The first few weeks of freshman cross country season in 1971 were rife with tests of many kinds. Building endurance takes time. Yet the days keep coming despite sore legs and a growing sense of overall fatigue. Our coaches Rich Born and Larry Eddington kept a close eye on the condition of everyone on the team. I’m sure there were some shin splints and other small injuries to address. All I remember is a hunger building in me. A hunger to beat other people in running as often as I could.
That’s the strange thing about cross country. The people around you are all teammates, yet it is your job to run faster than them every day. At the same time, it’s your job to push those ahead of you to become better. That sort of competition brings a certain amount of respect. But I’ll admit to a sense of superiority building within me as our team sorted itself out.
In cross country, there are “types” of runners just as there are “Houses” in the Harry Potter world of Hogwarts. The Sorting Cap of distance running groups runners into four basic types as well.
There are Endurance runners. They may not be that fast but you can never lose them. They keep plugging from start to finish.
There are Haymakers. They run “hot and cold” on given days. You never know if they’re going to beat you, but often show up at key times.
There are Journeymen. These are the guys and gals who come to the sport of cross country from other running and sport disciplines. Back in the day they included sprinters in track and even basketball players running to get in shape for their sport. The sport welcomed and absorbed them all.
Then there are the Pure Runners. These are the core distance competitors who likely also run the longer events in track and field.
Our team at Kaneland had all these types of runners on it. One of the guys I most admired was a senior named Jeff Johnson. In track he was a fast sprinter, pole vaulter, and long jumper of top calibre. Yet here he was out running cross country with his lean frame, perfect “apple” calves and tall socks pulled up to his knees.
The teammate that mentored me some was a tall Adonis named Kirk Kresse. His Greek heritage showed in his olive skin. He was a finely built guy with muscular arms and legs. He’d become an All-State half-miler while at Kaneland, yet in cross country he spread that speed out over three miles.
I liked him because he also had a smooth, almost soothing voice. We sat together on the bus to some meets and I recall him relating that his eyes were getting worse for distance sight, so he’d pulled his eyelids taught and that seemed to help him see better. He made me laugh more often than not, and had the genuous nature of a guy that did not care if I was a year younger than him. In those days, that class judgment was common and sometimes brutal. I appreciated Kirk for his open-mindedness. It also proved the other value of cross country and running as a sport. You’re most respected for what you do than any other value.
Kirk was my main competitor for second spot on the team. The top runner was a pure distance runner named Bill Creamean. He was a soft-spoken young man of fair complexion and a low-slung stride that caused him back problems during his senior year in high school. He put in tons of summer training miles and showed up for cross country in fine shape. He was the prime example running dedication and focus, a fine role model that I never quite emulated in approach.
I showed up that freshman year with zero training miles in my legs. What I did bring to the sport was a summer rife with games of basketball, baseball and riding a Huffy 3-speed all over the town of Elburn morning, noon and night. In some respects, that mix might have been the right diet of activity for me.
In any case, I learned how to apply myself in running on a daily basis. There’s a fine art to being tested and standing up to the micro-pressures of distance running. The split-second decisions of whether to fight off a competitor or let them go and catch them later. The will to push the last bits of intervals and stay with the bunch. The determination to stand at the line every day and say to yourself, “I can do this.” And then go do it.
That’s finding joy in being tested.