THE BIRTH OF A RUNNER
For me, the timing is excellent to write a story about how I became a runner. Next month marks my 20th anniversary of the day I committed to being a runner. This is a story in two parts: I ran some in high school, and then I joined the Marine Corps and got off track. Next, after some inner reflection, I was reborn.
It all began on May 30, 1967 when I was born. My father, John, trying to be clever and inventive decided I should have a name of distinction, unlike his own. I’m still not sure how exactly he came up with it but I am certain he had never heard it used before, thus he named me Chase…chasing antelope…chasing girls… a wild goose chase…being chased…I’m still not sure. All I knew was, with that kind of name, I was born to run.
Throughout my elementary school years in the greater Twin Cities region of Minnesota I looked forward to the end of the school year. That is when Field Days were held in late May after the snow had finally melted, if we were lucky. One could actually dodge the mud puddles on the cinder track rather skate across miniature ponds of ice that had covered the track and field in mid-April. My favorite events were the 50 and 100 yard dash as well as the potato sack race and the wheelbarrow. I still have my blue, red, and white ribbons in a box at home.
Eventually in junior high you could actually join the track team and participate for the entire spring quarter. After a month of the pain and agony of training I had developed some fitness and participated in 5 or 6 meets at the local schools of Loretto, Rockford, Buffalo, Annandale, and Dassel-Cokato. My favorite events were the 110, 220 and 440 yard dashes. I never ran during the off seasons but did join the football team in the fall. I never actually played in the games, being kind of small gangly kid, but I got stronger by participating in practice. I didn’t grow as fast as most of the other boys on the football team and planned to play soccer in the fall of my freshman year at Delano.
At the beginning of my freshman year in high school my parents decided to buy a motel and move to Pine City which is in the east central part of the state. This school didn’t have a soccer team; just football and cross country. We got settled into our new home about two weeks after school started so I opted to sit out the fall season and get to know my surroundings. I ran track in the spring and picked up the long jump as a field event. I was no longer competitive in the shorter distances anymore so I trained to run the 880 yard and mile events. The coach always told the distance guys to run to the next town and back (4 miles round trip) and then do some stretching. I think he was a short distance guy because he never paid much attention to what we did after we took off on our runs. If the weather was nice then we would run some variation of his directive. If the weather was cold, windy, raining or snowing, which was more than half of the time, we would go to the school and run the hallways or the stairs in the auditorium. Post-run stretching involved lounging around in the high jump pit watching the girl’s team do their workouts. I enjoyed track in high school. It was a good way to stay away from home and the chores of the motel. It was fun hanging out and travelling to meets.
Once at the meet, I would find a place to stay warm and out of the weather, usually trying to catch a nap. When the warning call came for my event I got up and did some ballistic stretching and jogging, then some striders and finally went under the bleachers to take a leak. It never failed though that when I lined up for the race I had to pee again. In the mile I had a knack for taking off like a rabbit and seeing how long I could hold on. I did this mainly to avoid getting trapped behind a pack of runners, especially starting on the curve. This fast start led to some uneven splits as well as a bear on my back during third lap. The bell lap was mostly run on adrenaline anyway and more often than not, my fast starts led to top finishes and eventually later in high school, a 4:30 mile time. But as Frank Shorter said in Once a Runner, by John L. Parker, “Everyone runs a 4:30 mile in high school.” At least they say they did. The real fun part of the meets was after your events were completed so you could settle your nerves and relax. The bus ride home made for corny antics such as the time three of us each bought a gallon of chocolate milk and had a contest to see who could drink theirs the fastest. I don’t remember who won but we all ended up killer gut aches which were only relieved by passing pungent gas in the back of the bus all the way home.
In the fall of my sophomore year a senior friend that I knew from track convinced me join the cross country team. I had heard of cross country before and really wanted nothing to do with that kind of racing distance. Just the thought of running 5K in the mud, uphill at a blistering pace made me nauseous. On second thought, it was nice to get away from cleaning toilets and folding laundry at the motel. My parents were going through a divorce so home wasn’t a fun place to be. Also, I was assured from my “buddy” that we could hang out in the back with the girls and jog the workouts. When practices began in mid-August, two weeks before school started, twice a day, I was completely shocked. I showed up in the morning for aerobic runs and then again in the afternoon for plyometrics and sprints. Or, we ran intervals in the morning and another “easy” run at night. Have you ever heard of a 20 x 880 interval session? I vomited. After the first week my legs were so sore I had to warm-up and stretch just to walk to the mailbox. I also started getting migraine headaches about once a week. These were so debilitating that I had to go to bed to sleep them off and then I couldn’t shake my head for a couple days without feeling like my brain was rolling around in my skull. After a month of getting in shape I felt a little better. Then the meets began and that’s when I knew I must be a masochist to be able to find enjoyment in this sport. It was Indian summer for the first couple of races and I suffered. I usually finished in the bottom 5 or 10 runners and then had a good puke behind the bus. Then I would get the chills and experience stomach cramps and diarrhea later that night. It was probably just some mild form of heat exhaustion; nothing a coke and a bag of chips wouldn’t settle.
The following year things went a little differently. I ran track in the spring and then did something quite unusual during the summer break; I ran. I didn’t run everyday but I ran at least three times a week all summer. So when cross country season came I wasn’t getting sick during workouts and I learned to drink water when I wasn’t thirsty. I finished 10th out of 70 in my first meet and stayed in the top 10 the rest of the season. I can’t say I was having the time of my life. We were still running in 90 degree heat and high humidity in September and then sleet and wind chills in November but I found something I was good at even if it seemed kind of masochistic. I ran through the winter in -10 degree temps and then again through the next summer between my junior and senior years and only got better. I dated half of the girls on the team at one time or another and was finishing in the top 5 with an occasional win; life was great. My only regret came at the end of the season during the district championships. The race was held in our town at the golf course about 2 miles from my dad’s motel. My father encouraged me to participate in extracurricular activities especially sports. I didn’t know how the race would go but I pleaded with him to come and watch that afternoon. It had snowed and rained the previous day so the course was sloggy and cold but the sun was out as a high pressure system moved through the area. My strategy of rabbiting the start was in full play as cross country starts are 50 runners wide and in less than 100 yards they all funnel to the same point. It was a two loop course which allowed spectators to view the runners halfway through the race. Everything to me was a blur. I didn’t feel the cold wet splashing of mud and water on my legs. I didn’t slip on the slush and icy spots. My arms pumped and my chest heaved and I felt like throwing up the whole way. I never looked back to see how close anyone was to me. I finished first. My dad never showed. He said he didn’t want to close the motel for a half hour because he didn’t have anyone to watch the place in case of a missed customer or vandal. Really???
The following weekend the regional race was held in the northern Minnesota town of Bemidji. It was raining hard at the start of the race. I normally wore glasses to correct my vision and also had a strap to prevent them from falling off due to sweat. I opted to run without them and figured I would follow the leaders. With a quarter mile left to the finish I was in fifth place. I did not see the runner ahead of me make a turn so I went straight and lost a place while turning around resulting in a 6th place finish. The top five qualified for the State meet. I was depressed afterwards but shrugged it off realizing I had no college prospects ahead of me anyway. The old man already proclaimed he couldn’t pay for school so unless I wanted to pump gas for a living I was on my own. I joined the Marine Corps and at the end of my senior year I said the heck with it and got out of small town Minnesota. Little did I know, I was going to do something that involved a lot more pain than running ever did.
In June of 1985 I flew to San Diego, California and spent 79 days in an interminably hellish mind game. The Marine Corps has a Physical Training test that includes sit-ups, pull-ups and a three-mile run. This run is the longest of any other branch of the armed services. I went to boot camp at 5’6” and 135 pounds; I was sure to get the crap kicked out of me. It turned out that hardly anyone looked like the poster Marines I had seen on TV. We were all misfits of one sort or another. Luckily I could run well and immediately excelled at the 3-mile run posting sub 16 minute times. It was my upper-body strength that was lacking. With a lot of extra training and “special assistance” from a drill instructor I managed to max my pull-ups on the final PT test. I had the highest score in the company. This, combined with the ability to qualify as an expert with the M-16 rifle, enabled me to be selected as the Honor man of my platoon.
I reported to my first duty station in Memphis, Tennessee and immediately discovered what it was like to not have a curfew enforced. Eighteen years old with a paycheck and nothing to spend it on can get a person into trouble quickly. Me and my newfound friends spent a lot of our off hours at the Enlisted Club and eventually other party joints in town. I quickly found other entertainment to replace my desire to run. After the training phase I transferred to Tustin, California and continued to party it up as well as chewing snuff. We were required to take the PT test every six months so two weeks away from the test date I would start running to quickly get back in shape. This is the hard way to run three miles in the Marine Corps’ and achieve a maximum qualifying time of 18 minutes. I still managed to do it but always was hurting afterwards which led me to wanting to run even less. I actually entered a 10K on post which ran through the gigantic wooden structured WWII blimp hangars. It was a two loop course and I dropped out of the race after one loop because I was so winded.
I travelled to my permanent duty station on the coast of North Carolina. I was living in the barracks and several of us would get together regularly and buy beer and booze and get blitzed on weekends. During the week we mostly drank beer in the barracks behind locked doors watching TV shows. I had also picked up the habit of recreational smoking. To me, anything less than a pack a day was recreational. Two months after arriving to my new post my crusty old maintenance officer, Chief Warrant Officer Croucher, wanted to talk to me. He had noticed that I ran my last PT test in just under 18 minutes and invited me travel with him and his wife to run the Marine Corps Marathon in one month. This intrigued me as I had run the half marathon twice, once in high school and again right after boot camp while home on leave. How hard could it be? I ran the half in around 1:30 so double that…hmmm; I’ve never run three hours at a time much less two. I accepted his offer and decided that I would run 4 miles three times that week, 5 miles x 3 next week and then finally 6 miles three times the third week before giving my legs a rest.
It was my first visit to Washington, D.C. and in the fall while the leaves had changed color, it was simply beautiful. In 1986, the Marine Corps Marathon was still held on or near the Marine Corps Birthday of November 10th before it changed its date to avoid competition with New York. The size of the race was considerably smaller then at 6,000 entrants than today at around 24,000. I didn’t have a plan for how to do this thing. I lined up in the middle and was surrounded by people for the first 15 miles. I figured if I started out at an easy jog I would be good for at least 13 miles until I ran into uncharted territory. I never paid attention to the clock although I don’t recall clocks at any of the mile markers anyway and I didn’t have a wristwatch. I reached mile 18 and was feeling tired but the legs were still working until the 20 mile mark. As you all know, this is where the infamous “wall” usually rises. It did; my leg muscles all up and down began to spasm. If my legs were dish rags, they were being wrung out. I walked most of the last 4 miles and crossed the finish line in 3 hours and 45 minutes. I remember that for the next four days it was difficult to walk and then I still had pain to the touch for about 10 days. I had no desire to ever run again. Except for having to pass my PT test once every six months I never did run again.
In 1987 I went on an overseas deployment aboard a naval ship to the Mediterranean. We ultimately went through the Red Sea, around the Horn of Africa and into the Persian Gulf. The only thing to do aboard ship for six months is work, eat, and sleep. Sure, the Marine grunts workout because they have nothing to do except clean their weapons until they disembark on some foreign enemy shore. We in aviation worked the flightline and hangar 12 hours on, 12 hours off, seven days a week. The 12 hours off oftentimes were spent playing cards and indulging in tobacco use. My recreational smoking habit increased to a pack a day. Cigarettes were real cheap on ship because they weren’t taxed. You could buy a carton for eight dollars; so it was easy to smoke more. I started smoking Merits, switched to Marlboro, and then settled on Camels because of the Turkish blend. After the Med Cruise was over I returned home and married my fiancée who already had two children. By the time I was 21 years old I had a 33 year old wife (who smoked two packs a day) and two step children. Life was good though because now I could move off post and got extra money for being married. Incidentally, this type of mindset is what leads to a high divorce rate amongst service members, to include me.
I received my Honorable Discharge from the Marine Corps in 1989 and moved the family back home to Minnesota where I could more easily find a job. I joined the Minnesota Army National Guard and soon found full-time employment at the Aviation Support Facility. The Army’s PT test consisted of push-ups, sit-ups, and a 2-mile run. Aside from a PT test in the Marines twice a year (6 miles total) I had not done any running for almost 3 years. In the National Guard I only had to take the test once a year so now my yearly mileage was down to 2 miles. When we took our PT test we did the push-ups in two minutes, took a 10 minute break, then the sit-ups in two minutes and another 10 minute break before the run. During the second 10 minute break, knowing that I could probably still run a decent time from past experience, I would pull out a cigarette and have a smoke just to show off and be an a’hole. Just before we lined up and the starter said “GO,” I put out my smoke and took off. Even with the smoking and lack of any kind of training I could still run a 12 minute two-mile so I figured why bother training; I was already getting the maximum number of points. Over the next two years I continued to drink excessively, smoke and chew, and gained about 15 pounds, mostly in my mid-section and face.
In February of 1991 my wife gave birth to our son Clint. During her pregnancy she did not drink alcohol and cut back on her smoking but not entirely. We often had arguments about this. I tried not to smoke around her and usually chewed tobacco at home. It had angered me so much that she would not give up smoking during the pregnancy that I had resolved to quit smoking once the child was born and at least get her to smoke outside of the house. I wasn’t sure that I could quit cold turkey without replacing my habit with some other activity. Since the PT test was coming up in April, I decided to actually start running and training towards it the same day I gave up cigarettes. I started by running one mile. Two days later I ran a mile and a half. I ran three days a week each time between one and two miles. The most I ever ran at a time after one month was two and a half miles. At the same time I encouraged my wife to go on a walking program in order to lose some of the weight she gained from the pregnancy. That lasted a week. She continued to smoke, in the house.
After a lot of inner reflection I wondered if I might be able to run a marathon again but this time train for it the proper way. If I trained properly then I also thought, “Why not try and break three hours?” I was competitive in high school and a fast local runner. Maybe everyone was fast in high school and it was because I was young and had a lot of energy. I went to my five year class reunion and listened to the naysayers whining about how they could never be in the kind of shape they used to be in. I wanted to prove them wrong. I wanted to do this to prove whether I had talent or not. I didn’t want to be an unhealthy couch potato the rest of my life and live without a purpose. I needed help.
I went to the library and looked up running books. I found Bob Glover’s, The New Competitive Runner’s Handbook. I read it from front to back and wrote down a plan. First, I sent my entry into the Twin Cities Marathon in October. My thinking was, if I paid for it then I won’t back out. I did the long runs by the book. I did the speed workouts to the best of my capability. I was tired and dehydrated most of the time. I still didn’t understand proper eating and was learning about the importance of carbohydrates. In five months I lost the excess weight and completed my last long run at 20 miles. I was ready for the two week taper.
My wife dropped me off near the start of the marathon and I wouldn’t see her until the finish. I knew I had to average sub 7 minute mile pace in order to break 3 hours so I planned to settle in at 6:55 miles. My first mile was 6:35 and felt comfortable. After I warmed up my pace was around 6:15. It’s not that I couldn’t slow down; I just felt good running at this pace. I had heard about how “bank time” wasn’t a good thing in marathons but I figured why waste it when I have it. I was concerned about what would happen at “The Wall,” but put it out of my mind until I got there. Mile 20 came and went. It wasn’t until mile 24 that my legs began to labor. I was so close now that if I could just push the pace for another 10 minutes then I would be done. It was a downhill finish in front of the Capitol in St. Paul. I hadn’t looked at my watch for several miles and was quite surprised to come across the finish line in 2:45:05. I couldn’t believe it.
Once again, my legs hurt like hell for the next few days. I couldn’t walk down the stairs at home or at work. This time was different though. I had just run well enough to make it onto the state’s National Guard Marathon Team next spring and I was going to Lincoln, Nebraska in May to compete for a spot on the national team. A week after the race I sat down and drew up another training plan and after a couple more weeks of recovery I got back to training. The next twenty years is all in the history books. I was reborn; I became a runner.