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Cross country teaches self-discipline, improves health

The fall semester is underway in earnest, along with the new sports seasons. Evening lights turn on over football and soccer fields, with the sounds of crowds, bands and cheerleaders emanating from the busy athletic facilities.

In contrast to these high-profile, high-decibel athletic events is an activity that sometimes flies under the radar: the much more seemingly serene and seemingly solitary sport of cross country.

These athletes’ facilities encompass miles of ground. They may train on local streets, on wooded trails or alongside cornfields. Sometimes their trainings include charity 5K’s or 10K’s, improving their times while supporting an important cause.

Athletes take off in a pack for competition and they may have a small gathering of coaches, parents and friends at the start-finish line. However, at the heart of this sport is an individual effort, a solitary quest for excellence.

Along a trail of grass or gravel, the harriers may train with ear buds, the beat of the music drowning out all potential distractions while setting the pace. In competition, they will find themselves listening to their own breathing, their own heartbeat, their own steps on a path covered with dirt or fall leaves, with little more than birds providing the background noise.

While football or soccer players take instructions from coaches along the sidelines, cross country athletes are on their own: motivated by the competitors in front of them, the footsteps approaching behind them, or more importantly, by their own internal drive for success.

Athletics in general provide opportunities to learn discipline; cross country requires and cultivates self-discipline, which will serve those who participate in the sport well in many other aspects of life.

Long distance running has many health benefits, from increased lung capacity and leg strength to stress relief and overall fitness, all of which can be life-long advantages when the positive habit is instilled at a young age. It is a sport that can be enjoyed for decades beyond high school graduation, free of facility fees or expensive equipment, beyond a good pair of running shoes and some weather-appropriate clothing.

While the value for each runner is obvious, and the individual nature of the sport apparent, there is also a distinct team spirit in the sport of cross country. It may not have formations or plays to learn, but cross country offers a shared experience, and an important commitment to an effort larger than oneself.

Everyone’s points are important toward the team total, from the first across the finish line, to the middle of the pack, to those simply striving to finish. Athletes train together on runs and in the weight room, pushing one another to improve; they share bus rides and meals and memories.

Their camaraderie, commitment and passion: both for their individual effort and their team’s success makes them part of a community that remains, even when fall is long gone.

Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at kellie@bedfordcountychamber.org. Her column appears on Tuesdays.

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