I once overheard someone refer to cross country as a pseudo-spectator sport. That is to say, it’s not an event that one simply sits around and observes. Rather, you get quite the workout in while bouncing back and forth between tangents, screaming at the top of your lungs for whatever team your allegiance lies with. After being a part of the phenomenon that is cross country spectatorship in Terre Haute for six years now, I’ve come to adore the peculiarities of the whole darn mess. And at the heart of that mess are the fans.
Every walk of life seems to be out there cheering. There are the old die-hards, the ones who have decade long attendance streaks. You know the type. They were the fourth man on this or that team back in the day and ran with so and so. They can (depending on your own level of interest) bore or delight you with their war stories from championships past. All of this in mid stride as you’re trying to figure out just where that 3k is.
Then there are the current teammates of the competitors. These are the guys who go flying past you in the middle of the field as they aren’t completely winded by a little bit of sprinting. If the circumstances were different, they might be in uniform putting it all out on the line for their team. Instead, they make it a personal challenge to be at as many significant points in the race as they can, lending their spirit to their fellow teammates as they decorate the course in their colors, cowbells, and oversized flags.
And of course there’s my own demographic; the out of shape former runner struggling as high schoolers and red shirt freshmen (who most likely spent the night packed like sardines on a hotel floor) easily breeze by. Sure, we still have some familiarity with the course, and our muscle memory hasn’t completely forgotten how to turn those gears, but we liken ourselves more to the old dogs rather than the young harriers who are in fact much closer to our own ages and waistbands.
All of these people, and then some when you include parents, jersey chasers, well wishers, and straight up XC geeks, all collide in a massive swarm that ricochets around the course with an intensity of fan participation that is unmatched in any other sport. You think a basketball fan is excited when they jump out of their seat and spill a little popcorn? Imagine if they ran down to the paint and started doing a mock lay up; that is essentially what cross country fans do.
While the field of competition participates in the tempo run of all tempo runs, the fans are deeply focused on not tripping in a hole while they run their own personal fartlek. They bound down the hill and over the stream, catch their breath for a few moments, lose a bit more of their voice screaming, then take off repeating the cycle until a winner is crowned.
And once all is said and done, there’s only a brief period of rest before the next race is off and it starts all over again.