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Having lived all over the country (Utah, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Wisconsin) I have been to my fair share of sporting events, spanning all levels of competition. However, aside from my son’s soccer games, only one event stands out as a can’t-miss, bucket list-type event. That is the NCAA championship cross-country meet, held most years in Terre Haute, Indiana.
I first attended this event in 2006, which just happens to be one of only two times a BYU runner has won the individual title. Current BYU coach Ed Eyestone won the competition back in 1984 and Josh Rohatinsky won it in 2006.
What makes cross-country races (and especially the NCAA championship meet) unique is the audience participation aspect of the event. You simply cannot sit and watch a cross-country meet unless you are willing to miss most of the action. This is because the runners are not running around an oval track like a typical track-and-field meet. The course is usually a sprawling loop of one or more miles that the runners will traverse multiple times.
So instead of sitting in the bleachers to cheer on your team, you have to get up and literally run from place to place near the track to be able to position yourself to see and cheer for your runner. Most fans line up at race start, just like the runners. After the gun sounds they watch the early separation of runners into various packs, and then the fans also separate into their own packs. Most fans head out to a predetermined position on the course where the runners will pass in the first mile or two. After cheering on their runners, the fans then run to another point on the course where they can cheer on the same runners again before they complete the race. Finally, fans sprint to the race finish hoping to get there before the first racers arrive or the area near the concourse fills up with other fans, coaches and media.
When I first attended this event with my wife and our 1-year-old, we quickly learned that bringing the jogging stroller was a mistake, as it impeded our progress getting from one position on the course to the next. Instead, we ditched the stroller in the weeds and I put the baby on my shoulders so we could really run.
BYU alumni were well represented at the meet (evidenced by their BYU hoodies and jackets) and we were met with choruses of “Go Cougars!” as we passed other fans and coaches running around the course to cheer on the team. So we were not just cheering on the runners, but the fans as well.
After an exhausting half-hour of racing around the course as fans, it was a thrill to arrive just moments before Rohatinsky crossed the finish line to win the race. We feel as if we shared the victory with him as we ran up the hill to see him sprint the final 100 meters.
Tyler Christensen is a teacher, writer, and web designer. He maintains the blog www.byuinsider.com, which centers on BYU recruiting and statistics. Follow him on Twitter @byu_insider.