Cross Country runners forge friendship through competition

The crescent moon and the stars shone brightly as I drove to Fred Delay Gymnasium at 5 a.m. on a Tuesday. Driving around the bend outside of the Carl Grant Center, I almost hit a girl running in the middle of the street. In my defense, it was 5 in the morning on a Tuesday. Who would be running that early in the middle of the street?

Cross country runners, that’s who.

“It’s weird when ‘sleeping in’ is 7 o’clock,” graduate student Lindsey Jakeman said. “Your mornings get a little skewed, but we do get to watch the sunrise.”

Will Donelson, senior chemistry major, and Jacob Whitney, senior cellular and molecular biology major, ran side-by-side, both sporting American flag shorts. They began pushing each other to stay at a comfortable but at a competitive pace the entire practice. Ten minutes in, they were half a soccer length ahead of the rest of the team. A few minutes later, they had lapped everyone.

Donelson has been on the cross country team at Union with Whitney, his roommate and best friend, for four years and they’re the only seniors on the men’s team. How close are Donelson and Whitney? They live together. They work together. They drive the same truck. Exactly the same. They call each other from the road to have long heart-to-hearts. They have a similar major, take most of their pre-med classes together and have applied to at least one medical school together.

The two have developed a strong friendship by relying on each other through the pain and hardships of their sport while still celebrating each other’s successes and victories.

“They seem to understand that their friendship may have come from being teammates,” Gary Johnson, cross country head coach, said. “But the relationship is more important than their running successes. They compete to make each other better versus trying to beat each other.”

After practice, teammates began to take their shoes off and clap their grassy cleats together sending short grass clippings flying. After pulling their lightweight sweats on their sweaty bodies and putting their shoes back on their feet, they began to huddle around each other laughing and telling jokes like they didn’t just run for 45 minutes straight.

“I beat him sophomore year at our first home meet,” Donelson said.

“I had strep throat,” Whitney countered.

“Hey, whatever you need to tell yourself,“ Donelson said.

In 2014, both Whitney and Donelson were named to the All-GSC First Team. Again in 2015 Whitney and Donelson finished in the top-10 in the conference earning them All- South Region and first team All-GSC honors for the second year in a row. This year they were ranked number 9 in the United StateS Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) South Region pre season rankings giving the team the highest ranking ever for the men’s team.

Watching Whitney and Donelson joke, encourage and fight for each other, it would be hard to believe they have competed for the title of the best runner at Union and the Gulf South Conference for the last 3 and a half years.

“We’ve been best friends since move-in day,” Donelson said. “I want to do everything perfectly right, and Jake keeps me grounded. I overthink everything, and Jake is just chill about it all.”

Donelson sprained his ankle early in the year and immediately thought his senior season and everything he’d been working towards the past four years was finished.

“As soon as I got hurt I was like, ‘my season is over’,” Donelson said.

“Yeah, I told him to quit pouting,” Whitney said as he chuckled and shrugged like keeping Donelson calm was a daily occurrence he was more than accustomed to.