Those formative years of distance running remain special to me because everything was still so new. The sensations wrought from running farther than I ever imagined possible were both stimulating and daunting.
Coming off a freshman year cross country season in which I’d run varsity most of the meets and helped lead the team to a first-ever frosh-soph conference victory was quite motivating. That spring in track I’d set the freshman school record in the mile at 4:57, but had to beg for the opportunity to go “up in distance” from the half to the mile. Despite having competed over three miles in cross country the previous fall, I never ran a two-mile on the track. That was for the “distance guys.”
How times and perceptions have changed over the years. The notion of training over the summer months was just coming into fashion. I was also a baseball player and early in the season, when urged by a third base coach to take a chance and steal home, I slid into the plate where a big catcher from the farming community of Huntley fell on me in a crushing heap. That ended the inning and it was time to go back out and pitch.
As I raised my glove arm to start the pitching motion a sharp pain shot from my elbow to the shoulder. It hurt so badly I almost fainted on the mound. The coaches came out to see what was wrong but it was clear that something had gotten broken in the home plate play.
It turned out to be a bone chip in my elbow. That meant a half-cast on the arm and no more baseball. It also severely limited any ability to put in training miles.
I think I wrote or called the cross country coach Rich Born that summer to let him know about the accident. He was encouraging. “Heal up and we’ll see you in the fall,” he told me. I stored the running log sheets we’d all been given to record or daily mileage. Mine were sparse and sporadic. Secretly I might have been a little relieved. Running miles in those thin gum-rubber track flats was no fun. And in the sun? Forget it.
That all happened late in the month of June. I ceased going to baseball games that summer and perhaps I was a bad teammate. But I saw no purpose in torturing myself sitting on the bench while others played.
As an active kid, I still tried to do something to keep from going crazy. I learned it was possible to toss a tennis ball up in the air with my ‘bad arm’ and that meant I could play the game. So we’d head down to a local community college where a massive spread of courts was available. That was my training all summer. Playing half-assed tennis in the heat of the day.
I also had a morning paper route that involved cycling about three or four miles around town. Then at night, I’d join my friends Eeker and Roy (nicknames) to ride our bikes all over Elburn, Illinois. I still recall the sensation of swinging around those curved streets of on a Huffy three-speed, clicking gears as we went. We all lived for the quiet smack of tires on tar and cool air rushing through our long hair. It made us feel alive.
All Things Must Pass
Thus the summer months whiled away. I’d spend time trying to get attention from the girls who lived around town. That summer I turned fifteen years old and somehow that turn of years made me feel much older. Fifteen.
Without sports to keep me busy I spent more than a few afternoons lying on the living room floor with my head wedged between two giant stereo speakers. George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass was one of 10-15 albums I’d play from beginning to end. There was Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection, Traffic’s John Barleycorn Must Die and David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush was my alternative rock and The Beatles were never far from my playlist either.
But I also liked an album my brothers gave me called Midnight On the Water. It was a blues-folk album so different from the music of my friends it made me feel weird. And I was a little weird. I liked birdwatching, art and poetry. Those weren’t big topics of discussion among my friends out there in cornland.
So I was still something of a tortured soul that summer. Blame the hormones and the general angst of girl-hungry fever. Blame the competitive small-town culture and angst over social friends and foes. Blame something, anything. That’s what teenagers do. I was angry at the world and wanted to take it out on something.
Cross country season
Then August arrived, and the cast came off after six weeks. It stunk. We threw it into a trash bin and that was that. My already scrawny left arm looked wasted and frail when it finally emerged from the cast. The arm had a weird tan stripe on the top where the sun could reach it. I’d taken multiple showers holding that arm aloft to keep the cast from soaking. Now I was free. Fortunately, I still had my right arm all summer to jerk off. I was fifteen, after all.
Somewhere in the middle of the month of August, cross country practice began again. As always, it was hot and those first few runs around the high school campus were a struggle to get enough oxygen in the humidity. Yet all that bike riding and tennis had kept my legs in some kind of shape.
Within two weeks it felt like I’d never missed a beat. I had no real summer training to count on, yet that fall I tied for most team points with our best runner Bill Creamean. He’d logged a thousand miles in training and that was beyond my imagination. I’ve always admired that dedication. He was an excellent competitor who continued to run even through back pain late in the season. His legs were probably too strong for his midsection. I had a teammate in college built the same way. He had the same problems with lower back pain.
That team won the Varsity conference cross country meet that fall, and I largely served as second man. I even won a meet that our lead runner missed. So the question that has run around through my head over the years is whether doing a bunch of summer miles really would have helped much in those high school years. These days kids run together, but in those days, in a district where the towns were far apart and getting together to run was almost impossible, we either did it on our own or not at all.
I tried my best that first summer and every summer after that. But truth be told, I pretty much showed up in the fall and ran myself into shape with two-a-day workouts. By the time the first meet rolled around in September, things were coming together. Then we ran 18-20 meets with competitions Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday. Every week was a round of intense competition and hard racing.
Usually, by the end of that schedule, we were getting pretty close to past peak. It was probably too much racing.
Or was it? Back then it was what you did. Certainly, we all felt like we had a “real season” by the time cross country was done. And to my way of thinking, we also had a “real summer” in the sense that we didn’t burn ourselves out running too much, too often. Nothing wrong with summer lovin’.
But it took a busted elbow to make it happen in the summer of 1972. Such is life.