• 63°

No time-outs in cross country

They come by the hundreds to run on the wide trails that wind through forests and parks and fields. Some are in junior high, some in high school. They run for a couple reasons: to win, sure, but also to beat themselves, to better their times.

Cross country is an unusual activity. It’s literally just running through the woods, which is never something I considered a sport until I saw it first-hand. Trust me, it’s most definitely a sport and while there are teams, it’s all about the individual.

In a field of 300 runners, it’s tough to finish in the Top 10. But most of the runners know that’s not a possibility before the starting gun fires. A 12-year-old simply doesn’t have a chance at beating an 18-year-old. But those young runners compete anyway. They do it to prove they can, and to get better.

Unlike most sports, there are no time-outs in cross country. There is no chance to catch your breath or take a break. There is only running. It requires no special equipment, just good legs and great lungs. Like most sports, practice makes perfect. The more you run, the faster you run.

While some athletes may have a genetic advantage over others, it really comes down to hard work. And as the hundreds of runners push toward the finish line at the end of a 5K, it’s obvious who has put in the work.

Running for practice is as horrible as it sounds. In most sports, running is required but it’s only a piece of the skillset needed to be successful. Back when I played tennis and baseball, I was a slow runner but could make up for it in other ways: smart baserunning or an ambidextrous approach to tennis. I didn’t have to be the fastest guy on the field or court to win. (Once, in college, I attempted to run a 10K. I finished in just over two hours after vomiting and lying down to rest — and maybe cry — several times throughout the race.)

But in cross country, that’s all there is. The fastest guy or gal wins. Practicing for this involves running, and then running some more. It’s as simple as that. And as complex as that, too. Running, I am told, is a mental sport. That strikes me as odd since it clearly involves putting one leg in the front of the other and doing it faster than everyone else.

But having the mental toughness to push your body when it wants to quit is what separates winners from finishers. Doing it in practice when no one is looking is that much tougher.

This past Tuesday, I watched 11th-grader Mason Watkins from Picayune finish a 5K in 17:04. That’s blazing fast. Twenty-six other runners clocked in under 20 minutes. The top local finisher in the boys’ race was Christian Nations. The eighth-grader finished with a time of 24:10.

At a race last weekend, freshman Aubree Britt of Loyd Star took first place in the Division II girls’ race with a time of 20 minutes, 52 seconds in a field of 135 runners. Bailey Pounds was the top finisher for Brookhaven High with a time of 21:14, which was good enough for 20th place in a field of 310 runners.  Miyah Miller (21:33), Emmaline Wolfe (21:43), Carley Craig (21:53) and Gracie Gray (22:18) rounded out the top five finishers for the Lady Panthers. Junior Jacob Britt of Brookhaven High was the top area finisher with a time of 17:25 in that race, which was good enough for 13th place. Freshman Grayson Childress (17:30) finished in 16th place for BHS. Jake Thompson (17:44.39) and Sam Arnold (17:44.79) also ran strong for the Panthers, as they finished in 24th and 25th places, respectively.

If you’re not a runner, or don’t have a child who runs, these times don’t mean much. But let me tell you, these athletes have worked extremely hard to turn in times like these. In a world where football, baseball, softball and basketball dominate, it’s tough to get much recognition for cross country.  There are no pep rallies for cross country, no bleachers full of fans, and few scholarship offers. They just have family cheering them on — and each other.

The first thing I noticed at a cross country race was the sportsmanship and encouragement. The runners finishing in the Top 10 hang around to cheer those finishing behind them. Some even wait for the stragglers who finish, but just barely, to offer them a hug or word of encouragement. While it’s a competitive sport, it doesn’t have the ugliness that other sports sometimes have. I think it’s because everyone recognizes just how difficult it is to run a 5K. No matter how fast or fit the runner, pushing yourself for 3 miles is just plain tough.

So when you see these athletes running through downtown Brookhaven, or along a country road, share a word of encouragement.  Take a moment to appreciate the effort.  And if you think it looks easy, sign up for the next 5K and see what happens. There will be tears and maybe a little vomit.

Contact publisher Luke Horton at luke.horton@dailyleader.com.