In a fraction of a second I went from a full sprint to skidding across the ground — pea-sized gravel gashing my knees and elbows, turning them into strawberry crisp.
It was just a few seconds into the high school cross-country race in Sterling, and I’d sprinted near the front of the pack of over 100 runners before being tripped from behind.
Lying on the ground, my immediate worry was not about the race, my team or my skinned knees and elbows; I worried about the hundred or so runners behind me with half-inch spikes trying to avoid stepping on me.
Luckily, they all avoided me, but when I finally stood up, I was in last place with the pack sprinting away from me. I chased after them, because it was all I could do, and ended up finishing well in the race, albeit with blood running down my shins and forearms.
I’ve been tripped, fallen down and left skin and blood on the ground many times since that day, both literally and figuratively, but I’ve always stood up and gotten back in the race. It was one of many life lessons I learned from running cross-country.
Most nonrunners think distance runners train exclusively by running long distances, but as every competitive runner knows, the best way to improve is with a series of sprints called intervals.
In high school we had a drill that we did on the track where the coach would divide our team into two groups. The first group sprinted around the track one time, and when they approached the finish, the second group started. When that group approached the finish, the first group went again, and so on, until coach thought we’d had enough.
Life is like that, too — a series of intense efforts broken up by recovery breaks.
From kindergarten through college, we strengthen our minds with a series of short, sustained efforts divided by summer recovery breaks.
Every working day feels like a sustained effort followed by down time with family, or some kind of recreation with friends.
Many large life events, like moving, getting married and even having a child, require bursts of intense effort to achieve, and the relief of completing the task always feels like a well-deserved break.
Cross-country courses, at least in my time, were generally pieced together on school grounds, in parks or on golf courses. We ran on grass, dirt, gravel, down sidewalks and even across parking lots. Courses were hilly or flat, and autumn weather in Colorado, as everyone knows, can be unpredictable.
Every course, every race, was different, so they required different approaches, different mindsets, different expectations.
What worked on a windy, Fort Morgan golf course wasn’t the same as what worked on a rainy day in a Fort Collins park.
Life is a series of chapters — school, marriage, new jobs, new homes — and like cross-country courses, each one has its own set of challenges that require different approaches.
Another problem with cross-country courses is they sometimes have rough transitions from one part of the course to another, including rough ground, long weeds and even the aforementioned parking lot.
The trick is to keep momentum through the rough transitions.
Life if full of transitions: from child to adult, single to married, becoming a parent, youth to old age. Transitions are hard, and some people get stuck in the weeds, but maintaining momentum through transitions requires less effort than slowing down or stopping.
Like any endurance sport — cycling, swimming, skinning — you’re going to suffer if you want to compete as a distance runner. Everyone’s tolerance for pain is different, but the ability to push through it is one factor in separating the good runners from the great ones.
Everyone experiences times of suffering in life, whether with a health issue, a loss of employment or grieving the loss of a loved one. Pushing through those times makes us stronger, wiser and better able to deal with the next challenge.
Not all runners on a cross-country team are fast, but even slower runners perform better when paced by faster runners. On my high school team, we always made a point of pairing slower runners with faster ones in our training. Because of the way cross-country meets are scored, it helps to have everyone perform their best.
Not everyone is equally gifted at everything in life, but using the gifts we have to help, encourage and lift up those who are struggling makes the entire team better.
Make no mistake, we are all on the same team, and running in the same race, no matter how we look, act or sound to each other.
My high school’s motto was “All for one, and one for all.” I learned a lot of life lessons running high school cross-country, but that may have been the most important one of all.
Jeff Bear is a copy editor and newspaper page designer for Colorado Mountain News Media, and a longtime journalist in Colorado.