I can think of several big mistakes that I made during my competitive running career. The biggest blunder of all was running a 20-mile final training run the week before I was scheduled to compete in the Twin Cities Marathon. That race would actually be my first attempt at running the 26.2 mile distance, and I was eager to squeeze in one last bit of fitness before the big race. Big. Mistake.
The year was 1985. I’d just gotten married and started a new job with the Boy Scouts of America that June. I hated the job, and all the planning for the wedding and the honeymoon trip in August interrupted much of my training. Thus, my racing was up and down all spring and summer as a result. But I ran an early September ten-mile race in 54:00 at the Park Forest Scenic 10 Mile. That gave me some confidence. I signed up for Twin Cities and kept plugging away at the mileage.
Marathon racing was not our priority back in the early 1980s. Most sub-elite runners like me raced a ton of 5Ks and 10ks. We’d do an occasional 15K, ten-miler, or half-marathon, but most of our racing was short and fast. That’s how we rolled.
In 1984 I’d raced a 25K (15.5 miles) with great success, placing third overall in a time of 1:24:24, or around 5:20 per mile. All I’d have had to do on that day if I was running a full marathon to run a sub 2:25 marathon was complete the next ten miles at 6:00 pace. That would have been quite a nice race. I’m quite certain that was possible.
After all, I was not even going to race the weekend of the Deerbrook 25K because I was invited to serve as the event escort of world-class marathoner Bill Rodgers. Thinking that Sunday would be a day off, I’d done training runs totaling 35 miles (15-10-10) in the three days leading up to that event.
But in 1985 I was no so confident in my base, and like a dope, I went out for a 20-miler on the Sunday prior to the Twin Cities marathon. Okay, no one does that. It was an idiotic mistake. And like most distance runners in those days, I’d made no plans for hydration along the way. Thirsty and dried out, I bonked at around fifteen miles. It was a five-mile crawl-from-hell home.
All that week I felt drained and weak. But sticking with my plan, I flew to Minneapolis to stay with my college friend Paul Mullen and went to bed hoping to feel better the next morning.
Mercifully, I actually did wake up feeling better. I’d rallied to some degree. But then the day dawned cold in early October. It was only thirty-two degrees outside, with a stiff breeze to boot. I lined up near the front of the race, and when the starting gun went off I found a group of guys running in the company of Don Kardong, the Olympic marathoner and well-known running writer. They were clipping along at the 5:20 pace. “This is my group,” I told myself.
We passed through ten miles right on pace at 5:20 per mile. I was running strong and confident, but was also getting colder as we circled the lakes in the Twin-Cities. The breeze coming off the water was beyond bracing. I was only wearing only a tee shirt under my racing singlet and was starting to freeze up. My body fat was only 6-8% in those days. Like it or not, I was on the way to hypothermia.
My other college teammate Dani Fjelstad saw me at sixteen miles. Standing on the side of the road, he took a look at me and his expression changed as if he’d just seen a dead man walking. My lips were turning blue. I was also aware of my compromised condition as my feet were numb with cold. He called me off the course for a second. I stood there shivering in place. “C’mon, Cud,” he told me. “It’s too cold.”
So many things in life are like that. Our best-laid plans get undermined by our miscalculations. All the work we put in to find success can blow away in an instant. I pulled out of the race sad that I’d failed at the one marathon I ever tried.
I share that story about the marathon because there have been other moments in life when a few wrong words or a bit of miscalculated behavior cost me big time. As a person with ADHD and anxiety, my worst habits are speaking too quickly or worse yet, sometimes saying what’s really on my mind.
So it was in 1993 when I overhead some political bickering at a local chamber of commerce over the competition between newspapers to earn the rights to sell and publish a lucrative special section. In a moment of unguarded conversation, I turned to one of my cohorts and said, “I don’t know if our paper’s at war with the chamber what, but I wish we could just figure out a way to work this out.”
Well, the worst portion of that statement… “I don’t know if your paper’s at war with this organization” wound its way back to the Publisher. He was irate that I’d said something like that in public, and he had a right to be angry. No doubt about it. As Promotions Manager, I had no business talking like.my emotional intelligence in some situations was not up to par.
And so, in many respects, I’d just “bonked” in public. It would soon cost me the job at the newspaper.
However, before I was dismissed from my position as Promotions manager, I promised to fulfill some duties and held a meeting with a pair of high-profile sponsors of a program I’d developed. The Publisher attended the meeting and was impressed with how I handled our discussion. He pulled me aside and said, “You know it’s funny, I seem to have a problem with you, but our clients love you…”
Over time, I’d heard many people complain about his overwrought concern about his image in the community, and often defended him, because that was my job. Perhaps I’d just grown tired of doing that, and the truth leaked out of me. Such is life. The one weird thing that keeps reminding of the past is that the Publisher’s Linkedin profile was never taken down. He passed away several years back, but every year time his birthday rolls around, I get another notification. I always wish him a happy one. We actually had many good associations despite our occasional differences.
But he did wind up firing me back then. Then he turned around and offered to hire me back on a contract basis, just not as an employee. I guess he felt he had to make a point somehow, if only for his own satisfaction. From that point forward, I continued with me previous duties as a contractor. And building on that business base, I added a few more clients and wound up with a total yearly income of $100,000. I never told him, but one of my other clients was the Daily Herald, a much larger newspaper for whom I produced their principal marketing brochure. That newspaper would soon enter the Chronicle market as a prime competitor for ad revenue. No one at the Chronicle knew I was working for a major competitor. I’d turned a big mistake into an opportunity of sorts, and six years later would later leverage that experience into a full-time position with the Daily Herald.
Running my own business was also full of hard-won lessons, including what it means to bring in $100,000 in revenue and how much stays in the business versus what goes to pay taxes and other expenses. Only then do you get to determine how much take-home pay you actually earn. That was all a shock to me. It was also a consistent frustration to my wife, who took on the job of keeping the books.
It was all part of the larger lessons learned from that period in time. I’d been having much success up to that point, and it was tragic to blow what I’d built at the newspaper by saying something off-handed and stupid. That verbal blunder was just as dumb as doing a 20-mile run the week before a marathon race.
I couldn’t help thinking that about some Dan Fogelberg lyrics:
“Lessons learned are like bridges burned…
You only need to cross them but once…
Is the knowledge gained worth the price of the pain…
Are the spoils worth the cost of the hunt?”
So yes, I’ve learned some lessons over time. We all do. Perhaps you can think of a few lessons you learned the hard way? Feel free to share them at firstname.lastname@example.org. I don’t want to feel alone in all this.