Every flower needs certain basics things to reach full bloom. Good soil helps. Rain at times. Perhaps some tending. Lacking these things, the plant struggles to fulfill its destiny.
Likewise with endurance athletes. The ‘base’ of endurance training we all seek to build is the ‘good soil’ of our performance. Some build that base in the winter. Others turn to the summer months in hopes of blooming during the fall.
Such was the case during eight years of scholastic and collegiate distance running. The first summer following freshman year in high school, our excellent coach Rich Born encouraged the cross country team to put in some summer miles. “Build a base,” he encouraged us. He set up a program rewarding kids who ran 500 and 1000 miles. But I never did it. Never even ran 50 official training miles over the summer months. I didn’t have the gumption. Others did.
I thought of this because on my way into work this morning there was a ban of tanned and fit high school kids running together on one of the main streets. I glanced to see if my former neighbor kid was running with them, but didn’t have time to pick him out because traffic around me was heavy.
It would have been nice to have a band of teammates to run with like that when I was in high school. Logistically, however, it was impossible back in the day. The school I attended those first two years of high school was geographically the largest district in the state. The towns that fed Kaneland high school out in the cornfields included Elburn, where I lived, and Sugar Grove, Maple Park, Kaneville and Virgil. We still had less than 750 students in the entire high school.
Getting together to train with teammates was impossible. It was twelve miles to Sugar Grove. Thirteen miles out to Maple Park and Virgil. That meant it was impractical for many of us to get together and run. None of us had cars in those days. For that matter, I wasn’t old enough to drive.
So Coach Born laid it out clear and simple. “You’re going to have to do this on your own,” he told us. “And June is when you have to get started. July is the toughest though. You have to be disciplined to go out and train in the heat. That’s how you build a base.”
I didn’t get off to a good start in June. In fact, I ran only once the first couple weeks. II had stopped running altogether right after spring track ended. It did not feel good to start up again. I ran and walked two miles, then went back home and had lemonade. It had taken me fourteen minutes to complete the two miles. I got a sideache.
Still, I got some sort of mileage in every day, mostly on my three-speed Huffy bike. My paper route was probably four to five miles long when it was all said and done. I’d get up at 5:30, pedal hard for the route and be done by 6:15 am. So I was getting some aerobic training every day, seven days a week. Then I’d shoot some baskets some day, or play a couple hours of pickup baseball with my brothers.
In the afternoon, we’d have baseball practice. My coach during that summer of 1971 was a man named Trent Richards. He was in his early 20s at the time, a recent graduate of Illinois State University. Richards was also a track and cross country coach for a high school fifteen miles away in St. Charles. I did not know that at the time. But our paths would cross two years later in the world of cross country.
He’s see me at baseball practice and ask, “Did you run today?” Every day I’d answer the same way. “No.”
Then we’d get on with baseball practice. I was a pitcher, one of the most active and aerobic positions in the game. So there was plenty of exercise there.
Then July came. I figured I’d better try to get some sort of mileage going. Coach Born sent a little note of encouragement if I recall. There was no Internet of course. Even phone calls were expensive if they were deemed long distance. There was one area code in the Chicago area back then, but the phone company had lots of rules about what qualified as extra expense on calls. So it wasn’t practical for Coach to call all 30 kids on the team and check how our training was going.
It turned out to be a hot summer. Mornings would come and go. I’d avoid running every day, preferring to lay on the cool living room floor with my head between two giant stereo speakers listening to the All Things Must Pass album by George Harrison.
But one cool July day I worked up the gumption to go running. I’d planned out a route that went south of Elburn, turned right toward the high school, turned right again up a country road and turned right back into Elburn again. I could only estimate that it was five miles.
The first two miles went well. I was actually clipping along thinking “This isn’t so bad…” when suddenly the bushes near a farm house erupted with the shapes of three dogs running right at me. Barking like crazy.
The road had turned to dirt at that point too. As the dogs tore after me on the road, they kicked up dust and barked like mad. I run as fast as I could, but the dogs got ahead of me and snarled and barked some more. I walked toward them with my hands out in case they charged. Not really knowing what else to do, I proceeded that way as the dogs backed away.
Then two more dogs came tearing out on the road. At that point, I was traumatized. The new dogs were even more fierce looking than the first three. One was black with bright white teeth. Some sort of German shepherd mix, possibly the spawn of Beezelbub.
The other was one of those low growling hounds that looked like it would do anything to anyone at the drop of the hat. I had not thought of that dog until the scene in the movie Django Unchained when the plantation owner unleashes dogs on a slave and tears him to pieces.
And true to form, the farm owner stood at the far end of his driveway watching me try to move through is pack of angry dogs. I yelled “Hey!” to get his attention and he did not move. Not a finger. It’s hard to tell what the man was thinking at the time. Or was he thinking at all? I’d take a step or two and the dogs would commence barking again. But not once did he call them in.
Great and not so great escapes
I moved to the far side of the road in hopes that move would quell the canine territoriality going on. It worked to some degree. I was able to move up the road a few yards at a time. One by one the dogs backed off and returned to the farmyard. Only the smallest dog kept on. I allowed myself a short laugh as the little critter barked and scuffed up dust.
Then I was free of that pack of farm dogs at last. My nerves were on edge the rest of the run. The next few farms had dogs but they barked from their own yards rather than running out on the road.
Finally I turned toward home and realized how stressed I was by the incident. Getting bitten would have been more traumatic. Later during my college running years one of our teammates would get attacked by a large farm dog. It chomped on his thigh, puncturing his leg in multiple places. Blood ran down his leg like a horror movie, yet he ran the entire way back to campus. That had happened because we’d left him behind during a group run.
And I thought all this as those high school kids ran by this morning. How good it is that they can train together. How good it is there are leash laws now in our cities and counties. And how good it is that the sport of running, for all its changes, is still a great joy in all the right ways.
So the inspiration I hoped to provide in a roundabout way is that it’s June, and it’s summer. Revel in the heat. Enjoy the company of your training buddies. Know that what you’re doing is building strength for July, August and beyond.
June know it’s worth it.