The last few days have been so pristine and beautiful here in Illinois it almost takes your breath away. The skies have been clear. Hardly any breeze. That led me to take a run in the forest preserve where the local teams run cross country. The preserve is named Leroy Oakes after an early conservationist in our county. Like most forest preserves, the property was once a farm. There is even an old one-room schoolhouse next to a restored prairie. The entire scene can take you back in time.
That wasn’t my cause in going to Leroy. But it happens nonetheless. Our St. Charles cross country team was the first to conduct a meet on that property. The preserve was much smaller then. The county has added tracks. The big red barn at the center has not changed, however, and large invitationals often center around that parking lot where teams queue up and generation after generation of scrawny high school kids compete in the sport.
The new course is a true cross country course just as all the other iterations have been since my teammate Kevin Webster first designed a three-mile track. Now the start is held on a wide field that can accommodate 20 or more teams at the start. The beginning of the race crosses a half-mile field to converge on a fire trail. Then it crosses the former entrance to the preserve, climbs a steep hill and goes flying down the back. Then the fun begins, as the course swings east through a mature oak forest and emerges on the grass where a series of undulations show that the streambed once created oxbows out of the same ground. Ferson Creek is still tearing away at the banks to change its course, as streams always do.
That symbolizes the cross country course itself, which has functioned like an oxbow over these many years. I return to watch kids run every year, and have seen some great runners fly over those paths. Former Jacobs high school star and Olympic Silver Medalist in the steeplechase Evan Jagr won a few times and everyone knew that they were witnessing a special athlete indeed.
I was ambling along at 9:20 pace for the most part, taking in the shower of goldenrod and bluestem, sometimes finding it hitting me in the face. They’ve not mowed the former fire trail that climbs the long hill. That’s where we used to do a ton of hill training. Even after college in my racing days, that quarter mile stretch up the east hill was a dependable way to build strength in hill training.
I wound around the course and found myself climbing a section that appeared to be a passage into the sun itself. Light streamed down the short hill and everything around me was illuminated. It was a joyous patch of running.
As the sun began to set the light crossing the grounds turned golden. My final half mile was run along that opening stretch of the cross-country course. I hope to get out there and see the start of a race because it’s always thrilling. Still thrilling. Knowing the excitement of those opening minutes so well, it is still possible for tears to well up at the joy of the pain and the pain of the joy ahead and behind you.
Autumn has a way of doing that to you. The tenor of light can lead to that inner light so precious to us all.