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When in Rome ... er ... Peoria

PEORIA – About 16 hours ago, the wifey and I hopped in the car and split for Detweiller Park at 5:30 a.m.

Saving my column for last probably wasn’t the best decision I’ve made today. Many would contend that getting up an hour earlier than necessary to run the course with Kayla should take that title.

Trust me, when the alarm went off at 5 a.m., I would’ve agreed with you. But I couldn’t have started my experience at the park a better way.

I’d never been to Detweiller. By now, you likely know I love to run. But from a journalistic standpoint, I wanted to make sure I knew the course I was writing about. Unnecessary, considering I’d put about another 5 miles on my shoes covering four races? Yeah, probably. I would’ve gotten to know the course’s nuances by the time the 2A girls’ gun went off.

But I wanted to envision the great feats that have taken place over the past 66 years on the weathered course, not to mention those that would unfold throughout the day. I knew state records would fall. It’s the nature of the running game. Just ask Evan Thorpe. His Dixon Dukes are running faster, position by position, than they were in the 2008 title campaign. But runners are getting faster and training smarter and harder with each passing season.

With a firm grasp on the course, it was time to get out of the real athletes’ way. Once they started, I repeatedly crossed a line purists in our line of work deem sacred: I cheered. A lot. And I’m not one bit sorry.

And why would I be? Cross country is a sport in which competitors often pull for one another. It’s kind of like golf that way. Both sports really pit the athlete almost exclusively against themselves. You can’t play defense. Well, there’s jostling and jockeying for position, especially in the first few hundred meters. But, ultimately, 99 percent of success in running comes down to self-discipline.

When teams don’t have a dog in the fight – and even when they do – they’ll holler out encouragement for the “opposition.” Val Gassman admits it would’ve been harder to root, root, root for the Rockets if there was a Comet in the hunt during the 1A girls race.

With that not being the case, she was heartbroken to hear Rock Falls took fourth after being pretty thoroughly convinced they were either second or third.

Someone in Newman’s camp called it sad.

“It’s not sad,” Gassman said. “It’s another word I can’t use, or it’ll get me 25 pushups.”

She expanded on that during our formal interview:

“It’s hard as a coach to see the girls run their personal best and to come so close. But it’s a good program and a quality program. They’ll bounce back. But I bleed for them, because it’s hard.”

It’s because of that sort of universal empathy around the sport that my voice is mighty raw tonight.

When I saw leaders tear through the park, I urged them to keep it up. When local runners passed by, I inserted their name into an encouraging phrase and hollered it as loud as I could.

And when Brittany Schwarz somehow willed her body along the homestretch, I turned it up to 11, screaming at the top of my lungs for her to keep the faith.

That, folks, is how we runners do.

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