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The cross country paradox

Laker Notes

ZHANGAs far as I can tell, most people who run cross country fall into one or both of the following categories: people who run fast and run well, and people who can run without getting injured.

I am in the minority — my times are abysmal and this past season was the first one in which I didn’t do something horrible to my legs in one way or another. So I guess the real question is why I participate in a sport at which I’m not proficient when I could be doing other things with my time.

To be honest, I have no idea. Cross country is a bit of a paradox, because I think it’s both the easiest and the hardest sport out there. You’re running — mindless pumping of your arms and your legs as long as you’re running in the right direction — but at the same time, you’re running. Every single one of my races has basically reduced me to a sweaty puddle of “ow ow ow ow ow.” The sport requires huge amounts of self-control and self-talk, which is a little difficult to accomplish when every inch of my body wants to collapse in the middle of the course.

Props to the people who look like they’re actually having a good time when they run. The rest of us just look like we’re running away from some guy wielding an ax and failing miserably while doing so.

I do have a theory, though, as to why many of us continue running even after we find out that the word “fun” is a horrible descriptor of cross country: Either the coaches feed us spiked Gatorade with some chemical that keeps us coming back year after year, or something about the team draws us in despite all the pain we know we’re going to experience during the season.

The thing is, the minute when I start hurting is when I start projecting myself out onto other people, encouraging them and running alongside them (or, alternatively, that’s when I block out my pain and comfort myself in knowing that other people are also dying a slow death). Then when every team member begins doing just that, and on top of that, when every person starts cheering from the sidelines, well, isn’t that teamwork?

Cross country may be a competition against ourselves, but we could never do what we’ve done without the support of all the other people suffering with us. I probably wouldn’t have ever finished a race if my teammates weren’t screaming at me as I ran.

I’m also not a competitive person, so it’s easy for me to watch blankly as people pass me during a race when I’m doing my best at pretending to look athletic. But when people are yelling my name as I run past them, I find myself speeding up so I don’t look like a total dunce.

If I do say so myself, I also think that slower runners like me are the foundation of the team. I know that sounds absolutely ridiculous, but think of it this way: If cross country only welcomed the best runners, during those varsity races the runners wouldn’t have anyone to cheer them on. And then they’d probably drop like flies, or trip and fall into the mud, or something like that. Basically, I feel important when I think of myself as one of the people who keep their engines running, if you’ll excuse the pun.

Of course, the things I’m saying here apply to practically every other sport, but I do believe that in cross country, we’ve got this whole support system down pat. There’s a strange beauty in suffering next to your friends and then watching your other friends suffer as you cheer them on.

Lake Oswego High School senior Ada Zhang, a regular Review columnist, can be reached at education@lakeoswegoreview.com.

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