“I don’t know why I do it,” he says. The runner glances at me, and then shrugs, palms upturned. “Endorphins, maybe?” He turns and puts a hand on his chin, thinking. The question’s a difficult one to answer – why would a teenager who is preoccupied with juggling all the typical stressors of high school, choose to devote an hour each day to the ligament-tearing, joint-stressing, tissue-inflaming sport that is cross country running?
Certainly, such an obligation seems inconsistent with the usual – and as far as I’m concerned, mostly anecdotally true – depiction of teens as instant gratification-obsessed, sleep deprived creatures constantly glued to their phones. Yet cross country, under the tutelage of coaches Steven Heyl, Robert Heyl, Tom Fritzius, and Faheem Chunara, remains one of its most popular sports at Culver City High School, boasting nearly a hundred students who have signed up to run anywhere from four to ten miles a day on open-air terrain.
So, what gives? The unnamed runner looks at me and sighs. He shrugs again. Though at the time he doesn’t know it – “never injured,” he jokes – soon he’ll be battling a host of maladies, including tendonitis in one hip, a bad back, and soreness in both legs that in and of itself would be enough to fell the average American adult.
But this is a varsity cross country runner, and a self made one, too. From freshman to sophomore year, driven by an unwavering desire to “get faster”, he dropped two minutes from his PR – runner speak for “personal record” – and as a result made not only the varsity team, but also won the most improved runner award at the school’s end-of-the-year banquet.
Now a junior, he’s currently trying to improve his time further to a sub-17:00 three mile in the wake of his return from a two-week injury layoff. He’s by no means the fastest runner on the team, but the effort he puts in helps illustrate the degree of seriousness to which some of these runners take their sport. The question is, of course: why? Maybe a yearly custom could help us find that answer.
The CCHS cross country team has a summer tradition, though it’s typically only for the most dedicated runners – or, perhaps, the teens who want to experience what might be the best week of their entire summer vacation. Each year in early August, approximately half of the team loads up into a squad of minivans, heading up to spend a week training in the high-altitude Mammoth Lakes, in northern California. At 7881 feet, each step is doubly difficult, and runners typically struggle to run at their usual speed in the high-altitude air. What’s worse is that runners are asked to run more than they will in a typical week of practice during the school year. Each day is structured around two runs, one a 6-8 mile workout at six in the morning, and the other a three mile afternoon cool down jog.
Yet, it’s in between these runs that students seem to find the most pleasure in what might be the defining – and most appealing – characteristic of the team: its sense of camaraderie. The teens typically spend each day occupied in all manner of team-bonding activities, from kayaking to bowling to embarrassing party games and poker – lots and lots of poker. And throughout it all permeates a sense of community; a feeling of easygoing familiarity that you rarely see in most sports.
In other words: cross country runners actually enjoy what they’re doing. They enjoy being with their friends. They enjoy suffering, and celebrating, and having fun – all as a team. And in the end, that might be the single most important thing to the 25 or so teens that join the growing cross country team each year. Maybe that’s why they willingly embrace the challenge of putting their aching legs and joints and bodies to the test, day in and day out. Maybe… Or maybe there are a hundred kids who really do like running after all. Who knows?
Brandon Kim, Grade 11
Culver City High School