They wore purple or two shades of blue, or black and gray. They clustered and ran and cheered -- for an athlete in blue.
Each of them had struggled for perhaps a half-hour, had sprinted or dragged up the hill to the finish line, had claimed a number and had recorded a time. They had accepted the cheers of teammates and parents. They had bent forward in exhaustion.
Now they were working for something beyond individual honor or team victories.
The girls and boys cross country squads at the first Thomson home meet in at least four years rushed back down that same hill, gathered at the gate to the long course, and then surged forward to circle the approaching runner. His gait was deliberate, a runner's motions at a stroller's pace. Yet his face displayed the same intensity as those who had finished many minutes earlier. There was no doubt that he would finish, just the matter of when, and how that finish would be noted.
His reception was as boisterous as that for any of the afternoon's athletes. He beamed when another person might have bowed his head. He absorbed the spirit that surrounded him, and then galloped up that hill.
Parents from four schools cheered for him, as most had done for every boy and girl from four schools who crossed that same line earlier.
Thomson athletes Megan Rogers, MaKayla Kent and Haley Griffin joined the throng, and paused to explain their tradition. No technology could have distinguished which runner spoke which words. But, together, they said:
"It's just showing support."
"We just want everyone to feel good."
"We just want everyone to finish."
The words hit me like the September sun and knocked me across area codes and decades to other tracks. This skinny freshman's finishing time was already irrelevant. The only question was whether I could overtake that lumbering sophomore and avoid being dead last. Somehow I found my legs and then found the white stripe across the asphalt, but neither of us found cheers or other acknowledgement. As I watched the sophomore finish, I felt I had robbed him of his upperclassman prestige. It was an empty achievement.
On another course, another day, I watched the slightest runner on either squad circle the track for the last lap. The runner who trailed him dropped out, so that tiny youngster finished last yet again. "It's too bad he dropped out," I said. "You almost had it."
He panted and said, "Don't wish that on him, Dad. It feels awful to finish last."
When they invent a cure for thoughtlessness, please send me a bottle. Until then, I'll find my medicine among the likes of Megan and MaKayla and Haley. And Andy.
Maybe enough Thomson cross country meets will do the trick.
Miranda Murphey, who coached both the girls and the boys, gathered her athletes around her after every runner had finished, every score had been tallied, all the volunteers had been acknowledged, and the rival coaches had received their respectful farewells.
Murphey applauded and encouraged her runners, and then reminded them of the character she expects them to demonstrate while wearing the Thomson colors.
"Until everyone gets to sit down, you don't sit down," she said.
She said she expects the same finish-line cheers for the last runner at the other two home meets this season. She told the runners to take their tradition on the road, too. "And if another school doesn't want you to follow that runner, that's their call," she said. "But I expect you to be at that finish line and scream like a banshee.
"That's part of sportsmanship."