I had a problem during the summer of 1981. The coach house I was renting became Party Central for my circle friends including my running buddies and a group of co-workers who loved having a place to toke up in peace. And lacking any other concrete plans, I hosted one social gathering after another at the Coach House. I wrote in my journal: “Center of attention at party tonight. Can’t let it go.”
One of my best friends started a lusty romance with a woman from my office that I adored. They took to using my living room couch for dalliances before going their separate ways. I tried to fall asleep as they made it together one room away, but it was tough being objective, because I really liked that girl. Still, they were both happy, and I felt like the keeper of some secret joy in the world. So it was worth it.
All the hard running I was doing left me with a physique that was desperately thin. I weighed 140lbs at 6′ 1.5″. My body fat percentage was down around 3%. All it took was one tired night to put me over the edge into some sort of cold or flu. This was unknown territory for me. In college, I’d been fastidious about getting rest and seldom came down with a cold. But now that I was out in the real world, where things were less predictable with far more influences coming my way, it was tough to sort it all out and stay healthy.
Plus, I never thought I had allergies of any kind, but in 1981, at the start of August, I came down with what I thought was a “cold.” During high school and college, I had several teammates that suffered during allergy season in the fall. When the ragweed sent out pollen, their nose clogged up and they could barely run. I never considered that I might have a similar problem. That first week of August, my nose and throat closed up with drainage, and running mileage dropped. I sank from a 55-mile week after my fast race at Nordic Fest in late July down to a 29-mile week. Everything in my body felt achy, tired, and awful. A hamstring injury bugged me too. “Need new running shoes probably TRX Trainers again. Hamstring (Left) is a little tight. Be careful. Stretch out, idiot. Too much training when overtired. TOO MUCH BEER! Need a woman.” Yes, the same testosterone that drove me to run so much was also vexing brain. Clearly, I was having a hard time managing my hormones. “Horrible case of blueballs from overwrought afternoon,” I wrote.
I popped a few Contac cold pills to deal with the stuffy nose and jammed some vitamins down my throat trying to beat the”cold” that season. I was gunning to win a race in early August, but things weren’t looking good for that. Over the years, I figured out that I almost always came down with a “cold” in early August. Most likely, I have n allergy to some sort of pollen at that time of the year.
But back in 1981, it could also have been a cold brought on by training and too much. I’d just finished running a series of hard workouts in the company of two former St. Charles runners, Doug Jones, and Vern Francissen. On August 11 I wrote: “Wracked by some cruel disease last week, a cold never the likes before seen since 1972. Totally wasted my mental strength and physical endurance. I made it through OK, but the lesson was hard-learned since I missed the St. Charles race where I figured to run 31:30 (I’d won the year before) or under, and most likely would have. I overtrained or overpartied or just plain had it coming, I don’t know which, but I overdid it. Started with a sore throat, two days. Then 1 day nose wet and throat raspy. Sniffles progressed stiffly until I was downright physically washed out on Friday. Made it through 1/2 mile and quit the race.” That was a major disappointment because my oldest brother was in town visiting my parents. I’d told him how well my running was going, then dropped out of the race he came to watch.
With the cold waning and my erstwhile girlfriend driving around the country in her Volkswagen van, I decided to go out on a date with a woman friend named Alice. She was a nice, wholesome Catholic girl who wasn’t up for my typical shenanigans. At the hint of anything else beyond making out a little during our date, she told me, “I’m a little backwards.” The next day I wrote in my journal. “No, she’s not. She’s sweet. Nice time. Had her home at three. Strange kisses in the kitchen door. Next day in Lake Geneva. I dunno what she thought. All in all, coughed all night on date.”
To think that she put with me through all that coughing proves what a sweet girl she was. I still met up with her younger brother Larry to run now and then. They were sort of a sane influence during the general insanity of that summer.
An august proposition
With August wearing down I felt an urgency to assess my fitness after the hot summer we’d had. I added up the mileage for June, July, and August to determine that I’d been averaging 45-50 miles per week, about 6.2 miles per day. “10km a day, tee hee!” That was a reasonable but not an august amount.”50 miles a week is middle-of-the-road,” I wrote. “Sure you can run. But the times you have done more, running has been a fuller part of life. You get what you put into it. If you want to party, party. If you want to run well, TRAIN, don’t destroy it all through idleness and excuses.”
The third week of August I traveled East to visit my oldest brother in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the city where I lived from the age of five through twelve. Eager to impress my brother with my burgeoning fitness, I signed up to run a 10km race in Elizabethtown the day after arriving. Tired from the drive, I could only manage a 33:51 on a hilly course.”Little road weary,” I noted.
After returning from Pennsylvania, that next weekend I drove up to Decorah for the wedding of Keith and Kristi Ellingson the first weekend in September The day before the ceremony, I ran in the Luther alumni race and managed 21:45 on the four-mile course. My best friend Greg Andrews beat me. I wasn’t too happy about that, yet I should not have been surprised. He had dusted in a pair of races earlier that year as well. That bothered me because I’d been a better runner in college than he was. Part of me was determined to get so fit that he could not come close to beating me.
Still stinging from the race, I partied late into the night. The only thing I really recall is somehow cramming an entire pool ball into my mouth. To this day, I don’t know how I did that. I was really drunk at the time, and trying to prove to someone that I could be crazy enough to do it.
In later years, I read about the tendencies of young men to engage in risky behavior. The frontal cortex of the male brain used to gauge risk is not fully developed during the late teens and early 20s. But tribal instincts are strong, and many young men consider it a far greater risk to disappoint their peers than to engage in activities that could lead to physical or emotional harm. That explains why so many young guys do stupid things. Add in some native anxiety or depression, a lack of self-esteem, or need for approval, and the formula gets more complex. I had all of that going on. Throw in some alcohol or drugs, and the formula is predictably unpredictable.
The party pace hardly slowed down as I slammed out a 77-mile week the second week of September. I eased back to a 45-mile week leading up to a 10K in which I passed three miles in 15:03 only to cramp up with a side stitch. Apparently, I made some comment after the race that sounded like an excuse to my buddies. They didn’t call me for a week after beating me by a minute or so. Our disagreement centered around the fact that for all the partying we did together, I wasn’t fond of drinking beer the night before a race. They gave me incredible grief the Friday night before the race about being too uptight. I gave in and drank a beer, then blamed the sidestitch on the beer. “See?” I commented. “It doesn’t work for me.”
That whole next week, it was Radio Silence from both of them. I was pissed. They were disgusted. So I threw my anxieties into a wild game of backyard football with a bunch of ten-year-old kids. I often threw the football around with them in the backyard behind my house, and that week they challenged me to some kind of ‘run back’ game in which we traded kickoffs and tried to run the ball back for touchdowns. It was three against one, and we had fun and competed for keeps. I’d played so much football growing up that I enjoyed being a kid all over again.”Outcrafted them for the winning TD in half light,” I wrote. “Probably some sore spots tomorrow.”
Marooned in LaCrosse
To cap off September, I joined my buddy John (Jack) Brandli on a trip to LaCrosse, Wisconsin to run a half-marathon. He’d attended the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and knew all the LaCrosse guys from competing against them in college. I was also familiar with LaCrosse after running against them at Luther. “This race is great…” Brandli told me. “But the party after the race is amazing.” I had no idea what he was actually talking about.
The LaCrosse half-marathon course was a beast consisting of two loops of just over six miles. There was a half-mile-long hill in the third mile that just about stopped me cold the first time around. On the second loop, I ran until my butt locked up right at the top and was almost reduced to walking. Then the downhill began and I gladly descended and raced home to the finish. My time was 1:12:21, my longest race since the Chicago Distance Classic in June, when I’d managed a 1:09 for the 20km distance, and the half marathon up in Whitewater, with 1:16 in high winds.
The party following the race was indeed beyond anything I’d encountered before. Dozens of people gathered in a downtown LaCrosse house. The first thing I saw upon walking in the door was a guy standing completely naked in the living room. He went by the moniker Naked Guy as his party persona, and he really fit the role. In real life, he was a former UW-LaCrosse athlete and a national class runner that qualified for the Olympic trials marathon. I recognized him because we’d run against each other in college.What I admired at the party was his complete comfort at being naked among both men and women. He had a strong, body and was hung well enough to intrigue any woman that might like to take a look. But here’s the thing; he carried on the conversation just as if he was wearing clothes like the rest of us. Most of the women at the party didn’t even seem to focus on Naked Guy. He stood there with a beer in one hand and a pile of bright, curly blonde hair sticking out from his cap. I remember thinking, “Man, that’s confidence.”
The drinking and partying went well into the night. With the fatigue from running a half-marathon still in my body, it only took a few drinks to get pretty plastered. I wandered around half-alert to the goings-on and by 2:00 a.m. I grew weary and grabbed a blanket off the couch. I used my Frank Shorter gym bag with sweats inside as a pillow. I fell sound asleep with the party still going on. No one cared.
At some point in the half-light of morning, I woke up to the sight of a woman stepping over me on the way to the bathroom. I groggily glanced up to see her naked crotch above me as she minced her way over the line of bodies sprawled across the floor. “Well, that’s nice,” I thought to myself. Then I rolled back and fell back to sleep.
Another hour or two passed before voices entered the room and one of them called out, “Who’s going for a run?” It was one of the famous Hanson brothers, either Jim or Joe. He was already in his running gear. For some reason beyond my own understanding, I sat up and said, “I’ll go.”
So did plenty of other guys. Hungover and sleepy, we all wandered outside in our running gear. My legs were tired from the race the day before, but something in me didn’t want to wimp out on the post-party run. We all started running in a pack. The Hanson brothers were in the lead as we jogged down the street. Everyone was laughing and telling stories about the party and the race the day before. Along the way, someone broke into a coughing fit and the whole pack stopped to look as one Hanson brothers stopped and pointed at something on the ground. “Oh my God!” he exclaimed, pointing at a purple blob on the pavement. “Did that come outta me?”
Everyone laughed even harder. Then we ran ten sore and half-drunken miles before gathering back at the house. All the while I kept thinking, “God, I thought Luther guys knew how to party. This is a whole other league.”
Back at home that evening, I thrilled to the fact that I’d improved in the half-marathon. The splits were 5:20 at the mile, 16:26 at three, 21:47 at four, 55:13 at ten, and 66:14 at twelve. I’d been troubled by a slight case of blisters, but hung in there.
“Got a glimpse of what I can be if I continue,” I wrote. And then, quoting a Bruce Springsteen song I scrawled… “Badlands….’I want to find out what I got…” Then concluded, “Keep training, you almost had it.”