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Lynn Hummel: The running of the 5,000

And the winner is — 4,494 kids, grades 7 - 12. It wasn’t the running of the 5,000 exactly, it was the running of the 4,494.

You know all about football of course, we all love it. But what do you know about cross country running, a fall sport for thousands of kids?

Last weekend we traveled to Milaca, Minn., for “The 43rd Annual Milaca Mega-Meet, The World’s Largest High School Cross Country Meet.” Cross country racing is simply races of roughly two miles for 7th and 8th graders, 2.5 miles for girls and 3.1 miles for boys. Team scores are the total combined placements of the top five finishers of each team. If the top five guys or girls on your team finish 1, 5, 9, 23 and 30th, your team gets a total of 68 points. The team with the lowest number of points wins.

When we arrived at Milaca, a town of less than 3,000, you would have thought we were coming to the state fair — cars parking all over the place, people walking and crowds surging toward a golf course where the races were to be held. We could tell we were arriving for a huge event.

When we got to the course, the atmosphere was throbbing with energy and excitement. Music was playing to get the blood pumping — even old blood. And it kept playing all day. Kids, big and little, in colorful warm-ups and running outfits were all over the place. They were sparked up with a kind of electricity competition produces.

There were 134 school teams, mostly from Minnesota (from Adrian to Zumbrota), classes A, AA, AAA and AAAA, big and tiny schools and teams from Wisconsin and North Dakota as well, Minot High School coming the farthest to compete. Most of them had canvas tents or shelters set up in their school colors and team members, boys and girls, grades 7 - 12, mostly hung out with one another, the older kids encouraging the younger ones. The good teams always encourage team members to consider one another as family.

Once the races started, there was a new one every 15 minutes. Before one was finished at the finish line, another one was started at the starting line — very well organized and almost no delay. There were separate races for 7th grade boys (324 running) and 7th grade girls (207) and categories for boys and girls in each grade through 10th grade, and separate places for varsity boys and girls in school classes A - AAAA, as well as junior varsity boys and girls for all classes together. The largest number in a single race was 582 runners in the boy’s junior varsity race. Can you imagine 582 kids lined up across 200 yards of a golf course, 3 and 4 deep, all thundering out together down the fairway at the same time at the sound of a starting gun? It’s a dramatic sight, just like the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, only nobody gets gored.

Who are these kids? They are motivated kids who are mostly slim. Some are chunky and they can run too, but you don t see any obesity out there. They all pay attention to what they eat and are sure to drink plenty of water. Some are swift and gifted, but all are determined with personal goals. There is not a single bench warmer in the entire field of 4,494. Each one ran the full race and each one was a winner. There was applause along the way from teammates, friends, parents, grandparents and appreciative strangers for every one of them, winners and those at the back of the pack. The kid who came in 582nd in the boys junior varsity division was an 8th grader named Ben. He got a huge hand for his courageous finish.

You don’t read much on the sport pages about cross country, but you have to appreciate the dedication and effort of these young athletes. They’re all heroes in my book.