My competitive career as a runner was coming to a close the time by the time I got married at the age of twenty-seven. We conceived our first child in December after a June wedding that year. By then, I’d already considered whether engaging in hard training was a good idea on the advent of having our first child.
Still, I raced fairly well that first year of marriage, winning a few mid-sized races, breaking 20:00 in a four-mile road race and a ten-miler in just under 54:00. That said, the Running Unlimited Racing Team for whom I’d competed the previous year was disbanded. I tried shifting my talents to the Vertel’s squad in Chicago that spring, but despite the fact that I knew the store manager well, I was relegated to the “B” squad with less-than-inspiring Bill Rodger’s racing tops rather than the new Nike singlets given to the elite runners representing the shop, such as Kevin Higdon.
I thought that a bit harsh given my performance the year before, winning 10 or 12 races out of 24 entered that year. That included a 4th place finish a minute or so behind Higdon at a Melrose Park 10-miler in which I outkicked a bunch of guys that I’d never beaten before.
But my early season results in ’85 weren’t quite as stellar, and as every runner knows, a reputation often depends on the last good race you’ve won.
Thought never more than a journeyman distance runner, a sub-elite at best, I still had pride in what I’d accomplished. So it hurt to be told, in essence, that it looked like I was washed up. Even those Oakley glasses could not disguise the fact that I wasn’t racing quite as fast as the year before.
There comes a time when it doesn’t make sense to punish yourself in training if the time and commitment, the demands and the attention just aren’t there. That fall I did make one last surge in training and was quite fit and prepared to race the Twin-Cities Marathon in Minneapolis-St.Paul. Perhaps I thought it best to cap off a running career with a genuine marathon attempt. That distance was never my focus. The only regret is that I didn’t race a marathon the weekend that I ran workouts of 15 + 10 + 10 miles leading up to a 25K (15.5 miles) into which I jumped when the runner I was escorting at the race, Bill Rodgers, offered me his race number because he didn’t feel well.
I ran a 1:25 that day, and could have cruised home at 6:00 pace and ran a 2:25 pretty easily given the high level of fitness. But alas, that effort exists only in a dream.
A last-minute mistake
Because before racing the Twin-Cities Marathon I made the fatal mistake of trying to get in one last long run the weekend before the race. I bonked at 12 miles and crawled home exhausted. I felt wiped out all week long and arrived at the house of the friend where I was staying a bit fearful that I’d blown my chance.
It was cold the morning of the race, perhaps 33 degrees. I wore only a tee-shirt and singlet, shorts and some racing flats. I was shivering before the gun went off but settled in to run with a group led by Don Kardong, the fourth-place Olympic marathoner known for his writing in Runner’s World. I’d broken out my Running Unlimited top to wear over the red Miami 10K tee shirt that I loved. It gave me a bit of courage to think of myself in context of the previous year. And for a long time in that race, it worked.
The group I’d joined was rolling along at 5:20 pace. I felt good for twelve miles. But somewhere past that point we turned into the wind and my 139 lb body on a 6’1″ frame began to chill to the core. I’d not worn enough clothing to combat the wind chill coming off the downtown lakes. Perhaps my last minute long run the weekend before did not help either.
In any case, a former college teammate and roommate saw me at sixteen miles and noticed that my lips looked blue. He pulled me off the course and suggested it would be wise to pull out of the race.
And in that moment, a competitive career that began at the age of twelve and lasted through the age of 27 was by-and-large completed. For fifteen years I’d trained year round and logged thousands of miles. I’d won a number of races over the years, and had lost plenty as well.
It was time to give it a rest. I never seriously trained and raced that hard again. My son was born the next year and a daughter followed not long after. Being a father made me realize there were other priorities in life.
Call me dad
I did keep running for health and sanity. From that first long workout as a freshman in high school, I recognized that running did good things for my anxious brain. Thus through the stress of being a young dad, struggling to make a place for myself in the world of work, and trying to create works of art and good writing along the way, it was running that fueled and fomented those attempts.
Once in a while I’d get fit enough to give some race a go, but it was always bittersweet to step to the line without much chance of winning. That might seem egotistical or even narcissistic to some. But once you’ve been a competitive runner with some success in life, there is only one way to compete, and that’s all out.
Or else you go about running with a different gauge. And even as I’ve taken up triathlon and had some age-group success, I don’t worry about the results much and they surely don’t define my self-worth or self-image like they once did.
That’s a transition we all likely face in one way or another. For some, it’s becoming a parent. For others, it’s advancing age that dims those competitive instincts.
And for some, the battle and the journey never ends. To each their own, I say.
To each their own.