Cross Country: Body and Mind

The mental aspects of cross country define the sport more than you might think


WCAL 1 at Golden Gate Park on September 21st with the women’s team earning 9 personal records

When you think of cross country, you think of running. And you’re not wrong. Cross country is, in essence, just running. But the subtleties and strategies behind cross country are just as fascinating, if not more than, those of more “mainstream” sports.

Cross country, on the surface, seems like a simple, individual sport—run as fast as you can. However, when examined more closely, it becomes clear that there is much more than what meets the eye. Cross country is one of the most primordial sports, according to XC (cross country) Coach Grubb. As evidenced by human physiology, mankind is in fact designed for long distance running. And cross country isn’t just an individual sport, either; it’s more of a team sport than you might think. Athletes do strive to set PRs (Personal Records), but the entire team must work together to succeed. The top five scorers from a team all contribute point values proportional to their placement, meaning a first place runner will contribute one point, a second place runner will contribute two, and so on. The team with the lowest total score wins the competition. But there are other ways to contribute to team success. A team’s sixth and seventh runners, for example, can break ties (in the case that two teams score the same number of points) or displace runners on other teams. One of the most important ways to contribute to team success is to support one’s teammates. Cross country is a mental sport, explains senior David Lee.

While the sport is intensely grueling on the body, the mental aspect is just as taxing. Being mentally strong is important, and one needs a large amount of willpower to succeed.

“During a race when I start to get tired and out of breath,” explains freshman Kaitlyn Altmar, “I tell myself to keep pushing and focus on keeping a steady breathing pattern and maintaining a fast pace so that I can catch up to the people in front of me. Once I am mentally in the game, it is much easier to finish the race off strong.”

Lee explains it this way: “Whenever I race, I think to myself that I can take a quick breather…you have to hold that back and tell yourself to keep going. Don’t stop, no matter how painful it is.” It would be easy to give in and run as fast as possible at the beginning of the race. But cross country athletes have to see the big picture– slow and steady wins the race, with overexertion leading to burnout. Even when others pass by, runners have to keep the same pace, a feat of great mental fortitude. Being able to keep the same level of discipline for six or more miles is incredibly difficult, but incredibly rewarding—a payoff that few other sports can boast of.

Cross country is rewarding, in part, because while winning is objective, success isn’t. Coach Grubb describes the difference eloquently: “Success is subjective. A successful person is one who sets a goal and strives to achieve it, enduring the short, long, or uncertain journey of its pursuit. It is about identifying the obstacles and overcoming them. In other words, it is about growth and improvement. Winning, however, is objective. It is a specific attitude or goal that desires to win a prize—some kind of tangible, recognizable honor. The word ‘competition’ is derived from a Latin word meaning ‘to meet or strive together.’ Competition is not just about winning, but about pushing oneself to the highest limits. Winning should be a goal, but it should not be the driving force behind the power of the individual’s life and performance. Winning defines a moment. Success defines a life.”