Parents: The Built-in Cross Country Fans
As a new high school cross country season begins, there are things parents of aspiring runners need to know to best support their child’s budding interest in this glorious sport. Cross country is its own unique (and painful) animal. And high school cross country, with its range of talent, experience, and intensity among athletes, parents, and coaches, requires some advance preparation and understanding before diving in.
First, the setting matters. Races can range from tri or quad meets with just a few teams lining up in a parking lot, to a massive invitational with colorful tents, banners flying and packs of kids running around in every possible shade of bright matching singlets. It can feel more like a medieval fair than a modern day sporting event.
“The pageantry of it really struck me,” says Margaret Carpenter, a Virginia-based cross country mom of her first cross country meet for George Marshall High School. “It’s really beautiful, almost military.” At a small meet you will find your kid no problem, but a bigger race may require more coordination. Tim Haight, another local cross country parent, advises parents to “arrive extra early — plan for traffic and parking — you don’t want to miss your child running.” Know the cell phone numbers of other parents, as your athlete may be warming up and unreachable when you arrive at the meet.
The weather is also a critical factor both in how you support your child and your own spectating comfort. Cross country can start as early as August, with temps and humidity at their most sweltering. If this is the case, a prepared parent will bring lots of cold water–enough for themselves and extra for their kid–and even a cooler full of ice to help the runners cool down before and after the race. Parents coming from work should ditch the suit and pumps and bring a change of comfortable clothing (running clothes encouraged!) and sensible shoes to deal with the dirt and grass of the typical cross country course.
Later in the season the tables will turn and layering will be the name of the game. Runners will want to keep their sweats on until just before the gun goes off, so one parent (check with the coach first) might volunteer to take all the kids’ sweats right as they step to the starting line. After the race, wet or sweaty-cold clothing will chill an athlete quickly, so encourage your kids to do their cool down jog immediately and then change into something dry. “It’s a long day for your child,” Haight says of Saturday invitational meets, “so send them with the food and clothing they will need to be comfortable in all weather circumstances.”
Perhaps the most important part of coming to support is having a cheering plan. Look at a map of the course in advance and identify a few places where you can watch. While cheering at the finish line is great, support throughout the race is even better, so look where a course figure-8s, loops (and you can take a shortcut across), or doubles back to maximize the number of times you see your runner. “When you get there, scope out earlier races so you can figure out the good spectating spots so you know where to look for your child,” Haight suggests.
Supporting high school cross country is about encouraging your kids and their teammates to have fun. As a parent you set the sportsmanship tone, so cheer for everyone on your team. “There are a lot of names to know, so write them down to learn them,” Carpenter advises. “By the end of your fourth season this is your family.” She advises parents become familiar with MileSplit.com, a high school running website with Virginia and Maryland sites. “Use it to educate yourself about some of the top runners, the ones your own kid is competing with…as well as the top teams in the state and what colors they’re wearing so that you can enjoy watching them outdo themselves at the front of the pack.”
If your kid is on the JV team, stick around for the varsity race. If they’re on varsity, show up in time for the JV events. “It’s such an easy sport to watch,” Haight says. “Just a few 20-minute races.” Mid-cross country race, an athlete can reach a mentally dark place, so tell them they look awesome! Tell them they’re doing great! Tell them they look strong! “They have a coach,” Carpenter says, “so it’s up to you to be their cheerleader.”
There are many ways you can support your kids physically and mentally outside of the race itself. “By junior year, when schoolwork becomes more intense, realize how much the sport takes out of your runner each practice and pick up the pieces,” says Carpenter. “Get him to gear down for earlier sleep each night…we asked him often how we could help him [and] did some planning out loud to help him manage the full days and full load.” Fueling your runner is a good place to focus, so talk to the coach and consult other running resources to learn about the best eating habits for young athletes. “As my son got more serious about his sport, I saw him go for fuel more than snacks so I tried to support that.”
Before the season even begins you can start preparing for the demands of cross country. “You have to go to a running store and buy the appropriate shoes,” advises Haight. “Also go to the coach for advice and look into summer running options,” as many teams have casual running meet-ups, often organized by team captains, throughout the summer. Carpenter recommends sending your kid to a running camp if possible to give them the opportunity to discover and fall in love with running culture independent from parental involvement.
Burnout is a danger for any athlete. Haight points out that, “when kids think running is not fun, it’s really the parents and coach making it not fun.” Supportive parents should “encourage all the good parts about running and hopefully then your kid matures into someone who wants to continue to run and run and run.” Carpenter echoes his sentiments. “Tune into the identity of being a runner and what being a part of this really glorious thing is all about, and the times will probably take care of themselves.”
When it comes to race day, immediately before the race pressure is building, so it’s likely best to leave your athlete alone. Running is an intense sport, and your child will be dealing with pre-race jitters, focus, and team dynamics. Don’t add pressure by asking too many questions or fixating on how good (or not good) they feel. If you are nervous for them (which, as a parent, you very likely are), those nerves will rub off and add additional pressure to an already high-pressure situation. As a supporter, you are there to tell them they feel great and will be awesome. If anything, remind them before the race to trust in their training and to have fun.
Afterwards, if they had a good race, celebrate with them! And if they had a rough day, celebrate with them! As long as they tried their best, it counts as a win. Success in cross county takes time. That’s time on a daily basis–time to train, time to rest, time to sleep–and also over the course of years. Focus freshmen on enjoying the experience. As they mature and build mileage and endurance they will inevitably improve, but none of that will happen if they’re not having fun.
Finally, “Go to as many meets as you can,” Carpenter’s first point of advice, is echoed by many parents. “They’re long days, so you give up Saturday, but you only have so much time with the kids and it’s so beautiful what they do.” Pointing to the life lessons–sportsmanship, dedication, diligence, joy in exercise–gained from participating in cross country, she notes, “they’re finding their character in this and it’s great to see a young person discover that it’s a lifelong sport.” Haight agrees and advises parents to “nurture the interest because running is a habit and a hobby that they can live with forever.”
Nobody on the Walter Johnson girls’ team has ever known a world in which they haven’t been defending state champions. That will continue for another year, after the Wildcats won their record fifth straight 4A title.
Lake Braddock girls won their third straight 6A title, once again beating Oakton, winner of the two state meets before the Bruins’ streak started.
After three years of winning team scores in the 40s, the Bruins nearly doubled that, scoring 86 to Oakton’s 92.
They did it with a tight pack of their fourth through seventh runners, who finished 31st, 32nd, 33rd, 35th and 38th.
Senior Sarah Daniels led the way in sixth (19:00) and Brielle Perry in 14th in 19:28. Rebecca Doran (20:02), Zoe Rafter (20:03), Samantha Schwers (20:07), Madeline McAvoy (20:09) and Madeleine Fleenor (20:11), respectively, also raced. Daniels, Schwers and McAvoy returned from last year’s team.
On the eve of the the most dominant team race in Virginia history, Sam Affolder was a little disappointed.
“We had a team meeting, and I was expecting an inspirational speech about how we were going to make history and we’d come out fired up,” he said. “We talked about what we were going to wear the next day. Nothing about trying to sweep or go after the state record. I’d never had a pre-race meeting like that before.”
It looked like Gavin McElhennon was making a mistake. As he powered his way around the perimeter of the Kenilworth Park fields, he let Luke Tewalt hang behind him. He blocked the wind, set the pace and put himself out there, vulnerable for Tewalt to attack and take over the lead in the D.C. state cross country championships.
But his confidence in his strength gave him a boost and let him know it was alright, and the move he made with a mile to go gave him the margin he needed to win. He wound up running away from Tewalt and finishing in 16:34, 21 seconds faster than Tewalt on a course measured by several team representatives to have been between 75 and 200 feet longer than 5k. A permit conflict with the Kenilworth Park track prevented the use of the same course used in last year’s state meet and four years of the DCXC Invitational.
Two Northern Virginia teams with hopes for making the state’s 6A meet under new challenges sharpened up for the post-season at the Third Battle Invitational, with J.E.B. Stuart’s boys and West Springfield’s girls getting the wins.
West Springfield put four runners in the top 16 to edge 5A’s Tuscarora, who themselves had two ahead of the Spartans, including overall winner Emma Wolcott (17:56). and Ava Hassebrock (18:34) in eighth.
The trip from Southwest Virginia did not tire out Abingdon senior Karl Theissen (15:15), the defending 3A champion, who won a home stretch kick over Stafford’s Philip Lambert (15:22). Poolesville’s Ryan Lockett (15:37), who recently committed to Virginia, edged Edison’s Yared Mekonnen (15:39) to be the first D.C.-area finisher.
It’s a relatively flat course, with a mile-long loop through a narrow forest trial less than a quarter mile into the race. That forces runners to position themselves quickly, and Lockett was more aggressive than usual, tucking behind a trio of Tuscarora guys and two Stuart runners.
Maryland runners made themselves at home at Virginia’s Bull Run Regional Park, winning the individual and team titles at the Glory Days Invitational. Walter Johnson senior Abbey Green led the girls’ race from the start, and cleared the way for the Wildcats to claim the team title.
On the boys’ side, Poolesville’s Ryan Lockett overpowered Severna Park’s Garrison Clark in the last half mile, despite a rough start and a last-mile misstep.
A dry September left the usually-muddy course as dry as it has been since 2012, but the heat and direct sunlight and mid-afternoon race times slowed down what a faster course sped up. Lockett’s 16:03 has him a second ahead of Alec Shrank and Rohann Asfaw‘s photo finish in 2016. The meet was not as deep, individually, with many D.C.-area teams heading to the Great American Cross Country Festival in North Carolina.
Basking in his 15:11 that led the day’s times at the DCXC Invitational, Grafton senior Price Owens summed up the day’s races without saying a word.
He threw back his head and guzzled from a gallon jug of water.
Owens was one of the fortunate ones – the senior boys’ race, the last of eight varsity races divided by high school class, went off a little after 6 p.m., when the sun was setting and the temperature was waning from the 89-degree high. His female counterpart, Page Lester, sprawled across the finish line a half hour earlier, after hanging around the course all day. An hour before that, Nandini Satsangi stopped short of the finish line, woozy from the heat, and needed the crowd to tell her she wasn’t done yet. She finished the race sprawled on the track and recovering in the medical tent.
“I could hear people, but I didn’t know what they were saying,” she said of the latter parts of the race. “I was just trying to keep going.”
Rolling Hills of Cement
Cross country is a rough sport. Athletes brave all kinds of weather and all kinds of terrain; they run on hills, rocky trails, mud and sometimes even through creeks. Sometimes that iconic and pastoral racing environment isn’t available every day, but even in a “concrete jungle” with some of the worst traffic in the nation, many D.C. runners still log those miles.
The Oatlands Invitational in Leesburg served as a showcase for the nearby Loudoun Valley, but not just the school’s nationally-top-ranked boys’ varsity team. Junior Sam Affolder‘s 15:43 win for 5k led the way for five team titles and three runner-up finishes for various Viking teams.
Affolder, seniors Peter Morris (third, 16:01) and Colton Bogucki (ninth, 16:19), and juniors Jacob Hunter (13th, 16:29) and Jacob Windle (20th, 16:52) scored 46 team points and had all finished before second place Cary, N.C.,’s Green Hope had two runners in. The Falcons, who also came up for the 2014 DCXC Invitational, scored 117 points and Delaware’s Salesianum School was third with 194 points.