Isiah Forney labored, barely able to finish his junior varsity cross country race during the Tracy Walters Invitational at Audubon Park in early September. Yet spectators he didn’t know cheered, clapped and offered encouragement as if he were about to set a meet record not place a distant last.
“It was my first race ever in cross country and I wanted to quit,” the Central Valley sophomore said at a Greater Spokane League meet nearly a month later. “I wondered, ‘Why did I sign up for this?’ ”
Forney still ran last at last week’s meet. His time, however, had improved by 3 minutes.
Forney’s numbers are legion. Nearly all members of a cross country team will never run a varsity race. The best seven runners hog the glory, but the rest are considered equally as valuable.
Their individual goals may differ from the varsity athletes yet perhaps are more significant. They run for acceptance, camaraderie, self-esteem, conditioning and personal records – what those in the sport call the PR.
That’s what makes cross country the consummate team sport.
“It’s all about inclusion, it’s about creating a club,” said Pat Tyson, now cross country coach at Gonzaga University.
When Tyson built a state championship dynasty at Mead, the junior varsity and freshmen races, awash in the blue and gold of a combined 100 runners, defined the Panthers program.
“I was never going to be elitist,” Tyson said. “It was about getting them to be part of something. I think a lot of kids who were not varsity loved being part of that club.”
Together, they attended weekly pizza feeds and traveled to invitational meets. If you stuck out three years and were committed, you lettered even if you never ran a varsity race. Tyson, too, had a person who finished last on the course. He was named the team’s most inspirational runner.
Tyson’s program is the model emulated by area coaches.
Kieran Mahoney, a four-time state runner in Cheney and fourth-year CV head coach, considers Tyson his mentor. He has 80 runners on his team and divides them into six groups named after the famous – Steve Prefontaine, Gerry Lindgren, Tyson, Don Kardong, Rick Riley and Galen Rupp.
“They have to know the history of each runner and try to move up groups,” he said. “Every kid gets coached.”
Michael Lee never ran varsity at Mead. Today he is Lewis and Clark’s successful boys cross country coach.
“We are not only interested in the fastest and most talented in school,” he said. “We are interested in you being part of the team, to challenge yourself and break barriers you never thought possible.”
Once a member of the fraternity, even if you do leave running it never leaves you.
Jeff Oswalt, ran less than 18 minutes only once in a 3-mile race and was never varsity, but stuck it out because he wanted to feel a part of the Panthers’ greatness.
He said he wasn’t into it anymore and gave running up after high school, but came back to it a few years ago when a partner in his business got him out.
“A couple of girl employees destroyed me going up that hill behind the Spokane Club,” he said. “It was all I could do to not walk. I said, ‘OK, I need to get back into it. I need to get healthy. I need to change some things.’ ”
Relying on training lessons learned at Mead, Oswalt has become one of Spokane’s elite racers. Opponents are surprised to learn he didn’t compete in college.
Forney is not in league with the GSL’s best, but is cut from the same cloth.
“That is the spirit of cross country,” Mahoney said. “You get a kid with no experience. You work hard, sacrifice and you earn respect. That’s what he did. We call it the brotherhood here at CV.”
Forney said cross country is now something he likes.
“Coach Mahoney told me I can do this, I can improve,” Forney said. “He said, don’t give up, you might end up liking this someday.”
His stepfather, Jeremiah Green, has been ecstatic.
“He keeps going and (doesn’t) quit ever,” Green said. “If you can sell what you’ve got bottled up inside you, you’ll be rich.”
That is cross country’s allure. You needn’t be a star to be a success.