We’re trotting along, arms uptight and locked, kneecaps clanking, when one of the sixth-grade harriers pulled up short. In this group, sudden cessation of movement indicates either a haphazardly attached body part has fallen off, or the stalled vehicle has decided he hates cross country and is dropping out of the sport, effective immediately.
I inquired which of these two options I should report to the head coach, as we run a pretty tight ship with regard to body count.
“I can’t run,” he intoned, staring straight ahead. “My eyes are dry.”
This incident highlighted a glaring research gap in sport science, and presented as unique in my experience as a runner and coach. Again.
In theory, I impart knowledge to the middle school sponges in my tutelage— training tips, racing strategies, diet, injury diagnosis and rehab, all flowing in a single direction from my vast repository to the waiting orthodontically-enhanced vessels. In practice, that rarely happens. In practice, every weekday between 3 and 5 p.m., I’m exposed to perplexing problems, mindblowing concepts, brilliantly counter-intuitive applications found nowhere in the literature, and other ill stuff that illuminates my darkness. Every weekday, I appreciate anew the inadequacy of modern sport science and the robust stream of useful information emanating from my scholars.
Middle school intelligence, though, is an oral tradition. So as it will not be lost, I’ve attempted to write down Seven Habits Of Highly Awesome Middle School Runners.
You need energy to run. Eat on your way to the start line.
Yesterday’s conveyor belt of calories? So yesterday. Can’t even remember it. Any fool can see that to be effective, the energy source must be fed into the furnace immediately before ignition. Like lighter fluid. Ideally, bright yellow cheese puff residue should be lodged in your braces, staining your fingers like war paint, as you drop some shock and awe at the start line, also known as strides. Which, who even needs those, but I digress. Like any well developed protocol, eat-n-run is brilliant on many levels.
First: Confidence. The athlete who can still taste the nachos is confident in his energy levels. Second: Mid-race benefits. Bits of Milky Way stashed in the molars will be sucked into the lungs by powerful gasping mid-race where it will cause a momentary burning sensation, which everyone knows is the nougat combusting. Ergo, turbo. Third: Late race cleanse. Far from detrimental to performance, hurling frees the warrior from excess weight, lightening his load in preparation for the final crowd-pleasing sprint. Lame is the veteran who cannot regale his friends with where, when, and how he spewed. Fourth: Recovery. It’s obvious to someone who’s just upchucked a pizza pocket and a quart of acid green Gatorade he needs to refill the tank.
Warming up wastes energy. Don’t do it.
The astute athlete can easily trace his dramatic reduction in pace in the last half-mile of the race to the warm-up his coach made him do. Duh. Mojo is finite; every skip, every step, every insane carioca drill performed before the race is that much energy wasted when it could have been used to much flashier effect at the end of the race. One should carefully conserve this lethal weapon by playing video games in a reclining position. The only warm-up that’s needed is to suddenly and without provocation grab a teammate’s water bottle and hurl it into dense bushes. Wrestling may ensue. Middle schoolers have learned to humor the desiccated windbag when she tells them to warm up—it’s a pity she keeps preaching these falsehoods.
We know time (this is a reference to the iconic film Easy Rider, which, since it came out 46 years before our scholars’ time, they actually do not know).
Inspired by nature or, more likely, encouraged by their coach to get off their asses and cheer on their teammates, the lads forsake technology, grudgingly, and venture out to remote parts of the course. Their race time, if they ever knew it, is unimaginably far into the future, maybe several hours or days away. Lobbing acorns at each other, sliding along in a comfortable coma-like fog, their idyll is pierced by a starter’s pistol or the roar of the crowd or the appearance of their peers hotly competing without them. Dude, we missed the start! This is not the calamity a sentient being might imagine, far from it.
They’ve conserved loads of valuable energy (see above) which can be better spent horsing around on the bus ride back. De-bussing back at the school fully kitted out in the uniform, they’re privy to the same adoring glances and trip to Dairy Queen as the putzes who actually ran: Perks of being a stud athlete without the effort. The MIA conspire to casually return to the camp about the same time as their less clever, red-faced counterparts. When outed, they’ll muster the indignation only a voice-cracking 12-year-old can: “What? Coach told us to go cheer, gosh.” Running shoes are grabbed, suddenly and without provocation, and hurled into the bushes. Wrestling ensues.
Bathroom? Done that.
Yesterday. Besides, one of the few benefits of running ‘til your legs break is that your intestines kick it into high, churning out waste products, and the need to discuss them, at a lively industrial rate. Loudly naming the victim and the specifics of his distress, offering up nearby facilities, and fondly recalling past emergencies enliven almost every training run. They’re usually in the woods when nature calls, which as everyone knows, is one big toilet. Awesome outdoor survival skills are employed, though apparently, identification of poison ivy is not one of them. Shorts are grabbed, suddenly and without provocation, and hurled into the bushes. Wrestling ensues.
Shortcuts are the very soul of cross country.
The two terms are synonymous. In fact, if you look it up, cross country began with a long-shinned thinker in Wales leading his posse on a shortcut in which they discovered Greenland. Coach’s route is a mere suggestion, and one that could stand improvement. It takes a visionary, a dreamer. The hopelessly dull will be unable to appreciate that a shortcut requires considerably more time than the prescribed path, and results in picturesque injury. There are downsides too, but in general, shortcuts are the highest expression of cross country—involving cliff diving, bouldering, vaulting, foraging, and telling time by sun angle—and should be admired. Somewhere along the way, a teammate is grabbed, suddenly and without provocation, and hurled into dense bushes. Wrestling ensues.
Running is overrated.
This is breakthrough. This is the crux—the opus—of middle school intelligence that has somehow eluded the best minds in sport science. Unending stress on running in cross country, flogging the dead horse (and this image resonates with me) of mileage, run run run. Nonsense! Scissoring one’s legs ‘til one’s sternum glows is but a small part of cross country. There’s excellent cheering—You own him, go now! There’s sweet gear. There’s Doritos. There’s a lot of waiting around during which you’re forced to show those hopeless losers, aka teammates, how much their fantasy football teams suck. And then, carefully and expertly applied, there’s running. Data indicates that parents and siblings stand at the start and the finish. An aggressive first 100 meters and a lively stretch into the finish is going to give the home folks the thrill they’ve come for. Bam, mission accomplished. Those middle miles are for suckers.
Okay, that’s Six Habits of Highly Awesome Middle School Runners. At this point, like my slope-shouldered savants, I’m tired of explaining every simple thing; the depth of ignorance in this world drags one down like a 52-pound backpack. But life is suffering, so... Estimation. Employ estimation. This dogged adherence to hair-splitting exactitude—three-point-one miles, 12:47 pace, bus leaves at 3:15—is wearying and destroys the spirit of the sport. If you’ve been running since Tuesday, you don’t need to measure it; it’s ten miles. Or close enough. If the wind rushing between your pistoning kneecaps reaches a teakettle whistle, you’re going fast, probably four-minute pace. Six habits, seven habits—the takeaway regarding middle school cross country is painfully obvious. Grab your teammate’s stuff, suddenly and without provocation, and hurl it into dense bushes. Then wrestle.
Photo credit: Flickr.com