November 22, 2005

“A tsunamic human wave of adrenaline and desire:” One man’s perspective on the NCAA Cross Country Championships

I had originally planned to bring along my notebook and jot down a point-by-point account of our exploits at this past weekend’s NCAA meet. Unfortunately, in all the excitement I completely forgot to make notes of any sort. I return Chicago with nothing but memories of our ninth-place finish, the best in our program’s history, and a bunch of random free gear given out to competitors. (This includes a USB memory stick key chain, just in case you’re in the middle of a run and have an irresistible urge to rush back home to back up your files). Not wanting such an epic accomplishment to vanish into the murky depths of history, I have tried to conjure up a faithful reconstruction of our team’s successes.

Sing to me, Muse, of the fleet-footed feats of those Chicago Maroons! Fill me with memories of their mighty finish; tell of how the light of Apollo’s fire burned in their eyes even as they drove their opponents to dusty ruin upon the churned-mud slopes and fields of Ohio Wesleyan’s Very Challenging National Meet Site! Muse, sing of their unprecedented achievement, of how they deposed the tyrannical North Central College, laid waste to the men of Oshkosh and Wheaton and all the many kingdoms of Illinois and much of the Midwest, and indeed brought the bleak cloud of defeat down upon the heads of all but eight other racing legions to ascend to their rightful place in the Pantheon of Speed!

With great exuberance they departed their native campus on the evening of November 17, driving deep into the night on the first leg of their journey towards immortal glory. Early they woke the following morning as rosy-fingered Dawn streaked the sky; they partook of sweet ambrosia and nectar, cleverly disguised in the form of a Holiday Inn continental breakfast, before continuing in a cavalcade of mini-vans towards the site of their destiny: The Great Converted Golf Course. This would be the plain upon which, but one day hence, their wills and skills would be tried in most epic non-contact cross country combat. And they did survey the course, and their hearts were full of joy; for they knew they were ready, and this battlefield, with its rolling hills, it’s sometimes dangerous footing, it’s early enticements to go out too hard and the punishment it would mete out later in the race to those rash hordes who did, would favor them and their Pack Strategy. With confidence and laughter they ended their survey, but for some, a tint of sadness: tomorrow would be the end of the greatest experience they had ever been a part of, the final march to eight-kilometer glory for those living in the shadow of Graduation. Yet what a march it would be!

On the eve of the competition they retired to the Great Gymnasium to join with their rivals in sacrificing oxen, lambs, and…well, not sacrificing anything, really, so much as enjoying a splendid feast, some silly music, and some inspiring speeches. In buses they came, the men of North Central, and Carnegie-Mellon, and Wheaton; of Wisconsin-Lacrosse and Calvin and Wartburg; of countless other squads, readying themselves for the trial to come.

The dawn broke on Saturday, rosy-fingered as usual and full of portent as those intrepid Maroons ran their ritual 10-minute shakeout and departed for the course and destiny. As they made ready their encampment, imagine their astonishment at the sight of a pack of wild amazons: a group of maroon-painted, crazy-eyed wild women come down out of the North Country (i.e. Chicago) to lend their banshee cries of support and cheer their leader, the flaming-haired and sunglassed Jessica Winter. The terrible Amazon Queen stood as the sole Chicago women’s competitor. Before the day was done, she would stand in All-American triumph over the exhausted and battered bodies of her challengers. With great strides she smote them, reducing the competition to whimpering tears as she charged up hills and left them broken behind her. Rightfully she earned her honors, and as the women’s race drew to a close, the men knew this to bode well for their impending onslaught.

Sing now of their race! In great throngs the spectators crowded the course’s borders. After the gun, cheers shook the air as hundreds of feet thundered the ground, a tsunamic human wave of adrenaline and desire in which the Chicago Seven shone as the jewel on a diadem. At times, an instant’s doubt would seize them, for their packs could not help but be splintered in the jarring jostle of the masses. Soon, though, they would reform into one, and their collective energies drove their adversaries to despair. All about them on the treacherous downhills they saw lesser men tumble; on the tortuous, slippery uphills they passed tattered spirits left by the course-side; across great streams they leapt. As they fought into the Middle Miles, the dwelling-place of despair, their spirits were buoyed by their teammates and the cheers of their Amazonian fanbase.

Even as their own wills burned brighter, those of their competitors were extinguished. All about them men dropped back. Whereas at Mile One they had found themselves well back in the race, by its end they would be passing scores of opponents with every stride.

So it was that the Maroons shattered all expectations and records of old, knocking off countless more highly-regarded teams to finish in the top 10 overall and establish themselves as a new and fearsome power-house in the noble sport of cross country. They embraced on the far side of the line, rejoicing with Gatorade as they paid tribute to the demi-god, Coach Chris Hall, whose unfailing guidance had led them to this pinnacle of achievement. As the dust settled and the churned earth healed, so their spirits were in the full bloom of most radiant health and satisfaction, their minds at peace with the knowledge that something spectacular had happened this day, of which each of them, each of their comrades back home, had been a part.