Following a couple of early season dual meet wins, I lined up for the start of the Plainfield Invitational. The race was not held on the golf course usually recruited to host the school’s races. Its new course was on a converted quarry.
There were sections of flat turf grass that constituted much of the race. But there were wild and wooly injections of gravelly hills that we climbed up and scurried down. I loved that kind of running because I grew up a partly wild child roaming the woods and fields of eastern Pennsylvania. One of my favorite memories from grade school was running the obstacle course during outdoor education. I set the best time early in the day and kept going back to improve my time. Finally the teachers told me “That’s enough” and blocked me from any other attempts.
I wore running spikes that day in Plainfield, and they came in ultra-handy as we cut across sandy barrens covered by autumn leaves. Then the course turned right into a cattail marsh. I don’t mean “around” a marsh. I mean “through” a marsh.
By that point, I had a hundred yard lead and was feeling victory at hand with a mile to go. The sight of a cattail marsh straight ahead gave me some pause, but not really. I checked the flag direction approaching the marsh, and it indicated “straight ahead.” So, straight ahead I went. Right through the water and muck and trimmed down cattail stalks.
I don’t know who designed the course for that meet, but I love them to this day. In all my other cross country experiences, nothing matches the joy I felt racing through that water in plain old cross country fashion. It suited a hayseed, nature-loving kid like me to run through that shallow, water-filled ditch.
Tromping through the water served as a precursor to my college steeplechase career. When I emerged on the other side, I was laughing and excited and was almost tempted to slow down and watch what happened to the rest of the field. Instead, I picked up the pace and raced the last mile for the win.
A photographer named Kurt Mutchler took photos of the race that day. I saw them all when he developed the roll the following week. How I wish I’d snagged one or two of them, but they were bound for the yearbook editor and I was denied the opportunity. Kurt shot those photos in a calculatedly grainy fashion. They captured the best of what cross country was about. Unfortunately, they were likely tossed out years ago in some file-cleaning effort at the high school. I think I’ll ask about that. Perhaps they’re in some storage bin or archives…
Kurt Mutchler was a cross country teammate that went on to become the National Geographic magazine Senior Science Picture Editor. So I’d like to take credit for his amazing career because I was such good subject matter on that day in September, 1974. You’re welcome, Kurt.