The weather was chilly this morning while walking the dog. The wind from the west reminded me of all those laps run around the perimeter of the Kaneland High School parking lot before the cinder track dried out in spring. Our workouts consisted of hard 600-meter repeats around the school under a ceiling of low, scudding clouds or bright, unforgivingly cold skies.
It certainly made you tough.
It taught you the art of concentration in all circumstances.
When the track finally did dry out enough for workouts, we’d get in a few days before an April snowstorm arrived. The track would try to soak up the melting snow, but we learned to avoid the puddles each lap. They became part of our short-term memory, a hazard to be avoided sub-consciously.
By mid-April, if we were lucky, there was a grand occasion to be held. Coaches would line the black cinder track with fresh white lines made of lime. We’d come out from school that day to find a work of art mapped out on the oval. Those lines were the tracing of our pain, of course. Somehow they were still welcome.
That white lime used to line the track was an ephemeral substance. For the first day it shone in all circumstances; cloudy, sunny, even through the rain. Then it would smear, dissipate, dissolve into the layer of cinders and hard-packed clay beneath.
The process took place many times during the season. Think about that. Some coach or custodian or helper walked the 400-yard perimeter laying down lane lines eight different times. Then came all the exchange points. The process was like the reciting of an ancient language or a holy writ. All so that young men and women could line up and train or compete.
I’m not wistful of sentimental for those days. Our generation of track athletes was the first to enjoy all-weather tracks. We craved those opportunities to race on Tartan or other rubber surfaces. Some were hard and unforgiving. Others got soft in the sun. I recall a set of Nike tracks on the first turn of the new St. Charles East all-weather track because some idiot insisted on running there before the surface was fully solidified. His stupidity was immortalized in ten quick footprints that lasted as long as the track was there.
By contrast, the footprints we left in cinders evaporated quickly, covered up by the next round of athletes circling the track. In some ways that transient nature was the more honest reality. Fitness is like that. It only lasts as long as the most recent stride you’ve taken.
Even our college track was “cinder” of a sort. More accurately, it was crushed brick or some other stone. That made for a salmon-colored oval. The texture was gravelly and the surface beneath turned a shiny mush when it rained. Too many nights we circled that track at the far edge of the inside lane because the water along the rail was deep.
The noise, too. The sound of athletes tearing by on cinders still resounds. I never envied the true hurdlers, those guys and gals running highs or lows on cinders paid an awful price if they caught a knee and went down. Some of them still have cinders under their skin fifty years later.
I was a steeplechaser, so I got my share of hurdling in as well. Seven water jumps and 35 barriers per 3000 meters. I also ran a 59.2 400 IM hurdle race on cinders. Perhaps that would have been a second or two faster on a clean all-weather track? Who knows?
Those long spikes we stuck in our shoes acted like claws in the cinders and clay. We clawed and pressed our way lap after lap. Those white lime lines were the perimeter of our dreams. That black or salmon surface the realm of hopes. Sometimes we exceeded them. Many times we did not.
We kept on trying. Seasons on and off. Rain and wind. Dirt and grit. Cinders and lime.
It was a fine affair all around.