Following a freshman basketball season in which the team’s emphasis on court fitness tailed off toward the end, I took a weekend off before turning out for track that following Monday. Their was a ritual in receiving cotton sweats and a set of gum-rubber-sole track shoes. That previous fall I’d worn both grey and black sweats as a competitor at both the sophomore and varsity letter. Somehow I thought that success would translate to a Varsity status in spring track as well.
That was not to be. Those credentials still had to earned, not given. The Kaneland track program was basically the only men’s sport offered in the spring. There were no baseball teams or soccer programs. The Athletic Director and head track coach Bruce Peterson saw to that. He wanted no competition for athletes, so there was no choice for me to play either of the sports I’d grown up playing in the spring.
But that was in a different state. Back East in Pennsylvania, my brothers had played both soccer and baseball. I’d likely have done the same if we’d stayed in Lancaster. But here we were in Illinois at a high school plopped down in the middle of sodden cornfields where the wind had nothing to stop it between northwest Alberta and the western edge of Elburn, Illinois.
Snow and cinders
The Kaneland track was a deep bed of cinders. In late February or early March when track season started, there was no chance of running on that oval. Typically the entire campus was deep in snow. Even the parking lots were rife with slush left behind by the snowplows. That was our training grounds. It was a Love It Or Leave deal if there ever was one.
Basketball season lasted long enough that some of the track-only guys had two weeks of training before the rest of us showed up for workouts. The typical workout consisted of running one-lap intervals of between 600-800 yards around the asphalt parking lots that surrounded the school. We’d take off straight west in groups of like-talented runners, turn slightly northwest around the edge of the school and run smack into the cold winds tearing across the low-slung cornfields.
It was cold, miserable business on many afternoons. Those first couple weeks also hurt like hell. My indoor basketball lungs and short-sprint legs were of little help on those long outdoor intervals. The burning sensation would last well after each interval, so that starting the next lap was like skipping a needle across a revolving record. The same painful song played again and again. Sometimes it was impossible to tell one song from another. You just put your head down, pulled a wool cap farther over your ears, and started all over again.
The wry dreams and harsh realities of a freshman
My memories of those days as a 14-year-old runner involve plenty of blown snot, dandruff, semen-stained underwear and cold longing for some comfort I could not identify. The same hormones that drove those physical realities also wrapped themselves around the stem of my brain and controlled my thoughts. In class each day, I’d be exhausted and stimulated at the same time. Those Kaneland girls were lovely distractions. Short skirts and tight shorts were everywhere. All I wanted to do is somehow impress them. Or at least one of them. I had a deep crush on one particular cheerleader. She was beyond cute and actually graced me with a night of close dancing one winter’s evening at the high school. So all was not futile. With an ounce of self-confidence perhaps it would have turned into an actual relationship. But that was not to be.
The problem with those young desires is that distant runners at that age and in that era were frequently a sorry sight. We’d come in from track practice with ruddy faces and snot-worn cheeks. Our hands would be red from the cold and stiff as hell. Once I lost a glove or mitten somewhere during an interval session and had to run the rest of the workout with one sleeve of my sweatshirt gripped around my fingers to ward off the sleet striking every bare part of our bodies.
I also recall many track athletes coming down with shin splints due to running on asphalt for weeks on end. The supposed cure for that condition was wrapping the entire calf from ankle to knee in a combination of Ace stretch bandages and athletic tape. The use of plastic heel cups was also common. Basically, anyone with a tiny bit of pronation or supination in their footstrike was susceptible to injuries of that type. It was thought that the heel cups would help. That is doubtful.
I was grateful not to experience any kind of injuries like that. It would be a couple years before the shoe industry caught up with the running movement. adidas had good track shoes already, and the SL-72 would arrive on the market in time for the Olympics in Munich. Somehow those shoes didn’t find their way to our cozy neck of the cornfields. Nike was still two years away from developing its Corsair shoes, and then it would be off to the races for that company with its waffle and air-soled shoes.
The goal of all the focused misery of winter training was to get in shape for the few indoor meets in which we competed. As a freshman, I was assigned to run the 880-yard “run” as it was called back then. Sometimes it would be listed as the 880-yard “dash. I soon learned that there were people capable of running that fast over the two-lap distance. One of them was my cross country teammate from the previous fall, Kirk Kresse. The other was my classmate Ron Ackerman, who in 1975 would become Illinois state champion in the 880. Those guys were subjected to some of the most difficult workouts I’d ever seen anyone do. I’d be running with the distance guys and watch Kirk and Ron do sets of twenty to thirty 300-yard intervals with just 30 seconds rest. There was some outright barfing involved. But by the time they graduated, each was running times in the low 1:50s. They had more talent and perhaps more guts than me.
I dutifully competed in the indoor 800 in several meets. We drove down to the University of Illinois for the Joe Cognal Relays. I was assigned to ride with Coach Peterson, who smoked a big green cigar the entire way down. My gut was sick and my lungs felt awful by the time we rolled into town. When the time for my race came, I didn’t feel like running at all. But I did, and though I’d run sub-2:30s in the first couple meets, I fell short of that standard. Coach Peterson asked me what was wrong that day, and without thinking I blurted, “It’s your stupid cigars!”
He looked at me oddly, then tipped his head back slightly and gave a quick chuckle. “Okay,” he responded. Nothing more was said. He didn’t smoke one on the way back home.
When spring finally arrived and we could run on the track, I also participated in the high jump and long jump. I recall going 5’8″ as a freshman, which won a few sophomore meets. But my obsession with long jump was considerably less productive. I tried many times to jump farther than 18 feet as a freshman, but that was that. Again, some of that multiple-event participation was an odd mix of joy in competing in more than one thing, which I thought proved my athleticism. There was also the vain hope that something I did would be as impressive to girls as some of the more dynamic and outstanding athletes in the Kaneland track program. There were plenty of studs on those teams.
One of those was a fantastically tough quarter-miler known for his ability to close out a race. I don’t recall his name, but I do recall overhearing a conversation he was having with a cute girl that he knew. He was ribald in his approach. “Are we going out tonight?” he asked her.
“Only if you promise not to hurt me,” she replied. I tried not to show that I’d overhead that exchange, but I well recall the flash of her eyes as she responded. To this day, I still do not know what it meant. All I knew was that I was privy to a brand of interaction that for better or worse, was far out of my league.
All I wanted was to be noticed by the girls in the stands. “Please Lord,” I’d effectively mutter on a daily basis. “Let me do something big.”
Moving up in distance
Partway through that first track season, I mostly watched as my cross country teammates ran the mile races.That was longest distance offered freshman and sophomores at that time. I knew that I could beat those guys in the mile if given a chance. So I approached one of the coaches and told them, “I want to run the mile.”
“Oh, okay,” he responded to me. And then absently replied. “That’s longer you know. Are you sure you want to move up in distance?”
“I raced three miles in cross country last fall,” I responded. “Yes, I want to move up.”
In that first race, I set the freshman school record at 4:57. I remember the feeling of satisfaction on crossing the line in first place. I’d actually asserted myself on something that was important to me. I’d talked to adults and influenced my future.
In study hall the next day, one of my female friends actually turned to me and said, “I hear you broke a track record…” I blushed and said, “Well, it was just a freshman record. I’m hoping to get better you know.”
It wasn’t a world-beating time by any measure, and track is an unforgivingly harsh judge of good and bad efforts. Records are made to be broken, and it was, by quite a bit. Yet it felt good to glean something of merit during that first track season after a cold, thankless spring. It would set the stage for much better things ahead.