The dichotomy of cross country is it takes running, an individual action, and wraps it within the framework of a team sport.
Southwestern University Pirates Head Coach Steven Cary says the dual nature surprised him in his youth and then drew him in as an adult.
"I played team sports growing up and was a very competitive person," Cary said. "I hated losing. So, I thought, when it comes to running, at least I dictated everything. I could individually win a race or go as far as I wanted to."
It just so happened Cary's small town in Georgia produced a strong generation of passionate runners, building a team of dedicated personalities that quickly changed his mindset on the sport and the benefits of teamwork.
"Now, as a coach, the camaraderie of the sport is what I emphasize the most," Cary said. "Everything centers on what our team goals are."
Cary took over the Southwestern University men's and women's cross country programs in January, having spent the previous eight years helping to build the NCAA Division II Georgia College Bobcats into a power in the Peach Bell Conference.
His first steps taking over a men's Southwestern team that finished fourth in the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC) and 15thof 33 in the NCAA Regionals—and a women's team that finished fifth in the SCAC and 27th in regionals—had little to do with running.
Cross Country races are run on long, winding courses. Whatever story unfolds for the program in Cary's first season, its origins go back to a small circle.
At the end of track practices in the spring, where Cary assisted Track and Field Head Coach Andrew Diehl, Cary would gather his student-athletes for what he calls a positivity circle.
"We'd talk about things like training, expectations, and the values I wanted to instill," Cary said. "At the end of it, everyone would have to list a positive. They really took to it."
With a roster of mostly first-years and sophomores (men's runner Fred Banuelos is the lone upperclassman this season), the program is almost literally building back from foundations. And the traditions Cary is setting in are already taking hold.
"We went two practices this fall without doing the positivity circle, mostly due to giving the student-athletes time to acclimate to class, and (sophomore) Nathan Botros let me know about it," Cary said.
Culture is key to building the program to where Cary wants to take it. Though there is technique and strategy in the sport, the heart of long-distance running is still building the body and mind.
Cross country is a team sport because it combines scores from up and down the roster in competition. It's also a team sport because the best way to push one's self beyond his or her individual limits is not to do it alone.
"We want people who are team oriented," Cary said. "Who will rally around teammates, who will push each other and support each other."
Botros and fellow sophomore C.P. Shaulis have already taken to leadership positions under Cary, holding everyone accountable over the summer, reaching out to first years, and by leading in practice or the weight room by their actions.
"They've struck a great balance between being very vocal about expectations but also being very loving with their teammates," Cary said. "You can see how they're invested in their teammates with how they treat them. Even when they're not having their best day, they're still encouraging others."
Shaulis is looking to build on a season in which he finished with his best race, scoring a time of 28:48.16 in the NCAA South/Southeast Regional Championships. Botros finished last season with a time of 29:14.34 in the SCAC Championships.
On the women's side, there's a small roster of two first years and two sophomores.
"[First year] Emma Pertuit is going to be a good runner. She's an athlete and athletic runners typically perform pretty well," Cary said. "I'm excited about the potential she has.
"And [sophomore] Emma McCandless has improved a great deal from our first practice together. She has such a great mindset, you just can't help but want her to do well."
With so much youth, Cary is preaching patience, which is appropriate for a sport that runs on endurance as much as speed.
"There are two things you can control, your attitude and effort," Cary said. "If you're giving all you have to something, it's going to bring a lot of joy, a lot of satisfaction.
"If you do that, you're going to continue to get better. It might not be by leaps and bounds right away, but people will recognize it and respect you for it."
Cary has three and four years to develop this group of athletes, who will set the tone for all who follow.
"We're looking for high-character athletes," Cary said. "Like-minded people who understand where we want to go and equally important, how we're going to get there."
Fortunately, Cary says, those traits go hand-in-hand with people who make running their passion.
"If you think about the loneliness of the distance runner, especially in the summer when you're training by yourself, you've got to be self-motivated and self-disciplined," Cary said. "We're a really young team but it's a strong group; a very positive group. We're going to celebrate successes but on those off days, when we do fail, we'll also get back up, learn from it, and continue to move forward."
Each of these Pirates has the drive and discipline to stand strong on their own. More importantly, they have the camaraderie to ensure they never have to.