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Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Swallow Cliff - A Great Woody Run

Today is a day off. I suppose I could hit the track and waddle about a few go-arounds, but yesterday reminded me with bitter emphasis I need to be careful.

I'm a newbie. I can't forget that. Although I do know a thing or two about running, knowing is not the same as doing. And what I remember about the mechanics of running is filled with uncertainty; I am not sure how I did what was then so intuitive.

I remember the joy of fitness, and remember the wonderful days when running was graceful. Speedier people existed, but no one took more pleasure than I did.

Swallow Cliff in 2009, without the chutes
Swallow Cliff Forest Preserves
When I was in my late teens, a favorite run had me cruising through the perpendicular streets of eastern Palos Heights, and then up the undulating blacktop of 119th Street in Palos Hills. Take 119th to LaGrange, where the road ends and the forest begins, and then the adventure begins.

"The woods are lovely, dark, and deep," Robert Frost once wrote. Such were these woods. The trails were more often traveled by horses and deer than people. People rode the horses, but few runners and walkers came through this way. The path was littered with hoof-holes and road apples, both requiring delicate steps from a runner.

The route I took was off the path. I started by going directly west, then would turn right, leaving the path and trounce and bounce up and through valleys made by glaciers long ago. A huge mushroom hung on a tree, like a shelf, all white and impressive. That's how I knew I was in the right place.

The smells of a forest are hard to describe. It is like a strong, hearty soup. Mostly, it is all one flavor, but, with each spoonful, a whisper of an individual ingredient comes alive. Pepper, carrot, beef, barley -- it is all in there, and occasionally they announce themselves personally and not merely by congress.

The woods have this, with oak and maple dominating the air, with leaves growing and dying all at once. Felled trees, working their way back into dirt, have a damp, rotted wood scent. When there is a breeze, this is fine, as it is never so strong to be horrible.

Animals left their smells, and depending on the season, the scent of forest flowers and insects wafted airborne. Wayward skunks might leave a calling card, but mostly, they remained unseen. Beetles en masse have an awful, pungent odor. I don't know if this is a device for protection or a mating call, but I was not impressed. Not when I gulped air by the gallon.

While Henry David Thoreau's view of being mid-wood would not equal mine, I too connected with a kind of minimal materialism. I ran, then, with little between the trees and myself. Just shoes and shorts and a bandanna. I might have worn a singlet, but on hot days it was relegated to be carried by my shorts. I carried a quarter for a call home, just in case the run when sour. Used the quarter only once.

That particular bit of woods was the Swallow Cliff Forest Preserves. Better known as a toboggan run, it also served as an intense, difficult stair run (see stairs on left of picture above), up and down. I do not recall how many steps there were, but each was awkwardly shaped after years of weathering and erosion. Each step was a careful decision, and no cadence was possible. Physically difficult because each was long and high, intended to support slowly plodding sledders encumbered by heavy jackets and, of course, a huge sled, and not for thin runners hoping to touch each step with only one foot.

Typically, I'd run the stairs 2-3 times. That's a lot. These were no high school stadium seats, but part of runner lore. Bragging rights came from how many times they could be done in succession. I bragged my share.

The whole run -- I really have no idea how long it took, or how far it was. I usually started it in the morning, maybe 8 a.m. and finished -- later. Summer for a high school kid did not required a watch. Time meant little, and so long runs ended when they were over.


dachestmeister1 said...

My friend turned me onto swallowcliff last june after the stair renovation, there is 124 steps, 7 stories worth in my calcalations,completed 17x last week, anyways, would like to try paytons hill, could you give me directions from southside , 95th and harlem , approx 294 north ramp entrance from 95th st , thanks , enjoyed your blog. mark

Resilient Hawk said...

Thanks, Mark.

Sure. Though another poster suggests Payton's Hill is different than what I have been told. I will be looking into this, so consider the jury out. The hill is still a serious beast.

You are from that area? Did we run against each in HS? I attended Marist, ran CC there in 1981, then ran for Shepard 1982-1985. I ran many, many road races during the summers.

Try this link. If it flops, try Mapquesting to Butterfield Rd & Winfield Rd, Warrenville, IL 60555.

Then use the maps here to get precisely into Blackwell - park maps, where you can't miss Mt Hoy. Prepare to hurt. Bring Advil. Then, please write again, post how it went.

Drive: 28.7 mi – about 37 mins
28.7 mi – about 37 mins
1. Head southeast on W 95th St toward Nora Ave 0.2 mi
2. Turn right at S 69th Ave 125 ft
3. Turn right at Ulysses S Grant Memorial Hwy/US-12/US-20 0.7 mi
2 mins
4. Merge onto I-294 N/Tri-State Tollway via the ramp to Wisconsin
Partial toll road 11.4 mi
14 mins
5. Take the I-88 W/E-W Tollway exit toward Aurora
Toll road 1.7 mi
2 mins
6. Merge onto I-88 W/Ronald Reagan Memorial Tollway
Toll road 12.7 mi
14 mins
7. Take the Winfield Rd exit 0.4 mi
1 min
8. Keep right at the fork, follow signs for Warrenville and merge onto Winfield Rd 1.5 mi

dachestmeister1 said...

Hawk, I graduated oaklawn high in 79, My running life just started in oct 06, better late than never. My brother is in group of investers/ runners starting up running show on comcast this may, Mel from running for kicks is in there as well, Mel is also having southside half marathon this year as well. As for me i,m kinda of a lone wolf, run 4x week 4-5 miles , my friend starting to run with me and we do the stairs on the weekend now, i did 12 x swallow cliff today, would like to try walters hill, thanks for the info, when i get down there , i will give you a holler back, keep the good work up, i will be reading tour blog daily ,thanks again, Mark

Resilient Hawk said...

Mel Diab? I knew him years ago, through his sister, Lamise. Not very well, but he lived down the street from me growing up. His shop came after my time, but I bought a pair of ASICS 2120s (I think) a few years back. His daughter might be the one who sold them to me. Ask him if he remembers Tony Trendl.

It has been a long while since I ran Swallow Cliff's stairs. So they are renovated? That might steal from their glory. Before, they were awkwardly shaped - always hard to get into stride.

I would run from my house near 127th/Ridgeland in Palos Heights there, then hit the stairs. 17x? Yowza! I guess I'll need to see what's stuff is still in the trunk - I need to see how many I have in me.

You might be a good candidate for one of those skyscraper stairs races (Hancock, Empire state Building).

dachestmeister1 said...

Hawk, the stairs are still all different heights and widths and hard to get a stride , like you mentioned, You need to come back and see what you got in the trunk,, When I was doing them sunday am, I was looking at the hill next to them and thinking of Walter and his work ethics, I,m going to make it down to mt. hoy this april , I,ll let you know , also I will mention to Mel about you, Wish them a little luck with their runners ultimate network show , debuts may 3 rd on comcast, Talk to you soon, good running old man , MARK

Tony said...

That I will. I drove by there over the weekend realized I still haven't gotten there.

Good news: I'm still doing this blog, but the Tribune has asked me to write a running-based column. First one is up.