A fan's-eye view of the cross-country national championship
Imagine yourself covered with red body paint, dressed only in a glorified loincloth, sweating copiously, and screaming hoarsely at the top of your voice as young men and women swarm past you. No, this is not some ancient barbaric rite of human sacrifice--this is the experience of the normal Calvin fan at the Division III Cross-Country National Championships, held Nov. 17 at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill.
About 30 of us gathered at the fieldhouse on Friday afternoon, lugging backpacks and sleeping bags, and of course the first question out of everyone's mouth was, ``Timmay, you got the body paint?'' Fortunately, Tim Van Haitsma did have the paint along, and after finally packing everybody into a vehicle, our caravan pulled out. Of course, no road trip would be complete without a pit stop for greasy junk food, and at least a minor accident (in which I happened to be the driver).
Despite this mishap and some really thick fog, all six vehicles arrived safely in Morrison, Ill., where the kind people of the Morrison Christian Reformed Church let us stay in their church. To kill the time, a group of us wandered around downtown Morrison (population about 5000), a memorable experience. ``Historic Main Street'' seemed to have a bar every 100 yards. We were accosted by a police officer, who quite naturally thought it strange for 20 young men to be wandering the deserted streets at midnight. A grain elevator loomed out of the fog and the blare of passing trains disrupted the eerie silence every half hour. Back at the church, everyone staked out a spot on the floor to catch at least a few hours of sleep.
As we arrived at the course the next morning, the fog began to lift, revealing a buzz of activity--runners warming up, fans spilling out of cars, people lining up to use the portajohns, kids chasing down Frisbees, music blasting, bratwursts sizzling. We naturally congregated with the other Calvin fans: alumni, parents, friends and Chaplain Cooper. Some had driven all the way from New Mexico. Once again, a big brouhaha raged over the body paint. Somehow, we lost Timmay and a few other guys, and thus began a desperate search for the paint. Finally, they turned up with it, and we hurriedly applied the maroon and gold tempera paint, scrawling ``Calvin'' and ``Knights'' onto our already sweating bodies.
Our emotional excitement building to a fever, we dashed through the throngs of spectators waiting for the women's race, yelling and blowing our one trumpet. We created quite a scene, especially the girls with their matching sports bras. Although Calvin definitely had the most fans, there were other strangely dressed fanatics: some in body-length tights, some wearing skimpy kilts with not much else underneath, others carrying cardboard cutouts of goats. Being a fan is serious business!
The goal in a cross-country race is to catch the runners at as many points as possible on the course, so after a hurried prayer we tried to figure out our strategy for the race. Basically, this amounted to sprinting non-stop from one part of the course to the next. At each halt, we would gulp a few breaths of air and then launch into our standard cheer of ``Calvin, Calvin!'' as our runners approached. As each individual member of the Calvin team sped past, the unison shouts would dissolve into plaintive cries of ``Go Erinn'' or ``Go Carrier.'' Cheering is an emotionally draining activity, as you desperately will the runners to go faster, your heart pounding furiously, your eyes nervously counting the position they're in.
In the interlude between the men's and women's races we rested, gathering our energy and focusing on the challenge ahead. The day had become swelteringly hot, and had taken on a surreal, summer-like quality. A face-off between our chicken mascot (don't ask) and another team's moose provided some comic relief. The two characters faced each other in gunslinger fashion, stamping and pawing at the ground, but ultimately nothing came of it.
As soon as the men's race started our excitement returned, and we again tore around the course to cheer our guys on. Towards the end of the race our voices took on a more strained, hoarse quality. The red paint ran down our faces mingled with sweat as we dashed toward the finish line. Here, a tragic sight greeted us. Overwhelmed by the muggy heat and the extreme physical exertion, several runners collapsed within sight of the line. One poor guy stumbled confusedly on towards the line, his whole torso leaning backwards, his mind forcing his unresponsive body forward. I remember fervently praying that the same fate wouldn't overtake any of our runners.
Fortunately, all the Calvin competitors made it through the line, although Joel Klooster did have to receive IV fluids. A couple of other runners had to be hospitalized for extreme dehydration. I was awed by these people that pushed themselves to the limit, ignoring pain and exhaustion to give their all for the team. After the race a group of us dove, literally, into a murky pond of run-off water near the finish line. Standing in the refreshingly cold water, knee deep in gooey mud, we rubbed uselessly at the paint still on our bodies.
After that exhilarating end, the incessant waiting around at the awards ceremony seemed almost like a letdown. We clapped politely for the other teams, and mustered what voices we had left to cheer for the Calvin finishers. The end of a season is a time of conflicting emotions. There is joy in the good finish of the runners. There is relief that the hard work is finally over, and that the perseverance has paid off. But there is also sadness, because it is the end of a good thing. You realize that this particular group of runners and coaches--friends--will never again be together in the same way, united in the same purpose. You remember the tough workouts of the season that brought you together, the stories and jokes that will be retold in years to come, the teammates that have been your almost constant companions for two months. But even in the sadness is born a germ of hope--the knowledge that you will come back next year and create once again a thing of beauty.