The crowd is going nuts. The roar is deafening, but nobody can make out any words over the noise. School logos and team colors blend together in the mob as they start to creep in closer, trying not to miss a moment of the action, all the while cheering and screaming louder and louder.
But I’m not at Alumni Stadium. I’m nowhere near Conte Forum. I’m not watching football, basketball, hockey, or any sport that involves balls or people body-slamming each other for them. Nope, I’m in Boston, at Franklin Park, at the NCAA Cross Country Championship.
My relationship with running started pretty much how everyone else’s did: I hated it. I only started to run to train for high school soccer tryouts. From there, it’s a sappy story: I did indoor track to “stay in shape,” as all high school freshman girls like to say. Eventually I started running more and more, and liking it more and more. I decided to ditch soccer, “follow my heart,” and run cross country, as one does.
Anyway, my cheeky love story with running is not the point. I’m not going to preach about how everyone should try running, that they’ll grow to really like it, or that anyone can do it—that sort of thing. I can’t make you love running if you don’t. But I can try to make you like watching it.
Cross country is a spectator sport. I’ll pause for laughter.
It’s hard to appreciate running if you don’t do it. It’s easy to just shrug it off. A lot of people are impressed by the ability of runners, but don’t care enough to go and watch it.
And even those who might have interest don’t understand. They wonder how anyone’s supposed to watch running when the runners are, you know, running. They disappear in and out of the woods, and you don’t see them half the time unless you run alongside them. What kind of spectator sport is that?
A spectator sport is normally one in which people have a designated place to sit and watch: a stadium, an arena, a couch. When watching cross country, there’s no sitting. It requires constant movement from the people watching, maybe even a bit of running.
I know all of that sounds less than appealing, but stick with me. There’s a certain amount of energy and spirit that comes with spectator sports. Think about the sounds and sights of a stadium—think about all that hype. Now take that whole atmosphere, put it in a wide open space outdoors, and set it loose. It’s like releasing a herd of restless golden retriever puppies. Arguably, that’s the scene of a cross country meet.
I’ve never been to a meet just as a spectator, always as a runner. I’ve never been just to watch, and it is significantly different on the other side. Naturally, I have certain emotions attached to cross country—I got nervous and anxious and twitchy just standing and watching the runners go by me. I had to keep telling myself that I was not here to actually race, and there were a few times where I had to tell myself to keep breathing normally.
But regardless of my personal stake in running, I had a new experience the day I went to watch the Eagles’ race. Maybe it’s because I’m usually the one running, and by the finish my ears aren’t working and my eyes can only focus on the next step I have to take. But as I perched along the final straightaway stretch, I felt something I had never experienced before.
Because the crowd really was going insane. There was so much yelling I instinctively covered my ears. You wouldn’t think the quiet sport that strolls through the woods would have crowds cheering so loud they make eardrums bleed, or that there would be much excitement and support for a sport that relies heavily on the individual.
You wouldn’t think that there would even be any sense of competition, either. Tell that to the BC women who raced on Friday and finished fourth overall, with top finisher Laura Hottenrott placing seventh out of 256, while the BC men came in 17th as a team. But that’s where most of the energy comes from in a spectator sport—competition, right? I’m right.
Well, you arguably haven’t seen competition until you see two runners, inches apart, each fighting to finish ahead of the other. Their faces are contorted in pain, their legs look like they’re made of concrete, their bodies move in slow-motion as if they’re underwater. But it’s these last few grueling moments that make the race, and make it worth watching. It’s a hard sight, and an even more difficult feeling to put into words, which is why you should all witness it for yourselves.
Cross country seems like a silent sport. Running in general is only popular in the running community, because it seems as though runners are the only ones who can appreciate it enough to watch.
But regardless of whether you run or not, the same amount of spirit and energy that you would see at a hockey game or a football game exists on a cross country course. For a lot of people, it’s not a sport worth doing. But it can be a sport worth watching.
Featured Image by Kelsey McGee / For The Heights