A friend with whom I went to high school and college was living in his girlfriend’s house on Menominee Street in Chicago when I returned to the Midwest after a job in Philadelphia was terminated.
It wasn’t just the job that went down the tubes. The whole department was dumped by the investment firm where I had worked for three years. I was sent to Philly on a month’s notice in a consolidation of marketing employees.
It wasn’t a case of a stranger in a strange land. I’d lived an hour-and-a-half west of Philly in Lancaster, Pa., and had a brother who still lived there. But settling into a new city with a commute from Paoli downtown to Philly had not been exactly easy. The only salvation was the running club I joined at a shop in Paoli. Those long training runs and racing with the guys provided some level of camaraderie. I improved quickly, in fact.
But after just 8 months in Philly the job ended. Just like that. For one thing, the VP was rumored to be sleeping with the AVP. At the very least their flirtations in meetings and more were a notable distraction from the tasks at hand, which were giving the wholesalers and reps everything they needed to sell, sell, and sell some more.
One morning on the train into Philly a wholesaler who’d also been moved to Philly from Chicago turned to me and said, “What are you guys doing over there in marketing? We’re not getting anything we need?”
Though young and callow in many respects, I knew that to be true, and I trusted the guy to his word. But the VP of Marketing was an East Coaster in love with marketing theory as well as the AVP, who was married but apparently not entirely happy.
The collapse of the department was a shock, so I took some of the severance money and traveled down the east coast to Assateague Island. It was late spring, and I was already quite fit from training all winter, having set a 5 mile road PR of 25:12 that January.
So I went for long runs and swam naked in the cold surf, trying to figure out what to do next in life.
It was an indulgence of sorts. You might say that. Or you might not. When life hits you with stuff like that you need time to sort through the meaning of it all. And for reasons that I now know are right, I decided to use that summer and fall and perhaps beyond to get as good as I could be as a distance runner.
All around me were people pressing into their careers, and I admired their dedication to the task. But I’d done that and hit a dead end, not entirely my own fault. So the move back to Chicago felt both like an act of triumph and of failure.
My friend agreed to have me move in with him at the apartment on Menominee. It was to be a hot Chicago summer but that first day we ran together along the lakefront in May was brisk and cool. The sand blowing off North Avenue Beach stung our legs. We were exuberant, young and relatively fast.
My friend is a pretty smart guy to this day, a success in his career and possessed of multiple post-graduate degrees. He was working on his first Masters Degree at the time and working evenings at a hospital in the CT scan department. In other words, busting his ass.
So there was a bit of cognizant dissonance in my return to Chicago and the commitment to running full time. He was essentially as good a runner as I, and competed in running and cycling. Who was I to assume that I could become that much better than he?
It happened that I ran pretty well that fall. Won several races and was offered a contract from a running store to represent them on a racing team. It was both an honor and an obligation, I would learn, to become a sponsored runner. Other teams were cropping up in Chicago, most notably a corporate team from Converse, a company trying to make inroads in the running business. They failed. But the team they sponsored dominated the Chicago circuit for a few years with runners sporting 10K times in the high 29s and low 30s. Guys on the cusp of the big time. I wanted to be one of them.
So I trained day and night, working at the running shop to pay a few bills, but soon enough, that wasn’t enough. Even though I’d won a race that fall called Run for the Money (sponsored by a bank, get it?) all I got for the victory was a health club membership in a town where I did not live.
Soon it became a struggle to consistently bring in cash, meet the rent and buy food. Working at the running store paid $10 an hour, or something like that. I freelanced in graphic design some, but the economy was getting pinch too.
Flirting with the big time
Ironically I also served as a commissioned training partner for the international president of a giant advertising firm. Each week I’d take him out and put him through is training paces under supervision of my high school coach who’d become a corporate fitness trainer. It seemed awkward to bring up the idea of working for his firm. He’d change the subject or ignore the topic when I did. He also left his wife for another woman at the time. So his possible self-indulgences were apparently a higher priority than helping those close to him in other respects. But apparently his new relationship stuck, so we cannot know all the reasons people act the way they do. Not unless we are them.
The Big Year under running sponsorship turned out well in many regards. While it did not advance my career in any significant way, there were afternoons spent writing on an IBM Selectric, working on a novel completed in some respects, yet never published. But I definitely learned the true discipline of writing, literally scraping away ash and grit that would blow in the windows and land on the keys of that typewriter. True urban dwelling.
And I painted, furiously at times, while nightly flirting with the wonders of Chicago, meeting women on the lakefront on hot summer days and dancing away hot summer nights. Yet the relationship that would turn into marriage was also growing, becoming a much bigger part of my life.
I raced 24 times that year, winning 10 of those races outright, and setting all my PRs from 5K up to 25K.
But I learned firsthand that I was not yet world class, and likely never would be. In an event called Race of America I stood on the line next to Alberto Salazar, Thom Hunt and a host of other world class distance runners. The gun went off and we passed through a mile in 4:40. Then another in 4:45. My pace began to slow. They kept going. I finished in a slack sprint at 25:30. The case was clear. I was good, but not great. My ultimate PR at 5 miles (road) would turn out to be 24:49. At 5K, 14:47. At 10K, 31:10. At 10 miles, 53:30. Half marathon: 1:10:12. 25K, 1:25:25. Never got around to a competitive marathon during peak fitness. After that, it seemed ridiculous to try. Just my take on things.
All that dedication to training was a bit suspicious in my friend’s eyes. “You know,” he told me one cold Chicago night after I’d put in two workouts that day. “Self indulgence is not the way to self-fulfillment.”
He denied ever saying that to me years later. But we’ve said so much to each other in 30+ years of friendship it is quite likely he did not remember it. But he was right. What I did that year-and-a-half was, in fact, a bit self-indulgent. But was it such a crime to invest myself in such an endeavor?
Together we’ve gone on to run many thousands of miles together. Nowadays we ride bikes more than we run, and he has been quite a cyclist some years, riding summits in France. We’re grateful for each other’s company and our shared experience. That is no self-indulgence, it turns out.
As distance runner Marty Liquori once wrote in his book about racing and training, and I paraphrase, “You want to become as good as you can be so you don’t have to prove yourself at the family picnic.”
It is never actually self-indulgent to invest time trying to do something really well. Who is to determine what is right to pursue, and what is not?
The key word is focus, and transfer of excellence. You can learn discipline from running, riding, writing and painting. Even if you do not become world class at any of those endeavors, the discipline learned from sport and from art can deeply infuse the major categories of your life. That’s different than being simply self-indulgent. Anything that teaches you focus cannot be all bad. As a character from the John Irving novel “Hotel New Hampshire” once said, “You’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed.”
To run and ride your best, that is probably true. Just use that experience to build your whole person and everything will turn out okay, even if you don’t get rich or famous.