Two clear images come to mind when I think about my early running days. Flying along the wooded trails surrounding the Missouri seminary I attended in the late 1960’s, free, alone, running stronger every day. And, racing the trains on the Indiana county roads south of Valparaiso University.
I enjoyed racing the trains much more than racing other college cross-country teams. Our coach followed the Arthur Lydiard ‘Long Slow Distance’ training concept (we loved referring to it as the LSD running program). Based on lots of mileage, we would rack up 100-mile weeks, in addition to the once-a-week speedwork on the track. The countryside surrounding the small city of Valparaiso, Indiana provided plenty of wide-open spaces. But, the only way to access the county roads that crisscrossed the farmlands south of the Valpo campus was to cross a double set of railroad tracks that bisected the edge of town.
Sixteen to twenty of us, feeling like seasoned road warriors in our taped up Puma and Adidas shoes (this was pre-Nike, pre-New Balance, pre-good running shoes), would head out of town in the late afternoon, our team captain plotting out a 10 or 15 mile route. We’d cruise through the first mile or mile-and-a-half exiting campus, three, four abreast, unconcerned with cars getting around us, bullshitting about the day’s classes or hot co-eds while we warmed up. Then, after crossing U.S. 30, heading south on a flat straight away, we’d lock our sites on the railroad arms and signals a quarter mile ahead. Everyone would go silent, ears perked for the long bleat of a freight train horn. Some days we reached the tracks unchallenged. A couple times a week the trains would oblige us with a race.
We’d hear the far away horn, cock our heads east or west until our eyes picked up the smoke and steel bound toward our crossing. No matter the initial estimates we picked up the pace, front pack, middle and back, merging into single, fast team of young, skinny road runners. Our lungs and legs craved the excitement. Peripheral focus on the approaching train, eyes keen on avoiding missteps on the craggy blacktop but zeroed in on the tracks ahead, 300 yards, 200, 100, no one knew who would make the call. Can we make it? We rushed toward the answer. Our running stars, the sub-4 milers and the wanna-bes, would get five or ten paces ahead of the pack, ready to plunge or pull back. Our steps started matching the rhythm of the train whistles. We made our ‘do or die’ decisions in the last ten seconds. The front-runners accelerated pulling the rest of us. If the train could be beat, we all wanted to be part of it. The slower trains still managed to spark us into a pace beyond our L.S.D. standards. The faster ones turned us into sprinters.
Three or four of the fastest would always go for it. All of us upped our pace, separated only by our capabilities. I was never in the front pack and thrilled when my pack made it. Dozens of times we pulled up, standing in wonder when the front pack hit the crossing just before the train. At times, we had to wait for a mile of boxcars to pass before we knew whether or not our best runners made it unscathed.
Only one runner ever went down. Fortunately he just misplaced his final step on the tracks, taking a nosedive into the rough blacktop, the front grill of the two hundred ton locomotive barely missing his flailing legs.
Why did we do it? Young and stupid? Wanting to add danger to our non-contact, non-violent sport? I don’t know. But, I do remember the feeling of running with utter abandon.