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Last August, the world was abuzz with talk of the ‘Final Five.’ Like the ‘Fantastic Five’ that preceded them, this group of talented gymnasts took the Rio Olympics by storm, claiming medal after medal for the United States. They were the group to beat.
Gymnastics isn’t the only sport that place such emphasis on that top five though. In cross country, a team’s score is dependent of how its top five finishers placed. The lowest score (adding up the places of the top-five finishers) wins the meet. The better these individuals finish, the better the team will do. Simple, right? Yes, except for the fact that a varsity cross-country team comprises seven runners. This begs the questions: Why is it seven? Why not just five?
While I claim no knowledge of true cross-country tradition, I do know that the sixth and seventh runners are very influential and shouldn’t be counted out. Here’s why:
They can impact the score
While it’s true that only the top five runners score for a team, the sixth and seventh runners are far from useless. They have the ability to displace a scoring runner from another team. For example: If Team Green’s seventh runner finishes ahead of Team Blue’s fifth runner, Team Blue’s score increases due to that lost place. In a close competition or a large race, the impact of the sixth and seventh runner can be a big game changer.
I hate to say it, but when it comes to running, injuries happen. Unfortunately, so do stomach viruses and sprained ankles and, yes, even concussions. So while every team aims to have a healthy and solid top five, that’s not always in the cards. If you are the number six or seven runner and your teammate falls in a race, that’s not the time to begin contemplating your ability to contribute. Get it in your head now that you are a valuable member of the team—if you’re number six, you’ve suddenly become number five! You aren’t there to just cheer on the team, you’re there to be a part of it, and you should be prepared to save the day when needed. With this mentality, when the time comes, you’ll be ready.
Calamity aside, there are also some pretty awesome breakthroughs in cross country, ones that can rocket a runner to one of the top positions on a team. If you’re looking for that kind of improvement, the best thing you can do is identify teammates who have consistent and healthy habits. Observe them. Learn what is effective and beneficial for the top five. You have the unique opportunity to be a part of something great without the level of responsibility the top five runners have. Use it. Approach those big races as a chance to gain experience for the future day when you will be part of the score, whether it’s as a substitute runner or picking up for a runner who might not be having their best day. Train hard, train smart, and soak it all up like a sponge.
Team culture is everything
Here’s the thing about cross country: You have very limited success on your own. It really is a team sport. The team trains together and recovers together. It takes ice baths and watches movies and plays games together. And like any living, breathing entity, the team is only the sum of its parts. Whether you’re the top runner or you’re consistently bringing up the rear, there’s no way you don’t make an impact on the team. At the end of the day, the accumulation of hard work, humility and an attention to detail is the making of a strong team. If that’s something you want to be a part of, create that culture on an individual level, and watch how it spreads.
Throughout my career thus far, I’ve been the top girl and I’ve been the one hanging on the back of the pack. Having experienced both ends of the spectrum, I can say there’s beauty—and benefit—in all of it. That fluctuation has taught me humility. It has taught me that every runner makes an impact. Whether they’re directly influencing the team score or not, every runner matters. So to all the number six and seven runners out there—I get it. I understand the draw towards frustration or indifference, but take advantage of where you’re at. You are on a journey of great growth and achievement, and if you grab ahold of it, you’ll become a better athlete and person as a result.