This is the season of the lonely sport.
It is called cross country.
The glory and the glamour are on the gridiron. The guts are out on the course where the cross country meets are run.
Football players perform in front of thousands of frenzied, shrieking fans in plush stadiums. Their rib-rattling efforts are cheered on by long-legged, short-skirted cheerleaders. They are outfitted with the best equipment plastic, rubber, and jersey can provide.
Their every hangnail is ministered to by a battery of trainers, physicians, and surgeons. Sports writers give them flashy names like "Tank" and "Animal" and "Roadrunner", and pour out reams of purple prose, quoting faithfully every belch and grunt, while radio and TV casters describe their every move in breathless decibels.
The football player gets the stats and the ink and the homecoming queen.
The cross country runner gets leg cramps, seared lungs, and the dry heaves.
Most cross country meets are about as well attended as a refrigerator auction in Siberia, or the commission of an act of hari-kari.
Cross country runners have no equipment problems. They put on shorts, maybe a t-shirt, and some shoes. If you're really sporty, you wear a headband to keep the sweat out of your eyes.
Football players hear the swelling crescendo of 70,000 voices screaming to score. Cross Country runners hear their own rasping breathing, the pounding of their blood in their head, the crunching rhythm of their own footsteps . . . and a little voice whispering taunts, asking maddening questions: "Only three more miles, spaghetti legs, only three more miles . . . will you make it? Or are you gonna quit? Come on, lie to your legs some more; tell them just one more hill then you'll sit down and rest."
They call it the loneliness of the long distance runner. It is an apt phrase. For the runner has only one other companion in each race . . . his name is pain.
They draw elaborate patterns of X's and O's in football, they send out scouts, they use computers, and they draw up game plans more complex and involved then the D-Day invasion of the beaches at Normandy.
But the strategy in cross country is simple and brutal. You go out and run and you run until you think you simply cannot take one more step, you run until it feels like your head is a hornets' nest with its own population explosion and your lungs are on fire and your heart is a beating jackhammer fast and your stomach is churning with nausea and your legs weigh 400 pounds apiece and you're wondering seriously about your own sanity, wondering why the name of exhaustion you ever answered the starter's gun . . . well, you run until all of this happens . . . and then you run some more.
Cross country runners perform in no plush stadium. Their course may be laid out over a golf course. Or through a park. Or over plowed fields. Up the hill, down the hill, across the creek, through the trees, around the briar patch, watch out for (ouch!) rocks.
They have no marching bands, no flash card sections. Their cheerleaders are the birds and the squirrels, which, startled but curious, watch in head-tilted puzzlement as this strange creature, which walks upright, goes galloping on in his underwear.
Those who coach the lonely sport will tell you a cross country runner needs: (a) endurance, (b) mental discipline, (c) a high threshold of pain.
And a cross country runner himself/herself may find it difficult to tell you why he runs, just as the mountain climber may find it difficult to tell you why he scales the summit. Or tries.
But one put it this way: "Finishing first is a great feeling, sure. There is nothing like being first through the chute. But I'd still run even if I finished dead last every time.
"I guess it's because you get to know yourself . . . the hard way. You run and you get tired and you push yourself and you get a second wind and a third and then you're just going on guts, and when it's really tough, when you feel like you've had the crap kicked out of you, why it's like you're not part of your body anymore, it's like your up above watching yourself . . . it's almost like everything's stripped away clear down to your soul, and it's all there for you to see".
"I guess I just like to look. So I keep running . . ."