I hope my fellow sport lovers take this as a direct challenge to rave about the sports they love, to step up and recognize them. I am both a Wheaton College and Wheaton Cross Country team alumnus, and I love them both dearly. In the late 1980s, both the cross country locker rooms and the streets of Wheaton and Glen Ellyn were partly owned by myself and other trusty “Crusaders” — the name we were called before transitioning to the Thunder as we are known now.
My friends and I would glide up the only nasty hill we could find in Glen Ellyn — I would use the street name if I knew it — completing mile repeats around Northside park, often until the memories of what we had for lunch were oh too real. Many afternoons were spent pushing ourselves to the edge of exhaustion after getting up early to push the snow out from the doorways and steps around the dorms and main buildings of the quad. For those few years at least, a quorum of the Snow Crew was heavily made up of the cross country team, who, after finishing our rounds of shoveling, could be found eating breakfast together right as the dining hall opened.
There was a famous saying, which may still live on, that said, “the Glee Club was for the old boys who could not make Snow Crew,” but I digress. There are some people that have God-given “cross country bodies:” lean, long legged, large heart and big lungs which create the ability to generate tremendous VO2 conversion which allows you to cover long distance in short amounts of time. However, anyone can become a runner by putting forth the effort. Much more is required for a person to become a cross country runner because there are lots of people with that body type but that are not stupid or smart enough (depending on how you look at it) to run cross country. You see, the sport is all about suffering. Not just suffering a little but suffering a lot. It’s not just one person suffering for the whole like a wide receiver sprinting and catching a ball knowing he is going to get a big hit immediately after.
No, it is every person on the team pushing them self to run past their absolute maximum … before they pass out. Cross country scoring works as such: each runner counts as the same number of points as the place they finish with the top five runners scoring. This means each runner has to give their all. Say you have the top four runners placing first, second, third and fourth, meaning the team is on the way to the theoretical best score possible of 15, but the team could end up losing badly to another less high placing team if your last runners are not committed to giving their best.
This means cross country runners are always pursuing “PRs,” or personal records. Week after week they are looking to reduce the amount of time it takes to finish the collegiate cross country race which ranges between four to six miles with terrain that can be best described as challenging on a dry, flat course and suicidal on a hilly, wet course.
Every runner needs to give 100 percent every practice to perfect the art of bringing the best race to the line on race day. In a favorite movie of mine, “Chariots of Fire,” Eric Liddell, who was a missionary to Africa and British track star, said, “I have no formula for winning the race. Everyone runs in her own way, or his own way. And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within.”
After training and competing in a cross country for many years, it wasn’t a surprise to me that in my early 40s my sights turned to another task that takes incredible effort. I decided to train for and run a full Ironman Triathlon. The race is all that it is advertised as! It includes segments of 2.1 miles in the water, which is at least 85 trips back and forth in a standard size pool, 110 miles on the bike over terrain which included 20 Alp-like climbs at the Louisville Ironman and a full marathon to cap off the effort. Most of the day, one of the happiest in my life, would include 12+ hours of extraordinary effort.
I was lucky to finish well and without injury. Although some number of the people I passed in the swim and bike had the greater happiness of passing me during the marathon, I was so happy when I finished the race and over the loudspeaker they called out, “Ryan Oliver, you are an IRONMAN.”
The way they honor the finishers makes me jealous of how great God’s welcome will be for us when we get to Heaven. The Wheaton Cross Country team has been filled with several “Ironmen” for many years, not because they finished the 12-plus hour event but because they embody the verse Proverbs 27:17 “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” The current student body will not know coach Don Church (‘57), but he opened up his heart and the Psalms to me as mentor and friend to push us to know more of Christ and of ourselves by giving more than we thought we could.
More will know the current track coach Scott Bradley who both ran with me and mentored us all as a young assistant coach in the mid- 80s. And now there is David Walford who I know is beloved by his runners.
The Wheaton Ironmen of cross country and track challenged me to dream bigger and perform better than I could of by myself. I know those guys love winning and if last year’s results are a reflection of how good the team can be, we should continue to expect great things. But even more than winning they love to see their runner grow and run after Christ.
If you’re a fan, I believe there is no more appreciative audience than a cross country team that has Saturday fans show up. Look at the determination and commitment on the faces of the runners. They have given it all and spent themselves to the end. They were and are committed to the concept of a team recognizing that the victory involves everyone but starts with the individual.
Similarly, the last part of Liddell’s racing quote goes on: “Jesus said, ‘Behold, the Kingdom of God is within you. If with all your hearts, you truly seek me, you shall ever surely find me.’ If you commit yourself to the love of Christ, then that is how you run a straight race.”