I was 22 years old when the President of my employer at the time walked into my office and said, “We’re moving all our marketing functions from Chicago to Philadelphia. We’ll pay for your move and give you a raise.” It was a directive, not a choice.
So I moved to Philly. But six months into the new arrangement the marketing department was floundering. On the way into work one day the lead salesperson turned to me and said, “What are you guys doing? The sales team doesn’t have anything we need to make things happen.” The Vice President of Marketing was not focused on the right things.
The entire marketing department was let go. The President of the Philly office handed over a severance check and shook my hand. “Thanks for moving out here,” he told me. “Sorry things didn’t work out.”
It was almost May and since I couldn’t pull up stakes that very minute I decided to take a little trip down the East Coast to Assateague Island to hang out by the sea and think.
I met some girls and went skinny-dipping in the cold surf. But the abiding feeling was one of disappointment and disillusionment. What had I done wrong? I’d followed orders and moved all the way out there, and then what? The future was blank.
The “Gap Year”
So I decided to take some time, consider my future, and take what these days is called a “gap year.” Many college students choose to take a year between their senior year in high school and their freshman year in college to go abroad or dive into some project that enhances their worldview and try to get their shit together between academic ventures.
My own college career had been a headlong trip of 4 straight academic years and 12 competitive seasons of cross country, indoor track and outdoor track.
Then I went straight to work as a college admissions counselor. The job required 1500 miles a week of driving across the state of Illinois and inner city Chicago.
On top of all that I’d ended a two-year relationship with a college girlfriend when I took the job with the investment firm in another state. Things had happened fast, in other words, and my young mind was struggling to grasp what it all meant.
I was trying to figure out the world on a lot of fronts. In the early stages of working for the investment firm I commuted into Chicago on the Metra rail system. That gave me an hour each day to read and write. I plowed through Kerouac’s On the Road, immersed myself in the raw worlds of John Irving’s Hotel New Hampshire and The World According to Garp. Then came inevitable encounter with The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. The storyline was compelling, focused on an uncompromising architect who refuses to give up his principles and learns that the world is unforgiving in return.
Then came a series of strange wild books by Carlos Castenada, The Teachings of Don Juan, and so on. Those books focused on the magical yet difficult relationship between a sorcerer philosopher and his naïve protégé. Castenada’s quotes resonated with my young mind: “We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.”
The practical thing to do when I moved back from Philadelphia would have been to find a job and start working again full time. But the warm Chicago summer made me so happy to be alive that I kept doing freelance work while writing and doing design. I did not make much money but the severance from the investment firm kept me going that year.
And I started training like a madman. My “gap year” transformed into an effort to become the absolute best runner I could be. The way I figured it, this was my one chance in life to do my best. The right age. The right circumstance.
Foundations and inspirations
I’d already planted some of the seeds of transformation back in Philly by training and competing with a club called Runner’s Edge. We ran easy 20-milers on weekends, no faster than 7:30 to 8:00 a mile. That pace was much slower than the 6:00 per mile distance runs we’d do back at Luther College, and it worked wonders. The solid base training paid dividends. I’d broken 32:00 for 10K the first time and we did our speedwork on the track at Villanova where world class runners like Sydnee Maree and Don Paige could be found preparing for national and world competitions. So I was inspired. Running was exploding as a sport, and the marathon world came alive with the likes of Alberto Salazar and others. So role models were plentiful. The 1984 Olympics were coming up in Los Angeles. And I kept on running.
Filling the gaps
Of course the process of self-exploration is always a combination of self-worth and unfulfilled dreams. But the idea of a gap year was in my veins now, and the results spurred on the effort.
In September that year I raced and won an event called Run For The Money that led to an offer of sponsorship by a running shoe store. From then on all my shoes and entry fees were free or very inexpensive. I felt like a pro runner at least.
I turned around and won the Oak Park Frank Lloyd Wright 10K, beating 2000 runners with a time of 32:00. It was a transcendent feeling, leading from the mile point on a 55-degree October morning with no wind. The stage was set for the new year.
Making it work
That winter I worked at the running store some to pay some bills as the severance money was just about gone. It had fueled some wild nights in the city chasing girls and allowed me to spend long days writing, painting and swimming in Lake Michigan. In other words, it gave me a chance to be young and free. Like a gap year should.
And I wrote. I purchased a jury-rigged IBM Selectric on which I typed and sold stories to some newspapers as well as a new running magazine based in Chicago. I learned that my endurance at the typewriter was equal to my capacity for training on the roads and track. Those are the kinds of things you want to learn in a gap year as well. Since then I’ve published more than 4000 paid and promotional stories in publications and online media.
Getting Real Results From the Gap Year
That next summer and fall I raced 24 times with the Running Unlimited team and won 12 of those races. The times I ran back then would still win 95% of the Chicago 5K and 10K races held today according to results published in Competitor Magazine. My memories of the gap year are thus not distortions of fact or warped by wishful thinking. The times I ran that year are absolute: 14:45 5K. 31:10 10K. 24:49 5M. 19:49 4M. 1:10:12 Half marathon and 1:25:25 25K.
The only missing component was the marathon, and that was because I thought the event irrelevant to my goals at the time. I attempted a competitive marathon the following year and ran 15 miles in 1:25 in the Twin-Cities Marathon before pulling out with hypothermia because the temps were in the low 30s and never warmed up. The winds off the lake were cold and I wore only a tee shirt and singlet. At 6’1” and 140 lbs, my skinny body did not stand a chance in such cold, but it was fun running almost 2/3 of the race in the company of Olympian Don Kardong, who was pacing a crew of 15 runners to 5:30 per mile and a 2:24 marathon.
Marathoning and more
As for marathon experience, I did run 3:00 hours for 26 miles during several training sessions. So I’ve never felt cheated or absent of knowledge about what it’s like to run that far, or that fast. My teammates from the running shop racing team all ran between 2:19 and 2:30 for 26.2. I can only console myself with the idea that I might have eventually run somewhere in that range.
My “gap year” ended with a marriage proposal and the call to competitive running felt complete. I was only 27 when I officially retired as a competitive runner. For the next decade I’d do 2-3 races a year, racing times in the 33:00 range for 10K, and was happy with that. Essentially I’d “closed the gap” on that period of life.
It’s funny what we can learn from a “gap year.” It’s not always what we expect, or even hoped for, at times. Yet if someone asks me if there’s value in a gap year or a sabbatical or any other break from a life track that simply rolls along, I say “Oh, yeah,” because there’s nothing like having the chance to get to know yourself a little better. It’s the best investment on earth.