It's back-to-school time and junior high players everywhere are contemplating how best to make their mark on the athletic world. Here's the thing—running until your sternum glows and your legs bend in unusual places lacks appeal to the youngster. Football has cheerleaders. Basketball has a crowd. Gymnastics has awesome equipment and dance has sparkles. Soccer has the opportunity for drama and expressive hair, and hockey always gets the big lockers. And cross country? They get loneliness.
I'm making a literary reference here to Alan Sillitoe's 1959 short story, without which there would be absolutely no record of what happens to thin bookish kids after sixth period. No one notices when they quietly patter off school grounds, and everyone's gone home by the time they straggle back. No one's been to a cross country meet, and those who've participated don't talk up the fact that they ran until their internal organs melted and hurled in the finish chute, for 59th place.
It's not glamorous, cross country. Surprisingly few children observe the contorted faces and wide range of bodily fluids on display at the end of a local road race, the most publicly visible form of running, and think, I want to do that! As any cross country coach will tell you, the sport is a hard sell at the junior high. There's a healthy influx of recruits after soccer and volleyball tryouts, and some ex-football nonplayers: They take what they can get.
Interestingly, even some of the best in the running biz did not go into it for love of covering ridiculous distances on foot. While yet a clean slate, before their judgment was tainted by the sweet taste of success, here's what motivated some great runners to take that first knob-kneed stride.
Bob Kempainen, Olympic marathoner in 1992 and 1996, best of 2:08:47 at 1994 Boston Marathon
Kempainen followed his older brothers into cross country, but replied via email this is what clinched it: "One of the big factors in wanting to join cross country in 7th grade was that we would be allowed to spend the entire night locked in our junior high tackling each other in the hallways as part of the end of the year celebration. In retrospect, it really wasn't a decision based on flawed data because that is what we actually did, and that was as good as it got for me at the time."
Dick Beardsley, placed a close second to Alberto Salazar at 1982 Boston Marathon, in 2:08:53, although this photo is Beardsley (left) and Inge Simonsen in the 1981 London Marathon
With typical self-deprecating humor, Beardsley responded via email with this story: "I was a late bloomer to the sport. I didn't start running until I was a junior in high school. I was into hunting, fishing, trapping, anything to do with the outdoors, until finally, at about the age of 17, girls started looking pretty good to me but I was such a shy kid the thought of talking to a girl about made me sick to my stomach! However I did notice that many of the guys who were good in sports would wear their high school letter jackets around school and had girls all around them, so I thought if I earned a letter jacket the girls would come to me. I went out for football and got gang tackled the first day of practice. I remember getting up out of that pile of guys and thinking there wasn't a girl alive that was worth going through that. I walked off the field and quit! Best thing that ever happened to me. About a week later, I went out for the XC team. I was terrible but I hung in there and eventually made the varsity team when I was a senior. I never made it to the state meet in Minnesota, in XC or track, but I was really loving running by my senior year. I went to Wayzata High School and my big influence for running, other than trying to get a date with a girl, was my best friend, George Ross, who was a really good runner."
Carrie Tollefson, represented the US at the 2004 Olympics in 1500 meters, won 13 state championships in cross country and track while in high school
A multi-talented athlete, Tollefson continued to play basketball in the winter through high school. She responded via email: "I started running with my family. We would go to road races with my parents and I would run parts of the race, but really, I just watched my dad and older sisters run. When I was 12 and in 7th grade, I could be on the cross country team with my sister, Kammie. The reason I chose cross country over volleyball was to be able to practice with Kammie. I didn't love the sport of distance running at first, but learned early on that I liked running hard and bettering my time and position. It didn't take long for me to get hooked."
Richard Kaitany, plant pathologist in Michigan, ran to earn money for graduate school including 2:09 at Chicago Marathon
There is no Getty image of Richard Kaitany running because he was a reluctant runner, using his talent as a means to education, which he loved. I went to Iowa State with Kaitany, and got hold of him again by phone 30-some years later:
On his first day at St. Patrick's High School in Iten, Kenya, teachers gathered the uniformed first years outside and told them everyone was going to run and they should run fast because the second years would be behind them, beating the laggards with sticks. Richard Kaitany had not had any special interest in running before that, but neither did he have much interest in getting hit, so he took off briskly and was one of the first boys to return from the six-mile initiation.
"I saw the athletics coach writing things down," said Kaitany. "If I had known this would mark me as a runner, I wouldn't have gone as fast."
That was 1974, when running for a US university was starting to be a viable pathway to higher education for Kenyan kids. Indeed, St. Patrick's had already established successful connections with running programs at University of Texas El Paso, Washington and Oklahoma, and more US coaches sent brochures every day. Kaitany went along with the running but what he really enjoyed was academics. When he matriculated at Iowa State in 1978 on a track and cross country scholarship, he listed plant pathology as his major.
Ryan Hall, Olympic marathoner in 2008 and 2012, ran fastest marathon by an American at 2011 Boston Marathon, 2:04:58
"I started running at the beginning of 9th grade. My dad was always doing triathlons and stuff, but I didn't like it. I was sitting on the bench a lot in basketball and that made me mad. One day we were driving by the (Big Bear) Lake and I told my dad, 'That's beautiful, I want to run around it.' So a few weeks later, I did (run around it) and it's 15 miles. I did it in basketball shoes. I was really sore (afterwards)." — excerpt from LetsRun.com interview, done when Hall was a high school senior in 2000
Andrew Carlson, debuted in the marathon with a 2:11:24 at the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials
Carlson, now coaching track and cross country at North Dakota State University, responded via email: "My serious running days began in 8th grade. I had played defensive end on the football team the previous year but, being wise beyond my years, I realized that an NFL career was not in my future. An NBA career was, on the other hand, very attainable. I figured I would need something in the fall to stay in shape for basketball season, so a few weeks into the cross country season I joined the team. I had minimal success in my first race but that could have had something to do with my heavy shoes, basketball shorts and pre-race meal (corn nuts, Skittles and Powerade). By the end of the season, I had secured a spot on the team for the State Meet (the 10th spot, in North Dakota, where every team goes to state and everyone gets to run 10 athletes). As the years have gone on, I've realized that maybe that wasn't the greatest accomplishment, but at the time I would have compared it to an Olympic team berth."
Brenda Martinez, bronze medalist at 2013 World Championships at 800 meters in 1:57:91
Carlton Austin, founder of the youth track club West Coast Gazelles, coached Martinez from the time she was five years old through high school. Here's what he remembers about the World 800-meter bronze medalist's early days on the track:
"Brenda's parents worked long hours, two jobs I think, which is why they brought Brenda to track—to keep her out of trouble. They made sure she was there every day. She had a brother and a sister but her parents knew they had something in Brenda. They couldn't afford to send her to music lessons or basketball or whatever; track was all she had. West Coast Gazelles was $15 a month but, you know, not everyone could afford that.
Right from the start, five years old, she ran everything— 100, 200, 400, 800, 1500. In the fall we did a cross country program. When she was five, Brenda ran 1.3 miles cross country. She was never the best athlete, there were a lot of girls faster, but she had the three Ds — desire, determination, dedication. If anyone was going to beat her, they'd have to do it again and again because she would keep coming back. By the time she was 9, she pretty much always ran 800 and 1500."
Shannon Rowbury, 2008 and 2012 Olympic 1500-meter runner, bronze medalist at 2009 World Championships at 1500 meters
"I started out a bit different than most runners. I was a dancer. At first I did ballet. I remember telling my grandma I didn't want to do ballet anymore–I didn't want to just do recitals for people. I didn't realize it at the time, but I think it may have been the thrill of competition, because Irish Dancing had a competitive aspect to it where you would be standing on stage in front of judges all by yourself performing a choreographed routine. That was really thrilling for me because I really liked the chance to get a finite sense of how I was doing compared to others [she was ranked 7th nationally as an Irish dancer]... I started that [Irish dancing] when I was 5 and did that until I was 16... I have fallen in love with the sport of running over time, but my first attraction to it was having the chance to compete and see how I could do against other people and test my physical abilities compared to them...I started running as a freshman in high school, just because one of my friends was doing it and I really didn't have anything to do after school. Being a hyperactive kid, I was just like, 'Okay, let's go to running practice. That sounds fun!' I did really well in my first race…" —excerpt from an interview with Fiterazzi.com
Haile Gebrselassie, Ethiopian long-distance runner has held world records from 5,000 meters (12:39.36) to marathon (2:03:59)
CNN: What was your childhood like?
Haile Gebrselassie: I was the kind of child who worked hard every day with the cows and sheep — I was a very aggressive boy. When they asked me to go somewhere I didn't like to walk, just run — I liked to do things faster. I did things before everybody else, especially when I was young. I always wanted to be the best.
CNN: Who inspired you to be the best?
Haile Gebrselassie: After the 1980 Moscow Olympic games when Miruts Yifter won the 5,000 and 10,000 meters, I wanted to be like him, but of course I was only 7 years old and I had no chance until 1988. When my brother started running he asked me to join him — that was at the end of 1987. I had the chance to compete in school and that was the moment I started athletics
CNN: Was it obvious that athletics was suited to your body?
Haile Gebrselassie: When I had no shoes I was comfortable — I used to run barefoot. When I wore shoes it was difficult. To run in shoes was ok, but at the beginning of my career it was hard. In our countryside, you see those kids they are very comfortable with no shoes. It's better to have no shoes than not the right ones.
CNN: Was it hard to live in a hut?
Haile Gebrselassie: Yes, very hard. But before I used to live like I do now, it was not that difficult. We were fine. We were happy family. Of course if you asked me now to live that way — impossible!
CNN: Tell us about your parents
Haile Gebrselassie: We were a big family — there was 12 of us. I had five brothers and four sisters. When I try to explain about our life, it's much better to see what's happened right now — especially when you are in the countryside. It's a little bit difficult, working hard, a traditional way of life — the way you grow the crops — we were struggling from the beginning until I became what I am now. Life is a kind of struggle. Life is a sort of fight… My father didn't think running was sensible. He told me running is just wasting time. But of course running is fun and at the same time you can make something of your life. He refused when I asked him to run. He stopped me running around when I started at school. He told me to stop running, do my work and not be like the others. When I told him: "Let me be like them," he said: "Come on, stop it!" But I had an opportunity to join my brother, he starting running before I did.
CNN: When was the first big moment in your running career?
Haile Gebrselassie: My first big moment was in 1987 when I ran at school — I won the 1500 meters — and I was the youngest. I left the group very quickly, and everyone in the stadium was saying this poor boy, he's going to stop somewhere. He will kill himself. He's gonna burn himself out — and the group of runners was behind me. Every lap, 20 meters 30 meters 50 meters. In the end it was around 100 meters between them and me. When I crossed the line, all the spectators ran to meet me, and they threw me up because they were surprised that I would win against the big boys. I had confidence after that. —excerpt from CNN.com interview
Paula Radcliffe, English world record holder in the marathon, 2:15:25, four-time Olympian, former world champion at marathon, half-marathon and cross country
When I was a child my dad would jog in the woods near our home and my brother and I would go and hand him drinks - and sometimes join in for a mile or two. It really annoys me that in school, cross country is often seen as a punishment. I was incredibly shy as a child, and sport made me self-confident, gave me self-esteem and I think, it helped me to do better academically.
When I was about 10, I went to see my dad in the London marathon and saw Ingrid Kristiansen set the women's world record, and I remember thinking: 'I'd love to do that.' It's still really clear to me. It was that that inspired me. It would be so rewarding to think I could do the same for someone else. —excerpt from theguardian.com
She started running at the age of 7 even though she suffered from asthma... —excerpt from Askmen.com
Her father had run marathons as a young man and, when he took it up again in an attempt to lose weight after stopping smoking, the young Paula trotted alongside. She started going to Frodsham Athletic Club, near their home in Northwich, and when the family moved south she joined a group of girls at Bedford and County AC, under the supervision of Alec and Rosemary Stanton. Her father became vice-chairman of the club and her mother, a fun-runner, managed the women's cross-country team.
"You can't tell how anyone's going to turn out," Alec Stanton said back then. "At 11 years of age they're all ordinary little girls. And that's how they are until they're 16; some are going forward, some are going back. Paula was never a southern champion at under-13 level, for instance. But it's often the good runners who make great runners, if you see what I mean. When they get to 15 or so, really, that's the nitty-gritty….She has never been pushed. Any pushing came from within. Her parents and her coaches encouraged her to make sure that she got her academic qualifications first. As for the running, they would see how it went. If she turned out to be really good, the decision would make itself."… Her first race at a national level came as a 12-year-old in 1986 when she placed 299th out of around 600 in the girls' race of the English Schools Cross Country Championships. She finished fourth in the same race one year later. —excerpt from theguardian.com
Paul Tergat, Kenyan long-distance runner, World Cross Country Champion five times in a row in the 1990s, former world record holder in marathon, 2:04:55, three-time Olympian with 10K best of 26:27.85
Paul Tergat started running at a late stage. After having played basketball in former years, he started running seriously only after [high] school. "It was not before I joined the Air Force at the age of 19 when I started my real training." In contrast to many of the Kenyan world class athletes, running to school played no part in his development. "My way to school did not matter because I lived just 400 metres away from it. So I did not run 10K to school and back like other pupils." Still there was an interest in running when Paul Tergat was young. "I admired our great Kenyan runners like John Ngugi, Moses Tanui or Paul Kipkoech. They were a great inspiration for me." — from the Berlin Marathon website
Galen Rupp, member of the US Olympic team in 2008 and 2012, silver medalist in 10K at 2012 Olympics, American record holder at 10K (26:44.36), as well as indoor 3000 meter, two-mile and 5000 meter
Strictly speaking, the Galen Rupp era in U.S. distance running began on a late-summer day in 2000, when Jim Rilatt, the soccer coach at Central Catholic High School in Portland, Ore., watched a skinny, towheaded 14-year-old freshman midfielder, totally untrained as a runner, knock out a series of 200m sprints at under 30 seconds per rep. Rilatt reported the kid's performance to the legendary former marathoner Alberto Salazar, whose son attended Central and who'd just begun coaching the school's cross country team. Salazar stopped by soccer practice to take a look at the speedy freshman. The rest, as they say, is history. —excerpt from RunningTimes.com
...soccer was Rupp's favorite sport growing up, before a coach became impressed by the running ability he displayed on the field. In Rupp's case, several coaches detected his running potential, the first being his mother, Jamie, a middle school track coach. But young Galen showed little interest in running. Indeed, Jamie had to offer her son a reward of a McDonald's meal in exchange for running with her. Rupp was playing varsity soccer as a high school freshman when his mother convinced him to meet the school's new cross country coach, former marathon standout Alberto Salazar. Soon Rupp was practicing soccer most of the week, with one day set aside for cross country training. By the time he left high school Rupp was one of the top junior distance runners in the U.S. —excerpt from About.com
Mary Cain, 18 years old, World Junior 3000 meter Champion (8:58.48), one of the top ranked US middle distance runners while still in high school
Swimming, by then, was ingrained into Cain. She started young and by the time she was 10, she was serious about it. But something interfered the spring of Cain's sixth grade year. Stickles [Bronxville high school coach] runs a springtime after-school track program for fifth and sixth graders and the idea hit Cain.
"I thought it would be a fun thing to try and thought I could balance that with swimming," she recalled.
During informal workouts, Cain would always be in front. She had never run competitively before that. Most of her competitive races were in gym classes. And she was in front there, too, against boys and girls. Cain had no clue about pace or stride, yet she ran a 5:47 the first time she ever attempted the mile...
On a whim, Charles Cain, Mary's father, looked up the time to see how fast that rated among other sixth graders across the country. Charles and Stickles found it rated very well. Soon, Mary found out one sport would have to go, since balancing the time demands of a competitive swimmer often coincided with track. It was hello track, goodbye swimming. It wasn't an easy choice back then, but Cain has no regrets.
"It was hard to quit swimming, that was my first love, but at the same time, I was excited to see where track would take me," Cain said. "When I realized I could do something with it, it's when I began leaning more to track and maybe think about doing something nationally." —excerpt from MaxPreps.com