Heading into the month of September 1983, I looked at the schedule and planned a three-week period of quality training to prepare for races. First I drove up to Luther College to have a go during the Intrasquad race. “Gonna go race in Decorah this weekend. Sneak up the back way again. Sunshine and hills, I believe. Training’s been going well. Left knee twinges from chronic pounding.” I managed to run a 21:42, not much better than I ran as a sophomore on the cross country team. But that race was a tuneup, not a target. Plus, it was always good to run amongst the Luther Blue.
The following week I stepped on the track and ran a workout of six 400s in 65-60-59-59-60-66. “Gritted at it,” I wrote in the journal. The week topped out at 67 miles. Even though the late summer heat still vexed me, I could sense the rush of fall racing ahead.
And still, the question of what to do in my relationship with Linda came up. “Really wrenching discussion with Linda,” I wrote in the journal. “She wants me there all the time. Woooman, I got to go…” We were like two birds circling in the sky. Connected in some way, yet part of me still felt the need to soar.
On September 6 I hooked up to run with the Lake Shore Track Club and got a dose of my own intense medicine. “Met a fired-up guy named Jim Terry,” I wrote. “A philosophy major/writer who just moved to Chicago from NY. Trying to make it on his own, it seems. Runs a 31:08 and a 1:04:00. I may try to go with him sometime. Invited me to join the Complete Athlete Club.”
The weeks kept rolling by and try as I might, no full-time job opportunities came through. Money was tight, and I kept finding small gigs to make the rent and buy food, all while pounding out letters to contacts and applying for jobs through the Tribune and other sources.
I’d written to a hopeful contact named Chuck at the Morton Salt company. He was head of the creative department and once offered me a job back when I was commuting to 208 S. LaSalle Street for Van Kampen Merritt. I’d turned him down at the time, but he raised his eyebrows that day and said, “Well, let me know if you ever want to talk.” But in 1983, the economy was still iffy, and hiring wasn’t exactly hot on the menu for many companies. That’s what Chuck told me too. “Stay in touch,” he advised. “Maybe something will open up.” So I kept on typing up job-specific resumes with my IBM Selectric. Sometimes I’d make copies, and send out bulk mailings in envelopes with stamps and cover letters inside. Sometimes I’d hear back. Sometimes not. It was such an archaic process back then.
The million-dollar bird lottery
Between job hunting, I dug into painting an entry for the Federal Duck Stamp contest. I chose to paint a pair of goldeneye ducks. While it was a credible effort, I struggled with the details for lack of reference material. Most of the top wildlife and duck stamp painters used highly detailed photography to copy in producing their art. I’d studied plenty of goldeneyes on the Fox River in St. Charles, and I knew how they flew and how they generally looked. But when it comes to choosing artwork for the Federal Duck stamp, the winning pieces often looked like glamorized photographs. The allure of the contest is that whoever won typically became an instant millionaire. But I wasn’t quite there yet as an artist.
My entry did eventually place in the Top 100, which sort of qualified me as a sub-elite wildlife painter. In reality, I was the same sort of runner. Good enough to earn some respect, but not good enough for the Big Time. I was national class, but only on the back end of the pack. Still, I painted almost daily, making incremental steps toward the type of painter I wanted to be.
Time to fly
On the 14th of September, I cranked out another interval workout, running 65-66-65 in 400s, 2:21, 2:19 for two 800s, a mile in 4:59 and back down to an 800 in 2:24 before closing with a 64 and 65 on 400s. The classic “ladder” workout is ideal for testing both fitness and concentration. It steels you for racing conditions with the pace adjustments. And I had a support crew. Linda hand-timed me at the Geneva High school track.
After one more week of training, I entered a race called Run For The Money in Arlington Heights. It started near the parking lot of a bank at the corner of Algonquin and Arlington Heights roads. I was nervous at the start but feeling mean. That was always a good combination for me. Linda joined me that morning and I felt incredibly alive and strong while giving her a hug. She smiled and said “Good luck.” I smiled back and said, “Yes. I’m ready.”
The pace felt quick but manageable from the start. Then we passed through the mile point in 5:22 and a shot of surprise ran through me. The pace felt much faster than the time indicated. Feeling great as I did, I pressed forward…a few feet in front of the pack…to look around at who was there. Then I turned my attention to the road ahead, and took off. “Let’s see who follows,” I said to myself.
Making a commitment that early in the race was a risk, but I felt incredible. My shoes gripped the asphalt really well, as I recall. I felt in control and passed through the two-mile mark in 10:10. I had a few guys still with me, but their breathing was hard and I saw out of the corner of my eye that when I took a turn fast and accelerated, they struggled to catch back up.
At three miles I glanced around at the bunch. No one else had attempted to take the lead by that point. I knew that if I could press the pace the next mile, they’d be racing for second. I looked around one more time and gassed it again. This time I got a lead and passed through four miles in 20:35. Now I was really rolling, and feeling even meaner.
I hit five miles in 25:35, not slowing a bit. That was a five-minute mile in the fifth section of the race. A good sign. I wasn’t struggling at all. Then came some turns in a residential neighborhood and I kept the pace fast. Suddenly I was alone on the street with only the sound of my own breathing keeping me company. I looked back and could see the bunch trying to muster more speed, but arms were flailing and it wasn’t happening for them. “Tough shit,” I muttered and turned toward the finish line.
It’s a great feeling coming down a big avenue with nothing but blank asphalt ahead and knowing that you’re going to win a race. I’d done my share of winning over the years but had not won a single race back in Philadelphia. Looking up at the clock near the finish, I saw the time tick through 31:42 as I crossed the finish line. I was happy to win but disappointed at the sight of that time. It felt like I’d gone much faster. In fact, I knew I had.
Walking around to cool down, I gave Linda a thumbs-up sign and she called out, “Nice job, lover.” That was our nickname for each other. She had my sweats all balled up in her arms in case I needed them. But I was wound up from all that speed, and started jogging down to cool off. At that point, the second-place guy ran up beside me and gave me a big congratulatory slap on the back. “Nice racing,” he told me. “You really pushed the pace.”
“I felt good,” I told him. “Thanks.”
“You know,” he added. “We measured this course, and it’s like, really long. Like, 200 meters long.”
I looked over at him to see if he was kidding. He wasn’t. “Seriously,” he continued. “We walked it with the wheel to see for ourselves. So, whatever you ran, take off, like, forty seconds or so.” He was still breathing hard, so his words came out in chunks.
Now that time made sense to me. I had probably just run my first 31:00 10K that day. But that’s road racing. You never know what you’re gonna get in terms of a course measurement when you step to the line.
The “other runner” that day was a guy named Bill Friedman. I liked him right away. We talked some more and had a laugh about some of the racing tactics. “You killed us,” he chuckled. Then he made an invitation. “I’m working with a running store in Arlington Heights to form a Nike-sponsored racing team. Are you interested?”
“Sure,” I told him. “What’s the store called?”
“Running Unlimited,” he said. “Let me get your address after we cool down and we’ll send you a contract.”
At the awards ceremony after the race, the organizers handed out all kinds of prizes, and despite the race being named Run For the Money, no real money was handed out. I was disappointed at that. Secretly I was hoping to take home a hundred bucks or so for winning. Instead, I was given a month’s membership to a fitness club in Arlington Heights. I was living in Chicago, and Linda lived in Geneva. That formed a perfectly impractical triangle. “How can I use this?” I laughed to her. I wound up giving that membership away to someone at the race.
That amusement with impractical prizes would become a theme between us. I would go on to win several races that fall, and it always seemed like the race winner seldom got anything as nice as what they gave out in the raffle drawings.
Such is life. Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose out even when you’re the winner.