Harriers train hard for a sport like no other

Newton. Cross country teams race up hills, through mud, and over long distances in a season that gallops through heat, wind, rain, sleet, and snow. But these kids find joy in a sport that is non-commercialized, doesn’t need travel teams, and leaves no one on the bench.

Newton /
| 28 Sep 2021 | 12:34

It’s 5:30 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 25. But Kittatinny Regional High School’s cross country harriers aren’t sleeping. They’re on a bus headed to a meet, and not just any meet because...it’s at Six Flags!

Cross country is a tough sport. As the adage goes, “Our sport is your sport’s punishment.” Yet these kids embrace it

Gianna Celi went out for the Newton team her freshman year because her mom wanted her to try something new. She said cross country is a unique sport.

“You meet people with not just a love and passion for the sport but a love and passion for lots of things, and the support when you finish a tough race or really any race is incredible,” she said. “Cross country runners just seem to have a lot of pride in doing things that most of their friends can’t imagine doing. The training is tough, but it’s so worth it when you cross the finish line in a race and get a good time.”

Gianna said she didn’t like cross country at first because she was a sprinter. “But my coach really helped and encouraged me, and for the past four years, has been a super support, not just with my running but with my academics,” she said.

Gianna is a senior and hopes to attend the University of Delaware next year.

“I’d like to follow in my dad’s footsteps and pursue accounting,” she said. “As for running in college, I would like to run either on a team or as part of a club.”

So, what else makes cross country so great? It’s free of the commercialization of youth sports. There are no travel teams or club teams or showcases. And everyone participates. Compared to most other sports, internal conflicts are rare, and playing time is not an issue. Cross country is also both an individual and team sport.

“I think cross country requires more sweat and guts than any other sport does,” said Kittatinny junior Thomas Balbo. “The night and day before a race, I’ll listen to motivational speakers and music and I’ll replay that in my head to utilize pain during a race. To deal with nerves before a race, I try to get myself as motivated as possible which I think also mentally prepares me better for when the race starts.”

His teammate, junior captain Molly Riva, made it to the Meet of Champions her freshman year. Neither Groups nor Meet of Champions was held last year because of Covid.

“Usually before races I get very nervous and worked up,” she said. “I just imagine the finish line and getting a good time and making my team proud. My best motivation is having the feeling of winning and hearing my name on the loud speaker the next morning. I think positively to push myself.”

Molly’s biggest goal for the season is to have the girls’ team qualify for groups. She hopes to return to the Meet of Champions to regain what she lost last year.

Matt Freund, a senior captain at Newton, is hoping to swim and study at Colgate University next year with plans to major in molecular biology.

“The training for cross country is very different from many other sports in that cross country is really solely about conditioning,” he said. “I feel other athletes definitely recognize and respect this seeing that there is a lot of work going into the sport.”

‘Fuel your adventurous side’

Coach Guy Gordon has been with the squad for 14 years. During that time, Kittatinny won seven division championships and qualified eight times for group championships. He knows how much the kids have worked and deserve to travel to this particular annual event. Last year was a no-go because of Covid, so being “on” this year means a lot.

The meet rotates the early slots for races, and this year Kittatinny got one. The 9 a.m. start in Jackson, N.J., allowed the team to take full advantage of the runner discount and enjoy the park.

Coach Diana Eigner has been coaching Newton High School’s cross country team for 25 years. Her boys team, which perennially qualifies for group championships, is off to a great season. Like other schools in the county, the girls team is lacking in number. Because of this, they can’t compete as a team, but the runners are performing strongly as individuals.

“I’m very proud of how my kids handled Covid and the lockdown,” said Eigner. “They persevered and used running as a positive outlet. I feel that cross country is kind of a forgotten sport which can lead to low numbers. My goals for this year are to see lot of personal best times. The kids are training hard, and I’m excited to see that training pay off.”

Training is key. It starts with the crucial summer distance build and crescendos. As the season progresses, it includes killer track workouts and hill intervals.

Dual meets are held with one other school. Batch meets include several other schools, and invitationals involve schools from all over the state. In the case of the Great Adventure race, teams came from other states to enjoy the park after the run.

As the leaves change from green to the collage of fall colors, the Hunterdon/Warren/Sussex Meet and NJACs are held. Then, as autumn fades into winter, the season culminates with sectionals. Runners can then advance individually and as a team to groups, and, ultimately, the coveted Meet of Champions, both held at the notorious Holmdel Park course.

“One of the messages I constantly reinforce to my kids is that it’s not about being the best, it’s about being your best,” Gordon said. “They are certainly taking a lot of pride in seeing continued improvement coming from a combination of hard training, commitment, and mental toughness.”

Freund credits Coach Eigner for “creating an environment in which her runners can succeed and be serious about personal improvement, goal setting and goal achievement.”

“I would have to say that the best part of the sport is the freedom that comes with the competition,” he said. “It is definitely very different from other sports in that the athletes are on their own and really have no spectators. Each competitor is fully focused on his or her race, and in my opinion, that is what makes the sport great.”

Kittatinny senior captain Billy Rudy would like to see their boys team make it to groups and motivate the team to do its best.

“During a race, whenever pain starts to enter, I actually try to go faster,” he said. “Sometimes it works out but sometimes it doesn’t. I get really nervous before my races. I do a lot and have a hard time thinking about one thing at a time, but before a race try to block all thoughts out of my head and focus on finishing at my best effort.”

Julia Florio is a senior captain at Newton and plans on enlisting in the United States Air Force after high school and explore the medical field.

“I started doing cross country this year to prepare myself for next year and stay in good shape,” she said. “I like the free and competitive feeling of cross country, which sets it apart from other sports. You can run where you want when you want, which can fuel an adventurous side.”

The cross country season spans a range of weather challenges. In the August pre-season, it can be excruciatingly hot, and hurricanes can send torrential downpours up the coast to Jersey. Unlike some other sports, meets and invitationals are still held in the rain. Only lightning will stop them. Come the end of the season, Old Man Winter throws cold and windy weather at the harriers, sometimes with snow for good measure.

“Cross country requires strength, determination, and toughness to compete not only against fellow runners, but also in some unforgiving weather conditions and on some difficult terrain,” Gordon said. “Runners race up hills, through fields, through mud, and over long distances to achieve the finish line. It’s truly a sport like no other.”

“I like the free and competitive feeling of cross country, which sets it apart from other sports. You can run where you want when you want, which can fuel an adventurous side.” Julia Florio