JACKSON TWP.  It’s a dark, unofficial start of the push toward the cross country season for Jackson senior Evan Akers and his teammates.

Every year, the Jackson Night Glow 5K race is part of the township’s annual community festival, typically taking place the last weekend in June. The race starts at 9:30 p.m., after the sun has set and well into the day’s fun at the festival for thousands of area residents.

Some 1,300 runners took to the course and among them were Akers, dozens of his teammates on the boys cross country squad and many members of the girls cross country team as well.

"We use it as a fundraiser and it’s also a chance to see where you’re at in terms of your running and conditioning," Akers said of the race. "It’s nice to run out on the roads we run every day and to run after dark with the whole community coming out to support you."

Indeed, the race winds through neighborhoods around North Park, with glow sticks and lights along the edge of the road to mark the course and many people setting up lawn chairs and furniture in their driveway to watch runners pass by and cheer them on.

This year, Akers and his teammates painted various fun, lighthearted messages on their chests before the run and tried to have as much fun with the race as possible. It’s a unique chance to compete together without the normal pressure and intensity of cross country races.

Not only do current members of the program run, but alumni also come back to participate, furthering the family feel of the race.

"A lot of guys group up and run together and we go out there and run the course with each other," Akers said.

The race is one of the first chances to get large chunks of the team together and with a roster whose size typically hits triple digits for a season, that is a valuable opportunity. Although Akers noted that he and his fellow seniors know many team members already because they’re returning sophomores and juniors who were part of the program in previous seasons, every chance to get to know new faces is a valuable one for the future of the program.

Another valuable chance will come later this summer, when head coach Kevin Walsh and his staff gather both the boys and girls teams for their annual preseason camp, affectionately known as Camp Shaggy, in August.

That camp, and every run and team activity along the way until August, should drive home the point to Akers that he is finally a senior, something he admitted hasn’t quite sunk in yet.

"It’s a shock to me … it’s hard to believe that I’m finally a senior," he said.

It’s an experience with which many high school athletes can relate after spending years working their way up through the youth and middle school ranks, looking up to the varsity athletes in their sport and even attending camps with those older athletes as volunteer coaches.

Then there’s the first three years of high school, which reinforce the idea of having older, more experiences teammates to look up to and to try to earn starting spots alongside. The senior season is a one-year exception to those rules and realizing their last year of high school - both athletically and academically - has arrived can be hard for a young athlete to fully process.

Over the summer, Akers and his teammates do their best to coordinate their running and find times when they can get together and log miles, but sometimes, running is a solo endeavor.

"It’s difficult a lot of times, you have to depend on yourself and talk to other runners and see if you can meet up to go run, or if you have to do it on your own that day," Akers noted.

With many solo miles to log, the Night Glow race was a chance to join dozens of teammates and hundreds of strangers for a fast-paced run through the streets of the township. Akers crossed the finish line at the 17:25 mark, a number he’ll likely better on the various courses he’ll run this fall once the season begins, but it was still a fun early mile marker in a summer that will ideally set the stage for her and his teammates to make yet another run at the Federal League title and a trip to the state meet in a few months.

Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
or andy.harris@thesuburbanite.com
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