As a hormone-driven, partially obsessed early 1980s distance runner in his early 20s, I was constantly seeking partners in crime. One in particular, a best friend you might say, had followed a similar path from the same high school to the same college and was now living back with his parents while doing graduate work in downtown Chicago.
So our running schedules matched up, and we’d go out pounding the miles in the dark and the cold of an Illinois winter. Most of our runs were conducted at 6:00 pace because that’s the only speed my friend liked to run. We’d go out the door and within fifty yards be clipping along at that rate. No warmup. Just step on it and go.
And go and go. He didn’t like predetermined routes, so we’d hammer along making choices as we rolled along. He lived three miles away as the crow flies, and we’d trade running the distance to each other’s place. Sometimes we’d be joined by a third partner in crime. He was a year older than me, and I was a year old than my other friend, so we all had the same manic early-20s energy going on.
We also partied together quite often. That meant plenty of late nights, crazy weekends, and squeezing workouts in between. Both of them were cross country skiers and cyclists as well. But I stuck mostly to the running, other than to join them on wild weekends in southern Wisconsin skiing the trails at Kettle Moraine or Governor Dodge State Park. Our ski sessions often lasted 2-3 hours. One February day after a major snowfall dumped 15″ on Illinois, we started skiing as the sun came out and temps climbed into the low 30s. The snow was still great, so we skied far and wide, covering thirteen miles. Eventually, our layers of clothing got too hot and we stripped to the waist and skied without our shirts on. It wasn’t even cold when I wiped out into a huge drift. I lay there laughing my head off, feeling more alive than ever. Then we just kept on going.
Back home, we brewed up a huge batch of spaghetti and drank beer all night while watching Second City TV on the UHF channel. We were scrambling our brains with constant simulation.
So the candles of youth were burning at both ends. At one point, two of us decided that getting eight hours of sleep a night seemed extravagant. Why not cut that down to six hours a night? That’s enough, right? We reasoned that since we were young and healthy, our bodies would adjust. We kept up the same running schedule on top our our daily commutes and both wound up sick as hell with bad colds in less than two weeks.
That didn’t stop us from burning more candles. When my friend heard about a Stolichnaya vodka night at some bar in Chicago, we drove downtown after arriving home from work and drank and danced until three in the morning. I begged him to go home earlier, but he looked at me with those wild eyes that told me he was not having any of that, so we stayed until the place closed. I was Ralph Steadman to his Hunter S. Thompson. Or so we perhaps imagined ourselves.
We drove back home to the suburbs as the sun threatened to come up. I, for one, was still drunk Iat 4:00 in the morning. I still rose and made it to the 6:30 train for the commute into the city. Never a coffee drinker, I tried drinking Cokes to stay awake all day, but I must have smelled of alcohol in any case. So I kept to myself while working in the small office with three other people. Little was said. They knew I was hungover and just wanted to go home.
Party hearty travelers
With all that energy spilling out into the world, it was inevitable that we’d meet up with some people who shared our manic visions of life. Indeed, we met up with a family in Naperville with a couple sisters and a few brothers, one of whom was a top half-miler named Larry Wood. Somehow I got the idea that I could provide some sort of guidance for the guy. I even dragged him up to visit Luther College in hopes of recruiting him for the team. But he wound up choosing Indiana University because he was initially seen as a Division 1 talent with an 800-meter time in the low 1:50s. But he disliked the D1 atmosphere and later transferred back home to Naperville and North Central College, where he became an All-American in the steeplechase with a time under 9:10, ten seconds faster than I ever ran.
We had fun though, ramming around like a strangely extended family with the eldest sister observing her young male friends with an attitude of bemusement. Half the time our half-assed plans came together, and the rest of the time, they fell apart. We didn’t care. We just kept going.
One afternoon my running buddy announced that we’d be making chili that night for the whole gang. His brother worked at a butcher’s shop in Naperville, and handed him five pounds of ground beef with which to make our chili. The massive pile of meat was dropped off at my folk’s house and he told me, “Here, cook this up.”
I’d never made chili before, so I asked my mom what to do. “You need to brown the beef,” she told me. So I flopped the first giant wad of ground red flesh into a pan and started turning it over and over. That process went on for nearly two hours. Five pounds of ground beef is a helluva lotta meat, I learned. We made a giant pot of chili that lasted for weeks.
I kept training through the month of February when the wind chills dropped to -28F. Out of some sort of sense of dedication, I traveled to race a two-miler in Sterling, and managed to run a 9:48. But I had trouble racing because I’d slammed my shin hard on a tree limb while cross country skiing and it hurt like hell to run.
But when candles needed to be burnt, I was up for the burning. On February 21, I noted in my journal, “Up for 24 hours straight. Intense goings on. Prove it all night, girl there’s nothing else that we can do.”
The company flew me out to Philadelphia in June to show some watercolors I was producing for the corporate brochure. I was so tired going into the trip that I got on the wrong flight and wound up in Washington, D.C. The airline was aghast that they’d let that happen, so I was given a ticket and rushed to a flight to Philly right away. I had to call the Philly office and tell them I’d be a little late. That evening, the Philly staff took me out drinking and dropped me back at the hotel wiped out from the alcohol and the traveling. I still got up to go for a run in Fairmount Park the next morning.
Yes indeed. if there were candles to burn, I was going to burn them. Our energies were fueled, as one could imagine, by the music of Bruce Springsteen, the Talking Heads, and the Police. I played albums, made cassette mixtapes, and we ran while singing those songs at the top of our heads.
In early March, I had a strange dream in which the father of my former girlfriend’s new fiance had three eyes, and he told me that she wanted me back by June. That wasn’t going to happen, of course. I was trying like hell to forget her. “God she made me guilty, and gunshy,” I wrote. “Well, no more. Get her out, out!! No more vacant dreams.”
On March 17 I wrote, “I wish I had more time; to run, to anything. I’m not in bad shape, but phase 1 is not long enough. I have been fairly consistent, barring last weekend’s severe craziness. Monday was overheated, crabby. Attitude returning. Shin still hurts; either bruised or splintered. OOCH>”
I was trying to figure out so much of the world at the same time. It even showed up in the artwork I did for the company brochure.
Hustle and muscle
Then I met a much older woman in a downtown St. Charles bar. I’d been working to meet girls for weeks on end, and I’d calling a cute girl named Gail from the health club in hopes of getting a real date, but our schedules never meshed. So I was excited when a 33-year-old woman took me home to her place and we got busy long into the night. “Did the hustle with my thin muscle,” I wrote. “All so fine.”
I was still living with my parents when the new relationship started up, and my mother was not too keen on my sudden disappearances overnight. But weirdly, she also told me that she’d been warming up in her exercise class that week and overhead a conversation between 30s-ish women talking about the men they’d met the night before at a bar. “They said they’d met some cute runner boys,” my mother told me. “And one of them mentioned your name.”
Indeed, I’d talked with a couple other older women that week. Sometimes there was more than one candle burning at the same time. As Neil Young sang at the time, “It is better to burn out than it is to rust…”
Then I got word that an apartment was available for rent. My former track and cross country coach Trent Richards was splitting up with his wife. They were moving out of the coach house where they lived. I jumped on the opportunity and moved all my stuff out of my parent’s house and had a new place to live. It was even closer to the train station. And now that I had a place of my own a sense of freedom kicked in. Or so I’d hoped.
April 8: “Bittersweet new love,” I wrote. “Can’t let my heart go. So strange. Sex slips away. Such control, no control.”And later, “Ahh, I’m so confused. Spending time with her is nice, but I’m hedging my bets. Do I want to be a friend or a lover? I can’t tell. I’m so antsy. Spring calls me and I can’t answer. Maybe God and I have to talk again. Concessions must be made. Her presence controls my life. I’m probably scared.”
For the birds
I retreated into the fields to birdwatch and to try to gain some perspective on everything that was going on. Spring migration had begun, and I found dozens of bird species in the middle of April. My soul felt satisfied at last. The trees were coming into bloom. One morning, she and I lay in bed watching squirrels dine on fresh green shoots of maple buds outside the window. Her companionship felt good, but I knew was not in any way ready for a deep relationship again.
During April, I threw weeks of 40, 58, 43 and 45 miles together on top of all the commuting, the partying, and the new relationship.
On April 13 I drew a candle burning at both ends next to the word “Headaches.” It had been a crazy winter after a manic year of transition and learning experiences. But if I planned to survive and thrive, it was time to figure out what I really wanted from life. In the moment, that seemed immediate enough. Who knew that the answer would require a lifelong journey filled with candles, matches, and smoke in the eyes?