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Cross Country and Life Lessons

November 04, 2021
By Emily Scheie, Upper School Literature Teacher and Middle School Cross Country Coach

When I was in 9th grade, I puzzled over the final lines of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “IF”: “If you can fill the unforgiving minute / With 60 seconds worth of distance run / Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, / And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”

Running for a minute can’t literally make you mature. But as I am in my fifth year of coaching middle school cross country, I’m realizing that those lines hold a lot of truth. Coaching cross country has been a metaphor for many spiritual lessons God has been shaping in my life.

As you might expect, cross-country shows me the power of courage and perseverance. Students don’t have to be star athletes to join our middle school team. They only have to be willing to work. Drastic improvement is a frequent occurrence on the middle school team. Runners who nearly melted after warm-up in August are running two miles with no trouble by November. A friend reminded me that our college had a T-shirt that said, “Come as you are, leave different.” I would say this is true of cross country. It’s not just showing up that causes you to change, though; it’s the hard work you put in day after day. All are welcome, but be warned—you WILL see improvements if you work.

This is just the obvious lesson, though. It’s the other lessons that I least expected and that I love most. For example, cross-country has taught me to not fear discomfort. It’s pouring rain? So what. We’re running. It’s hot outside? So what. We’re running. You can’t feel your fingers? Don’t worry. They’ll warm up while running. It sounds miserable, right? But somehow, choosing to take on the challenge lets us see we don’t have to be afraid of what life may throw at us. So much of our culture’s mindset is focused on making life comfortable. But choosing to be uncomfortable—choosing to put myself in pain in order to train for the worthy goal of winning a race—shows me how much I miss when I avoid discomfort at all costs.

By not being scared of a few aches and annoyances, I’ve experienced so much more of God’s good earth than I would have otherwise. The fun of leaping over (and in) puddles in the pouring rain. The fall sunset that cuts through the trees with its warmth. The force of the wind that almost blows me over as I stand on the sidelines, cheering on runners as they tear against the wind towards the finish. I would have missed all these memories had I been huddled by my heater instead. And I would have missed these chances to glorify and enjoy God, who made this earth and gave me the life and health to delight in it.

I don’t enjoy the cross country season alone, though, and cross country has taught me the power of a team. Cross country is not a contact sport. But cross country is, nonetheless, a team sport. It would be nearly impossible to train as hard, run as far, and have as much fun as we do during the cross country season if we didn’t have each other: coaches, runners, and parents. We set goals for each other and hold each other accountable for meeting our times. We sing songs for each other and run alongside each other when we are tired. We bring Gatorade and cookies to celebrate races, and we make posters to cheer on our big brothers and sisters on the varsity team. At the end of practice, we huddle together, sweaty and smelly, literally laying our hands on each other, and pray for each other.

We walk through much of life alone, and in cross country no one can run your race for you. But it’s the teammates—who run with you when you’re tired, give an encouraging word when you’re down, and get you a Gatorade when you’re sick after a race—who make it possible to press on. Thankfully, this kind of love doesn’t stay contained to the cross country field. I have made friendships with students, parents, colleagues, and church families, and I know I can lean on them even after the championship race has been run and awards have been given. I hope they know they can lean on me too.

The author of Hebrews, like Kipling, saw running as a metaphor for life: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” He saw that this race was not a solitary event; the runner is surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses.” My cross country runners have witnessed to me about the power of perseverance, the joy that can come amidst suffering, and the tremendous effect the love of a team can have on a person’s attitude about life.

Posted in Upper School

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