A runner gives back

Written on Jan 14th, 2017 by , Category Training

Runners gather during the Leavenworth Ski Hill Cross Country Invitational Meet, hosted by Cascade High School. (Photo by Emerson Peek)

By Emerson Peek

LEAVENWORTH — My journey as a runner is evolving as I grow older. I am moving into a chapter in which I yearn to give back to the greater running community. After all, running has strongly influenced me for the better, so I want to encourage other runners and support those interested in giving it a try. This past fall I was given such an opportunity when Dayle Massey, head cross country coach at Cascade High School, asked if I would consider applying for an assistant coach position. I replied with a resounding “Yes!”

Since I was in high school, the cross country (XC) program has grown significantly. As a self-proclaimed “running evangelist,” this thrills me to no end. Running does not appeal to everyone, but coaches Dayle Massey and Andrea Brixey have been doing something right, as evidenced by our turnout this past fall: nearly 60 athletes on the roster.

Cross country is a sport unlike others. For starters, it is accessible and inclusive. A decent pair of running shoes is all the “equipment” one needs, and there are no super technical skills required to join the team. Cross country also integrates individual and communal elements in a unique fashion. On one hand, it teaches youth to honor their own journey without comparing themselves to others. On the other hand, it encourages youth to support their teammates no matter what their journeys look like. These inviting factors help attract a diverse cross-section of students whose mix of prior experience, interest level, and body type spans the spectrum.

The Cascade High School girls varsity cross country team, plus Eli Fishburne, stop for a photo on the way to the State Meet in Pasco. (Photo by Emerson Peek)

A few weeks into the season, Massey and Brixey asked me if I would speak to the team about my own journey as a runner. I explained to the athletes that the word “journey” really does encapsulate it well. Though I’ve been running since middle school, my commitment to the sport didn’t take on a life of its own until a few years ago. Before that, my view on competitive running was dominated by my unpleasant memory of finishing 114th out of 116 in my only college meet. Fast forward a few years, and at age 29, I qualified for my first ever Boston Marathon. Through these stories, I did my best to emphasize to the team that everyone’s journey unfolds differently.

Any kind of serious running practice is associated with an inevitable degree of suffering. Nearly every cross country team knows the saying: “Our sport is your sport’s punishment.” Indeed, training your body and mind to run hard can feel masochistic at times. It turns out that Cascade XC holds its own story about this type of exertion. A few years ago, a senior ran a race so hard that he threw up, WHILE CROSSING THE FINISH LINE! After a number of requests from the kids, a photo of this moment was finally displayed on the projector at the start of practice one day. The reactions were priceless: a genuine mix of disgust, admiration, and amusement. I remember thinking to myself, “This is part of what makes cross country kids special.”

A cross country meet at Tonasket this past fall. (Photo by Sheldon Flick)

Guts-and-glory stories aside, cross country forces us to confront our insecurities and self-doubt by staring it straight in the face. Through such experiences, we uncover a powerful strength deep within us, and this empowerment occurs in all individual athletes, whether they finish second or 42nd. Statistics from this year’s season reveal that more than two-thirds of our team achieved personal records for at least one distance! Though that number is impressive, the true satisfaction for us coaches lies in witnessing each athlete progress in his or her own way.

In an environment of support and solidarity, we all collectively benefit. Several times this season, I watched XC runners from different teams shout encouraging words to the runners coming in last at a meet. To say those moments are touching is an understatement, and I love how the sport of cross country taps into the age-old wisdom of lifting each other up. Learning to be supportive of those around you is a lesson of lifelong value.

Whether a student joins cross country as a vehicle for socializing, a means of appeasing their parents, or to gain the attention of college XC programs, it gets them outside and active. I’d like to think that most of our athletes enjoyed their time on the team this fall; I most certainly did. I will never forget watching our girls’ varsity team make it to State for the first time in 19 years, or helping the kids get to know our local trails, or shouting long strings of encouraging words at meets. Cross country invites all who join to find improvement and meaning on individual terms, and to experience how a supportive team environment is beneficial for all. In the eyes of this runner evangelist, such qualities have the potential to take kids miles and miles!

Emerson Peek helps coach cross country at Cascade High School in Leavenworth. He also can be seen at the start line at RunWenatchee races from time to time.

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