"A team is a beautiful thing — a group of people who will challenge you and hold you accountable — people you don’t want to disappoint. So you keep running, whether you’re trying to reach the first mile or your tenth."

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Finding my stride with NCSSM Cross Country

Realizing that I had half a mile left to run before my goal for the day was met was both terrifying and a relief. Under the scorching sun, even the slight uphills were out to get me. At my right shoulder, my friend smiled at me through her own tiredness. The words of encouragement she spoke were just enough to keep me running for a little bit longer: “We got this!”

A team is a beautiful thing — a group of people who will challenge you and hold you accountable — people you don’t want to disappoint. So you keep running, whether you’re trying to reach the first mile or your tenth.

One of the best parts of NCSSM Cross Country is the huge and welcoming team of runners. As someone who’s never played a sport before — not even soccer when I was 5 — the kindness and inclusivity of the team I’ve found is reassuring and inspiring. Being a part of the team is a low-stress way to work on my own physical goals, with my focus not on being the top runner but on being the best I can be. Everyone who wants to be on the team can, no cuts.

Our coach, Charlie Payne, took on the NCSSM Cross Country team seven years ago. 

“This is my seventh year coaching, and I’d been a teacher for the entire year before that,” he says. “I was hired as a physics teacher. When I took over, there were only maybe 30-40 people on the team each year. We’ve had over a hundred on the team for the past three years.”

This year, there were 98 finishers for the time trial at the end of the first week and 120 people on the roster, meaning that almost a sixth of the student body are cross country runners.

Even more remarkable, though, “I’d say that more than half of the people on the team have not run before,” Coach Payne told me while hanging up the three pages of sign-in sheets for the day’s practice. “So many people have the same mindset when approaching both academics and athletics — that is, a strong work ethic — that they tend to work together well. If you look at our team, we have a really diverse group of student athletes, and I think that’s wonderful.”

Kaia Spero ’20 and Michael Guilmette ’20 are two of eight cross country captains this year. Both were on running teams prior to coming to NCSSM.

Kaia says, “The NCSSM Cross Country team is the first team I’ve been on where everyone is truly committed to being there and is passionate about running and being a part of the team. There are so many activities you can be involved in at Smath, and there is no one here to force students to participate. To make the decision to come to practice every day shows the dedication of all of our runners.”

Michael, noting the impressive size of the team compared to the size of the school, said, “Running with others develops a very close community because a lot of the time, you can just talk to each other while running. I think a lot of people are drawn in by that.” 

Coach Payne is impressed with the captains’ team leadership.

“XC is an interesting sport because it’s very individualistic and very team oriented at the same time,” he says. “Our top runners, who are well ahead of the runners behind them, are great team members. You don’t have to be a top runner to be a leader, but if you have a top runner who is a leader, that shows a lot about the fabric of the team.”

The last stretch of the race was littered with our teammates who had already finished the workout, and they were cheering for each remaining runner — for me! — as we crossed the finish line exhausted and sweaty, but beaming with accomplishment. 

For me, participating in cross country at NCSSM has been an exciting way to be a part of a team while also being able to work on my individual goals. It’s all thanks to the coaches and captains who make the experience beneficial to runners of all levels and who are focused on each team member’s individual improvement. 

“The most important thing to me by far, well above championships, which we’ve got a few of, is the individual change,” says Coach Payne. “This is my 52nd year saying that.”

–Jane Wilson is an NCSSM student in the class of 2020 who serves in the position of Communications Content Creator. She focuses on writing stories about life at NCSSM from the student perspective.