My youngest granddaughter came home from cross-country practice the other day and told me that she and her teammates had run three miles.
Well, she’s a sixth-grader now, so that makes sense, I guess. Still, it kind of shocked me. I never ran three miles at one time in my life and I competed in the state cross-country meet my senior year at Chamberlain High.
Two of this granddaughter’s big sisters ran cross country for Chamberlain. I watched them compete, and it made me kind of wish I’d grown up during their era. They knew how to make cross country a team sport. When I was in high school, it was just a bunch of guys jogging up and down the city streets after school and then heading to Brookings to lope around the old nine-hole golf course north of the college campus.
Cross country — any kind of distance running, really — is an individual event. Once the gun goes off, runners are on their own. They compete against each other, it’s true. But the real competition is within.The goal is to place well, to win if possible. More than that, though, the goal is to run as well as possible on that particular day.
That doesn’t mean it can’t be a team competition. My oldest granddaughter joined the CHS athletic hall of fame a week or so ago, along with the other members of the state championship girls’ cross-country team from 2003. That granddaughter was in eighth grade when her team won the championship. As the members of the team reminisced about the experience, nearly all of their stories focused on interactions with other members of the team. Yes, they each ran alone at times, but the essence of their championship run involved the team, not the individual. I liked that a lot.
You see, cross country wasn’t exactly a headline sport in Chamberlain in the early 1960s. I didn’t know such a sport existed until my sophomore year when the Reliance coach saw me on the sidewalk downtown and asked if I’d like to ride to the state meet the next week with his running Longhorns. I could compete for Chamberlain, he said. He’d just give me a ride.
I thought about it for a couple of seconds. I knew most of the guys from Reliance, so a road trip to Brookings might be a good time. On the other hand, I was a Cub, so wouldn’t that be disloyal? And how would it even work? Regulations were looser in those days, but still, go to a meet with the team from another school? Fortunately for my decision-making process, I leaped from the tractor while doing chores the very next day and messed up something in my back. I could barely walk for a week. Running was out of the question.
Don Giese, who worked with the middle-distance runners during CHS track season, got me into cross country at the start of my senior year. He hinted vaguely that if a Florida transfer kid named Bill Miller and I trained for cross country, we just might get to shoot hoops in the gym after practice. That never happened, but we did jog around town (never three miles without stopping to walk) and we wound up on the golf course in Brookings on an October Saturday, ill-prepared but mildly willing to try.
Coach pointed out a kid from School for the Deaf, Norman White Shirt. He’s the favorite, Giese said. Stay with him. I did try. I really did. But less than a half mile into the race, White Shirt kicked it up a gear and left me staring at the back of his flashing spikes. The way he sped off, I could see he had run three miles and probably many more, without stopping once to walk. He won that year.
Coach Giese had a long career at CHS. I had that one meet. I finished without a medal, but I did gain enough understanding of the sport to know that kids who run cross country these days wind up with great memories. And memories can be the best part of school.