By Andy Mitchell
Whatever possessed me to join the cross-country team my freshman year of high school I don’t quite remember. It was the first time I had taken an interest in a sport my dad hadn’t encouraged me to pursue. I’d assumed I was going to play tackle football after graduating from flag football. But when I went for my physical the doctor declared my scrawny physique unfit for the rigors of contact sports. Not only did this pronouncement emasculate me, it took the wind out of me every bit as much as a middle linebacker might have. Since I had decent speed and had been expected to catch any pass that touched my hands, running patterns in the front yard with Dad, I’d always assumed – well dreamed – I was going to be the next Mel Gray, catching bombs in the end zone of the old Busch Stadium. Alas, that was not to be.
Nevertheless, I did have the perfect build for cross-country. Perhaps the doctor had suggested that running without the threat of attack would be a wiser course for me to take. Regardless, I took to it right away, enjoying the autonomy of an individual sport. Sure, we were a team, competing against other schools. But it’s not the same as a true team sport, wherein one is dependent on others in the pursuit of a common goal. When you’re out there running, you’re on your own, which can be kind of scary, but also quite liberating.
By the end of my first year I had worked my way into one of the top seven varsity spots, finishing fifth on the team at district, contributing to our overall score, which nearly qualified us for the sectional meet. It was a satisfying day, ending a satisfying year. I had set the new team record for freshmen at the time.
The next year I improved steadily, setting a new sophomore mark at the Community Park course. But in my junior year I failed to improve at the same rate, even though I finished consistently in the top three spots on the team.
In my final year at JHS I was improving once again, peaking at the right time, at the end of the season. While I’d failed to set any new marks, I had finished first on the team every meet, and fourth overall at the district race in Springfield, which qualified me for sectionals as an individual. I’ll never forget turning around to see the fifth and sixth place finishers, both rivals from Springfield schools, fighting as we walked through the finishing chute at Lincoln Park. I was nearly euphoric listening to them shouting at each other – behind me! I had never beaten either one of them before.
The following week the whole team practiced with me even though I was the only one still slotted to compete. The team’s season had already ended. So I felt rather special when all of us boarded the bus for what I hoped to be the penultimate bus ride of the season. I’d felt fairly confident about my chances of making it to state in the wake of my district performance. That is until I woke the morning of sectionals feeling wretched. There was a flu going around and I had caught it (or rather it had caught me) at the wrong time. But I showed up for the bus that was reserved expressly for me – heady, yet humbling stuff. Everyone was pumped. Cranking Queen’s “We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions,” they all sang along with Freddie Mercury. It was pretty darn cool. Except that my own mercury was rising, and I kept thinking I was going to hurl. Long story short: I finished an abysmal eighty-sixth place. Or something like that. Sick or not, I was embarrassed and dejected. All that hype for nothing. And my season was over.
The return bus trip was the longest of my life. It felt like it anyway. All I could manage to consume after the race were a few swigs of Mountain Dew, which, combined with the orange juice I’d had earlier that morning, produced a color not unlike that of the bus when I puked out of one of its windows. So at least you could hardly notice the vomit running down the outside. Thus concluded my cross-country career – with more guts than glory on display. Such as it is for most high school athletes.