Racing pain and passion

Runners: Cross country teams often are comprised of other sports' leftovers, but participants learn to love the event's physical and mental challenges.

High School Sports

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Cross Country

September 04, 2001|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

Two years ago, no one would have blamed Pat Bailey for feeling a little disappointed and discouraged after he was cut from the C. Milton Wright boys soccer team on the final day of tryouts.

So when he decided to join the cross country program, Bailey wasn't entirely enthused about the sport.

"At first, I didn't intend to take it seriously," he recalled. "I figured that I'd do it to stay in shape and go out for soccer the next year."

But the plan changed when Bailey evolved into one of the top freshmen runners in the area. Now, the junior is a major reason the Mustangs boys are ranked No. 1 in the Baltimore area entering the season.

Bailey's story is not rare in cross country circles, where many high school runners have exchanged initial skepticism for a love and passion for the sport.

But the question arises: what drives these athletes to run more than three miles without trying to score a touchdown or dribble a soccer ball?

For Catonsville senior Tricia O'Connell, it's the knowledge that the route is just another obstacle waiting to be hurdled.

"It's the challenge of it," said O'Connell, who favors cross country over basketball and lacrosse. "You really have to push yourself to finish the race. The beginning of the race is the worst feeling in the world with the pressure and people watching you. The end of the race is the best feeling because of what you've accomplished."

Between the start and finish lines, that desire is tested by the hills and valleys of a course and the physical limitations a body can endure. Many runners pull up before the finish line, trying to catch a precious breath of oxygen or succumbing to the pain in their legs.

The harriers who can snuff out the whispers to quit and keep going are the ones who get the greatest rewards, said Severna Park coach Ed Purpura.

"It takes a special kind of kid who doesn't mind hurting," he said. "Once you cross that line, the hurt starts to go away. Then you hurt yourself a little more next time because you realize that it's worth it."

Running is also great for losing weight and building muscle - two other results that attract athletes. For Nyam Kagwima, running has also helped her excel at swimming.

"I think it works both ways," said Kagwima, a junior at Bryn Mawr who swims during the winter and summer months. "Swimming improves your breathing and running works your legs. It keeps me in shape and makes me feel stronger."

Another benefit is being spotted by a college recruiter, even if cross country doesn't generate the scholarship press that football and basketball does.

"What I tell my runners is that athletics should enable you to get into the college you want to go to," said River Hill coach Earl Lauer. "It doesn't have to be in the form of a scholarship, but athletics can be a foot in that door on their applications."

But to be successful, runners have to commit themselves to a year-round regimen of practice.

Shane Stroup, a senior at River Hill, said he can rest for about a week before he starts feeling antsy. More than staying up to par, Stroup said he is driven to get off the couch by his competition.

"I'm thinking that there are other people out there working hard and thinking that they can catch me," Stroup said. "That's what gets me thinking, `I need to get up.' I can't lie around and be lazy."

That type of dedication is the underlying theme of a summer-long cross country camp organized by Murray Davis, the former coach at C. Milton Wright who is now coach at UMBC. Davis has run the camp for the past four summers and attracted participants like Bailey and Bryn Mawr sophomore Laura Drossner.

"I think you have to have a sheer joy for the sport," Davis said. "You have to be able to deal with a work level unlike any other sport because when you cross that finish line and you see your time, that's the truth of cross country. You can't deny the dedication, you can't deny the preparation, you can't deny the work you put into it."

The level of intensity required can deter some students from trying out, but some of the area's best cross country runners are converted athletes from other sports.

"They say that one of the bad things about cross country is that we take everybody's leftovers," said South Carroll coach Rob Pennington. "But everybody's leftovers can put a state championship banner on the wall. A lot of these kids have the talent to run. Sometimes they just need an opportunity."

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