One of the unique aspects of cross country running in the 1970s is that dual meets were held between every team in the league. The Upstate Eight Conference consisted of St. Charles, Elgin, Elgin Larkin, Wheaton Central, East Aurora, West Aurora, Naperville Central, and Dekalb. Each of these programs had a lead runner of course. Some had more than one.
At Naperville Central the top runner was Rick Hodapp. We toured the course and I thought I had it memorized, but would soon learn that memory fails, especially in the brain of a kid with partial ADHD. I raced to a significant lead and had Rick beat, but upon reaching the North Central College track the second time around the course, I turned right again to go around the backstretch. To my horror, I glanced left to see Rick headed straight down the track across from me. I sprinted to protect my lead but he reached the chute six or seven yards ahead of me.
I’d like to think that there should have been someone posted at the part of the course to direct runners, but there was not. My mother was at the race that day and took photos of the race. I can’t look at those photos without thinking about losing under those circumstances.
A week later we met the Elgin Maroons on their home course. The previous season our two teams had slugged it out in a dual meet out on our home course. St. Charles barely won 27-29. Elgin came back and won the county meet over us a week later.
My senior season the dynamic was a bit different. The pressure to concentrate on winning individual races was more intense. At least, that’s the impression I was given. The goal going into the Elgin race was to give it all I had against Ken Englert.
That race was one of the most intense experiences I had in all my distance running. Ken and I traded leads several times during the race. I’d beat him up a hill. He’d race past me going back down. He’d dump me on the next hill. I’d come racing back against him. We pushed and pulled and increased the pace on the flats. Neither of us gave an inch, that’s for sure. As we topped the final hill and did a U-turn toward the finish, we ran side-by-side toward the chute and crashed into it together. Ken fell a bit further forward, and the victory was given to him. As I recall, we broke the course record by nearly 20 seconds.
I have no problem with “losing” that race to this day. I’m thankful to have had the ability to race like that with a guy that I respected. He actually was the superior runner, as proven by other results in which I did not keep up with him. Somewhere along the way, Ken offered me a compliment in stating, “You were a force to be reckoned with.” That might be based on that single race alone.
Following the Elgin race, some events at home took over my concerns. My mother Emily was hospitalized with serious abdominal issues related to giving birth to four boys. She was massively sick and could have died. My younger brother and I were taken to the hospital to visit her. The room was half-dark and my mother was barely able to talk with us. At home, my brother and I said little about the visit. In fact, no one talked to either of us about it. My father was obviously concerned, but it wasn’t his style to go all explanatory on such issues. Such was mental health in the 1970s. No one talked about anything. We were left to deal with our moods.
I tried leaning on my girlfriend at the time for comfort. She was super-smart, but just a sophomore in high school. She was the younger sister of a cross country teammate, who was also dating a sophomore. The senior guys were all dating sophomores because their class had a massive number of cute girls. My girlfriend’s name was Meg. Later in life I dated a woman named Jenny. I found that funny because growing up the brown and black dachsund dogs next door were named Meg and Jenny.
At any rate, my mind was not completely into racing after my mom fell ill. I was distracted by difficulties in class too. My grades in Algebra II were tanking. Ultimately, I’d get a D in the class, and that was a gift. I saw no purpose for Algebra and found it exasperating. The further I fell behind, the more it gutted my self-esteem. On Sunday nights I’d dread going to school knowing that my Algebra homework was not done. I didn’t understand the formulas. They made no sense to me. I’d done fine in geometry but algebra was toxic to my mind. There was no tutoring involved or assistance offered. I just struggled along like a half-brained idiot.
Mid-season, we traveled to Elgin Larkin to race in a downtown park. The kid from Larkin leading the course tour took off at six-minute pace. We all tried to follow and were exhausted by the time we finished. When the gun went off, I was confused and angry. Their top runner John Ciontea left me in the dust. He was the better runner, I’m sure. But I’d have liked to have had a fair shot at him without that speedy course tour. Following the race, I was approached by the St. Charles Chronicle sports writer Elmore McCornack. He asked me what I thought about the race and I blurted, “I don’t know.” That wasn’t like me, but the pile of issues in my head was too thick to relate.
Against Wheaton Central, I again raced to a lead only to be reeled back in by their top runner Paul Vestuto. He ran with patience and focus, moving past me at a point when I felt the energy start to lag. That was a lesson in racing tactics that I needed to learn again. My habit of front-running evolved out of a weird combination of determination and fear. On one hand, I ran with impunity in the style of a Steve Prefontaine. On the other had, I hated being caught and dreaded the idea it could happen. Later in life, I learned that those are patterns of anxiety. At the age of eighteen, I hardly knew what that meant.
I’m pretty sure that’s how the Knights of old once felt about jousting. Surely there were plenty of anxious moments knowing that you could be wracked in the chest by a pointed lance. So many small things contribute to a big hit. A moment’s distraction. Lack of practice. It’s pretty easy to get knocked off the horse in a second. Such is the case with the sport of cross country. You race your best. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you get knocked off.
Our meets against West and East Aurora were less eventful. I won those races easily enough. Then came the last dual meet of the season, against Dekalb. We raced on a big campus somewhere. It might have been a golf course or a park. Whatever the case, it left us out in the open with nothing but a few trees and flags to run around. Unlike other teams in the league, Dekalb didn’t have just one top runner. They had five. Those five guys chatted to each other and ran easily while running me into flags as a group and toying with me on the straights. It was one of the more humiliating races I’ve run in life. I don’t recall if I beat any of their runners, but it didn’t matter. Their team was in a ‘different league’ than us that year. I admit to being a bit envious of their dynamic even though I hated them for the moment. They looked intimidating and ran with such confidence. I was not typically that type of runner. At least, not that season.
When the Upstate Eight Conference meet came around, I girded myself for a battle with the top guys from all those schools. We ran on the golf course campus of Elgin Community College. For the first mile or so, everyone ran as a pack. Something in me decided to take the lead and stretch it out. During the middle mile, I felt strong and determined. But the likes of Ken Englert and Rick Hodapp and all those Dekalb guys were not fooled. They roared past in the last mile and I finished sixth overall. I took my chance and tried to win it all. There’s no shame in that.
The ups and downs of that senior season were plenty. The yearbook states that I won ten meets that season, but I don’t remember them all. There were meets against teams from other conferences, and an invitational or two as well. We did fairly well as a team coming off the previous successful season, but our pack was more spread out so winning invitationals wasn’t in the cards. What I most recall is the friendships. Singing in the locker room showers. Training together on wet grass in early morning workouts. Running until it got dark later in the season. We did so much together.
That said, we traveled to Peoria for a mid-season invite on the state cross country course. The night before the race, our coach tossed my teammate Paul Morlock and I in a hotel room with a Playboy, and told us to get to sleep. The rest of the team stayed up late. We could hear them down the hall.
I ate breakfast the next morning and drank some iced tea. Paul turned to me and said, “Are you sure you want to drink that? Is that good for you?” I hadn’t thought about it. But sure enough, I ran the first quarter mile hard to get ahead of the large pack and wound up with a painfully sharp side stitch that stuck with me the entire race. I learned the hard way that my body and caffeine don’t get along together.
Such are the vagaries of all sorts of competition. Little things add up to big mistakes. I’m sure those knights that jousted felt the same way years later. More likely it was like, “What the fuck were we thinking?” Then again, how many of them lived long enough to tell those tales? I guess that’s the difference in this day and age.