By the time I’d turned 27 years old, the decision to stop racing and training so hard was well-established in my mind. With a child to raise and a wife to please, I focused on work-life as the central priority. I kept running for fitness and mental health, but the commitment to serious racing took a back seat.
That didn’t remove competitive instincts from the forefront of my existence. As an advertising salesperson for a small group of local newspapers, my daily “numbers” were critical to achieving higher commissions and what I ultimately earned. Like so many salespeople, I drew a “base” salary and earned a percentage of sales from the ads I placed in what was then a weekly newspaper. There were four of publications in the group; the St. Charles Chronicle was the oldest and most established. Its roots dated back to the late 1800s. There were ancient copies of that newspaper stored in the archives of the publishing company. It was originally called the Valley Chronicle.
As the tri-cities grew, so did the group of local “Chronicles.” Geneva came next. Then Batavia. Yet every ad placed in the group ran in all the newspapers, including the Elburn Chronicle, a newly formed publication when I joined the company.
I quickly made friends with the other staff. We played golf together some afternoons, with Jim, Corey, Joe, and I making up our typical foursome. Sometimes the Publisher Roger would ask us to join him, but I quickly learned that he was not the most ethical golfer I’d ever met. On several occasions I watched him use the foot wedge to move a ball into play along a fence line. He often fudged his scores after every hole by refusing to take penalties for balls lost or out of bounds. We ignored these infractions because he was our boss. We dared not question him. From a competitive standpoint, that drove me nuts. Having come from an athletic tradition such as running, where it’s really hard to cheat, I found his antics despicable. I hated losing to a cheater.
Part of his behavior stemmed from core vanity that knew almost no limits. On every front, he was immensely protective of his public image. That showed up in his physical appearance with a perpetually dark tan and carefully coiffed salt-and-pepper hair. Beyond that, he was ardently defensive when it came to any discussion of his business acumen or accomplishments.
That became known in the greater community. Once, while having lunch with a group of Rotary buddies where were some of the leading businesspeople in the valley, they directed a question my way. “Why your boss is such a tight-ass?” they inquired with a wry chuckle.
I burst out laughing because it was certainly true. But in professional loyalty, I told them he had to manage a business with a ton of angles. The group nodded knowingly and one of them said, “Well done.”
The slightly corrupt and uptight nature of the boss had trickle-down effects within our organization. At one point, a reader wrote a Letter to the Editor identifying the fact that our boss was seen driving a long way down the shoulder of the road approaching our office in order to access the turn lane. The writer questioned whether our boss respected the law, or thought himself above it?
That sent Roger into a rage during our weekly manager meeting, at which he typically “held court” on whatever subjects without or outside of the newspaper. Whatever caught his attention was the subject of the day. Once, during a period when the newspaper was consolidating into a single Kane County edition from four newspapers, he wrote a company memo with a title that said, “The Truth and The Light…The Chronicle Way.”
Some people in the organization were offended by his use of Christian language in a corporate communication. One of them sent a letter of complaint to the CEO of the Shaw family that by then had purchased and owned the Chronicle. The next week in our leadership meeting, Roger went off on the subject, “No one can question my Christian faith!” he protested. “I go to church every week!”
Little did he know that I’d recently visited his church. I’d taken the youth group that I led from our Lutheran church to see what other church traditions were like. During the priest’s homily, I was shocked to hear him state that while the parish was in a largely wealthy area, it was not necessary to apologize or feel overly compelled to go out of the way to help the poor. He locked his fingers together in an act of isometric symbolism and said, “As long as you feel the tension, that’s okay.”
I was shocked to hear the call to service in the Christian tradition dismissed so easily. But it helped explain (in part) why our boss seemed to possess half a conscience over cheating or using Christian language to control those under his management.
A price to pay
Because I was one of the few people willing to raise issues of conscience in our weekly group meetings, Roger figured that I’d been the one to write the letter to the CEO of the Shaw family. He pulled me into his office in a rage, and then brandishing the letter containing a copy of the company newsletter, he asked, “Why did you write this?”
I pointed out that the writing on the letter was clearly not mine, and affirmed that I’d never seen the letter before. He eventually relented in his accusation toward me, and then demanded, “Who do you think did write this?”
“I honestly have no idea,” I told him. I didn’t. Of course, I did agree with the intent of that letter but said nothing at the moment. He likely would have fired me on the spot. As it was, a few months later he found a different reason to fire me. I’m certain that the former incident had plenty to do with the latter. Sadly, all of that happened following seven years of largely happy employment with the newspaper group. I made many great friends with whom I keep in contact to this day and got to chase some early career goals in the process.
New meanings for “competition”
I was rapidly learning what it meant to “compete” in the working world. Rather than the ‘clean, hard, and severe’ world of which my favorite running writer Kenny Moore once spoke, I was experiencing the nuanced, foggy, and often cynical side of competition where emotional intelligence played such an important part of life. Admittedly, I struggled with some of that. As a person with anxiety (and even depression at times) I often worried about all the wrong things and imagined problems into reality that weren’t there at all. All while failing to recognize the genuine threats posed by sales sandbaggers, conflicted bosses and people that cheated at golf.
To process all this, I kept on running, going out almost daily as my son grew and the birth of my daughter approached. On some days, those runs were the only way to preserve my sanity.