As the cross country season rolled to a close in November1973, our squad ran in a tough sectional in the Chicago suburbs and didn’t advance downstate. That would have been a stretch for a program that was just beginning to grow into believing that it could compete with bigger schools such as York, Glenbard East and other powerhouses in Illinois cross country.
That day would arrive in a few years for both St. Charles East and St. Charles North, the two schools that emerged from the single high school serving the community through 1978 or so. As it was, I ran 15:26 at that Sectional, a credible time but nothing spectacular. I finished 20+ seconds behind Elgin’s Ken Englert and a few seconds behind his teammate John Shorey. The big names in Illinois running at that time dominated the day: Bill Fritz in 14:05. Dave Walters in 14:20 and Batavia’s Tom Burridge moving downstate in 14:37.
We’d run into the Sectional Wall, as it were. I ran nearly the exact same time the next year at sectionals, and placed in a somewhat similar position. Never quite made it downstate thanks to that Sectional Wall in Naperville and York.
The Open Toilet
There’s one amusing aspect of competing in a meet that season that was held at the North Central College campus. I believe it was the Naperville Sectional, but I could be wrong about that. Whatever the meet, I felt the classic need to hit the bathroom before the race began. Walking into the old North Central fieldhouse, I searched around for a toilet and walked into a room where a lone runner sat on an open stool with a line of guys waiting to go next. I stood there aghast. In the back of my mind, I vowed, “I am never going to go to this school.”
As luck and life might have it, I received a recruiting letter from Coach Al Carius a few weeks later. Knowing nothing about the North Central cross country tradition or what it might have meant to my career, I set the letter aside and didn’t take it seriously. As it was, our Luther College team placed second to NCC five years later in the NCAA D3 championships. The course of my running career was literally shifted by the sight of an open toilet. I have no regrets about that, but it is kind of funny that it was an open toilet that determined my choice in a college.
As for the program in St. Charles, there were other signs that the cross country team was developing talent in a positive way. A sophomore named Greg Andrews had won both the Kane County invitational and the Conference meet in 1973. That’s a difficult double in any season. He ran Varsity during dual meets to get used to the three-mile distance, but his accomplishments showed the importance of helping distance runners develop at their own rate.
Greg and I would soon travel similar paths with interests that converged not only around running, but around music and writers such as Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Robbins and others. He also grew close with another St. Charles runner, (John) Jack Brandli. Those two would dive deep into the sports of cycling, cross country skiing, roller skiing and triathlon together. I went cross country skiing with them dozens of times and took up cycling and triathlon years later. Our lives converged and mixed over the years. We definitely had some crazy times together.
The significance of our respective high school classes diminished as the years passed on. At one point, a fourth St. Charles runner named Greg Birk came back to Illinois from his job in Europe. We all cycled fifty miles together on a cool day swapping stories about our days running for coach Trent Richards, the girls we knew and life in St. Charles.
“I can’t believe you guys stayed here,” Birk wryly observed at one point. The rest of us laughed. We’d all been plenty of other places in our lives, but arrived back in the Tri-Cities. I’ve run something like 50,000 miles in my life, and cycled that and more. All that moving time amounts to plenty of travel. In the end, it’s all a journey within our minds, and breaking through the walls of our perceived existence. As Beatle George Harrison once wrote:
Try to realise it’s all within yourself
No one else can make you change
And to see you’re really only very small
And life flows on within you and without you