After freshman year in high school cross country, I was set to begin training the summer before sophomore year when a big fat catcher from another baseball team dove on top of me when the third base coach sent me toward the plate in an attempt to steal home.
I actually scored the run, but it came with a cost. That giant lardass catcher came down on me with a thump that fractured my elbow. I still remember his sweaty face inside that mask as he laid on top of me grunting to get back up. “Safe!” the umpire yelled. “Get off of me!” I grunted.
I went back to the bench clutching my left arm. When the inning was over, I walked back out to the mound to pitch. I’d carried my glove in the right hand and when our catcher tossed a baseball to I had to shove the glove on my left hand quick. It hurt to move the arm. Then I tried to raise my arms overhead in a windup and nearly fell over backwards from the shot of pain going from elbow to brain.
That busted elbow meant wearing a cast for the rest of the summer months. I wrote my Kaneland cross country coach Richard Born and told him that I wouldn’t be able to put in many miles. He wrote an encouraging note back that said something like, “Hang in there. We’ll see you in the fall.”
I do recall going out for a summer run that year before the baseball injury occurred. I trotted out of town in Elburn and turned on Keslinger Road to reach a gravel strip called Francis Road. About a mile into that lane I was surrounded by a large pack of loudly barking farm dogs. Not knowing what else to do, I walked along swinging my arms and yelling at the damn dogs. There were no leash laws back in those days.
About a half mile up the road they finally began to let me go on my way. That was one of my lone runs that summer. But every morning I’d get up at 5:30 a.m. to deliver newspapers on a three-mile route. I’d ride a Huffy three-speed bike as fast as I could go while carrying that big newspaper bag filled with the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and the Daily News. That “training” kept me in a semblance of shape along with walking around town with friends all the time.
I suppose I could have run some more that summer. I did play tennis with my mother on occasion down at the community college courts. The cast on my arm only wrapped around half of the forearm. Back in those days, the cast interior was some sort of soft meshy stuff that got pretty stinky as the weeks wore on. I was super glad to take that thing off. By then it was August again and time to start up cross country season.
Summer running was tough in those days because there were no teammates in the town where I lived. Our school district had the largest geographical territory in the entire state of Illinois. I didn’t drive yet and none of us could really get together. So it was either train alone or don’t run at all. So in some respects, that broken arm provided a good excuse to not go out in the heat of summer. Finding excuses is something I’ve often been good at. It would be a few more years before I took summer running seriously, well into college.
Results, just the same
Despite my lack of summer running those first years in high school, I wound up tied for the most varsity points scored my sophomore year. Our top runner had some back problems, limiting him some races, but we ran so many meets back in those days it was competing in roller derby. There as always another chance to run again. Illinois cross country was structured that way. By the time the end of the season rolled around, many of us were gassed from running so many races. But what the hell. It was fun.
My lack of summer running was an inauspicious way to begin a long running career. Yet several of my teammates managed to run 500 miles that summer. A couple even ran 1000 miles. I’m going to admit here and now that I had nowhere near the discipline to make that happen. Yet somehow every year I managed to lead the team. It was a combination of raw determination and a harshly competitive spirit. Perhaps a bit of natural talent was involved. But mostly I did not like to lose.
Perhaps there was some missed potential along the way as well. By the time senior year rolled around, I was running for a different school that landed in the most competitive sectional in the state with schools like York and other powerhouses. I missed going downstate by a couple places. It was disappointing of coruse. But that’s life.
I’ve wondered at times if more summer running might have gotten me there. But I sincerely doubt it. I was running sub-15:00 three mile races and still losing to guys that were just as good as me, and often better. There were simply a lot of good runners, and quite a few great ones. I fell somewhere in between I suppose.
Yet when I see kids running together in groups a part of me always says, “That’s good. Keep it up.” Because you don’t want to leave any potential on the table. You only get one shot at these things in life. Might as well make the most of it.