We didn’t even spend $500 on our trip out west to Colorado in mid-August 1984. Over the years, I’ve met other people traveling around the country on similarly meager funds. They always seemed happier than people spending tons of money on their vacations. For one thing, the expectations are lower and the pleasures are that much better appreciated. We came home tired but satisfied with our journey.
We all need road trips now and then. As it happened, I was on a perpetual road trip with all my running adventures that included traveling around, checking into races, and leaving towns behind that I’d likely never visit again. I once ran a road race out in Amboy, Illinois in which I signed up, jogged to the line, left the entire field behind on the dusty rural roads in the first mile, and finished without anyone else in sight. I never saw another runner that day. The organizers handed me a small trophy at the line. I looked around a few minutes, got in my car, and left without ever seeing another competitor that day.
I always liked winning, but that race felt like overkill. I meant to use it as a tuneup for the fall season and hoped to have a few competitors join me along the way, but no such luck. It made me feel kind of weird for having gone out there at all. Was I that starved for approval? The local runners just stared at me when I lined up in the bright white and blue Running Unlimited kit and clean new racing shoes. They all wore beat-up Brooks and leftover cross country gear from the area high schools.
Well, I came from similar small-town roots, so tough shit. I paid my dues running laps around Kaneland High school in the heat of late summer and the freezing cold of February. Sure, at that time I was a snot-nosed kid with a prototypical case of teenage dandruff and bad clothes, but with time we all get over that stuff. There was no need to apologize for having gotten better at this running thing. While I was once a hayseed, now I was a runner in full blossom. A few weeks later I did throw that little trophy in the trash. It meant nothing.
The arc of a career
The arc of my fourteen-year competitive racing career was long, often fun, and largely fruitful. Add in the lifelong friends and relationships built from those years of running, and it was all worth it.
The failures experienced along the way only made the eventual triumphs feel that much better. Yet having competed in running since the age of twelve, it was getting near time to check off a Big Box (or two) and bring an effective end to that competitive career.
I knew it wouldn’t happen right away, but I sensed it was getting time to think about it, then move into real life without placing running in front of all other priorities. The itinerant lifestyle of a journeyman runner wasn’t compatible, I reasoned, with having a family, working a full-time job and building a persona around something other than sports.
My head was spinning about what came next, but we’re all spinning around on the same globe that never sits still, so it’s perfectly rational to keep on running in one way or another. I knew that the sport of running would remain in my future. It would just take on different forms.
On September 16th of ’84 I wrote in the journal: “If you want to achieve what you can as a runner, this is the perfect, only time in life to do it.” I was absolutely right about that.
The arc of a career
So it was that during the summer of 1984 I soaked up what I could of the Los Angeles Summer Olympics knowing that while I’d improved immensely, I would never compete at that level and never really expected to. But I was still inspired by what transpired. Aching to see some segment of the men’s marathon, I caught only the last few miles of the race on a borrowed TV. Hoping for an Alberto Salazar win, I was modestly disappointed when Carlos Lopes surged to the front of the race. Watching his silky smooth stride that day, I grew inspired to run even better on my own.
In early September I ran an eighteen-miler with those images of Carlos Lopes flowing through my brain. I loved the idea of running so impossibly smooth that it looked and felt effortless. I believed in that principle from the first time I took up running seriously and read an article in Sports Illustrated about how to develop an efficient stride. During my 18-miler that day, I concentrated on having my feet “kiss” the road in the fashion of Carlos Lopes. Before I knew it, two hours and ten minutes passed by. I’d finished a delightfully easy long run. Of course, if I’d have stopped to dwell on the fact that Lopes was about 37 years old when he won the Olympic Marathon, perhaps I’d have shifted my goals to continue competitive running. But then again, I was not world-class, so one has to measure the investment and returns.
Between runs, I’d paint and write. Perhaps if I’d had an ounce of sense I’d have asked that downtown girlfriend to help me get a job at the big publishing company where she worked. But I also sensed that she was probably not the woman in my future either. The city was great, but the country called me home. Plus my roommate and I were wrapping up our lease in the City of Chicago. Come November, it would be time to move out. Things were coming to a close.
But in the meantime, I was geared up and ready to get racing that fall. The first opportunity came along in early September, and it went well. I ran to a second-place finish in the River Forest 10K. My Running Unlimited teammate, Jukka Kallio, let me lead most of the race and then pulled away in the last mile. We both broke 32:00, which was his first time under that mark despite the fact that he’d already run a 2:19 marathon in his career, barely missing the Olympic Trials the year before. So I paced him to a PR as I ran 31:53 on a warm day. He waited for me at the end of the chute and we shook hands, then hung around to collect our hardware. My girlfriend Linda enjoyed the opportunity to sit in the late-summer sun.
I stayed with her out in the suburbs that weekend. The next morning I took a birding trip out to Nelson Lake Forest Preserve. I also wanted to collect some colorful sumac leaves to use as subject matter in a watercolor painting I planned to do that afternoon. On the way out of the preserve, I met Charles and Dorothy Brownold, the two people most responsible for getting the park protected as an Illinois Nature Preserve. I wrote about that meetup in my journal. “Caught red-handed with sumac pickings, etc. at Nelson’s Lake Marsh by Dot and Chuck. They were a conciliatory accuser. I just left. They could never understand the need to paint from life. Raided prairie plot instead.”
Frankly, I felt that a small fist of vegetation was worth the price of getting trouble if it meant that I could do a better painting as a result. That was my noble cause that day: a few sumac branches, a clutch of goldenrod, and a few few asters. No real harm done. Yes, I knew that if everyone took flowers and plants from the preserve it might really be harmed. But I defended my intentions under the claim that I’d be producing art with my fistful of stolen plants.
Not so fast
But the onset of fall had other people wondering what my intentions were as well. Especially my girlfriend. “Linda spooky sad tonite,” I wrote. “Her homing instincts grow stronger every day, it seems. House rates here. Babies there. Marriage everywhere. It’s drivin’ me nuts.”
I was still pulled in several directions and felt guilty for it. My downtown girlfriend had written me a letter from California, and I pulled it out of my gym bag that morning outside Linda’s apartmet and sat alone the front porch reading it with mixed emotions. The day was bland and humid, ad the nondescript leavings of summer heat still hung in the air. I wrote in the journal, “My mind is up in that gray suburban sky, looking out on dark horizons and my ears are ringing with crickets of lust.”
Ah, lust. That was indeed my one constant companion. Lust was the ignoble cause of so much equivocation. “Stayed up late last night till 11:45, watching Debbie Does Dallas on the fine-tuned VCR, on TV through the fuzz and no noise. Obsessed, I guess.”
That was the 80s for you. It was a self-indulgent decade of overproduced music, titillating videos and skintight fitnesswear swirling around in an epileptic-inducing state of confusion. Forty years later I can say that I don’t miss any of that shit at all.
Well, there were some things I liked. A Police album or two. The Talking Heads, especially the album Remain in Light. And the Tom Tom Club. Steve Forbert. Joe Jackson’s Night and Day album. Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps. Everything by Rickie Lee Jones. Bowie still. And Johnny Mars on WXRT. I was listening one night when he mentioned Wacker Drive, then quipped, “You Wacker, you brought ‘er.”
My best friend was listening to the same station and heard that on-air joke. From then on, it became one of our ‘go-to’ jokes with anything ending in an ‘er’ sound. Yes, that was Chicago in the early 1980s. Make it up as you go along, and take your noble causes where you can find them.