In cross country, the eighth spot on your team is one nobody is eager to take. In a sport where seven people run on the varsity squad, eighth place makes you the first non-competitor, the first loser, the dreaded alternate. Yet in both my freshman and senior year at Carnegie Mellon, as we headed to the regional meet, eighth place is exactly where I found myself. But this story isn’t about self-pity, or a coincidental parallel to bookend my four years at CMU. My relative position on the team is the only similarity between two seasons. At some point during my four years at Carnegie Mellon, my teammates and I learned to compete with and for each other, not against. We learned to look out for each other when something was going wrong, hold each other accountable, and to treat cross country as we should have treated it all along - a team sport.
In my first semester at CMU, the women’s cross country team was very small. There were only about 15 girls on the team, and at any given time, about 10 were injury-free. This meant that by virtue of showing up at practice and staying healthy, I made the traveling squad. We didn’t need to compete to make the team, and our comfort often turned into laziness in workouts and indifference in races.
When I was chosen to be the alternate at regionals, I didn’t feel I belonged, like I hadn’t earned my spot. I hadn’t meaningfully contributed to the team all season, and because I was no longer racing, I felt like my season was already over. I was going through the motions. The girls I was there with didn’t really feel like teammates, and had I needed to run, I wouldn’t have been prepared to step up.
The next year brought big changes: 12 freshmen joined, essentially doubling the team’s size. Suddenly, we were competitive. The workouts were fast and recovery runs were not much slower. We looked at our teammates and saw them as one less spot on the traveling squad. Everyone was working against each other. And to some extent, this worked. The team had its best season in nearly two decades, as we finished third in the University Athletic Association (UAA) and missed the national championships by one spot.
But we still didn’t feel like a team. Despite the great year, all I could think about was how to shave off a few seconds on my own time, so I could beat my teammates. I wasn’t alone in that thinking. We spent so much time trying to beat each other that we forgot we were all working toward one shared goal.
Over the last two years, the team underwent tremendous change. We clicked. We realized that we didn’t need to treat every practice as if it were a race. We would all be better for helping the group succeed, and individual sacrifice became team sacrifice.
We began to support each other, squeezing in encouraging words between breaths and investing in each other’s physical and emotional well-being. We still had our fair share of troubles, and the team was far from perfect, but we were finally treating each other like teammates, instead of just girls we trained with every day.
So when I realized I would be the alternate for regionals this year, my reaction was quite different than three years ago. I was excited to cheer my teammates on and was ready to step in if someone got injured. And my teammates were happy I was there too. Even though they had beaten me in races, they respected what I brought to the team, just as I respected them. So even though we once again missed nationals, we learned that a cross country team is more than just the seven women who wear the same uniform on race day. We learned to push each other to run our best, to support each other on our bad days, and make huge sacrifices for the betterment of the team. When I leave Carnegie Mellon, I’ll eventually forget my personal records, the meets I scored in, and the places our team got at big meets. What I won’t forget is the camaraderie I developed with the women I ran with and how we learned to work together to succeed in what truly is a team sport.