In August of 1984, I polished off the last summer racing commitment and packed up to drive west with Linda to visit her sister Diane during a music residency in Aspen, Colorado. Diane had not yet earned a spot playing in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but she would one day. In the meantime, she’d played for the Lyric in Chicago and done a summer stint at Tanglewood in Massachusetts, where we visited her during those nine months I lived in Philadelphia.
The day before we left I was stressing out about money, but a check finally came through from Trent Richards, so I had about $500 with which to travel. “Tired,” I wrote in the journal. “Glands up. Slight diahrrea. Didn’t sleep well…”
Our plan was to drive south through Missouri and stay with friends for a day in Wichita, Kansas. I still had a special place in my heart for the woman with whom we’d be staying. Now married, she was the person I’d grown so close to at Van Kampen Merritt. She showed up to watch me set a PR at 5000 meters in that midnight race at North Central. And she’d visited me in Philadelphia when I most needed support, and we shared a night together as a sign of everlasting appreciation and friendship.
So we remained friends, and she adored Linda, so the afternoon and evening we spent with her and her husband were special. It was hot as hell in Kansas that July, so we drove out to a giant reservoir to go swimming. The entire body of water was only four feet deep, so we waded out to our chests holding a beer and stood around chatting while speed boats thrashed around the surface in the distance.
I wasn’t concerned about running during the trip, but did go out for a five-miler in Wichita. Then we packed up and drove ten hours into Colorado. I loved the look of the flint hills in western Kansas, where sharp bluffs jutted out of the landscape. I loved the entire concept of the West, even the flat, dry plains of eastern Colorado. Finally, we entered some foothills and Linda decided it was time to celebrate with a glass of wine in the car. She popped the cork on the wine bottle and poured us each a half-glass. I was sipping away when I noticed a set of police lights closing down on us from behind. “Hurry,” I told her. “Put the bottle under the seat. The cops caught us.”
We pulled over and somehow disposed of the wine out the passenger side window. The cop talked to us for a bit and peeked around, but didn’t inspect the car. We didn’t even get a ticket for some reason. He was nice to us, and I’m pretty sure he knew that we’d been drinking, but saw that we were just a pair of dumb young kids on a western lark, so he let us go.
Finally, we drove into the mountains. As we climbed higher, a storm burst over the crest of the peaks and hail started pounding on our car. We were driving her parent’s Oldsmobile on the trip, and I worried that we’d bring it home pocked with dents, but the hail fell fast and didn’t seem to hurt the tough old Olds, and the storm brought fresh, clean air into the mountains. We parked in a camping spot facing a shallow valley with more mountains in the distance. The sun was going down as we popped up our tent and Linda made a quick meal on the Coleman stove. I walked out on the rough ground and a bright mountain bluebird perched on a big rock nearby. I smiled. We were truly out west now.
Our full camping site was reserved at Maroon Bells, a spot nestled high in the mountains with aspen trees all around. We went for a hike that first day and both our legs felt exhausted. Linda was coming off the foot surgery she’d had months before to remove bunions earlier that summer. For the trip west, we’d both purchased a pair of Rockport shoes for hiking in the mountains. I loved those things. They were so light and comfortable.
On August 16 we took a 6 1/2 hour hike up to 12,000 feet. At the start it was just gentle walking on a dirt path. But then we climbed higher on switchbacks, and I was impressed how well Linda climbed despite not having a ton of prep going into the trip. She always had a high VO2 max, as did her brother Paul, who in later years became an exceptional bike racer, competing in Category 3 and Master’s races for a bike club in Arlington Heights, Illinois.
We made it all the way to the top of a saddle where the mountain ridge was sharp. We sat on rocks to rest. A fellow walked up to us at that point and started a conversation. Then he offered to take our photo for us, and stood back to take a snapshot. He was gregarious and friendly and promised that he’d get us a copy of the photo someday. Months later he made good on that promise, showing up at our front door in Batavia that next summer to deliver the picture, have a good chat, and be on his way.
Linda was kind of weirded out by the fact that he tracked us down like that but I felt he was harmless, and the photo did turn out great.
And then another weird thing happened at that mountain pass. One of the prime reasons why Linda was so happy to go on a western trip was to have a break from her roommates back in Geneva. They generally got along okay, but one of them was a bit irritating and worst of all, she owned a cat. Linda never liked cats, but they liked her. So the cat would follow her around the apartment as a constant reminder of her somewhat abrasive roommate as well.
There weren’t many people in life that rubbed Linda the wrong way, but I almost busted a gut laughing when lo and behold, I spotted her roommate and her boyfriend hiking up the other side of the mountain. “Oh God, look who’s here,” I said to Linda, pointing down at the switchback below. “It’s her,” she said in amazement. Sure enough, we had a group chuckle about the happenstance of that hike, and took their photo as a record of the meetup. Then I did a short run at altitude to see what it felt like.
Then Linda and I started hiking back down the mountain. The altitude was having its effects on her at last. Halfway down the steepest part of the trail, I noticed that she was getting loopy and saying stuff that didn’t totally make sense. “Do you have enough water?” I asked her. She shook her bottle, which was only a quarter full, and said, “I think I can make it.”
Well, that’s how she was. Her whole family was like that. They didn’t go to the doctor unless it was absolutely unavoidable. Her father once got sciatica so bad that he clung to the living room entry shelf for weeks on end rather than get treated for pain.
So I watched Linda carefully. She didn’t improve much by the time we got back down to 10,000 feet. That’s still high altitude, and we were only three days into the trip. I stopped drinking any water myself because I knew that I was fit enough to make it back under any circumstances. After all, I’d once run 18 miles from 6000 feet up to 9000 feet and back down again without a single sip of water at the Grand Tetons. So I kept my water bottle to use with Linda.
She finally got outright punchy. “I’m gonna just sit down right here…” she mused. But I coaxed her along, kept her going, and stopped her to take a drink every half mile. Finally, we got back to the campsite where she could sit down, have food and some energy drink. and snapped back into reality.
The rains come
That afternoon, we hung around the campsite and noticed a kid of around twelve years old getting in and out of truck across the campground. I walked over to see if he was all alone. He explained that his father and brother had done climbing in the mountains, and he was worried. He pointed up at the Maroon Bells, which aren’t known for their solidity. Then it started to rain.
The kid clambered back in the truck and Linda and I grabbed everything we could from the campsite and tucked it inside the tent. Never had I heard it rain as hard as it did that afternoon. The downpour was constant, steady, and persistently vertical. But the runoff was prodigious, rolling down the gray gravel campsite in tiny rivers. The air quickly cooled. We tucked our bare legs inside the sleeping bags and napped for a while. I glanced at my watch. It was 2:30 in the afternoon and it had already rained for two full hours.
We were tired from the morning hike, so the nap felt good. I stared over at her face as we napped and felt a genuine love for her. We’d shared a peak experience that day. Her hair was golden that summer thanks to all the sun she’d soaked up. Her face was tan, and her bare shoulders stuck out from the sleeping bag. I wanted to crawl in with her right then and there, and make love with the rain pounding on our tent. But I figured she needed the rest.
Ninety minutes later we both were getting cabin fever from being stuck inside the tent for so long. The rain was still pouring down and the wind had picked up to a roar. Lightning flashed across the darkening sky. I got out of the tent and snagged a tiny little Scrabble board we’d brought along for the trip and we played a game or two to pass the time.
And the rain kept coming. “I wonder when this is gonna stop?” she finally admitted. We argued a little over whether to just drive into town. Then dozed again. Then woke up laughing our heads off when she saw that my face was wet because the rain had changed direction.
At about 7:00 in the evening, it sounded like someone shut off the spigot. The rush of rain hitting the aspen leaves suddenly ceased. A bird called. The lasting drip of wetness was all we could hear. Otherwise, total silence. And then, a tumble of rocks sounded as they came rolling off the mountain. It was an ominous sound, haunting and sad, like the low moan of a dying era. Indeed, the Maroon Bells were once hundreds of feet higher long ago. Wind and weather and tumbling rocks wore them down to the heights we see today.
Now that young kid hanging around the campsite was more scared than ever. His father and brother were still not back from climbing in the mountains. The sound of those rockfalls made him worry that they were dead. We sat with him for a couple hours to calm him down. Finally, well into the night, we spotted a pair of headlamps across the canyon. It was so quiet we could hear the sound of their voices carrying through the clear mountain air. The lamps bobbed and flickered through the trees, and finally grew near enough to see two figures illuminated beneath them. When the dad and son got back into the camp, the young kid ran into his father’s arms, sobbing. “What’s up with you?” the father demanded to know. “You knew that we’d be alright!”
That seemed like a harsh response to Linda and I. The kid had a right to be scared. But every father has their own type of relationship with a son. That was not ours to dictate.
We had our own issues to address. The water running under the tent had been a problem all that afternoon. We had draped a big black plastic sheet over the top of the nylon tent, but water seeped through from below. We pulled our sleeping backs out to give them a shake. During that afternoon, we’d both gotten punchy in stir-crazy kind of way, alternating between laughing at our circumstance and getting a little bitchy too. We’d been pinned in that tent and unable to move for hours. Something in my brain that sounded like a voice from outside my body told me, “If you can spend seven hours in a tent with this woman, you can probably be married and be quite happy.”
We went for other hikes with Diane and her friends in Aspen. Linda was lighthearted and joyous at being out west. That was the first time I truly let the notion of marriage penetrate my stubborn young man’s brain.
The next day, Linda drove down into Aspen to meet up with her sister now that the music festival was taking a break. We’d been down to town a couple times and I’d made note that it was twelve miles from the campsite to the main street in Aspen. “I’ll run down,” I told her. “It’s cool out, so you can take my stuff down with you and have some time with your sister. I’ll see you in a little over an hour.”
I put on some Nike Pegasus shoes and started the descent. It was fun flying downhill almost the entire way. The race down Ashcroft took me just under 1:15. My legs were really tired and sore the next day.
After a $20 hamburger, we had a beer or two and arranged to meet up with Diane and a friend the next day for a hike at Independence Pass. We walked around at 11,000 feet after a brief scare with a lightning storm that raised the hair of the women in the group. It was gorgeous weather after that. All of us were light of heart and happy to be in such a beautiful place. I’d turned a corner in my relationship with Linda. Hanging out with her sister made me realize what a special family she had.
Our adventures were not completely over. Diane was riding back with us to Chicago from Aspen, and we drove all the way east to Omaha, where it was now dark and we still needed to find a campsite. For a minute, we considered camping down on the sand flats of the Missouri River or whatever it was with the locals. But we thought better of that.
So we snuck into a mobile campground a few miles up the road and parked out of sight on a large field far away from the main ranger station. Working swiftly, we set up the tent in the dark and crawled inside using a combination of sleeping bags, thick blankets and stuffed gym bags (in my case) for pillows. I lay there between the two sisters feeling a bit weird about the whole deal, and we all fell asleep tired from the trip. In the morning, we got up early, packed up the tent, and drove out of the campsite without looking back.
The trip with Linda was a turning point in our relationship. Yet truth be told, most of the trip I’d worn a red long-sleeved New York Road Runners Club tee-shirt purchased for me by the downtown girlfriend during one of her trips to Big Apple through her employer, one of the world’s biggest publishers. While my heart was leaning toward a commitment to Linda, I still had deep feelings for the runner girlfriend. She was smart and funny. Sexy, and loved to dance. I liked her spirit, and she had a sad side to her past relationships that I desperately wanted to cure. Trouble was, so did Linda. I wasn’t being condescending. I had my own past heartaches to reconcile, and was a touch equivocal as a result of being burned before. We all have our baggage to carry.
Women have to be so tough sometimes, and it’s a burden they don’t always like to share or show. In fact, the downtown girl was so tough that I worried about her. All that summer her period had ceased due to the training schedule she maintained. She told me her problem was amenorrhea, a ceasing of menstruation due to the stress of the running she was doing. When body fat gets below a certain level, some women have problems with their period. Yet she wasn’t overly skinny, so that wasn’t the exact problem. In fact, she had full breasts and strong buns, a solid set of legs, and her hair was always rich and real. So she wasn’t some overwrought runner girl. She was just too tough for her own good.
She did tell me that she was sometimes feeling bloaty as her tummy reacted during the weeks when she should have had her period. All I knew was that she rocked her blue jeans like no one I’d ever seen. My friends noticed that too, and liked her well enough to respect the reasons why we were together downtown. But the unwritten rule seemed to be that what happened downtown stayed downtown.
My other concern for her was the stress fracture in one of her legs. I could feel the lump below her knee, and it was a ‘hot spot’ too. I encouraged her to see the podiatrist Dr. Durkin, who uncovered the stress fracture and recommended that she stay off it for a while.
Then one day, while she was running intervals with the women’s group over at University of Illinois-Chicago, I was jogging back to the starting line as she was running past with the women’s crew and I heard a loud “snap.” The bone cracked.
I’d only seen that happen one other time in my running career. Our 400-meter hurdler at Luther College once snapped his shine bone in six places after training in a pool all spring before running the sole outdoor race of his season at the conference meet. His plan was to get a qualifying time and then run at Nationals. But that never happened. His collegiate career ended right then and there.
In her case, she took a few weeks off from running and eventually got back to training, but a bit more judiciously. We didn’t see each other that much for a few weeks, but the pull between us was still strong. When did get back in the flow of seeing each other downtown, she passed along a common sexually transmitted disease and I got worried. I visited the doctor right away, but the effects gave me pause. I hadn’t gotten that stuff from Linda. Of that I was sure. That begged the question: was the downtown woman loyal to me? That was doubtful, I realized.
And why should she be? She had every right to do as she wished. I offered her nothing but some partnership and an organized sock drawer, which I vainly showed her one night in an attempt to impress her with my commitment to running. It was all a veneer. A ruse of my own creation. I was honest in my desire for her but dishonest in my intentions long term. I guess that’s how the game is often played in the Big City.
“I used her and she used me and neither one cared…we were gettin’ our share…workin’ on the Night Moves…” (Bob Seger)
I sensed that the centrifugal forces of life were starting to swing in earnest. In many ways, I was running just to stay in place. The trip west with Linda was like a game of crack the whip: an exciting time that produced a lifetime’s worth of memories. But the center of the storm always awaits. Its pull is inevitable. You can Go West, Young Man, but in my case, there was still business to attend do back home.