Why is Cross Country so Popular?

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Cross country participation at the high school level, in 2007, will be it's best year ever.
With nearly 190,000 boys and 170,000 girls, and programs in 13,000 boys' high schools and 11,500 girls, the sport is thriving....

Last week, during an interview with Bob Kennedy at the Running Event, Bob observed that the high school runner of today is quite different from our generation. Yes and no. In our day,the 70's, or Bob's day, the late 80's, it was mostly about seeing how good you could be.

Today, high school kids go into cross country for many reasons. Some want to see how well they can do, but many know that they are not the top kids and want to participate and get in shape. I think that having the options is the best. The kids know who is good and who is not. They pay respect to both, and they learn valuable lessons participating in high school sports.

What does one learn from high school sports? Focusing on a goal is one of the best lessons. Working with a team is a great lesson as well. But the most important, I believe is the lesson that there are good days and bad days and that one learns most from the bad days. Life long lessons, courtesy sports participation.

In this day and age of non scoring youth soccer and baseball, cross country shows something else. There are fast kids and slow kids. There are also hard working kids who improve over years of training to make the top seven. Those are hard earned achievements and again, lessons that a cross country runner takes with them into their adult lives.

Cross country is the part of athletics where one gets closest with nature. A good cross country course traverses a local park, with some hills, some trails and some breath stealing climbs. Most courses around the U.S. are fast and flat. The courses with personality are the ones we remember, however.

I remember, way back in 1974, going to Crystal Springs to watch the AAU championships. We had heard a rumor that Prefontaine was going to run. He did not, but I got to meet Marti Liquori, John Ngeno, Nial Cusack and Frank Shorter. It was the first time that Shorter had lost a national cross country in six years, I believe. After the race, I went up to him and asked him for his autograph. I was very nervous, as Shorter was one of the few stars of the sport I had read about. Frank took a couple of minutes and talked to me. I told him I was sorry he had not won. He was pretty good about it and gave me an autograph.

Thirty three years later, I still have that autograph, and still have the same feeling watching a cross country race. The spirit, the excitement, the purity of cross country is still there.

Cross country is popular because it allows the participants to run close to nature, to be part of something bigger than them and to check their improvements. Something catches the runner, a smell, a picture, a hill, that will stay with them the rest of their lives.

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