Having lived in the Fox Valley region of Illinois for many years, I vividly recall fast-moving freight trains from the Great Western line crossing the bridge over the Fox River through downtown St. Charles. Those trains would sometimes veer off to deliver goods to the lumberyards and factories on the west side. More often they rolled on going back and forth from Chicago. Many times those trains were piled high with coal.
The Great Western railroad company ceased operation in the early 1980s. At that time, a progressive (yet Republican) politician named Philip Elfstrom was busy converting railroad beds to public trails. Hence the Great Western Trail was born.
The crushed gravel trail starts at the Leroy Oakes forest preserve on the west side of St. Charles. The trailhead adjoins with the Horlock Hill Prairie where in 1973 I worked with other high school students to start a restoration project that now covers several acres rich with prairie plants including cream and blue wild indigo, butterfly weed, cardinal flower, big bluestem, prairie dock, compass plant and many more species of native plants.
Next to the trail sits a boulder bearing a plaque honoring Bob Horlock, the biology teacher who started the restoration project next to a native prairie remnant. I always say “Hi Bob” when I run past the boulder during workouts. We were birding buddies as well, and I’d seen him at a local forest preserve the morning that he passed away in 1993. He died while conducting a prairie burn at Garfield Farm a few miles west of town.
So my roots run deep with the Great Western Trail, but the nice thing about the trail is that it varies by season and passes through a variety of habitats during the year. In winter it feels spare and barren by contrast with summer’s thick greenery and the tunnel of trees overarching the former railroad bed. But even in winter, the long line of trees on both sides of the former railroad bed offer shelter from the wind. Along the way a few worn-out telephone poles sit forlornly in the scrub woods, ashen reminders of the days when roaring trains passed through they parts.
Thousands of runners and cyclists now use the trail each year. Local running clubs host races and organize training runs in preparation for races like the Chicago Marathon. On a typical Saturday morning all spring, summer and fall, there will be large orange containers perched on chairs by the side of the trail to serve up hydration for athletes doing workouts of ten or twenty miles.
The trail offers miles of mostly uninterrupted running, crossing only a few roads at the surface level. All others are traversed on arched bridges. So the ability to just dial in an run is one of the reasons why runners and bikers like the GWT. The trail is firm but cushiony in its crushed gravel way. My wife and I ran our time-trial half marathon on the Great Western this past Saturday.
We started the day by doing a warmup half-mile to clear our digestive systems and get that last-minute stuff out of the way. Then we punched the buttons on our watches and headed down the slight hill leading away from the trailhead. While warming up, I noticed that I’d forgotten to charge my Garmin Fenix the night before. It was down to 4% battery and indeed, it conked out at three miles. To cover our effort, I took the case off my iPhone to reduce bulk, started the Strava app and stuck the phone in my hip pocket so that I could check pace now and then.
We clicked off the early miles with Sue calling out the pace per mile, averaging 9:15. That was spot on. The only problem we faced along the way was the frosty condition of the wooden bridges crossing roads and streams. The footing was treacherous. We had to slow down to a shuffle and sometimes even walk gingerly on the incline of the arched bridges. That cost us between five and twenty seconds each time.
We got back into our rhythm and cruised west to the four-mile point where the trail crosses Brown Road. Then asphalt surface takes over for the next three miles. The new footing felt good and we dropped the pace a bit.
What stunned us was the sensation we noticed upon turning around at the seven mile point. Suddenly it felt like we were flying. “This feels like it’s downhill,” Sue turned to me and said. “I agree,” I told her. “Kind of surprising.”
Indeed, when we finished the run and checked the data on our respective apps, the route showed that we’d run from a low point of about 720 feet at the start up to a high point of 880 feet. That 160 foot rise in elevation was not readily discernable on the way out. You just don’t realize you’re climbing.
On the way back, we caught up and passed a group of runners we knew. They were chatting as we swung by them but I blurted, as cheerily as I could, “We’re doing a time trial. Can’t stop to talk.”
Sue was moving well. Our breathing and strides are often in sync. We both have a 34″ inseam, but my torso is much taller. I’m 6’1.5″ and she’s 5’9.5″ These days, she’s shortened her stride and runs with a revised cadence that is a little quicker than mine. My concentration during the half-marathon trial was on keeping a midfoot stride going since that tends to let me control how I use my hips. They tighten up less that way.
We crossed the frosted-over bridges on the way back and ran on the side where the frost was thinner. Still, Sue is more cautious than I. Admittedly, I snarked at her a bit coming off one of the last of the arched spans. I was worried about losing time and wanted her to succeed, you see…”I didn’t want to fall,” she explained.
It turned out that my Strava was not in sync with her Garmin in terms of distance or pace. But for her records we trusted her data, not mine. To suit my curiosity, I still pulled out my phone toward the end of the run and watched the last mile tick down as the time ticked up. According to my Strava, we ran 1:59:17 for the 13.1 mile distance on the out and back course. As far as I’m concerned, Sue broke the two-hour barrier she hoped to achieve.
Her Garmin watch told a slightly different story. We wound up running a little farther and finished at 2:01 for the half-marathon distance. Take out the slow parts over the frosty bridges and she hit her goal. Overall, she was quite pleased with the effort. It was hard for her those last three miles. I had to be kind of a pushy partner to keep her on pace, but we made it work, even when we had to finish slightly uphill in the last 200 meters.
After finishing the 13.1, we walked back up the hill t the trailhead holding hands. We exchanged kisses in celebration (and relief, she admitted) for the fun run in the chilly air. In a year in which so few races took place, we made up for it with her best half-marathon time in ten years.
Someone noticed our run on Facebook asked which race we ran. I replied, “It was the Christopher Cudworth Invitational. A very exclusive race. You have to sleep with the race director to get in.”
Our little event was a great way to head in the New Year. Sue will be representing Team Zoot in 2021. Her Christmas present is her first offical Zoot kit for the coming year. We’re hoping for more opportunities to compete and have a calendar of races mapped out. Nothing beats pushing yourself with a goal, and we’re looking forward to that.
The takeaway yesterday was that even when you think you know a running trail really well, it can offer up surprise after many years. I never knew that the trail going west rose nearly 200 feet over seven miles. Now I do, and it makes me wonder what other secrets lie ahead.