What If We Are Only As Good As Our Fifth Runner?

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St. John, Kansas Cross Country Team – State Champions 2016

I love cross-country.

You know, the sport where you run off-road, up hills, and around trees.

I was an average cross-country runner in high school, but I learned a lot from the sport and really enjoy my teammates and camaraderie. Here is a link to article that does a pretty good job explaining some of the life lessons that cross-country teaches young people. But this post isn’t about those lessons, it is about how the sport is scored. Yes. Scoring.

Cross country is a team sport in which the finishing position of the top five runners is totaled to arrive at final score. The lower the number, the better. For example, a perfect score in cross-country would be fifteen (1+2+3+4+5). The important thing to consider in this scoring method is that a team is only as good as its fifth place runner. A team that puts four runners in the top ten could still lose a meet if their fifth runner struggles. My brother coaches cross country in Kansas, and last year his team won a state championship with only two runners in the top twenty. They won the meet by one point. Every position mattered — even (or especially) that fifth runner. In the sport of cross country it pays to invest time in EVERY runner, from the fastest to the slowest, because any of the runners on your team could be the difference between winning and losing.

That’s a great philosophy to apply in a lot of situations. Perhaps, there are times when we are only as good as our proverbial “fifth runner.” Our greatest challenge. That means we not only need to invest in building upon our strengths, but also in overcoming our weaknesses.

From a individual perspective, perhaps you excel at many aspects of your job, but you struggle with accepting what you can, and can not, control (I don’t know anyone who struggles with that….eyeroll). It certainly makes sense to continue to build on your strengths, but getting beyond frustrations over what can’t be controlled is probably going to be a limiting factor to success (a “fifth runner”). It makes sense to invest some time in addressing this challenge.

From a organizational perspective, you may be the leader at a school where many students do exceptionally well and make tremendous yearly growth. But, perhaps you should consider defining the success of your school based upon the students who struggle the most (the “fifth runners”). It can be a real challenge to support these kids without doing so at the expense of the high performing students, but it is worth the investment. At least from an educational perspective, how many students can you “leave behind” and truly be considered an exceptional organization? I have heard this concept applied at the adult level by saying that a teaching staff is only as good as the teacher on staff who struggles the most, or a district is only as good as it’s school that faces the greatest challenges.

Finally, from a societal perspective, perhaps we are only as good as the way we care for the most marginalized in our communities (and our world). We can have thriving neighborhoods, a strong economy, and any number of success indicators, but maybe the true evidence of our success as a society is our advocacy for the poor, the homeless, the victimized, and those who experience discrimination — our unwillingness to accept these conditions (the “fifth runner”) as inevitable.  In a world that is so focused on success and status, this can be a real challenge. Whenever I consider those on the margins — in our schools, neighborhoods, and our world — I am reminded of the words of Father Greg Boyle (a man who has dedicated his life to working with some of the most despised and marginalized people in our society — hard-core gang members).

I’m not opposed to success, I just think we should accept it only if it is a by-product of our fidelity. If our primary concern is results, we will choose to work only with those who give us good ones. – Greg Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart

Sometimes it can seem counterintuitive to invest time, energy, and resources into the proverbial “fifth runner,” but perhaps that is actually the key to our success as individuals, schools, organizations, and as a society.

Don’t forget the fifth runner.


NOTE: if you are interested in learning a little more about the sport of cross-country, and its potential life lessons, I would suggest you check out the documentary The Long Green Line.

I also recommend watching this ESPN 20 for 20 clip called Run Hopi — an inspiring and heart-wrenching story about cross-country on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona.

Run Hopi from Scott Harves on Vimeo.

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