A long-distance runner is possessed of a unique heart. I never had it, although I did a year of cross-country in high school.
Take a few hours some fall weekend to watch a high-school cross-country meet, and you’ll see what I mean. Some of the runners, girls and boys, have that unique heart. Running isn’t just a thing they do. It’s embedded deeply in them, something they simply must do. You can see it in their faces and their strides as they follow the lead vehicle across the grass, up and over mounds and berms and in and out of tree lines. They like what they’re doing and, even if it’s painful and tiring, they revel in it, step after wearying step.
Other runners in the field are less committed. You can see some of them who are laboring with each stride, whose only goal is to reach the finish line and get back on the team bus, who’d quit the whole business if they thought they could sneak away through the trees and still catch a ride home.
There are still other runners who give the appearance that cross-country is, well, kind of hard but kind of fun, especially the parts that involve hanging out with the rest of the team and eating convenience store pizza on the trip home. They are dedicated enough to put in the work. They have no realistic thoughts of winning. It isn’t their passion, but it’s not the worst way to spend an hour or two after school in the fall.
I saw examples of each of those types of runners last Saturday at the Mitchell invitational meet on the golf course east of the city. We had a granddaughter running with the Chamberlain team. What better to do on a Saturday morning than go watch a meet?
The kids these days, even the ones who don’t act like running is woven into their souls, work awfully hard. The young generation is too soft? Forget that. These kids put in the time and effort, certainly more time and effort than I ever did.
I picked up our granddaughter a couple of times after practices this summer. I’d laugh when she’d tell me they started with a three-mile warmup or whatever. She said it so matter-of-factly, and what I was thinking was, “Wow. I never ran three miles without stopping in my entire life.’’
I ran more than two miles without stopping just once. That was at the 1961 state meet my senior year. The only reason I did that was because the course was two and one-quarter miles. I was afraid that if I didn’t finish, Coach Giese would leave me stranded on that sand-green golf course north of campus in Brookings.
We didn’t have team practices in those days. We ran on our own, as much or as little as we liked, and then we loaded up in vehicles on a Saturday and traveled to the state meet, our only meet of the season.
Sometimes I wonder if I’d have had a more productive time if we’d had regular meets and scheduled practices. Maybe, but I sure didn’t ever feel like I had that unique, long-distance runner’s heart. I was always partial to the 440-yard dash. Once around the track and you’re done. You won’t see anything new if you make a second lap.
Our younger son, Andy, inherited my attitude, I guess. He went out for cross country from junior high through high school in Pierre. He joined up because some friends wanted to try. He kept it up as physical conditioning for the basketball season. He was content to finish deep in the pack at meets, and he didn’t mind saying he didn’t enjoy distance running.
Once, to motivate him, I offered $10 if he’d beat at least one of the other Pierre runners. At a meet in Philip, he did, running as he’d never run before. He finished ahead of one teammate, collected his money and went back to finishing deep in the pack.
That’s what I’d probably have done. My dad, though, never offered me 10 bucks to find out.