There they are, heading towards the high school on highway 103, captured leaf-like by a gusting northwest breeze. The only two female runners on this year's cross-country team have already passed some of their male counterparts and are pressing hard on the heels of another, who even though exhausted, struggles grimly to keep from being overtaken by a girl.
These are Autumn's children, my kind of people, pursuing recognition, fame, maybe just a touch of gold while engaged in a sport lacking the glory of football or the hype of basketball. Ilwaco High School's 2023 cross country team consists of 14 or so youngsters each of whom will have the chance to participate in virtually every meet; whereas, of the 50 or more individuals trying out for football, perhaps 20 will be able to play more than a few minutes in each game. That's the beauty of distance running where everyone gets a shot at being the leader of the pack depending on the amount of effort they're willing to put forth in training along with the kind of agony they're prepared to endure when racing.
Whatever motivates some skinny runt of a kid to try covering long distances on foot is a mystery, but it must have something to do with a certain crispness in the air and a stirring deep down in the marrow to throw all caution aside while recklessly leaping over streams and logs in an attempt to defy gravity's ponderous drag. And rarely, as those of us who have spent a season or two on the cross-country trail know, the most amazing thing occurs when mile after mile slips away beneath feet of Mercury-winged lightness. Maybe that's why after a summer of sluggish, sweaty pavement pounding the urge to do some real running strikes and we find ourselves hurtling colorful piles of leaves on old logging roads and muddy backwoods trails.
It's early in the season yet, so for a couple of weeks members of the cross-country team are easily identified by the crab-like way they climb stairs or gingerly ease their protesting bodies in and out of desk seats. Shin splints, aching hamstrings, and unexpected cramping calves are part of the price to be paid for getting back in shape after a long lazy summer. The pain is worth it though, at least I've always thought so, which is why you used to find me at summer's fading edge digging out worn stocking caps and sweat stained polypro gloves, lacing up dingy training shoes and thinking of Jimmy Dugan's words in the movie, A League of Their Own:
"It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great."