As freshman in high school I entered the sport of cross country and found a true love. Nothing was better than running as fast as one could go in the woods and fields. Training was hard. Sometimes my skinny legs were so tired it hurt to walk around the house after practice. Yet something about the severity appealed deeply to me.
At the same time high school began, I was a paperboy in the small town of Elburn, Il. The paper route required delivery before 6:30 a.m. to between 30-35 houses each morning. I would rise at 5:30 a.m., climb on a Huffy 3-Speed bike (with hand brakes, yeah baby!) and pedal to pick up the papers for delivery from Smith’s Bar-B-Que, a restaurant that catered to the many farmers who lived and worked around the agricultural community.
Before dawn the atmosphere inside Smitty’s (as it was called) was dark and mysterious. Clumps of farmers sat at small tables throughout the restaurant. Though not a shy kid, I never talked to many of those men. They were busy eating and occupied themselves in that grumbling low talk men use when starting the business of a working day.
I’d sit on one of the 8 spinning stools and belly up to the linoleum counter. Smitty would shove a free chocolate-covered donut and a Cherry Coke under my nose. We didn’t have to talk, and this was my perk for doing a good job on the paper route. He liked how I delivered the papers on time and we seldom heard any complaints. At least none that I ever heard about.
35 newspapers can be a lot of weight when you have only 125lbs on a 6’0″ tall frame. Like so many high school runners, my body fat was probably in the negative integer category. But I was wirey strong, and would shoulder that low-slung bag filled with Chicago Tribunes, the Sun-Times, Chicago Daily News and one or two other newspapers as I recall. Only the Tribune and Sun-Times remain in operation, and both have been through bankruptcy in the last decade or so.
At the time, however, newspapers were king of all media, and even at that young age I was proud of being part of the chain. A small part, admittedly, and naive to the political slant of newspapers, which I viewed as the final word on just about every subject.
Later in life I would spend 15 great years working for two different newspapers, the Kane County Chronicle and the Daily Herald, 3rd largest newspaper in Illinois, where I worked first in editorial and then in marketing.
But my job as a 14-year kid was simple and straightforward: Get the newspaper delivered to the right homes, and on time.
I relished the daily challenge, and in all sorts of weather. Some mornings it was a slow pedal down to Smitty’s, weaving my way through deep snow with narrow tires. Those were heavy cross-training efforts. The total paper route was just over 3 miles, contained some hills and was generally a gentle aerobic effort under any conditions.
That meant the paper route was really a form of cross training.
It was also a form of discipline. Getting up early every day when you’re 14 years old takes a certain amount of dedication. The $8.50 I earned per week (in 1970s dollars) was some motivation. The only other source of income at that age were the sale of a few of my paintings to friends and family, and allowance. And I couldn’t always count on that, especially when my grades wavered or the family budget was tight.
So doing that paper route was a matter of taking some control over my own life, of having some shred of independence, however meager it might be. I recall taking a girl out on a date my sophomore year, calculating that it would take me four weeks of paper route money just to buy her dinner. Such is young love.
Yet the thing that sticks with me about that paper route is the knowledge that it did serve an important physical function as well as having social benefits, like a few bucks in my pocket. Those early morning rides carrying perhaps 10 lbs. of newspapers (double that on Thursdays and Holidays) slung over my shoulder held important benefit for young legs still figuring out what it meant to train and compete. There was also a certain form of goal-setting that it helped me learn. How to plan my time accordingly, and meet expectations. All those facets contribute to the ultimate success of an athlete, especially one engaged in endurance sports. Throw in a little suffering on those -17 degree mornings, riding through rain and sleet and snow, and fighting off dogs at every 3rd stop, and you have all the makings of a Rocky-style upbringing. Only I wrought it on myself. Willingly.
As a freshman I ran varsity for the big meets, and our team won the conference meet. As a sophomore I led the team in points earned and we won the varsity conference.
Then we moved 10 miles east to the City of St. Charles and my mother told me I did not have to do a paper route any more. She was worried, I’m sure, that the move was enough strain on my young mind. The circumstances were always unclear to me, but there were definitely family economics involved. But I also learned that my father did not want my younger brother to play basketball at such a small school, especially one with a slow down offense, which drove my father insane to watch. My brother earned Honorable Mention All State honors and went on to play Division I ball for Kent State University. So my dad was right.
And I adjusted to a new school, and led the cross country team to its first ever District Title. It was fun being the new kid in town. I even earned a few kisses from a sweet cheerleader with a penchant for hooking up with the top runner on the squad.
Yet something in me still missed that paper route. There is a Spartan tendency that runs through all runners, it seems. Mine loved riding through the dark with a bag of extra weight on my shoulder.
But the $100 in tips each Christmas season didn’t hurt either.