Cross country running, a team sport long overshadowed by football, is achieving new popularity among students in the District's public schools.

Athletic officials attribute this development to several factors, including the recent emphasis placed on fitness education in the schools, increased awareness of the importance of strenthening the cardiovascular system through prolonged exercise, and the inclination of student athletes to use cross country as physical preparation for other sports.

Whatever the reason, about 400 boys and girls, an all-time high, are running cross country in District high schools. Nowhere is this more evident than at Coolidge High. The Coolidge girls cross country team won the Interhigh League championship last year and will be enthusiastically defending its title this season.

"The cross country season serves as a building block for the rest of the track season," said Christine Harrison, a senior competing in her third cross country and track season at Coolidge. "It's especially good for those who like to run the distance events."

Conditioning is the name of the game in cross country, because so much hard work and mental preparation are required to participate in it and because it serves to keep runners in excellent shape. But the spirit of competition plays as big a role in cross country as in any other sport.

"Cross country helps strengthen you for other sports," said Harrison, who is also a National Honor Society member. "But almost everybody on the team is excited about defending the title this year because, while other (cross country) programs have gotten weaker with people graduating, ours has gotten stronger."

The Coolidge girls have more than just the defense of last season's title against runner-up McKinley Tech as an incentive to perform this year. In the eight years that cross country competition has been a part of the District's athletics program, the Coolidge team, under the guidance of Coach Adrian Dixon, has captured the girls championship six times.

"Cross country helps distance runners establish themselves with college recruiters," said Dixon. "Though the distance of courses varies from meet to meet, the average course length, between two and three miles, allows distance runners to excel and display their credentials. It helps others by strenthening their overall physical condition while building their endurance. I try to encourage as many kids as possible to come and work with the team, even though all who do won't necessarily run competitively."

Dixon is fortunate this season because he has six members of last season's championship squad returning. That includes five who finished among the top 15 citywide last year.

Among those returning are all-Interhigh performers Jeryl Fitch and Angela Prioleau, both juniors, as well as Harrison and juniors Linda Ballard and Renee Francis.

Tommi (Pebbles) Rucker, another all-Interhigh cross country selection for Coolidge last season and one of the city's most talented female track performers, is still undecided about participating in cross country this year.

"The scenery change involved in running cross country makes the sport more attractive for runners . . . than competing in other events which consist of just running the track," Dixon said. "Also there are college scholarships available for girls to compete in cross country alone now, where before they were only available in track."

According to Dixon, 98 percent of the girls who have competed in Coolidge's cross country or track program in the last 10 years have gone on to college with the help of athletic scholarships.

But the prospect of winning a scholarship is just another of the ever-increasing incentives for District students to become involved in cross country.

"Urban youngsters are now starting to view cross country not as a lonely sport, but as a self-disciplined sport that helps to strengthen the mind as much as the body," said Vinna Freeman, assistant supervisor of athletics for D.C. schools. "It's really encouraging to see so many more kids becoming involved in the cross country program, because the sport requires that the individual work to maintain a high level of endurance -- and that takes a different kind of discipline."