By Jordan Leibowitz
While some people might see running for long periods of time as difficult and tiring, running is the cornerstone of many Collegiate students’ afternoons every fall. Often, new students who do not have a fall sport join the junior varsity cross country team and immediately feel at home. I found cross country when I was a rising seventh grader looking for something to both occupy my afternoons and to keep me active. Despite my doubts going into the season, this was the correct move. I went from not being able to run a mile to being able to run almost four in just three months.
Running is often viewed as an individual sport or a method of conditioning. However, cross country runners see it as a platform where they enjoy time with their friends while learning countless lessons. Runner Spencer B. (‘21) says that cross country taught him to, “Push through, even if something is not great.” While this can also be seen at the varsity level, it begins with junior varsity because of the coaching of Middle School teacher and advisor Rives Fleming and Lower School kindergarten teacher Robbie Turner. Fleming and Turner use their passion for running to better each member of their team. Turner described his favorite aspects of coaching the team as “getting to know the the runners and seeing them feel so good as they improve.”
Fleming and Turner use each of their skill sets in order to make JV cross country a memorable, rewarding experience for all runners. Fleming, a Collegiate alum, ran cross country for five years, and he has been coaching cross country for the last twenty-nine years. Fleming comes back to coach JV cross country every year because he “loves coaching running, watching the team enjoy running, and because it is easy to see improvement in every runner.”
One of the first phrases a JV cross country runner will hear each fall is “character cuts.” Cross country is a “no cuts” sport, meaning that everyone who shows up will be a member of the team. Every runner has to have certain characteristics in order for cross country to be an enjoyable and rewarding experience. Turner describes the values of the team as “hard work, commitment, and dedication.” Runner Jack H. (‘22) describes “time trials” as his favorite part of cross country. Time trials are one of the most difficult workouts that a runner will be tasked during a season, yet there is enjoyment within the challenge.
Cross country is designed around competing with oneself by trying to achieve a personal record (PR) on every course. Unlike other sports, each runner will compete. They will all run the same course against the same opponents as their teammates and face the same challenges. Spencer B. spoke for the majority of runners when he described the most difficult challenge he faces: “The aspect of running for a while is just mental, and you have to keep pushing yourself.” One of the most beautiful aspects of cross country is how each member of the team learns throughout the season to push through their mental barrier in order to achieve maximum physical performance.
A lesser-known component of the JV team’s success is SPAM, the canned meat product, which has been a staple of the culture of the team for many years. Fleming describes the relationship his team has with SPAM by saying; “SPAM is a metaphor for this team because they work hard, and even though it is not always fun, they do what they can to make it fun.” Fleming and Turner see the SPAM workers writing a joke on each container of SPAM as them having a positive attitude about a job that many see as unappealing, similar to how their team has attacked seasons of cross country.
This metaphor has lead to the creation of the SPAM race at the end of every season between Collegiate and Saint Christopher’s. It takes place at a Bandy Field, a neutral ground, close to the Village shopping center. Each runner runs a loop around the field three times. At the start of each loop, one must jump over a wall built of cans of SPAM stacked on top of each other. Fleming defines this race as an opportunity for runners to combine “serious competition, having fun, and sportsmanship.” The winning team will take the trophy back to their school, where it will be displayed prominently in the classroom of the victorious coach.
Turner says that he wants each runner to leave cross country with “[a feeling of growth] within oneself and a bond with their teammates” at the end of the season. In addition to Fleming and Turner, there is also a slew of talented assistants who each bring something different to the team. Julie Bennett, a former Lower School fourth grade teacher, was a mainstay until she moved to California at the end of last year. This year, Middle School history teacher Laurie Goode has joined the team. She described her experiences thus far by saying, “The first thing I noticed was how much fun and energy the group brings to workouts each day. While many think of running as an individual sport, the team aspect of sports has always been a part of the cross country culture from the first day.”