My name is Rory Abberton, and on Friday, December 2, I will run my last collegiate cross-country race for Chico State at the NCAA Division II Men’s Cross Country Championships in Seattle. As my athletic career comes to a close, I know I will always be a part of a great program, and it will always be a part of me.

I began running competitively when I was 14 years old and have put in thousands of miles, training my legs and lungs to push myself to achievements that were previously unimaginable to me. But since I came to Chico State, nothing has evolved more than my mind.

I had no idea what was in store when I first arrived on campus in the fall of 2018. My definition of success was running fast times and winning races to solidify my name as one of the program’s greats. It took a few years to see the greater value of being a Chico State runner; to understand how running is interconnected with so many aspects of being a student and that success, after all, isn’t black and white.

My first season in uniform was thrilling. I improved race after race and was one of seven runners selected to compete at the NCAA championships in Sacramento. Because Sacramento is so close to Chico, I knew there would be a vocal Chico State support group in attendance. However, it blew my naïve freshman mind to find more than 500 Chico State alumni draped in cardinal and white scattered across the course as we arrived. Chants of “Chiiiicoooo! Chiiiicoooo!” came in waves throughout the day. This was my first introduction to what it means to be part of the Chico State family. The generation-spanning support was powerful. All these people with jobs, families, and lives of their own, chose to be in Sacramento to support student-athletes. I ended up running my best collegiate race yet, helping the team finish third in the nation and sending the fans home happy. Their impact stayed with me, though. On the return trek to Chico, I reflected on the passion displayed and the bond between myself and what before had been 500 strangers.

Rory Abberton (middle, wearing bib #93) listens to Head Coach Gary Towne celebratory speech as a number of teammates and fans gather around following the 2019 NCAA Championship race.
Abberton, wearing bib #93 in the center of the photo, listens as Head Coach Gary Towne (center) talks about the team’s successful run after the men’s 2019 NCAA Division II Cross Country Championships at Haggin Oaks Golf Course on Saturday, November 23, 2019 in Sacramento, Calif. (Jason Halley/University Photographer/CSU, Chico)

With the 2019 cross country season behind me, I was ready to take that positive momentum into the 2020 track and field season – which never came. The COVID-19 pandemic caused the cancellations of both in-person classes and the 2020 track and field season, so I returned home to Southern California to be with my family. With no new season in sight and my motivation waning, I took an extended break from running. I began to question if I wanted to return. But every time I considered moving on, I thought about the passion of those fans in Sacramento. I realized that if I quit, I would not only be quitting on myself, but my teammates and all the alumni who contributed to the legacy of Chico State cross country as well. With that in mind, when the announcement came that there was going to be a 2021 season there was no more time to stall. I picked myself back up and began training again.

I left campus at 19 years old and returned at 21. I went from being the young up-and-comer to the veteran – without any of the necessary experience. This was true not only in a running sense but also in the classroom and the community. I was in my fourth year as a student, but still barely had a grasp on the campus layout.

My return to campus, and running, got off to a rough start. I struggled to get back into running form, and the transition back to in-person classes was difficult. I felt a few steps behind. Throughout the struggle, I found great inspiration from my peers. I witnessed classmates making a conscious effort to make every classroom a more positive community. I saw my teammates working hard even when there was no race on the horizon and no glory at stake.

As every runner knows, it is important to embrace an intimidating challenge and face it head-on. I began to push myself in running as well as in the classroom and eventually found myself having a great time. This led me to decide to enroll for a fifth year and add a second major in organizational communication rather than graduating. This change in perspective had me pursuing a new definition of success, which is never a solo achievement.

Earlier this month, I helped lead the men’s cross country team to its 20th consecutive conference title (the longest such streak by a program in the history of the California Collegiate Athletic Association). The 20th conference title couldn’t have happened without the first. Every runner who has been part of one or more of the winning teams can take pride in knowing they played a part in this most recent win. My job and purpose on this team are to continue pushing the boundaries of success. More than any time or place achieved at a race, I want my legacy to be the building blocks or foundation I put in place that helps those who come after me achieve further greatness.

When I look back on my time running competitively, I won’t think about the 6 a.m. practices, the 16-mile long runs, or the tired legs and burning lungs. I will remember the laughs, support, and time shared with this unique group of people who found themselves in this life of being a Wildcat runner. Together, we have discovered that perseverance, determination, and self-improvement are forged and crafted in the trails of Bidwell Park.

So, as I toe the line one final time, I’ll remember all I’ve learned on this five-year journey. No longer am I a wide-eyed 18-year-old with the narrow goal of being the best runner on the team. I’m a fifth-year senior with a larger sense of success and legacy, crafted through my experiences at Chico State. Soon it will be my turn to support the next generation of Wildcats, chanting “Chiiiicoooo!” from the sidelines.

Rory will graduate in May with bachelor’s degrees in organizational communication and communications, along with minors in management, project management, and marketing, and he plans to pursue a career in public relations.

Friday’s race takes place in University Place, Washington, at 10 a.m.

Watch a live stream of the race and/or follow the action via splits and live results.

Rory Abberton (middle) helps hold the NCAA West Regional Championship trophy as he and his teammates pose.
Rory Abberton (middle with red beanie) helps hold the NCAA West Regional Championship trophy as he and his teammates pose. (Shiloh Skillenrobison)