A project by Benjamin Weingart
Hope is the foundation of every good cross country team.
Hope that all the work you put in over the summer pays a return.
Hope that the next rep really is the last (and that coach won’t pull a fast one, even though we both know they probably will).
This last year, hope’s been hard to come by, replaced by an unsettling rattle in the back of every harrier’s psyche. Some days it’s louder than others, but it is consistent: when will things be normal again? When can I race? When can I hug my teammates? Every day we wake up hoping to be one step closer to answering these questions, but unfortunately each morning we are met with the same cold uncertainty that inhabited the day prior. With no warm embraces or start lines in sight, we are reminded of the futility of answering those questions in the first place- reminded by the impending frustration of comparing where we were to where we are now.
Running in the NCAA is a life changing experience with one ground rule: there are no take backs. Once you start your clock freshman year, you have five (and because of COVID maybe six) years to complete your eligibility, and once you cross that last finish line, it’s over. No going back.
The life cycle of a collegiate distance runner is built on a rigid, unforgiving scaffolding. Class, practice, meetings, work, lift, core, and getting eight hours of sleep (that we both know you aren’t getting) leaves very little room for a team dinner at the dining hall, let alone any deep introspection, or a weekend trip away from it all. Crammed in the cracks of that scaffolding are the lessons you learn in college. The defining moments characterized by the people you choose to surround yourself with.
In the early summer months of 2020, the Ivy League released a firm, yet understandable, ruling cancelling competition of all fall sports. While each school embraced a slightly different policy regarding their students’ return to campus, this overarching decision prompted a mass exodus of Ivy League aerobic athletes, who packed their cars and set their sights west on a semester at 5000ft. With the blessings of their coaches and the promise of camaraderie with their teammates, they fled their parents' basements with fresh trainers and wide eyes, looking forward to making Boulder, Colorado their home for the coming months.
As strange as it sounds, the athletes of our story found themselves with a once in a lifetime opportunity, engulfed in absolute freedom. They could be anywhere, with anyone, and yet they chose Boulder as a place to slow down and grow - to savor the moments that in a normal semester are fleeting. Rather than succumbing to negativity, these athletes have shifted their perspective, fighting for a sense of love and connection with their teammates, and building the hope that makes every good cross country team great.
What follows are their experiences in their own words.
“My week before quarantine was actually one of my favorite weeks on the team at Columbia. I had finally gotten to a point where I was feeling really confident about running. I had gotten to run the Ivy League championships at Cornell, and I had a really good race, running a PR for the first time since high school.”
“It was kind of crazy. Honestly, I feel like it transitioned along as we learned new information. In March, these guys came out in a small group - it was just like five or six guys at first. And then some of the guys came out to hang out for the rest of the semester, just to be with each other. And then summer hit and, like a lot of teams do, people go and train. Some people ended up going home at the end of the summer, but we were lucky in a sense to figure out early on that we were not going back on campus in the fall and definitely not having sports. That made it a little bit easier. Once we learned all the information from school we were like ‘Okay, what now? We might as well meet up somewhere and train.’ That's what led to getting everybody out here, and now here we are, all 19 of us.”
“In March, we had just gotten back from indoor HEPS, we were building up, coming together as a team and starting to get excited for outdoor track. Obviously, the public health crisis took priority over any of our personal goals or desires, but it was definitely a major blow when we all were sent home. It was tough those couple of months trying to maintain focus with this new virtual setting, and staying on top of all of our training and our studies. But we all got through it. We were getting into summer, starting to build volume again, when the administration came down and delivered the news.
“Cross country cut - the first dagger many of the guys saw coming, but then track cut, both indoor and outdoor.
“People started organizing immediately. Within three hours, we were on a zoom call with over 200 alumni and other supporters of the program who were intimately involved, coming up with contingency plans and trying to figure out how we were going to fight back, to share our stories and to make it clear to the administration that we were not going to let them take this away from us without any sort of resistance. The outpouring of support we received was incredible. The other schools in the Ivy League came to our side, along with our women's team, and a powerful letter from Russell Dinkins that pointed out the catastrophic nature of cutting a program in a sport with such a low barrier to entry for individuals of all backgrounds, while promoting several that required the opposite. Thankfully, those 12 days ended rapidly as the administration overturned their decision.
“In the long term, I think getting cut and coming back is going to be one of the best things that has ever happened to our program. We have struggled recently at being as competitive as we probably should be but, in the coming years, things may turn and we should be able to pick up some new resources that will definitely help the program advance.”
“This marked a new beginning of sorts because this whole decision was out of our own volition. Our coach supported whether we came back to campus or decided to live out here in Boulder, but it was all planned by us.”
“I left for spring break with a carry-on and I haven’t been back since.”
'I'm from upstate New York, so I was able to go pack up my belongings, but it was so weird coming back and packing up my room without Emily there. It was just me and this random man named Brian that she hired to pack up her things. I remember he picked up a bag of half eaten pretzels and was like, ‘do you think she'll want these’ - like ‘no you can throw that away dude’- as I'm crying into my open bags.'
“For me and a lot of the seniors on the team, there's so much you expect in your career at Princeton and to have that taken away and not have those opportunities, not through anything that you've done, but just because of the circumstances was pretty tough. By taking a year off, it allows you to still go back and still realize those dreams.”
“I think it was so hard because people weren't sure what we were really working towards, and there wasn't a season in sight. So just maintaining that level of motivation for so long was hard for a lot of people (on the team) to stay and be excited about what we were supposed to be working towards, seemed impossible.”
“I was back at home without these guys for six months. In that time I missed everyone so much. We wanted to be together and we knew if we got together in a group, we could do something special with training and just continue to build our connections. We've built one of the closer groups in the NCAA and that was a big driving factor for a lot of guys wanting to come out here. It showed when the majority of the incoming freshmen committed to coming out. They saw how tight we were and they're like, okay, I want to be a part of that.”
“Relationships in running are why I run. I've never been that superstar individual who's going to make it to NCAAs on her own. I run for my teammates, to make my team better because that’s the only way I’ll find success. Seeing all my teammates put in the work makes me want to put in the work for them, and it creates this whole cycle of doing it for each other over anything else. If I was out here by myself, I would not be running. I just would not. I would give up anytime I felt bad, but running with Delaney every day has gotten me through the absolutely dreadful runs of getting used to the altitude. If I were by myself I just simply wouldn’t do it.”
“Being able to see each other in person really solidified the sense that we are still in this together, and that we will keep training, and doing everything we can together to be the best that we can.”
“The first day we got here was so special. I was watching them [Delany and Charlotte] run and I hadn’t done it in so long. I started to realize I really missed this. Then all of the people we met were just so hype around running - it got me excited about it again. Even when I was running in March and April [before the injury], I still kind of hated it and I hadn’t been excited about it in a really long time, until now.”
“We had big expectations for what would have been this cross country season. With the extra year and the guys we now have on the team and the fact that some of the guys are taking years off, we will have an incredible team come next fall. Our goals have gotten bigger because of this, which is kind of strange to say.”
“I feel like the whole time in quarantine there's a lot of introspection about the person I am, the person I want to be, and looking towards the future, trying to be optimistic despite everything that's gone on. Whether it's running, life, academics, or professional, there's so much in store and there's so much positivity in the future. We are trying to channel that energy hoping that things will turn around. Everything will be okay.”
'I think running is a sport where you control your own destiny. The fact that our biggest concerns and issues the past few months have been around how we're going to navigate like getting cut and not being on campus- the fact that it's all in some way been in our control has been a really eye opening experience. I think us coming out here has been just us taking advantage of that fact. I know it sounds cliche to say like there's always ‘'it could be worse’, but you know, you can't go wrong if you're running well with guys you love.'
'My freshman year at indoor HEPS, one of the seniors gave a speech the night before to get us excited for the races to come, and he said ‘Seize every opportunity you have to race well and be with your teammates because you never know when that will get taken away from you.’ And when the season got cut in the spring and then the team got cut in the summer and the season got cut again in the fall, it really did make me just want to take advantage of every moment we have together as a team. Every run does matter, no matter how small.
'Every opportunity we have to maximize our ability and take advantage of this potential we've been given to run at a high level, we need to cherish these moments. We need to really appreciate the team atmosphere that we've built and appreciate this gift that we've been given to run well and run at such a high level.'
'The past year has been a time of self-development. After a subpar freshman season, adjusting to higher mileage, I realized that I needed to change some aspects of my lifestyle. I am exceptionally fortunate to be able to live in a safe place during the global pandemic, and furthermore able to share that experience with my best friends. Living in Boulder this past fall has allowed me to strive for my full potential. While I am taking a full course load remotely, the narrowed list of distractions has allowed me to fully chase the dream. I have learned the value of persistence.'
“I think my biggest takeaway from the past year has been once you start being more confident and getting in the mindset that like you're awesome everybody else around you feels that too. I was really insecure like a year ago and since I stopped being so hypercritical I’ve felt that that your energy moves with you.”
“This time period has helped me realize there's more to life than school and there's more to life than running competitively. Sometimes we get in this narrow view where all we can see is like the next test and the next race.”
'I’ve relearned to enjoy running every day because in the past year I've raced pretty well when I've needed to, but I haven't made every start line I wanted to. There have been a lot of periods where it was tough and every runner goes through this. But you know, there have been some moments where I’ve taken running for granted, especially my younger years in college. I definitely wish I had taken a little freeze frame in my mind at that point and been able to capture that moment. I’ll never take it for granted again.'
Often the situations we find ourselves in are only as negative or as positive as the lens we view them through. Each of these athletes refused to accept the disappointment of a cancelled season and an unorthodox semester. Through their ability to shift their perspective they became whole, facing the uncertainty of today together, rather than apart. Their mental flexibility and willingness to hope built memories that will continue to shape their perception of the world, of the sport, of each other, and of themselves for years to come.
Running at its core is about relationships: your relationship with yourself, your relationship with your teammates, your relationship with the clock. Each one of those is complex, and understanding them all holds the key to unlocking peak performance. When the clock was taken away as the cross country courses across the country remained locked and overgrown, these athletes turned to each other to find the strength to keep pushing, to keep chasing their dreams. They found solace in each other's stride, breath, and embrace, growing from it as each day passes.
There will always be hard moments in this sport and in this life, but if these past months have taught us anything, it’s that the people we surround ourselves with help us find hope, and with that hope we can achieve anything.
Contributing athletes, interviewed and photographed in Boulder in September 2020:
Delaney Sanacore- Class of 2021
Charlotte Hartman- Class of 2021
Emily Virtue- Class of 2021
Alex Rodman- Class of 2021
Ed Trippas- Class of 2021
Camren Fischer- Class of 2023
Colby Zarle - Class of 2023
Evan Sherman- Class of 2024
Geordie Young - Class of 2023
Griffin McCauly- Class of 2022