It is rare that a cross-country runner ever competes on a “true” cross-country course. Most competitions take place at parks or on school campuses, where with enough loops, hills, twists and turns a runner can cover 3 miles. But the final league meet for the WCAL always takes place at Crystal Springs Cross Country Park. The course is incredibly demanding—it is often hot and dusty, mile two includes “cardiac hill,” there is absolutely no shade… and yet, it is powerfully spiritual. The starting line of the race is as intense at it gets. At Crystal, the runner sees the first mile before their eyes. The starting box (cross country doesn’t use blocks or a waterfall start like in track) is fixed at the top of a hill; a hill runners must descend before they ascend it into mile two. Every competitor knows what he or she must do, as well as what the person on their right and their left must do. They share one common fate, to beat the clock, to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible, to run their own race.
Each team is expected to arrive to the line 10 minutes prior to the start of the race. As coaches accompany their team to the line, they remind runners to stay loose and stretch, to complete a few striders, and reconsider the race plan. At SI, we remind our team of what we have done that has prepared us for the given race, we restate our strategy, and gather for a team prayer. With the varsity girls, we now take steps back from the start to let them speak with one another and pronounce their own cheer.
At that moment, I transition from coach to witness. I see the spirit of seven girls who have trained hard not alone—but together. I feel the bond that they share as four runners go to the front of the line and three girls take a few steps back. And at the very moment the race official calls their attention to the start, everything falls silent. It is as if a moment is frozen in time. I look at the varsity girls I have come to know, respect, admire and adore and I see not only are they are holding their position, they are holding their breath! The intensity of that very moment is so palpable. And yet, let me say it again, it is so spiritual.
In his article “I’m Spiritual, Who Needs Religion?” Tim Muldoon writes the word “spirituality” comes from the Latin term spiritus, which has the meanings of “spirit,” “ghost,” or even “breath.” It entered English through reference to Biblical ideas-specifically, as a way to render even more ancient terms from Hebrew and Greek. The bottom line is that the word “spirituality” was originally a word that referred to the Biblical notion of God giving us life by breathing into us, as depicted in the book of Genesis.
When the gun goes off, all runners release their breath. Indeed God has given them life and God has given them talent—speed, determination, and strength. Every breath is necessary to complete the 2.95 mile journey; and their spirituality will allow them to do more that complete the physical task of running the race. The spirituality of running and runners animates the challenge of the race; it makes running rewarding and more than worth the pain.
Olympic runner Eric Liddell said I believe God made me for a purpose. He made me fast and when I run I feel His pleasure. I highly doubt that my runners are feeling God’s pleasure as they ascend cardiac hill at Crystal Springs or the final turn up the hill to the finish. But as their coach, to see what God has made—the beauty of that park, the sanctity that one team can possess and even what these girls are capable of from the start to the finish, how can I not take a deep breath? As I inhale and then exhale, I feel God’s pleasure…the life..the spirit He has given me.
All photos taken by the author on November 2, 2011