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Lessons from cross country invaluable

I was amazed the first time I watched my son run at a junior high cross country meet. It was in McDonald’s Woodland Park. He was in seventh grade.

Not knowing what to expect, I stood with other parents behind ropes marking the course waiting for the runners who lined up down the hill and out of sight. The echo of the opening shot was followed by an immense pack of middle-schoolers thundering past. As spectators quickly bolted off to get new positions along the course where runners would appear next, I quickly learned this was a sport where fans might get nearly as much exercise as the athletes.

I attended, of course, to support my son’s new-found interest in running, and I remember anticipating that he probably would finish somewhere near the middle of the pack.

He actually finished very near the front and went on to become a four-year letterman in high school. But I digress.

More importantly, what I began to see as the season unfolded was the discipline these young people dedicated to their sport. Most had been running every day in heat and humidity all summer (or longer). They were learning from equally dedicated coaches the importance of healthy habits like proper eating, sleep and more. During those years, I remember my son disavowing soda and sweetened sports drinks. Water became his beverage of choice. He began weight-training and slowly the muscles in his legs and arms became defined and powerful. I saw the same transition occurring in his young teammates.

At some point, it hit me that cross country differed from other sports like baseball, football and soccer because those sports required athletes to have specialized skills like ball-handling in addition to their good physical condition. Success in cross country, however, required nothing but pure athleticism. It required a dedication to hard work and preserving or improving health and strength in order to perform at increasingly high levels.

Perhaps even more important, cross country also is a sport in which everyone who tries hard gets to compete. Generally, the number of participants is not limited to teams of five or nine or 11, as in many other sports. And the more that runners compete, of course, the more they improve and reach new personal goals. Cross country also is very much a team sport in which everyone must perform at the highest levels. Scoring, you see, is based on the place in which the top five runners from each team cross the finish line. Those rankings are added together, and the team with the lowest score wins.

It also is a sport in which fans line the finish line, cheering with excitement and enthusiasm as each athlete crosses, whether it is the first finisher setting a course record or the very last finisher crossing with a new personal record. I’ve never experienced such uplifting scenarios in any other sport.

And let’s not forget this is a sport in which these athletes can participate throughout their lives, running in road races all year or just running individually any time of the day or night. And the biggest financial expense? Purchasing really good running shoes.

All this is why I was so pleased last week when I read the Tribune Chronicle article about the Newton Falls Board of Education voting to add a junior high cross country team for the first time in school history, just in time for the 2019 season.

Funding for coaching and transportation for Newton Falls’ newest sport came largely with assistance from the Cleveland Browns organization, which donated money to defray costs of coaching and transportation, and allowed the young athletes an opportunity to spend time at their camp. What a great way to start off team-building exercises.

I know firsthand the knowledge and values these young athletes are about to learn, and I wish them all long, successful running careers.

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