The start of high school sports on Wednesday, August 10 across the state of Illinois is, arguably, the real start of the school year. It brought hundreds of students back to our Saint Ignatius campus for sports team tryouts. The night before the first practice, even without a new post, the number of hits on my blog jumped, presumably from our runners checking in as they prepared for the next day.
There is reporting in various spots on the web about the start of cross country practice at different schools. Michael Newman of Illinois Dyestat/ESPN High School did a short story on Joe Newton’s first team meeting with 150 York High School runners. A new cross country blog by former Chicago Tribune sportswriter Alan Sutton covered the same event, and the blog, it seems, will follow the York team this season. Lane Tech posted results of its first day time trial, and the Lane Tech/CPS Fan blog reported on that event.
There are many different ways to start the new practice year. Our first day was much more modest and low key than at York or at Lane. We did start with a meeting on the athletic field bleachers. Our turnout of 31 boys was a large one for us. Big news for us was that we had eight freshmen the first day; last year I think we had only a couple. All eight of our returning seniors were there–with a surprise ninth senior, a new joiner. We still have more boys that we expect to return to the team; they are away on vacation, or still working at summer jobs. We expect a team of about 50 boys, up from 40 in the previous three or four years.
I did talk at the group for about 30 minutes. I did talk about motivation and commitment, just like Joe Newton. The boys seemed interested in what I had to say. I emphasized that our success last year, when we qualified for the state championship meet and finished 20th, raises us to a level where we can call ourselves one of the top cross country teams in the state of Illinois–and now we have to do it again to secure our spot. I gave more attention, perhaps, to the important concerns about safety and our team rules about running in the city–stop at the don’t walk signs, always cross streets at the corners, run with other runners so you don’t run alone, be considerate of the other people on the sidewalk.
Our first day practice was a “normal” and routine practice. We ran 1.7 miles from Ignatius down Roosevelt Road to the corner or Roosevelt and Michigan Avenue. There we settled at a grassy spot, with a water fountain, near the Agora or “Legs” sculpture, where we stretched in a big circle, seniors in the middle. One small departure from our normal routine: After stretching, we gathered close as a group, one knee down on the ground, heads bowed and hands together, for a prayer. One of our seniors, Peter Devitt, led us in the “Our Father.” I added some reflection on the hard work, pain, joy, and fun of the season ahead. At Saint Ignatius we end all of our prayers with the mantra, “Saint Ignatius, pray for us.”
Then we did what we often do for practice–a timed distance run, starting from spot on the bridge that spans the train tracks between Michigan and Columbus avenues. Running over the bridge, through the tunnels underneath Columbus and then Lake Shore Drive, we reached the lake and the bike path. We ran north on the first day, actually running on the path closer to the lake which the Chicago Triathlon uses. We’ve measured our route, and the mile mark comes just past the plaza across from Buckingham Fountain. I turned around with the “short run” group at 1.5 miles, at a marker not quite all the way to the Columbia Yacht Club boat. Other runners continued along the lake path, right down on the lake, to the Chicago River. The group running four miles turned around at the end of the tunnel with murals under the Lake Shore Drive bridge over the river. The five-mile group–significantly, today, the biggest group–continued along the river path to the turn around point at the Michigan Avenue bridge, across from the Tribune Tower. We all retraced our steps back to the Agora Sculpture and our starting spot. It is a very scenic city run.
Once we all regrouped at the Agora, the boys ran back to campus on Roosevelt Road. Back at campus our most motivated varsity boys did barefoot field turf sprints on the empty Ignatius athletic field.
Practice ends everyday in the school parking lot by the track with a ceremonial bottle of Gatorade for each of the boys, distributed from orange coolers that from now to November will take up permanent residence in the back of my minivan. The boys, as they always do, fought over their favorite flavors. Speaking mainly to the new freshmen members of the team, I got their attention, kind of shrugged, and said, “So that is a cross country practice.”
The Gatorade was cold, and the boys seemed happy and tired.