By Josh Magill
A high school cross-country team is not for everyone. It is a sport for the mentally tough, the physically fit, and those who know how to pace themselves.
“It is the root sport,” says Graham-Kapowsin senior Jonathan Jackson. “There are no frills, there is no padding. It depends on you and no one else. It doesn’t matter what another person runs, but what you run and how you train. It doesn’t matter if a defensive tackle next to you messes up, just how you run, how you pace yourself, how you mentally get past those barriers.”
An outspoken leader for the Boys team, Jackson is working to make a return visit to the state invitational meet, and this year he has a bit more confidence.
“I’m getting there,” Jackson says with a smile that easily makes you believe he will. “I have a love for it. I’ve been running since eighth grade now and I love it. I read books on it. I watch movies about it. It feels like it’s engrained in me now. I never want to stop running.”
His excitement is unmistakable as he talks about the legendary Oregon runner Steve Prefontaine, or Roger Bannister, the British runner that broke the four minute mile. Jackson is currently reading about the achievements of Lance Armstrong, a former runner and well-known champion cyclist.
Jackson’s eagerness is shared by a fellow Eagles teammate, but her journey in competitive running is just beginning at the high school ranks. Freshman Mykaela Thomas joined the Girls team with a hint of excitement after finishing fourth overall in a recent 10K in Tacoma with a time under 46 minutes.
“This is really her first time running with a team, but I think she has a great chance to get to district,” stated G-K Girls head coach Tanya Steen. “She doesn’t like to lose. She likes to push herself and really go for it. She has a very good chance to make it to the state meet.”
When talking to Thomas, a home-schooled student, you get the idea she is out to prove herself just a little.
“It is a different environment,” proclaimed Thomas. “I do co-ops where you see other home-school kids, but being in public school (sports) you have to be more forceful making your place because you can’t be shy here, otherwise you won’t get very far. You have to get to know these other kids. When you run fast you make a reputation as a runner.”
Interestingly, Jackson is also home-schooled, but the duo has toughness – a throw-anything-you-got-at-me attitude. The top runners for their respective squads, each has no problem pushing harder than anyone else to reach their goals.
“When you have a person in front of you and you can taste it, you’re so close, you just dig in and go for it,” says Jackson. “Last week I had two guys in front of me that beat me last year, with 400 meters to go. I wasn’t going to allow them to beat me again. It just wasn’t going happen so I dug in. I don’t want to be second-best anymore.”
“I just enjoy running,” declared Thomas. “I’ll run every day, twice a day sometimes. I just run for fun sometimes. I’ve been getting a lot faster and I just enjoy the competition. It pushes you and it feels good when you get to your full limit. It’s nice when you place well too.”
The satisfaction the two have for running comes from various sources. For Jackson, running is a legacy of sorts.
“It really started with me, I guess, in competitive athletics,” stated Jackson’s father, Jeremy, who finished third in the Pennsylvania State Invitational in 1988 with a time of 15 minutes and 51 seconds.
“I was introduced to running at one of these elementary track and field days where I kind of stood out a little bit,” he continued. “So I tried football, tried basketball where I was the sixth man, but I thought: You know, I need something where I get to play every time. Cross-country is really a place where a guy can compete every time and be the best he wants to be if he works hard enough. If he has any natural ability, then he can be a state champion.”
Thomas’ reason is a bit closer to the skin.
“I have scoliosis,” Thomas declared. “It kind of limits you a little bit, but the running helps. When I run, the pain goes away, making me sort of numb with adrenaline up my back. Running doesn’t twist your core like other sports so it is good for me.”
That hit home for Steen.
“I’m a runner too,” the coach said. ”So just being out here teaching the kids, to help them understand that competing in cross country helps them in all the other activities they do. It is one of the best things they can do for their health.”
G-K’s Boys head coach, Ryan Zackula, says this is the best team he has had in the last few years. At a recent practice, he pushed the team on a demanding regimen he had resurrected from a couple weeks prior to see how they’d respond.
“No excuses now,” proded Zackula as he encouraged them around the track. “Where is our number five guy? Who is going to be our number five guy? Fight for it. Don’t quit, push yourself.”
As a result, Graham-Kapowsin may be a contender this year. Coach Zackula thinks so, but doesn’t want to tell everybody that and tip his hand.
“We should be top-ten in our sub-district,” says Zackula. “If we keep improving at the same rate we have been we should definitely be top ten and qualify for the district meet, maybe top five. Both the boys and girls teams are improving tremendously and we might surprise some people.”
Steen agreed, but sees something more important from the Eagles
“I haven’t crunched the numbers yet for the girls, but we can do well this season,” commented Steen. “The camaraderie between the boys and girls teams is great. They are like one big team. The parental support is amazing. These kids have been thriving off it. I always tell them that you push to have a better time than your previous time. Many other sports are just win or lose. This sport is a lot of competition with yourself to always better that time and placing.”
Jeremy Jackson says nobody can truly succeed at long distance running without guidance.
“I think you really do have to learn this sport from a mentor,” stated Jackson. “Some good people that have been there before that can teach you mental discipline. That switch has to turn on in somebody’s head before they want to put their body through this type of punishment.”
Jonathan, with a personal best time of 16:16, is on the verge of surpassing his father’s best time. That doesn’t matter because he says his father is his greatest mentor.
“I still wear his old jerseys and invitational t-shirts to train in,” beamed Jonathan. “He has helped me understand this sport, but I’ve never felt over-pushed by him. If I really wanted to quit running, he would be okay with that and I love him for being that way.”
During the separate team meetings at the end of practice on this day, Steen and Zackula encouraged their teams, telling them to practice hard, eat right and stay hydrated. Steen discussed the medal awarded to Thomas after the 10K as a way to inspire the girls while Zackula told the Boys of how past G-K teams were written off by other teams as an easy win. He hoped this will boost them to shine from under a veil of surprise.
Both coaches hope to see their Eagles soar this season.
© Josh Magill 2012