Five years ago, quite by accident, I found myself at the Salesianum Invitational Cross Country Meet at Brandywine Creek State Park. The park is a pretty park, ideal for spur-of-the-moment walks or longer afternoon hikes. It is a popular site for Frisbee golf, running, kite festivals, and church picnics. The land adjoins the Brandywine River and was given to Delaware long ago by the Winterthur estate of Henry Francis du Pont.
It is close by and I go there often. I usually find only a few cars in an almost empty lot and a handful of people scattered in the distance, but that Saturday morning it was pulsating with activity: cars and school buses overflowing the paved parking lot into a grassy field, hundreds of high school runners warming up, stretching, and just chatting under the trees, scurrying coaches with stop watches and clipboards, groups of parents, and many pop-up canopies in school colors with snacks, water bottles, and busy volunteers. All very festive and exciting . . . and way different than usual.
Salesianum is a Delaware boys Catholic school with an outstanding reputation. The students are called “Sallies” with pride. Their Invitational meet is held the first Saturday in October.
I mentioned this meet in a posting on April 6, 2009, on the Penn Relays. What amazed me then was that virtually every girl crossing the finish line immediately stopped, leaned over with hands on knees, and cried. This was so common, they had several high school boys ready to move them to the side, away from the dozens of other runners coming quickly from behind.
At times, the whole area was covered with collapsed, disheveled, fainting, gasping, crying, wailing girls. It was a terrible sight. The ground ran black with mascara.
But that was then. This year, the girls were much better coached. Not one cried. The coaches were at the finish line reminding them to put their hands on the top of their heads. This simple gesture opened their lungs for more air, rather than compressing them by bending over, and it gave the girls some feeling of control. They were not about to die, after all. They seemed more aware of what to expect at the finish, and total exhaustion did not come as a scary surprise. Five years ago, many girls seemed to be running the full distance for the first time.
The meet this year was even bigger. There were lines of cars coming in. The staff and many volunteers were well organized collecting the money and directing the parking (I have a lifetime senior pass and drove right through). There were more buses, cars, runners, canopies, everything. It was a long time since I had seen that much youth in one place. All that positive energy, blond hair, smooth, tanned skin, straight teeth, firm flesh. And the girls looked even better.
Someone once said if you want to see what you will look like in ten years, run a distance race and look in a mirror. Remember the photos of Jimmy Carter supported by secret service guys after a simple jog? Going back over my photos from five years ago, I realized I had captured, entirely by coincidence, a few girls from the start and again at the end of the race. Note girl number 331. At the start, a sweet, innocent adolescent. Then see her at the end, less than 30 minutes later. Except for her number, I would have not recognized her. Confirming the old saying, she looked in her mid-twenties, having lived a very hard ten years.