Looking back at a running career is a bit kaleidoscopic. Memories sometimes mix and turn circles in the mind. Others bubble up unintentionally, driven by autumn light or the smell of the air on an October day. While many of my recollections of certain events are clear, others escape me until a friend or former teammate tells a story. Once in a while, I’ll turn to one of them and say, “I don’t remember that at all.”
Even some entire races are collectively forgettable. I’ve asked teammates from the 1973 St. Charles High School season about our performance at the Upstate Conference cross country meet, and few can recall much about the day. We finished third behind Dekalb and Elgin. I placed sixth overall.
That would have qualified me as an All-Conference athlete once the high school started recognizing Top Ten performances in each sport. Years later while walking the hallway of the high school for a speaking engagement with the art department, I noticed a long line of photos mounted in the hallway leading to the locker room. I recognized a few runners that in later years were given the All-Conference designation, and admit to feeling cheated out of similar status. Once I gave it some thought, the jealousy felt petty. I finished sixth the next year in conference as well. Not a bad performance, but nothing to brag about really.
As a team, we’d somewhat failed in that conference meet after a largely triumphant season. For some reason, we weren’t “up” for that race as we’d been in others. Perhaps it was something about the odd course at Elgin Community College, or the strange pressure of forced expectation. In any case, we’d missed our goal of winning the Upstate Eight for the first time ever. Dekalb and Elgin were tough teams. They outran us that day. But we’d come back…
The next opportunity for success came at the District meet held on our home course. Our program had achieved some previous success in District competition, but we turned our sights on winning at our home course.
Individually, the highest accomplishment in St. Charles cross country history was an All-State performance by Rick Wolhuter, the sprinter turned distance star who went on to run for Notre Dame and then the University of Chicago Track Club. Running for a school where an athlete of Wolhuter’s caliber once competed was by nature humbling. Yet he didn’t hold our school’s mile record, focusing on the 880 instead. By 1974, he held the world record in the 880 with a time of 1:44 and had run the mile in 3:54. He also ran a 1:43.9 800. If you’ve never read about his track and field career, Track and Field News wrote about it in their profile of Rick as their 1974 Athlete of the Year.
Despite the fact that our coach Trent Richards knew Rick Wolhuter, not much was said about his accomplishments during our 1973 season. They really weren’t relatable. As our top guy, I wasn’t about to place third in the state as Wolhuter once did. My goal was to run the best I could and help lead our team to Sectionals if possible.
Our team had an unforgettable day that day at Districts. All of our guys that had trained and sung together all season ran really well. Each of them had their own personality and style. Marty Van Acker, quiet and bookish. Paul Morlock, enthusiastic. Jack Brandli, a rocker on foot. Kevin Webster, determined resolve. Rob Walker, inspiration and grit. Again, I finished sixth overall, which seems to have been my favorite Big Meet placement. The truly interesting result that day was the run by John Ellwanger, a protege of Tom Burridge in Batavia, as their team qualified for sectionals as well. He’d been a decent runner up to that point, but racing with Burridge improved his running so much that he placed seventh place overall at the District meet. I was always impressed by that.
Looking at the newspaper clippings and photos from that era, I realized how times have changed in so many respects. The coverage on cross country meets given by local newspapers was gratifying through both the wins and the losses. Bill Kindt of the Beacon News was a longtime sportswriter among many in the Chicago suburbs who dedicated their lives to covering high school sports. I later contracted with him at the Beacon to write a yearlong series of nature articles for the newspapers.
Our local meets in St. Charles were covered by Elmore McCornack, whose family was a big part of St. Charles history. I don’t know why Mac wrote about cross country meets, but he was this classy gentleman who showed up at meets and knew the sport well. One of Mac’s nephews (or such) named Evan Clarrissimeaux went on to run for St. Charles and then the University of Iowa, where he posted a 4:07 mile. Evan and I trained together some after college. Our lives, and my connection to the McCornack family, converged again when I served as an officiant in the wedding of Evan’s sister Annie in January of 2019. That was a great honor.
There was a wonderful anticipation and joy to opening the weekly newspaper to read about meet results. We’d walk down to Bagge’s Pharmacy in downtown St. Charles and buy copies of the St. Charles Chronicle. Sometimes there were black and white photos accompanying the stories. These we kept as images that defined our accomplishments and our lives. Some of those clippings have survived decades in my collection, but a few are now lost.
They remind us that as young men and women, we pushed ourselves to efforts that in our later years become hard to imagine. We know that our results were not “woulda-coulda-shoulda” or Glory Days recollections. The outcomes are there in black and white, quite literally. Forgettable or Unforgettable, the record speaks for itself. There is great satisfaction in that, and no hubris or false pride in doing so.