Life as a semi-sponsored runner

#444 at the start of the Geneva Community Classic 10K that was won in 31:52 on a long course. The record stood for 20 years.

I was never a national class runner. My best times at 5000 meters were about a minute behind those competing at the top levels of Division 1 track and field. My best place at cross country nationals as a senior in college was about 60th place. That helped our team take second place to North Central College and make us Team All-Americans, but that was a group effort, not an individual triumph.

Despite this modest success, many runners of my caliber continued competing well after college. In my case, the times continued to drop in every category of racing; road, track and the rare post-collegiate cross country meet.

The invitation

By the fall of 1983, I was winning a few regional road races and finishing in the top five almost every week. After winning the Run For the Money 10K in Arlington Heights, Illinois, I got a call from the owners of Running Unlimited, a new shop that was looking for promotional opportunities. The owners Frank and Carolyn Gibbard were putting together a racing team to represent the store on the local running scene.

Pre-race concentration

That team consisted of some of Chicago’s mid-to-upper tier distance runners, including the Macnider brothers, John and Jim. There was Bill Friedman, a competitor in his late 30s still running under 15:00 for 5K. Jukka Kallio was a marathoner of Finnish descent who barely missed qualifying for the Olympic Trials with a time over 2:19. Rick Stabeck was one of the most solid performers across many distances as well. Altogether it was a team of 10-12 runners receiving simple incentives such as Nike shoe price reductions, paid entry fees and small travel stipends as we all raced across the Chicago area.

Overload

Sometimes the effect of having us all race in one place was not all that positive. At one race in the Northwest suburbs, we took all top ten places, hogging the awards in several age group categories. I was racing in the 20-24 group and took second at 31:10 to Jim Macnider as I recall.

It was not uncommon at many races in those days to run 5:00 pace for 5K or 10K and not even finish in the Top Ten. The relative depth of sub-elite runners was strong. My personal racing schedule involved running 24 races on behalf of Running Unlimited. I won the Geneva Community Classic 10k, the Frank Lloyd Wright 10K, finished second to Kallio in the River Forest 10k, second at the Sycamore Pumpkinfest 10k, fourth at a highly competitive Melrose Park 10-mile race won by Kevin Higdon, and third at the Deerbrook 25K in 1:24:47 wearing a race number given to me by Bill Rodgers, who decided not to run after I escorted him from the hotel to the race.

That’s a weekend that I should have been running marathon. Leading up to the race weekend, I’d put in a burst of training because I was planning to devote time on Sunday and ran twelve miles in two runs on Thursday, put in another fifteen miles in two runs on Friday and another ten miles “strong” on Saturday. Had I simply tacked on another ten miles at even 6:00 pace that would have produced a 2:25 marathon.

My training journal shows all the miles leading up to the 25K racing in late September, 1984

Running for small glories

Those are not regrets, just observations realized over the years. As a sponsored team, our priorities in racing for the Running Unlimited team were not about racing single races such as a marathon. In fact, relatively few runners planned their racing schedule around such long races in that era. Both our desire and our obligation was more about racing frequently. That also meant more opportunities to wear the team warmup kits, and produce good performances that reflected well on the store. That year I led the CARA 20-24 age group in points.

The year before the Running Unlimited commitment, I’d raced for a team in Paoli, Pennsylvania called Runner’s Edge. In that region, there were a number of teams hosted by clubs and sponsors. On a typical weekend, there might be 10-15 teams at a five-mile road race, each wearing their kits. That scene was a bit like being back in college again, with real rivalries evolving between those clubs.

Along with racing as a store sponsored club with the requisite team uniforms consisting of singlet, shorts and nylon warmups, we also trained together as a team. Team leader included the Crooke brothers, Rich, Peter and John that ran the Runner’s Edge store. We did track workouts at Villanova University where world-class distance runners such as Don Paige and Sydnee Maree could sometimes be seen working out.

Back in Chicago

That association ended when I moved back to Chicago after the job out east ended. Living in the City with a friend, I dived into the local running scene training with Tom Brunick’s group at the University of lllinois track. Top guys such as Dave Casillas, Jim Whitnah, Jim Terry and others all showed up those nights. We also ran at the Northwestern University track in the shadows of tall buildings in the near north Loop.

But after two years of living the bachelors life in the city and training full-time, it was time to move on from the world of sub-elite running. I got married in 1985 but kept up with the training to some degree. By then, Running Unlimited had disbanded as a racing team and the store was soon sold to an owner that moved it to Palatine.

Approaching fatherhood

A part of me still clung to the racing lifestyle that year, and having long association with Vertels Chicago, I was invited to race for them. But during early 1985, I was only rounding into shape and the team manager wasn’t too impressed with my fitness. That meant I got a kit shirt for the “B” squad rather than the elite racing singlet with the sleek Nike logo on it.

I still managed some fast times that summer, clocking a 20:14 four-mile to win a twosome race, and ran a big 10-mile race n 54:00 in some south suburb. But I could feel the transition to full fatherhood coming on. My son was born that October 30. It was time to leave those racing teams behind. I was twenty-seven years old and had been competing as a runner since the age of twelve. Those times run in my 20s would remain whatever legacy I could accomplish in this world as a runner.

But I actually knew from one experience exactly where I stood. It was the Race Of the America’s five-miler in which I went out with the world class guys for a mile or two at 4:40 pace, then faded to finish in 25:30 overall. Nothing puts you in your place like an honest finish time. I was always a good team player, but never the sensational type or Olympic qualifier that one might have wished for. And that’s okay. To this day, I still enjoy running and win the occasional age-group award in either road races or triathlons. This year my pace is actually improving after last year was wracked by injury and illness.

Sharing assets

Overall, it was, and has continued to be, a fun ride. Looking back on those years as a semi-sponsored runner, I realize that few people really get to experience the pleasures and pressures of having enough talent to fulfill some obligations of a semi-sponsored runner. The only regret I ever had was having to race a half-marathon when I had a wicked cold and congestion. That was not the most fun experience in the world.

My glimpse into the pressures of sponsorship makes me appreciate the world-class folks I now follow on Instagram. Their pressures are multiplied beyond what most of us can comprehend. Can you imagine being a top-flite runner capable of running under 13:00 in the 5K and having to justify your sponsorship status on the basis of the number of follower you have on Instagram or some other app? That’s a modern dynamic indeed. As a result, some spend more time sharing their assets rather than talking about their accomplishments. That’s especially true for women, where body image…and exposure, is a keen driver of social media.

On the whole, it still comes down to performing under pressure in one way or another. But the cut-and-dried world of running times and weekend warriors seems long gone.

About Christopher Cudworth

Christopher Cudworth is a content producer, writer and blogger with more than 25 years’ experience in B2B and B2C marketing, journalism, public relations and social media. Connect with Christopher on Twitter: @genesisfix07 and blogs at werunandride.com, therightkindofpride.com and genesisfix.wordpress.com Online portfolio: http://www.behance.net/christophercudworth
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