The flag goes up and the gun is now directly beside it. Silence grips the hundreds gathered, and an unnatural hush grips each runner. Eyes widen and feet paw at the start line, competitors rocking forward, willing the starter to pull the trigger. It is not sound but a faint puff of smoke that sets the thousand screaming voices and the ground shaking stampede erupting into the morning. I am an animal. I am a frightened animal clawing my way out of the multitude. Nothing seems to matter but survival, that, and the adrenaline pumping through my system. I love it. The terror grips only the weakest of heart, and the others surge like hungry dogs into the fray.
Spikes fly everywhere, dangerous silver flashes in the sun. Men go down, some trampled, some clinging to the competitors around them. I am lucky. I have gotten to the front, my burst of speed saving me from the larger mass in the back, but I have paid a price. A large red slice runs down my leg, unfelt in the heat of the moment, but I feel it then, at the mile mark, cold blood dripping down my leg. It is but a minor detail, and the rush still grabs hold of me, urging me onward faster and harder. I find my stumbling effort intertwining with the exhaustion of those around me.
In a race it is all about working with the others, not against them. Any runner with a sense of competition knows that the best performance is done alongside or even behind the enemy, not in front. We are allowed to shove, to use our elbows as tools of thrust, but seldom do we do it, even in the secrecy of the woods. It is a bond shared with any competitor, the brotherhood of pain, the singular goal to beat the clock and the inner beast that constantly demands the racer to give up. If one succeeds brilliantly in one’s career it is simply a bi-product of the race, and of the love of the race. One may become adept at it, and even score a few points, but that should always come second to the rush it gives, that dependable hold of the competitor.
I know all of this, and glide forward with my chosen allies, who were also my bitter foes. It is always exciting to find those few partners, whom the runner will almost inevitably find and stay with from the mile mark on. My numb legs push up the last painful hill, and my lungs erupt in fiery sensation. Pain clouds my mind, and now I desperately need the allies, the bitter foes, beside me. The finish is close by, and we all feel it approaching. Together we hold firm, sweat, blood, and mud flinging in droplets off of our bodies. The final field flies up at us, and trembling we clasp each other in a mental death grip. Leaning heavily upon this grip we blast around the final curve and battle for places along the last straightaway. Spittle and gasps fill the air as into the chutes we go with much staggering and all hands on hips.
A runner cannot hope to achieve greatness or any form of fulfillment without the competitor. The competitor is both loved and hated, adored and envied. Every runner is part of a single network. The racers push their limits as a whole. All members are allowed to develop their talents to the fullest potential through the mental grip on the contestants around. Running in this event, one begins to realize the simple genius of this human encounter. The cross country race, looked upon fondly as the brotherhood of brutality, is one of the most stark and poetic of teachers.
I love running, and I love pushing myself to the furthest boundaries of my capabilities. Exerting myself to levels of immense strain and effort has become more than a thing of simple curiosity and excitement of the new experience The spirit of dedication and strain has come to define who I am. This is true on the race course, but also in the classroom, at work, and in my relationships. I am one of the “run until I collapse” mentality, and I bear that banner proudly.