The longer one runs, in terms of miles or years, the more one savors cross-country. The explanation is simple. There is no better way to know the land, to feel a part of it, than to run across it daily. A morning run through an agricultural area, even if the same route is repeated for a year, evokes increasing involvement. Patterns of frost and fog, the growth and withering of grass, occasional cataclysmic events such as lambing, induce an awareness of the land's rhythms. The nearness of his own rhythms—of breath and heart and footfall—assures the runner of his place. Such a run offers a chance for self-examination as well, a chance to discover one's sensitivity to poison oak, to find how one reacts to a face full of spider web in a dark glen or stepping on a snake at twilight. (Another effect is to refute the Judeo-Christian concept that man occupies an elevated position in relation to his environment, as if we needed any more disproof of that.)
The significance of the course in racing is such that one's mind is apt to leave out how one finished, retaining only where one went. Who has run the University of Kansas course at Lawrence who can tell you his time? Who can't tell you about the god-awful hill at four miles? Anoxia has burned every tendril of that slope's crabgrass into thousands of collegiate memories.
Cross-country sensitizes the runner not only to the country he crosses but to his own physiology. He becomes a connoisseur of tiredness, distinguishing, for example, the light-headed sensation of a five-mile jog following a series of sprints from the stiff, irritable fatigue near the end of a 20-mile run.
The runner refines his technique. He learns how to carry his hips and arms and head to most easily cover the ground. Like the Eskimo with his 27 words for snow, he develops esoteric terms for pace and style: "hard tempo," "shake-up," "swing." Oregon Coach Bill Bowerman is forever shouting after his runners, "You're not tidy! Tidy it up!"
If Bowerman does not see a response, if strides do not shorten and carriages do not straighten, he will call out, "You men are too tired. You are supposed to be exhilarated, not exhausted. Why don't you knock it off."
The mountain is going to be there tomorrow.