ST. LOUIS -- Saturday was the fourth time I huddled with my team in the middle of an open field, yards from the starting line and moments before the race for the Atlantic 10 Cross Country Championship title.
I had come to this meet twice as a competitor, and last year I cheered and photographed from the sidelines while I was recovering from a foot injury. This year I came here as an outsider of sorts: an alumnus of the program, yes, but a voluntary one.
Several months ago I was offered an extension to an internship at The Denver Post, where I've been working as a multimedia and online reporting intern since June. I decided to accept the internship extension, passing up a chance to return to the University of Richmond, where I would have competed in cross country one more time this fall.
This trip afforded me a glimpse of the life I could have had this semester.
"Right now is the moment," coach Steve Taylor said inside the huddle, the gravitas carrying in his voice. "Seize the moment." His words cast chills, just as they always had.
He eyed each runner -- a silent stare that delivered a sense of confidence before they would line up for battle. It was an instant of simultaneous peace and unbridled intensity.
There are no requirements limiting what teams can race during the conference meet -- just that runners must be among their team's top 12 competitors, and a team must be able to field five runners. The conference teams meet for one day, on one course, for one race, to determine the season's best teams and individual runners. Here, the fastest and the slowest toe the same starter's line.
There's a kind of beauty in knowing that on any given day, any team can win, past performances or rankings be damned. We surprised the conference two years ago in Pittsburgh, racing to a second-place finish when we were projected to finish either fifth or sixth.
The night before the race, the team and I crammed into one of the hotel rooms. The Spiders' youth was striking: Six of the 10 runners competing had never raced in the championships before.
Our coach called the runners one-by-one so they could collect their race numbers and the four pins that would secure the bibs to their red, white and blue Richmond singlets.
The team discussed race strategy, noting that a course saturated after two weeks of rain would make for a slow race and even the teams competitively. At the end, our coach asked each runner to say something before we parted.
I was last to speak. I addressed the rookie runners, trying to recall my first time competing.
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I told them that the emotion and energy they would experience in the moments before and during the race could not be compared to any other previous race. To this day I've never duplicated that feeling. It's understandable when these runners begin training in earnest six months away from the championship racing season. Success comes to those who feed off the race's energy, not those consumed by it.
The trip to St. Louis gave me an opportunity to understand whether I have come to terms with my decision to stay in Denver.
I chose to stay at the Post with the hope that remaining an intern would eventually lead to a full-time job. My coach ultimately convinced me to take the extension, arguing that I couldn't pass up an opportunity in an area I was so passionate about, particularly in a troubled economy. He was right.
But I struggled with my decision: leaving behind one passion for the pursuit of another, chasing the future or grasping one more chance to amend the past. I was, after all, leaving behind my beloved teammates and the security and certainty of staying in college. But I would be starting a vocation I know I have been called to practice. And I must say, I'm having a hell of a good time.
The morning of the race, when the starter's gun cracked through the chilled morning air, I was still running, albeit with a backpack, a camera and several lenses. But I still felt the energy, still felt the emotion, still felt the urgency, the excitement and the breathless thrill of racing. I was still running -- perhaps not alongside them, but, indeed, still with them.
Dan Petty, The Collegian's former online editor, competed as a member of the cross country and track teams for four years. He is a multimedia and online reporting intern at The Denver Post and can be reached at email@example.com.
The Richmond men's cross country team finished eighth and the women's team finished sixth during the championships.
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