All of us who run know the difference between a good race and a bad race. There are empirical factors such as time and place by which we measure our efforts. Yet even these are subjective depending on conditions such as weather and wind, heat or cold. We must adjust our expectations according to the elements.
We also have “gut instincts” about how well a training session or race turned out. Feeling good while you’re working out is an incredible sensation. Feeling awful is the worst.
Most of our work as runners and distance athletes in general (I’m speaking of cyclists, swimmers, and triathletes, all of which I do nowadays) falls somewhere in the middle spectrum between feeling great and feeling awful. I recall those weeks in college training 80-90 miles per week and being in a constant tired state. Without the discipline to go to bed at a sane hour during those years, I would have been sick all the time.
That was a lesson I still had to learn a few years out of college. You can’t stay out until Closing Time and expect to get up fresh and ready to run the next morning. The lyrics by the band Seismonic capture that desperate sensation of loneliness when the bar is about to shut down:
Closing time, open all the doors
And let you out into the world
Closing time, turn all of the lights on
Over every boy and every girl
Closing time, one last call for alcohol
So finish your whiskey or beer
Closing time, you don’t have to go home
But you can’t stay here
This may seem like an odd comparison to make, but leaving a job is much like closing time at the bar. It’s the raw sensation of knowing that whatever fun you were having is coming to an end. Or, if it wasn’t so much fun, the cold lights of reality are about to come on and it’s time to pack up your shit and move on out.
I blasted through the month of April in Paoli and Philadelphia clinging to the notion that the work situation at Van Kampen Merritt would somehow work out. On the other had, I was hoping like hell that it wouldn’t. I was tired of trying to make the long-distance relationship with Linda work. The daily pain of equivocation was too much. I raced on April 23 and of that effort I wrote, “Race was strange, feverish effort. Went out at 5;00, felt easy. 10:05, 15:30, 20:58 and 26:10.”
That was a decent effort, but nothing special. “Poor middle miles,” I noted.
The previous weekend I’d said “screw it” to the running and took off birdwatching at the Tinicum refuge. Spring migration was going great guns on the east coast. I birded at noon with the sun shining and 50 degrees, and still wracked up an impressive list of species. “Tree swallows, mallards, song sparrow, herring gulls, Canada goose, shovelers, yellowlegs, fish crow, common crow, turkey vulture, osprey, red tail, great blue heron, common egret, black-crowned night heron, coot, robin, tree sparrow, palm warbler, grackle, starling, blue jay, ruddy duck, white-throated sparrow.”
Then the weather turned sour with snow, 35-degree temps, and windy. “Windchimes are ringing in the cold wind,” I wrote. “Wonder how the spring peepers feel.”
Seeking refuge from work and everything else, I visited my brother out in Lancaster. I told him about the various ailments I’d been suffering. “Jim brought up hypoglycemia, ears ringing. Oh well, my dick hurts, my gums bleed and my ears ring. My eye hurts too. But I’m in great shape.” I was also low on money after the car accident bled my account dry before the check arrived. I couldn’t seem to catch up while making $23,000 a year. “It almost feels good,” I wryly noted in the journal. “Live poor and you will be rich.”
But by April 30 I knew that things were coming to a head. There were big moves being made on the Van Kampen front, and I wasn’t going to be a part of them. “Well, today was the day of surprised reckoning,” I wrote. “But I am not surprised at the result. I’m leaving Van Kampen Merritt. My eyes are tired. The Schuykill makes me ill. Secondhand women make me angry. No Tampico Trauma here. We got ourselves a change in attitude, a change in latitude.”
That is all I really want to say
I was thrown out of the country yesterday
See, I was…
Causin’ lots of trouble
When the man looked in the window of the bar and he grinned…
And said, “If you come back, we just may not be your friend.”
“I don’t want to see you ’round here again!”
“If you come back next time, we may not pretend.”
(“Hidy ho’ boys!”)–Jimmy Buffet
On May 6 the President handed me a $7,000 severance check as a gesture of thanks for moving out to Philly. I never felt that Jack was anything but straightforward and kind to me. But I understood the deal: “Glad I didn’t have to hang around being dead meat,” I wrote. “Gonna have to make the money’s last. Mebbe earn some more somewhere. Paid through July, in essence.”
I went on a date with a cute little redhead from the office, just to close that loop. Then I packed up a week’s worth of clothes and running stuff and drove south to Assateague Island in Virginia. The first time I’d been there was with my brother Jim in 1972 when I was a sophomore in high school. We drove down from Lancaster and back the same day. It rained much of the day, and my poor brother was hallucinating after all the birding, the fierce rains on the highway, and all the night driving. He always was the king of concentration and family leadership among my three brothers, making his own way in the world when my parents were not able to offer much support. We were excited to have the opportunity to spend time together during the period we called “Paoli Days.” Many weekends we’d trade cassette tapes of new music we’d found. I recall a day when he visited my place in Paoli. I put the track Eminence Front by The Who on the turntable. The opening notes and baseline are mesmerizing: “Whoa, dude,” he said, stopping cold in his tracks.
That big wheel spins, the hair thins
Forget they’re hiding
The news slows
Their shares crash, hopes are dashed
Forget they’re hiding
Behind an eminence front
On the way down to Assateague, I stopped in some small resort town and got out of the car to stretch. Walking toward the sidewalk, I encountered a woman about my age with her car hood open. She stood there in a breezy top and blue jean shorts looking like a commercial for an 80s romance flick. I stopped to ask what was up with her car, and she glanced at me with fierce eyes and a set of Mariel Hemingway eyebrows, thick and full. I knew nothing about fixing cars then, and know little more now. But I should have known at that moment there was nothing wrong with that woman’s car. It was her adventure engine that was running on empty, and she wanted to start it up. Sadly, I was too distracted by the force of my ocean destiny to realize that the Lord of Hosts had put that woman there to join me on that journey, but I left her behind.
About ten miles down the road, realizing how dumb I’d been, I almost turned the car around to go back. Then I laughed and said out loud, “That would look lame.”
I was trying to shake off the malaise of closing time at Van Kampen. My goal was to find a peaceful place along the ocean, do some birding and go for runs along the beach. I pulled into the park and walked into a tall pine forest where large lady slipper orchids were blooming in profusion. They stuck out of the ground like strange creatures from the Yellow Submarine movie, almost unreal in nature. I walked among them letting the May sunshine dapple me through the branches, and sighed. Then I bent down on one knee and sobbed.
That afternoon, I parked by the ocean, carried some running gear and a towel out to the edge of the dunes, and hid them there. Wearing only a set of shorts and some adidas running shoes, I took off running north on the hard sand. Far up the shore, well past the limits of the parking lots or any signs of civilization, I saw a young couple playing in the surf. They were completely naked, letting the white, foaming waves bash them from behind. Her hair blew wildly in the wind, and her breasts shook joyously with every strike of the wave. The guy looked at me running by and gave me a wave as I passed. They looked so happy that I felt a kinship with them. I waved back.
I returned to run on the beach the next day, covering eight miles without seeing a soul. Then I drove back to Paoli and ran another four miles that night. On Saturday, I ran eight miles with Rich Crooke, the director of the Runner’s Edge team. During our run, I told him that I’d lost my job and would probably be moving back to Chicago. He wished me luck, shook my hand, and gave me a big grin. I was grateful to have met Rich and Pete, their talented younger brother John, as well as Dick Hayden and the rest of the Runner’s Edge club members. I’d lived nine months in Paoli and benefitted greatly from their counsel and support while training and racing.
But it was Closing Time for me back East. So I started making plans on how to move back to Chicago.