Reckoning: the action or process of calculating or estimating something.
August in the City of Chicago is often literally and figuratively exhausting. That was particularly true because our apartment on the second floor faced Clark Street and Lincoln Park. With the front windows open, the sound of buses barreling down Stockton Avenue was perpetual. So was the smell of the smoke from cars and trucks and buses on the street outside our windows. On hot summer nights, we could sit in the alcove overlooking the street below and witness men in long black limos picking up elegant escorts for a night on the town. We’d also see them disembarking at the same spot in the morning. Those guys would often change shirts right on the street corner to avoid the smell of those other women on their clothes.
Up the block from our apartment stood the Hotel Lincoln, whose sign at one point actually was missing an E. I’d come back from long evening runs and smile at the sight of the HOT L Lincoln.
On August 8 I wrote, “Warm in this here Chicago apartment. Ran hard tonight. Should go slow but long in two runs tomorrow. Supposed to cool off. May go to U-I Chicago on Wednesday for intervals. May just do long miles, short miles in Lincoln Park. Body’s pretty tired. Pushups are helping. Plan for first fall race is Luther Intrasquad. Octoberfest half marathon might be a good one. Pick a race in Late October too and finish up with Vertels on November 20. Perhaps a 5-mile cross country race in between there.”
I’d only raced once the summer of ’83, a July 15K Elveloppet Run in Decorah. The Elveloppet course was a hilly monster, often on single-track trails up the bluffs. So the time wasn’t quick, but I finished well among my Luther buddies.”54:something. Fast last four miles,” I wrote.
The second week of August I cranked out 70 miles in the heat, capped off by a session of six 400s at 67-65-64-65-65-60. Earlier in the week, I’d run a set of three one-mile repeats at 5:02, 4:50, and 5:00. “Sore thighs on Thursday,” I wrote. That Sunday I ran 13 miles at 6:00-6:30 pace. I had the pedal down to the floor on some of those runs.
All the while I was pressing to get a new job, and trying to manage relationships in the meantime. I bounced around from Linda to my friends and back to my pseudo-mentor Trent Richards, whose contacts and energy seemed valuable. Sadly, I received varying types of feedback about my persona. “Today, a study in other’s perceptions of me,” I wrote on August 10. “This inner confidence is the question raised again and again. Roomie in particular is suspicious of my job-hunting methods. He also doesn’t understand that my moods are as simple and profound as a dark day in summer. Seemingly gloomy, but mostly a break in the action.”
I was networking with many kinds of prior contacts to find a job. Yet like always with a job hunt, it was slow going. To work off the stress, between runs, I’d write all morning and paint all afternoon. One day my roommate came home to find me typing away in the bedroom. He was sweaty and hot from the commute back to our apartment from his job and arrived home frustrated and impatient with life. He stood inside my bedroom door, and blurted, “You know, self-indulgence is not the way to self-fulfillment.”
It shocked me, and I wondered: Was I being self-indulgent with all that running, writing, painting, and everything else? I saw it all differently. While I deeply recognized the need to find a new job, I was also working hard at my craft and selling work on occasion. Decades later, I shared his statement that night and he confessed, “Yeah, that was not a nice thing to say.”
On the writing front, I was excited about the opportunity to produce for a new publication called Illinois Runner, a new magazine published by Rich Elliott. In the late 1960s, he was one of Illinois’ top high school runners and went on to a successful college and post-collegiate career. I designed the logo for his newspaper, and the October issue featured a photo for Greg Meyer finishing first in the Beatrice Chicago Marathon.
Rich wrote a compelling letter as the introduction to the publication. The running community in Chicago was really starting to build. It was actually an exciting time to be involved in the sport. The Chicago Area Runners Association blossomed into existence, offering a competitive circuit. I sensed something real and growing on the running front. Plus, I just wanted to see how good I could get at running. At twenty-five years old, I figured it was the one time in life that I had a chance to find out.
That was the tug-and-pull at that stage in life. Linda was pressuring me to get married. My roommate just wanted to pay the rent. My former coach wanted all kinds of help with his business but wasn’t super forthcoming about the compensation involved. These were hard reckonings for me.
Get out of town
The third week of August, Linda and I decided to head north to the Upper Peninsula for a camping trip. The weather was cooler up there, and I ran some miles on the backroads. I let up on the training for a week, and the north woods around Camp 7 were gorgeous. Linda and I made love on a beach next to a lake and listened to the coyotes howl after dark. We hiked and cooked out, and I spotted a bald eagle and a three-toed woodpecker, a lifer for my bird list.
The only sad part of the trip was the odd sight of some pine forests denuded of needles. A beetle of some kind infested the woods, and the sight of grey, dead trees was a bit depressing. If a flame got going in those barrens, the conflagration would have been great. So we kept our campfires low and slow.
Back home in Chicago, I jumped back into training and ran a fast interval workout of 4 X 800 at 2:25, 2:15-2:15 and 2:25. However, my stomach kept acting up after those speed sessions in the hot August weather. Part of me began to look forward to autumn. On August 22 I wrote, “The End is on television. Last time I saw that I nearly died puking after a national steeple in Grand Rapids. Came devilishly close together.”
To that point in life, I believed that competing in 88-degree temperatures that afternoon at Nationals was the cause of heatstroke and a pursuant night of throwing up twenty-seven times. Later in life, I had a reckoning of sorts upon realizing that the illness after that national meet was not heatstroke. It was food poisoning caused by the Pizza Hut pizza I’d eaten at dinner. I came to that realization after reading an article in an issue of Harper’s describing how many lawyers the Pepsico/Pizza Hut company employed to defend themselves against food poisoning lawsuits. I sat in the library after reading that article and said the words out loud: “Son. Of.A Bitch.”
It’s a strange thing when some belief that you developed about yourself––or some perception about an experience you’ve had––suddenly changes. For years after that horrific night of barfing my gut outs and almost dying from dehydration, I’d told myself that my body could not handle the heat. But once I thought through the events of that day, it dawned on me that we’d gone out to dinner that night and I ate almost an entire medium pizza on my own. By midnight, I was sick as hell. That’s a good reckoning about a bad event because I no longer doubted myself about running in the heat. So it was actually a relief to realize that running in the heat was not the cause of my suffering.
It’s so easy to find ways to doubt ourselves and create a narrative from our perceptions, even when they’re based on false assumptions. In some ways, that misperception about my body’s ability to “take the heat” turned out to be an apt analogy for other issues of flawed self-esteem and personal beliefs. That raised the question: What other inaccurate beliefs had I formed about my life? This much I did know: I was trying hard to prove (to myself) that I could succeed on my own terms. For better or worse, that motivation defined my actions going forward.
I reckoned that the best way to move forward was to keep on running.