There is nothing quite like setting personal records at any distance that you run. There’s no better feeling than running faster than you’ve ever run before. Heading into my sophomore year at Luther College, the goal was to achieve continual improvement, move up in team rankings, and qualify for the national track meet in steeplechase.
The problem with all plans to improve as a runner is that improvement is never a straight-line proposition. It can be so joyous to run a sub-21:00 four-mile race for the first time, only to wind up running slower the next week. Of course, so many factors determine the pace on a given day. The weather from heat to cold. The wind or rain. The ground surface. Hills.
Then there are the mental factors of daily life. Recently I attended the conference meet at my alma mater Luther College where their top runner ran a decent yet ultimately disappointing race, finishing in tenth place behind a phalanx of talented Wartburg runners. He looked so strong those first few miles, and we all hoped he could hang on through the fast early pace. His mom and dad came in from Colorado to watch their son race. I told them they should be really proud of their son, who is also a great student on top of being a top-caliber runner.
Apparently he’d been facing some hard academic work leading up to the conference meet, and I felt for him upon hearing that. The ups-and-downs of college life are many. Social commitments can lift you up or drag you down. Dating is another realm altogether. A good relationship can thrill and inspire. A bad relationship undermines the confidence needed to run well.
It is too easy to look through those mimeographed booklets of races and times from college years and question or wonder if things could have gone better now and then. In the best of all worlds, that might be true. But we don’t live in the best of all worlds all the time. We show up at the starting line as young men and women trying to do their best. So the question to ask ourselves all these years on is simple: Did we legitimately try to do our best? It’s easy to be self-critical and build up negative beliefs about yourself based on past failings. It’s just as easy to be dunned by dismissive slogans such as “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen…”
It seems that all of us run into a coach or two along the way with a personal axe to grind…those coaches that pick out weaknesses rather than help us find our strengths. Those coache fuel our self-doubts if we’re not careful. They make ‘getting out of the kitchen’ seem like the thing to do. Granted, we all need our asses kicked now and then in sports like running, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. There’s a right and a wrong way to go about motivation. For the most part, I experienced the right ways.
I didn’t always succeed, but I could always take the heat. There weren’t many races where I flat out gave up if there was an ounce of energy left to still compete. There were no races where I absolutely quit trying, or purposely ran slow to back off the pain. These days while running much slower in races, the pain of the effort still feels the same. That feeling of running up against the best that I can do in the moment is still so familiar. That’s why I don’t second guess the progress made during those collegiate years. While I was often too anxious for my own good or let nerves get the best of me now and then, those failings are part of the learning process.
Finding ways to overcome fear (the heat in the kitchen!) is the life lesson we all learn from running. It is true that sometimes we build up these perceptions about ourselves and live by them rather than trusting our ability and finding ways to transcend our limitations. But when we do transcend those limitations there is always the fear of success that comes with it. “Now I’ve got to run that fast all the time,” we tell ourselves. Fear of success. So the cycle feeds back upon itself. That can happen in many of life’s avenues.
So I don’t look back and think I “woulda-coulda-shoulda” run better at any point in my career. I know from the effort I feel today that I’ve always run as hard as I could. Were there times when my mental state may have limited those abilities? When I didn’t push through the pain enough? No doubt. But we can’t live with those regrets or they harms us in other ways.
Ups and downs
I ran as our sixth or seventh man most of that sophomore cross country season. My times were slightly better than freshman year, and we qualified to fun at nationals that fall. Unfortunately, the November meet was held in Cleveland, Ohio, where it snowed four inches the day before the race. Given that running tights were not invented as yet, and our sweats were to baggy for racing, we went to the department store the day before the race to purchase long johns and women’s nylons. Neither fit us well so we abandoned the idea of covering our legs and focused on having a warm turtleneck under our racing singlets. I recall finishing that race in a bent-over condition and feeling like I had to barf in the chute. I heaved up something hot and nasty that landed on another runner’s shoe. He punched me in the neck. I don’t blame him.
The Short Ride
Mixed in with all the serious stuff that year were so many laughs and goofy incidents. As a sophomore, I’d signed up for a fraternity along with my cross country roommate. One of the rites of passage was the Short Ride in which some brothers plucked us out of our rooms to be deposited twelve miles out of town with nothing to but our underwear, a shirt and a twelve-pack of beer that we were supposed to drink. Yes, it was a form of hazing, but fairly harmless by most standards. We stashed the beer in the ditch and started running back to campus. With our cross country fitness, the run back took us about an hour and fifteen minutes even through the darkness of night. The sound of our feet crunching on the gravel roads back to campus was satisfying, and we were both flying. We ran so fast that we actually beat our frat brothers back to the dorm (they’d gone out to the bars) and locked our door behind us. When they got back from the bars they pounded on our door and were playfully pissed that we’d made such easy work of what was supposed to be a long, cold and lonely night.
But when they arrived a few weeks later to take us on the Long Ride, we told them to fuck off because the conference meet was coming up a few days later. To their credit, they understood that we were far more serious about the matter than they thought.
Downs and ups
That spring in track I ran the steeplechase in 9:33 to qualify for the national track and field meet. A bunch of us traveled by van to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where the weather turned hot as hell after a cool spring. I raced in the 88-degree temperatures and high humidity to fade to a slow time. That afternoon we went out to dinner and then retreated to our motel room to lie around watching TV in the air-conditioning.
At 11:00 that night I awoke with severe nausea and started throwing up. The sickness lasted all night. My roommate counted the number of times that I got up to barf: 27.
In the morning our track coach Bob Naslund arrived to drive us back home. I told him, “Naze, I need to go to the hospital. I’m really sick.” By that point, my hands were tingling and I felt faint. Surely dehydration had caught up with me.
“I think you’ll be okay,” he offered.
“Take me to the hospital,” I demanded. “Or I’m gonna die.” I saw his eyes fly open wide and my roommate shook his head Yes.
So we checked into the emergency room and the nurses hooked me up to an IV and forced me to drink a thick orange electrolyte liquid to replace the fluids I’d lost overnight. I ate a banana or two and finally felt good enough to travel home.
Standing the heat
For many years, I credited that illness to a case of heat stroke. In the back of my mind, I was always cautious about running in the heat. Then I competed in a ten-mile race in the heat of July and ran so well that I took fourth place in the Melrose Park Run for the Roses in a time of 53:30. I felt so good the entire race that I actually laughed out loud at one point. I was having fun. During the last mile I sprinted past two other runners. I remember the winner Kevin Higdon turning around to slap my hand knowing that I’d run a bit above my standard performance.
That race in the heat made me think back to the national meet to figure out why the heat had affected me so badly. I through through the events of that day… and then it hit me.
It wasn’t heat stroke that made me sick that night after the national track meet. It was the medium Pizza Hut pizza that I downed almost all on my own.
I read an article later that year (in Harper’s, I think it was…) about the many times the Pepsico organization and Pizza Hut in particular get sued for food poisoning. It is estimated that 1 in 6 Americans gets sick annually from foodborne illnesses. The company employs an army of lawyers to protect against legal actions caused by the high number of food poisoning cases they face each year.
These days, there is a website devoted to self-reporting food poisoning cases across the country. It is called Iwaspoisoned.com. Browsing through the reports on that site is a sobering experience. All I know is that I really could have died that night in Grand Rapids. I’m obviously glad that I didn’t. But I’m also glad that I stopped fearing the heat for all the wrong reasons.
There’s a symbolic lesson of several kinds in that last statement.