In 1982 I’d won the inaugural Geneva Community Classic 10K in 32:36. That was the first race ever held on the Fox River Bike Trail. At that time, the path was so new that the last chunk of asphalt was laid down just days before the race was to be held.
I was living in my coach house in Geneva that year, and was dating my new girlfriend Linda. It was hard to tell where that relationship would go, because I’d just learned that I’d be transferred to Philadelphia for work in August of 1982. So the win that day was joyous, yet bittersweet.
By May of ’83 I was back in Geneva after a nine-month sojourn living in Paoli, and moved back to live with a best friend in Chicago. Looking to defend my title from the previous year, I signed up for the Community Classic only to get thumped by another former St. Charles High School graduate, Jeff Wheaton. That meant I was coming into the 1984 race determined to win.
I drove out from our city apartment on a Friday night, but traffic was heavy and I arrived too late to register. The pre-race registration booth was closing up as I approached, and frustrated from the long drive in the heat and traffic, I got a little testy when they refused to let me pay for my entry and get a number. “Listen,” I barked, “I’ve won this thing before and I’m going to win it again. Just take my money.” And I shoved it out like I was closing a drug deal.
That was a prick move, for sure. But I was serious. The race director was familiar to me, having watched me either win or take second the two previous years, so she stared at me for a moment. “Alright,” she instructed one member of her team. “Go ahead and sign him up.”
The morning of the race broke clear and mild. I was relieved that it wasn’t as hot for racing as it had been n 1982 and ’83. That’s always the risk with a late June race. Often that’s when the first real waves of humidity strike. If you go out fast on those days, it catches up with you eventually.
There was a large field gathered on race morning, just over 1000 runners. The race grew so fast in popularity it would be named one of the best 10ks in the Chicago area, and for good reason. The course started on the scenic avenue of Third Street in downtown Geneva and went down to Batavia and back on the Fox River Trail with views of the river almost the entire course.
I warmed up with a solid jog to make sure my legs were revved up and ready to go. I felt fast and lean at 140 lbs. My Running Unlimited top and shorts felt like they were barely there. That’s how I liked my racing uniforms.
I wore a pair of Nike American Eagle racing flats that day. They weren’t quite as fast-feeling as the Nike Air Edges that I loved, but those were almost worn out from two years of racing. I laced the Eagles twice to make sure there wasn’t a chance of them coming untied. My ADHD had on occasion allowed such things to happen.
After warmups, I did a couple hard stride-outs at race pace to test the legs. Everything felt good. Then I trotted back to survey the front line and see who showed up. And there, bouncing up and down in place was a guy wearing Prairie Striders singlet. “Hmmmm,” I thought. “There’s my competition.” I thought I recalled that the Prairie Striders club was the same team from which Phil Coppess or Dick Beardsley emerged to become some of the nation’s top marathoners, winning races such as Chicago, Grandma’s and the Twin Cities Marathon. In any case, I figured the guy to be tough. He looked solid and fast type, and I later learned that in college he was a steeplechaser like me, only much faster, with a sub 9:00 time to his credit.
Who knows what he was doing in town? The early 80s were like that. Road racing was growing quickly, and regional or national gunslingers like this guy often showed up to challenge the locals. “Well, here I am,” I said to myself during the last jog into place at the starting line.
The gun sounded and we took off at a super-quick pace. The course went straight north for five blocks to State Street, also known as Route 38 or the Lincoln Highway. We turned into the sun and faced two full lanes of open asphalt. That’s where he accelerated again.
I decided to track behind him rather than take an early lead. We soared downhill toward the Fox River bridge and caught the swooping turn beneath it to join up with the Fox River Trail.
It helped that I knew every inch of the park and trail by then. That speedster and I were running so fast it was all I could do just to stay on the path. We separated ourselves from the rest of the race and hit the mile mark in 4:37. That didn’t rattle me. I’d run a 4:30 practice mile the week before with plenty left in the tank, and figured my real mile speed at the time was around 4:15. So I let the guy lead as we crossed under the railroad bridge and sped toward the woods of Fabyan just ahead.
We passed two miles in 9:42. Again, a healthy pace but not one that rattled me. We’d settled into a one-on-one battle and I decided to wait my turn to lead.
At three miles we hit 14:42. At that point, I kind of chuckled because I still felt so damn good. It was one of those rare days when everything seemed smooth and well-oiled. I savored the soft sound of every footstrike and pulled up next to him as we turned west on Wilson Street through downtown Batavia. As we crossed the bridge I swung to his left and prepared to pass him when we turned north again.
Taking measure of the man
He was sweating and breathing hard, but so was I by then. About then, I thought about my folks and their friends waiting for me back at the finish line with my girlfriend Linda. My parents loved the festive nature of summer races. They’d seen me race all through high school and college, but the open-faced sandwich of road racing was different. My mother loved the intensity of it. Years later, when I’d retired from competitive racing, I mentioned to her that perhaps I was a bit self-indulgent during those years when I was half-working and running full time. “I don’t think so,” she corrected me. “You burned brightly.”
Such were the thoughts of my mother, ever the poet. My father seldom said much at road races. He enjoyed the spectacle and figured that if I’d made the choice to run, it was my job to make it work. Yet here was his skinny son, the same bratty kid that used to cry for mercy whenever his older brothers refused to let him on the basketball court when the big kids were playing. But I was also a tricky little fuck. I’d save my tears until just a few feet before entering the house, then erupt in a big display of drama, crying and whining that my older brothers were being mean. My parents bought the act the first time, because my brothers were mean, but the next time around, they called my bluff.
“Stop blubbering,” my father said after I entered the house in tears. “We saw you coming across the yard. You weren’t crying until you came in the back door.”
From that episode, I learned that crying to get my way wasn’t going to do me any good in life.
Tests of character
There would be many tests of character like on the way to adulthood. Yet there I was, twenty-six years old, putting my guts on the line with no one to get the job done but myself. If I lost the race, it would surely do no good to cry about it. The type of drama I’d face was all mine to choose. Either take the lead and own it or let the guy in the Prairie Striders shirt run away from me. And cry about it later?
I pulled around his shoulder and took the lead. We turned left on Batavia’s Houston Street for one block and ran past the Depot Pond wher ethe west side of the bike trail began. Now we were on the return trip north toward Fabyan Forest Preserve. The trees provided plenty of shade, but the humidity was higher underneath the canopy. I gave a big exhale and leaned forward a bit more. I was chugging toward home.
The trail follows a former railroad bed once used for industrial purposes as well as a trolley line coursing from Aurora to Elgin. The auto industry put the trolley line out of business in the early 1900s, but sections of track could still be found sticking out of the streets in Geneva, especially on Anderson Boulevard, the street where I’d come to live two years later, in 1986.
I’d grown up running through Geneva all through high school and college. This was my home turf, and I felt obligated to defend it.
We covered the next mile fast as well, a feat because the grade went slightly uphill all the way to Fabyan Forest Preserve. I kept the pace quick by shortening my stride slightly and we passed through four miles in 19:50. Geez, what I would have given to run a time that fast in college cross country! But we still had at least two miles to go. Gotta stick to business…
At the entrance to Fabyan park, we swung left and started an abrupt and then prolonged climb to the five-mile point at the crest of a hill on a four-lane state road, Route 31. The police had closed one lane of traffic. A long line of orange cones marked the way ahead but disappeared from sight over the top of the hill. We climbed past five miles and hit that mile marker at 25:00 flat. “We’re sure not pissing around,” I thought to myself.
Just after the five-mile point, my stomach started to get flighty. The pressure of racing that fast often gave me the dry heaves. Perhaps it was stomach acid having its way with me, or maybe I should have eaten more before races, but barfing was not out of the question by that point. Still, I rolled over the last bit of climb and turned full attention to the closing mile. We raced past the stone walls and weird animal cages erected by a wealthy magnate named Colonel Fabyan back in the early 1900s and headed toward the finish.
The road starts to drop again toward Geneva, including a long downhill section where a creek runs beneath the road. It bottoms out quickly, then it climbs back up again on Route 31 to slip beneath the railroad bridge.
From there, it was about half a block until we turned up an even sharper hill to the finish line. I held a lead of just a few yards on my competitor, who had not given up. But I could feel that he’d given his all by then, so I kept the tempo high even as I could feel my legs starting to tire. It was a damned hard hill to run after six miles of stern racing. Then we turned and could see the finish chute with all the crowd milling around. I unleashed what I had left and felt the first taste of barf sneaking up my throat. By then I did not care. I was going to win this fucking thing after all. I’d passed the test. There would be no crying that day.
The finish clock read 31:52 as I passed underneath it. “What?” I thought to myself? “There’s no way we ran a 5:52 last mile…” Then I threw up.
“Hey,” the race director churled at me. “Don’t do that here.”
“I got no choice,” I blurted, and stumbled away.
Linda met me there with a big hug. “Are you okay?” she asked.
“I won,” I replied. “I’m great.”
The Prairie Striders guy and I shook hands. We’d been locked in a battle for six full miles. We actually cooled down a bit together. I had the chance to tell him how much I respected his racing that day. He was also complimentary, a good sport. Following the cooldown, I accepted the congratulatory backslaps and handshakes from local friends. Then a familiar face showed up beside me. It was Jeff Leavey, the track and cross country coach from my alma mater, St. Charles High School.
“What was your time?” he inquired.
“31:52,” I told him. “Which is weird,” I observed. “We raced sub-5:00 most of the race and I know we didn’t slow down that much in the last two miles. Even with the hill, I hit 5 miles in 25:00. And we kicked at the finish.”
“That’s because the course is long,” Leavey informed me. “We walked it with the wheel a week ago. It’s at least 200 meters long by my measurement.”
I trusted Jeff because he cares about such things. He was also the race director of a really good five-mile event held each fall, and he always walked the course and covered the tangents to make sure things were accurate.
Doing the math, it made sense that the course was a bit long. Running an extra 200 yards would chew up 37 seconds or so at 5:00 pace. That would take the final time down to 31:15, a more accurate reflection of the racing we’d just done. In fact, I’d race even faster than that in the coming weeks.
But in terms of competitive racing, I don’t think that I ever ran better than the Geneva Community Classic 10K in 1984. I recall that crazy feeling when my ears kept tensing up in a fight or flight response knowing there was a runner right behind me the last three miles. But I kept the pressure on and didn’t flinch, even when nausea almost took me out of contention.
Indeed, two decades later the record of 31:52 still stood; a fact noted by the race director in a letter to the editor marking the 20th Anniversary of the event. The course eventually changed when a parking garage was constructed on the former finish line, so any subsequent fast times didn’t count. I’m sure that some of the elite runners from the Chicago area could have broken that course record, but nothing makes you feel better as a runner than an effort that stands the test of time over many years.