All through college, one of the keys to my self-esteem was running. A large chunk of personal identity was wrapped up on the sport and its year-round commitment to training and racing. Like many runners in those days, when I wasn’t running, I was hanging out in running tee shirts, wearing old running shoes with jeans and corduroys, and generally trying to look like a runner all the time.
The problem with all that ‘look like a runner stuff’ is that it wasn’t really a great look. Those old running shoes with the dingy sides and worn-out laces certainly weren’t attractive. Nor were the graphic tee shirts with typically ugly logos printed on the front. Layering dress shirts over printed tee shirts was certainly the worst look ever, but most of us did that too, as if our running “look” was some sort of superhero power.
We felt like it was. The running boom was just beginning to gain real legs in the early 1980s. The Moscow Olympics were a bust for the United States because we pulled out for political reasons, but the LA Olympics were just around the corner in 1984. We had running heroes to adore in th likes of Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter, Craig Virgin, Alberto Salazar and African athletes such as Henry Rono.
And so, like many running rubes in the early 1980s, I dressed the part of a committed runner, and typically looked like hell.
It didn’t always (or often) impress the women. My friend and I would come home from the bars some nights wondering why women never gave us a second glance. To commiserate, we’d stop at 7-11, usually half-drunk or half-stoned, tp grab a pint of Rum Raisin Haagen Daz ice cream, and down it in one sitting. Then we’d plan the next day’s run.
“See you at 8 a.m. for a ten-miler?” Come Sunday morning, we’d be out there pounding the roads like the night before never happened. Hungover or not, we got in our runs.
Things went like that for most of the winter in 1980, until I met the 33-year-old woman at a bar who knew nothing about running at all. Her main hobby, it turned out, was smoking prodigious amounts of pot. She had a large collection of Turkish pipes and bongs that she’d garnered by traveling overseas. She also knew where to find gloriously powerful pot.
I’d never smoked pot that much in college. But I learned quickly that my skinny body with its keenly tuned cardiovascular system responded quite strongly to pot as a drug. We sat toking on a one-hitter on a February night when she asked, “Do you want to listen to music?” I said sure. She put an album by Cream on her turntable and the song Tales of Brave Ulysses began to play. We listened, and she turned her head toward me and smiled as these lyrics rolled over us.
And you see a girl’s brown body
Dancing through the turquoise
And her footprints make you follow
Where the sky loves the sea
And when your fingers find her
She drowns you in her body
Carving deep blue ripples
In the tissues of your mind
Those eight lines of rock lyrics have deep effects to a pot-laced mind. She dwelled upon those words as if they were scripture for the stoned. We hung together deep into the night found ourselves entwined on the couch. That’s when realized that I was in over my head with this woman in the league of recreational drugs. But I was loving it.
After that, we kept seeing each other. As time went by, the relationship took on a bit more normal rhythm, which was a bit of a relief to me. But one night I showed up for a date and she stood in the doorway looking me up and down, and commented, “You think I’m going out with you when you’re dressed like that?”
I had on my typical rube runner’s outfit with a new shirt that I thought she’d like. I’d dropped by the local mall to shop at the County Seat. I bought a new plaid shirt with pearl buttons and snap-down pockets. I put it on with brown corduroys and completed the outfit with a set of slightly funky Nike shoes with white laces.
“Listen,” she said, placing a hand on my chest for emphasis. “You need to go to Marshall’s, buy yourself a nice blue and white Oxford shirt, and some decent khakis. Then come back, and we can go out to dinner.” I stood there stunned for a moment. “I’m serious,” she said. “You need to learn how to dress.”
I was a bit shaken up by her direct assault on my runner’s look. But when I got home and looked in the mirror, I had to agree. She was right: I looked like a clueless rube. So I did as she suggested, and bought some decent clothes, including a set of dress shoes that looked like they belonged on a human being, not a running store mannequin.
We went out for dinner a few nights later. I was learning what it meant to dress like a grownup rather than a running rube.
That didn’t mean I was giving up my love of running. I was determined to show her why I loved the sport. She was curious enough to come with me to a local track where I met up with a close running buddy. The planned workout was twelve 400-meter intervals with a half-lap jog between. She parked herself up in the bleachers with the sun on her back and lit up a joint as we ran our 400 repeats. I’d trained with the guy for years, and we were in a similar state of fitness, so the workout went smoothly. We cranked off twelve 400s at a pace of 65-68 per lap. Every lap, I’d glance up to see her in the stands, watching us run. After the workout, while walking back to the car and she observed, “Your legs were in perfect synchronization. It was fun to watch.”
“Yes…” I responded her. “That’s natural. We’ve been training together for years.”
Into the fold
That same running buddy hooked up with her roommate a week or two later. We double-dated at a local pizza place, but on the way out of the restaurant, he saw a female friend we both knew from high school and stopped to chat with her in the entryway. The rest of us kept walking to the car, but his date by then was fuming. “I can’t believe he did that to me,” she hissed.
I tried to apologize for him. “We’ve known her a long time,” I pleaded.
“I don’t care,” my girlfriend stated flatly. “That is rude as hell.”
My girlfriend cranked up the engine and started to drive away. “We’re leaving him here,” she growled, glancing over at her roommate.
“No!” I begged. “He’s just like that sometimes. He doesn’t mean anything by it. Please don’t leave him here. He’s one of my best friends.”
“Then you should teach him some manners,” my girlfriend said, and pulled the car over near the restaurant entrance. We parked a distance away to see when he’d come out. At that moment, my buddy poked his head out the restaurant door to look around. “Please,” I said to myself, hoping he would come outside. “Do not go back inside.”
He walked out to the parking lot and stood there, looking around. We pulled the car up close to the curb and he opened the door. “Thanks,” he said cheerily. “I haven’t seen her in a long time.”
The women sat there in silence. I turned around to look at him in the back seat. “Dude,” I said. “That wasn’t polite.”
“Aw, come on!” he laughed. But no one else did. So we drove home with a funky scene going on in the car. But then we smoked some pot in the house, and all seemed to be forgotten. My girlfriend and I stood in the kitchen watching while her roommate and my friend got busy on the long lounge chair outside. My girlfriend just shook her head.
Perhaps there really is nothing more self-absorbed in this world than 23-year-old guys. To be sure, my buddies and I proved that on more than one occasion. As I got older, I realized that it would have helped to have a sister in my family to set me straight on how to treat women. My brothers were better around women than I, which I credit to my own native anxiety. But from what I’ve seen, having sisters does help men gain perspective on women. My best friend growing up had three sisters. He was always really relaxed and friendly around girls, and I admired that quality in him.
I’ve talked with many women about dating guys when they’re in their 20s. While the patterns are not absolute, there is a broad dichotomy at work, no pun intended. Either guys are great with women and get it, or they tend to be selfish or self-absorbed. It takes a while to breed that out of a guy in his 20s.
So it was a learning process for me while dating a 33-year-old woman. She didn’t put up with dumb guy shenanigans. She also knew what she wanted and wasn’t all about trying to please me to get it.
Most pointedly, she didn’t give a damn about how obsessed my friends and I were with running. She already had her life in pretty good order, working as an interior decorator. She had eye for antique furniture restoration and many of her jobs involved refurbishing Oak Street apartments in Chicago. In other words, she knew where the money was, and how to make it. We even stayed in those condos on weekends when the owners were out of town. That gave me an entirely different perspective on what city life was about.
Her proficiency in her profession was so strong that she only had to work six months out of the year to make a really good living. The only person I’d met before with that kind of lifestyle was the party-happy carpenter I’d met in Ocracoke during my trip to the Outer Banks earlier in the spring of 1980. It occurred to me that the people who chose such interesting lives without devoting themselves to running knew something that I did not know.
A restless spirit
But true to my nature, I kept running for all that I was worth. Through winter, spring and early summer, I kept increasing my mileage in advance of the racing season. Then she announced a plan to go traveling during the country that summer. She owned a green Volkswagon van and had a month-long itinerary laid out to to drive around the country. “Do you want to come with me?” she asked.
“I have a job…” I replied.
“Suit yourself,” she told me. “Jobs aren’t everything.”
It seemed she was testing the limits of my understanding at every turn. Our physical relationship was interesting because she sure as hell did not want to get pregnant with some 23-year-old guy whose life revolved around running. We used protection at all times. Her preferred birth control method was a diaphragm, a little cup-like device popular in the 1980s. She offered to let me help her put it in, but I declined. “I thought you’d like that,” she suggested. But I was still inhibited in many ways, and despite an active sex life with previous women, the vagina was still something of a mysterious region of a woman’s body. But I hated that diaphragm because it banged against the end of my crank when we had sex. So we switched to condoms eventually.
The other thing I learned was that it is possible to be too gentle with a woman. My vision of sex to that point in life was was largely about gentle touching and feeling, but she liked things a bit rougher, even accidentally. One time at the 7-11, I swung around to ask if she wanted an ice tea and slammed my elbow into her breast. All my life I’d been taught to respect women’s bodies, and still thought of women in a delicate sense, so I apologized for ramming her boob. “Why, I like it,” she told me, and laughed. “You can do that any time.”
As it became known around town that we were dating, I’d bump into friends and associates that were curious about our relationship. “An older woman, huh?” they’d often ask. “Learning some things, are we?” But one day a guy I’d known from track in high school walked over to me in a bar when my girlfriend and I were together. “Her boobs are nice. Too bad she’s got such a big ass,” he growled. Actually, she didn’t have a big ass at all. In today’s terms, her ass was incredible. But according to his 1980s judgment, any women lacking a tiny set of butt cheeks wasn’t worth his time. “Fuck Off,” I told him.
She saw that I was upset and stepped over to ask what the guy had said. “Nothing,” I responded. “Absolutely nothing.” Truth be told, he was a jerk the entire time I’d know him, so I wrote him off. But I also knew that if I’d told her what he’d said, she would not have been bothered by it. She’d have told him to fuck off, too. Probably to his face.
So it was that I tried to understand a woman with a far different level of life experience and expectations than my own. At times, it made me feel foolish to go out for my daily runs while she seemed to exist in a partial zen state. Then again, running was my zen.
One day I stopped by her house during a training run to find her diligently refinishing an antique––yet long abused––chair that she’d found at a garage sale. I asked her what she was doing. She explained why the chair was valuable and showed how to protect the wood while removing the old varnish.
While I was an artist of sorts, and was actively producing work of my own at the time, her efforts seemed so much more grounded and serious than my own. I was mostly impressed with her ability to be a self-sufficient woman in her work and life decisions.
Needs and wants
Yet, there was no doubt she wanted genuine companionship, and possibly a true partner in life. I was nowhere near ready to fulfill that role for her. She probably knew that, but I was fun for a while, so it worked for the both of us.
I recall one manic weekend in which her roommate piled us into her tiny BMW touring car to drive to a concert in southeast Wisconsin. Between the drive up there and the pot in the car and the brews at the concert and the drive back home I was so tired I collapsed to sleep in the back of the car. But she was still going strong. We had different kinds of endurance, it turned out.
While dating her, I did the math and realized that when I turned 33 years old, she’d be 43. When I was 43, she’d be 53. And 53-63, and so on. My mind was too young handle that kind of relational calculus. I did not understand that at some point in life, age is not what matters. What matters is how you connect, and what you value. But we also knew there were differences along those lines as well.
For me, I couldn’t quite get past the pot use. One afternoon we walked to the Colonial Ice Cream shop a half-mile from her home. On the way, we smoked whatever pot she was carrying with her, and I immediately felt the effects. After I bought an ice cream cone and sat down to eat it, the pot took over my entire brain. The walk back to her house felt like it took an eternity, with spins and trails and flashbacks along the way. It was wild and fun, but I was also scared at losing so much control over my mind and body. That type of experience didn’t seem to affect her, or the pot didn’t seem to hit her so hard. But it bothered me. The athlete part of my persona wanted to remain in control in some fashion.
The running game
As the road running season arrived, I plotted out a series of races. On May 3, a bunch of us traveled to Whitewater, Wisconsin to run a half-marathon. We took off fast that day, cranking through the first mile in 5:15. We reached the four mile point in 21:41 and hit the 10K in 33:10 before turning back into a wind gusting to 25 mph. At that point, the lead pack blew apart and it was every runner for himself. I passed ten miles in 56:20 and finished in 1:16. That day, I wrote in my journal, “Very windy last 7 miles. Pretty wasted.”
A week later on May 10 I ran a six-mile race in 32:16. It was a cold, rainy day with temps of thirty-six degrees. On May 17, I raced a 32:38 10K and took sixth overall. My fitness was coming around and real improvement seemed possible after putting in a spring of sometimes solid training.
But the weekends away from my girlfriend allowed us to drift apart. Plus, my notion to skip her planned trip out west put the relationship on hold for the time being. When she returned, we did continue dating, but eventually came to understand that our schedules and lives were headed in different directions. By October, the commitment between us fizzled out. I regretted the breakup, but at least I’d taken a chance and shown some courage in the wake of the recent breakup with my college girlfriend.
That spring, I’d purchased the album Arc of a Diver by Steve Winwood. It featured the song While You See A Chance that seemed to describe my life and relationship that year almost perfectly.
Stand up in a clear blue morning
Until you see what can be
Alone in a cold day dawning
Are you still free? Can you be?…
When some cold tomorrow finds you
When some sad old dream reminds you
How the endless road unwinds you… While you see a chance, take it
Find romance, fake it
Because it’s all on you…
Don’t you know by now
No one gives you anything?
And don’t you wonder how you keep on moving?
One more day
When there’s no one left to leave you
Even you don’t quite believe you
That’s when nothing can deceive you…
While you see a chance, take it
Find romance, fake it
Because it’s all on you