It's been said by Matt Tegenkamp, a current USA long distance Olympian, that "serious runners realize that the race begins when there is only about 25 percent of the race still left to be run." It's when the novices have fallen back and the real competitors push the pace.
In cross country, you can win a slew of races. You can be a conference champion. You can hold every record at your college or university. But when it's time to crown your 40 All-Americans, and an NCAA champion, all the glitter is cast aside. There's one chance, one shot, one moment, one race.
It's determined at the NCAA national cross country championship. This year it was held Nov. 17, in Joplin Mo., at Missouri Southern State University for Div. II runners.
The race is full of pageantry. Thousands of students and fans descended upon Joplin. Many are painted in school colors, running and dancing, holding and waving their flags as they go. Chanting and screaming for their school's team and individual runners. They made a grand spectacle of themselves. It would make March Madness blush. And the race hasn't even started.
This year, 249 elite runners from all across the country gathered for this memorable event. There were 57 colleges and universities represented.
The day was beautiful. MSSU's course is known as a fast track. The one lone runner from Utah, Rachel Perkins Young, running for Dixie State College, stood at the window of opportunity. It was the moment of success, or what should, or might have been. Sometimes athletes in team sports are propped up by coaches. Not here. It's you, the course/track, and the clock. You stand exposed, the pretender, or the real deal.
The gun sounds and it's a sight to see. After one mile, Rachel is in 62nd position. It is good just to come out of the masses without being tripped or knocked down.
A half mile later, she starts picking off, one by one, the runners in front of her. She's in the 53rd spot.
The course is up and down. It winds through the shrubs, tall grass and trees. The race is a 6K, or approximately 3.7 miles. There are chances for the student body, fans and coaches, to go from spot to spot yelling encouragement to their favorites. It almost has a Tour de France feeling, with the spectators so close.
Another mile passes and Rachel is looking strong. She's now in 43rd and on the move. The race begins in earnest. The 40th finisher separates the All-American from the almost. With calm intensity the press is on. My wife takes off to watch the NCAA big screen to see the results — 200 yards left and one more yell. Rachel runs by amid my anxious scream. She's in 36th place.
I bee-line it to the finish line as she completes one more sweeping turn.
I arrive just in time to see the first harrier, the crowned champion, cross the line. I'm looking for Rachel. Then there she is, reeling in two more competitors with a final kick. I look up to the large screen as she finishes: 28th place. Dixie State has its first All-American. I raise my arms and hands high in celebration.
Later that afternoon, something flashes through my mind. I see 22 years ago, in the palm of my hand, a preemie, six weeks early.
Placenta previa almost took my wife, and my tiny Rachel. It's about family.
We cheer each other and cry with each other. And through it all, we pray, thanking our God for letting us have the ride.