Cross-country Running

A foundation for fitness, friendships and future

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Photos by Justin Loftus & Travis Dick

Great runners aren’t born – they’re made. Or so say the cross-country coaches of two Southern Oregon schools.

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Travis Dick, lead cross-country coach and
math teacher at Hedrick Middle School, with Hendrick Runners at Southern Oregon District Meet.

Travis Dick, head cross-country coach and math teacher at Hedrick Middle School in Medford, oversees a program that takes beginning runners in sixth through eighth grades and shapes them into athletes. Having coached for eight years, Dick says that while cross-country is a sport in which almost anyone can participate, middle schoolers present unique challenges. “They usually aren’t used to adversity,” he says. “They haven’t learned about ‘mental toughness’ yet, so it’s easy for them to give up and stop running almost as soon as they’ve started.”

Dick particularly enjoys the challenge of motivating his runners, helping them develop the mental toughness needed to compete and persevere, and seeing them improve during the season.

Justin Loftus, head coach at Crater High School in Central Point, helps turn budding runners into elite racers, and often, college scholarship recipients. Having coached and taught P.E. for 19 years, Loftus agrees that cross-country is fairly unique among youth sports in that it’s approachable to a wide range of participants.

Everybody’s welcome to run

“There’s really no qualifying criteria, except good attitude,” says Loftus. “High school cross-country can be challenging and rewarding for runners of all skill levels. We love to take everybody on the team who wants to be here.”

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Crater Cross-country Team at the Midwester League JV Race at Tugman State Park near the Oregon Coast.

Loftus’ teams at Crater, who won the Oregon 5A state championship in 2018, typically have about 40 runners, with close to even male/female participation. “We’ve got both competitors and noncompetitive kids on our teams,” he says. “There’s something to offer both. Participation is open to everyone, and we don’t cut anyone.”

Each of the past three years, the Hedrick team has had more than 80 participants. At the middle-school level, the races are short—just 3 kilometers (1.8 miles)—so nearly everyone can compete. Dick says that young beginners don’t require much training to be able to cover the race distance, but some still don’t quite know what they’ve signed up for.

“I’m always blown away on the first day of fall training when some kids show up who’ve run 10-mile races or half-marathons, and there are others don’t really know anything at all about running,” says Dick. At those first practices he has everyone run a half-mile loop around the school; many will do lots of walking at first and working with those children in particular is one of Dick’s favorite challenges.

“Often I have to trick them into running further,” he says. “We play games while we run. I try to figure out what makes them tick, and it helps them run further without knowing it.”

It’s different from track

Cross-country races are run on what’s known as ‘open courses.’ This means a course can take runners through fields, parks, forested trails, hills, over steeplechase (water jump) hurdles, and even through golf courses. Each school’s course offers a different set of racing challenges.

By high school, most runners have developed the mental and physical toughness needed for more intense training and racing. High school cross-country races are typically 5 kilometers—3.1 miles—and the competition is there for more than just athletic accomplishment.

“Each year we have multiple athletes who may go on to run in college,” says Loftus, speaking from Sunriver Resort, where he leads an annual training camp for high school runners.

Choosing running over other sports

Future college runner and 2019 Crater graduate Andy Monroe played football, basketball and baseball in middle school, but during his freshman year he decided to focus on cross-country.

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Crater cross-country team trip to Central Oregon included a run of 7.2 miles on the Summit Loop by Smith Rock

“Letting go of those other sports my freshman year was fairly easy, because I knew running was special,” says Monroe, who earned a track scholarship to Stanford. “It came down to what I saw myself doing in the future. Running is so simple compared to other sports, and it’s such a good escape from everything else in life.”

For another of Loftus’ 2019 graduates, deciding to focus on running wasn’t as easy. Jantz Tostenson played football, basketball, soccer and baseball. “For me it was the team aspect that attracted me to those sports,” says Tostenson. “Running has ups and downs and you got to put in the effort every day, and that commitment is what builds a team.”

Many middle-school cross-country runners play club soccer or volleyball during the fall, and run track in the spring, and Dick encourages that variety. “Cross-country develops that foundation of endurance and mental toughness that will be assets in any other sport they choose to pursue.”

Preparing for the season

Now is the time to start preparing for the upcoming season. “I always tell runners to get some miles on their legs over summer,” says Dick. “Not a ton, and it doesn’t have to be fast.” He also encourages all runners—even those who run year-round—to run some community races, like the annual Pear Blossom 10-mile or 5K runs.

At Sunriver, Loftus’ campers train twice each day, although he says the running is not really intense. “We’re just getting them back into the groove before some harder summer training to come,” he says.

Once the season begins

Regardless of skill and fitness level, most runners will have their slowest times at the beginning of the season. “But throughout the season, all runners will get stronger,” says Dick. “They can see the improvement in their times, and they feel so much better, stronger and faster.”

In-season training consists of rotating the focus of each practice among speed, distance and recovery. With meets on most Thursdays, each day’s practice takes on a special function to help runners improve and endure through the season.

Monroe, the incoming Stanford runner, says getting faster sets cross-country apart from other sports. “People enjoy the idea of self-improvement,” he says. “You can see your times go down, and that’s the most important aspect.”

For coaches, determining the right level of effort is key. “I’m always trying to find balance between how hard to push, versus letting them run at their own pace,” says Dick. Knowing that cross-country may be the only time many of them compete in any sport, he strives to keep it fun. “I hope to develop in them a love of running, of doing hard work, and the satisfaction that comes with persevering through difficult challenges.”

The joy of running with the pack

Most runners will never reach elite status, yet still want to compete and improve their race times. Known as ‘midpackers,’ they compete knowing they’re not necessarily going up against the front-runners, but instead, are motivated by racing against the clock.

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(L-R) Jantz Tostenson, J.C. Herring, Gage Reed, Ryland McCullough

Levi Jackson, an assistant coach at Crater, describes the appeal. “There’s a contagious aspect of being midpacker,” he says. “They see the elite runners and they look up to them, and just want to get better and improve.”

Tostenson appreciates the social aspect to midpack running. “They stick with it because they develop friendships that can last forever,” he says.

Another aspect of cross-country’s appeal is that young or old, virtually anyone can start running at any point in their life. Runners can set their own personal record (PR) at almost any age and keep setting new PRs year after year.

“You don’t have to have certain skills, talent or physique to start,” says Loftus. “You can develop those while you train. And unlike many other sports, running can be a lifestyle beyond school once you graduate. You can do it your entire life.”

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hendrick runner hadley dunlevy cross country

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“There’s really no qualifying criteria, except good attitude. High school cross-country can be challenging and rewarding for runners of all skill levels. We love to take everybody on the team who wants to be here.” -Justin Loftus, head coach at Crater High School, Central Point



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