Despite the occasional 90 degree day here in Boston, it’s starting to feel like fall. Longer nights, cooler mornings, and the scent of decaying leaves make me think of one thing: cross country. Like many people who started running in high school, cross country was my first exposure to the sport of running. The sounds and smells of fall invariably bring me back to that first exhilarating season, toeing the line next to some of the coolest, nicest, most bad-ass girls I had ever met. Through cross country I discovered the joy of racing and learned what it is to train seriously and, although I don’t have the opportunity to race cross country often now as a non-club-affiliated post-collegiate, it remains my favorite running event. I miss it.
This season, I’m planning to run in a couple of cross country races and I think you should too. Why, you ask?
The instant bonding that shared exertion/pain brings was one of the things that quickly drew me to the sport. Sure, I share the pain of racing with teammates and competitors in a track race or a road race, but I think that feeling is increased in cross country. For one thing, a track meet has multiple events so even if you and your teammates/friends are all racing, there’s a good chance you won’t be racing at the same time. Even road race events often have more than one race distance taking place at the same time or in sequence, which can detract from the “we’re all in this together” feeling.
Additionally, cross country events often have the men and women race separately, which for me adds to the feeling of sisterhood.
Cross country races provide an opportunity to be in and feel the power of nature. In many cross country courses, you’ll be in the woods for parts, out of view from everyone besides those in the race. This is unlike road or track races where spectators can see the runners for most or all of it. Feeling that the experience is somewhat private, shared only by you and your fellow racers also adds to the sense of camaraderie. As an added bonus, you’re less exposed to people if you’re doing really badly.
Hone your racing instincts
One benefit of cross country is that you can’t focus on splits too much. Overall pace can vary tremendously depending on the course, and mile-to-mile splits can also be a poor indicator of how well you’re doing. For people accustomed to relying heavily on your watch or mile markers, cross country can provide a great chance to stop focusing on the time and instead to race the people around you. Focus instead on where you are in the field and work on moving past people throughout the race, which is possibly even more satisfying than a negative split (though they often go hand-in-hand).
For the love of the sport
While road races can bring together so many different people running for many different reasons, that diversity in experience and interest can also be a distraction. Certainly, one of the great things about running is that it is accessible to many, but at the end of the day (or at the start of the race) I am in it to compete, to get faster, to find the best in me when I race. In the few cross country races I’ve done since college, the atmosphere has been joyful, but also focused and purposeful. A special attribute of cross country is the feeling that, right now I am surrounded by 200 (or however many) people, doing what I’m doing, hurting as I’m hurting, striving as I’m striving. I feel a certain sense of a group love-of-the-sport that I don’t get in other races, even when I don’t know any of the other runners.
Autumn offers some of the best running weather of the year and the beauty of the changing leaves only enhances the pleasure. Whether you are supporting your local cross country high school team or jumping into a local race, cross country is an experience that truly embodies fall running. Add cross country to pumpkin spice, riding boots, and scarves: the things I love about the season. I can’t wait for my upcoming cross country races, and recommend them to anyone in the New England region:
October 23: Boston Mayor’s Cup. Put on by the BAA and 20$ if you pre-register, this is a 5k on Boston’s storied Franklin Park cross country course. There is a Women’s Championship 5k for those who self-seed at 21:00 and under, and an Open 5k for everyone.
November 6: USATF New England Championship. For this one you need to be a member of the USATF-NE association, but do not need to be affiliated with a club (though that would probably make it more fun). The women’s race is 6k, also at Franklin Park.
Do you like running cross country? Any good races in your area this fall?