Adjusting to life in the Philly suburbs took some doing. With rare exception, I took the train downtown because driving into the city was a manic experiment in age-old expressways and traffic backups right and left. The main route into the city required driving on the Schuykill Expressway, a multi-lane accident waiting to happen. The entrance ramps to the road were so short it was like being shot down the ramp of a pinball machine. You had to hope there was no one in the right lane when you roared down the incline trying to gain enough speed to match the pace of traffic. Sometimes you just hit the gas and merged like a Roller Derby contestant. I never had an accident on the road the locals branded the Sure Kill Expressway, but there were enough close calls to deter me from making it a regular practice to commute by car.
By comparison, taking the train was safe and secure, and it was quite a nice ride from Paoli into Philly. When I first moved to town, the commuter trains were operated by Conrail. Their conductors were classy guys, professional and courteous. The trains were typically packed, but boarding out in Paoli meant there were plenty of available seats. Yet one night on the train from downtown, we jammed in like cattle thanks to an engine problem that cut down the number of trains that evening. I wound up cheek to cheek with a woman of perhaps forty years old. I admired the fine lines around her eyes, and perfect brows. She looked lovely in her plain white blouse, and I wrote in my journal. “Exchanged eyes with a crinkled-eye, lace bra’d woman on the train. She seemed to like me. Did I come on like a clam? When will I meet these women twice? Get it right the first time, that’s the main thing.”
Yes, I was constantly on the make yet good at beating myself up at that age. Everything was so new. Events were happening so fast and coming at me from so all directions. It was all I could do to make sense of things in the moment.
The one thing I absorbed from all those train rides was a realization that the town of Villanova and the University of the same name sat right on the main line. I’d grown up watching Villanova basketball with my father and brothers on a tiny black and white TV screen. Once I became a runner, I watched as many world class runners emerged from that school. Marty Liquori and Don Paige, Sydnee Maree and Marcus O’Sullivan. I loved the look of the famously simple Villanova white singlet and deep blue shorts. It screamed track and field all on its own. I determined that I should get over and run on the Villanova track, if that was possible. To my surprise, that opportunity came sooner than expected. “We’re going to do a track workout over at Villanova,” one of the Runner’s Edge guys called to tell me one evening. “Wanna join us?”
“Hell, yeah!” I replied.
My training to that point was a mixture of long road runs and fartlek. To test my fitness, I competed in a race and on October 10 I wrote, “Raced a.m. 26:03 on a hilly course. 5:10 pace. 21:08 four mile. Felt Good. Relaxed. Winner 24:32. 1:30 away.”
That next Wednesday, I drove over to Villanova and ran a session with six other guys. We planned a session of 6 X 880 in 2:18 -2:20, but I was so excited I led my two intervals in 2:17 and 2:16.
While warming up, we watched a TV crew interviewing Don Paige, the world-class Villanova half-miler. In 1980, he’d planned to lead the US distance squad, but the team didn’t go to the Olympics that year. Through the running grapevine we heard that he’d recently done an insane workout or five or six half miles at 1:55 or faster. Seeing him on the track in that classic Villanova uniform was a bit intimidating. Yet I still wanted to look fast in any case, so that Paige or any other world-class Villanovans that showed up wouldn’t think we were trash runners.
Business at hand
On that next Tuesday, we returned to the Villanova track for another 6 X 880 workout. This time we hammered a bit harder. The set included: 2:16 X 3. Three 2:15s and one in 2:14 before we backed off and ran the last one at a saner pace of 2:18.
That workout felt great, but it was harder than I knew in the moment. I was gassed two days later, but still went out for an hour run. “60:00. Ugly tired running. “No zip. Tired. Thinking about race. Went to be early.”
I wisely took the next day off and did not race that weekend.
Marty Liquori’s Guide for the Elite Runner
Taking my own advice on backing off was hard, but I’d begun training according to the principles mapped out in a book titled Marty Liquori’s Guide to the Elite Runner. Published on January 1, 1980, the book emphasizes that real commitment to running is not an easy thing.
He was clear about one thing in particular, a concept he calls “The Day After the Day Lag Rule.” That means the real fatigue of a hard workout does not hit you until 48 hours later. It was a lesson I struggled to learn and kept making the mistake of doing too much intensity so close together. That’s one of the ways I made myself sick all the time. The partying didn’t help either.
But the thrill of running on the Villanova track where some of my running heroes earned their reputations was a calling to go fast. While I knew that I’d likely never become a world-class runner, it still felt like there was business to finish in my running life. I was strongly motivated to improve, to be the best runner I could be, even if I was a sub-elite journeyman in the grand running scheme. I still wanted to find out how good I could become.
To do that, I strongly embraced the practices laid out in Marty Liquori’s book. I was also learning from the Runner’s Edge guys how to balance levels of training to avoid getting hurt, sick, or burned out. That was still something of a running practicum, and I kept making mistakes.
The Mink inside
In fact, it was partly my fault that we’d run so hard on those intervals over at Villanova. Something in me never wanted to back off. My nickname growing up was The Mink for having competitive instincts so strong and an anger so close to the surface of my being that it flared whenever I was challenged at anything in life. It would be years before I figured out the source of that spitfire and flying fur within my soul, but I would eventually come to understand myself better than I did as a young man in my early twenties. At the age of 24, the only thing I knew how to do was keep pushing ahead.
Ultimately, I was surprised to learn that the Latin word Villanova means “new town.” My life history saw me making strides in a series of villanovas, as I moved to new towns many times. It was the Villanova Factor that played a big role in my personal development and finally, finally a degree of maturity. No matter how difficult things seem at the time, life often turns out for the best, villanovas and all.