Illinois gravel road

A gravel road leads to a farm in Hamilton County, Ill. 

Sometimes in the evening, after a day of field work on the farm, I would lace up my sneakers and go for a run.

Now, I didn’t do it often enough to have a significant improvement in my distance running. I wasn’t driven to succeed or anything. You might say I did it just often enough to work up a good sweat (as if the day in the field hadn’t done that) and to have a pretty righteous feeling about myself when I walked through the porch door and on into the house.

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That was the same kind of feeling I sometimes got when, on spring Saturdays during track season, I’d meet Roger Miller at the ball field, hop over the east fence and run along the railroad track out across the train bridge over the Missouri River. Sometimes when we were crossing the trestle bridge, we’d think we heard a train coming, and we’d pick up the pace, the way the kids did in that movie, “Stand By Me.’’ Unlike the movie, we never were chased by an actual train, but we had pretty good imaginations back in our high-school days.

As was the case with me running in the evening on the farm, Roger and I didn’t do the train-track loop often enough to significantly increase our running ability. We did it just about often enough to feel righteous about putting in some extra work. You didn’t see the other guys out here pounding along the track bed, did you? In the defense of the other guys on our team, not even the coaches pushed us to ruin our weekends with extra workouts.

I first got the idea of putting in some extra work during my freshman year in track. I read a feature story in the Mitchell paper about a kid named Jake Schlicht, a Woonsocket runner who, according to the story on the sports page, got up every morning and ran around a section before school. I’ll never forget thinking, “A section? That’s four miles around. I couldn’t run four miles at one stretch if a freight train was on my tail.’’

Schlicht was a year ahead of me in school, so I got to watch him run at a number of track meets. He ran the mile faster than any kid of his time, 4:23-something, I think, and he had his own track spikes. When Chamberlain track kids ran at meets, we shared shoes, ripping the spikes off the feet of a kid who’d just finished a race so we could lace them up for our event, only to have them ripped from our feet by a kid in one of the next events. Imagine what you’d think if you were in that situation and you saw a kid who had a pair of track shoes of his very own.

I told my dad I needed my own spikes. He thought otherwise. He told me that Jim Thorpe, the great Native American runner, won Olympic medals in the 1912 Games wearing a pair of mismatched shoes because his own running shoes had been lost. If Thorpe could be an Olympic champion without his own shoes, I could compete pretty well with the spikes the school provided, Dad said. Well, sure, I thought, but I’m no Jim Thorpe. I didn’t say that because my dad would have said something about “Can’t never did nothing.’’ Just for fun the other day, I fact-checked the Thorpe story about lost shoes. Apparently, it’s true.

When I ran on the farm in the evenings, I ran in inexpensive Keds or Converse tennis shoes and the blue jeans I’d worn in the field all day. These days, I suppose, I’d have changed into some moisture-wicking running togs and laced up a pair of $140 running shoes. If I’d tried that back in the 1950s, I’d have been laughed out of the township. Nobody wore shorts in those days.

I tried wearing cut-off jeans in the field the summer after my sophomore year in college. Guys were wearing cut-off jeans and Bermuda shorts all over campus, even to classes, although my literature of England professor frowned on it. But he wore double-breasted suits, so who was he to talk fashion?

My dad told me short pants were impractical in the field. He was right, sure. But running up and down a dirt lane in cheap shoes and worn jeans was impractical, too, and he never said a word about that.

Terry is a well-known regional columnist who lives in Fort Pierre, S.D.