Less than a month remains of the cross-country season. That means less than a month left of my high school cross-country career. For six years now, I have spent the fall season running. I began this journey in seventh grade and will finish it as a senior, having put more time and energy into the sport than seems reasonable. Though I have countless moments set in my mind, I still count my very first day as my dearest memory of cross-country. It was the first day of middle school and of course, everything had been alien to me. Like everyone else entering a new school, I was terrified and excited in equal measure. But I don’t take change well, and by 2:25 I was shaken. I had made no new friends and was more than a little worried about doing well in school. The last thing I wanted to do was stay in this strange new world, let alone run with a bunch of strangers. Early that day, I had tried desperately to join the team, forcing myself to brave the guidance office and sign up. Having spent the summer running around my little town, I figured this ‘cross-country’ might be fun. Now, after a long and confusing day, I had not been so sure.
In my district, middle school begins in seventh grade and one brick building takes both middle school and high school students, which meant that I was not only around new students, I was around students years older than me. Changing into gym clothes in a locker room full of bellowing upperclassmen football players for the first time, I found some vitality left in me. There are few places more full of raw energy than a high school locker room and I felt it keenly. The bravado and animation of the athletes made me smile and gave me the energy I needed to head off to practice. I left that room inspired, though still apprehensive. The runners were by the back entrance of the school, where other teams were also gathering for the day’s practices. The sky was a bright blue, the air was warm and the sun was bright. I remember the activity out there, how invigorating and intimidating it was. I was in seventh grade, now a long time ago. I still wore glasses, had curly orange hair, and was small; very small. I can only imagine how I looked walking over to my new teammates. But I remember perfectly how they greeted me. All grinning and laughing, I was one of them in a moment. I was slapped on the back and hugged by everyone. One of the guys put his arm over my shoulder, crowing that he was no longer the shortest on the team and an older girl brought my adorable twelve-year-old self over to her friends like I was a new puppy. The coach, though he looked somewhat menacing at first, was as animated as the rest and welcomed me heartily. Back then, the cross-country team was even smaller than it is today, perhaps ten athletes and only one other middle schooler. By the end of that first practice, I knew every name as well as my own and counted them all as dear friends.
I felt good during warm-ups and was becoming increasingly excited. Our coach darted among us, joking with everyone, asking me why I wanted to run and saying how happy he was that I had signed up. But when he announced the day’s workout, the runners all groaned and some told me I had chosen a terrible day to join. This was a little alarming. I realized my jogging around town had never been difficult, so I feared I could not handle legitimately strenuous running. The team jogged to the edge of the woods towards the back of the school’s property where the coach explained the workout. Today, I know every tree that grows out there, but it was quite mysterious then. He told us that we would be running twelve hundred meters through the trees as fast as we could. After a two minute break we would do it again and again and again and... At this point I was much less confident, but the runners quickly found their verve again, wishing each other good luck and telling me I would be great. And yes, the workout was hard. Trying to sprint three-quarters of a mile repeatedly was rough for my seventh grade self. Yet I passed some of the slower runners who cheered me on my way as I huffed by them. Our coach began running the laps with us, whooping as he outpaced everyone just to double back and encourage those lagging behind.
It went faster than I expected and we were soon done, congratulating each other and wisecracking — often at the coach’s expense, who fired back in kind. I learned that every practice concluded with ‘core’ and stretching. The former was a grueling session of ab exercises that the coach loved and the rest of team survived through a combination of petulant complaints and awful jokes. The stretching was calm, as we simply went through a series of different positions while people told stories punctuated with grunts of “switch!” from whoever led stretching that particular day. When the team dispersed at the end of practice, it was with grins on every face. By the time my dad arrived to pick me up, my legs were in quite a lot of pain. But when he asked how my first practice was, my answer was immediate. “Awesome.”
Now this tale may have some inaccuracies. That day was over six years ago after all and I’ve filled the gaps in my memory. But the exact events were not so important to me as the feeling. There was a positive energy, a good vibe from that first practice that I still remember. It remained all through the season and I can recall many other moments from that year. During a hill workout, when I was lagging behind, one runner did an extra painful lap so I wouldn’t have to run it alone. In my first race, my teammate told me I could win it all, but I got utterly lost instead. The magic of my first season has faded somewhat. Our coach moved on after that year and I am the last of our original cohort left at Oxbow. I’ve been on the cross-country team longer than anyone else now and I have tried to make every new runner as welcome as I felt that first day, though I seem to be the only one that troubles with the little middle schoolers. And while I sometimes find practice a chore, I still try to give my all every day. In a few weeks, I close this chapter of my life. I will desperately miss it, and running on my own will be nothing to the camaraderie of my team, changed though it is. The strange thing is that on my last day of cross-country I know my thoughts will not linger on these past years, but rather that first practice, more precious than I can truly say here.