When I was a young writer, I remember being sent out to cover high school cross-country. And I remember thinking every time, without fail: “This is literally the shittiest assignment they could give me.”
I attacked the story with all the energy of a dead elk. I’d show up just as this group of kids took off running; they’d go a hundred yards or so before disappearing into the woods. They’d emerge from the shire 15 to 20 minutes later; I’d talk to the winner and the coach; and I’d head back to the office. I never stuck around until the last runner crossed. Why would I? The story’s never at the back of the pack.
This past Sept. 24, I got up early to see my 10-year-old nephew compete in his second-ever cross-country meet. I drove all the way up to Sharpsville, Pa., which is apparently a cross-country hotbed because there were six million kids there for this gigantic event. I found the starting line for the elementary race and saw him in a pack of more than 100 grade-school kids.
Just like the old days, the horn sounded, they took off, and I strolled to the finish line. This race was only a mile, so between six and seven minutes later, the leaders emerged on the home stretch. My nephew finished in the first group of kids, and I headed to the finish line to see him. We high-fived; I told him he was awesome and that I was really proud of him. As I turned around, I saw my family up near the finish line crying and yelling like they’d come unhinged. When I got to them, they and dozens of other people were yelling for the kids who were still coming in.
These runners were struggling and tired, but when they heard the cheers, they kicked as hard as they could to the end. Despite being exhausted, a lot of them were smiling. They weren’t first, but they were proud. It was one of those rare, pure sports moments that you don’t see on TV. It’s the kind of moment you only find when you’re not looking — and when you stay until the end of the race.