After a sweet Christmas in Chicago with Linda, I returned to life in Paoli with an eye on starting the New Year the right way. A long run.
“I ran a very relaxed but determined two hours today,” I wrote. “Most of it was 6:30 pace with the late middle miles faster and the last three very slow, because I became light-headed again. This feeling did not hit me until probably fifteen minutes past one hour of running, when I picked up the pace on the flat shoulders of Route 252. The entire route went: Paoli Pike to Sugartown Road, Sugartown to Goshen, Goshen to Grubb (or Grubb’s Mill) to the aintersection of Barr and Whitehorse, Whitehorse to 252–one lap around the local golf course, up to Route 30 on 252 and several dizzy laps around the cemetery and park. Ran from 1:55 to 3:55 p.m. This got me over the stigma, somewhat, of two hours but I learned precisely at what point and what pace the ire of fatigue took over. It is and was a beautiful, warm winter day with a cool breeze from the northwest. Wore Goretex top, two T’s and a pair of Luther sweats. Oregon’s (adidas) felt good. Strangely, my knee problem, tendinitis around the outside of the joint, is eradicated. Knee felt quite fluid going upstairs. I was locked out when I got home! Climbed the house to get back in.”
There were many such moments when I locked myself out of the house. Blame it on my ADHD. In response, I’d developed a technique of scaling a gutter to the roof above the downstairs door, reaching over to the second-floor window, and climbing inside.
That afternoon, I grew extremely hungry from all those running miles and walked over to the Turkey Hill convenience store to buy anything that looked good to snack on. As I approached the door, a guy angling toward the same entryway stared at me and walked smack into the glass door. I went home with my snack collection and mused in my journal: “God gave me a helluva an illustration today. Some guy walked into a door today while staring at me. ‘Don’t let the fascination with life occupy your better senses.’ He seemed to be acting the fool, or needing sympathy or something. But his eyes were so fixated, and with all those people watching. The guy at the counter said, “he comes in here quite often, and he seems like a sedate guy.” There’s your only resolution, Christopher, on this, the beginning of a New Year, and you’re already begun on the old year. Let or make the balance of activity come and you don’t walk into any closed doors. Happy New Year!”
Then I wrote: ARTIST • PAINTER • WRITER • RUNNER • LOVER. BELIEVER IN GOD. WHO GAVE YOU JOY AND LOVE ON EARTH. And bless Linda, Family and Friends.
And then came a race in Florida. My cousin Alan Nichols reached out to me somehow, and we arranged a visit to his place in Miami to join him in running the Race of the Americas 10K. I hadn’t really known to that point that Alan became a marathoner. But his father, my Uncle Kermit, was once a leading distance runner in the Northeast. He’d trained as a runner by scrambling up the Catskill mountain on which the family farm resided. My mother recalled watching her older brother run a road race in which he built a lead so large that he stopped during the competition to chat with family members.
I grew up visiting that farm as a child. Much of my love of nature comes from those visits, as there were leopard frogs in every watery tire track, and black fossils found in every chunk of slate of which the mountain was composed. In summer, we once crested that hill and tread our way down a tumbling streambed formed of that slate. It was one of the most magical moments of my entire life.
So I was eager to spend some time with Allen both to run the race and to share some memories together. As kids, we often fished in the Susquehanna River that bordered the “flats” of the farm. That’s where my Uncle Kermit would pile me on his legs and start up the tractor to tear across the fields next to the river while towing the manure spreader behind us. I’d cling to his lap while staring down at the crazily spinning tractor tires inches from us on either side. While I openly dreaded the idea of falling off to my death, my uncle’s giant arms kept my skinny little body in a safe place. We tore down the flats with increasing speed as the cow shit flung in merry distribution behind us.
Come evening, my brothers and I would walk down to the Susquehanna with our fishing rods to catch bass and pickerel. We had a slim collection of lures in our tackle box. And honestly, Alan was terrible about losing those lures, catching them on weeds and such underwater, and a couple times he went to cast and spun them around a nearby tree branch. During one trip, we had only few good lures left between us, and gave Alan a rusted, hammered brass spoon with just two of the treble hooks left. He cast the lure but forgot to flip the bail. The line whipped ahead of him and the lure shot down into the lily pads with an audible !thunk!. The water erupted as a twenty-inch chain pickerel attacked the lure and Alan reeled it in. He’d just caught the biggest fish of the week.
I found that somewhat hilarious, actually. We put the pickerel in a bucket and took it high up on the ill to release it in the deep, clear spring where an artesian spring rose up from the depths of the mountain. Returning that next spring after a snowy winter, we were surprised to find that pickerel resting at the bottom of the spring. Apparently, it had found plenty to eat and slept through the winter in some kind of pickerel torpidity.
So I flew to Miami to visit Alan because who doesn’t like an opportunity to meet a cousin you haven’t seen in fifteen years? We raced the 10K and I wound up running alongside Ron Hill, one of the world’s greatest distance runners. I also ran next to Grete Waitz, the world’s best woman marathoner at that stage of the running boom, and even somehow bested Bob Hodge, a national-class distance runner clearly having an off-day down in Miami. I ran 32:20 for the 10k distance, and wrote, “No real blowouts. Just common pain. Wished I’d known splits. Could have run more relaxed early on.”
Indeed, no mile times were given throughout the race. I’d never run in a major race like that where there weren’t split times. I had a watch, but the mile points weren’t well-marked either. As I recall, Craig Virgin won the race that day. He was adorned in his yellow Front Runner adidas kit and eager to make headway in the burgeoning road-running scene of the early 1980s. I’d first seen him run ten years before in the Illinois State Cross Country meet in 1972. His time of 13:51 from that day would stand untouched for another forty years. He’d go on to win two World Cross Country Championships, and had a great shot at the Olympic 10K title if the United States had not boycotted the Moscow Games. If you want to read about his entire career, the biography Virgin Territory produced by sportswriter Randy Sharer is a compelling account of a world-class runner in both his glory and struggles. It wasn’t yet an easy time to be a professional runner, but Virgin was a trailblazer.
The day after the race, Alan and I visited the Everglades. We rented bikes to ride around a 15-mile trail through the park. At one point, I was looking at the ditches for signs of water birds, and didn’t look up at a low-hanging branch where a red-shouldered hawk was perched. And then, around 13 miles, we encountered a large alligator laying across the narrow bike trail. The ten-foot beast was sunning itself on a cool day, so I reasoned it wasn’t going to be that active if we needed to jump over it. Alan chuckled in his famous way, and said, “You go first.” So I did, and the alligator just laid there like a log. So Alan followed suit and we didn’t have to ride the thirteen miles back the way we came. We were both thankful for that.
On Monday, Alan needed to go to work, so I was on my own to find fun around Miami. I decided to go for a run and a swim at Biscayne Bay. The sun was warm and after the run, I stripped down to a blue Speedo swimsuit and sat in the rays. I stretched out on a towel between the sand dunes, and kept an eye out for girls walking along the beach. Still tired from the race the day before, I laid back down for a partial nap in the sun but awoke upon hearing a woman’s voice say, “Hi, how are you?”
I sat up, surprised at hearing that sweet voice. Then I went speechless at the sight before me. Here stood a short but magically built young woman wearing a tiny, bright blue swimsuit. The sun hit her at an angle where every detail of her body was evident. Her nipples stood out from her breasts, and the tiny swimsuit barely covered everything else. She stood over me on the towel and asked if she could sit down. “Sure,” I said.
I know. Dumb answer, right? But I ask in all sincerity: How cool would you be if a sun goddess in blue appeared in your midst, standing against the sky like an Atlantic mermaid come ashore?
We talked a bit. I learned that she’d attended college at Skidmore, and that she and her male companion drove down the East Coast to Florida for the fun of it. But now she was bored with him and pointed up the beach to where her companion sat staring out at the water. It took most of my life to realize that in some cases, a woman bored is essentially a woman scorned. She’d come to Florida for a sense of adventure, and for some reason her guy wasn’t delivering it.
I squinted up the beach trying to size him up in case he came after me for messing with his girl. I reasoned that with my relative speed, I could always outrun 99.9% of the people in the world. He was too far away to gather much about his athleticism. Beside, we were partly obscured by the dune grass.
“It’s getting hot up here in the sand,” I suggested. “Want to go for a swim?”
We walked down to the beach and as we went, I openly admired her. She walked in that relaxed way that showed she clearly liked the attention. We waded into the water, which was somehow plenty warm, and floated around together. She laid back with her chest to the sky and the blue bikini top clinging to her breasts. If I’d have had an ounce of self-confidence and male drive at that moment, I’d have invited her up the beach to have a good go of it on my towel. Instead, her eyes glazed over after a few minutes in the water, and she was bored with me too. “Well, nice to meet you,” she said, walking out of the water. Then she walked back down the beach toward her boring half-lover while I retreated to my stupid-ass towel still sitting between dunes.
Her laissez faire impressed me on many levels. Despite all my native lusts and fantasies, I’d let her slip away. That was sad, because I’d recently done a drawing of a fantasy girl by the beach. Yet here I’d been in the presence of a real woman eager to do what she wanted with her own body, and I’d stumbled into shyness. In that regard, she reminded me of the character Bo Derek played in the movie “10,” and I was about as awkward as the Dudley Moore character. Perhaps I had Linda ––my own Julie Andrews character––in the back of my mind as well.
Later, I described the scene to my cousin Alan, who chuckled again and said, “You really blew that one.” There are few times in life when greater truths have been spoken to me.
What can I say? No one bats a thousand in this world. A major league ballplayer that hits .350 enough years gets a sure ticket to the Baseball Hall of Fame. But I also learned that if you keep swinging, sometimes you hit one out of the park.
I came with a wicked sunburn and a case of sore feet from running barefoot on the beach. It was surely fun to see my cousin and take a break from the manic commuting life up in Philadelphia. But things were moving behind the scenes in many ways that year. Sometimes when you’re running as fast as you can, it’s hard to notice things coming up from behind.