Cross country running is a sport where everybody gets to play.
All 46 students on this year’s Berkeley High School team—a collection of track runners, basketball players, chess players (who play better if they stay in shape), a baseball player and people who don’t like to run alone—all run in every race.
Some finish near the front and some near the back. But nobody gets cut for being too slow. It’s a characteristic of the sport to get steadily faster.
“I started out very slow,” said Brian Bort, now a coach. “My dad said I had to do a sport, and cross country was the only sport I couldn’t get kicked off of.”
He had a back injury, he said, that hurt when he ran. Running made it go away after awhile.
In his first race he ran five kilometers (about three miles) in 26.46 minutes. “I ran up to the coach and said, ‘Hey, Coach, 26.46, that’s pretty good.’ He just walked away.”
In a race in college, he said, he ran a similar distance in 15.2 minutes, like running three five-minute miles in a row, part of it uphill.
“I had coaches that wouldn’t let anybody go,” he said.
Berkeley has a hilly, three-mile course in Tilden Park at the upper end of Euclid Avenue. Some courses are nastier, containing exposed tree roots, sand and streams that must be splashed through.
Austin Snyder, a runner for three years, said 60 to 80 runners from several teams can start the race. “People elbow each other and people fall down,” he said. The idea is to keep your own team together as near to the front as possible.
This is for mutual support and because of the team scoring system—five points for first down to one point for fifth. This works until the encounter with a horrible hill—half-a-mile long, rising at 45 degrees—where contenders and the also-rans divide.
Brandon Reeves, a varsity basketball player with strong legs, said he can power himself up the hill but at a price. Over the top the “legs sort of go,” he said.
Nate Haile, who came in first at a recent meet, also sprints up the hill, enough so that his thigh muscles hurt. But after a long descent he gets a second wind and is able to sprint again.
Haile is from high-altitude Ethiopia, producer of the world’s best long-distance runners. For millennia, Ethiopians have lived on hills on the top of mountains from one to two miles above sea level.
Berkeley High has 60 teams and 1,000 participants, one for every three students, and a sports budget of $220,000 a year.
Competitive sports build character, said Kristin Glenchur, the school’s athletic director.
Specifically, “It’s an organized competitive environment that puts kids in flight-or-fight situations when they make decisions on the spot,” she said. “A classroom doesn’t have that level of urgency and that whole body-mind thing that happens.”
Berkeley cross country runners at practice, Nate Haile on left. Photograph by Michael Howerton.