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Finish Line

Trails Once Trod

A Return To The Arb Seeks To Recapture Old Memories

Walking from the stadium across the practice fields, I searched for an entry into the Lower Arboretum. Almost at the tree line, I finally spotted a narrow path that twisted through the woods and crossed a wooden bridge.

I had run this route so many times while attending Carleton College a half century ago. It was part of a two-mile loop our cross-country team covered regularly in practice at that Minnesota school. I could run it in my sleep. The loop continued across a highway and around Lyman Lakes at the base of the campus, following the edge of the lakes into the Upper Arboretum before crossing another bridge and turning back through the field where the women played field hockey. Conscious of pretty eyes upon us, our strides grew smoother as we sprinted past.

Next we would cut across grassy slopes below buildings that housed classrooms for science, literature and art, before returning to the stadium where we sometimes finished races at halftimes of football games. "The Arb" is what students called this greenspace around the lakes. Couples often went there at night carrying blankets for lovemaking. During the day, it was our domain for more heroic deeds.

But as I crossed the highway and searched for the path beside the lakes, I found that our old routes through The Arb had disappeared. Trees and bushes blocked my way. At the far end of the campus, I finally found remnants of a lakeside path, but not one you could comfortably run.

I had returned to Carleton at age sixty?nine for a meeting to discuss my class's fiftieth reunion. Even though that event was nearly three years away, planning had already begun. But a more important goal for my visit was to run trails once trod and recapture happy memories.

Lost Memories

Alas, I never would get to run those trails again, nor would others. As I sadly watched, earthmoving machines shoved dirt aside in the area where couples once made love. The college has doubled in size since my time there and needs new dormitories and classrooms. I barely recognized the campus of my youth.

Yet why mourn lost memories? Carleton had provided for me an important passage from boyhood to near manhood. I arrived on campus in the fall of 1949 from an all-boy’s high school, ill-prepared scholastically or socially. I nearly flunked out of school my first semester. I was shy seeking dates. My freshman roommate and I got into a fight, which I lost. I was at best a mediocre athlete, not having yet broken five minutes for the mile.

Four years later, I lived with three compatible roommates and was dating the prettiest girl on campus. My grades had improved to permit me acceptance into graduate school. The fastest miler in the Midwest Conference, I had begun to lay the groundwork for a successful writing career. “When I was twenty-one,” Frank Sinatra once sung, “it was a very good year.” Life couldn’t get any better than this, so I thought.

After my fruitless search through The Arb, I met Coach Bill Terriquez. He had invited me to talk with his cross-country team before their workout. But what could they learn from this old man? It occurred to me that not only had their parents been born after I graduated, but so had some of their grandparents! I spoke briefly of races run on cinder tracks and training programs now outdated, then it was time to run.

I planned to run with the team, but managed only to stay close during the warm?up. The team did several long sprints, on a cross-town course they would run the next day, then headed back to campus. Though there was a time not that long ago when I might have led their charge, I let them go. Age yielded to youth.

Did I regret my lost speed? Would I want to be young again leading the pack? Certainly, I am at a point when it is tempting to spend more time looking back than looking forward, but when you slow down as a runner you get to spend more time enjoying the scenery. Walks with my wife over trails once trod at a faster pace have begun to occupy more of my time. I met her several years after graduation and learned that life could be better than it was at twenty-one. I can allow memories of The Arb to fade minus sorrow. The view right now seems much more inviting.

Hal Higdon is a Senior Writer for Runner’s World magazine. This essay was written for that publication.