Perhaps a couple weeks into that first cross country season in 1971 at Kaneland High School, our team piled into a yellow school bus and traveled east for ten miles to a park known as Johnson’s Mound Forest Preserve. That name describes it well. From a distance, the hill isn’t much to look at. It is a lump in the landscape covered in tall trees that have grown up over the last century. Somewhere back in time it was likely covered in prairie grass, and before that, nothing but a pile of gravel left behind by glaciers 10,000 years ago.
At some point in its recent history, the property comprising the Johnson’s Mound forest preserve was a farm, probably with cattle on it. But the trees are too tall and the soil on top of the gravel likely too shallow to support crops like corn or beans. Besides, who wants to plow a hill with a 10% grade on it, and soil rife with stones and gravel?
The county installed thin asphalt road through the preserve that loops north from the parking lot, winds through the primeval-looking woods, then turns sharply uphill in a vicious little bend. From there, it is uphill for perhaps a quarter mile. Near the top, the grade jumps to 9%, a real soul-tester.
First hilltop encounters
That gray day in 1971, the school bus dropped us off at the forest preserve that day and sat idling in the parking lot as if to taunt us. We were there to run hills in preparation for the fall cross country season.
Surely the upperclassman had been there before. Or perhaps not. All I recall was a bit of shock when we ran that first loop around the road. My legs had never experienced anything quite like that first climb. Or the next. And the next. Those hilltop encounters were true character-builders.
That hill training was vital to our racing plans that fall. The Kaneland cross country course at Elburn Forest Preserve started with a quarter mile run on the flats leading to a long climb up another glacial hill. The grade changed from 3% to about 9% in the final 100 meters. Then the road dipped back down the north side of the preserve through deep woods. It was a rather epic experience racing on that course. The crunch of gravel under our long spikes accompanied by the crunch of autumn leaves as the seasons changed. But it was the hill that made that course so unique and tough.
So we ran a workout or two at Johnson’s Mound to prepare for the rigors ahead. I recall barely being able to look our coaches in the face after that hill workout. It hadn’t gone that great for me. Other guys on the team proved to be better climbers than I. That’s the thing about cross country running that you learn with time. It is important to learn your weaknesses and if possible, train to cover them up.
Years after high school as a journeyman road racer, I returned to Johnson’s Mound to do hill workouts. By then I was a young man of 21-24 years old. I’d competed in college cross country and my times and fitness capabilities were much more mature. I’d start at the southeast opening of the woods and race along the black strip of asphalt leading to the bottom of the hill. Then I’d run up that hill as quick as I could. My repeat workouts often consisted of 6-8 loops at .85 miles per loop. The rest interval consisted of a jog down the front side of the hill toward the main road and back around again.
Running hills alone in a quiet preserve delivers a sense of intimacy. You join with the environment in ways that other training does not provide. I wore racing flats for those hill workouts, because I wanted to be as light and agile as possible. There was a 1:1 relationship between how fast I could run that loop from bottom to top and how ready I was to race on the roads. If I could complete the hilltop encounter in 3:00 or less, I knew that I was super fit and ready to go. Built up by that type of training, my times in the 10K dropped from 33:00 down to 32:00 and finally to 31:00 in three years. And, I was unafraid of any hill that I encountered. These days I also go cycling on that hill, and the tests are similar.
Yet there are also times when I visit Johnson’s Mound for different reasons. It is a great place for encountering nature in all seasons. In winter, the road is closed but the birds don’t know that. I’ve also found robins and hermit thrush feeding on loose worms after an April snow. Come spring, the wildflowers are profuse: wild ginger, bloodroot, Dutchman’s breeches and trout lily. In summer the wood thrush and scarlet tanagers sing in the woods. One year, a pair of Swainson’s hawks nested over the road. They are a rare species in Illinois, with the only known breeding pairs east of the 100th Meridien annually nesting here in Kane County, typically up by Hampshire. I like to think they chose Johnson’s Mound out of some ancient instinct about the prairie back in the day. They are typically birds of the Great Plains, with long, thin wings and a dark russet chest. “Not from here,” you might say.
Yet there are days when I just park and walk around the loop, with nothing planned except to soak in some woodland air. Even on cold, windy days the woods offer shelter. It is funny how the hard places sometimes offer the greatest shelter.
Hilltop lessons learned
I haven’t run up that hill in a couple years. Perhaps it is time again. It is the most difficult and humbling experiences that teach us the most and motivate us. They help us overcome that feeling of “I can’t do it.” At least, that’s how it is the world of running. Perhaps that makes us runners all a bit weird. We are a widespread band of misfit boys and girls seeking pain and finding pleasure in it. Until you’ve gone that distance uphill when it feels like gravity hates your guts, it is hard to describe why it feels so good to jog down the other side and try it all over again. It makes me laugh to think that I’ve been returning to that sharp little hill all these fifty years. It means something to me.
Many great figures in history and religion found their gods on the mountaintops. Yet sometimes it only takes a lump in the landscape to peel back the layers of reality and find the soul within. Hilltop encounters are the best for that reason, and I thank those fifty years of running for giving me plenty of them.