Remy Cattell still vividly remembers her first cross country race even though it was more than half her lifetime ago. She experienced pre-race nervousness and excitement, struggles through exhausting sand, a quick break to tie a shoelace, encouragement from a teammate, and finally, relief at the finish line.
“I didn’t really think about what place I came in,” recalls Cattell, who finished fifth in her Toronto District School Board cross country running debut as a Grade 1 student at Bessborough School. “I just ran.”
Fast forward nine years and Cattell, 14, is a Grade 10 student at Leaside High School. Last year, she won the city championship, then finished second at the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations (OFFSA) finals in a race featuring nearly 300 of the best Grade 9 runners from across the province.
Even though she’s a top-flight high school runner and member of the Central Toronto Athletic Club, a competitive middle distance club, Cattell says her favourite part of each race remains rising to the challenge – against the other runners, and especially against herself – rather than winning.
“What I really love is the feeling I get immediately after a hard race when I know I did my best,” she says. “I’m proud of my accomplishment.
“I don’t focus on a place, just running the best I can.”
With fall’s arrival comes another school cross country season. Across Leaside, hundreds of children in Grades 1 to 12 are out each weekday morning with classmates tuning up for races throughout October.
While elite runners such as Cattell will do battle for championships, for the majority of cross country competitors it’s all about participation. They won’t run fast enough in their first race against challengers from other schools to qualify for the next meet. But their victories are no less dramatic – recording a better placing than last year, completing the course without stopping, being part of a school team.
By far the largest teams at most schools, children, especially in the younger grades, make the team by showing the commitment to come out a few days each week to train with their classmates. Unlike higher profile sports such as basketball, hockey and soccer, there are no tryouts, no cuts, no disappointment that comes with not getting to wear the school colours when your friends do.
It helps kids improve their fitness but also make a commitment to themselves and their school, says Eric Dubois, whose three children – Simon, 13, and 9-year-old twins Milla and Martin – are training several mornings each week in preparation for the first race on the cross country calendar later in October.
“It’s something that’s important to them, they’re proud to be a part of it,” says Dubois, whose son Simon, now in Grade 8 at Bessborough, was part of the bronze-medal winning team for Rolph Road Public School at the city championships in Grade 6. “It’s about friendship and commitment and health.
“Everything is there.”
Remy Cattell’s mom, Cory, an elementary school Phys. Ed teacher who has coached cross country, basketball, soccer, volleyball, track and field and other sports teams for more than 20 years, says the fact schools can bring as big a team as they want to that first race makes participation the top priority.
“If children show commitment to the team, then we will make sure they can go to that first race,” Cory Cattell says. “It’s all about personal goals, not where they finish, and having the experience.
“From a teachers’ point of view, and a parents’ point of view, you just want them to try it. Once they go to that first race, they’re pretty much hooked.”