As the Traveler’s Cheques slowly disappeared, I kept up the hunt for a job in the summer of 1983. Meanwhile, small freelance jobs kept coming my way. I drew up some ads for Vertel’s Running store, but the process was painful and my appetite for more work from them diminished rapidly, as did any notion of wanting to work there.
I also stumbled into a gig doing graphic design for Homer’s Furniture, a Chicago icon that wanted new sales tags for their stores. One little drib followed another little drab. “This is no way to make a living,” I admitted.
But I kept on working with Trent Richards and his forward-looking concept of the One-On-One Fitness company. He wanted a brochure themed in maroon and gray. I illustrated the cover with a runner moving past a grid, and the copy tone was a “let’s talk” brand of content.
As per usual, Trent was ahead of his time in thinking. His entrepreneurial spirit would one day land him a half-million-dollar return on an educational website he helped create. He was always thinking about the future. For example, his training techniques for us back during the indoor track season in high school involved a bunch of plyometric work; jumping on boxes, lunges, sideways strength work. These were all the methods used by none other than Sebastian Coe’s father in training his son.
So while Trent was a bit of a controversial character for some of his earlier behavior as a teacher and husband, he was maturing into a businessman, and his idea to promote fitness among corporate executives at the time was novel and visionary. He landed several longstanding accounts with CEOs of Fortune 100 firms that continued for decades.
As July slid into August, my mileage shot up into the 70mpw range but it was hot as hell that year, and my body suffered some ill effects from the heavy training.
I was also doing speedwork at the University of Illinois-Chicago track as well as the weird little cinder track with flat sides on the curves near the Northwestern Medicine facilities in the north loop. I loved running there and wound up leading workouts for one of Trent Richards’ clients, the leader of the international division of a famous Chicago advertising agency. He was an obviously brilliant man, a rapid conversationalist, and an energetic personality. I wanted to ask him to find me a job in exchange for pacing his running workouts, but I knew that was awkward. Besides, I knew that agency heads aren’t really in the business of filling slots in the lower echelons of the company. I didn’t understand much about the world in some ways, but even I understood that much about the work world.
So I kept my mouth shut for the most part, until the day that the name of a guy that I knew from the running community came up in conversation. I knew that he worked as a creative director on the domestic side of the agency, so I casually asked the CEO if could put me in touch with him. He said sure, and then we continued our series of half-mile intervals at his race pace of around 17:30 for the 5K. His big goal at the age of 40 was to break 17:00, a respectable time for a Master’s runner. That pace wasn’t hard to run at my level of fitness, but it was quite fun seeing him succeed over the weeks that I trained him.
I’d run three or four miles in the morning before those noon workouts. Then I’d lead him through a four-mile session noon, and sometimes run another 4-5 miles that night. To say that I was obsessed is putting it lightly.
About that obsession with running
On the subject of running obsession, it is worth pausing here to make an observation about my state of mind at the age of 25 years old. It would have been helpful if someone (people tried…but not comprehensively) had pulled me aside to tell me a few things. For example:
“Listen, here’s how your brain works. You have Attention Hyperactivity Deficit Disorder, (ADHD) and always have. Those learning challenges you experienced early in school and all the way through college and into the work world are all a result of the way your brain avoids certain executive functions, especially the ability to focus when you’re bored. You need stimulation, yet you have an enormous capacity to concentrate on a single thing at one time. That’s one of the tarsnakes of your existence.”
I could probably have used this advice as well:
“You also have anxiety, which is often closely associated with ADHD. It makes you ruminate on thoughts that aren’t necessarily constructive. It can also lead to highly negative thinking patterns, including fear and dread of life itself.”
Plus: “And Chris, anxiety is basically the opposite side of the coin from depression. So your occasional mood shifts are the product of brain chemistry, not some personality flaw.”
Just as importantly: “Just so you know, all of these mental health issues are exacerbated by forms of stress in life, especially any form of verbal or physical abuse you may have experienced. There’s also grief, loss, or a lost sense of self-esteem caused by any of the above. You might just have a powerful need for approval as a result of your life experiences thus far. ”
And what about internal conflicts over sex and love? Any advice on that would have been helpful too:
“Most people are conflicted by some aspect of sex and love. You seem to have deep yet still naive interest in sex counteracted by feelings of early-age inhibitions, likely from your parents. Combined with your romantic notions about love, it’s no wonder you feel conflicted and perhaps need to work through some of these emotions.”
Add in my artistic qualities and it was no wonder my journey through the mid-20s of my life held plenty of challenges.
Here’s the rub
“But here’s the rub,” the kind advisor might have told me, “It’s really good that you became a runner, because it helps you manage the hyperactive side of your brain function, assists you in coping also with anxiety and depression, and frankly, that running and sex thing kind of balance each other out. Haven’t you always wanted to try to impress the girls? So you should probably keep up that running stuff, but be careful, because it can consume you.”
Yet lacking such good advice, my modus operandi was trying to leverage whatever I could to get a job and keep myself occupied in positive ways. I did reach out to that creative director on the domestic side of the advertising agency. We talked one day, but the subject rapidly turned to my possible contributions to their corporate running team. “We could use someone as fast as you!” he enthusiastically proposed. “Let me see what I can do!”
So he made some sort of internal inquiry about bringing me on somewhere within the firm, but the word came back that they couldn’t hire me just for that purpose. “But,” I weakly protested, “I’m a writer and graphic designer…” I told him. “I’m creative. Doesn’t that help?”
He went blank for a moment, then repeated. “We’ll see what we can do.” But I never heard back.
I went home that day confused by that encounter. While my running ability had gotten me partly in the door at a big advertising agency, the door got slammed shut for the same reason. It turned out that running could take me only so far in this world. What a lesson that proved to be. In some ways during those days, I viewed running as my “job” and getting to work as my avocation.