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A Field Guide for Cross Country

To travel back in time and blaze across the earth at breakneck speed from freshman year to senior year is a riveting idea.

Cross Country

People sporadically ask me if I ran cross country in high school or college. “No,” I reply with a lowly face. “I never thought to.” In retrospect, I wish I tried out for the team as I love to run long distances now. Like marathons (10) and ultramarathons (1). But to travel back in time and blaze across the earth at breakneck speed from freshman year to senior year is a riveting idea. I’d love to exchange a daily trainer for lighter than air spikes that scream loud and wild and reckless and free. Yes, the XC (cross-country) season is here again. The sweltering, unforgiving sun is slowly but surely yielding to autumn and its cooler mornings and fiery leaves eager to dance along a refreshing breeze.

When those orange, red, and yellow leaves finally meet the ground, however, they will shake to another sound: hundreds of young men and women charging across the ground like the heavy English cavalry straight out of Braveheart. William Wallace and his army isn’t waiting for them though – just a finish line. Spectators on either side of the course, however, will fill the air with screams of excitement and energy that would rival even the loudest war cry of the famed Scottish warrior.

Grit, Gumption, and Gear

In the words of Joseph Vanderstel, “Running cross-country is the closest man will ever get to flying.” What runner doesn’t feel like a bird with outstretched wings when conditions are perfect at a race and the hardest effort feels effortless? These are the moments when personal records are made and cross-country teams win championships. But becoming a champion requires grit, gumption, and gear. Grit and gumption are forged through daily practice, routine stretching, and feedback from peers and coaches. Gear is found at Big Peach Running Co.

Cross-country running begins and ends with appropriate footwear, and by appropriate I’m referring to an adequately cushioned training shoe that accommodates one’s foot characteristics, provides a stable platform, and protects from impact. Accordingly, invest in a worthy training shoe for daily runs. This sneak will be a durable workhorse (think 300-500 miles before replacement), but it will periodically be exchanged for – you guessed it – a spike. Which spike is best? Peers will provide come counsel on what they favor, but trying on multiple models is ideal for deciphering personalized preference for fit, feel, and ride. For the 2017 cross-country season, Big Peach is offering models from Adidas, New Balance, Nike, and Saucony.

One other note about spikes from Greg Weich, a track and cross-country coach at Smoky Hill High School, near Denver, Colorado. “A spike should feel like it was meant for your foot, a little more snug than a training shoe feels.” In other words, a spike will not feel as comfortable as a training shoe; however, it will only be donned during a race when, unsurprisingly, having less weight matters. Famed NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby describes the feeling best: “I want to go fast!” Who doesn’t?

With training shoes and spikes in hand, what’s next? Socks. Don’t forget about the socks. At Big Peach, we believe that cotton is rotten. In other words, the socks available at our stores are woven together with synthetic materials, thus lowering the risk for blisters during training runs and race day. If you’re still prone to blisters even with the right sock, pick up some Body Glide too and run it under your toes, along the arch, and across the heel for some additional protection from friction between your feet and shoes.

Disruptions and Dirt

Pete Magill, a four-time masters national cross-country champion, says, “A well-planned cross-country course will do everything possible to disrupt your stride, your pace, and your focus. So the trick is to stop worrying about stride or pace. Find an effort level that you’re confident you can maintain, then make that your guide.” Therefore, planning for success at cross-country races means following the plans of your coaches. Long runs, tempo runs, intervals, and recovery runs, prepared by the coach, are the foundation for a solid performance. Speaking of which, make it a point to listen to episode six of the RUNATL podcast, which features interviews and timely wisdom from cross-country coaches Rick Barbe of Lakeside High School in Atlanta and Wesley Etienne of Clarkston High School.

As Pete Magill made clear, cross-country courses will surely disrupt your planned pace. However, running by effort, coupled with good preparation, are the precursors to doing well. What’s overlooked in training – even though its readily apparent – is that runs are completed on roads. Miles and miles of concrete and asphalt. Roads are easily accessible for runners, but duplicating the course you intend to race brings us to the significance of training on soft trails.

Trails, which are usually available at local or state parks, are ideal for mimicking race courses in terms of elevation change, unstable terrain, and hazards (e.g. tree roots, rocks, and natural debris). Pete Magill agrees. “I do 50 percent of my running on trails, too, so that I regularly utilize all the muscles associated with a varied and choppy stride, and trail running forces me to practice focusing on where my feet are landing.”


Like Braveheart or the opening scenes of Gladiator, cross-country is a battle. Tribes of runners from different schools meet on a field somewhere in the state to exert their individual and collective excellence. There are no swords, archers, or cavalry; no, the weapon of choice is a simple shoe, knotted tight so the feet stay in place and the pins can pierce the ground for traction as those sharp turns come into view and are subsequently conquered.

Only one team will win the day, but the ability to charge across the earth for 3.1 miles on a cold, fall morning is a freeing experience shared by all competitors. In the words of the late author, physician, and runner George Sheehan, “Why race? The need to be tested, perhaps; the need to take risks; and the chance to be number one.” Cross-country races are the stomping ground for testing, risks, and the chance to take the podium.

Lift your spikes high, let out a war cry, and take the field.

Austin Bonds is a Guest Advocate at the Big Peach Suwanee location.