Since I was a kid, my mom always told me running was the best exercise because all I needed was a pair of shoes.
But to be a high school cross country runner, it comes down to something less tangible than shoes.
Cross country gets neglected. It gets overshadowed by the other fall sports, often dismissed by sports fans who see it as “just running.”
But when you break it down, cross country is just like any other sport.
Although times are individually measured, cross country is a team sport. During a race, runners on the same team have to motivate each other non-verbally to achieve a common goal.
“We’re really different,” said West Ranch runner Justin Sherfey of his team after the CIF-Southern Section Championships on Saturday. “Without running we wouldn’t be together. We run together as a team and we all need each other to place well.”
When I covered the CIF-SS finals on Saturday in Riverside, I was drawn to cross country’s suspense and unpredictability.
No one was counting on the Valencia boys to make an appearance at the CIF-SS finals. But they were there and finished 14th out of 24 teams.
As the Saugus girls runners were helped off the finals course by event staff, nearly foaming at the mouth from exertion after crossing the finish line, they didn’t know that their team would qualify for the state meet by a sliver after an intricate tie-breaker.
That’s a lot of pressure for a group of high school kids representing a program that has won nine state titles in the last 10 years.
“It’s kind of scary, but we don’t have anything to lose, maybe a state title,” said Saugus runner Mariah Castillo after her team’s Division 2 race.
“We all tried our best, but obviously it wasn’t good enough to perform well and obviously we had that tiebreaker. I don’t know how to explain it. We’ll just go out there and just see how we do.”
Then there’s the West Ranch boys.
At the start of the season, the Wildcats had no way of foreseeing they would qualify for state under first-year coach Sara Soltani. They didn’t know they would finish sixth, one spot ahead of Saugus, who also qualified for state.
At a cross country meet, everyone is running everywhere. The athletes jogged as they warmed up. The parents stampeded from one point of the course to another. A toddler who seemingly just learned to walk had his arms pumping as he trekked past me through the dust and mulch.
I even found myself running, whether it was to the clubhouse for an award ceremony, to the course or after our Signal photographer.
We run because there is motivation to get somewhere quickly. Run to the car in the driveway to get to work on time, run to a loved one who has been dearly missed.
Is it still “just running” when it’s for more than yourself? When it’s for teammates and titles? Or for Saugus, a decade of prestige?
Those question, and many others, will be explored at Saturday’s state meet in Fresno. And in true cross country fashion, the answer won’t be fully understood until the end of the race.