The Natural Sport
We Americans love to label things. It gives us great satisfaction. We do it to people and governments and philosophies and lifestyles. In every field of human endeavor, there is a special jargon, and part of that jargon includes arbitrary labels. This is done sometimes for political purposes, other times for identification and convenience, for it is much easier to consider something by its label than to be analytical about it.
For years, runners remained aloof from the labeling game. Nobody called us anything. (I am not counting the unfortunate souls who yelled—and still yell—obscenities to passing runners from their car windows.) Nobody called us anything, because there just weren’t enough of us to matter.
We are a people that thrives on numbers, because our economy is structured that way. If millions of us suddenly abandoned the tennis courts and bowling alleys and started, say, to shoot marbles for exercise, therapy and sexual fulfillment, we would constitute a significant phenomenon. In addition to the behavioral scientists trying to figure out what the hell had happened, marbleists would be on the covers of Time and Newsweek, there would be a best-seller entitled The Compleat Marbler, and MGM would have on its hands a smash-hit about a gay marble champion portrayed by Dustin Hoffman. Jackie Onassis would appear on opening night.
When the running wave curled from coast to coast, we runners started to matter, because someone had to supply 10 million (at last count) runners with shoes and accessories with which to fuel our passion. We saw ourselves on the covers of national magazines, and fitness finally became socially acceptable.
But that also put us into The Label Game. Are you a “jogger” or a “runner”? Who cares? Lots of us. It was not enough that upon leaving the office we scurried into the bathroom like Clark Kent in a phone booth and changed from teacher or accountant or writer or attorney to a fitness freak. What are you anyway, jogger or runner? (Well, both of them beat my phrasing—”fitness freak.”) This debate grew into an issue, and runners and joggers addressed themselves to it in Runner’s World magazine.
Personally, I’d rather be called a “runner.” Okay, I admit it. The term “jogger” conjures an image—to non-runners if not to ourselves— of an overweight guy overdressed in a heavy sweatsuit, dripping wet from a snail’s-pace mile or two on a Sunday morning. He wears basketball sneakers. That is usually the dividing line: basketball sneakers.
Whenever I encounter a new face on my running turf, I tend to glance quickly at his feet. If he is wearing official, honest-to-goodness running shoes, then, by golly, he is an official, honest-to-goodness runner. Why else would he have invested $30? Yes, maybe it is to be chic or fashionable, but that tendency is not really as prevalent as we like to think. If he is wearing basketball sneakers, I figure he must get high on basketball, which is a marvelous sport, and is putting in a few miles to improve his stamina and thereby help his game. Boy, do I hate to get outrun during a workout by a guy in basketball sneakers!
So I tell those who inquire that I am a runner, but that my moderate pace would be considered jogging by the champions. One must get into relative terms here. The more I think about it, though, the more ridiculous it seems. I have always considered it quite virtuous for one to lead one’s life free of the bonds of conformity, of which labelmania is a part. I think I have succeeded in living this way, so I am tempted to ignore the whole matter of runner vs. jogger. It is easier for the champions to do this. Their achievements are recognized. Marginal athletes such as myself are either too presumptuous of their skill or too insecure in what they are doing. I plead guilty on both counts.
The New York Times does an amusing thing with labels. It carries a “Sports Today” listing of daily events in the circulation area. This is setup in alphabetical order, with baseball at the top and track at the bottom. (That’s track as in track and field.) Into this category goes anything at all that involves running. A 30-kilometer road race in Central Park, sponsored by the New York Road Runner’s Club, will be called “Track.”
I have thought about calling this to the attention of one of the assistant sports editors, especially since I know people there. But the journalist in me reacted, and I understand The Times’ treatment. Its readership also identifies any form of running as “track” (maybe because of The Times’ treatment?) and refers to someone like Frank Shorter as a “track star.” Besides, The Times’ editors, with all their wisdom and experience, probably would not know when a certain type of running event should be designated not as track, or even as road running, but as cross-country. So I will help them.
The term “cross-country,” which originated in late-19th.century England, is a misnomer if one attempts to consider it literally. Runners do not run across an entire country—not all at once, anyway. Bruce Tulloh and a few others have actually taken a couple of months to run—30 or 40 miles a day—from America’s West Coast to its East Coast, or vice versa. Those usually have been solo efforts with the adventurers racing only against themselves, trying to repress a breakdown in will and a cornucopia of blisters.
Runners are constantly seeking new worlds to conquer, both in training and in competition. It was not enough just to run marathons, so we have ultra-marathons. It was not enough to run them on flat surfaces, so we run them up and down steep hills. It was not enough to run hard and be done with it, so we run hard, rest and repeat the process for a full 24 hours. And so on.
Running is our food, and our hunger is never satisfied. We seek the ultimate, if not for ourselves then for others stronger than we. In the immediate future, the ultimate may be a revival of the trans-America race as run in the 1920s. I won’t be in it, but I will savor it just the same—and I will write about it, I hope, with the same zeal and passion that will propel the participants to the completion of their journey.
We aren’t talking about this kind of cross-country running here. Nevertheless, the term does make sense because the “country” part of it is merely a shortened version of countryside, across which Englishmen in particular would race a hundred years ago. To this day, the semantics have not changed. Cityfolk go out or up or down “to the country” for their vacations, to the rural, spacious countryside that is embroidered with peace and quiet.
Now that our framework is in order, we can best determine exactly what cross-country is—by finding out what it is not. It is not track running or road running, the two other most popular forms of running in the US today. Thus, in a sense, it is everything else. Cross-country is running not done around an engineered track or on engineered roads. It is done everywhere else.
Cross-country makes use of our natural resources—which, sadly, are diminishing all around us. It brings the runner closer to nature, to God’s gift of things green and fragrant and pristine—without artificial preservatives. It takes the legs of man and woman churning over the land, not the bypasses, becoming ever more sensitive to and sanitized from the environment.
You are running cross-country if you are doing that—if you are spurning the precision and predictability and symmetry of a quarter-mile track, or if you are avoiding the convenience and comfort of a carefully marked road. I do not wish to place a value on the kind of venue where one chooses to run. That is immature and self-defeating. But let us know where we are, exactly, when we run. Let us separate the authentic from the imitation, because to do so will cultivate our senses and heighten our experience.
There was a time when these natural resources were in abundance, and all one had to do to join them was step out the front door. Now, in the United States and other industrial nations, this wonderland is not quite as plentiful. Many of us, especially in the urban centers, must seek out the countryside for the natural terrain that will enable us to run cross-country.
When I step out my front door, there are many running options, none of which fits into the province of cross-country. I live on Staten Island, New York City’s “fifth borough,” a suburban enclave connected to the mainland by the Verrazano Bridge.
My running companion, James Behr, and I enjoy working out along the hilly roads. But we frequently lament a pattern that prevents us from running cross-country, from enjoying our workouts a good deal more.
Millions of trees disappear as though victims of robbers in the night, uprooted by bulldozers clearing mini-forests for real estate developers. The dirt roads are gone, and the ones left, in the semi-rural sections, are guarded by junkyard dogs whose howls can be heard for several furlongs. When homes are built and roads are paved, with them come more cars and people and dogs and delivery trucks and donut palaces—all well and good, but tough on us runners who contend that the best things in life are green.
For natural running, I can either drive 10 minutes to the nearest park or run to a nearby golf course. It is perhaps ironic that golf courses have become one of the symbols of American cross-country running. Golf courses are hardly natural phenomena. They usually replace natural phenomena. We sometimes confuse them with the natural state of things because they are so pretty. We associate beauty with nature, forgetting how skilled we can be at producing pluperfect replicas of nature.
To run on a golf course is to run cross-country, even though such terrain is a contrivance of sorts. We must consider these places in terms of our culture. Just as our language changes and we accept altered usage, our land changes and as runners we must accept that. We may not like it, but we must adjust to it.
There is another irony here: I would wager that the vast majority of runners who has ever dotted the expanse of a golf course has never golfed. Time is essential. Serious runners would never give up a workout in favor of a round of golf, and since a round of golf consumes the better part of a nice day, when would one also run? Moreover, runners are “doers,” and there seems to be very little doing in golf.
There are some places left in this country where golf courses are either not to be found or are off-limits to the straying runner. And not everyone lives in close proximity of wooded trails or municipal parks. That is hardly the end-all of cross-country.
Natural terrain, the foundation of cross-country, varies from locale to locale just as the dialects and mores do. The beaches and the coastline, the pastures and the forests, the deserts and the mountains, at high and low altitude. America’s landscape is a potpourri of running opportunity. To probe this, we must become unsynchronized, indeed unreliant on the assurances of time and distance.
At times, it is appropriate to hedge further on my definition of cross-country and make it more encompassing. For one reason or another, there are many cross-country events that put runners partially on paved roads. What flanks these roads—dense greener—may be the essence of cross-country. But, again, there is the concrete turnoff.
Here, realism must nudge idealism, and I offer a compromise: cross-country events that take in paved roads will not be smeared if they are generally off-limits to automobiles. (This gesture would never be permitted by the Europeans, especially the British, who thrive not only on natural terrain but on natural obstacles that make cross-country racing a thoroughly exhausting, yet memorable experience.)
Thus, cross-country is a type of natural running. The land is shared when one runs through it, and it is a privilege to have done so. Let us not abandon or abuse it while the supply lasts.
The Natural Sport