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). It was based on lots of mileage. As a team we racked up 100-mile weeks, in addition to the once-a-week speedwork on the track. The big miles were on the roads. The only way to access the county roads that crisscrossed the farmland around Valpo was to cross a double set of railroad tracks that bisected the edge of town.
Sixteen to twenty of us, seasoned runners 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 across campus, three, four abreast, unconcerned with cars getting around us, bullshitting about the days classes or hot co-eds while we warmed up. Then, crossing U.S. 30 into the county side, headed south on a flat straight away, we’d lock in 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, picking up the pace in anticipation, only to be unchallenged. A couple times a week the trains would oblige.
Hearing the far away horn, we'd cock our heads east or west until our eyes picked up the smoke and steel bound toward our crossing. No matter the initial estimates the pace went up another notch, front pack, middle and back, merging into single, fast team of young, skinny road runners. Our lungs and out legs were ready. Peripheral focus on the approaching train, eyes keen on avoiding missteps on the craggy blacktop and zeroed in on the tracks ahead, 300 yards, 200, 100. No one knew who made the final call. Can we make it? We all rushed toward the answer. The stars of the Valpo team, the sub-4 milers and the wannabes, would get 5 or 10 paces ahead of the pack, ready to dart. Our steps started matching the rhythm of the train whistles. In the last 30 seconds the front-runners pulled the pace for all of us. If the train could be beat, we all wanted to be part of it.
In the final 10 seconds, spread apart by five, ten or twenty paces, small sub-packs defined our capabilities. I was never in the front pack and watched over and over again as my talented teammates led the charge, thrilled when my pack made it, and in wonder if the lead pack hit the crossing with the train. At times, we had to wait until the full length of the train passed until we knew whether or not our best runners made it. I don't recall anyone stopping at the last minute to avoid collision and the closest call: one elite running claimed to have a shoe knocked off by a locomotive's wide 'cowcatcher'. My greatest thrill: being one of the packs that raced across the tracks seconds before the train.
The easy ones, slow trains, at least sparked us out of the L.S.D. mileage. The faster ones converted us into an elite squad of running warriors doing battle with mechanical giants. Since we were just ahead of the running boom, our classmates often asked why we weren't bored out of our minds running all those miles. We were wise enough to know our inability at explaining the intoxicating bliss of long distance running, trains or not, so we didn't bother mentioning the trains. I think we were also afraid that weak words would dispell the mystique.
When long distance running blossomed into the massive participation it enjoys today, I did begin to see some attempts at writing about the cause and effect, why we run and how it makes us feel. I made a few attempts myself. Today, however, when causes are discussed it's about the charities benefiting from organized races. Running's health benefits are the other focus. All good, practical topics. But, where's the love?
Maybe the enjoyment of running is a subtext to talking about money raised, marathons run, thick mileage logs and the latest injury prevention advice, but I do think that a good percentage of today's long distance runners are not really enjoying themselves. I hear of lot of talk about how good it feels afterward or about staying trim and ancillary social benefits of training and racing together.
After forty years the L.S.D. running (and I'm talking here again about the training method not other college adventures) caught up with my knees. Do I regret the high mileage? Absolutely not. When I was twenty, if someone had convinced me that long distance running would destroy my knees by the time I was sixty or even that it would shorten my life by a decade, I would have just smiled and kept racing toward the trains.