This morning on the way to drop off our dog at daycare, I drove past the building that was the only high school in town back when I was a student in St. Charles, Illinois. By the time I was a senior I’d figured out that becoming a full-time runner was the best course of action after years of being a three sport athlete. I could barely keep my grades up in subjects I hated anyway (Algebra and Economics come to mind) so the time away from playing basketball as a winter sport was critical to my eventual graduation.
Yet being a full-time runner still meant participation in indoor track. That started up in January. Lacking a facility in which to train, our scraggly group of distance runners ran workouts in the halls of the school. There we’d go, sprinting past rows of lockers and squeezing through double doors that could swing shut behind you if given a nudge.
The practice of running in the hallways was both difficult and dangerous. We’d run the entire length of the high school down the dusty hallways, clamor down two sets of stairs, tear back to the front of the school in a downstairs hallway and clamber back up two flights of stairs to finish. There we’d stand, heaving and cursing under our breath until the coach said, “Okay, next interval.”
The entire distance was probably 600 yards. That meant doing mile intervals required multiple laps. Our worn-soled shoes would be coated with dust from the day’s activities with hundreds of students shuffling around the hallways. Often by the time our track practice started, the janitors had their mops or dust brooms out and were walking the hallways with the detritus of paper, pens and soda bottle tabs gathering under the bristles as we came churning past.
It was insanity.
But the conditions out at the high school I attended during my freshman and sophomore year were not much better. That school was perched on an open plain amongst thousands of acres of cornfields. The winds blew unimpeded in that landscape. In January and February the entire scene was cold, flat, dank and featureless. Years later in college, I’d study existentialism and learn about the irreversibility of time. I immediately recognized that concept from those intervals run in the cornfields around Kaneland High School.
We’d gather on the east end of the school to begin our distance workouts genuinely fearing the moment on every lap when we’d turn the southeast corner and face that freezing blast of odorless air blowing all the way from the arctic. The length of one lap was about 600 yards, a distance that all middle and long-distance runners grow to hate because it’s longer than a 440, which is enough suffering for anyone, yet shorter than an 880, the distance runner’s excuse to slow down just a little.
So we’d torture ourselves trying to go faster than we knew how on that gritty parking lot surface circling the high school. None of us was any sort of fit in any substantial way those first couple weeks. I’d turn out for track practice the week following the end of basketball season. Despite playing hours on the court for practice, that brand of fitness was not much use in the open air.
Those first few days of intervals the lungs would burn and thigh muscles cringed with lactic acid. The kids that had turned out for track two weeks earlier because they weren’t wrestlers or basketball players recognized the suffering on our faces and saw the opportunity to put the hurt on us even worse.
Track and field is the most merciless sport on earth when it comes to incremental advantages. Perhaps boxing is worse, as the graze of a powerful punch can still tear your face apart. And yes, swimming is a unique brand of liquid torture. Cycling is just plain stupid with the pain that builds up before you crack. But getting the crap kicked out of you in the open air on a cold February day is one of the most humbling experiences a human being can endure.
Within a week or two the differences between the headstarters and us latecomers would narrow and the lungs would start to come around. Two weeks later it was time to exact revenge for the hurt the early leaders put on those of us coming out for track after winter sports. From there, it was all about pride and persistence. Pedal to the mettle.
Sometime in late March, the snows would recede and the cinder track would dry out. Then it was time for Old School Suffering in the confined world of the 440 yard oval. Coaches would bark out split times for all the different squads of runners. The true sprinters did their tight little workouts on the far end of the track. The 440 and 880 guys ran so many 300s and at such a fast pace they puked. The rest of us distance guys ran 440s and 880s until the snot flew out our noses.
It wasn’t pretty. Not a lick of it. But come April there would be hardened bodies and minds circling that track. If the rains held off and the track was prepared properly, the joy of running on a flat cinder surface was quite satisfying. We plugged those long spikes into our shoes and tried not to get clawed by our competitors.
Then it was all about trying to concentrate, strategize, improve and commit. There’s really nothing else like it in the world. Running is the lone sport for the ages.
In that respect all suffering is Old School Suffering. The kids circling all-weather tracks and running indoors on 200 meter tracks have it much better when it comes to training and racing conditions. But it still hurts in the same old way. God does it hurt.
Old School is New School. Never forget it.