Starting up my new running journal was a strange feeling, but the timing was interesting. New apartment in a new city. All-new running routes. On August 12, 1982 I wrote:
“Two nights ago the run went marvelous, physiologically. After having cranked four miles of fartlek, I setting into finding my way home. And settled. And settled. About seven miles later I crawled, strongly, back Paoli Pike & home. Mentally the run was strange. Directions are clear but the roads are deceiving. I keep thinking south is north, and east west. If I walked out my door I could probably point east….but for a few days there!”
It’s funny how ‘art imitates life’ sometimes, because I was navigating all kinds of change in those first few weeks in a new town. Finding my way around an all-new landscape was challenging. The area around Paoli is a mixed region of horse farms and country estates. Old stone walls line the country lanes, and tall maples and sycamores shade the way in season. The difficult part was that a road might suddenly end in a T-intersection, yet pick up with the same name and continue in the same direction another 200 yards to the right or left. It took several weeks to figure out the maze of names and directions.
Along with the running maze, there were practical concerns as well. “The bank probably won’t cash my check tomorrow,” I wrote in a bitter realization that my finances would soon get tight. “Something about ten days grace. Expenses are finally figured but that will take a while to get much back. We’ll see what happens tomorrow.”
Indeed, the bank resisted my begging attempts to push my paycheck through faster. I’d deposited the cash that I’d brought with me on the trip east to open the account. But then came the wait. The money I’d transferred from the bank in Chicago had not cleared, and my first paycheck was on hold for more than a week. On the day before my checks finally cleared, I took out twenty bucks to buy a train ticket to Philly and saw the little Cash Station receipt pop out with a balance of $10. Talk about stress.
I was making the best of it all. “Work’s going well,” I wrote. “Got to balance the creative with the creating.” But the stress of life was getting to me. “Got a sore mouth. Herpes…or a cold sore. No one can tell in this odd world of afflictions. Guess I’ll eat a wry salad, flick on the fan and draw till I drop. There’s money out there. Ran 2 1/2 miles, mostly on toes. Pulse only 52 last night.”
With little else to do after coming home from work, I ran every night. “Fast and slow running, two miles… then turned on watch…began series of four to six wandering miles. Then put watch on three approximate half-mile loops around cemetery and park, on grass. Ran around three minutes each, probably at 75 to 80 second pace. Hard to tell. Haven’t been on a track lately. Sore or aching ear. Very muggy. Yesterday cool but sunny.”
The Runner’s Edge
And then, an important discovery. There was a running store called The Runner’s Edge within walking distance of my house. I stopped by to introduce myself and met the owner Rich Crooke and his brother Peter Crooke. “Tonight I bought adidas Oregon running shoes,” I wrote. “The depth of my obsession is great. Joined the Runner’s Edge track club.”
I was thrilled to meet the guys and get invited to train with the club with a group run on Sundays and some track workouts during the week. My mileage was increasing steadily, and the terrain was proving as challenging as my days in Decorah during college at Luther. “1 hour run. Yellow Springs and back. HILLY. Made it up North Valley HIll. These hills seem to push me past the fear of anaerobism. Perhaps they force the use of unfatigued muscles. I got lost, but not really, on the run tonight. I just overpressed my directions. Another two miles and I’da hit 252. But who knew it then? Not this hombre. So I ran 1:27 minutes, approximately 12-13 miles. Not much more, I’m sure the pace the first ten miles was 7:00, with a couple hill sprints thrown in thinking I’d turn around soon. When dark fell I took off at 6:00 pace, a little angry, and feeling good in this cool, wet Pennsylvania air, and rolled home four miles in around 24:00, I’m sure. You hit the spot.”
What drives a young man?
What drives a young man to push so hard? Is it hormones? A need for approval? Some aspect of personal fantasy or a need to explore the limits of existence? Looking back, it is obvious to me that all those factors enter into the equation. At least they did for me. If someone were to figure out the formula for why men in their 20s will focus strongly on something like sports while ignoring or dismissing more substantial commitments in life, there would be millions of people––young women and men alike––happy to know why that is true.
Recently I heard a psychiatrist on NPR talking about the male propensity for risk-taking during their late teen years and their early-to-mid twenties. Apparently, in many young men, the frontal cortex of the brain develops more slowly than the rest of the grey matter inside. So given this gap in growth, young men don’t necessarily associate taking risks with a legitimate need to feel fear in risky situations. Perhaps this has some evolutionary value as many young men spend considerable time trying to prove themselves to other young women, sometimes in the most inane ways. After all, many species of animals in this world engage in mating rituals that can maim or even kill the weaker opponent.
The psychiatrist also explained an interesting phenomenon discovered while studying the minds and behavior of young male human beings. “They fear disappointing their peers more than they fear physical or emotional harm,” she noted. By “peers” we can ascertain she means “friends” or even “anyone standing close enough to watch.” Hence, a generation of MTV watchers (many of them young men desperate for crass stimulation) tuned in to the show Jackass as a means to exist vicariously through the life-threatening stunts of Johnny Knoxville and his crew.
A harsh epiphany
While I was never fond of taking physical risks for the sake of it, there is risk involved in running all those miles. Add to that risk the fact that for months on end, I’d been burning the candle at both ends and partying late into the night, and the outcome was obvious. I kept making myself sick with colds. My body was razor thin with a 3-4% body mass index. Once while getting tested at a 10-mile race, the nurse doing the pinch test on my body looked up at me and said, “Don’t get caught out in the rain. You’ll die.”
I brought up the subject of my repeated illness with a Runner’s Edge teammate and physician during a long run on August 29. “Just ran 1:33 with Sol Epstein, a SudAfrican with a temper. I felt great today. It’s cool and sunny out. Wore tigers. Small cramp in tight leg, but legs wouldn’t quit. He said 14 1/2 to 15 miles. Felt like 10. Left some poor guy in the dust and sunshine. He was sturdy, but we did start out fast.”
During that run, I ran along with Sol for quite a few miles. As we raced over the roads, he listened intently to my training tales and finally, screeched to a stop, shook his fist at his sides, then turned to me with fierce eyes and from behind his giant silvery mustache these words came pouring out, “You’re fucking overtraining!”
I almost burst out laughing. But he was absolutely right. It took someone with the guts and honesty of that man to tell me the truth. He saw right through my vain risk-taking habits and the propensity to run too hard all the time. Some of that was a carry-over from my college days when we ran all our mileage at six-minute pace. But soon enough, I’d learn even more lessons from the Runner’s Edge guys that would change my perspectives on training forever. It was time to step back and look at what I was really doing with this running thing. Was I doing it right, or just flailing around hoping for good results? It was time to settle down and figure that shit out.
But, when it came to relationships, I was clearly not ready to settle down, even with a woman that clearly appreciated whatever qualities I had to offer. I wrote in my journal, “Linda called bummed today. Probably running from that.”
I can hear the collective groans of millions of women that have had to deal with men like me over the millennia. Guys eager for love and willing to take it, but not quite ready to make a full commitment in return. It doesn’t matter what genre of music one chooses, the theme of young men unwilling to settle down is found throughout. The lyrics from the 5th Dimension song Wedding Bell Blues tell it well:
I was on your side, Bill
When you were losin’ (when you were losin’)
I’d never scheme or lie, Bill
There’s been no foolin’ (there’s been no foolin’)
But kisses and love won’t carry me
‘Til you marry me, Bill
And so, as I struggled to find myself a place in Paoli and Philadelphia, I elected to date rather than spend all my time alone. I knew that I loved Linda, and she loved me. But it was impossible for me to tell at that point if we were meant to be together forever. We’d only been dating for nine months to that point, and I was only a year or so out from a relationship that damn near ate me alive. Let’s face it, love is a risk that some young men aren’t always ready to take. For many, it is a tarsnake on the journey to self-actualization. Part of me was running away from so many things in life. So I looked for connections on the fly.
On the last day of August, I wrote, “Let’s see where we can drag our hopes now. Drove to Valley Forge cause 1) I refused to beat it and 2) the sun was out and it was still cool 3) my energy level was high and strong 4) had the feeling or desperation that I’d meet somebody. There she was in green, by George. Pulled the car in, jumped up the hill and stood there, “Looking for a friend?” Her dog ran to me. Medium talk. Too lazy, it’s too nice to run right now. She’s a nurse. Neat legs. Thighs not flabby. Rides horses. Your time is now. Walk in the woods, She’s a people girl, not a nature girl. No mention of guy friends. No pressure. Me neither. “You going jogging now?” Yes. Phone number is ###-####. Karen is her name. I’might be being silly. Big fat zero?”
I can’t say that I am exactly proud of my vicissitudes in that era. On the other hand, I was showing courage in not letting circumstances out of my control grind me down. Running was the one thing carrying me through. Now I had to learn how to manage that much better. So I got on that train every day and made the whole work thing go the best I could. Then I came home and ran and painted and wrote my heart out. That’s all I really knew how to do.