The toughest athletes no one ever sees

I’d been warned about the puke and the rain.
But I wasn’t expecting tears.

The first girls who burst into the finishing chute at this week’s middle school cross country meet at Norwell were mud-spattered, soaked and sobbing.

Talk about a Tough Mudder. I’ve seen the trailer for those events designed by British Special Forces, in which participants pay well over a hundred bucks to subject themselves to a race designed like some kind of Braveheart boot camp.

These girls had clearly pushed themselves and each other to the limit through a swampy woods, and none of them were even in high school yet.

I really wish I had some pictures from the slog meet, but I was working in the finishing chute and didn't get any. This is from a couple of meets ago.

This is a sport with zero visibility. There are no bleachers. The course itself is practically invisible to the untrained eye. The starting line materializes on the grass a few hours before each race and disappears again shortly afterward. At this level, at least, the kids don’t always know which team won until scores are computed the next day.

But there is glory here, and anguish, and everything in between. Not all the kids push themselves to the brink of pain or tears. But nobody languishes on the bench. Everybody runs, and it’s up to you, not the coach, as to how bright your star shines.

Maybe the most surprising thing, though, in my first peek at a sport I’d never watched before this fall, when Ben surprised me by signing up, is the team spirit. The kids run in group formation at practice. They compete against each other, yet exult in their teammates’ success. With each new personal best, the team advances as a whole.

It’s not for everybody. Just this week I was talking to a guy who asked how my running was going, then commented how much he hates running, despite — or perhaps because of — his experience on his high school cross country team.

But if a kid chooses to try it, rather than feeling pressured to do so, the way so many kids are in so many sports, I can’t think of a better way to expand your boundaries, to find out what you’re capable of.

It was a pleasure to cut the computer chips off these valiant runners’ muddy spikes Wednesday night. I’m still amazed and proud that my son was one of them.

Ben rehashes the race at a recent meet.

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3 Responses to The toughest athletes no one ever sees

  1. lesemann says:

    This was a good one, Tanya, esp. so! I think we’re so impressed when our kids pull the strength out of the depths of their souls. When Alice passed a search and rescue test the other day, after going to the waterfront day after exhausting day, trying to learn a bzillion knots, and she pulled it off… I was impressed. So were her teachers. This from a kid with real social anxiety, and the waterfront folks are not friendly. But she pushed through. Performed under fire.

    Good for Ben! He’s one tough, resilient kid – it’s the best thing to have, I think, far beyond being smart.

  2. Chas and Linda Isch says:

    I would never have guessed that Ben would be running at all let alone cross country races. I am amazed at his toughness and gutting it out at the end of each race.

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