In the early days of a warm September, our college cross country team was scheduled to run a 20-mile run. The route called for ten miles up to a school called North Winnishiek and back. We ran on the gravel shoulder much of the way, trotting along in our Nike waffle shoes or some classic Brooks footwear long lost to running antiquity.
We ran fast, averaging 6:00 per mile up the long climb from the Oneota Valley to the limestone hills above Decorah, Iowa. The conversation would be peppered with tales of debauchery from the night before. One guy was running with a big bruise on his left ass cheek because he’d gotten a little lit at a kegger Saturday afternoon and fell off the back of a Triumph TR6 while trying to hitch a ride back into town. Plop, he fell right off the back onto the road. Right on his ass. He limped a little, but kept up at the pace of the day.
There were 25-30 of us trucking along. Ultimately the top 15 guys separated into a lead group and the talk quieted a little. We ran along with eyes fixed on the curving road ahead. Just a white strip of Iowa concrete with even brighter gravel strips on either side. We’d go up one side and come back the other, running with traffic the whole way.
The walls of corn on either side of the road were changing from green to brown. In a couple weeks the loud, dusty combines would whip through the cornfields and strip out the crop to be sent to the big feed silos for market. Much of that would wind up in processors down in Cedar Rapids where the Archers-Daniel-Midland company would turn it all into starch and syrup. Whatever the world demanded.
Our own bodies were fueled on the merest of calories. Perhaps a slice of toast with butter snagged at the college union before heading out for the ‘Sunday long run’ as we called it. There were no Power Bars or gels. No water belts or aid stations set up. Our main hope was that coach might put some water in a big jug and cart it with him to the ten-mile mark. There we’d stop for a few minutes in the warm morning sun, milling around with our hearts pumping and sweat pouring down our necks. We’d take a sip or two if the water or lemonade wasn’t too warm, then turn around and run back to Decorah at the same pace we came.
As a birder even back in college I amused myself with the calls of meadowlarks in the field, or red-tailed hawks soaring on thermals above the cliffs shrouding the Upper Iowa river. Some days the clarinet-like sound of a pileated woodpecker might clatter down from the woods, or the jabbering of blue jays tearing around after acorns.
As we passed farms, the smell of manure might waft our way as we ran past a pig farm or dairy operation. Inevitably the smells of those farms would bring fart jokes, and anyone could turn into a target for that low-level humor. It never really stopped actually. Actual farts were the best remedy of all for boredom on the run. One learned to treasure those opportunities.
That and sexual jokes carried us along for miles. Anyone that had a girlfriend risked attention about the previous night’s ‘action.’ Most men of honor would mutter some acknowledgement that sex had indeed taken place. That was a far better approach than outright denying the fact, which only wrought more teasing and descriptive examples of imagined escapades.
But in fact, some of us had had sex that very morning. One might arrive for the long run on a Sunday morning with cheeks flushed from the warmth of intercourse just minutes before. Some freshman would notice the color in the cheeks and blurt, “You just got laid!” But that would generally earn a guy a pat on the back, not teasing. “You’ll run well today,” someone would whisper.
For there’s nothing better than lovemaking to breed confidence in a skinny runner borne by the pace of the day up hill and down. Thoughts of those moments and the look in the eyes of a lover were sure to carry you farther. The feel of running might disappear altogether, miles at a time. The mind would be carried along by the body in those moments. Even a hard tempo felt easy.
Yet somewhere around fifteen miles the pace would ultimately get harder, for 6:00 per mile has its own unique rhythm…not quite the turnover of race pace at 5:00 per mile, nor the relative jog of 7:00 per mile when the body is trained to do 80-90 miles per week.
No, 6:00 per mile is its own little world, as if the ground is rolling under your feet. All you have to do is paw along, run from the hips, let the body do the work, and things will be okay. Don’t overthink it.
The fatigue finally does catch up around fifteen miles That’s when concentration comes into the picture, and conversation turns to races past, present or future. Motivation seeps into the system as adrenaline wrought by thoughts of racing peaks the system. Sentences get shorter, and there is no talking on the hills, just hard breathing.
Eventually, the thirst borne of distance and heat and long miles truly begins to set in. The water fountain back at the campus beckons. Runners did not think in terms of dehydration in the early days. There was either ‘thirsty’ or ‘not thirsty.’ There was no in between.
Take it easy
At eighteen miles the talking might cease for almost a mile. Then someone would sing a snippet of a familiar tune. “Well I’m running down the road trying to loosen my load, I got seven women on my mind…”
Someone else takes over. “Four that wanta own me, two that wanna stone me, one says she’s a friend of mine…”
And everyone sings: “Take it eas-eeeah, take it ea-eah-eah zee…don’t let the sound of your own wheels, drive you crazy.”
Then there’s just a mile to go. Someone lets out a whoop. The college is in sight through a slot in the trees. It’s all downhill coming back into town. And despite legs that are sore from the race the day before along with nineteen miles covered on a Sunday morning, the pace picks up. Then a runner toward the back of the group surges past with half a mile to go. The entire group drops onto the bright green grass of the intramural field and there are no rules about how to finish. Some take off in a sprint and everyone follows because they don’t want to be left behind. Just ahead, a flock of crows rises from the field, calling as they go.
“Wow fun wow boys,” someone calls out, repeating ae favorite phrase of our coach. “You can’t beat fun.”
“Yeah,” comes the smart retort. “It’s like a sore dick.”
“Yes it is,” comes the laughing response. “Yes it is.”
Back at the fieldhouse the water fountains greet the group of thirsty runners. Faces flushed with sweat and hide darting eyes. “Well boys, we made it. 20 miles.”
“With nothing but warm lemonade at the ten-mile mark,” someone laughs. “Is coach trying to kill us?” “Maybe. But we made it.”
“Yes indeed. We made it.”
A 20-miler in 80-degree heat and no water. Insane? Or just another day’s work…
How times have changed.