This post is written by Jennifer Heidmann

high_school_cross_country_womenNo matter where you live, there is something magical about fall running.

Perhaps it is the slight coolness that pushes away summer, as a prelude to the crisp days of true autumn. Perhaps it is that first day you can wear a pair of tights or a light jacket and feel just right, like baby bear’s porridge. Or the crunching of leaves under your shoes which is oddly satisfying and reminds you of the days you ran and jumped into a big pile of leaves, your reward for a hard day of raking.

Fall running is all of this and more. It means racing season has again started. It means the dog days are over.

It means Cross Country.

Cross Country, on trails. Cross Country, over creeks. Cross Country, on grassy fields, golf courses, wooded paths, around ponds, in the mud, in the rain, in the snow. When in high school, our team would be running along quietly and our coach would just suddenly shout out, “cross country!”

It scared us half to death and thrilled us all the same.

And so what if you are not still in high school. Or if you never ran on a cross country team. Running, outdoors, off the beaten path: that is cross country.

Tap in to the power and the majesty, the solitude and the solidarity, the gutsiness and the clear mindedness of cross country.

Endorphin Overload

Before I launch into how to tap into XC, I want to tell a story of how I spent last weekend. Along with 3 other grown-ups, I drove 12 high school XC runners to Portland, to run in the Portland to Coast High School Challenge. They ran from Portland to Seaside, Oregon. 132 miles.

Through the night. They were in endorphin overload. It was hard, and it was emotional. It was sometimes hilarious (lack of sleep a big contributor) and it was a chance for them to dig deep. And, along the way, they met Ashton Eaton. They were like kids at a candy shop over Ashton Eaton.

But so was he, as he was overheard saying as he walked away from these star-crossed teenage runners, “THAT was so cool.”

Kicking Off Your Cross Country Season (Even as an Adult)

Today those 12 kids started their XC season. And today, so can you, and here is how:

1. Find a pack. Track and Field is a solitary sport, XC is a team sport. Go to group runs. Start some group runs. Run early in the morning on a trail, with headlamp, with a group of people who also want to tap into their inner XC runner. You will bond, and those bonds will last a long time.

2. Sign up for some trail races. Get off the pavement. Don’t be shy about walking steep uphills. Forget about your PR and look for different challenges. Buy some cool looking trail shoes. Run an ultra and eat a PB&J mid run and just bliss out on the fact that you get to eat a PB&J during a run.

3. Find out when and where your local XC teams are having their meets. Maybe you live in a college town, and if not, likely your local high school has a team. Go their meets! Cheer them on and be inspired by their muddy legs and fierce race faces. There are some scary fast kids these days. Notice not just the fasties though. Notice the camaraderie. XC is unique in that way.

4. Have a theme song. XC runners don’t just run. They have style, and they have theme songs. I learned a lot this past weekend about what theme songs motivates teenage runners. But choose whatever your personal Chariots of Fire might be. Then listen to it under headphones prior to your race. Or have your partner or friend drive past you during your race, blasting your tune.

5. Get Dirty. Cross Country means dirty shoes.

6. Find a coach. You can do this online. Or maybe a local running club has workouts you can join. Or maybe you have a friend who is a little faster than you who is willing to push you now and then. Coaches can guide you, support you, motivate you and generally kick your butt. Plus, nothing impresses your friends like an offhand comment about what *your coach* told you to do to prepare for your big race.

7. Run a relay. See above about team spirit. And about the possibility of meeting ASHTON EATON while out on your relay adventure.

8. Save your race numbers. My daughter’s entire bedroom wall is plastered with race numbers. Also, pictures from XC camp, medals, and posters of Lauren Fleshman and Galen Rupp. I consider her a XC authority, so I suggest you follow her lead.

9. Instead of mourning the loss of summer, feel an inexplicable inner glee at the prospect of cool days and the smell of autumn leaves. This one is self-explanatory.

10. Have a goal. As a kid, it might be winning state, or even just getting to toe the line at state. But with running, there are so many goals to choose from!

  • A PR. A new, longer distance.
  • A trail race. An adventure race.
  • A long run in a new place with someone you enjoy.
  • Running every day.
  • Running a certain number of miles per week.
  • Running before work.
  • Running after work.
  • Coaching local kids.

What is your goal? XC runners have goals, and they are not afraid to try and fail, because they know that the power and the grace is in the trying. They show up. They wear their mud with pride. They are their for their fellow runners, and know their team is their for them.

Cross Country, I do love you.

Jennifer Heidmann has been running for 30 years, racing every distance from the 400m to the marathon. Her next adventure will be tackling her first 50 mile ultramarathon. She is also a physician, a pianist and a mother of 2.9 teenagers. Check out her personal running blog, Redwoods and Running, for more great tips and stories.

Photo Credit

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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