As a member of the Facebook group Glenn’s, I’m privy to a load of statistics and recollections from runners who excelled in the sports of cross country and track during the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Those years produced times and runners that took decades to surpass.
Occasionally, a statistic or race result will pop up that I’d never seen. Such is the case with the results of the 1974 Sectional cross country race. I finished 25th in the race, well out of a chance to advance downstate. It was a tough Sectional, for sure, dominated by the likes of York High School, perennial winners of the Illinois State Cross Country Championships.
I’ll admit to being a bit intimidated by running in that sectional. I’d advanced through Districts as the fourth runner across the line, followed closely by a close rival named John Rath from what was then Burlington Central HS. We’d run together in summer track and he trained with our team in pre-season practices. That made him one of those “keep your enemies close” kind of runners. I beat him at Districts. He beat me at Sectionals and if my math is correct, he got to go downstate. And I didn’t.
Not making State was a disappointment for sure. It hurt a bit more because several runners to whom I’d barely lost in dual meets did qualify. Yet honestly, while I suffered a bit of a sideache at Sectionals, I finished less than a minute behind the winner. All my conference rivals were wedged in between my struggling 25th place finish at 15:51 and the winner from York in 14:58.
While I won ten dual, triangular or invitational races during our 18-meet cross country season, against conference rivals there were close battles and some unfortunate moments. Against Rick Hodapp, who finished sixth at sectionals, I built a lead of 100 meters and with a half mile to go, turned to make a second loop around the west side of the track only to realize that we were supposed to go straight the second time around. I lost that lead and the race.
Against Ken Englert, who finished seventh at sectionals, we traded leads and broke the Elgin course record by a large amount only to crash into the chute at the finish, where Ken was granted the win. He was one of the toughest competitors I ever met.
Tom Logue from Marmion, in 11th, was a far better two-miler than I. Paul Vestuto from Wheaton Central, in 15th, beat me in a home dual meet by waiting me out after I took an early lead. John Ciontea from Elgin Larkin was 22nd at Sectionals but whomped me in a dual meet after having their course tour leader zoom us around the course. Our team was all exhausted before the race began. I was panicked, and ran that way.
There was one other impactful factor that senior year in high school. My mother had gotten gravely ill with internal complications wrought from delivering four large boys during her pregnancy years. My brother and I visited her in the hospital and it scared the hell out of me. I came home that day, cried my eyes out, and went on with life. No one ever talked to me about those feelings. Those fears. We were expected to just suck it up and make the best of it in that era. Not the best strategy for young minds.
I was strategically naive in many ways during all those races. Too many times I went out hard without regard to actual race strategy. In some ways, that was brave. In many cases, that was stupid. Savvy and superior competitors know how to run you down.
Then there’s the question of native ability. If you drew lines every fifteen seconds or so between the first runner at 14:58 and the 30th at 15:59 it is likely, adjusting for talented younger runners who move up with age, that you’d likely find the demarcations for Division I, II and III athletes. I was the latter, and the runners up the ladder from me ran at higher divisions. That’s the stratigraphy of running talent.
That’s the reason I think it’s valuable to go back and look at those results, especially after not knowing them for four decades. There is so much they can reveal about your self-image. A lackluster performance at an early age can travel around with you for years, even a lifetime. I told myself many years ago that the Sectional race was a failure, and in some sense it was. But looking at these results, I realize that even with a side stitch that day, what I actually did was run to my relative talent level.
Some of the athletes I’d face again in college and beyond, on the roads. They all improved with age, as did I. Sometimes I’d beat them. Other times they’d beat me. That’s all any of us can do. Compete in the moment.
The irreversibility of time––to quote an existential principle––does not allow us to go back and improve upon things that we’d like to correct.
The one thing we can do is gain an understanding of the true circumstances of life rather than perennially living with some negative outlook or a nagging sense of grief over lost opportunities. As a runner I earned opportunities to lead teams and thrive in competitive circumstances. That’s valuable experience.
The difference between a positive self-perspective and a life of self-doubt can come down to something as simple as forty seconds. That’s the relative breadth between running in the State meet and what I ran that day in 1974. Forty ticks of the second hand.
Now it’s forty years in the past. It’s fun to look at the results and realize that running 25th in one of the toughest Sectionals in the State was perhaps disappointing, but not the end of things. That’s a lesson worth carrying forward at any age. As we all know, the challenges keep coming whether we plan it or not. There’s no revisionist history necessary if you approach the past honestly and with an eye from what you learned. It’s best to believe you can endure even if things don’t always go your way.
Those are the results that really count.