It is Saturday morning, December 1, 2007. My trip to the Nike Team Nationals this year was canceled yesterday. The cold I picked up, standing in the rain at Nike Border Clash, has got the best of me. I will watch the NTN off the broadband broadcast and catch up on the Western Foot Locker regional from friends...but winter has come.
Winter has started in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. This morning, when I got up, there was a Winter Weather advisory. I bundled up, and walked along the river to my favorite coffee shop, Beauty and the Bean, grabbed a cup of coffee. The cold was a little better. But I was pretty upbeat as the first snow of the season had started. From the time I left the house, until I did my shopping for odds and ends at the Sentry Supermarket, was about an hour. There were two inches of snow on the ground.
An hour after breakfast, we were up to four inches and we will have about six inches plus some frozen rain. A real winter weekend in Wisconsin. I do love it, I have to admit. I like the four seasons: Fall, Winter, Spring and Summer. Living on the Rock River ( we live four houses up from the river), one sees and appreciates the changes in season. It was just two weeks ago that the winter run of walleyes finished up and the cold weather really began to sit in our locale.
Like the four seasons, I love the seasons of our sport. For me, Fall is marathon and cross country season. The Nike Team Nationals, now in its fourth year, has given something for prep cross country teams to dream about. No matter if one is from the smallest school, there are nine regionals from which to qualify and the competition is tremendous.
How seriously do teams take this? One of our writers, Ben Rosario, co owner of Big River Running Company and an Olympic marathon trials competitor, coaches high school in Missouri. His team missed making the NTN by about ten points.
After the Nike Border Clash, I went to look for the Central Catholic team from Portland, Oregon. Coach Frank had the guys working out, preparing for, you guessed it, the NTN.
How has the NTN influenced our sport? It is giving the top athletes, the top teams something very special to shoot for, and helps give young American distance runners a chance to excel. The importance of end of season competitions ( not too many of them), should not be over or underestimated. Teaching young, developing athletes to focus on end of season competitions, conference, sectionals, state and afterwards is one of the key lessons a coach can instill in a young athlete.
What Nike has done with NTN is that they have given a sport racked with self doubt and negativity, something to not only cheer about, but something for which to aspire. NTN is the first, real high school sports championship, and in a team sport like cross country, where the individual and the team ideals work together, it was and is the proper sport to have a prep championship.
The two NTN's that I have attended astounded me. The course at the Meadowlands was perfect cross country, the course was easy to traverse so one could see the race, and the technology introduced at each event has been astounding. Each year, Josh Rowe, and now Pascal Dobert and team come up with new ideas and new ways of adding to the event.
It is, and always will be a labor of love. An event like the NTN can only be held successfully if the people involved love the sport, understand the sport and want to add something to the sport. That is what Nike Team Nationals have done--kids from Montana to Maine know, that the focus of their 1000 mile summer training is to get the team in shape for a run at the NTN rankiings. And that, to steal a line from a famous entrepeneur, a good thing...
Just as the event was happening at the Portland Meadowlands, several thousand runners were trying to qualify for the Western regional of FootLocker on Mt. SAC campus near Los Angeles.
The Foot Locker, an event in its 29th year, has seen nearly every major American distance runner, male and female of the past two generations run in their events. Whether it was Kinney or Foot Locker, the sad thing has been and continues to be that Foot Locker has no idea of the value of their event or the importance it has had in keeping the sport alive.
If not for Foot Locker, post season events like Nike Border Clash and in the end, Nike Team Nationals, would not have come about. It is called evolution. The Border Clash, now looking to its tenth year, brought some excitement to Washington-Oregon prep cross country wars, and the NTN has finally given cross country teams something to aspire to.
But today, it all about focus, putting one foot in front of another, and staying with one's dreams, as the prep harriers charge, lap after lap, around the five thousand meter courses, in Portland and in Los Angeles.
Close your eyes, smell the wet grass, feel the mud. Cross country gives the athletes a connection with nature, a connection with the primal that does not come anywhere else.
A hill? You run up it. A barrier? You get over it. Your lungs are seared, your breath burns coming out of your nose and mouth, as one looks, one prays for site of the finish line. Then, it is time to kick, to focus those last thirty to forty seconds or so, to give the four thousand, eight hundred meters you have just run some meaning. To tell stories for decades to come, your last two hundred meters give meaning and a final place to the fifteen to twenty minutes you have been on the course....
It is over, and the mumbling starts..the cold, the mud, all splattered over your uniform as you slap into the runner in front of you in the finish area. First words of incoherence as your teammates come up, slap you on the back and your coach tells you how you did, then the brain and the lungs begin to catch up, and the race becomes a wonderful, well earned memory...
Keep the dreams alive.
For more on Nike Team Nationals, and Foot Locker,