Cross country: the unseen sport

SPORTS. Cross country athletes are unseen at times, since they sometimes run through hills and dales during meets and practice -- but their races and training sessions are among the most physically and mentally challenging of all high school and collegiate sports.

Sep 24 2019 | 04:22 PM

Sparta High School junior Kaela Burke knows the mental toughness that's required of cross country athletes. She's on Sparta's cross country team.

“It's your feet pounding the pavement 180 times a minute for 20-30 minutes, it's your lungs burning and heart pounding in your ears," Burke said. "It's hard and tiring at times but every race is a triumph, and the work you put in with your team grows a bond like no other, to the point where you celebrate their victories as if they were your own."

Sarah Pisano is in her seventh year coaching the Sparta girls' team and has been a Biology and Biomedical Science teacher at the school for eight years.

With her program, the captains generally run practices through July and the runners also volunteer at the Sparta Cross Country Track Camp in July. Preseason starts in early August.

The Sparta boys' team begins running independently and in groups around the end of the previous school year. They also volunteer at the camp, and summer practices begin in mid-August. They are coached by Robert Gilmartin who has been teaching at Sparta for more than 15 years and is in his second season coaching the high school team after having coached the middle school team.

At Pope John X111 High School, Brian Corcoran is coaching in his 26th year at the school and has been the head cross country coach since 1996. He teaches Business and Introduction to Computer Science. In the summer, the teams meet twice a week beginning after July 4th for optional practices.

Team bonding is key.

“Every year we volunteer at the local 5K race that raises money for mammograms for individuals in Sussex County who cannot afford them,” Pisano said. “The girls also volunteer for the middle school meets that are held at Sparta high school. Outside of running events, the girls get together for pasta parties before big meets. This year we are also racing the Six Flags invite and doing a team bonding day at the amusement park afterward.”

At Pope John, Corcoran said that team members organize various pasta parties and events outside of school to gather as a group.

“Running with people naturally lends itself to talking to each other about a ton of different topics and lends itself to friendships,” Gilmartin said of his team. “The boys volunteer at a few of the middle school cross country meets...This year we are running the Six Flags Invitational and spending the afternoon in the park after the races as well."

Some schools have separate boys' and girls' programs while others combine the two under one coaching staff.

Sparta has separate programs.

“But the teams work together for the most part which is great to bond the two squads,” Gilmartin said.

“When I first started seven years ago, we could barely field a team,” Coach Pisano said. “This year we are up to 19 runners."

At Pope John, Corcoran said it ebbs and flows from year to year.

“Due to Sussex County demographics, just like most schools in the area, our numbers are lower,” he said.

“Our team is slightly bigger this year than the past year or two but we still have a squad of about 20 boys which makes us one of the smallest boys sports teams at Sparta,” Gilmartin said of the Sparta boys' team.

For much of the race, runners are unseen as they navigate the hills and dales of the course.

“Cross country is one of the only sports that you can pick up anytime and become a runner at any point in their life,” Gilmartin said.

“I always find the energy I didn’t know I had left when I see my teammates cheer me on during a race and it’s so important to pass on that powerful energy to my teammates,” said Sparta junior, Andrew Krops.

Coach Gilmartin said the Sparta team "probably has the greatest potential of any teams that I have coached."

The team is currently 3-1, and has a strong chance of advancing to the group tournament. They're also in contention for the NJAC divisional title. If they win, it would be the first time in 30 years for Sparta High girls cross country.”

“We have a solid front runner in Eion McClain and a big pack behind him,” Corcoran said of the Pope John boys. “We are working on getting the pack closer to Eion. The lower compression should help us compete in the championship meets. As for the girls, we are working on self-improvement currently. With only 10 healthy runners (lost a top runner to a stress fracture), we are being cautious in training. Natalie O’Hearn is the top runner and should be able to compete for the top position at most meets..”

“It takes a lot of hard work," said Sparta High sophomore Kayleigh Simpson. "But...joining cross country is like joining a second family."

“It's your feet pounding the pavement 180 times a minute for 20-30 minutes, it's your lungs burning and heart pounding in your ears," - Kaela Burke.