Coming off the St. Charles victory in which we snapped the 60+ dual meet streak of Naperville Central, we faced a squad from Elgin High School that was more than our equal. The afternoon broke cool and slightly overcast. Classic cross country weather. The late afternoon sunshine cast long shadows even as we toed the line. Our seven guys and their seven guys lined up at the bottom of the athletic fields near Route 64 in St. Charles, and we took off running up a series of inclines to the upper campus.
The St. Charles High School Campus course was a series of loops that included some sharp turns so that it was easy to see how the race was developing. That day in 1973, there was little separation between the two sides. The squads were so evenly matched that it only seconds separated the first through fifth men.
I led the race early with Elgin’s Ken Englert a step behind. He was an intimidating opponent with his strong legs and surfer boy looks. His teammate John Shorey stuck close and our second runner Marty Van Acker was right behind. All within two seconds of each other nearing the mile mark.
We circled past the start and began climbing the west side of campus in a series of right turns culminating at an elementary school on the far southwest side of campus. The four leaders stayed close through every turn. Englert and Shorey kept the pressure on.
As we made the last turn toward the finish chute John Shorey had crept ahead and Ken Englert launched a sprint. My teammate Marty Van Acker was right there as well. The placement of this foursome would effectively decide the outcome of the meet.
I launched my own sprint in an attempt to catch Englert. But as you can see from this photo, he was in full flight and not to be caught this day. I had my eyes on the finish line, and our cheerleaders had seen us home, but Ken won the race.
The final score of the meet was 27-29. St. Charles won the dual.
But a week or so later, Elgin outran us at the Kane County meet. Their coach Jerry Cusack knew how to motivate and coach kids as well as our coach Trent Richards.
The thrill of that rivalry was something that I thought I alone relished all these years. Yet one day about six or seven years ago, I received a phone call from an Elgin runner whose name I can’t recall. He talked about the joys of competition between our two teams, and we reminisced while recalling the names of our fellow teammates. “You guys were fun to run against,” he told me. I agreed. It was always fun when the Maroons came to play.
Then he made a proposal of sorts. “Would you want to get some guys together again to run a cross country meet?”
I laughed a bit at that. While I’m still running and competing, and a few of my teammates still put in some miles, the substance of a full squad just isn’t there fifty years later. “I love the idea,” I told my fellow running enthusiast. “But I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
The newspaper clipping to that Elgin versus St. Charles race got lost in a move a few years back, but I feel blessed to have gotten the yearbook photos from that year to share the atmosphere of a cross country race that was epic in its small little sphere. As I’ve written, I also found this old program photo that lay buried next to the football field for ten years.
I guess we can all thank our rivals for creating those moments in time. Win or lose, it makes you part of an intense ritual that in many respects can last a lifetime.
That starting line when everyone is nervous and anxious. The first mile when the legs and lungs starting talking together. The pack forms and the positions jostle. The hills come along to test your resolve. The turns force you to slow and start up running again. Then that finishing sprint. Do you have what it takes?
In fifty years of running, those are the sensations that I treasure the most.
The other interesting facet of this rivalry is that my competitor Ken Englert and I share a love of nature that has carried through our lives. Ken is an exceptional wildlife photographer and I’m a wildlife painter.