In my hometown, middle school was just 7th and 8th grades but was still called middle school, not junior high. Early into my middle school career (we’re talking a week or two in), after-school meetings were scheduled so kids could sign up for fall sports such as basketball (girls), football (boys), and cross country (both). These meetings were held on the same afternoon and I asked my mom to pick me up late after school instead of me riding the bus home because I wanted to sign up for basketball (or was it volleyball? lol- doesn’t matter because I didn’t do it!). Imagine her surprise when I hopped in the van later that afternoon and told her I, never a serious runner, had signed up for cross country instead!
How’d that happen? Because a cute boy in my CHIGA class (Computers, Home Ec, Industrial Arts, German, and Art – our version of rotating specials that we did in five parts of each school year) said he was going to sign up for cross country and apparently I thought that also sounded like a good idea and did the same.
To be honest, I have no idea if he even went to that meeting, but I sure did and I then spent the next five years as a YMS/YHS Cross Country Gazelle (the female mascot pairing to our boys’ teams, called the Bucks). Did I love it? Well, maybe not the actual running but I loved the co-ed team and friendships and comradery that came from being part of team sport that was also uniquely an individual effort at every single practice and meet. The running itself was a constant challenge that I didn’t really come to appreciate until much later.
When you run XC, you’re in it for the literal long game. You train each day (in high school, 2x a day, sometimes) by putting running shoes to the pavement in warm ups, team stretching, and then a work out of several miles as a little pack of runners off to weave their way around town OR, God forbid, run hills for the day. Then, at week’s end, you load up on a bus and head to some golf course or park, suit up in your little running shorts and singlet and set yourself up at the starting line so you can take off and jockey for position to run your 2.5 miles (girls; 3.1 for boys) both as fast as you can but while also not running out of gas before you cross the finish line.
This may not be surprising given my initial reasoning for signing up, but I was a pretty social runner, i.e. chatty. I always ran with friends during practices and sometimes even during meets, to the consternation of my coaches (Coach Harr in MS and Coaches Fitz and Bormann in HS). I remember after one particular meet being told that if I could carry an entire conversation with my teammate during the race, I could run more than just a wee bit faster if I kept my mouth focused on breathing instead of talking. Whoopsies!
Eventually I started to take that advice and the running more seriously. My sophomore year, after a rough and rather disastrous year of running as a flighty freshmen, I decided to buckle down and train with more focus and dedication. For the first time I ran country roads the summer between those school years and sought to stay closer to the Pack (the best runners on our teams) during practice runs after (and before) school.
A fair bit of my motivation for this switch came from one particular race, or rather, course location that I can still see pretty clearly in my head, almost 25 years later: Norfolk, NE. Being just across the river from Nebraska meant we traveled there for some meets, including an annual trip to run on a rather hilly golf course in Norfolk. Cross Country season spanned the heat of late summer all the way to the cool days of mid-to-late fall, but the Norfolk meet always came early in the season which meant HOT and SUN in addition to those hills.
My freshmen year, this was one of my very first meets and it crushed me. I struggled with the weather, the course, and my breath, and ended up coming in dead last for the meet. It felt horrible on so many levels. This was my third year of running and that experience eventually flipped a switch in me that lead to a year-long transformation of attitude and effort leading up to my return to Norfolk as a sophomore, ready to kick butt on that same dang golf course.
The weather was much the same as the year prior with full sun and heat, but I was ready for it. I also had the best earworm in my brain that day – “Flagpole Sitter” by Harvey Danger (look it up; it’s weird) – that was also weather appropriate with the line: “I’m not sick but I’m not well. And I’m so hot ‘cause I’m in hell” which played on a loop in my brain as I took off from the starting line and popped out in the front, not the trailing stragglers, of the JV race. The song served me well in that total reversal of position as later lines sing, “Paranoia, paranoia, everybody’s coming to get me. Just say you never met me. I’m running under ground with the moles, digging holes.” that also looped with my breath as I realized that I was running with the lead pack and was going to end up doing so much better than my freshman flop.
While I didn’t come in with an exact opposite ending of winning the race, I did place 7th which was one of my highest finishes ever and put me on Cloud 9 because it was tangible proof of how my efforts paid off over those 12 months. I continued to crush it that year and was invited to stay on as an alternate for the State Team which would train for an additional few weeks after the regular season and allowed me to travel with the pack on State Day in case someone got sick or hurt and our coaches needed a fill-in runner. I got to do the same as a junior and I loved those final weeks of training in part because, as an alternate, I got all the benefits of team and training but without the stress of actually running at State, although that would have been fun, too, had it happened.
In time, XC taught me a lot about being in my body and my brain because even though you can run and chat with others, you really are your own best cheerleader, and if you really buckle down and focus on the task at hand, you can achieve remarkable results. For me, it was the joy of the finish that kept me hustling in my last two years of participating (my senior year I decided to focus on other activities and finishing my YHS academic career instead of running). I loved a good sprint to the finish line and would often have enough oomph left in my legs to pass at least a couple girls in the last 1/4 mile of the course. My coaches tried to get me to expend a bit more of that earlier/throughout the races but I liked the thrill of the chase a little too much and kept that trend going for as long as I ran those meets.
For our team, it was a pre-race chant that really got us going and stuck with me both on and off the courses throughout high school. After our warm ups and stretches, drinks and final bathroom breaks, and practice sprints off the starting line, we would huddle up, hands together in the center of our circle, and cheer “P.M.A.K.A.! Go! Great! Gazelles!” We never told people what it meant and I couldn’t tell you who started it or how long it had been going, but I’ll break the rules and share with you now that it stood for Positive Mental Attitude Kicks Ass which is just slightly subversive but exactly the right mentality for a runner (and a pretty good life motto as well).
As it turned out, my own P.M.A.K.A. and efforts in my sophomore year didn’t go unnoticed. At our end-of-season banquet that fall, I not only lettered in XC, but my coaches also awarded me the Most Improved girl on the team, an honor I appreciated and felt such pride in because I knew how hard I worked to get there.
Running has come and gone for me several times in my life, but each time it returns, I recognize the gifts of spirit and body it brings (and sometimes, if you’re feeling chatty, some good conversations, too).