American novelist, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote: "I cannot endure to waste anything as precious as autumn sunshine by staying in the house. So I spend almost all the daylight hours in the open air."
Perhaps no athletes enjoy the precious autumn sunshine and crisp open air more than high school cross country runners. Just as the fall foliage reaches its peak, cross country season heads toward the home stretch: local league championship meets, then districts and states. Many of our area's cross country trails offer some of the prettiest, most colorful scenery in the region: every course is different, each with its own challenges and its own charm.
The beautiful views are the trade-off for a sport that at many times becomes an endeavor in solitude. Races may start en masse: at the opening gun, crowds of runners take off in an open field, but soon funnel themselves into lines of competitors, and then space out even more as the race goes on.
As front-runners separate themselves from the pack, they are driven by their own desire, sometimes so far removed from their competitors; they hear nothing but their own footsteps, padding softly on fallen leaves; their own breath, which clouds in the cool autumn air; and their own heartbeat, pounding with exertion and adrenaline.
The same can be said from those at the other end of the competitive line. They too can find themselves alone, but are even more courageous, as their motivation is not to win a race or set a course record, but rather to finish the competition and reach their individual and team goals.
For all of the individual accolades in cross country, there is also an important team dynamic. One outstanding runner cannot carry an entire team. They all need each other, and they're all in it together.
The band doesn't play for cross country competitors: coaches, parents and friends serve as the sports' primary cheerleaders. And it's a challenging sport for spectators, as the runners often disappear over the horizon, along tree-lined fields, or into wooded trails, only to re-emerge near the race's end.
But make no mistake, these athletes are every bit as dedicated to their sport as those who draw hundreds of fans and two-inch headlines.
The athletes who embrace the sport of cross country have learned life-long skills.
The many health benefits don't end with graduation. As much as harriers thrive on the camaraderie of their team training, they don't need their teammates to continue to profit long-term from their long-distance experience. When competitive cross country evolves into a healthy hobby, the benefits are ageless.
So good luck to local teams in the coming weeks: enjoy the canopy of colorful leaves and the enduring lessons learned through forests and fields.
Goodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.