Coming off a less-than-stellar race like the one I had in Elgin, where a side stitch slowed me down, is tough on the short-term confidence. But while I was second-guessing the ten-mile race in Elgin, I heard that there was going to be an Olympics-style event called the Prairie State Games held in Illinois. The qualifying meet for the region I’d chosen to represent (the western suburbs, not the city) was at York High School on June 9th.
I still felt ready because I’d run a PR 5K the week before. My workouts with the UIC boys were going great. Week after week, those workouts built confidence in both my base fitness and increasing speed.
Bumping into legends
I signed up to run the 5000 meters and showed up at the York track for the noon race and met up with two men I knew and respected, both of whom happened to be some of the greatest coaches ever in Illinois. They were Al Carius and Joe Newton. Each had committed to coach the west suburban track team. Of course, I wanted to impress them somehow, but that only made me nervous. Some of that was situational anxiety, but some of it was native to my persona and brain chemistry. So I had to calm myself before the race. Rather than shoot for a fast time on a hot day, I needed to focus on the main goal, which was qualifying for the team. To do that, you had to win.
Not knowing who would show up to run, I poked around the registration asking to see the competition slate. Al gave me a funny look and smiled that big smile of his. “Just get out there and run,” he grinned, and glanced over at Newton, who was too busy to worry about a Nervous Nellie runner like me. Thinking about their respective coaching styles, I knew that Coach Al built confidence by meeting runners “where they were” and helping them understand what it meant to achieve their full potential.
Most importantly, Al was famous for taking mildly talented kids and turning them into national-level competitors. That happened again and again over the years. He’d coach kids with 10:20 high school two-mile PRs that would run near 9:00 before they graduated from college.
By contrast, Newton turned out team after team with five runners breaking 15:00 for three miles. That’s how they won state championships, and that how Joe built confidence among his runners: by involving them in a larger-than-life program. That tradition alone was a form of self-empowerment.
The Long Green Line was famous nationwide for winning state championships year after year. In the 1970s, you couldn’t miss the York Dukes team. The military-style crewcuts worn by York runners at one point defied the moptop hairstyles of most cross-country runners in the 1970s. Newton ultimately relaxed that rule, but it didn’t change the fact that you knew York’s runners were fully committed. By reputation, we heard that many of them ran a thousand miles or more during summer months. Honestly, I was lucky if I ran 100 miles over the summer between track and cross country seasons. Sure, I’d play basketball for five hours at a time, but that was probably not the same as putting in long mileage.
The only rap on York kids among the running community at large was that seemingly few of them went on to do much in college or beyond. There were a few notable exceptions, but the belief (true or not…) among most Illinois runners was that due to the high mileage they put in, and the strong disciplinary environment in which they ran, York kids were either used up by the time they left high school or found the college environment undisciplined compared to their formative experiences under Coach Newton.
A year or two before I arrived at Luther College, a quality York runner paid a visit to our cross-country program. He trained with the team and that went fine. But then he encountered the antics of the team leadership at a party to which he was invited. Apparently, the drunken team captain from that year wore danced around like a madman wearing the lace-fringed Pussycat Lounge cap he sometimes wore while racing. At least, that’s how I heard the story. And perhaps that made the wrong impression on the York boy, who did not sign up to run at Luther. Nor did any York runners ever visit again, to my knowledge. Ironically, that Pussycat Lounge runner was one of the toughest runners ever to compete for Luther, and earned the distinction of being a conference champion as well as a Division III cross country All-American. There was a vast difference between the team culture at Luther and the regimented running program back at York High School.
I’ve wondered what it would have been like to run for Coach Newton in high school. I probably would have done fine with the training, but the haircuts seemed extreme in that era. I fought my father many times over the length of my hair. Fortunately, none of my coaches ever said a word about any aspect of our appearance either in high school or college. The entire running world was a ragamuffin-looking bunch in the 70s and early 80s. We didn’t envy those York kids for their closely buzzed haircuts, but did respect their work ethic and abilities.
When it comes to haircuts and appearances, most coaches care about one thing: Are you willing to put in the work to improve? And secondly, do you know how to get ready to compete?
That is why Al Carius glanced at me oddly when I showed up that day at York all anxious and wondering who else was in the race. Worrying about the other competitors never helped anyone! You still have to go out and run the race no matter what! So dude, line up and run! Stop ruminating about whether you’ll fail or not! That’s the surest path to failure.
I warmed up for the 5K and it didn’t take long to work up a full sweat under the early summer sun. We lined up at the starting line and I glanced down at the mix of athletes and didn’t see anyone familiar or even fast-looking. That helped me relax.
From there, I wisely started off with the bunch and moved into the lead after two laps. Admittedly I was grateful that I wasn’t being pressed by anyone in that race. Two miles in with the lead in hand, I felt foolish for acting like such a scaredy-cat hovering around the registration table. Here were two of the greatest coaches around, and I came off with zero confidence and even less self-awareness.
At any rate, I ran hard enough once the race got going, and qualified for the Prairie State Games. I was grateful to finish in first that day at 15:49. It was one of those days when I felt like it would be tough to run any faster than I did. It was hot out. In some respects, earning a place on the team was like “going downstate” at last. And lookee there, I’d done it on the track at York, the host of the cross country sectional the made it through thanks to all that high-level competition.
Sometimes, as a runner, you just take what you can get.