Cross-country is a spectator sport not for the faint of heart — or out of shape.
With courses that wind into woods and loop around parks, curious fans must dart back and forth if they want to keep up.
Or they can stay put. There are those who watch the pack unload at the start or camp out at the finish line to take in some exciting, last-second battles.
Either way, cross-country runners will take fans however they can get them. On Saturday, Liz Anderson expects a whale of a crowd when she returns home.
The Vanderbilt junior heads back to her hometown of Louisville, Ky. as she leads the Commodores into their second straight NCAA Championships at E.P. Tom Sawyer State Park.
A big contingent of family and friends are expected to cheer on Anderson. Her parents will host the team for dinner on Friday — “We get a chance to try to trash her house,” coach Steve Keith joked. Her grandparents have arrived from Arizona to show up early for Thanksgiving to see their granddaughter run for the first time.
Anderson’s high school cross-country team (DuPont Manual) competed at state last weekend and will be in attendance along with several young swimmers she coached at the Louisville Country Club.
“I’m really excited,” Anderson said. “It is awesome that it is there but I’ve just had to learn to put it aside. Nationals is nationals wherever it is. Yeah, [running in front of friends and family] could put on extra pressure but I’m trying to look at is more of a fun thing. When it comes down to race time, it is awesome that it is in Louisville but it is not a game-changer.”
Anderson placed 43rd at nationals last year, three away from earning an All-American honors and four spots behind Vanderbilt’s first All-American, Alexa Rogers.
The former walk-on has built off that performance and regularly has finished at the top of the pack or among the Commodores’ first three runners, along with senior Kristen Findley and SEC Freshman of the Year Hannah Jumper.
She ran through pain in her hip at last week’s South Regional in Tallahassee, Fla., but still placed 16th in 20:33.4. She underwent an MRI right before regionals and Keith wasn’t sure she would run.
After this weekend, Anderson will take some time off from running to recover before indoor track season.
“All of the tendons and muscles around her hip are upset and angry,” Keith said. “With that said, she is not complaining. She runs a smart race. I know she is excited about going back home but it is not quite the, ‘Ignorance is bliss. I’m going to finish three places out of All-American like last year.’”
Nationals almost didn’t happen again.
The Commodores, who were the 2011 Southeastern Conference champs and finished sixth at nationals, have battled through a season of illness, injury and inconsistency.
But after a disappointing third-place finish at the SEC Championships on their home course of Percy Warner Park in October, they regrouped for regionals. With three runners in the top 16, Vanderbilt narrowly edged Georgia 112 to 115 to finish second. That guaranteed the Commodores an automatic berth to nationals and a big homecoming for Anderson.
“We’re really excited. I think our team is in a good place right now,” Anderson said. “Coach sent out our itinerary and my roommate, Kristen Findley, texted me and we were talking about our outfits on the blue carpet [for Thursday’s banquet]. Just the excitement of it all is great. The pressure is not as prevalent as it was.
"We want to show what we can because we know we can do it. It happened last race. I think we’re honestly capable of doing a lot more. It just took a while to get there.”