The photo above shows the race for 30th place in the 2018 Nebraska Class D District 6 cross country championships. After battling for much of the race, with 400 meters to go, the fourth runner from the Chase County Longhorns has finally pulled away from the fourth runner of rival Bridgeport in purple and gold. At this moment, due to great runs by teammates who have finished earlier, Chase County and Bridgeport are tied. Small-town Nebraska Class D varsity teams run six and score four, so it comes down to these runners.
The Chase County runner doesn’t know the score. He does know, however, that every second matters, every place matters — that he matters, even though he is in the middle of the pack, far back from the winners and individual medalists. With Bridgeport falling back, he goes after the next runner, a harrier from Hemingford. The two runners take turn putting in surges — one runner appears to have the upper hand, then the other charges back — until finally, the Chase County runner (who happens to be my son) gives one final push and dives across the line ahead of the Hemingford runner. Final score: Bridgeport 57, Chase County 56 for the district runner-up title.
Watch a cross country meet and you’ll find a few hundred stories just as inspiring. Forty places back, Chase County’s fifth runner — a senior on the team for the first time this fall after getting too many football concussions—was running a PR, nearly three minutes faster than his early-season times — knowing that the score would come down to him had the top four ended in a tie (and it nearly did). The scoring of cross-country, with each runner’s place adding to the total, makes it arguably the ultimate team sport. No one or two stars can carry a team by scoring all the points — every runner, from first to last, has to perform well for the team to succeed. Every runner matters.
But there’s more happening here than a democratic scoring system. Every race is a chance to be better than they’ve ever been before, to be the best they can be on this day, whatever time or place that may be. You’ll see runners of all abilities caring and pushing and succeeding. Watch over a season and you’ll get to see the most unlikely candidates develop into athletes: A runner diagnosed with a hip deformity at youth ends up winning races and leading the team his senior year. Refugee runners, rejected from other sports where they were perpetual bench-sitters, run over their heads together to make it to state. Runners from families where they are expected to be invisible and never excel at anything blossom into confident young men and women with aspirations. As the sport gives these runners opportunities for progress and success, you’ll see them learn to love the work and discipline that leads to growth, to relish setting — and achieving — previously unthinkable goals.
Watch a cross country race and you’ll be reminded of all that is good in the sport. And you’ll be inspired to strive to run your best and chase your own goals, whether they be lifetime bests, qualifying marks for a major marathon, age-graded PRs, mileage totals, or the consistency to be able to get out on a Saturday morning and run comfortably and free for an hour. We’re all pushing to be our best, because every runner, every goal, every run matters.