So, you think you can run, huh? You’ve done a few miles up and down the Schuylkill Banks and climbed up the art museum steps to strike a Rocky pose. But do you think you can handle what the Penn cross country team can? Come with us on a guided tour of the Lehigh University cross country course, where the Quakers will run on Oct. 5 for the Paul Short Invitational and Nov. 15 for the NCAA East Regional Championships.

Welcome to Division 1.

Kilometer 0: Just me and 300 of my closest friends

At Lehigh, all cross-country meets begin at a large swath of open space just off College Drive, adjacent to the football stadium. You’re lined up, shoulder-to-shoulder, with your competitors — all 300 or so of them. For your sake, be ready when the starting gun goes off, because it’s an 800-meter mad dash right from the get go. Don’t get too comfortable, though. You’ll soon be funneling into an area of woods no more than 20 feet wide, where personal space becomes more of an abstract concept than an actual thing.

“Imagine this scene of a line across the field of maybe 300 runners standing on a line,” says coach Steve Dolan. “They’re all gonna be released at one moment when the gun goes off.”

And how exactly do you get through the funnel unscathed? Just ask senior Kersie Jhabvala, who’s slogged through the course many a time.

“The best advice would be : try and avoid [the funnel],” she says. “Not everyone gets out fast enough. Like for me, I’ll have to end up sprinting in the beginning just to get out in a good spot and not get boxed in.”

Kilometer 4: The not-so-sweet sound of silence

So, you’ve emerged from the tunnel unscathed? Congratulations. If you’re running the eight kilometer men’s course, you’ve turned right after looping past the football stadium and have found yourself in an isolated field. No cheering crowds, no massive campus buildings. Just you and the competition. And oh, by the way, a massive bank of rolling hills that give you just enough time to catch your breath with each downhill before the ensuing uphill climb triggers another release of lactic acid in your leg muscles.

“One minute, you can barely move because you’re running up a hill and you’re very tired, but then, maybe you’ll get to run a couple hundred meters downhill and then you’ll feel better again,” says Dolan. “And it’s that up and down hill phenomenon that’s kind of unique to cross-country.”

Did you turn left past the stadium to run the six kilometer women’s course? You haven’t gotten off any easier, as the women have their owns set of hills. Have fun slogging through the mud!

“For some reason, every time we go, it rains,” laughs Jhabvala. “So of course, the same spots have really, really deep puddles. I mean, you’re getting like shin-deep, shin-deep puddles.”

How muddy does it get?

“Really muddy.”

Hope you weren’t wearing expensive shoes…

Kilometer 8 (or 6): The grand finale

So, you’ve finally made it. You’ve flashed through the funnel, handled the hills and managed the mud. You can hear the crowd shouting once again, building to a deafening roar as you near the finish line. But don’t start your final sprint too early! It’s a 1200 meter marathon straightaway to the end at Lehigh, and you’ve got to use every ounce of self-restraint to avoid heeding the calls of the crowd urging you on to sprint and waste your final reserves of energy.

“You come back in, you can sense that you’re almost done,” Dolan says. “The runners are sort of building up for a competitive finish through the place, and you can really hear the crowd’s reaction as people come in.”

Some runners thrive off the crowd. Some wilt in the face of it. Which one will you be?

“Some people, they see the straightaway, everyone around you is screaming at you… you’re like: ‘Oh cool, I’m just gonna start kicking now,’” Jhabvala says. “You get in, you have like 800 meters to go and you’re out of gas and people are passing you left and right.

“It really is a mental game at that point.”

Well, you made it. That wasn’t so hard, was it?


Promising underclassmen helping lead way for Year Two

Rising up: highlights of 2012 for Penn cross country

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