From the moment I first walked in the door of a cross country locker room and joined the company of largely skinny misfits that would become my teammates, I was hooked. My coach that first year was an organized fellow with a crystal clear voice and a will to help us get better at this thing we called running.
During that first season––as it was to follow the next eight years of my life–– early season training was done in mid-August. We’d show up at school a week or two early to run laps around the campus in the early morning sun. We’d all be sweating like crazy, exhausted in some moments and exhilarated in others. Trying to improve our times. All with the clack and slap and crunch of football practice taking place within earshot. We never envied those guys.
During those early years we’d train on the high school campus or travel to a forest preserve to run mile repeats in the early morning air while the sun rose and burned off the dew. Then the grasshoppers would start to hiss. Cicadas would call from the trees. Occasionally we’d run long enough in the evening to hear the katydids ticking like syncopated stopwatches in the tree canopy over suburban streets.
Those precious weeks of August were supposed to push us over the edge from lazy and slow summer days to the cool and urgent rush of fall afternoons. But some of us relented, not wanting summer to end. I well recall the day my best friend and I ran eight miles out to visit the house of his cousin in the country. I’d dated her a couple times at my former high school and loved her thick mane of long blonde hair and athletic build. That day we arrived to find that she had female company as well, a friend whose figure that summer had come into full bloom. We were set for the afternoon.
We drank lemonade and watched each other perspire while playing innocent card games under the August sun. When the sun got too hot, we’d slide into the pool and come back out with our suits clinging to tan young bodies. We were eighteen years old, full of life and naive to the future other than the playing cards we held.
That afternoon’s training session was the mellowest workout either of us had ever experienced. We were so relaxed from our day by the pool with the girls that the 800 repeats we ran fell off us like summer sweat. I recall walking into the locker room to look over at his blue eyes gleaming with joy. “That was great!” he told me. I didn’t know whether he meant the day at the pool or the workout we’d just done. It didn’t matter. It all fit together perfectly.
Our college cross country team would trek to points west for August training. ONe year we camped at Yellowstone, then drove down to Jackson Hole and the Grand Tetons. We ran eighteen miles round-trip from Jenny Lake up to Lake Solitude and back. The entire run was horse trails and rocks and we didn’t carry a drop of water with us. We did know better than to drink from the streams. That run was a j test of both legs and spirit. We all made it back alive, but barely. One of the freshman got pinned on the trail behind a massive bull moose. We were young and stupid, to say the least.
By late August the nighthawks would come charging through the Midwestern skies in massive flocks, winging their way south to another continent while covering far more miles than we mere humans could ever hope to achieve. Then would come the first cool nights of September. Our August running was behind us now. Time to turn those miles into performances. You can’t have one without the other. August will always mean cross country to me.