There are so many unique and diverse people in the sport of cross country. Each of them with a unique story of how they came to this amazing sport. It doesn't get the publicity like football, baseball and basketball, but those who become a part of it truly understand how special it is. I consider cross country and running to be the greatest sport. Here's my story of of my first day with the sport, and the first day of my current journey of the sport as a tool for life.
Mach's First Day
I was recruited probably as early as kindergarten. “Wow that’s early!” Well yes maybe a slight exaggeration but the Nathan Hale Hall of Fame Coach, Ron Kurtz, was my phy-ed teacher throughout elementary school. His passion is unmatched, and I’ll never forget him repping Hale cross country gear almost every day while teaching at Walker Elementary. He was proud of the team and he represented them everywhere he went. When I was in 6th grade, he got to rep his 2000 state championship jacket. I had no idea at the time what it meant to be the best team in the state.
For whatever it’s worth, I had some success on track and field days in elementary and middle school and I did enjoy running, but my sole focus was always baseball. I really knew nothing else. Even with having Coach Kurtz as a teacher for seven years, by the time freshman year came, I was still quite clueless as to what the sport of cross country even was. I was also shy which made me a bit nervous to even give it a try. With a bit of prodding and convincing from Coach Kurtz, I showed up on the first day of practice. He told me something to the effect of, “At least give it a try. If you don’t like it after a week, then you can feel okay walking away.” I suddenly realized it was either try this or sit at home after school and do nothing (seriously, I’m not sure what kids that aren’t in a sport/activity do after school. The only things I can think of are cause trouble or sit on their phones nowadays). Oh yea, and baseball wasn’t until the summer, so I decided to try this cross country thing out.
The August of 2002 I arrived at the first practice, stepping into a world of unknowns. I was a baseball player and had no expectations of this sport where you run... “for fun”. I was pretty good at running 90 feet at a time, and I did at least understand that cross country would demand a bit longer of a focus. Easing me into the initial practice was my friend from middle school, Zak Lutz. He was the first person I encountered in the locker room that first day. I had no idea he was trying this cross country thing either! It really was a relief to know somebody else. That familiarity now gave me some comfort among the other boys on the team.
I really hadn’t had time to consider how good the program was. In 2000, just two years prior, the team had won a state title. Senior captains Adam Nelson and Andy Schumm held the tradition of that team, and I would soon be watching them finish top two at many of the meets my freshman year. But me, I really had no appreciation for that tradition and what I instantly became a part of. I just saw skinny dudes joking and laughing together. It was an insanely energetic locker room from the start. As I tried to make myself comfortable, my mind could only think simply and in broad terms. I was not focused on the details. I could only think, “How do fit into this goofy group of guys?”
Coach Kurtz finished his first practice meeting (I remember very little of it, I still was not convinced I would like this), and then it came time to run. I had my long shorts and basketball shoes on (no this is not recommended). The other freshmen looked similar in size and in apparel. Well, except Zak. He was such a tiny freshman, and his soccer background had him prepared with some better running shorts. The older guys, still joking and laughing, had stripped down to only their shoes and short running shorts on the hot August day. So now I’m about to run with a bunch of almost naked guys. Is that normal here? Our assistant coach, Jim Gross, was assigned to work with the freshmen group that day. Our goal was to go to the course and run the first mile of it!
One mile! It seemed like a lot to a new runner. Then I heard what the older guys were running. They were running the 5k course twice! That was over 6 miles of running! (“How long is a 5k?” is probably a question I asked someone in order to perform that calculation in my head 3.1x2). But before I even departed on that first run, I realized this sport might hold something special. The older guys who were assigned the 10k were not complaining, they weren’t worried. It was the opposite. These guys were outgoing, excited for the workout, and prepared for an amazing run and season ahead. They had a winning attitude and I could feel it unlike I’ve ever felt on any other teams I was on growing up. It was real. The energy was contagious and it now made me excited… to run!
Our freshmen group had just 6 boys, including myself. We took off with Coach Gross on our half mile run to get to the starting line (so technically 2 miles total today, did coach trick me into running more already?). I don’t recall all the details of the run, but I remember the feeling. The few freshmen I had never met awkwardly trying to start a conversation with me and the others. Me, mostly just listening along and taking in this idea of running as a purpose. I was VERY quiet. I ran close to Zak for the comfort factor. Coach Gross was so warm and welcoming, and he was genuinely excited about us running on grass in a park. I didn’t understand the appeal, but I felt his love. He asked us about our lives and wanted to know about us as people. In a blink, we were at the park. And that right there was it.
The love and excitement you feel in cross country transcend the sport. It was never about racing cross country meets that got me hooked (although that was a blast as well), it was the people. It was seeing the older guys’ drive and determination to be great. It was the lessons I took in from that first day onward that drove my passion for the sport. Nine years later, I was finishing my redshirt senior year at Whitewater as a collegiate runner. I had a solid career, finishing all-conference three times in college, and running pretty successfully in half marathons post-collegiately. Zak Lutz hit a national qualifying mark in the steeplechase in college and was a teammate of mine for two state qualifying teams while at Hale. We both continue to run, be great friends, and run long runs every Sunday together. That first-ever practice continued to cultivate and build each day thereafter. The consistency continued to build our mindsets and abilities.
I’m not sure what will be your hook into this great sport, but I do know there’s a good chance that kids will stick with it, not just through high school, but many through their lives. It’s a group of many personalities, all brought together under a goal to challenge each other and become great. Cross country runners aren’t afraid to do things that are hard and aren’t afraid to be different (hence the half-naked confident men running down the streets). It’s a true team sport built for developing great men who serve and care for others.
My freshman year, I had an amazing moment that really spoke to the people involved in our sport. Adam Nelson, who I mentioned was one of our captains and a top 5 guy in the state, had asked if he could sit next to me on the bus on the way to our first away meet. Not his longtime friends. Me! Some freshman who barely spoke through the first 3 weeks of the season. I’ll never forget him getting to know me, and allowing me to feel comfortable. We mostly talked about non-running related things, but he did let me know that I could be as fast as him if I put in the work. “What?” This just seemed so crazy at the time. A guy that ran 15:54 for 5k, and here I was heading into my 3rd career race and hadn’t run under 21 minutes yet.
He was right. Later on in college, I ran 15:20 during an 8k cross country race in which I ran 24:53. You won’t always appreciate special moments while they are happening. It can take years until you realize, ‘woah’ that was life-changing!
He was a guy who also spread our culture of consistency. When coach asked him what he did to become a sub 16-minute runner, we were all waiting for some secret formula as his response. Rather, what he told us was, “I run every day. I run in the summer and I run in the winter. Anyone can find one hour each day to run.” He was right again. That simple idea of consistency drove our team’s success, and I have now seen it from the coaching perspective. Guys who find consistency in running year round (winter sports are great too!) can have amazing success. When a team commits to it, then there really is no limit.
It’s guys like Adam that make this sport special. There are no cliques or special priorities based on your abilities. We run as individuals, but always for the team. We motivate each other, and know what consistency and hard work can create. No matter how well we do on the course, we always have each other.
P.S., I split a two-liter bottle of soda with the other freshman after my first practice. I guess you grow a bit over the years…
So thankful to...
My parents for getting my reluctant butt to this first practice. They let me choose what I wanted to do, but made me commit to what I signed up for!
Coach Kurtz for introducing me to my passion of running and coaching! He allowed me to be myself and trusted me as a leader. He continues to be a mentor and supporter.
Coach Gross for bringing his love and passion to inspire us as humans.
Coach Hernandez for mentoring me the past few years and continuing to be an amazing friend.
Coach Dewitt for giving me a chance to have my first ownership of the distance program at Hale, even with little coaching experience at the time.
All of the coaches, teachers, teammates and others that I have learned from and continue to learn from today.
And now, the athletes I get to work with for continuing to shape my experiences and help me grow in the profession. Nobody teaches you more than the people you teach.