Becky Larson was only in junior high and already the cross-country coach at her future high school was encouraging her to join his team when she was old enough. Although she was running in junior high, she wasn’t sure she wanted to continue in high school.
But the night before her first day of high school, the coach called again to ask her to come to practice and give the team a try. She couldn’t bring herself to turn him down.
“I went to the practice after school the next day and ran three miles,” says Becky, who is now 22. “I thought I was going to die. My body hurt so bad; but Coach made it fun so I kept coming back.”
Becky’s experience isn’t a bit unusual. Most of the athletes on the Mountain View High School cross-country team in Orem, Utah, have had similar experiences. The running is exhausting, but they keep coming back for more because they’re getting a lot more out of cross-country than just running and winning.
They’re learning dedication, diligence, teamwork, and self-confidence, and it is reflected in the team’s grades and how they treat one another.
Mountain View’s cross-country teams aren’t just any teams. The girls’ team won three consecutive national titles from 1989–91, and has taken state every year since 1984. The boys’ team has been no slouch itself, having been ranked in the nation’s top ten for the last five years, while winning state in 1988, 1991, and 1993. In the classroom, the varsity teams carry a combined grade-point average of 3.8. And of the nearly 120 runners who participate on the teams, most everyone is LDS. To watch them is like watching youth at a huge Mutual activity, where everyone is in great physical shape.
Cross-country is typically a 3.1-mile event. Courses usually consist of either asphalt or grass, with hills and streams thrown in as obstacles. The cross-country season’s peak is between September and October. However most of the kids run year-round to keep in shape.
During the height of cross-country season, Heather Frushour, a two-time Utah state champion who graduated last June, used to be so busy that she barely had time to eat. She would wake up at 5:30 in the morning to run three miles with her teammates. After the 30-minute run, she rushed home to get ready for her first class that started at 7:40. Cross-country practice began at 1:00 P.M., and lasted for about three hours. Then it was time for the ice pack on sore muscles. Often Heather didn’t get home until 5:30. And by 7:00 on Mutual night, she was at the church. Then there was homework, and—finally—bedtime at 10:00 or 10:30.
“I may have been busy, but I felt incredibly organized. I definitely don’t feel like I wasted my day,” she says. “I would feel great.”
“My first season of cross-country I had my highest grades ever,” says Cathy Middleton, last season’s team captain who also recently graduated. “Cross-country made me really discipline myself so that I could get everything done that I needed to.”
During her freshman year, Cathy participated in track and suffered an injury that kept her from competing. “My grades dropped because I wasn’t busy. I became lazy. There was no pressure to get anything done, so I wasn’t doing nearly as much.” Fortunately, by the next fall she had healed and was able to run again. Her grades went back up. “I know when I’m busy and dedicated to something, I make better grades,” Cathy says.
Devan DeWitt has come a long way since joining the cross-country team two years ago as a sophomore. He wasn’t a particularly fast runner when he began, but as time went by he improved. By his junior and senior years, he had earned the right to compete at the state cross-country championships.
“When I discovered I could succeed at running, it helped me in other areas,” he says. “My grade-point average went from a 2.6 to a 3.0, and I had the courage to try out singing. Now I’m in the a capella choir.”
Cross-country has reassured junior Dula Parkinson that his Heavenly Father is only a prayer away. Usually before a race, Dula prays by himself. He asks Heavenly Father to help him run to the best of his ability.
But before one important race, he failed to pray. In his excitement—and anxiety—he simply forgot. “I was so nervous, I didn’t run very well that day,” he says. “Praying settles me down. I know if I had prayed, I would have run much better.”
Chad Bybee, now a returned missionary from the Japan Okayama Mission, ran four years on the Mountain View team. He took second at state in 1989, leading the boys’ team to its first cross-country title. Looking back, Chad realizes how much cross-country helped prepare him for his mission.
“I learned dedication, self-motivation, and self-discipline,” he says. “It also made me fit.” Chad remembers an experience on his mission where his running experience paid off. “One time, our bishop was sick, and he asked us to give him a blessing. My bike got a flat as we were going up the hill to the bishop’s house. So I ran the final 100 to 200 meters up the hill while my companion rode his bike,” Chad says. “Then I ran three-quarters of a mile to a discussion afterward.
“But I knew I could do it because of cross-country,” he continues. “Cross-country taught me how to push myself.”
David Houle, the Mountain View cross-country coach, encourages his team to visit a nursing home in American Fork, Utah. A group from the team goes every Sunday night.
Jason Blackham, an academic all-state cross-country runner who is now on a mission in the Brazil São Paulo East Mission, says Kathy, a 40-year-old woman with multiple sclerosis, was one of his favorite people to visit. “She was bright and clever; it was just her body that didn’t work,” he says. She died in the spring of 1992. “Quite a few of us attended the funeral.
“Service really humbles you,” says Jason. “It makes you thankful for what you have and for your healthy body.”
Because most of the team is LDS, the cross-country team is an ideal place to make friends with similar standards. “One time at a meet in Oregon, a guy from another team asked us if we all went to the same barber,” says Ryan Bybee, a priest who was the Utah state champion in 1993. “We laughed. We are all pretty clean-cut. It’s pretty cool that other schools take notice.
“It’s also a tradition for us to read our scriptures together at away meets,” adds Ryan. “That helps us feel close and gives us a chance to feel the Spirit together.”
“Because we all have the same standards and are trying to be good, we support each other,” says Devan. “That keeps us all from going out and doing something we shouldn’t.”
Coach Houle says, “I don’t have to worry about these kids going out and drinking or doing any of the things other coaches have to worry about. That gives us a lot more time to spend learning things other than running—like going to the nursing home.”
Everyone on the Mountain View cross-country team will tell you their coach is the greatest. Coach Houle could easily be mistaken for one of the students, except for the constant five o’clock shadow he wears. He’s fit and without gray hair. And he’s not LDS.
“I feel like we are really good friends,” says Amy Jo Allen, a four-year high school all-American at Mountain View who is now a sophomore at BYU. She remembers the time Coach Houle helped her figure out how she could run the mile in under five minutes. “I didn’t believe his strategy would work. But he was right. By my senior year, I pretty much knew when he said something would work, it would. I never would have run if he hadn’t told me I could.”
Although cross-country was usually more hard work than play, Becky stuck with the sport throughout high school. She was a state champion in 1986, and after high school she ran a year for BYU. “Those were some of my most disciplined years, some of my best,” she says.
Clearly there is more to being part of a team than just participating in a sport and winning. “Being on a team teaches you to push yourself, to better yourself,” says 18-year-old Emilee Marek. “So if you’re not involved in some sort of sport or activity, get involved. You’ll never be sorry you did.”