Ask a cross-country man what makes him run and the odds are his answer will surprise you.

People tend to think of distance runners as solitary people, churning out miles week in and week out, just running, running and running.

But high school cross-country running can be very much a team sport, since the finishes of five runners are counted in a school's score at the end of a meet. And most cross-country runners, especially the good ones, say they like the sport because there is a feeling of kinship among members of the team.

"You've got a small group of guys who are just focused in completely on long-distance running," explained Rich Coffin of Winston Churchill, one of six returning All-Met performers in the area. "It's not the same in track. Here you've got a small group that really works together."

Other outstanding runners in the area agree with Coffin. "You're closer to your coach because he doesn't have to worry about anything else and you're closer to the team," said Edison standout Chuck Wimberly.

Wimberly, Jay Caldwell of Fort Hunt, Tim Colas of Osbourn Park, Radi Stewart of Stonewall Jackson and John Babcock of Langley all return to competition in Virginia after being voted All-Met last season. Coffin is Maryland's only returning All-Met performer. All are seniors except Babcock a junior, and all are regarded as contenders for their state titles. All the top runners will be at the season's first big meet, the Winchester-Judges Classic, today at Handley.

The area's sleeper, however, may be Mike Mansey, a T.C. Williams junior who has caused several people to take notice after working extremely hard all summer.

"Mansey's a comer, no doubt about it," said John Cook, who coaches Wimberly at Edison. "He's in great shape and he really wants to run.He's going to be a threat this year. He's tough."

Of course Cook is not about to throw in the towel with Wimberly around. The 5-foot-10, 115-pounder missed some training time this summer because of an arm injury but ran a lot once healthy and is already pointing for the state meet in Charlottesville Nov. 12.

"That's the one that's really important," Wimberly said. "I think I've got a shot at it because I beat just about all the good runners at least once last year."

The Maryland state meet also is Nov. 12 and will be held on Navy's relatively flat course, something Coffin likes.

"I'm trying not to think about state just yet," he said, "but I know Navy's course is pretty quick. It's basically flat so the times there should be pretty good."

Mansey and Caldwell both think they have an excellent chance in Virginia, Mansey, a 5-7, 110-pound dynamo, probably worked harder than any other runner in the area over the summer.

"I want to work hard and break my back to get up there," he said. "I love running and working and I know what I have to do to get the top. I don't worry about the pain because I'm enjoying it. I just want to be the best."

Caldwell, easily that tallest top runner around at 6-feet, 140 pounds, is more easy going than Mansey, but nevertheless sees himself as a state contender.

"I'm starting to get it all together now," he said. "I worked over the summer so I didn't run that much, but now I'm doing a lot of O.D. (over-distance).

"I'm just going to run through the first few meets and point for the state's. I think I could win that. Wimberly and Mansey are both tough, though."

While Wimberly, Caldwell, Mansey and others battle for individual honors in Virginia, several schools will be trying to end Handley High School's dominance of the state championship the past four years.

Also a traditionin recent years has been Churchill's dominance of the local scene on the Maryland side of the Potomac. Coach Andy White's team, third in the state last year and the champion two years ago, may be stronger than ever with Coffin leading the way.

Coffin, ninth in the state last year, will have to beat Kenwood's Mike Sheeley and Springbook's Billy Kovac if he wants to win the state meet. Sheeley was an All-American last year.

Other local runners who should be heard from during the season, all of them underclassmen, include Judd Springer of Lee, Joe Coderman of Stonewall Jackson and Jim Hill of Oakton, who ran a 9:18 two miles out-doors last spring.