You’ve heard the phrase “Curiosity kills the cat?” Well, here’s a new one. “Overeagerness flattens the frog.”
Heading into the Prairie State Games in July of 1984, I was way overeager to hop to it. The week prior to the race, I joined other guys at the UIC track to do some intervals. WE ran a 4:32 first mile, a 3:27 3/4, a 2:15 half, and an “easy” 5:05 last mile. I’ll take the blame for running too hard that day. Most of that hard pace was my fault.
I should have been more relaxed, but the city social life and trying to make ends meet were not exactly complementary to my training. But beyond that, I was excited to share the Prairie State Games experience with a younger friend named Larry Wood who also qualified. The Wood family was familiar to me from having met his older sisters a few years before. My friends and I originally met them at some bar in Naperville and we took to hanging out together in 1981. Eventually, I even dated Alice Wood. After I met her dad, he invited me to go golfing with him in Hawaii.
But once I got to know Larry, I started running with him because he was fascinatingly smart and an obviously talented kid that ran the HS 800 in the low 1:50s. He graduated from Naperville North HS and went on to run for Indiana University. I tried hard to get him to attend my alma mater Luther College, even taking him for a campus visit, but he was curious about competing at a Division 1 school. When that didn’t work out to his satisfaction, he transferred back to Division III North Central College in his hometown of Naperville. There he became an All-American steeplechaser with PR of 9:02 or so.
Larry and I both qualified for the Prairie State Games, an Olympic-style competition to be held for the first time in late July, 1984.
Somewhere in the middle of July, I went to write in the running journal and forgot what day it was. “July ?” I jotted, and observed, “Oh how hard it is to keep an unbending path. To produce and reap faith. Things just grew tired today. Called off the writing tonight. I know I can do it though! Running was quiet today. Tonite’s run a washout in heat. Went swimming in Lake Michigan instead. I really need some stimulus. Some more success. Some Money! Money!! Money!!! Something. God just let me do something without questioning. I’ll keep on running till I succeed. And Don’t Be Vain. It will destroy all you’ve worked for.”
Some of that angst was the pressure I felt to move ahead in a relationship, one way or another. To that end, I want to extend an apology to all the young people in this world that have gone through similar things with equivocal partners trying to make up their minds up about commitment. It doesn’t matter what gender you are, or sexual orientation. It’s hard when you’re not in the same place as the other person. Think Karma Chameleon:
There’s a loving in your eyes all the way
If I listen to your lies, would you say
I’m a man (a man) without conviction
I’m a man (a man) who doesn’t know
How to sell (to sell) a contradiction
You come and go, you come and go
My girlfriend Linda was frustrated as hell that summer and trying figure out the next steps in our relationship. But like it or not, I had business in my head that I needed to finish. In many ways, she knew that. When she consulted my oldest brother about my lack of decision-making, he told her, “Give him three months, and if he doesn’t commit, dump his ass.” Well, it didn’t work out that way. We would eventually get engaged, but not that quickly.
Some of that equivocation was just being honest about the fact that I didn’t feel stable enough at that point in life to get married. I’d come off that whirlwind mess of a job transfer and felt like I needed some time to figure out what to do next. Well, it was more than a year later and I was getting closer to being done with the peregrinations, but not quite.
Plus I’d already been pushed into getting semi-engaged by that college girlfriend when I was just 22 years old. She was domineering and demanding and played me off against other men as a tactic to get some sort of commitment out of me. At one point after a brief breakup, during the first semester of our senior year, she dedicated the song “There’s a Place In the World for a Gambler” by Dan Fogelberg on the college radio station. The lyrics actually came true for me in other aspects of life:
There’s a place in the world
For a gambler
There’s a burden that only
He can bear
No one had to explain what it meant to take risks and gamble with things in the moment or long term. No one knows more about taking gambles than a distance runner. All those miles in preparation often come down to taking a risk in the moment: Do I have it today, or do I don’t?
Perhaps I took a gamble on that first job in Admissions for Luther. I was trying to stay close to that woman as she finished her last semester of college. But the job was grinder in many ways, and I found myself driving 1500 miles a week for months at a time––only to be asked whether my “head was in the game.” Well fuck yeah, my head was in the game. No one else was out there driving around the flatlands of Illinois in the bleak February and March months. And in the end, that girl decided I wasn’t worth her time, and married someone else.
Once I left that job and took the position with Van Kampen, I wound up getting tossed around like a corporate beanbag, transferred on a whim out to Philadelphia only to be dumped when the VP wasn’t delivering what the sales team needed. Not my fault. But suddenly it was my problem. I realized at that point that the world really didn’t owe me anything. So I decided to find out what I owed myself. And that minor journey turned into two years of self-exploration and running the best I could.
I’d dealt with both those upheavals the best I could, and now living back in Chicago appealed to my Bohemian side. I was in many ways a risk-taker, earning just enough to get by and training like a madman with no full-time job or health insurance. What drives a guy to live like that?
A young man’s brain
Recent studies on the minds of young men show that the part of the brain that governs risk-taking is not fully developed until well in the late 20s. That’s why many young men are thrill-seekers by nature. There is an evolutionary benefit to that brand of behavior. Picture big-horned rams slamming into each other on a mountainside. Headbangers Deluxe. It’s all about that famous mix of hormones and lack of common sense that drives so many young men and women to extremes in their early years. And talk about kindred spirits: my downtown girlfriend was a risk-taker on her own terms, chasing down sex and running as fast as she could. But she was making $90K. We collided in a mutually risky relationship.
There’s another dimension to all that risk-taking as well. Among human males in their teens and early 20s, the fear of disappointing their peer group is considered a far greater risk than any other sort of physical or emotional harm that might come from engaging in risky behavior. So young men often do stupid things to prove themselves to their friends. Duh.
But for young women trying to get a young man to settle down, that is a frustrating combo. Many famous rock songs have been written about women trying to get men to give up their wandering pursuits in exchange for love. One of the most famous of all is the song Brandy by the group Looking Glass:
Brandy wears a braided chain
Made of finest silver from the North of Spain
A locket that bears the name
Of the man that Brandy loved
He came on a summer’s day
Bringin’ gifts from far away
But he made it clear he couldn’t stay
No harbor was his home
On the flipside, young men also turn around and do stupid things just to impress women. My running pursuits were partly a product of that mentality. Frankly, I was willing to try to impress anyone I could. Seeking approval is a big aspect of risk-taking behavior, especially when it is fueled by an underlying case of low self-esteem. That emotional issue ran deeper in me and stemmed from causes that I failed to understand at the time. Those would be figured out in a few years time…
Let the Games begin
In the meantime, I brought all that inner conflict with me to the Prairie State Games, where I ate my feelings in the three days leading up to the 5000-meter race. All the free cafeteria food was too much to decline, and I downed it with glasses of Coca-Cola every meal. My sweet tooth has been a problem from an early age, but I certainly knew better than to drink all that Coke. But it was hot outside, and the cold Cokes tasted great. I let down my dietary guard.
I thought I was ready to race that hot night on July 21. But deep down it was the expectations I’d piled up in my head that amounted to self-inflicted pressure. I should have been content with the joy and excitement of just being there, but I built up the race in my head.
We ran the first mile in 4:35 and passed the second mile in 9:30. Ty Wolf from the University of Illinois (and Oswego) was leading with Paul Snyder from the University of Chicago Track Club in second. By that point I had third pretty well locked up, and hoped to cruise the last three laps for a medal. That’s when a vicious side stitch hit me at the start of the ninth lap. The hot evening temps didn’t help. It was 88 degrees outside with 88% humidity. There was no breeze inside the Illinois stadium. I was sweating like heck, yet didn’t dare take a sip of water fear of throwing it back up.
When the stitch hit, I grabbed at my side and lurched around the track one more lap before bending over in pain. I couldn’t run a step more. The medical team pulled me off the track and plopped me into a wheelbarrow filled with ice. They left me alone with a soaking cold ass and a disappointed look on my face. I sat there miserable and embarrassed that I’d let down our team.
My young friend Larry Wood placed in the Top 3 and took home a medal. He never let the even rattle him. Just did his job.
That’s all I really wanted from the event: a little hardware to show for all the training I’d done that year. It wasn’t the first time I’d tightened up from anxiety, and wouldn’t be the last. Some of the guys had a laugh at the sight of me flomped in that wheelbarrow full of ice, so I laughed along too. My side still hurt when I ran the next day, so it was likely a tightened diaphragm from nerves and too much Coca-Cola. That combination had me in stitches. Hardy har har.