While cleaning out my house to move, I dug up some running journals that included a summary of a peak competitive season.
So I invite you to Come With Me on a non-fiction journey through a peak-period racing season. I was in my early 20s and sponsored by a shop, Running Unlimited, that paid for our entry fees and gave us shoes. Our commitment to the racing team was to compete in at least 12 times per year in our team gear. I essentially doubled that in a year that saw 24 races between February and November.
A typical race season in those days would be for distance runners to compete in indoor track events to tweak and tune the legs after putting in base mileage during November, December and January.
Thus the racing season began with a pair of indoor two-mile indoor races out in Sterling, Illinois. Quality indoor tracks were rare then, and athletes from Chicago such as Mike Conley (a future Olympian) and Tim Witherspoon would sign up for several events.
The best distance runners would compete as well. And in February I competed in the two mile, running 9:30 and under both times.
Then came the first outdoor race, a 5-miler in 16-degree temps with a stiff wind blowing off the lake during the Shamrock Shuffle at Montrose Harbor. The 26:10 time was indicative that my base mileage had done its work.
As a sponsored runner, my next obligation was the Lake County Half Marathon, a point-to-point affair. I set a PR that season with a 1:10:58 and finished in 12th or so place.
Three weeks later I lined up at midnight with a pack fo 25 other runners to compete in an All-Comers meet at North Central College. Olympian Jim Spivey won the race, which was delayed for hours due to the number of athletes trying to get qualifying times for national meets and the Olympics, in just over 14:00. I ran 14:47 for a 5K PR, and got home at 1:30 in the morning.
Can you take the heat?
At the end of May our team competed in the Elgin 10-Mile Fox Trot. I ran 54:40 on a hilly course in the heat. That was a disappointing effort in some ways, but I was still top 10.
Next came a qualifying event for the Prairie State Games, which was Illinois’ attempt at an Olympics-style athletic competition. On a hot June afternoon, I won the qualifying 5K race in 15:40, running just hard enough to hold off other competitors.
In late June I raced a 10-mile event held in Melrose Park. My future mother-in-law had never seen me run, so I was inspired to do well and impress her. However, the temps rose into the low 80s and the race coursed through old industrial parks, which seemed to breathe even more heat in our direction. Yet I felt fantastic the entire race and found myself passing runners I had never beaten before in races. With a half mile to go I kicked even harder and passed three more guys to finish in fourth place overall with a PR of 53:30. I was ecstatic.
The next weekend I won a 10K road race, the Community Classic in Geneva, running 31:53 (later revised to 31:52) to set a course record that stood for 20 years.
On July fourth, I raced in Glen Ellyn, Illinois against a solid competitor. We ran step for step on a four-mile course until he beat me at the finish line. I ran 20:05 for second.
Our racing team brought nine athletes to a 10K in Mt. Prospect, a community next to the running shop in Arlington Heights. We took the top nine places and I placed second overall in a 10K PR of 31:10.
So I thought I was in for a good performance at the following week’s Prairie State Games. Only I probably overate and drank too much soda leading up to the race thanks to the fact that the cafeteria was free and everything was unlimited. I managed to get through two miles in 9:30 in 80-degree heat and 88% humidity before succumbing to a side stitch and dizziness that put me in a wheelbarrow full of ice. DNF.
Coming off that odd experience, I traveled to Decorah, Iowa for a 5-mile race with college buddies. I was still feeling weird from the DNF experience and ran an uninspired 26:00 in a high-humidity event for second place.
The next weekend I planned to take a break, but the Running Unlimited shop owners, Frank and Carolyn Gibbard, called to ask me to race in a 5K that Sunday morning. I’d left my racing shoes at my apartment in the city, so they gave me a new pair of Nike American Eagle racing shoes and I took second in 15:04 to a teammate that decided to show up at the last minute.
Such are the vagaries of obligatory racing.
In August I took a racing break, and perhaps watched the 1984 Olympics on TV. Then I ramped training back up in preparation for the fall racing season.
I ran both 10Ks in September in 31:53, winning one and taking second in the other to a teammate.
Busted by Boston Billy
Leading up to a race in late September, I was asked to serve as an event guide to American marathoner Bill Rodgers who was showing up to run at a 25K in Joliet, Illinois. The race rented us a Volkswagon Beetle because Bill liked those cars, and I drove out to his hotel and knocked on his door. He opened the hotel door in his underwear and I waited for him to change. He was half-asleep and told me, “You know, I’m not feeling that great and I’m probably not gonna race this weekend? If you want my race number you can have it.”
That was a bit of a dilemma. Thinking that I was not going to race that weekend, I’d done a hard 15 miles (1:35) on Thursday and another 10 miles hard (60:00 on Friday) as part of my training. Yet here I was on Sunday morning, feeling a bit peppy in the presence of one of the world’s best runners, and frankly I was inspired out of my gourd.
So I took Bill Rodgers’ race number and jumped into the 25K race. I felt great the entire race and placed 3rd overall in a time of 1:24:47, another PR.
I was ecstatic but also worried after the race. My hamstring had tightened up in the last three miles and I was a bit sore coming over the finish line. Jogging back to the car after the race with Rodgers, I enthused that I’d done so well after the big training days leading up to the race. “That’s good if you can do it without getting injured,” he wryly observed.
Busted. The best always know how things work.
Raring to go
However, the hamstring healed up quickly with a couple day’s rest. And to this day, I wish that I’d somehow been lined up to run a full marathon that weekend. I was in peak fitness and obviously had the endurance to go the full 26.2 at racing pace.
But we just weren’t that marathon focused at the sub-elite level in that era. Our focus was always finding another race to run, not spending it all on one long-ass race like a marathon.
So I came back in 32:00 two weeks later to win yet another 10k in the Frank Lloyd Wright 10k in which 3000 runners competed. It was one of the finest racing efforts in my entire career, leading from start to finish. Because that’s what you do when you’re 25 years old and raring to go.
Race for America
With that confidence under my belt, I showed up in Chicago’s Lincoln Park to compete in the Race for America. The event had recruited some of the top distance runners in North America. I lined up in the first row next to Alberto Salazar, Thom Hunt and a slew of other actually elite runners. The gun went off and the first mile passed in 4:45. And I was with the leaders. The next mile passed in 4:45 as well. And I stuck with the pace. Three miles passed in quick succession, and I blew up. The lead runners pulled away into the fourth mile and I literally gave them a little wave, and finished among the sub-elite at 25:30, slowing quite horribly in the last mile.
That race told me that despite all my training and effort, I was still not a world class runner, and likely never would be. It did not crush my hopes entirely or defeat my goals as as a runner. But it did show me that elite runners compete at a level that I just did not have.
I took second in the Sycamore Pumpkinfest 10K at 32:26, then competed in a four-mile mixed twosome race to win the team championship, running 20:17 for second place among the men.
Then came a late-season cross country race that I won by running over jumps and fields and grassy knolls in 26:39.
It was late October by then. I was tired from the long year and should have called it a day, a week and a year.
But my former track coach called to tell me that a big 10K was being held in Rosemont, Illinois. The world’s best runners would be there, including 10K road race record holder Mark Nenow. So I accepted the free entry and showed up for the race.
I knew that I was well past peak condition. My body was sending signals that I was too tired to race any more. I had a light cold and sore legs. I’d taken a couple weeks off from hard running and still felt stale. It was November, and the race started indoors in some big convention center. I raced out the first mile and could feel that I had nothing left. The first mile passed in 5:00 but the leaders were thirty seconds ahead already.
I shut down the racing effort and just jogged the last five miles. Toward the finish I veered away from the chute and headed to the parking lot, jumped in my car and headed home. The season had not ended on a high note, but the year, in general, had been a thrill.
It was a non-fiction journey through a peak racing season.