Yesterday I ran in Leroy Oakes Forest Preserve, a large park on the west side of St. Charles, Illinois where I went to high school. The preserve is a mix of grassy hills, mature oak woodlands and former farm and residential property now converted into open space for recreation and nature study. It is also the site of the area’s main high school cross country course for several high schools.
In 1973, our cross country team was the first ever to compete at Leroy Oakes. One of our teammates, Kevin Webster, designed the original course. Prior to that, we raced on a series of intersecting loops on the high school campus.
Running at Leroy was a marvelous change. Our course followed a path through the east side of the preserve. There were slight hills and the path was hard dirt, gravel and grassy sections where your spikes made no sound as you ran along.
Originally the course came through that loop and then crossed a 400-meter section of bottomland where remnants of the oxbow banks of Ferson Creek recalled a time when things were very different. Then the course shot up a steep, rutted, tree-root-infested hill. That was a tough climb, and true cross country.
Years later that section of the course was changed, and the newer course turned and made the long climb out from the creek bottom to an arc through tall prairie grass. It was a better course, and made for some epic racing over the years. I watched future Olympian and world-class runner Evan Jagr of Jacobs High School in Algonquin come through that section of the course on his own the year he won an invitational. I turned to some stranger in the crowd and said, “Remember that kid. He’s going to be great someday.”I was never in the category of an Evan Jager in cross country or any other form of running. But I did win a fair number of races on that Leroy Oakes layout.
I also recall the day that my aging jock broke under my shorts with 800 meters to go for a victory. I’d also that day chosen to wear an old pair of silky orange shorts from the legacy equipment room. So at that point there was nothing holding anything in place as I turned the corner for the sprint into the chute. Like a good boy, I ran in holding the seam of my shorts down on my leg. And still won. Chagrined.
So are some fun, and funny memories of racing at Leroy Oakes those 40+ years ago. I’ve run many workouts in that preserve since that time. It was a favorite place to train during my peak running years in my mid-20s. Hill workouts. Long intervals on the open trails.
Watching the preserve grow and change has been fascinating as well. The county has done a fair amount of habitat restoration work, growing a rich prairie on the main hillside, and weeding out garlic mustard and buckthorn in the woods. Henslow’s sparrows, a formerly endangered native species of bird, now breed in the preserve.
I have also run in the preserve for solace, and for hope. One October afternoon when my mother was ill with cancer, I had an iPod music player on me while I ran. That was not my keen habit, but for some reason that day it fit. I put the music on shuffle while running through the preserve, and somewhere along the way a segment of music from Elgar’s Nimrod came on. That particular version of the classic was provided to me by my son Evan Cudworth. It is one of the most moving renditions I’ve ever heard. This video of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra playing the piece is quite special as well. My sister-in-law Diane Mues is a violist for this symphony.
As I ran along and that music rose to a crescendo, I fell to my knees and cried at the blue skies above. I knew that my mother would soon be passing from this earth. She’d seen me run many times at the preserve, and was a great fan of my running in general. It was a good cry, let me tell you that.
In the intervening years, my young family liked to go to Leroy Oakes to walk and play next to the creek and in the woods. I have a photo of my two-year-old son climbing a set of stairs embedded in a dirt hill. To me, it always symbolized the climb of life ahead. I also carried my daughter on my back on many walks in that park.
What a spectrum of life we lead. And, walking with my family through a place where you have competed and trained was always like wading through a pasture of ghosts and recollections. These were overlaid with visions of other runners racing these same trails.
And so it is with some excitement that I’m planning to attend a cross country meet on Saturday at Leroy Oakes Forest Preserve. Thanks to an expansion in property, the preserve has almost doubled in size. Now the cross country teams will race on a big breather of a course laid out on the sweeping perimeter of the preserve. It will be a great place to watch the competition. I ran portions of the loop to feel it out, and learn what it would be like to race those trails on the new course.
The course still sweeps through the woods where I once raced as well. But that’s about the only fragment left of the original course. And that’s okay. In fact, it is better this way. Life moves on and changes. We need to embrace those changes and celebrate the many ways our fellow human beings and new generations encounter this world. We’d first made the change all those years ago, after all. It’s time to welcome yet another vision of what it means to run all out, and see who wins.
That’s what life is all about.