Loudoun Valley's Katie Moreno became a cross-country runner her sophomore year, but she doesn't know exactly when she got sucked in and became one of the many dedicated members of the Purcellville school's program.
In her third season of cross-country, Moreno is not the Vikings' star runner, but she is a devoted participant on a team that includes 45 boys and 50 girls. By contrast, the Vikings' varsity football team has 44 boys.
"Yeah, it's a little crazy, huh?" Moreno said of choosing the grueling sport as her main high school activity. "I come out every year because of the girls who run. They're most of my friends. . . . Also, I think for me, it's an achievement when I run. You see yourself work hard and improve, and you really feel like you've achieved something."
Across the AA Dulles District, cross-country is surging in popularity. Loudoun County and Potomac Falls started the season with more than 80 runners on their rosters. Stone Bridge started with more than 70 runners, and Heritage, a third-year school, has had its roster double since opening, to more than 60 athletes.
Coaches cite a variety of reasons for the sport's upswing in the area. For one, cross-country has little competition from other fall sports: football, boys' and girls' golf and girls' volleyball.
Additionally, the sport lends itself to a large number of participants, and most coaches do not have preseason cuts. Even for a runner who has never come near the top of the leader board, there is a reward to be had.
"We measure success differently than in other sports," Loudoun Valley Coach Louise Spicer said. "We have a stopwatch, that's it. . . . If a runner drops two minutes off her time, that's a major achievement."
The ease of making the squad and the success many cross-country athletes seem to have in the classroom make the sport attractive to parents.
Vikings senior Molly Darr, a four-year varsity runner, joined the Loudoun Valley team with the intention of getting in shape for spring soccer, but she never joined the soccer team and stuck with running.
"The sport is really mental," Darr said. "You have to devote a lot of brainpower to succeed. I think it helps you be more disciplined."
"It's a different type of mind-set," Potomac Falls Coach Brian Blubaugh said. "For the most part, the kids that are out there are self-disciplined and are going to work hard at everything they do."
Most teams also seem to put a premium on camaraderie. Friday night spaghetti dinners are regular activities for most teams; at Loudoun Valley, Spicer organizes events such as a team bonfire.
"We do things like pizza parties after meets and overnight trips," said Heritage Coach Matt Oblas, whose team traveled to Williamsburg for the William & Mary Invitational earlier this season. "We try to do things that will be good memories they will keep with them for their whole lives."
Said Darr: "I think that a lot of [the popularity] has to do with the fact that people need to feel good about themselves and a need to blend in. In cross-country, you're running alongside your friends, and they give you positive feedback. You feel like you've found your niche."