Yesterday was a wonderfully dank November day here in Illinois. I needed to pick up a prescription at the Meijer store in Geneva and drove up to the corner of Route 38 and Randall Road. Our dog Lucy came along for the ride because she gets bored around the house. Outside the store, I looked west and thought it would be fun to take a trip out through Elburn on my way back home.
What I actually had in mind was a walk through Elburn Forest Preserve. That woods was a natural refuge for my brothers after we moved from Pennsylvania out to Illinois in 1970. We’d walk the railroad tracks out to the forest preserve to go birding. The preserve back then was mowed all the way into the woods. It served as the site for the Kaneland High School cross country course.
As a freshman at Kaneland I ran on both the sophomore and varsity teams. The course started on a long stretch of grass and turned toward the woods at 400 meters. Up the gravel road we’d go as the incline increased. The last fifty yards were the steepest. The wise runner ran steady below and saved some gas for that last climb.
Then the course took a winding route through the woods. I well recall running that gravelly trail in my Puma kangaroo leather spikes with velcro tabs. Only once during those two years at Kaneland did I lead the entire pack in a race at Elburn Woods. It was a dual meet in which our top runner Bill Creamean had to withdraw with back problems. I took the lead at the mile marker and never looked back. There is no joy like that in the world.
A few years later, following graduation from college, I was invited back to run with the Kaneland squad in its preseason meet. By then I was much faster and stronger than most high school kids. I soared up the hill and found myself all alone for the rest of the race. But it was a nostalgic journey nevertheless. I so treasure those early cross country experiences for their influence on my life. Our coaches Rich Born and assistant coach Larry Eddington believed in us. It was always a thrilling experience to race through those woods as part of a team that was motivated to do our best.
The years have long passed since those days in high school cross country. I’ve returned many times to that preserve with binoculars and camera in hand for nature walks. It’s a strange sensation to realize that many of the trees I passed at full pace during races all those years ago are still standing in silent testimony to the years. Yet many have fallen as well. Now their trunks lay rotting on the forest floor where fungi grab hold and help turn them to soil. The fungi sport the pattern and color of nature’s uniforms. Human beings are no different. We decorate ourselves with colors and insignia to mark our tribal affiliations.
Over the last 45 years I’ve watched the lower woods at Elburn FP fill in with shrubs and trees where grass was once mowed and a white line once led runners through the trees. The grassy area where races once started and finished is now grown over with marsh plants in a soggy wetland. Going up the hill, a series of drainage ruts in the gravel road has grown so deep it would be a danger to legs and ankles if runners came through. It appears the racing days at Elburn Forest Preserve are well past. The forest preserve district has returned much of the property back to its natural state. And that’s fine with me.
There is no real loss in any of that. The shouts and cries of encouragement at cross country meets are both and ephemeral and eternal thing. The parents who once urged us on are also gone. Yet the clouds of mosquitoes that bit us on warm fall days and the falling leaves that riddled the course continue their rhythms unabated. Nature absorbs our energies and our memories.
Every cross country race is like that, a mix of brightly colored human endeavor amid autumn’s natural succession. All we can do is smile at those recollections and bear witness to the importance of these rituals to each new generation.