by Noah Corman ’19
Many people oversimplify cross country into merely running, assuming that it is an easy sport requiring little strategy. The runners just toe the line, run, and finish. In reality, tactics play a very important role in both the mental and physical aspects of the sport.
Many different problems present themselves for cross country runners. Some can be expected while others cannot. The team often jogs each course before they race to look for roots and holes on courses, and when it rains, they look for mud. These conditions cause terrible footing, so runners must adjust their race plan accordingly. Most courses have differing features such as gravel paths, trails in the woods, grass fields, and sometimes asphalt or concrete which must be taken into consideration as well.
“The footing was very poor, and it made it difficult to keep a consistent pace without slipping,” said Ethan Tagliere, Sherwood’s number one cross country runner, after running through more than a mile of mud during the Seahawk Invitational on September 2nd. “I had to choose the spots where I passed people because if I tried to pass [people] in the woods, I’d slip.”
Knowing the course beforehand gives runners more comfort and familiarity. Beyond these factors, runners obviously need to be familiar with where to go. Taking a wrong turn, especially on poorly marked school forks in a path, concerns runners. In fact, last cross country season, Sherwood won a meet against Clarksburg because Clarksburg’s lead runner took a wrong turn.
The pre-race plan also includes deciding with whom to run. Psychologically, running with familiar faces increases motivation and endurance. Because most runners feel more inspired to keep up with someone than to try to run on their own, coach Dan Reeks encourages runners of similar speeds to race together.
“There’s a saying that the strength of the wolf is in the pack. We beat everybody else, then we think about beating each other,” said Reeks about the importance of sticking together.
Passing other runners and being passed by other runners, especially when tired and hurting in the middle of a tough race, have psychological effects as well. The former provides encouragement while the latter is often demoralizing, leading to a negative mindset and a worse performance. A runner in a tough battle with another runner can surge ahead of his or her opponent. The opponent, upon seeing them speed up, might feel discouraged and not attempt to keep up.
Fast times may seem like the obvious goal, but they do not necessarily translate to a great team performance. In actuality, getting caught up with times and trying to calculate pace and distance can distract runners, slowing them down. Some courses do not enable one to run a fast time, so place matters much more than time. A runner should prefer first place over a fast time since their first place finish matters more to the team score in the end.
Success in cross country depends on running well as a team rather than individually. A Sherwood runner can win a race, or two can claim the top two places, but Sherwood as a team may not win the race. Cross country is just as much a team sport as any other sport since the team needs great performances from the top five scoring runners to win a race.
“Place is more important because if you have your teammates working with you, it’s more rewarding and better for the team,” explained Amy Guenterberg, a four-year cross country runner and team captain.