Unlike someone such as Charles Jenkins, Phil Giackette doesn’t get a lot of chances to star in front of the home crowd. And when he does, he’s not even on campus. But being eight miles east of Hofstra sure beats being several hundred miles south, and so there he was at Bethpage State Park the morning of Sept. 11, smiling and pumping his fists as he crossed the finish line at the Brick Stone Run and won the first race of his career in his last “home meet.”
Along the way, Giackette didn’t run across any shirtless classmates spelling out “H-O-F-S-T-R-A” on their chests, but as a college senior who has been running most of his life, he has come to accept such anonymity. “My freshman year, we went to regionals up in Boston,” Giackette said. “I remember it was raining and we started out the race and I’m running through the woods and I see these, like, 20 kids with their shirts off. It’s freezing cold weather in the rain and they’ve got ‘Columbia’ painted on their chest and cowbells and horns and everything. I was just so overwhelmed because I felt out of my element.”
And why wouldn’t he? In the macro and macro, cross country is the most minimalist of sports. It is a solitary endeavor, full of early mornings, long training runs and grueling sprint workouts—often all in the same day—that cause even the hardiest of souls to question his or her sanity.
“In the moment, you think ‘Why would I want to do this?’ said Riti Dhillon, the lone senior on the women’s team.
“Cross country is definitely a love-hate thing—there are times when you’re going to love it and there are times when you’re going to hate it,” Giackette said. “I just got over hating it a couple weeks ago.”
“Who wants to run in the morning?” said coach Pete Alfano, who ran one year at Hofstra as a graduate student in 2003. “I remember 90-mile weeks. It’s not the sport for fun.”
While other teams travel to games on charter buses or airplanes, eat pre- and post-game meals at restaurants and play in environments that encourage a home court or home field advantage, the schools competing at the Brick Stone Run arrived in vans, staked their territory with canopy tents and brought their own post-race spread. Plates of fruit, bags of chips, carb-loaded boxes of donuts and cases of water dotted the picnic tables at Bethpage State Park.
Cross country is the only sport at Hofstra which does not compete or practice on campus (though Alfano recently mapped out a quarter-mile run on the hills behind the Recreation Center). Until five years ago, when the Hofstra Invitational began at Bethpage, the program didn’t have a course it could call home and spent most Saturdays in the fall traveling up and down the east coast.
In addition to competing in the CAA, Hofstra is also a part of the Metropolitan Conference, where it runs against local foes such as Rutgers and Iona, and has become a regular contestant at the New Jersey Tech and St. John’s invitationals. The Dutch leave the tri-state area just twice this season and their longest road trip is a flight to Wilmington for the CAA championships Oct. 30.
“I was on the team eight years ago,” Alfano said. “Go to James Madison one week, William & Mary [the next]. It takes a toll on you. I didn’t run any faster when we were traveling eight hours on a bus ride every week.”
Most of the 19 runners on the teams—12 women and seven men—walk around campus with nobody recognizing them or realizing they are among the school’s athletes.
“I’m on the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee [as] vice president, so probably people know me a little better than others,” Giackette said. “But as a cross country team, we don’t really get too many looks. We’re really underground. We go unnoticed.”
Yet while Giackette admits “it’s great to be acknowledged,” he and the rest of his teammates knew what did—and didn’t—await them long before they arrived at Hofstra. And they’re at peace with finding satisfaction and taking—wait for it!—pride in the singular and the collective experience of being dedicated enough—and, sure, maybe sadistic enough, too—to do something so taxing and inglorious.
“We came into this sport knowing that it’s not for the glory, it’s for ourselves,” Giackette said. “When it comes to running, you’ve got to find a reason to do it for yourself, not for anybody else—not for the uniform that you wear, not for the school, not for the family members that want you to do it. You’ve got to find a reason that you want to do it. You want to get out the door everyday and just run, whether it be for fitness, for love, for training for something special [or] for a loved one.”
“At the end of the day, you just feel great,” Dhillon said. “Even years down the road, you have something to talk about. You can share something. Most people don’t run, so it’s good to do something that a lot of people can’t do or won’t do so you stand out from everybody else. Because you pushed your body to the limit. And it’s really important in life to just push your body that far, so you know what your limit is [and] you can run past your comfort zone.
“My main thing about cross country is it gets you to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. You can’t succeed if you never want to leave your comfort zone. This teaches you that.”