Inside the mind of a Cross-Country racer

2019 Cherokee Challenge

Aaron Arnstein nears the finish line in Logan Township for the South Jersey Shootout.

Greatness requires preparation. No one ever did anything challenging in life on their first try. These mindsets are especially imperative in the sport of cross-country running, which is one of the most physically-taxing activities around.

  In Eastern’s 2019 Boys Cross-Country season, there are fourteen possible races that we might compete in. Cherokee High School’s Cherokee Challenge, which is always the first competition of the year, is the most tense—and most crowded—of the bunch.

  The Cherokee Challenge is never quiet; teams from all over the state arrive just after daybreak in order to prepare for the race ahead. Even squads from other states; Delaware, Pennsylvania; join in on the fun. Almost two months of summer preparation culminate in a memorable race that can only be described as a wild ride.


  I’m Andrew Shinkle, and my experience racing the 2019 Cherokee Challenge was notable for a very important reason.


  As the sun’s rays beam through the cloudless sky, a rejuvenating breeze flows through my hair. I anxiously sit under the team tent, reassuring myself that life will go on, regardless of the race’s outcome. I glance at my phone. The time, 10:20, flashes on screen for a brief  moment. Twenty minutes until race time.

  Before I know it, I’m on my way to the starting line with my teammate Ethan and Coach McAleer. Along with us comes our team captain, Justin. Although he’s not racing today due to a shin injury, he provides moral support like no other.

  Rock music blasts from nearby speakers as we arrive at the line. There’s a hint of nervousness in the air, but it’s the kind that propels you to give it your all, no matter what. In order to maintain a high heart rate in the down time until the race begins, Ethan and I sprint for fifty feet out and back in what is known as a “strider” in track lingo.

  As the orange-garbed official slowly marches out to his position, I realize something terrible. Ethan and I are crammed all the way down at the far end of the starting line. The course’s first turn is rather notorious for coming to a complete standstill if you don’t get out fast enough. 

  But with over 400 people all vying for prime position, we have a better chance of breaking bones than breaking records with our place on the starting line.
  The first whistle sounds. The world seems to stop turning for a few seconds. With a jolt, the starting gun fires, and we’re off.

  My legs churn and burn all the way down the first stretch, but it’s not nearly fast enough to skip traffic. The next few seconds unfold exactly as I foretold; pushing, shoving, and overall chaos. It’s complete gridlock, and somehow, I manage to escape the mess without tripping over anyone.

  The crowd erupts in encouragement as the leaders careen down an asphalt path, into the dense back trails. Ethan is a few paces ahead of me, but remains safely in my line of sight. I feel like Harry Potter in the final task of the Triwizard Tournament; supported by the cheers of the crowd before disappearing into the forest.

  Unlike last year’s race, the wooded section does not pose a threat. Mud that posed as a serious obstacle a year ago is now all dry. But just past the exit of the woods lies the most daunting challenge of the day.

  My legs cry out in pain as my body begins to shift into anaerobic respiration. But it’s terrible timing, as a forty foot hill lies directly in my path. With a determined attitude, I grin and bear it. With just over 1200 meters left, it’s go time.

  I feel a sense of deja vu, as the race path crosses back onto the starting section. As the pack makes the same right-hand turn onto the asphalt path, the crowd’s roars are even louder than before. “I can turn this around,” I think to myself. With a rush of adrenaline, I pick up the pace.

  There’s one final turn in the open, and then a brief wooded section that leads towards the finish line. As I motor around the bend, my kick begins to take effect. Before I know it, I’m flying by Ethan, who emphatically yells “Keep going, Drew!”

  It’s now or never. The afterburners kick in, as the faces of struggling racers become a blur in my peripheral vision. I run like there’s no tomorrow, but in my clouded state of mind, I half believe that there won’t be. At least twenty people become victims of “the final sprint”.

  The finish line is in sight, and I set my sights on one last runner to pass. With the swiftness of a cheetah, I come up on his shoulder without him noticing, but to my dismay, he sees me. Now it’s a showdown. He pulls ahead, but then I match him. With our faces dripping with sweat, we bust it into the finish line.

  After the race finishes and life returns to normal, I scope out the results page. I scan the document carefully. Out of 406 competing runners, I placed 138th with a time of 12:23; a whole minute better than last year’s race.

  You can’t win them all, but I’ll take massive improvement and a respectable placement any day of the week.


  I’m Aaron Arnstein, and I had a solid Cherokee Challenge race experience.


  My heart was thumping with nervous excitement as I peeled off my warmup clothes and squeezed onto the jam-packed line with over 350 anxious runners. I had worked hard all summer for this day; the Cherokee Challenge, a two-mile race which marked the official start to the cross country season. 

   The gun sounded and we were running wild, quite literally. We all funneled into a narrow path that should have realistically only fit 100 runners. This was the Senior race, the fastest race of the day. I got off to a slower start than I would have liked and found myself near the middle of the pack. Within minutes, in true cross country fashion, we were constantly changing terrains, from dirt to gravel and even sand. 

   After the first mile, I started to make my move. I felt a bolt of energy and kept aiming to catch each runner in front of me, and I was moving up quickly. I felt a sense of rejuvenation when I heard the excited crowd yelling and cheering as we sped by. As the final minutes flew by, I tried to make one final push. 

  By this time, my notoriously out-of-sync form had me looking like a flopping fish out of water, or as my teammates like to say, a hammerhead shark. 

   Unfortunately, my finishing kick was weak and I was passed by a few lucky runners on the final stretch. As I crossed the finish line, I glanced at my time, 11:23, which was subpar by my standards. Per usual, I felt like I wanted to collapse immediately after my race concluded. 

  My dad, an avid runner himself, met me at the finish line with  hundreds of other exhausted runners. We talked about my race, specifically my slow start, with my head coach, Coach Mac. 

   In huge races like these, time matters more than placing, but I was not satisfied with 114th place, especially after my 75th place finish last year out of well over 400 runners. I tried not to be too hard on myself, as it was the first race of the season with many more to come. Now that the 2019 Cherokee Challenge is in the history books, I am excited to experience the trials and tribulations that are in store for me during my final high school cross country season. 

   As the saying goes, “you win some, you lose some” and I felt like I have some unfinished business to take care of in the upcoming weeks.


  I’m Arianna Morales, and the Cherokee Challenge exemplified how much I’ve changed.


  It’s September 7th—the perfect day for the annual two-mile race: the Cherokee Challenge.

  My teammate Lauren Kenselaar and I are among 257 other sophomores anxiously waiting to start the dreaded two miles.

  We’re all tightly packed on a bright green field behind a spray-painted white line. 

 “Remember, you’re supposed to be aggressive–you’re meant to be at the top!” I remind Lauren; she thanks me and wishes me good luck.

  At this point, the race will start in less than thirty seconds, and the collective nervousness grows with every second that passes by.

  Right before the starting pistol sets off, I say a quick prayer: “Lord, give me strength”.

  “POP!” All at once, anxiousness disappears and is instantly replaced with focus. The girls are off!

  It’s taken a long time for me to reach a point where I could confidently say that I can run two miles without rest.

  In freshman year, I was struggling to contribute to Eastern in clubs and sports; I would just go home every day wasting a couple hours watching Netflix. 

  But on one fateful day, my friend encouraged me to join the spring track team, and my mom was ecstatic!

  A long time ago, I actually used to enjoy running—I was on a track team and did 5ks—but then I suddenly stopped.

  After that moment, I hadn’t touched the track for several years before last spring.

  But this was my chance to access a part of myself that had not been fully embraced: my motivation and drive.

  The moment I met the team, I knew I was meant to be there. Even though I wasn’t the fastest or the most experienced, I was determined to contribute to this team!

  I continued my running streak into my sophomore year with the same amazing team and then some!

  So, when that starting pistol signals the runners to take off, I tell myself: “This is what I’ve been training for. You gotta push yourself today!”

  Towards the end of the race, my parents cheer me on and I knew it was time to finish the race with all I’ve got!  I sprint through the finish line as my team members cheered me on!

  I almost started crying because of how much I have changed, and how much I’ve accomplished in such a small amount of time.

  As this year continues, I hope I can continue to strengthen myself and the rest of the Girls Cross Country team!