Wood's Words: The JV Experience
My name is Andersen Wood. I'm a senior at Marcus High School and a captain of the cross country team. I've been a part of the team every year of high school and on JV for three of those four years. Over the span of those three years on JV, my life changed completely and for the better. I went from being the quiet kid at the back of the crowd to one of the more vocal leaders of my team. At the start of my freshman summer, I wasn't totally sure if cross country was the right thing for me. I definitely wasn't an athlete yet and I still didn't have many friends on the team. Then everything changed and I had no choice but to stick around for all four years. What changed my mind wasn't the running - no, it definitely wasn't the running - it was the team.
The first year I ran cross country was a definite struggle. I was new to racing the 5k and meeting a whole group of sixty kids was a daunting task. This year would have been the end of my running career if it wasn't for the leadership that I saw in the seniors and the captains. One of the captains in particular was about my speed, yet he was a senior. I'd figured that all the seniors were on varsity and when I saw him line up beside me for a JV race, it blew my mind. That captain wasn't discouraged by being on JV like others I knew, he wore it like a badge of honor. He ran every race as intense as you could get, but you could tell that he was loving every second of it. Before races, he'd take the time to give an uplifting (and oftentimes humorous) speech and after races, he'd congratulate every single team member as they finished. Being on JV was just part of the journey. It wasn't a punishment. Not everyone got to run varsity, but it didn't matter. Competition happens in every race no matter what the speed. You don't need speed to race, you need that spark deep in your gut that makes you push your legs past hurting just so you can pass one more person.
When I'd joined the team, I'd watch the varsity run at speeds that seemed impossible. They moved like a pack of wolves, lapping every JV runner within a mile. All anyone talked about were the varsity times from the varsity races. That seemed to be the core of the program. But, after a couple of JV races, I realized that the JV was the real heart and soul of cross country, though neither group can exist without the other. The varsity needs JV to supply them with new runners, the JV needs varsity to be the example and a goal of what to strive for. JV is the heart of the team because they represent the best part of the sport: the community. Their races are more positive and encouraging without so much of an emphasis on placement.
During my junior year, I ran a handful of varsity races as an alternate. I quickly came to realize the differences between the two kinds of racing. Varsity races are made up of groups of intense, competitive runners pushing each other to the physical limit for a good time and place. JV races are a little different because they accommodate a larger group of athletes in various stages of their own running development. Everyone in a JV race may not be a part of the same running group or near anyone else's speed. This means that the runners have to become something other than a running group. They instead become a family. JV runners often don't have much in common with one another - we're all just a big group of misfits - but there is one thing that ties us all together: we're JV. This single rallying cry brings together not just individual teams, but entire JV races. At the 2019 McNeil Invitational, I was on the starting line when every single team in the JV race formed one massive circle and chanted "We're JV!". My own team likes to hype ourselves up in a circle before our races. At most, there are twenty runners in those circles. The circle at McNeil was full of hundreds of runners. All JV runners are bonded through the idea that we aren't the best, but we're doing our best. Never in my life have I ever seen so many people rallied together, all from different backgrounds and different levels of experience, all in support of one thing that ties us all together: We're JV.
The same year as the McNeil Invitation was my first year as a team captain. The captainship became a thing of pride for me because it was a sign of how far I'd come. My first year on the team, I said maybe ten words to my coaches. As a captain, I've been a part of discussions that have taken hours. Such a drastic change would not have been possible without my team. The atmosphere of the JV team was that of one big, strange family. If you messed with one of us, you'd have an army of twenty fishbone-thin runners to deal with. The captainship was my chance to finally pay it forward when it came to the support I got from my team. I'd learned from observing the captains before me. I learned what to do... and also what not to do. My philosophy came from a pair of captains that were there my freshman year. Neither of them were very bossy like the other captains. They were oftentimes silent during workouts and instruction, but what separated them from the others was their work ethic. Those two captains were the first to practice and the last to leave. They led by example, following the workout schedule to a tee and never cutting mileage. I noticed all the work they put in and the fact that they treated everyone with respect. No matter how new you were to the team, they spoke to you as if you'd been friends for years and they'd drop whatever they were doing to help you. When I became a captain, I devoted myself to following in their footsteps. I definitely failed - more times than I'd like to admit - but I learned to lead by example and was proud to see others doing the same.
Cross country is one of the hardest sports a person can put themselves through. The training is brutal and unrelenting. Whether it was running twelve miles tied to a group of six other guys, or running when the sleet is blowing in sideways, Cross country has made me tougher and shown me how to push past the limits that I used to set for myself. The trials of running when it's too hot out for even the birds, or running when your sweat freezes to your body should be enough for any rational person to give up. That's why my coach used to say that "You have to be insane to do this sport." And maybe we are crazy, waking up before the sun just to make ourselves sore before breakfast, but I wouldn't have it any other way. That's because in those moments, the ones where I was moments away from giving up and I couldn't feel my toes, I felt a hand on my back, pushing me back to the group. My team never let me go. If we fall, we fall together, but never alone. It's a terrifying, insane, whirlwind of a sport, but it's the only one for me all because of the team.