After a largely uneventful junior year spring track season, in which my mile and two-mile times barely improved year-over-year, I stumbled into the summer season not quite knowing what to do with my time. We had no organized summer run program. I begged my mom to buy me new running shoes but the only thing running shoes sold at the downtown shop in St. Charles was a pair of paper-thin Tiger running flats suited more for bowling that putting in miles. I went for a few runs in them and my knees instantly started to hurt. So I said, “F*** it” and played hoops to stay in shape instead.
The previous summer I’d played baseball on the Pony League team sponsored by the Blue Goose Supermarket. But the age group for that league ended at fifteen, and there were no American Legion teams available in St. Charles. That was a shame, because I’d pitched to a 7-1 record the previous summer and wanted to continue playing baseball. The door to joining the older teams out in Elburn had closed, thanks to our move to St. Charles. My lone tryout with the Kaneland varsity summer program ended badly when I showed up for a tryout and took an at-bat only to miss all fifteen pitches thrown to me. It might have helped to actually swing a bat a few times before that adventure.
Left in a void in the summer of ’74, I played tons of golf at Pottawatomie Golf Course with my close friend Rob Walker. He’d been employed the previous summer in the locker room at the St. Charles Country Club, shining shoes for golfers heading out on the links. I caddied some but hated it. So I spent my summer days golfing in the morning and drawing and painting the birds I loved to watch the rest of the day.
The ugly little house to which we’d moved in St. Charles was a less-than-inspiring place to live after the three story house we’d occupied out in Elburn. Frankly, I was a little depressed all that summer.
When August came around, I went out for a run with my two best friends Paul Morlock and Rob Walker. We met in the parking lot of a grocery store and ran for a few miles. I got an instant sideache and felt sluggish the whole way. That didn’t seem to bode well for the season ahead.
Then cross country practice started and it was an explosion of activity and training, with two-a-days in the heat and humidity of late summer. Our coach Trent Richards invited two stellar runners that were headed off to college to join our practices. Greg Birk and Tom Burridge led the way every day. The rest of us suffered in their wake. That lasted only a week as they took off for Wabash College and the University of Kentucky, respectively.
I might have been relieved at their leaving if their presence had not jolted me into reality and snapped me into shape. After a week of running all-out, I could feel my body come alive. That left me in the company of yet another outsider in our presence. His name; John Rath. He was a short but highly competent distance runner from nearby Burlington Central High School. We weren’t in the same conference, but I felt an intense rivalry toward him just the same. He was the faster miler, but I tended to keep even with him over longer distances.
Trent knew Rath through coaching him in the summer track club. They both had the same acerbic temperament, a bit testy at times. I wound up running some summer track races against him the following summer. He was always a bit fitter and more intense during the summer months. As the days went by that fall of ’74, we fought for dominance in practice when he showed up on breaks from running with his own team.
Then came our St. Charles intrasquad meet. Before the race started, John suggested we run race pace together but not compete. I agreed. We took off running at 5:00 pace in the August sun with sweat already dripping into our eyes. At the mile mark, John’s shoe came untied and he stopped to tie it. Not knowing how that affected our agreement, I glanced back, paused a moment and kept running. My reasoning was basic: “Why should I stop if he forgot to tie his shoe?”
Thirty years later, I met John at some social function and he still seemed pissed about that day. He openly harbored bitterness about the incident. That’s how competitive he was. I thought I was competitive back in the day, but he was far more intense. That’s why Trent liked him. John Rath never backed off.
I don’t know whether I was right or wrong not to stop that day. At the time, I figured, “This is my intrasquad. I’m supposed to do my best.” So I left him behind.
Later that season, John would finish one second behind me at the District meet at my old Kaneland High School course at Elburn Forest Preserve. He’d turn around and beat me at the York Sectional. He never backed off. But neither did I. I call that fair game in running.
If he still thinks I cheated him, so be it. With some things in life, you gotta turn the page.