When the first rumbles in the sky started, I honestly believed that they must be noises from the Air and Water Show jets. The weather forecast at 7:00 AM on Saturday, August 20, for Evanston, IL, had said the rain and thunderstorms would come at 1:00 PM or 2:00 PM. It was only just 10:00 AM.
It was heavily overcast, so I guess I should have known that the Air and Water Show jets don’t fly in that kind of weather.
I had just sent 37 boys off on their run from Juneway Beach, as far north in Chicago as you can get on the lakefront. Their planned route would take them through the sidewalks and park trails in southern Evanston, up Sheridan Road on the sidewalk for the length of the Northwestern campus, and then through the residential areas of northern Evanston. The final destination was the Bahai Temple, four miles away. Actually, our best boys would continue another mile up Sheridan Road before they turned around to make the return trip to Juneway Beach.
This was our annual Saint Ignatius Cross Country Bahai Temple Run. I inherited the tradition when I took over as coach in the fall of 2006 from my then English Department colleague John Lillig. As far as I know, it has never rained before on this run.
We had met at the home of one of our runners, Ray Lewis, about a mile away from Juneway Beach in Rogers Park. It was a big turnout, as we brought two vans full of boys from the Saint Ignatius campus on the near West side. After a warm up jog to Juneway Beach, we had a few minutes of conversation with Tim Mitchell, a religion teacher at Ignatius, who lives nearby and always comes out to say hello to the team when we visit each year. We stretched and then did drills in the park.
We had to kill a few extra minutes there because we had another visitor. Former Chicago Tribune sports writer Alan Sutton is writing a blog this fall about high school cross country. He had called the day before to ask if he could talk to our Jack Keelan, one of the names at the top of the list for the wide open IHSA state cross country championship this fall. Keelan, people have been saying, is the name no one seems to mention. Of course, if they keep saying that, it will no longer be true.
A tight schedule for us that morning had caused a misconnection with Sutton, who had been waiting for us at Loyola Beach Park. We were late, so we had skipped a visit there and come directly to Juneway. He was understanding about the misunderstanding, and instead he got in a long walk of his own while he waited for us, he said. No harm, no foul, he met us as we were stretching in a big circle.
Well, almost the whole team was stretching in a big circle. Keelan had positioned himself outside the circle behind one of his friends, junior Andrew Musur, whose ears he was boxing. “We have discovered that we do have a team of boys who find ways to be boys,” I told Sutton. “And, well, Keelan is definitely one of the boys.”
I tried to remember how many stitches Keelan got in his lip last fall when we had to call his father in the middle of practice after he split his lip wrestling with one of the freshmen.
Sutton, as it turns out, had a much more dignified set of questions to ask Keelan, and you can read his answers in the blog post. With his blog about Keelan and our up and coming team, Sutton posted the first pictures to accompany his blog stories. We took a minute for a group photo, with the team gathered around the interview subject. Then Sutton got a great shot for the top of his front page, as our boys were stretched out on the narrow sidewalk that covers the border between Chicago and Evanston on Sheridan along the lakefront.
It was a few minutes after the boys had set off, as Sutton and I finished our own conversation, that the first lightning strikes lit up the cloudy sky. “You better go take care of your boys,” he suggested.
I had already begun to formulate a plan, first recognizing a problem. We had 37 boys out on the run, with one assistant coach, as well. The original logistics of the run had required only one 15 passenger van. Our second van was back on the street at the Lewis’s home—and Coach Steven Bugarin had the key with him out on the run.
I knew the route of the run well. We’ve been doing it for years. I used to do the same run when I lived in Rogers Park for a couple years at Morse and Sheridan roads. In fact, I did the same run every other morning when I was on the cross country team at Northwestern in 1976.
We needed some shelter. There were a couple of Evanston parks buildings on the bicycle and jogging path, I knew. But that would not really be indoor shelter.
Then it hit me like a thunderbolt. The parking garage at the south end of the Northwestern campus would be a perfect place to wait out the threatening storm—and get the team out of harm’s way.
A look at the watch I had started when the runners set out told me that it would be a close race to get to that point on the path, two miles away, before the first runners got there ahead of me.
I caught the lead pack of about ten boys just after they had made the turn from the bike path at the south end of the Northwestern campus to head up the Sheridan Road sidewalk that stretches the length of the campus. I beeped the horn, pulled up along side of them, and waved them in the other direction. There was no traffic coming in either direction, and I managed a U-turn to head back the other way.
From the first lightning strike, we had all the boys under cover of the parking garage in less than 15 minutes. Not really fast enough, but under the circumstances, with the boys already spread out over a half mile on the lakefront path, not too bad. There were lots of other people still out running, of course. But even if this had been a cross country race, the lightning strikes would have meant a required 30-minute suspension of action according to IHSA rules. I was happy to be following the rules.
The rain hadn’t even started when the last boys took cover. Next task—what to do with 37 high school boys in a parking garage while we waited out the lightning storm. It was a big parking garage. When I told the boys to start running laps, they didn’t seem to believe me at first.
The rain started to pour outside after about a lap or so. “Can we do a lap outside?” one runner asked me for his small group of friends. The answer, of course, was no.
I made a phone call to the Lewises, who, I assumed correctly, were worried about us. Their weather research suggested the storm might blow over in the next hour or so. We would wait it out for a 15 minutes or so before we made a final decision, I told them, but I wasn’t optimistic.
It was about that time that the first of a series of really big thunder boomers cracked right outside the parking garage. “I think we made the right call getting us all inside here, don’t you think?” I said to a couple boys who had stopped running because of various aches and knee pains.
Eventually, we hooked up with the parents of our freshman Niko Polite. They managed to complete their own Bahai run that morning with an earlier start. They offered to take Coach Bugarin and a couple boys back to retrieve his van.
While we waited for his return, we did some flexibility and strengthening drills. The Northwestern campus police made a short visit to check up on us, and they seemed to think we had done a reasonable thing taking shelter in their parking garage. We eventually ran out of things to do to keep the boys occupied, and it wouldn’t have been too long before they would have started forays out into the rain storm to jump in the big puddles that were forming, like small ponds. But the van arrived before the boys could get into too much trouble.
At 11:30, basically right on our planned schedule, we arrived back to the Lewis residence to eat the pizza, fruit salad, and chips they had set out for us. Nine pizzas, cut in squares, survived first one onslaught, then a smaller one for seconds, and there was still some pizza left for the other three younger Lewis boys to eat some lunch. Our original plan had called for some ultimate Frisbee at the beach or a nearby park. Instead, there was some showy piano playing in the living room, a movie that probably didn’t get finished in the basement lair—and a tower building contest on the wide veranda porch using the many bottles of Gatorade that the boys had emptied.
I was late in photographing the biggest and best tower that they constructed. I heard the bounce, bounce, bounce of tumbling plastic bottles as I stepped onto the porch after one of the boys had hurried to find me and ask me to bring the camera. All I saw was a big pile of bottles.
If not a successful run, it was a successful day in terms of team building.
Still, one of our seniors, Patrick Santino lamented, “It was my last Bahai run, and we didn’t even get to see the Bahai.”