Hordes of runners line up in their boxes, dressed (minimally) in vibrant colors. Adrenaline builds up within them. They’ve been nervously preparing themselves for the upcoming 20-some minutes. Teams gather to cheer, and coaches offer up last words of encouragement. After the starting gun blows, these runners are on their own, locked in a battle against the course, negative impulses, and pain. Subject to these mental forces, athletes surface the most primal and fierce emotions within themselves–emotions that propel them to the finish.
Why do cross-country runners voluntarily subject themselves to such mental torture? How do they motivate themselves in difficult circumstances? What do they do to calm themselves before meets? Based on my own cross-country experience and my teammates’ testimonials and efforts, I know that our cross-country runners are among the grittiest, most mentally tough people on campus.
Let’s start from the top. Why do our cross country runners run? Jacob Lehmann Duke, school 5k record-holder, started running because he couldn’t play anything else: “I wanted to stay in shape, but after a brief soccer career, I realized ball sports were not for me. If you’ve seen me play basketball, you understand.” Ever the mathematician, Jacob also fell in love with running because of the numbers. “There’s so much math involved: paces, distances, elevations…you name it!” He also adds that running is “great stress relief and pretty relaxing when done right.” Daisy Maslan joined the team as a sophomore. She’d never run before, even for fun. She explains, “I didn’t have the time to keep doing gymnastics, and I had to find a sport to keep fit. I joined because I knew it was an easy sport to jump into. I committed myself when I realized I could become really good quickly through mental preparation.” Danna Castro Galindo joined for the fitness. “I wanted to keep in tip-top physical shape, and there was no better way to do that than to run.” She also wanted an escape from the consistency of life: “I wanted to find freedom and get away from life’s trivial matters.” As for me? I have a strange love of running uphill. The literal “uphill battle” draws me in for the challenge, and the view’s always worth it at the top. I’ve always felt so at ease while running and simultaneously appreciating nature. This love has carried over into cross country.
It’s Tuesday. After a long day of classes, the team jogs over to the Clark Kerr track for a workout. Workouts are when these absurdly fit specimens refine their mental abilities. These workouts are physically demanding, involving multiple reps of 1200s (3 laps) and miles (4 laps) at near race-pace. But as any runner will explain (or perhaps rant) to you, the mental challenge of track workouts far exceeds the physical challenge. Every lap is a struggle to maintain pace, cadence, and composure. Imagine being strangled by a python: the first few moments don’t feel so bad, but the pain dramatically increases every lap. It’s a struggle to stay motivated, especially during the middle of the workout, when every step and breath is painful, with no end in sight. Although “packing” with teammates helps, it’s up to each individual on the team to stay strong. Everyone discovers a unique running personality: an especially tough version of themselves that powers them through each lap.
But these workouts are necessities. They drill into the team the mental strength and grit required to succeed in challenging races. I treat workouts as opportunities to be mindful of my turnover (how often my feet contact the ground) and my focus. Danna knows these workouts raise her confidence level going into races. “I’m confident going into races because I know I’ve done tough pieces a million times. I’m well prepared,” she narrates. Daisy agrees: “These workouts are your chance to push yourself consistently. You’ve got to be mentally ready for races.”