The toughness and courage it takes to run outdoor courses is impressive and runners deserve more credit than they get

The view outside your window on Friday morning was hardly inviting. And while Saturday was a bit more sunny, the mud, snow, ice and cold air didn’t go away.

Those are the kind of weather issues that have a way of rebuking outdoor activities, unless you’re a deer hunter. But if you’re a cross-country runner, you take on weather face-first on a regular basis as well, and Saturday was no exception. 

Saturday’s chilly start to the New York State Public High School Athletic Association cross-country championships at Wayne High wasn’t about to faze area runners. It might alter strategies, yes, but no matter what’s in the air or on the ground, they’ve put too much work into their running career to let weather ruin their dream of competing in the state meet.

The Marcus Whitman boys, the Canandaigua Academy girls, the Harley-Allendale Columbia girls, Red Jacket’s Olivia Spencer and Honeoye’s Mikayla Gullace all ran in the state championship races, along with hundreds of runners across New York.

Saturday wasn’t the first cross-country race I’ve seen, but after attending the Wayne-Finger Lakes League championships at Midlakes two weeks ago, the Section V championships last week at Wayne and Saturday’s state championships, I am convinced more than ever that cross-country runners fall far short of getting their due. 

I’ve long been a fan of running in all its forms of competition. As a kid, my father and I went to junior college track meets and that thrill of runners coming down the stretch is as exciting as it gets in the world of sports. It’s as pure as it gets: Who can run the fastest?

On the track, indoors or out, running is different. It’s not easy, just different. 

Because when it comes to cross-country, it’s about so much more than staying in your lane. On a cross-country course, there are no lanes. At least not formally.

And that’s what makes cross-country running the challenge that it is. Yes, the course is there to run but varying conditions in weather and surface make every race an adventure and a battle of will and mental toughness.

For example: Last week’s Section V championships at Wayne presented a course that was soaked by rain earlier in the week. Marcus Whitman’s Gabe Stash ran a winning time of 17:30 in the slop and mud to win the Class C individual title that helped the Wildcats clinch a team championship for the first time in school history.

But on that same course for the Wayne Invitational on Sept. 16, Stash ran a 17:20 on a drier, faster course. So nearly two months after his initial run on the layout, Stash needed 10 more seconds to finish, yet wins.

Of course, the fields of competitors were different for each race but the point is this: Cross-country running is about so much more than just running. It’s about racing, and how to adjust during the race.

Can you resist the temptation of that rabbit who set that false pace early? Are you going to use gravity to your advantage on those downhill runs to improve your placement? Are you going to run with a pack or are you more comfortable with space around you? 

Do you have enough in the tank to run the second half of the race faster than the first half to get that negative split? If you’re drafting behind another runner to cut down your wind resistance, how long will you do that and when do you make your move? If you run, you know how devastating it can be to be passed.

Most of these tactics apply to running anywhere, but the variables of weather and course conditions is what makes cross-country so unique. It’s a fascinating event to behold as you question the strategies that can change from race to race and mile to mile. 

Even at the state meet, the conventional strategy of saving your energy for a final kick was tested. Because stretches of the course were pure mud pits, which requires more energy to plow through. What’s more, finding smooth ground to run so you can make your move can be difficult to find and even if you do find it, everyone else in the race is looking to make the same move at the same time.

The toughness it takes to simply compete in these fields is impressive. And the toughness it takes to rise to the top of these fields is even moreso. This is why it’s difficult to argue with a cross-country runner who points out that they’ve made a sport out of the punishment for other sports.

It’s not easy to run cross-country, but to watch runners power through courses in the face of so many challenges is nothing short of admirable and courageous. 

So here’s a tip of the hat to you, cross-country runner. It’s well-deserved.

Chavez is sports editor at the Daily Messenger. Contact me at rchavez@messengerpostmedia.com or follow me @MPN_bchavez