Three runners from Lincoln Southwest crossed the road side-by-side and into the homestretch at Pioneers Park during a junior varsity cross country race last month.
Then came two runners from Lincoln Southeast together, and after that two more from Southwest.
When it was over, 438 runners finished the JV boys race during that meet, hosted by Lincoln High. In four races that day, there were 651 finishers. A few weeks later, at the Lincoln Public Schools meet, there were 378 finishers.
There are people who say that high school students are lazy these days, but you sure wouldn’t think so by attending a high school cross country meet in Lincoln this year.
Lincoln Southwest and Lincoln East each had more than 120 runners out for the sport. Lincoln Pius X had 90, Lincoln Southeast about 75 and Lincoln North Star about 60.
And this is the sport where you practice outside five or six days per week in either the heat or the rain and cold. And the races are about 3.1 miles, sometimes on a very hot day.
If you’re lazy and going to go out for a sport, cross country isn’t the right one, East coach Brian Kabourek said.
“I mean this sincerely, it’s not easy for some of the kids that we have out, and so I really admire what they do, because they don’t complain,” Kabourek said.
It takes a special athlete to do cross country, North Star coach Matt Musiel said.
“These past years with the birth of social media, all the luxuries we have out there, and sometimes fitness and healthy living taking a backseat," Musiel said. "It's remarkable to see what these students do day after day and year after year. To put themselves out there for everyone to see every day at practice and at meets is truly admirable.”
Having large teams presents some logistical challenges, but coaches across the city say it’s worth it when you see all the runners having fun and improving.
At Lincoln East, there were 128 runners out this year, 63 boys and 65 girls. That's the most the school has ever had. East begins practice each day in the wrestling room and had to nix certain stretches, because in tight quarters you may slam your leg into your neighbor's face.
When they hit the trails to train, the runners start at the same time, but may end up spread out by at least one mile, due to the runners' different abilities.
“I always joke, football has a lot of kids, and they’ve got more coaches per kid than what we do, but when they practice, at least their kids aren’t running away from them,” Kabourek said.
It used to be that the LPS schools only paid for a head coach and one assistant coach, but with such large teams now, they’re allowed to have a second paid assistant. Many of the teams also have volunteer assistants.
East has so many runners that there aren't enough of the new uniforms for every runner, so some wear the old ones.
Coaches say the great thing about their sport is that they don’t have to cut anybody who wants to be on the team, although coaches usually have to have a travel roster when they only get one or two buses for away meets.
And teams sometimes grow after the season begins when students get cut from other sports and join cross country. In 1995, Tracie Goeglein was cut from the Lincoln East volleyball team as a senior, joined cross country, and a few months later placed 13th at the state meet.
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One year a girl at East was devastated after being cut from the volleyball team as a senior. She joined the cross country team, and later posted on social media that if she’d known cross country was so fun, she would have joined the team earlier.
Kabourek thinks having such large teams has led to the Spartans’ success in the sport. The East girls were state runners-up last year, and should contend for a top finish again at the state meet Friday.
“You get such a large pool of kids, you’re bound to get one or two of them that end up being a real diamond,” Kabourek said.
Mark Canfield, the coach of the district champion Lincoln Christian boys team, said more runners means more competition for varsity spots, and that makes everybody better.
“I have noticed that a talented freshman can have a greater impact on the effort of the team sometimes than a talented senior,” Canfield said.
Lincoln East’s Camryn Self wasn’t crazy about the thought of cross country at first, but ended up doing it all four years.
“I decided to do it a week before the season started my freshmen year with my friends, and my dad had been talking me into it for a while, and I was very persistent in saying that I wasn’t a runner, and that I didn’t think that I was going to like it,” Self said. “We went for it, and it was a great decision.”
Self was on the Spartans’ team that made state as a sophomore. She recruited some of her friends to join the team, including Olivia Smith, who is on the varsity team now.
When you're on the cross country team, you get to know a lot of people from your school, Self said.
“You would think that it would be hard to get to know everyone on the team with it being so big, but we all come together and support each other,” she said.
At Lincoln Southwest, coach Ryan Salem has a record 153 runners, up about 60 from two years ago.
“We do not cut anyone who wants to run cross country at Southwest,” Salem said. “You really can be as good as you want to be if you are determined and put in the work in our sport. Not everyone is born 7 feet tall and destined for basketball greatness, but most great high school runners learn how to work hard and believe in themselves.”
Several coaches have a success story of a runner going from being in the back of the pack when they joined the team to being one of the team’s top 10 runners.
For many athletes, being one of the team’s best seven runners to make the varsity team isn’t attainable, but being on the team gives them a group that’s theirs in a large school and helps them reach personal goals.
Southeast coach Dave Nebel remembers about 10 years ago the life changes that cross country helped Jens Lehman achieve.
“Jens was a big kid, maybe 275 pounds,” Nebel said. “He ran cross country for two years and ended his career by breaking 30 minutes at Pioneers. He kept running and lost a significant amount of weight. Cross country for Jens was the pathway to a healthier lifestyle.”