I ran with the cross country team and lived to tell the tale

By Elana Eisenberg and Suzanne Guo

I felt my legs start to seize up as we slowed our pace to something that barely qualified as a run. The hill looming ahead of me seemed a thousand times steeper than it had when I’d admired it on the drive up, and the blazing sun pounded down onto my aching muscles. Dust swirled around me in miniature tornadoes. It scratched my lungs and crept into my socks. Every muscle in my body felt heavy with the weight of my ambition, and my feet seemed to sink further into the dry trail with each reluctant step.

We weren’t even five minutes into the run.

I don’t know how many times I’ve said, “I would never join the cross country team.” It was never anything personal; in fact, I have a lot of close friends on the team, and I run track in the spring. As the cross country reporter for this season, I had hoped that throwing myself into their shoes for a day would allow me to better understand their practice schedule and get a feel for the team atmosphere. So there I was, tagging along with the Los Altos cross country team on their last long Saturday run of the season—by my own free will. 

The cross country team runs on a multitude of different roads and trails, but the athletes each have their personal favorites. Junior Amanda Le, freshman Boden Sirey, and sophomore Riley Capuano explain why they like to run either the Conception or Packard route with the team. All three athletes are on the cross country team for the first time this year and have loved its welcoming and supportive atmosphere.

In that moment, I was sincerely regretting my decision. I felt like I was confirming everything I’d believed about cross country: it was hard. It was boring. And my legs felt like they were giving up on me.

Just as I was losing all faith in my decision-making skills, we reached the top of the hill. Finally, I was able to catch my breath. I looked up to see taller mountains rolling into the distance. I made my way past horses drinking from metal buckets, feeling the water spray my dusty ankles and the clear breeze wash over my face. As we headed down, I felt the tension in my legs fly away into the wind. 

My stress and anxiety shifted to feelings of peace and freedom over the next hour as we navigated our way through forest trails, across creek bridges and over rocky hills. By the time we finished our loop and returned to the hill, I couldn’t wait to get to the top. 

After a few long minutes of that final climb, I was able to take in the stunning scenery once more. I couldn’t help but smile. Reaching the top of that hill meant that I had done it. It meant that I had run six whole miles with the cross country team without injuring myself or giving up, which were two very legitimate fears I had. It meant that I had taken my goals as a sports reporter to the next level.

It also meant that I got to eat a doughnut at the cross country team’s weekly Saturday potluck. While the promise of snacks was not the ultimate factor in choosing to run with the team, it would be a lie to say it had no influence over my decision. 

“This is the best chocolate milk I’ve ever had,” I blurted as I gulped it down from my plastic cup. (For anyone looking to up their chocolate milk game, it was Lucerne brand.)

“That’s what cross country will do to you,” head coach Steph Mackenzie said with a laugh from across the bench. 

As more athletes returned from their runs, I got the chance to talk to some of them about their experiences on the team. My most pressing question for them, though, was the one that inspired me to go on the run in the first place: Why did you decide to join the cross country team?

Sophomore Riley Capuano said she joined the team after leaving the overly competitive and stressful club soccer environment. In just her first few months of running with the team, she’s consistently been one of the fastest varsity girls.

“So far this season has been really fun, especially since I do it with some of my best friends and the coaches are really supportive,” she said.

Junior Amanda Le also joined the team this year after making the switch from a long softball career, and she said that she’s found the team to be welcoming and inclusive of people no matter their skill level. 

Junior Soham Bhonagiri and freshman Boden Sirey agreed with the girls about the team environment. Soham, who moved to the Bay Area from Chicago before his sophomore year, said that he made his first—and closest—friends while on runs with the team. Boden decided to give cross country a try instead of football.

“I decided to do cross country and give it a shot, and I started to really enjoy it,” he said. Boden ran the fastest time in the freshman boys heat at the first invitational meet of the season, and since then, he’s continued to place high in the freshman rankings and has even run some races in the varsity division.

After talking to Mackenzie about her thoughts on the team culture this year, I think it’s safe to say she would agree with her athletes. 

“The culture we are trying to promote is inclusive of everyone no matter their ability, but also one where hard work and commitment is celebrated,” she said. “Getting involved in the team social events will help you build friendships across the team and feel like a part of the cross country family.”

I was only a part of that family for a few hours, but it was more than enough time to immerse myself in the team atmosphere. Anyone who was at the run could tell you that I was scared. I was scared that the hills would be too steep, scared that my shin splints would be killing me, scared that everyone would look at me and wonder, “Why is she even here? She’s never raced anything longer than a 400.” 

Instead, runners showed me where to put my backpack and stretched alongside me as we warmed up in a dirt parking lot. They pointed out where the water fountains were stationed along the trails and laughed with me when we realized we’d taken the wrong path. They welcomed me with excitement and compassion, and I couldn’t have asked for a more fulfilling experience.

At the heart of my experience was education. I learned about new local trails and running techniques, but even more importantly, I learned about taking risks. If you’re having doubts or fears about trying something new, sometimes the best way to overcome them is to tackle them face-to-face.

Just a little while ago, I was intimidated by the mere thought of running cross country, and I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to go on a six-mile run on a Saturday morning. Now, I’m so glad that I did.

After the run, I asked Mackenzie what advice she would give to people who are interested in running cross country but hesitant to try it out.

“The best thing to do if you’re interested in cross country is to come out to our summer conditioning runs and try it out,” she said.

I couldn’t agree more.