On April 15 of 1984, I raced on home turf for the Running Unlimited store in Arlingtonn Heights. Though it had rained overnight, and dawn arrived with 43-degree temps, I was eager as hell to run a five-mile race after the half marathon PR a few weeks before.
The race started and finished at the Arlington Heights library, for whom the event served as a fundraiser. Years later, I would collaborate with that library and 175 others in the Chicago area while building a literacy support program I conceived and developed called the Big Ticket Reading Project. Knowing that summer reading was a big part of every library’s initiatives for school kids, I fanned out and recruited free admission passes from 27 different leading institutions and organizations; the Art Institute of Chicago, Shedd Aquarium, Brookfields Zoo, Chicago Children’s Museum, and many others. Each of these provided a free admission pass with no restrictions to every child that finished their summer reading program at their local library.
The program proved an immense success and raised overall summer reading completion rates to 75% across the board. Those numbers made every library program a success according to their metrics, and the program served to raise awareness of the Daily Herald, the newspaper where I worked. Pulling together a program of that scale––and it grew to serve 375,000 families––took planning, persistence and sometimes raw determination. I learned much of that from running.
But all that was seventeen years into the future. The matter at hand the morning of April 15 was kicking ass in real-time. We lined up at the start and I glanced up and down the line to check out the competition. That morning I didn’t care who was running. I felt like I was going to win. In fact, I knew it.
We moved out at 5:00 pace while a few of the pretenders struggled along trying to keep pace. One-by-one the fakers fell away until there were just three guys left at the mile mark. The runner next to me turned and said, “How fast are you running today?”
My eyes were focused straight ahead and I said, “Faster than you…” then took off running at an even quicker pace. He was left behind.
From there, I ran all alone for the remaining miles. I raced hard into every turn––and there were quite a few of them––because we wound through suburban neighborhoods surrounding the library. There were a few kids from the local high school out the course cheering me on. They’d holler like heck and then jump back on their bikes to catch me on another point of the course. We’d all met me through the running store because I’d started working there a few days a week. So yes, I was super dedicated to making the store look good.
The finishing kick
I remember turning the corner with 400 yards to go, feeling fantastic still, and kicked it up to a faster gear to end the race. It was one of those days where I felt invincible. Had there been other runners there to match my pace, I’m sure it would have been one helluva race.
In the last 100 yards, the high school kids lined up screaming and hollering as I passed by. I gave a short wave to them, and a big smile to Linda, who wore a beaming smile on her face too. And why not? To be frank, I’d put on a racing clinic that morning. I was fit, young, and proud of that effort.
It always feels good to win, and my sponsors from Running Unlimited were happy to see their singlet coming across the line in first. The whole reason they invested in a running team was to promote their store in the northwest suburbs and beyond. I felt like I’d repaid their confidence in me and the other guys on the team. I wore the Running Unlimited blue suit on the awards stand, and collected a nice, tall trophy with a smile on my face as the sun beamed down on us during a chilly morning. My time of 24:49 was the fastest five miles I’d ever run.
I always knew I could find success in some forms if I stayed focused. It wasn’t always easy with all my interests. Prioritizing in the face of multiple desires to produce or experience life; to paint, to write, to go birding…I’d often wake up in a dither over which activity should take precedence. Combine that with the pressures of social life, and the ins and out of family relationships with sibling rivalries and the main thing I realized is that I was Competition’s Son. I was the product of competing interests and a battle for approval. That is why I was driven in my mid-twenties to bring some of these competitive urges to a head, to explore and discover what made me what I was and what I could (or should) become. It was just the start of the journey, but going fast.
Despite that voice in my head like the Rain King chanting “I want, I want…” I found ways to channel those energies, and the payoffs would come along sooner and later. The morning I tore through that five-mile race in record time, I felt the surge of full potential realized.
And there’s nothing wrong with that.