I tell the boys who start running cross country in August that they should never stop running, because if they do it will be just as painful the next time when they start running again. But I have started and stopped running many times–and so I suppose I know what I am talking about.
We lose a few boys who do not run track after cross country—less serious runners, who sometimes do other sports, sometimes not; sometimes they return the next August to face that pain again, truly one-season runners. The boys are supposed to run on their own in November and December between cross country and track; no coaching is allowed, according to IHSA rules. It is said that many schools run coach-organized practices anyway; we do not—and our serious boys do run on their own, often together after school. Between cross country and track, the boys run for almost seven months of the nine-month school year under supervision, with a daily practice appointment with me. That seems like enough of me hounding them daily.
Summer is the most important out of season training period for high school runners, of course. At York, Neuqua Valley, and LaGrange Lyons Township, as many as 200 boys meet for early morning weekday practice from mid- June through the end of July; the more serious boys at these schools, it is said, practice again later in the day—and then meet on their own for weekend running. Many other schools like Loyola, Northside College Prep, and Lane Tech run smaller but still well-attended daily summer camps. A parent of a boy on our team wrote me yesterday because her son is hiking in Colorado, and at 10,000 feet he bumped into a group from Palatine High School doing mountain trail running for altitude training.
According to IHSA rules, coaches are limited to 25 daily meetings during the summer with the athletes for their sports; in addition, the first week in August is designated as an official no-contact-with-coaches week for all IHSA sports—presumably to allow families to take vacations. One model to stretch those 25 contact days through the summer is for a six-week four day a week camp; another is to practice twice on those contact days because the rule counts the days, not the meetings. In 2006 York coach Joe Newton and his assistant Charlie Kern were famously suspended from coaching at the state cross country meet, which York won, for violating the summer contact rules; someone reportedly submitted to the IHSA the brochure for the York camp which had many more than dates listed than the 25 allowed in the summer. Now Kern no longer coaches at York High School, and he runs a summer running camp in Elmhurst that has no contact day limit because he is not a high school coach. Newton and York continue to run their camp, as well.
Many boys find additional structured running in the summer by attending intense one-week running camps at places like the University of Wisconsin, University of Illinois, or Notre Dame University. Sometimes big groups from the same team attend these camps. We have a few boys at Wisconsin each summer.
At Ignatius we have tried summer camps of different kinds. But we have a fairly unique problem with our boys, a big disadvantage, really, for coaching a team and especially for summer training. They come to Ignatius from all over the Chicago metropolitan area—from as far as Lisle in the West, to Arlington Heights in the North, to Flossmoor in the South. Many Ignatius students have a big commute to school, often by Metra trains, and they have early morning wake up calls from parents to make the 8:00 school bell. Getting large numbers of boys to travel all the way to campus in the summer for a daily running camp is just unrealistic—and, we genuinely agree, not that efficient.
Boys can run on their own—or meet with their friends who live in their local area. Boys with cars can travel to run with boys who do not have cars. We publish a training schedule, assigning a certain number of miles to each day of the summer calendar. We do try to get together for a few runs over the course of the summer, to check on progress and just for a little bit of face time, often at the Waterfall Glen running trail in Darien, Illinois. But we also preach to them about the importance of running on their own. In fact, we preach about the importance of learning to run on their own. Our teams have gotten better because larger numbers of our boys have learned to do so.
But all this talk of summer running—and the pain of starting to run again after time off–is really an introduction to a discussion of my own summer running. I know the pain of starting again too well.
My running life has really been four episodes of serious running, spread out now over almost forty years. I ran track and cross country in high school at Phillips Exeter Academy. It was a boarding school, although I was a town kid and my mother was the school nurse. I suppose it is significant that we did our summer running on our own. Then I continued to run for the cross country and track teams during my first year of college at Northwestern University. I quit the team at the start of sophomore year because I needed to get a part-time job; looking back, quitting the team there is actually one of the few decisions of my life that I would change if I had to do it over again. I started running again in graduate school at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where I actually trained frequently with the undergraduate team, and I continued running into employment, marriage, and even into family. These were my glory days—and race results from these years are even sometimes posted on a Facebook page put together by a friend from those days, Bob McCubbin, “This day in Baltimore running history, 1964-1990: the Glory Days.”
I stopped when my second daughter was a few months old, and I took a new, more demanding job in Middlebury, Vermont; between family and work, even though it was a beautiful place and Middlebury college had its own forest running trails and a golf course, there was no time to run. I started running again in my early-thirties, after a return to Chicago, when my children were a little bit older and I went back to graduate school, again at Northwestern. Eventually I probably spent too much time running and not enough time writing my dissertation—until a knee injury, playing soccer, a new enthusiasm, stopped me again.
The fourth episode of running came after upheaval in my life–a divorce, a return to work as a teacher, and a re-marriage to my wife Peggy, who started her serious running career fairly late in life and got me started running again. This episode included a Chicago marathon, and a new enthusiasm, the Chicago Triathlon.
This last episode of serious running overlapped with my first years coaching and teaching at Saint Ignatius. Eight years ago, when I was in my mid-forties, I could still run well enough that I could beat all but the best guys on my team, at distances as short as a mile, and since the boys on the team knew that, I felt I had a special kind of credibility. In my first year at Ignatius I only coached track as an assistant and I did not coach cross country—so in the fall I could do my own running, and as an assistant coach for the distance boys I could often run with them. But the demands of head coaching in track and then cross country, too, made running with the boys less possible. And then there were the injuries, just small ones, but aggravating, of one kind or another.
Struggling with different injury issues over the last few years, along with the other demands of a new family and work, I just haven’t been able to run as much or as well. Some of the problem has also been learning to run just for fun and health, rather than running with the goal of competing.
My routine for more than a few years has been to try and get in shape in the summer, after the long haul of spring track coaching and end of the year teaching. In recent years this has included some stroller pushing on the lakefront and at Waterfall Glen, with my young children in their yellow double-seater BOB. Unfortunately, for the last few years, as well, my painful and hard efforts at restarting my running in the summer have ended with aggravating injuries in the fall which have derailed any sustained training efforts.
Often I have started my summer training efforts ceremonially at the state track meet, waking up for an early morning run which would include a slow tour of the jogging trail at Eastern Illinois University and then a few laps on the track. I did manage that this year, too—but just a couple miles, and only one morning. That restart fizzled without much follow through when I returned to Chicago and end of semester grading and other chores–and maybe because of a general lack of motivation.
I had targeted the week after school ended to get started again. But moving the pole vault pits around to put them away I threw my back out—or maybe it was moving some furniture. Whatever, my wife was not pleased, she says I’m too old to be moving pole vault pits (she might be right), and hurting my back also disrupted some other planned clean-up efforts—like my desk and class room—that I had planned for the week.
I called my physical therapist from last year, Molly Malloy of the University of Chicago Medical Center, to make an appointment. I had an exercise program for my back, which, like many other things that time and motivation keeps me from doing, I had been neglecting. I did have a referral for physical therapy from my sports orthopedist, Dr. Sherwin Ho, for a quirky, lingering problem that had kept me from running much over the last year—a pain above my hip in the iliotibial crest. As I think back, that pain traces back to a period after another time my back went out about a year and a half ago. Now my back problem hurts in a way that it seems connected, which might solve the mystery and help to keep me running.
My back stopped spasming enough that I could actually function pretty well after a day or so; ibuprofen helped, too. When Maisie, Luc, and Peggy finished school, we made our move out here to our house in Three Oaks, Michigan. We return to Chicago each week, for one reason or other. I scheduled with Molly Malloy for one of those trips, already planned.
And in Three Oaks, with my back still hurting, albeit a lot less, and my hip still hurting, albeit not too much, I said to hell with it and it was time to get started again with some exercise. I took my bike out for an hour the first day; I can say that I rode my bike all the way to Indiana because we are so close to the border here. The next day I went out for a run—a really slow 3-mile slog, at 10-minutes a mile, with little steps so it didn’t hurt my back too much, but a run nonetheless. I missed a day or two, but I went out a couple more times.
The physical therapy appointment was helpful—some ultrasound and tissue massage on my back and hip. I have some stretches to do, and we will build a bigger repertoire of exercises on my next visit.
My back and hip still have some aches, but it is two weeks now and I am running with some regularity—not quite every day, but close. Yesterday we went on a regular family outing to St. Joseph and Silver Beach. While Peggy and the kids hung out on the beach, I snuck away to run five miles—including a lap on the St. Joseph High School track.
It is painful to start running again, as I tell the boys from experience. My goal is to be able to run with the boys for some of the run when we meet at Waterfall Glen in two weeks—and then to be able to run with them when we start practice in August, especially for our early season distance runs.
And maybe if things go really well I can take a peek at the road race schedule for later in the fall.