Professional athletes plan their day around their training. The rest of us have to plan our training around our day. That might involve working a job, being a full-time parent or caregiver. Whatever our responsibilities, they must come first.
Those of us that first trained for athletics in high school and college find it a bit of an adjustment to flip these priorities around. When you begin serious training at the age of 12 and there is nothing else to interfere with your life other than school, training takes a pretty high priority. But that’s not how the real world works.
Welcome to the Real World
When you graduate from all that schooling the real world hits you in the face for the first time. The starting time for work is an absolute. Suddenly you’re faced with squeezing your workouts into the early morning or after work. It doesn’t seem fair. And it isn’t. But that’s what you’ve got to do.
My indoctrination to the work world was a bit odd. My first job out of college was working in the admissions field for my alma mater, Luther College. That first summer on campus was relaxed. Other than spending time in the office, there was plenty of free time to go out and run or ride bikes. We played a ton of frisbee golf on the college campus and whiled away the months of June, July and August.
But when September came around the real work began. My territory included all of Chicago and the state of Illinois. That meant driving 250 miles on a Sunday just to get to the region where I would work. I’d meet with students during the school day and run our booth during college nights. It was a lot of running around, which left very little time for running.
Little did I know that the admissions department had undergone a ton of changes that previous year. The Chicago rep had for ten years lived in the market and had a home there. That meant he traveled up to Decorah mostly to turn in applications.
But numbers were dropping some, and the college wanted more control than that. The money crunch of the early 80s recession was putting pressure on everyone. That was a wakeup call to the young mind of a recent graduate like me. It is a shocking realization in some respects to learn that your beloved college is a cold, hard business operation with unforgiving need for revenue. That came from new students, and there were no two ways about it.
Which meant that I drove all over Illinois meeting seeking prospective students in far-flung high schools or the deeply urban halls of Chicago campuses. The contrasts in these extremes were stark. The travel was brutal, and as daylight began to fail in early October with daylight savings time (how ironic…) it was difficult to get done with the work day and find time to go for a run. So there were many missed opportunities and my mood darkened with the unrelenting pressures.
On the cheap
Often I’d stay at “affordable” hotels on the edge of town rather than spend more money to stay at nicer places in the center of a city. That meant the runs I could manage to work into the schedule would be done on roads without streetlights. I’d run 3-4 miles, and that distance seemed a pittance compared to the gloriously free 15 mile days I’d been doing the previous year while training for the national championship. Hadn’t that been a noble effort for the college as well? Didn’t that somehow count toward my work in this world. Well honestly, no.
It was a test of my self-worth in some respects. Was I still a good person if I was not running as much? What was I even running for? There were no races on the docket, nothing to plan or shoot for. For the first time in many years, I was not an athlete. I was just me.
On top of all that I was desperately in love with a woman that I’d begun dating during my senior year in college. For the first semester of school that fall, she remained at Luther. But then she took an internship with a retail firm in Minneapolis.
That meant I’d drive to Chicago on Sunday night, put in 1500 miles of driving around the state of Illinois during the week, then drive the 250 miles back to Decorah on a Friday afternoon. I’d rest up that night, and if I was not working the admissions office that Saturday, I’d jump into my Dodge Omni and make the three-hour run up to the Twin Cities to spend the weekend with her. Then I’d drive back down on Sunday morning, gather up my stuff for the travel schedule that week and head back to Chicago or downstate in Illinois. It was an insane schedule. But I was young, in love and stupid.
Stil, I recall those visits to the Twin Cities as a sweet respite. I well recall the seeming liberty of trotting around the lakes that fall and winter. The fresh breeze filled my lungs, and sometimes she’d run part of the way with me. That felt like reality, and it made me ache for a situation that was not so stressful and full of windshield time.
No easy task
But the work of admissions was unrelenting. Trying to nail down commitments to college from high school seniors is no easy task. Yet my applications crept toward the quota of 70 students the college had mapped out for me. I took the route of being personable as possible with everyone I met. A few parents were so grateful to me for helping their kid make a decision to attend Luther that one pressed a $20 into my hand with a wink and said “Thanks.” I tried to give the money back, but the parent would not be denied. “Seriously,” he told me. “Thanks.”
I asked my peers in Admissions what to do with that money and to a person they said, “Keep it. You’ve earned it.”
And so it went. During the final week of travel that fall, I was visiting Carl Sandburg high school in Orland Park when a heavy snow began to fall. I was aching to go for a run at the end of the long visitation season so I checked in with the high school coach and asked if I could join his kids for their workout that day.
We took off on a run along snowy roads and one of them made the decision that we should take a loop through the hilly forest preserves. The snow as already deep, and my Nike LDVs were soaked and thick with slush from the road. We ran three miles into the deep woods and back out for a total loop of 10 miles. I was beyond exhausted when it was all done. Driving back to the hotel before the college night, I felt the familiar twinge of a sore throat starting up. After a shower, I felt even worse. This was a different form of overtraining. I was spent from all those months on the road.
So I skipped the college night that Thursday and drove back in secret to Decorah that next morning. My head was thick with a cold and I parked my car behind the house where I rented an upstairs room and went to bed and slept and slept. I’d made it through the fall recruiting season, but just barely.
That spring the travel schedule was just as tough as the fall. I recall one spring night at a Motel 6 in Decatur. The hotel was next to a major rail hub and all night long the trains rattled and clanked as engines were moved around. I didn’t sleep more than two hours. After my morning college visits, I slept in the car in some vacant high school parking lot. The windows were cracked to let in a little cold spring air, but I was miserable and achey and sick of the road with all my heart. I cried a little, then shoved the car into gear and headed for the next town on the map.
There were some amusing incidents along the way as well. While driving through some small town in downstate Illinois I did not slow down for the heart of town and blew through at probably 50 mph. A mile down the road I looked into my rearview mirror and noticed what looked like a postal worker following me with a yellow light flickering on his front dash. I pulled the Dodge Omni over to the side of the road and was surprised to be met by the local cop from the town I’d just passed walking up to my door. “Didn’t you see my light?” he asked.
“No, it was too little,” I responded. Damn, I thought. I just said the wrong thing. He issued me a ticket on the spot.
A house on a hill
Later that day I sat with a family of a star football recruit in the beautiful small town of Lincoln, Illinois. Their home was perched on a hill overlooking a creek. The screen doors let in a pleasant breeze tinged with the sweet smell of manure on the fields. I’d gotten in a run that morning with the April winds blowing through my air. It had been a long year, but life felt good at that moment. That family had me over for dinner and we talked about the college of which I was still proud to have attended. There were hugs exchanged and the world finally felt a bit right.
Getting it done
I kept traveling through May while doing runs from those pathetic little hotels in flat Illinois landscapes. That was the only thing that kept my sanity. By year’s end, I had made my quota of 70 students right on the button. No more, grant you, but also no less.
That June I resigned my position with a letter to the President of the college, who wished me well. And the following year the college made the decision to allow the new Chicago admissions counselor live in the market to avoid all that driving back and forth to Decorah.
A part of me was bitter about that. I’d given my all to that year of admissions and felt a bit betrayed by the fact that I’d been run through the ringer during a transitional year. At one point my boss had asked me, “Is your head in the game?”
But he wasn’t with me those cold nights attending college recruitment sessions in hard Chicago neighborhoods. And he wasn’t with me as I held belief in what I was doing despite the raw difficulty of all that travel back and forth. And he wasn’t with me when those applications came into the college despite his doubts in my abilities. No one really offered to help with all that. It was pretty much a do or die proposition. Succeed or fail. And I succeeded.
And I did thank God for the running I did during that year of admissions. It kept my brain in the game, and on an even keel. It was a hard way to learn about the reality of the working world. But I did it.
But I also recall stopping at the wayside on Wisconsin highway 18 near Fennimore. There is an overlook from which you can see 40 miles in either direction. I did not have time at that moment to go running in those hills, but I promised myself that one day I would.
And years later those very hills would be the site of so many bike rides and runs. From Dodgeville and Mineral Point we’d ride. From Blue Mounds and Mt. Horeb. Cross Plains and Madison. The world gave back in glory what it took from me in dark nights and long drives. And that is the yin and yang of this place in which we live. Darkness and glory are always in balance. That is the key admission that we all must make.