Knowing the struggle: How cross country runners fall in love with the sport

 By CARA COOPER

In September, nearly a dozen schools traveled down to Smith River Sports Complex for Bassett’s annual “Bengals Clash at the River” cross country meet. It was a grueling day, with temperatures up in the mid-90s with extreme humidity. But that was no matter for the 50 middle schoolers and more than 150 high schoolers who braved the day like it was nothing out of the ordinary.

While fans and coaches lined the course with sweat running down their faces, many would rightfully wonder what could possibly possess young athletes to want to put themselves through 3.1 miles of hills in the heat and still have the energy to sprint to the finish line.

Cross country is probably the most niche sport high schools currently offer, and runners admit a lot of times people don’t really seem to get it.

“My mom thinks I’m crazy. My sister thinks I’m crazy,” said Martinsville High School sophomore Jacob Lunt.

“A lot of people are I guess scared of all the running,” said Bassett’s Oscar Salazar.

“The first responses are like ‘why do you run?’” said Bassett junior Lacey Flanagan. “But you’d be surprised. Most people if they actually got here and tried it, it’s not terrible. You do the best you can do.”

Despite a sport that some may see as crazy, runners take pride in doing what many of their peers are afraid to try. Go to any cross country meet and you’ll likely see schools with t-shirts with sayings like “our sport is your sport’s punishment,” or “No halftimes, no breaks, no timeouts.”

And some local programs are thriving like never before. Bassett High School has 45 runners combined on the boys and girls teams this season. When current head coach Kevin Underwood started in 2012, he had just five.

Martinsville Middle School has also started a program for the first time this year, and head coach Christopher Manns said he consistently has about 10 runners come out to practices. The goal for the middle school team is to get kids interested in the sport now to help build up the program at the high school in the future.

While outsiders may just see people running towards a finish line trying to beat the clock, local athletes say there’s a lot more to it.

A RUNNING FAMILY

Bassett combined their boys and girls cross country teams last season. Previously, the two teams would practice separately with separate coaches. Since making the change, Underwood said he’s seen a difference in the interconnectedness of his runners.

“I think that’s another big reason we’re able to build more of a family atmosphere,” Underwood said. “Which is a big thing.”

And it’s not just Bengals. Over the summer, Bassett would regularly invite other Piedmont District schools to come practice with them, as well as other adults and younger runners in the community. Because unlike other sports, cross country is about more than the competition. While other athletes thrive off of getting into their opponents’ heads, runners have found that no matter who they’re running beside, they’re all competing against themselves to get better.

“During races I talk to people in front of me like ‘dang man, good job. Keep going,” said Bassett first year runner Roy Garcia.

“I talk to a lot of the other runners from other schools and I’m friends with some of them and we talk about running and stuff,” said Bassett third year runner Zach Hale. “I think it’s a runner’s personality. Not just for like school sports, I’ve done a lot of local 5Ks… you’ll make a new friend while you’re running, so it’s kind of nice.”

Flanagan, who is in her third year of running at Bassett, said the team has taken to calling themselves “The Flock” because, like birds, they flock together everywhere they go, and build a community during bus rides, stretches and shared food in the tent before a race.

There’s also a bit of shared suffering that brings them all together, no matter what school.

“Usually everybody feels the struggle,” Flanagan said with a laugh. “We have a bunch of friends that we know. Cross country, it’s like a big thing. You’re all together running so you just cheer on everybody that finishes.”

Having others to run with also makes the stresses of practices easier.

“I think if one of us were to quit our friends would give us a lot of crap about it,” Hale said. “I think mainly the reason no one is leaving is our friends. They kind of keep us with the sport. We make it fun… There are some days when it’s really bad, but some days it’s not as bad as you think and once you get better it’s a lot easier to keep going.”

STARTING YOUNG

Christopher Manns was asked before the school year to start a cross country program at Martinsville Middle School. Manns, who grew up in Patrick County and also coaches the school’s track team, said he jumped at the opportunity.

The former track runner said the benefits of running are endless, and his hope is that he can get young runners to fall in love early and take that into high school, and beyond.

“That’s something you always hope happens… but unfortunately it doesn’t since it’s something that’s completely new to the athletes,” he said. “But when it does, it tells the coach that I am making this a very enjoyable experience for them. Because that’s what it is, it’s an experience. They could have a very strong work ethic from the outset but if you’re not showing them that you’re there to support them when it gets very tough you can lose them. So it’s very rewarding when I see athletes get over that initial part where they think that they can’t do this or it’s too much for them to handle, and actually stick with it and stay until the end of the season.”

Young runners, especially those in sixth and seventh grade, are definitely surprised to find out what all goes into cross country. Middle school races are two miles, and Manns said he has to let them know from the beginning it’s not a sport they can just walk in and cruise through.

“During the first couple days of training they realize it’s not that easy. For some people in general it scares them and you end up losing them. Thankfully I haven’t had that issue,” he said. “The number of kids we’ve had has been the same… I’m always encouraging them to do their very best. It takes a lot of training to get to where you see some athletes who make it look like they do it very easily. They didn’t get there just waking up one morning and saying ‘I’m going to do this’. And for most of these kids they didn’t do any sort of training.”

Luckily for Manns, his runners have fallen for the sport after just a couple of weeks.

Sixth graders, and first time runners, Dexter Hunt, Naun Andrage and Nabria Millner all said they chose to give cross country a try because they wanted to be part of a team and try it with their friends. Andrage said he liked the health benefits too, and “you never know you might actually get first place one day.”

Running laps around the hills at the high school has been tough, and they’re still working to get built up to the distance they’ll have to run for their first meet today, but they’ve learned to push through.

“It was very difficult… it was very tiring,” Andrage said. “I had the feeling of trying to quit but I just kept on going.”

“I’m pretty psyched about it,” Millner said. “I get to run and exercise and do more, because I don’t want to just sit around and be a couch potato all the time so I just get active and all that… I’m just excited to get the hang of it, get in there, be more active and be part of the team.”

Janiya Davis, an eighth grader at Martinsville Middle School, has been running in junior varsity races with the high school program this season. This is her first year in cross country, and she decided to try it to train for track in the spring.

The sport came as a bit of a shock at first though.

“The first day I was shocked because I was like ‘what do we do first? Four laps?’ so I had to get used to that,” she said. “Progress.”

Davis finished 37th out of 60 in her first high school race, and was the highest finishing middle school runner.

“It’s sort of clicking,” she said. “It’s tough but I like it. When I do it I’m like ‘yea, I got this.’ But after a couple of miles I start to tire out.”

It’s a tough sport, but runners at the middle school are slowly getting bitten by the bug. The enthusiasm of Manns’ current runners has already rubbed off on others too.

“One girl asked me where can she sign up,” Hunt said.

BUILDING A PROGRAM

A big draw for many kids to cross country is the hope of using it to stay in shape for other sports. Bassett has several on the boys and girls teams who also play soccer in the spring, and even two runners who split time in the fall between cross country and marching band.

If that’s what it takes to get runners interested in his sport, Underwood said he welcomes them with open arms.

Building a cross country program isn’t easy, especially at schools that don’t have established programs or a lot of facilities. Having one very successful runner can turn a program around. Underwood pointed to Loudoun Valley High School in Northern Virginia, which produced 2016 Gatorade National Cross Country Runner of the Year Drew Hunter, who now runs professionally for Adidas. Two years after Hunter graduated, Loudoun Valley is still the top ranked cross country program in the nation.

Underwood said the success of last season’s Piedmont District Champion Connor Kinkema also drew a lot of athletes to his team, and success breeds success in the sport.

“With some of these kids now, we’re going to make an impact on the region pretty soon,” he said. “And with running, you have to build a base. What I was trying to do before, they would come to me as a freshman and I would try to cut the speed on them so fast sometimes it would hurt them because they weren’t ready to be added into 50 miles a week that first year. But if they come in that eighth grade year and do 25 miles a week we can add that more the next year and it can really benefit them. And these kids really love it.”

The first couple of days are always a shock, so weaning runners into it takes time.

But Underwood’s hope is bigger than just Bassett. He wants to build up the running programs in the entire area.

“We don’t get a lot of love from the rest of the state,” he said. “We don’t get a ton of recruiters coming in. It’s starting to change a little bit but we don’t get a ton of schools saying ‘okay, we’ve got to go check Bassett out,’ but it’s getting better. The last four or five years we’ve had quite a bit more interest in our kids. And that’s the whole goal is to get them into college. They can go to college for half price or for free. It’s all about opportunity and whether or not they want to take it or not.

“And we’re getting more competitive every year. This is the seventh year, we’ve gotten better seven years in a row. This probably going to be the best year ever.”

FALLING IN LOVE

Lunt is used to being in love with a sport that other people may not get. His dad is a runner, and got him into running 5Ks when he was eight years old. He’s seen his own share of success, winning his age group in two different 5Ks in the Winston-Salem area.

But to him, success is about more than wins.

“I’d say it’s not really equivalent to other sports. It’s a lot different,” he said. “Because in basketball you’ve got to shoot the ball in the hoop, football you’re going down the field and tackling each other and scoring points. Running, it’s kind of running Point A to Point B, but once you get up the field and once you get older and you do all these 10Ks, half marathons, marathons and ultra races it’s a lot more than just a race from the finish to the start. It’s really about you challenging yourself to get through that.”

There’s nothing Underwood loves more than taking a 40 minute runner and cutting that time in half. He said he can remember every person he’s ever coached who did it. To him, he doesn’t care about ability, as long as someone is willing to put the work in and run. And most of the time, it clicks and they stay.

Even if someone from the outside maybe doesn’t understand, Underwood said all it takes is two weeks.

“Try it, give me two weeks and you’ll love it,” he said. “Two weeks or one race. And they stay every time.”

Two weeks was enough for Davis. She said even once the season is over she plans to keep running laps around Martinsville High School.

“I want to get a scholarship for running,” she said. “I just want to get a scholarship so I can be known for something.”

Whether they’re running for wins, or running for personal victories, everyone has their own level of success in the sport.

Winning comes secondary, but at the end of the day, getting a personal best time or just finishing well is winning enough.

“We push each other and it feels really good when you PR,” Hale said. “When you beat your previous time, I guess you want to keep beating it, you want to keep getting better because it feels really good to get better.”

“Like you did something you thought you wouldn’t do,” Garcia added.

This story first appeared in The Martinsville Bulletin.

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