Sunday, September 25, 2011

Cross Country: More Lessons

It was my oldest son's third cross country meet. My husband and I got there in time, no heroic driving necessary. The fog was very thick, the visibility low. We parked and found the start in time to position ourselves for maximum viewing. It was a staggered start this time, which means that there are several lines of runners, all arranged by some as-yet mysterious formula. Our son was one of the runners in the front line. The gun went off BOOM and almost immediately, a runner fell. This caused a chain reaction of about eight boys tumbling over each other. BOOM BOOM BOOM. A false start. In cross country, this means a re-do. To make things fair, they had everyone line back up in the same exact positions and start again. BOOM. But is a staggered start really all that fair to begin with? I'm not sure, it seems a huge advantage to be in the front row.

The race was on and the course route was twice around the track and then up a hill, into the fog, and around a course. One clear leader emerged immediately. This race would start as many others around the world do, with a tall thin Ethiopian who looks like he was born running way out in front. My son was in the pack chasing him around the track. We watched them rocket up the muddy hill and out of sight. We decided to go up the hill and find a place to watch the runners come by. We stood near what we were pretty sure was a turn in the course. It was a bit difficult to tell, as ladies in big furry jackets, walking dogs and drinking lattes, were sauntering all over. They barely got out of the way as the Ethiopian came out of the fog and rounded the corner. And chasing him was our son! And chasing our son was the pack. I just about jumped out of my skin to see that my son was clearly in second place and pushing hard to catch up with the kid in front of him. I totally forgot I had a camera around my neck. No pictures.

We rushed down the wet muddy stairs, avoiding the texting woman also running down the stairs, and made our way to a good viewing area at the finish. Soon, out of the fog the runners emerged.
We look. We look again. We strain to see who is coming down the track.

No Ethiopian. No son chasing Ethiopian.

WHAT?

Then they appear, running as fast as they can, in about 30th place. What happened?

Word quickly spreads; the leader and perhaps the first 20 kids went the WRONG WAY.
I was totally unaware this could happen in a race. I wanted to cry. I wanted to find the race organizers and strangle someone.

We hear later that the lead group ran an additional hilly part of the course, misdirected by a bystander.

I couldn't imagine how upset my son was going to be. I couldn't believe how upset I was. I couldn't believe how calm my husband was. He knew something I didn't; the results of this race didn't really "count." Count or not count, I didn't care, someone screwed this whole race up. There were some very upset and sweaty runners wandering around, and a few parents who were fired up but couldn't figure out who to talk to.

The next freshman boys' heat lined up and BOOM they were off. After one lap around the track, they were off. Oops. They were supposed to run two laps around the track. So neither heat ran the race correctly and all the results were seriously messed up.

I created this tshirt for my son. Did you have a son in the race? Buy a shirt here: http://366521.spreadshirt.com
Now comes the truly beautiful thing about cross country: it is a team sport. My son's coaches immediately gathered the freshman boys from his school and took them to cool down and to talk. When it was announced that our school won the meet despite the debacle, an enthusiastic and heart-felt cheer went up, and all was well. They won as a team and that was the important thing. I didn't see a tear or a show of poor sportsmanship. I saw boys supporting each other. I saw all the sophomores, juniors and seniors who had not raced yet desperately trying to decipher the course map, like cramming for a surprise exam that is 50% of your grade.

In talking to other parents, I learned that running off course during a race is not all that uncommon. In a race last year, the leader finished, and five minutes later kids came running out of the woods from all directions to the finish line.

This weekend I learned that not only do you have to be a great runner, you also have to be good at guessing which unmarked path to take and making instant judgements about whether to trust bystanders or not.

Cross country is a whole lot harder than I thought.

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