Cross-country runners are a very different breed. Training as much as 6-12 miles per day, sometimes starting as early as 6 a.m., cross-country runners embody a work ethic that relies on thankless devotion often overlooked by the general public and their peers.
However, a pair of new trends will make high school runners in Tennessee and Texas a lot harder to overlook: full-body lycra morphsuits and barefoot runners.
According to a blog post from the Nashville Tennessean's Chip Cirillo, a pair of high school cross-country runners in the Nashville area have begun racing while wearing full body, lycra morphsuits. The suits are more commonly recognized as the "Green Man suits" popularized by the FX TV series "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia", and cover the entire body ... including a runner's eyes, nose and mouth. The suits have been popping up in sports stadiums across the country for more than a year, and evidently, they're now making their way out onto cross-country courses, on the bodies of actual high school competitors.
"Mostly younger people say it's awesome, but the adults usually say, ‘That's weird. Why are you wearing that?' " Independence (Tenn.) High School runner Mitchell Henry, who wore a camouflage morphsuit just like the one above in a race on Saturday, told The Tennessean. "It's amazingly fun. There's another guy out here with a green morph suit on right now."
That's right, two "Green Man" suits in one cross-country race. If Henry's comments about the suits' breathability are accurate, there might be more runners who use them in the future, too. Like all lycra products, the suits minimize chafing and are less baggy than traditional cross-country shorts and tank tops. The trend may not have taken off yet, but if someone actually wins a race while wearing a morphsuit, it's not hard to imagine a race in the near future with runners traversing the course in full-body lycra emblazoned with school logos. After all, as the video below shows, there's already been a green-man sighting at one state's cross-country state-championship meet.
Of course, there's nothing in Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association guidelines that stipulates that morphsuits are off limits. That's not the case for barefoot running in Texas.
As the Dallas Morning News reported last week, a few different high school cross- country teams in the Lone Star State have embraced barefoot running, with Lovejoy High School in particular having its athletes perform 30 to 50 percent of their training mileage without shoes. Running barefoot has been shown to reduce heel striking and stress on runners' joints as a result, leading to fewer injuries and, sometimes, additional speed.
"I know I had 60 percent of my team with stress fractures and shin splints one year," Lovejoy cross country coach Greg Christensen told the Morning News. "And within 18 months we had two people."
Some Lovejoy runners have even wondered if they'd be allowed to race barefoot, since they often feel faster on the ground without their shoes.
The answer, it turns out, is that they can't race barefoot because of a longstanding uniform regulation by the University Interscholastic League, the governing body of Texas public school sports. UIL explicitly requires all runners compete in shoes, which kills the chance of seeing barefooted runners streaking around Texas courses like the Tarahumara tribe in Christopher McDougall's recent running hit "Born to Run."
High school runners could compete in Vibram FiveFingers, the minimalist, lycra-based, individual-toed shoes with thick rubber soles. But FiveFingers are still shoes of a sort, which would leave high school runners and coaches hoping to get the benefit of true barefoot running on competitive courses out of luck.
Whether we'll see teams of full-body lycra suits or barefoot runners first remains to be seen, but one thing seems certain: As long as high school cross-country runners are out there training, they're going to try strange methods to find more speed, or at least have a good time.