Dew shimmers, a diamond-white slippery blanket over the grass. The sun is just rising, burning off the thick—but cool— morning humidity, as hundreds of high schoolers line up across an open field. Good lucks and high fives circulate. A few tie and retie their spikes, shake out their legs, an attempt to relieve pre-race jitters, loosen up. And then, the gun fires. They’re off. Spikes claw the wet earth, mud flies into the air with each step across the uneven ground.
As runner after runner crosses the finish line, those already finished cheer, wait, watch. It is both individual and collective. It is cross country, a sport that exemplifies competition and teamwork in equal stride.
“Kids celebrate each other in a way you don’t see in any other sport,” says Jeff Henderson, a former high school cross country coach, and the manager of Fleet Feet Sports Columbus in Columbus, Ohio. And he’s right. There’s no sideline bench-sitting here. “In cross country, everyone does the same workout, and everyone runs the same race. They all set out each day with the same goal in mind: to get faster, to get stronger, and to have fun.”
And that’s why, Henderson says, cross country is so exceptional. It’s the reason he fell in love with running himself, and also the reason he hosts a fast-growing yearly cross country camp in central Ohio (find out more here) and a free two-mile race at the end of the summer for anyone and everyone (parents, too!).
“Cross country helps kids build lasting friendships and teaches them to make positive nutrition and sleep choices that support a healthy and active life,” he says, lessons that extend well beyond high school sports.
Melody Karpinski, a cross country and track coach in Santa Rosa, California, agrees. “Running is a conduit for learning life lessons, and the ability to have vision for life goals,” she says. "Everyday I get to see first hand how running molds and shapes character in my athletes, helps them understand the value of hard work, and helps them appreciate the effort it takes to achieve a goal individually and as a team.”
All running aside, perhaps the simple character-building life lessons are reason enough to encourage your kids to sign up this season.
WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH SPIKES?
Most cross country coaches encourage runners to wear them. Here’s why:
1. TRACTION. Meets often start early in the morning when the ground is still wet. Spikes literally spike the ground and add much-needed traction.
2. PROTECTION. Since cross country courses usually traverse open fields with uneven ground, wearing a snug-fitting shoe like a spike makes it easier to react to changing surfaces, which may prevent an ankle roll, or worse, a sprain.
3. SPEED. Lightweight shoes reduce overall exertion (less weight to carry). Plus, traction combined with less weight might be the difference between an OK day and a PR (personal record).
Bonus: Since most of the time they’re only worn during races, spikes last longer than training shoes.