By Middle School Faculty and Cross Country Coach Susan Leonard
On the first day of practice in hot August, we looked at a team of nearly 30 who needed to learn how to run 2 miles with only a little over 2 weeks before the first meet. We wanted each and every one to cross the finish line with dignity. We rallied the parents for popsicles & water, ice & wet rags, & quickly defined a new benchmark of success. Day 2 we said, “No one runs alone.” We told the children “If you come in first, run to the last runner and run them in.” Our idea was that if the first ran to the last, then the last would feel encouraged to run harder & stronger. Equally we told the fastest runners that by doing so the first only gets stronger. “What good is it to come in first and sit on the ground?,” we asked, as each ran in and dropped at our feet. Over time the lines began to blur over who was first, or last, as the first was last and the last first. Coaches began to lead without leading, as children taught each other to run. In an individual sport like Cross Country, we found this team philosophy to be paramount to building individual strength, but more it built and coalesced a team. Without our knowing, the Gospel had dropped from our hearts to our laps and onto our shoelaces.
The moment we realized the idea crystallized was at practice. A middle schooler, on their own volition, ran back to a surprised parent who decided to run with the team that day (we had several parents join us, and often), and said, “I’m going to run with you, because no one runs alone.” But it was at our first meet at Rockbridge Academy that the MS XC team proved themselves. This first meet was a trail run on a tough course. Most of our runners crossed the finish line with white forlorn faces, many gasping without breath, one needed to be carried to the tent as she had sprinted the whole race. Spent, our team disbanded to the Eagles tent for water, and in some cases, under shaded trees for first aid. But within minutes, one by one and on their own, our team began to run back to the course to find the last runner and run him in to the finish. As adults, we held our faces as tears streamed and as other teams stared, took pictures, and in some cases looked curious and confused.
Week by week, meet by meet, the runners became stronger, inside and out. At our Host meet at AACS Upper School we expanded our team philosophy to encourage runners from other teams. We believed as Hosts it was our biblical duty to show the community what it looks like to embody Jesus Christ. Several stood at the finish and encouraged runners from other teams, while others confused runners by jumping in the race and running side by side with them at the end shouting, “You can do it.” After this meet, we committed ourselves to not only run in our own, but to encourage all runners, on our team or not.
We placed 6th, then 5th, then tied for 4th, and finally ended the season in 3rd place. One team member exclaimed at our end-of-season team party, “If only we had a few more weeks! We’d get first!” Our biggest victory however came not only at that first meet at Rockbridge or even at the last at Indian Creek when our team came in 3rd place and shepherded in our final runner in a spade of gold at the finish, but when a stranger from another team called us to say “Thank you.” He was a father of a runner from a competitor school. He called to say “Thank you” to the team because our team ran in his daughter. He shared many personal details of her difficulties and struggles in sports and in life, and explained
how his daughter often finished in last place and in tears. This time though she finished not with tears but with a smile. He asked her why and she told him what the AACS team did for her was “awesome.” Other children she never met ran her into the finish line because “no one runs alone.”
Our Middle School Cross Country Team showed each other, this young girl, and the wider community what Grace looks like, and in doing so, became stronger athletes. The children at the end of our season picked bible verses that embodied the Spirit of their team. Here are a few: “So I run with purpose in every step.” 1 COR 9:26; “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” 1 COR 10:31; “They will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” Isaiah 40:31; “If anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor’s crown unless he competes according to the rules.” 2 Timothy 2:5, “My only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me – the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.” Acts 20:24.
Congratulations to a team worthy to wear gold, and to God be all the Glory!