On June 27, a day or two after the big win at the Geneva Community Classic, I dropped by to visit my former coach and business buddy Trent Richards. His partner Marietta was a lovely Jewish woman with hair that just amazed me. She was smart, and somewhat snarky, and quick to observe all that she encountered. “Look at you,” she remarked when I arrived. “Lean and mean.”
I was having some trust issues with Trent because I was doing plenty of work for him but not earning much money for the collaboration. That was a major stressor in my life at the time.
The fact is we were definitely different types of people. “He’s a sincere guy but he lacks a sense of folly,” I wrote in my journal. “Even his jokes are meant to be serious. I’m not that way. I want to function in this world but I want to retain a link to the mystique of what I’m about. I will. Remember what Gary (my brother) said so long ago––”Do you really think your personality’s that weak?”
Certainly, it was not weakness that enabled me to drive through the pain to win or hold the pace race after race. But anxiety, that native sense of dread inherent in my family’s genes, was my Kryptonite. On some occasions that fear of something bad happening crept into the running. Yet at the same time, running was the primary cure for anxiety. That was the tarsnake of my existence, a strip of black dread threatening to trip me up at any moment. My goal was running over the tarsnakes.
Beyond running, my coping mechanisms weren’t altogether healthy. The daily desire for sex was so strong that I’d edge along at times, wasting an hour here, or several hours there thinking about it or allowing absolute lust to take over. Surely that was not healthy. At one point I even developed a sore groin muscle that I checked with the doctor. I’d stretched it too far during a wild night with the downtown girlfriend and then had not the sense to leave it alone. “I’ve been feeling this muscle pull or groin problem for about two weeks now. I hope it’s not a hernia, or something worse. I have no health insurance. I should get a job for a while. Get healthy. Run well. Be myself. Yo. Who’s that?…I’m a working man in my prime…cleaning windows.”
That last line was a quote from a Van Morrison song, comparing myself to men working hand-to-mouth, just getting along. But it wasn’t even that practical. I was living race-to-race, actually. That was my salvation. There was nothing practical about it. But I was driven, because I knew it was the lone chance I’d have in life to fulfill that realm of potential. So fuck it. I was going to see this thing through to the best of my ability, whatever that meant.
A few days after the Geneva race I signed up for a four-mile race in Glen Ellyn. I knew the competition would be tough because that city was the source of many great runners in Illinois, including a world-class athlete named Ken Popejoy. In college, I’d showed up to race in one of the Glen Ellyn summer cross country races and lasted about a mile before the lack of fitness took me down. As the lone “strange runner” in that race, I was targeted for a bit to see what I was made of. But it turned out to be not much that day.
This time around I was fit as heck, however, and prepared to race whoever showed up. I was going to be the firecracker that day.
As it happened, the main competitor was a guy named Geoff Hill, and we were evenly matched. The course was hilly as heck, up and down and around the rolling terrain of that city. We traded leads back and forth on the Fourth of July. In the end, he beat me with a superb effort with a quarter-mile to go.
I ran 20:06 on a warm summer morning, taking second place and was proud to do so. Out on the course, whenever I took the lead, his friends and all the Glen Ellyn guys screamed at him to take the lead back. But I made it hard for him, racing quickly up the hills even when it hurt like hell. He raced right back. We were tearing along at 5:00 pace the whole way. He was bolstered by all the yelling and I could feel that local pride surging within him. He was protecting the Home Turf. So while I wanted to win, it was also everything I could do to keep from falling behind. I finished the race with utmost respect for him.
My girlfriend Linda watched it all go down. Following the race, she said, “That was a tough one, huh.” “It was fun,” I told her. “I’m not disappointed at all. We both ran really hard.”
What a cool feeling that was. Nothing holding me back. Young and fit and raring to race. There’s no feeling like it in the world.
Three days later I showed up for a race in the Northwest Suburbs with ten other Running Unlimited teammates. The race was right in the vicinity of the shop, so we wanted to make a good showing. Well, we overdid it. The squad blew away the field and took the top eleven places. We ran together like a pack of blue and white dolphins. The splits were fast: 4:55, 9:55, 14:55, 25:00 and 31:10. Exactly 5:00 per mile. I finally did it. Ran a 10K at 5:00 pace the whole way. I finally set a respectable 10K PR.
Unfortunately, I got outkicked by a teammate, Jim MacNider for the win. “Lacked boldness,” I wrote in my journal. Well, that was how critical I could be about my own running. I topped off the week at 52 miles with two races in less than seven days.
But the backlash from the crowd attending the awards ceremony was upsetting as our Running Unlimited team swept up all the top awards in age groups and the overall race. We generated a bit of bad PR, and the shop’s owners were almost ready to apologize but enough people came by to congratulate them that they decided to let it go.
A summer of success
Already the summer had been a success. In mid-June, I’d also set a 10-mile PR at the Melrose Park Run for the Roses race in mid-June. That day, my future mother-in-law Joan Mues came to watch me race because her daughter Linda had just had foot surgery done by Dr. John Durkin. He chopped up the bunions in both her feet and shoved the bones back in place. That meant it was recovery time for Linda. She had metal pins sticking out the tips of her toes and could only wear slippers to walk around, and hobbled around on crutches. So Joan Mues joined us to help out that day.
It was hot as hell that morning. I jogged lightly to warm up and the sun was wicked hot. But I felt superb, without any soreness in my legs from training. The race was also special to the Mues clan because the family business, a manufacturing plant called Northern Hydraulics, was situated in Melrose Park.
So the race was largely an urban affair with a route that crossed a couple major highways via arched bridges. The rest of the time we hustled past rowhouses or large factory plats and railroad yards. Hardly the most scenic race I’d ever run. But I didn’t care.
Jogging back to the starting line, I took note that several of the area’s top runners were in attendance. I did the math on what I knew about the competitors and figured a Top Ten finish would be a good effort that day. I vowed not to go out too hard because the temperatures were surely going to rise as the sun got higher in the sky.
Early on, a large pack cruised along while being towed by Kevin Higdon, the son of the famed running writer Hal Higdon. I’d trained the two of them a few months before and knew Kevin to be a smooth and strong runner. I hung at the back end of the pack and waited for the moves to begin.
That didn’t happen until well past five miles. Suddenly, as if someone set off a firecracker in the middle, of the bunch, the pack broke up and guys took to the curbs on a narrow street to get past a batch of slowing runners. I swung past on the side of the road and found myself perched in eighth place, about where I wanted to be among the group.
We twisted and turned and ran over the railroad tracks yet again. I was feeling incredible. One by one some of the guys I considered unbeatable slipped behind me. Now I was in sixth with just two miles to go. Through a welcome section of shade, I took measure of the runners ahead. “I think I can beat some of those guys,” I reasoned. My mind was clear. My legs felt good. There was not a trace of sidestitch or even and threat of nausea holding me back. I was on a hot streak, you might say.
Part of me worried that I’d flounder in the heat at some point. I still believed at that point in life that I’d been the victim of heatstroke after a national meet steeplechase race my junior in college. I’d thrown up all night after the race and for years had told myself that it was due to running in 85-degree heat and high humidity. The conditions were similar in Melrose Park that day. But my affect was completely different this time around. I was sweating but clear-headed and eager to put in a finishing kick… and see what came of it.
To whit: Later in life, I figured out that the illness the night after nationals was caused by food poisoning, not heatstroke. I’d gotten sick from a bad meal at Pizza Hut. In fact, the success in that hot ten-mile race in Melrose Park was the reason I looked back and figured out that I was not heat-susceptible after all. In fact, I rather thrived in it.
With 1.5 miles to go, I was sitting in sixth and had a runner fifty yards ahead in my sights. Remarkably, the more I pressed the pace, the faster I was able to go. Just after the nine-mile point, I was within ten yards of the runner ahead and still felt strong. I decided to not get greedy because the next guy was another fifty yards ahead. I’d save my kick until the right time because I could still see the other three guys up the road.
I unleashed a strong kick when the finish line came into view. Blowing past the runner in fifth felt tremendous. My future mother-in-law had walked up the avenue a bit and I could hear her cheering at the top of her lungs. “Come on, Chris!” she yelled, waving her arms. I’d never heard that tone of voice from her. That meant quite a lot.
When you train all those miles hoping for a strong finish at a race, it is such an exceptional feeling to have the work pay off. It felt like I was flying across the ground the last 50 yards. I’d not only finished in the Top 10 that day. I’d placed in the Top 5, exceeding all pre-race expectations. My time of 53:30 was a PR as well.
Just past the finish chute, I was greeted by none other than Kevin Higdon. He walked up with a big smile and offered congratulations. “Good race today,” he offered. “You beat some good people.” That meant a ton to me too. It always feels good to be recognized by quality people like him.
To that end, I’m thankful for all the experience gained from years of running. The summer of 1984 was truly a peak period of performance for me, and the year was only half over. Despite my reticence at times, I did savor the racing and the accomplishments that came from the dedication. I think my mother was right about that aspect of my being at the time. I was burning brightly.
Yet with that said, every flame is subject to the winds around it. The next goal on my schedule was competing in the Prairie State Games 5000 meters in Champaign. I bought a new pair of Nike spikes from Running Unlimited, and set a goal of running 4:40-4:40-4:40 with a 30-second kick at the end. “14:30 is very respectable,” I wrote. “And you can do even better.”
That’s what I was certainly trying to do, race after race.