Hornet-Red Devil Preview: Fall’s True Beginning

How do you mark the beginning of fall?  If you defer to the Gregorian calendar, than perhaps you’d don’t acknowledge summers’ passing until the Autumnal Equinox on September 22nd.  For most of us though, the change of seasons is usually marked by a symbolic occurrence: the first day of school, the closing of the community swimming pool, the first high school, college, or professional football game.  For me, though, fall cannot properly begin until the running of the races at the annual Hornet Red-Devil Invitational.  For the tenth year in a row, I will be spending my first September Saturday morning at Katherine Legge Memorial Park, participating in the annual ritual alongside thousands of other runners and fans (I consider myself both).

Here is how my day will likely unfold: I will arrive early to KLM, darkness still hovering over the treetops, only a few vehicles scattered in the easternmost parking lot.  At this point, KLM will be empty and quiet; the course lined, but no flags, poles, or finish line yet constructed.  Alongside other volunteers, and under the direction of course architect Jim Kupres, we will construct the Cross Country course.  I will help drive stakes into the ground, connect a string of flags from one pole to the next, pitch tents for the team area and concessions.  At a certain point, the course will emerge ready to go, and I’ll excuse myself for a morning run.  I’ll have a few miles to be alone with my thoughts before the team starts arriving, and will likely ponder the possibilities of the events to come.

And this year (as was true last year) the possibilities are vast.  Once again, an extremely competitive field has been assembled for this debut meet.  To give a sense of how excellent the teams are for the Varsity boys, here are the rankings of the first ITCCCA coach’s poll, released this past Tuesday (I’ll add the usual caveat that the only rankings which really matter are the state meet results):

  1. Neuqua Valley*
  2. Sandburg
  3. Hinsdale Central*
  4. York
  5. New Trier*
  6. Buffalo Grove
  7. Naperville North*
  8. Loyola
  9. Downers Grove North
  10. Lyons Township

The teams with a star after them will be competing on Saturday.  Of the other 9 teams on this list, we will see 7 within our first two meets (Neuqua, New Trier, Buffalo Grove, DGN, and LT will all be in Peoria the Saturday after next).  There are four teams from the West Suburban Conference listed, and 5 from our Sectional.  All of which is to say that, while it is a challenge to start the season with such a tough meet, we are grateful to have the opportunity, as this season allows us no time to let our guard down.  Nothing makes a program better than being tested early and often by the best teams in state.

So, as I do my run Saturday morning, I’ll consider what it might feel like to see our boys pull off a victory on the Varsity level, how I might respond if we run well but finish third or fourth, what I might say if we implode and run well below our potential.  It’s a new year, and anything can happen.  Last year brought extraordinary excitement as we emerged the victors in this meet for the first time; yet if one takes the long view (and as a History teacher, I am inclined to do so) our average finishing place since 2001 has been 6th:

Historical Overview of Hinsdale Central’s performance at Hornet-Red Devil Invitational

Freshman team place Sophomore team place Varsity team place
2001 8th 7th 4th
2002 6th 5th 6th
2003 7th 2nd 12th
2004 9th 6th 4th
2005 6th 5th 11th
2006 8th 6th 9th
2007 5th 5th 10th
2008 7th 8th 5th
2009 7th 1st 6th
2010 6th 5th 5th
2011 8th 4th 4th
2012 4th 3rd 4th
2013 7th 3rd 1st

Will 2014 look like 2013, or more like our historical average?  I can attest that our workouts in practice have matched the 2013 squad, and so I know we can toe the line with a feeling of confidence.  Yet I respect our opponents too much to make any pronouncements regarding the outcome (anyone see the letsrun.com quotation of the day yesterday from Meb?  On the 10th anniversary of his Olympic marathon silver medal, he pointed out that he came into the race with the 39th best PR in the field, yet finished 2nd.   Once that gun goes off, anything can happen).

So, once the gun goes off for the Sophomore race at 9:00, it is impossible to predict with certainty how the race will play out, yet I can say with certainty what I’ll be doing: sprinting from one point on the course to another, shouting encouragement, losing myself to the immersive experience of being a cheerleader/coach.  I am less self-conscious during a race than at any other time (drop me off at a party where I don’t know many people, I’ll feel plenty self-conscious, believe me).  I am sure on-lookers think I’m crazy, but I could care less.  Watching our guys race is thrilling; truly thrilling.  It makes me feel alive.  This connects with the theme of passion, which is one our program is emphasizing this year: to embrace the opportunity to feel deeply, both the physical discomfort towards the end of a race and the flood of relief, pride, and joy that comes after you’ve crossed the finish line.

All in all, I’ll probably get an additional 4-5 miles in during the course of the three races.  It would be fun to strap odometers to the legs of both myself and Coach Quick of Palatine to see which of the two of us logs more miles during the races – he being the one guy who expresses his race day enthusiasm through bolting to different points along the route to the same extent as I.

Once the final races have been run, my adrenaline levels will have dropped, and there will be some enjoyable milling about, as gathered alumni, runners, and coaches patiently wait for results to be announced.  I’ll have an opportunity to reconnect with old faces, to debrief with our own coaching staff and with coaches from opposing teams (and this meet brings in some of the coaches I most admire and respect: Coach Quick of Palatine, Vandersteen of Neuqua Valley, Gummerson and Lundin of Minooka, Dickerson of Hinsdale South, Wisner of New Trier), and to think out what points I’ll want to bring up in our post-race meeting (for sure, I’ll have by that point compared times from 2014 to what we ran in 2013 and be prepared to say who on the team saw the biggest single year improvement).

There will be an awards ceremony, the aforementioned team meeting, and a deconstruction of the course, as we return KLM to its natural state.  Hopefully, there will be a trip to Portillo’s with Coach Westhphal and Kupres to reflect on the day and to chart the course ahead.  Then I’ll return home: brown leaves will be strewn across my yard, apple cider in the fridge, and the Bears set to kick off their season the following day – fall’s arrival in full effect.

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