A friend and former cross country coach named Jeff Leavey noted on Facebook that the Kane County Forest Preserve district board voted to boot all cross country programs out of the parks starting in 2021.
The board may have an ulterior motive in taking this action. The county approved construction of a $2.9M permanent and specific cross country course on top of the Settler’s Hill landfill in Geneva. It makes economic sense for the county to push cross country teams to use and rent those facilities. They want a return on investment.
The problem with that potential logic is that cross country programs and the schools that host them aren’t all concentrated in south-central Kane County. Hosting meets is a logistical challenge that requires volunteers as well as paid staff to conduct a safe event. Traveling 20-30 miles to host a “home meet” isn’t really practical on a regular basis.
That’s why county forest preserves have long served as welcome sites for cross country meets because they fit several key criteria for high schools:
- They are local or in proximity to the host schools
- They offer significant open areas or trails where courses can be mapped out
- They are scenic
For these reasons, the two cross country programs for which I competed in high school hosted most of their meets at county forest preserves. Kaneland high school hosted many meets, including county and district championships, at Elburn Forest Preserve.
In the early 1970s, the park consisted of a long stretch of mowed grass on the west side of the preserve. That’s where a large part of the course was sited because much of the ground beneath the large oaks east of the main road was mowed. A wetland at the far south tip of the preserve was consistently drained through a tunnel that emptied south of the railroad tracks.
I loved racing at that preserve because it was a tough course and felt like real cross country with its mix of grassy flats, gravel road, steep hills and twisty, turny white lines through the trees. The course climbed a hill for 400-meters at the start. That quick challenge ensured that the race was an honest effort. Many cross country runners tested their fitness, and their souls, on that hill. It rose to a 7% grade near the top. Then the road wended its way through mature woods and emerged at the front of the preserve where mile times would be called out.
That’s where I learned the cross country trade. The sensation of running through those woods in early September meets with heat and mosquitoes was epic. Once autumn arrived, the crunch of leaves underfoot as dozens of runners tore through the woods was classic cross country.
Elburn Forest Preserve has not been used for cross country meets for some time now. Land and wetland management policies embraced by the country to naturalize forest preserves changed all that. The wetland section of the preserve was allowed to go wild. No more mowing was applied to those acres. Poplar trees sprung up. Tussocks of wild grasses and cattails moved in. The county also stopped mowing underneath the woods east of the main road. A healthy undergrowth developed.
These changes actually aligned with my other keen interests in this world: nature and wildlife. While I ran cross country in Elburn Forest Preserve during the fall, I also went birding there in all seasons of the year. I watched great horned owls nest in the cold months of January and February. Welcomed spring warblers during migration in April and May. In summer there were kingbirds and swallows and then-rare Eastern bluebirds to be found. The songs of wood thrush and pewee flycatchers calling on hot summer days cemented my love for the place.
As the preserve naturalized, cross country meets were no longer practical. Still, during a bird walk last spring, I saw three Kaneland runners training on the gravel road high up on the hill. Their team had won the state championship the year before. It gave me a little pride to know that I’d contributed to that program’s success in its earliest days. Now their meets are held on campus as they were before the move to Elburn Forest Preserve. The only thing left of that era are the memories of what it was like to compete on that tough course. That is a collective memory held by thousands of runners over 30+ years of competition there.
Another program, another preserve
During my sophomore year at Kaneland, our family moved ten miles east to St. Charles. The home course at St. Charles was a series of loops around the high school campus. It was a confusing course in many respects, but it was great for fans because the runners passed by the finish line several times. We had some classic battles on that course, but our coach and one of the runners on our team made plans to set up a new course at Leroy Oakes Forest Preserve on the west side of town.
A runner named Kevin Webster designed that first course. It included a loop on the “fire trail” through dense woods on the east side of the preserve. Then it coursed along the mowed flats where traces of oxbows next to Ferson Creek belied the former placement of that stream. Then came a dreaded section up a gravelly dirt path climbing the glacial hill laid down millennia ago. I used that hill to dump many rivals over the years.
Leroy Oakes remained the home course for St. Charles cross country for many years. The course evolved from our original layout to starting on a wide mowed grass section near the “red barn.” That was the site of dozens of meets, including the prestigious St. Charles Invitational, later named the Jeff Leavey Invite in honor of its longtime coach and director of the St. Charles East program.
As a fan returning to watch high school cross country meets at Leroy Oakes, I saw many quality runners compete in invitationals there. While studying eventual American steeplechase record-holder Evan Jagr run on that course for Algonquin Jacobs High School, I took note of his fluid stride and turned to someone at the meet and said, “See that guy? He’s going to be world-class someday.” Jagr proved me right.
But now the county has decided to end the long tradition of cross country meets held at forest preserves. That decision aligns with golf courses that used to host meets as well. In the end, it’s all about end-use, public interest and land management policies. Leroy Oakes has undergone significant habitat improvement programs over the years. Generally, that involves a lot less mowing and a whole lot more growing of native plants, especially prairie and wetlands. Earlier this week, I ran through the Leroy Oakes prairie where the cross country country course once ran and observed dozens of rattlesnake master plants and thick sections of sunflowers and bergamot growing where raggedy weeds once stood.
I’ve also birded at Leroy Oakes for decades, and was part of the original high school prairie restoration group that planted the first big bluestem and wild indigo plugs where a healthy prairie at the Great Western Trailhead now begins. Just as my relationship with Elburn Forest Preserve was dualistic, such is also the case with Leroy Oakes Forest Preserve.
I loved running in both those preserves, and still sometimes take a running loop around sections of the old course. But much of the landscape has changed, and for good reasons. I’m sure there are conflicting budgetary priorities that contributed to the decision to ban cross country meets at county forest preserves, but I think they’re missing something important in that decision.
Those meets brought thousands of people to those preserves over the years. Those course largely made use of existing paths and trails with the exception of the large mowed areas where cross country invitational runners lined up for the start. The sight of those kids running with the backdrop of trees and fields is irrepressibly classic. I wonder if sometime in the future that legacy will be restored. The parents and fans who come out in all kinds of weather to watch kids compete and endure the climbs and turns, the finishing sprints, seems worth a bit of respect, don’t you think?
I think the two purposes are compatible, and believe there will be plenty of business for the new cross country course built on top of the landfill. Give it a few years, perhaps. But in the meantime, some will be deprived of that wonderful feeling of showing up at a quiet preserve and feeling the meet tension grow as fans gather and the warmups conclude. Suddenly, it always seemed, it was time to step to the line with other runners and wait for the sound of the starting gun. Then it was off to the races in a most literal way.
There’s something quite natural about all of that. At least there is to me.