Friday, November 11, 2011
The Excellence of the Long Distance Runner
I noticed a slightly unappealing thing about myself. When conversation turns to sports, I’m likely to tell everyone how many varsity letters I earned in high school. In case you’re dying to know, it’s a number somewhere between two and four. The people I force to hear this ancient news are usually surprised. I’m a bookish former bean-pole of a guy, a hybrid of geek and nerd, greyly going to seed like a good number of my buddies from the class of ’73. Looking at me today, it’s hard to picture any varsity letters at all. Let’s just say that my high school had a sport for almost every kind of person. But here’s the thing: somehow, after thirty-eight years, having been a high school athlete still matters. Now why is that?
Consider cross country, the sport of choice for our family’s young athlete. That’s a 5000 meter feat of speed and endurance. At practice each day the teams run even farther, so on Saturdays they’re ready to race each other hard for 20 or 25 minutes. Near the end of the course they speed up because that’s the kind of people they have become, and they don’t stop until they have travelled the length of 54 football fields.
The meets are held at an immaculate city golf course, say, or in a wooded park in the next county or on the flat, cornfield-fringed grounds of a high school a third of the way across the state. Scores and often hundreds of runners participate. Before the races, they huddle under brightly-colored team tents; afterward, exhausted and ravenous, they chew away like locusts around their sandwich and snack tables. The middle, however, is where the action is. What you see from the sidelines during a cross country meet is filled with contagious joy.
It’s an odd sport to watch because you keep losing sight of the thing. At the crack of the starter’s pistol, a dense pack of runners crosses a broad field lined with cheering fans and then promptly disappears into the autumn woods. You don’t see them again for several minutes. The audience turns and walks to another corner of the field and waits. Dozens of little groups of runners emerge from the trees; cheers erupt as they pass and quickly vanish. Again the spectators turn and cross the field, waiting for the runners to come around the side of the high school or up the long fairway or out of the trees. The cheers grow more intense each time.
After sixteen or eighteen minutes everyone heads for the finish line. Cheers explode when a runner sprints past two or three others just before the end or when a runner digs hard to keep from being passed. Their faces burn with intensity; their bodies pulse with it. Sometimes the younger spectators, seeing their powerful big sisters flash by, cannot contain themselves and they burst out like colts running behind the crowd. But these are just children playing, you can see; their sisters are almost adults, running in full earnest, doing something new and difficult because it is a deep abiding pleasure to do so. Even the last ones, who finish a few minutes behind the pack, have found too much dignity to quit. At 14 and 16 and 18 these athletes have already discovered the joy of hard work of their own choosing and the strength to carry it off. They are out in the world now, running; they have hit their stride. Seeing them pass by makes me want to cheer and cheer.
Listen. Here they come.
Customs & Rituals • Sports & Recreation • Permalink • Printer Friendly
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