Last Friday afternoon, eager to get in a good workout, I headed out the Great Western Trail in St. Charles. The trail is a former railroad bed that was one of the first lines in Illinois to be converted to a running and cycling path.
The trail is popular for many reasons. It starts at the former entrance to Leroy Oakes Forest Preserve where many high school cross country meets are held in fall. During the summer months, large groups of runners and cyclists gather to go on training runs in preparation for summer and fall races. Serious cyclists don’t really ride the trail for very far. Instead, they head northwest or west on the open roads of Kane County. That’s where road cyclists belong. On the road. Not on the trail. But try to tell that to motorists who can’t stand our confusing presence. They refuse in some ways to ever get that.
Serious runners do use the trail. Way back in the early 80s it was the hub of many runs with training partners whose times for 10K were in the low 30s. We’d hammer five miles out of town and come racing back.
The great thing about the trail in summer was the shade. Long stretches were shrouded by trees. Years ago I recall the trains barreling through these same trees on the way out of Chicago to points west.
So the effect still remained. The long tunnel of trees from St. Charles out to Wasco filtered light and kept you cool on otherwise hot days.
The miles are marked by small green markers fixed to bridges or posts. We must assume they are reasonable accurate. It’s not that hard to measure out a mile and put a marker in place. Still, there are days when you sweat those mile markers are a little long. The older I get the more that seems to be the case. A speed that feels fast now used to be my warmup pace.
So last Friday I ran the first mile at 9:00 pace and popped up on the trail near the first bridge over Peck Road. Right behind me there appeared another runner dressed in a strange combination of running and soccer clothes. Looking ahead, I saw a guy dressed in orange ahead on the trail. I decided to try to catch the Orange Guy and leave Soccer Guy behind.
Dialing it up to a quicker pace, I passed the mile marker and tuned into the tempo. The miles clicked away fairly smooth at this pace. But I wasn’t catching Orange Guy. He was moving slightly faster than me ahead on the trail. It bugged me that he was pulling away ever so slightly.
Soccer guy fell back, but not completely. At the turnaround point I waved as Orange Guy passed me on the way back toward town. Then I turned around and waved to Soccer Guy. It was a linear dance of pace. None of us was catching or really losing the other.
In some ways this was confusing to me. For most of my running career there were very few people I could not catch on the trail. Training in Chicago’s Lincoln Park in my early 20s, I took pride in mowing down one runner after another. Once in a great while there would be another quality runner on the trail that I could not catch, or who tried to catch me. Sometimes we’d run together, taking measure of each other and talking about our respective times for 5K, 10K, 10M, Half Marathon and beyond.
Headed back on the trail toward town, I kept the pace in the low 7:00 range. It felt faster though, but the watch and the Strava don’t lie.
Finishing in 46:27, I tried to calculate what the overall finish might have been without the 9:00 first mile. Taking off 2:00 left me with a 44:27. That’s about the pace I ran for the first six miles of my best 10K last fall.
Perhaps I’ll run a bit faster in real racing mode. I wasn’t exhausted at the end of the training run. And thinking ahead, that pace felt good and manageable for a possible half marathon in November.
We’ll see. These are confusing times for a guy who once used to run these times in practice, and faster. It makes you wonder if it’s truly possible to run much faster even with tons more training.
Life rolls on either way. If it comes through the fun I’m having in training, then so be it. If not, that’s fine too. I’m motivated because the act of running still feels good and does good things for my head. It’s one of the tarsnakes of aging that you cannot improve your times forever. Sometimes you’re getting better just through the act of staying the same. Go figure.
Confusing times or not, the effort is still worth it.