The last few weeks, as theCross Country season was winding down, I was thinking of what I could write about. Today, as I was watching and photographing the State Cross Country meet, I realized that the meet itself was what I should write about. Not about what the results were and who were the individual winners, the times and the team champions, but just about what I saw, and what I saw is the reason that those of us that are involved with the sport have come to love it.
While most of the State was getting ready for the Ohio State football game against Indiana and for the State High School football playoffs, some 850 State qualifying runners prepared to run six divisional 5K races to determine individual State champions and team State champions. The race was being run for the first time on a new course at the National Trails Raceway in Kirkersville.
I got to the course at around 9:45am. Got my media pass and began to check out the new layout. As I went out to the Mile marker on the course, there were 100’s of athletes jogging around the course, officials milling about, timers inspecting and making sure that the timing system was working, the finish line banner was being put up, parents were putting up their team booster tents, and over in the athlete staging area, those athletes that were not out on the course, were lounging about, joking and talking to each other amongst the colorful team tents. Quite a festive, carnival atmosphere.
I spoke with one coach briefly and asked if his girls were healthy and ready to run. He hesitated, and said “ready to run.” I spoke with some young fans from a team who had a young freshman runner who was one of the best D3 girls in the State. They were excited, and cheered when the team girls just happened to jog past us.
I made my way back over to check out the Finish line all the while watching as the stands were beginning to fill for the first race of the day, the Girls D3 race. Off to the side of the end of the raceway bleacher seating , hamburgers were being grilled at a concession stand, and the smoke and smell blew over and lingered at the finish line.
As I looked around, banners were hung for the teams, some young fans had their shirts off and their bodies painted in their school colors. One individual was carrying a trumpet! He would later play a victory song as his team took the podium in first place.
2nd call for the D3 girls race came over the PA system, so I hurried over to the mile mark. 3rd call came and shortly thereafter the faint sound of the gun going off for the start of the race and a loud cheer erupted from the stands. The first race of the day was underway. The girls raced past the stands for the first time with tremendous cheers as they passed. As they approached the mile mark, a freshman girl that I had interviewed raced by in the lead. She was closely followed by several other girls, including the two time defending State champion. After the girls had passed, I quickly went to another position on the course, took pictures as the girls passed and then scurried over to the finish line. Everywhere along the course route, people lined the course, taking pictures and cheering the runners on. Coaches lined the course, some running for short distances shouting instructions and cheering their runners on, encouraging them to move up. Several minutes later as I waited at the finish line, the lead runners came into sight with about 300 meters to go. The crowd began to cheer. The runners ran within 20 meters of the grandstands for the last two hundred meters with the fans cheering loudly to the finish. The freshman was still in the lead. She won the race in one of the closet runs of the day.
In the chute at the finish line, she was exuberant, as were all of her team mates. When her coach, father arrived, he hugged his daughter with tears in his eyes, along with all of the other girls. All of the athletes were talking with their teammates, their coaches and parents, who lined the area cheering and congratulating their daughters. Some athletes showed their exhaustion, some had tears in their eyes. Eyes showed joy as well as disappointment.
This scene repeated itself throughout the day with all of the races, but amongst all of this, certain memories stand out. At the frantic finish of one of the races, a young girl who was in the top ten or fifteen runners with 30 yard to go, staggered and fell. Totally exhausted. She got up, and without assistance, walked and staggered to the finish line as the crowd cheered her on.
I had the chance to console one runner at the finish line who did not have her best day. She went into the race with aspirations of wining, but on this day it was not to happen. She’s a great runner and will be back!
It was a joy to watch those that made the award stands. As the medals were placed around the neck of the runners, the others all applauded each other. Although difficult, one two time champion applauded those that bested her this day. The teams cheered each other, the crowd applauded all of the teams and the individuals.
Two other non- running moments also come to mind. A young girl, Sami Stoner, who had lost her sight, was recognized for her inspiration in running with her guide dog, Chloe (pictured at left, Sami Stoner with Chloe and family) (Article and Video with Sami Stoner). DIck Mann, a coach who had coached over 100 seasons of Cross Country and Track & Field was also recognized. It was a pleasure for me to shake his hand, as he was coaching a competitor school when I ran. I had met him several times as an athlete, and he actually remembered my name (pictured below on right, Dick Mann in hat, receiving a commemorative chest and plaque from OATCCC President Scott Dorne).
As for a few other memories, it was a great pleasure to see a shy Senior, who came here from Ethiopia, win the D1 boys race. In an interview when he was asked about this Cross Country win versus track, he said that Cross
Country was much harder. In track, he knew where he was on the track and he knew his pace. Cross country, with the slight hills, turns and woods made it much more difficult to run. He was asked when he made his move, and he said in the woods with about 800 to go. He was asked if he knew that anyone went with him and he said that he never turned around to see. The last 100m he was just hoping that no one would catch him as he was very tired.
Another is of a single shoe on the course after all of the runners in one race came past the Mile. I thought, “someone is running with one shoe.” This is not track. They will have to cross over this gravel road. They will have to run through the woods. The whole run to the finish is crushed stone. I don’t remember seeing anyone walking or quitting. I don’t know who that individual was, but they ran the last 2.1 miles with only one shoe. It was State and they weren’t quitting.
There is so much more, but I’ll end on a few personal notes. Every time I attend an event like this, it brings back memories of the sport when I competed. Today, as I looked around, I could only think how much it has changed from a two-mile run on OSU’s golf course to today’s 5k run. From a course where the spectators could basically only see the start and finish, to a course with a grandstand. There were no athlete tent areas, no concession stands. No girls’ races. Just two Divisional boy’s races. No All-Ohio runners, just awards and certificates and team trophies. For those of us that had the privilege to make it to State and run however, the experience of running is the same. The joys and disappointments are the same. The sport has come a long, long way. No, Cross Country will never be recognized like some other sports, but for the athletes, the coaches, the parents and fans this one Saturday in November, everyone realized and understood that even though there may be only one individual and one team champion in each of the divisions, all of those that ran yesterday and all of those that run Cross Country, truly are champions.