single word: “no.” After a while, she followed it up to say she knew she could do better. As the one who naturally orients her team when Sydnie isn’t there, I wondered how leading her team affected how she ran as an individual. I asked her this, but she was more concerned with what her performance as an individual said about her leadership ability: “Well, I don’t think I’m a good leader because I used to run 21s and 22s and today I ran in the 23s.” Never mind that she ran over a minute faster than Monday and made it look pretty easy. I don’t get the sense that she beats herself up, rather she seems to hold herself to a high standard.
When I asked Lydia about racing with Natalie, she gushed about what a supportive teammate Natalie is and how it was Natalie’s leadership that directed Lydia to a two-minute season best, and a time that is just a couple seconds shy of her PR. It’s Lydia who reveals the power of Natalie’s leadership and it’s Natalie’s leadership that shows Lydia what she’s capable of.
We’ll be back next week with our next installment of North.
For past posts in this series, go here.
For full results from the Cleveland Running Co. Willoughby South Invitational, go here.