This is the first in a series of articles chronicling fifty years of running since I went out for cross country as a freshman in high school.
Some point in the middle of August 1971, my father drove me from our house in Elburn, Illinois to the Kaneland High School campus in the middle of still-green cornfields three miles away. The drive might have been a bit quiet that day. I had expressed interest in going out for high school football late that summer. My father was adamantly against any of his boys playing that sport, or wrestling. He considered football unnecessarily dangerous to the joints and wrestling, simply inelegant.
That meant I didn’t really have a choice about whether to go out for football or not. Not happening. Yet something in my teenage brain, hormones and a desire to impress girls, most likely, convinced me there was still a chance. I’d won the local Punt, Pass, and Kick competition in Elburn and competed at the District level, where I did pretty well. That gave me the idea that I could be a quarterback or some other glory position. I was fast afoot, agile and quick, and reasoned that football was mostly about passing, running and making diving catches. That’s what I’d done all the time while playing with friends.
My father knew the game of football was about something completely different. He’d seen friends of his with torn-up knees and lifelong injuries. That was not a fate he wanted for any of us.
For these reasons, my next eldest brother had run cross country the previous fall as well. In an ugly twist of life’s fate, our family moved from Pennsylvania to Illinois the summer before his senior year. Back east in Lancaster, he’d been a steady goalie in soccer, played basketball in winter and was a pitcher in baseball. The Kaneland sports program offered neither soccer in the fall or baseball in the spring. Accustomed to a three-sport regimen due to family tradition, my brother ran cross country in the fall and track in the spring.
I was so preoccupied that year dealing with 8th-grade social and sports activities that I never attended one of my brother’s meets. He related to me recently that he struggled at first getting used to distance running. By season’s end he was reaching the coveted Top 7, even earning a few points toward his Varsity letter.
None of this occurred to me as my father drove our 1965 Buick Wildcat out Keslinger Road to Kaneland. I was still torn about the whole football thing. We arrived at the school and he walked to the locker room with me. Then placing a firm hand on my neck, he said, “You’re going out for cross country, and if you come back out of that locker room, I’ll break your neck.”
That may seem like an inauspicious way to begin a running career, but it’s the truth. The previous year in 8th grade I’d been one of the top 800-meter runners, running 2:28 with basically no training. So I knew that I could run pretty well. Back in Pennsylvania, I’d run 8.25 laps in a 12:00 gym class time trial, the best in the school. Even before that, the coaches on my baseball team made me do extra pushups to keep me from lapping the rest of the team during the end-of-practice running drill out to the center field light pole and back.
Entering freshmen year at Kaneland, I was a skinny kid of about 125 lbs. at nearly six feet tall. The team issued a set of black and white running flats with gum rubber soles. The coaches gave us a few encouraging remarks and we set off running together in a pack to warm up. After that, the pace picked up, and we all got our first season’s introduction to pain. I loved it.
We covered perhaps six miles that first cross country practice in mid-August, 1971. My lungs hurt a bit and my legs too, but I was never bored. That was the key thing to me. I liked the feeling whenever there was something going on “in the moment” and competition to be had. The side benefit is that any anxieties I felt that day or beyond seemed to vanish in the wind. I was tired when finished, but relaxed in a way that made all of life seem to make sense. Of course, sensations like that only last so long…
When practice ended my legs throbbed in happy exhaustion. I dared to take a sip of the warm, iron-infested water that flowed from the Kaneland faucets. It had a strong sulphur taste and I nearly gagged. After we showered and changed, the line of cars showed up to take everyone home.
Except me. I walked out on the parking lot and remembered then…what my mother had told me as my father and I left the house that morning. “You’ll have to walk home today, Chrissy. Your father will be at work and it’s my first day of teaching in St. Charles.”
I stood there in the mid-morning heat wondering what to do next. The rest of the team had slipped into cars and rode away like spirits into the cornfield void. There was no one even left to ask for a ride home. So I walked slowly out to Keslinger Road as the sun beat down on my head and started walking home. My legs were aching and I felt a mad thirst coming on. The road edge was slanted gravel that made walking on it difficult. That meant I had to walk inside the white line on the road and step off when a car or truck came rushing by. I squinted in the sun and kept trudging on in my worn out Converse basketball shoes.
I don’t recall if we had an afternoon practice that day. Yet by week’s end we were running double workouts. There was a ton to learn about the more intense schedule of high school athletics. Like how to suffer and come back for more.
Often enough, the shorts and jock I’d worn that morning would still be wet from the first workout of the day. A few guys came down with jock itch for that reason. We’d climb in and out of our running shirts and shorts as time demanded, day after day, as fitness improved.
We ran the campus perimeter again and again, or ran on the track and did intervals on cinders marked by ghostly white lines from the track season before. The weather reeled back and forth between late summer heat and the first hints of fall. We ran through dew so thick out gum rubber soles slipped and slid. Yet we kept on. Stride after stride.
Then I came home one day and told my father. “I like cross country. I think I can do pretty well.”
He smiled and said, “I knew you would.”
Tomorrow: The Meaning of Team