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Cross country: looking back

I stood in starting box number seven at the Cross Country Conference meet. I felt a strange calm wash over me; unlike any other race I had ever been in, I was not nervous. I had one chance left to run in high school. I had no excuses; it was PR here or never reach my goal. The starter stood about 100 meters in front of us.  
“Runners on your mark.”

His arm rose pointing straight up to the sky.

I saw the smoke long before I heard the starting gun go off. I had one goal. Beat Sr. Captain Luciano Cistaro.

The official season ended with the state meet on Saturday Nov. 4, but for most of the team it ended on Thursday Oct 19.

During the summer I debated continuing in cross country; at first I really did not want to continue. The thing that helped me to stay was the camaraderie and the support that the  cross country team provided. Cross country is a team sport, but at the same time it really is, for most JV runners at least, about improving yourself. Racing on the JV team does not offer a lot of glory or recognition, but that is not why I run; running is all about getting a faster time, and that is why the team works so hard to get PR’s.

The first race of my sophomore year was really disappointing. I had worked since the end of freshman year to improve my time, but I got a 25 something. I was really frustrated with that time, but then a couple of my teammates came over and said “Nice finish dude!” and “Good work man!” That brotherhood, and support is the main reason I stayed a part of the team.

“6:30! Keep it up guys,” one spectator shouted. I was shocked. I have never gone this fast for the first mile of a race and felt so good. Cistaro was still in my sight; Cistaro wears a necklace with a medallion on the end, and when he runs it twists around to the back of his neck. That necklace bounced against his neck with every stride he took, and it was a beacon for me. I narrowed my eyes, and told myself Just a little faster! Just a little more! This is your last race! Catch him!

  Every year running cross country, except freshman year, I have had health problems. Sophomore year my knees felt like they were going to pop; junior year I had a bad hip. I went to the doctor to try and figure out what was going on with me. Every place I went told me that it was probably just because I was growing and running a lot more than I ever had before. This year I have been having trouble with my lungs. I still haven’t been to a doctor. I did not want to risk not being able to run my last season.

  I sat out for a couple races; nothing has ever made me as crazy as not getting to run. At the Sparta Invitational I saw my teammate Sr Josef Arner finish; his kick was spectacular I was stunned, but also I longed to be out there running with the guys. I wanted to finish like that; to give it everything I had, and then a little more. I was frustrated because I was cheering on the team, but what I really wanted was to be out there.

The next week when we had a track workout I decided to give it a shot because I did not want to sit out anymore. The workout was 6 sets of a 200, 300, 400. For the first two sets everything was fine, and I love sprinting so when Coach would start us I would take off; after those first two sets my lungs started to burn and my place in the sprints was steadily dropping. Soph. Thomas Dummer noticed and advised that I stop running. “We all understand dude. Don’t run if you are in that much pain.”

“13:09! Come on Erik!!” a teammate yelled. I grinned; with the pace I was running I should be able to break 20 minutes.

  Breaking 20 minutes has been my goal for running since freshman year. That goal was way more important to me than I ever admitted to anyone on the team. At the end of both my sophomore and junior years I was really upset, but then the majority of the team would say “Nice race Erik!” or “Dude! That was an awesome finish!” That support from the team is one of the main reasons I am proud to call myself a member of the West Ottawa Men’s Cross Country team.

  Cistaro pulled farther ahead; suddenly my lungs began to burn again. I couldn’t quite catch my breath, and there was so much pressure in my chest. I almost quit, but then I saw Cistaro’s medallion again. I can do this. I’m not giving up; this is my last chance! Just a little bit more! I can do this!

I pushed through and kept my eyes on that medallion.

  Another important lesson that many members of the Cross Country team learn is that hard work equals results, and that the mind gives up far before the body does. In that last race I finally applied those lessons. Coach Chris Knoll pushed us all so hard; at the time I was not into it, but looking back I can see how much those workouts, and those lessons really impacted me, not only as a runner, but also as a person.

  One tough workout that comes to mind is “The Brick.” Because of my health issues I had never finished the workout. This year I ran all 7200 meters, or 4.5 miles. It is one of my favorite memories from my time with the team.

  “The Brick” is a ladder. It starts at 100 meters, goes up to 800, and then back down. Then why is it called “The Brick”? There is a penalty if you miss your target times for the sprints. If you miss your target you must carry a ten pound brick for the next sprint.

   I missed my target on the first 700, and I had to take the brick for the 800. My body was so tired, and I was ready to give up, but after taking it on the longest one every other sprint after felt just a little better. Finishing that last 100 with a time faster than my first was insane; I was so proud that I could dig that deep into myself and come out faster.

“Last 400 guys! Give it everything!” Sr Logan Reimink bellowed.

  I saw Cistaro start to increase his pace, but I was out of energy. I attempted to move my legs faster. Come on! It’s the last 400 just do it. This is your last chance. Catch him! Catch him! I tried, but I had already used up everything I had coming this far. Those last 400 meters felt like the longest distance I had ever ran. Can I even do this? My lungs hurt. I don’t think I can finish.

“Last 100!”

  I don’t know who called that out, or who it was meant for, but all my doubt disappeared. I decided that even though I was not going to have a spectacular finish, I was going to finish with everything I had left. The clock came into view; 20:50 it read, about 100 meters left. With nothing left I pushed as hard as I could; my only goal to finish what I had started. I crossed the finish at 21:07; I thought I was going to be disappointed, but instead I felt happy. Happy that even though I was sick, I got a personal record in my final race.

  I never understood when seniors got emotional about milestones during their senior year, but as I walked back to camp, Sr Jayden VanMaurick ran over and hugged me; I realized right then that the friendships I forged, and the lessons I learned during my time as a member of the team was more important to me than I ever thought possible.

“I got into the 18’s dude!” I think I might’ve been jealous of that before, but today I just felt enormous pride in my team, and especially VanMaurick.

“I PRed too!” I said.

“Dude awesome! What time?”

“21:07”

“Nice job man!” He gave me a high five, and my decision to stay on the team was worth it.

Almost every member of the team congratulated me on my PR when I returned to camp. The Men’s Cross Country team is not just a team, we are brothers. Getting involved may seem like it is not that big of a deal, but even if you find one group in high school to really connect with it can change your whole high school experience. Personally I would recommend the Men’s Cross Country team.

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