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Girl on the Run

My first book of this series, Run Like a Girl is available on my website at You can read the first four chapters of that book for free. The story continues.

The following weekend I dropped my token in the slot on the turnstile at the Davis Street station and climbed the stairs, worried this was the outbound platform and not the one towards Chicago. We had an open weekend without a meet and I was going to take advantage of the break.

I stared at the train on the other tracks, still uncertain if I was on the right platform, the adventure to Lincoln Park already beginning to frazzle my nerves. Annette and I were meeting for lunch at the DePaul campus, the first time we had been together in at least a month. My pre-season cross country camp and Annette’s August gigs had kept us apart, our last meeting for ice cream at Dane’s Dairy in Iowa City.

Annette and I had shared so many ups and downs in life, my best friend since junior high, inseparable throughout all those years. We had so many happy memories I would always treasure, the thought of her making me smile. I could picture Annette playing the guitar alongside Marie on the Wheel Room stage, her earrings glittering in the spotlight, the fourteen-year-old pair playing with such poise in front of the college crowd at the open mic.

Memories of Marie still made me sad.

After I changed trains at Howard Street I stared out the L window trying to recall how long ago she had died. Four years. My freshman year at East High. I wondered what Marie would be doing if she was still alive. Going to college? Off to California? Playing at cabarets in Paris? Yeah, that’s what she would be doing. Something off-beat. Something crazy. The thought made me smile.

The conductor broke through my reverie, his mumbled delivery hard to understand.

“Next stop...” I couldn’t understand what he said after that. “Doors open...” Fullerton flashed by on the station sign.

I jumped to my feet, holding the overhead strap in a vice-like grip, apologizing as I bumped into another rider when the train screeched to a halt. Everyone turned to the right so I followed, shuffling down stairs into a busy Chicago street scene, eyes peeled for the Demon Dogs stand. Annette said the food shack was right below the station. I shouted and waved when I spotted her sitting at the picnic table, rushing over with arms spread wide.


A grin filled my face, the scent of Baby Soft a welcome memory as we embraced. I was so happy, suddenly aware I was more homesick than I realized. We rocked side to side in the hug, both of us savoring the moment, sitting hip to hip on the wooden bench as words burst from my mouth.

“God, it’s so good to see you. I couldn’t wait for practice to finish so I could come down.” I smirked. “And I didn’t even get lost!” I hugged her again.

“C’mon. I’ll show you my dorm room.” Annette smiled. “Then we’re going to get a burger at Chances Are.” Annette clapped her hands together in front of her face. “Do you remember?”

“Of course. We ate there the weekend you sang at Earl of Old Town.”

She grabbed my hand and we skipped down the sidewalk like ten-year-olds, carefree smiles spreading from ear to ear, both of us glancing up at a cardinal chortling high in an evergreen tree on the edge of campus. The rest of the day was just as idyllic – shopping in Old Town, that afternoon going to “The World According to Garp” at the Biograph Theatre, later in the evening listening to bluegrass music session at the Old Town School of Music.

It was after midnight when I fell asleep on her dorm room floor, Sunday morning munching on bagels and slurping coffee at some diner near campus, walking to Oz Park after and sitting in the grass by a field, sneaking peaks at boys playing flag football while we talked. The scene brought back a bittersweet memory. In junior high the three of us laid on Annette’s bed and talked about boys. And how we were going to make it big when we got older.

At noon we returned to her room and I changed into training clothes so I could run back to the Northwestern campus. Sigh. I hadn’t even left but I already missed her. I dropped my chin and then looked up with a smile as we huddled in front of her dormitory before I took off.

“Next time you have to come to Evanston.“

I gave her a long hug, smiling through teary eyes, turning to jog down Fullerton towards the lake, taking the gravel running path near the zoo for the nine mile trek back to the Northwestern campus. There was no way I could navigate city streets.

Chapter 2

September 20, 1982

My workouts had been good, but Monday’s 5 x 1000 on the track was a great one. One that opened my eyes to times I might run. It gave me goosebumps. Coach O’Shea called the session escalation intervals – each thousand meter run faster than the last. Joanne was up first.

She nodded at coach and led us through the initial one thousand, grabbing Anita’s sleeveless NU t-shirt as we rounded the first corner, spitting out “follow me” as she ran down the backstretch of the track. There were still marshmallows on the tartan surface in Dyche Stadium after Saturday’s football loss to Miami of Ohio, each of us trying to avoid the sticky white pillows of goo that had melted in today’s heat. What a dumb tradition.

Coach O’Shea gave us the 800 split on the first interval “2:38…2:39…2:40” sprinting diagonally across the track to get over to the 1000 meter mark on time as we continued to circle the track. I stayed with the pack, responding to Joanne’s steady surge on the backstretch, coach yelling “3:18…3:19…3:20” as we crossed the line.

“Great job ladies…go right into the jog. Don’t stop.” He was shuffling beside us. “I’ll meet you at the starting line. Becky, you’ve got the next one. We’re looking for sub 3:18.”

I stared at the hickey on Janelle’s neck during our 200 meter jog, taking a deep breath as we neared the line for the second one, our group of eight still in a swarm. From five yards out Becky picked up the tempo, everyone hitting the starting line inches apart. This one almost felt easier, as though my body was finally loose, my stride relaxed and powerful.

“2:35…2:36…2:37…that-a-way girls.”

Becky took us around the corner and down the backstretch, coach shouting so we could hear times above our breathing.

“3:15…3:16…3:17. Excellent job. Excellent.”

I may not have been tired when I started this interval but I definitely was now. The 200 meter jog was a little slower, proof everyone was feeling the effort.

“Anita, you take number three.” Coach smiled at her.

This one was going to be tough. Like jumping into the cold water of a lake. I had to steel myself to make the leap. Let’s go Sarah. Get it done. We took off. Joanne helped to control Anita’s tempo - although I knew Anita was tired enough that it was easier to keep the pace reasonable. As we ran down the homestretch on the second lap I prayed the next words from coach’s mouth started with two-thirty-something. I was so tired I thought it might be two-forty...

“2:34…2:35…2:36.” Yes.

The pack began to separate on the backstretch, four of us joining Anita and Becky as we crossed the thousand meter mark – Alice and Terri dropping from my peripheral vision.

“3:14…3:15…3:16. Great job ladies. You gotta dig deep on this next one. Don’t get lazy.”

Now I was tired. Real tired. How we ran 3:15 on the next one…I’ll never know. But six of us did, the marshmallows laying in lanes one and two having zero effect on where our foot strikes landed.

One to go. Janelle led it. I was almost too tired to care how much this one hurt – almost.

The tempo felt like I was running an 800 meter race, my breathing already rapid when we entered the initial backstretch. Yikes! At this tempo I knew the time after two laps had to be close to 2:33 or we wouldn’t hit the goal. C’mon. Stay with them Sarah. You can do it.


I peeled out into lane two as we entered the last backstretch, Becky and Joanne on the inside, the sound of Anita’s breathing just off my shoulder, Jennifer’s loping foot strikes right on my heels. Five of us finished at the same moment, Janelle a split second later. It was hard to hear coach’s words over my breathing.

“3:12…3:13…3:14.” After that all I felt was pain.

I quickly slowed to a stop, bent over with hands on knees, staring at a marshmallow flattened on the track. I’m so glad to be done. Someone patted me on the back, my rapid breaths beginning to slow, pain ebbing like the evening tide. Whoa doggie. That hurt.

“Nice job Becky…Joanne.” Coach put out his hand to slap. “Excellent Janelle. Very good Anita. I’m impressed Jennifer. Good Sarah.” He went around to the rest and slapped hands or patted them on the back. Finally everyone stood tall and shuffled over to get some water. Coach O’Shea approached after we all got some liquid.

“Ladies, that was an excellent workout today. The type of tempo we’ll need to run at the big meets down the road.” He paused. “Classes begin Thursday and the stress will amp up another notch. So call me if you have any issues. You are all good students but I want to remind you to pace yourselves. Be consistent about studying.”

He looked over the squad and continued.

“I know how tough it is here.” He smiled. “Heck, I doubt I could have gotten into Northwestern. But ask for help if you need it. Work with the professors and I know you will do fine. Okay, a fifteen minute cool down and then we have weights.”

Phillip Sanka joined us at Anita’s apartment on Friday night for our weekly session of “Dallas,” the only male on the men’s team interested in watching the show. The rest of them were probably out drinking after their poor team performance at the Notre Dame meet a few hours ago. Jennifer and Janelle were staring at the screen, leaning against a chair while they shared a bowl of popcorn, engrossed in the dialogue between Sue Ellen and JR.

“JR is such a slimeball.” Phillip was exasperated. “I mean, I can’t believe he slept with Holly. She is such a slut. It should have been JR in the crash...not her.”

“I can’t believe Sue Ellen decided to marry JR again.” Anita booed at the screen. “What was she thinking? If I ever do something that stupid please shoot me.”

“Now Bobby.” Becky smiled. “I don’t think there is anything he could do that would make me want to kick him out of bed.” She started laughing.

“You wish.” I replied. “He’d see those hairy legs and you’d be out in a second.” I snapped my fingers. Everyone broke out in laughter, Becky throwing a kernel of popcorn at me.

“A girl can dream can’t she?”

We all talked after the show was over, mentioning to the team that tomorrow night I was going to the Metro to meet a friend from Iowa City for the R.E.M. concert. Phillip indicated he was headed down too and suggested we ride together. I was all for it. We arranged to meet at the Davis Street stop tomorrow at 7:30pm.

As the clock neared 10pm, yawns were abundant, my look at Jennifer met with a slight nod. She joined me in our goodbyes.

“We’re going back to the dorms. We’ll see you at nine tomorrow morning for practice.”

As we walked home we talked.

“It was cool to run 17:18 today but to finish 39th!” I shook my head. “Wow, I was surprised. I know the Notre Dame course is flat but…”

“Yeah, when we went through the mile at 5:15 and I couldn’t even see the front pack…well, I knew I’d be happy to be in the top fifty. Who won anyway?”

“I think it was Connie Jo Robinson…of North Carolina State. She ran something crazy like 16:22.”

We walked quietly in thought.

“After practice tomorrow morning I need to start reading “The Canterbury Tales.” I have a paper due in three weeks – four to five pages. I’m not looking forward to it.” Jennifer held the door for me. “How are your classes?”

“I’m not worried about anything but chemistry.” I turned to Jennifer with hands together. She was majoring in Chemical Engineering. “You gotta to help me. Please. My professor is the worst. I have no idea what he is saying in class. I’m writing so fast I don’t have time to listen to his explanations.” My head moved side to side. “But as long as I get a C, that will be enough to keep me happy.”

The following evening Phillip rode the L with me from campus down to Belmont Ave, talking about next weekend’s meet at Illinois and a little about classes, my seatmate asking to join us when he learned Annette and I were going to shop at The Alley. He never really said what his plans were.

The Wrigley Field scoreboard loomed to the west as we stood when the doors closed at Addison, both of us anticipating the next stop. The Objects were opening for R.E.M. at the Metro, Annette raving about the Georgia group whenever we talked about music. This was so exciting, like nothing in Iowa City.

She promised to meet us outside by the south exit. The station was a madhouse of activity, people rushing up and down the stairs like there was a fire, on the sidewalk outside the doors a panhandler asking for change, high school kids in Goth clothing hanging on the fringe trying to look cool. I gave Annette a tap on the shoulder and an enthusiastic hug, turning to Phillip to introduce him.

Annette pointed to the right, following Phillip’s eyes as he glanced across the street at the Berlin, indicating The Alley was the other way.

“I want to shop to get some new ideas for an outfit on stage. Something unique…something that makes a statement.” Phillip jumped in.

“You should check out Alcala’s over on Chicago Ave. They have great Western stuff. And there’s a thrift shop around the corner.” He pointed. “On Clark Street that you can find 60’s clothing…but let’s look for accessories at The Alley – you know, scarves, belt buckles, jewelry, and such.”

I’d never seen Phillip so animated…except when he watched “Dallas.”

She tried on lots of clothing, including a pair of Doc Martin boots, and then we split up, Phillip going east to some vague destination; Annette and I west on Belmont and around the corner to the Metro. The concert was awesome, R.E.M. playing two encores before the lights came up, Annette taking puffs on marijuana as it was passed through the crowd, never bothering to hand me the joint. She knew I wouldn’t smoke.

After the show we caught the L to the Fullerton stop, arriving at Annette’s dorm room just after 1am, exhausted from three hours on my feet. Her roommate was gone so I had a bed to sleep in, wearing a pair of Annette’s pajamas that were a size too big. As I laid my head on the pillow I couldn’t get over her claim that Phillip was gay, the certainty in her words reluctantly removing my doubt. Phillip…gay? I mean, he did dress a little bit different, and didn’t hang around with the guys on the team but… Whatever.

Although Thorsten and I talked each week, it seemed the bloom had disappeared in our relationship. It was still easy to exchange gossip, and I enjoyed his updates, but conversations were more polite than intimate, like I was speaking with my cousin instead of a guy I’d been dating for over two years. He was the best thing that ever happened to me in high school, but mom was right. A long distance relationship was tough to sustain. I just didn’t want to admit it.

I began using birth control after mom’s discussion in June, but did so for the regular periods, reasoning the pill would reduce my cramps and make everything easier. It was convenient to use this explanation to her, but truth be told, if Thorsten and I had ever found the right time, there is no question I would have taken advantage. I cared about him that much, would have done it without reservation – yet in hindsight, I was glad we hadn’t. The world was bigger than Iowa City.

Many mornings while I got dressed for classes I stared at myself in the full length mirror, happy that I didn’t have a flabby stomach or hips so big that, as my brother always put it, “looked like the backend of a hay wagon.“ But when I stood sideways it was hard to think my chest would attract the attention of any boys – even with a flat stomach. Sigh.

Would I ever meet another guy?

Since the fall quarter had started I included extra exercise each morning, riding the stationary bike in the Blomquist Center for thirty minutes, the two block walk to the recreation building making it easy to get in a workout before my first class. The Big Ten Meet was in Iowa City the end of October and there was no way I could do anything but run well. My parents, high school coaches, and friends would be there to cheer me on. I couldn’t let them down.

But what is my goal? How high can I finish?

The constant thought of the meet made it tough to fall asleep as September turned to October. It was a worry that wouldn’t go away – because I didn’t know anything about the competition. Could I be top ten? But the Big Ten had great runners. I had already discovered four of them were All-Americans at the 1981 NCAA Championships. So maybe a top ten finish was a little too big of a reach. A dream that would only set me up for failure. It was difficult to come up with a goal.

Each week I scanned the results Coach O’Shea posted in his office, memorizing names and times of the conference veterans, following their performances like they were in a soap opera. Cathy Branta, Katie Ishmael, and Rose Thompson of Wisconsin had consistently run well no matter how big the meet. There was little reason to think they wouldn’t do the same in Iowa City. And Nan Doak of Iowa was 10th at the DI National meet last year and would be on her home course. No way I could race with her.

The Spartan’s Karen Campbell had turned in fast times, two of Michigan runners impressing me with their consistency, and Becky Cotta of Purdue was undefeated, winning every race by large margins – especially on hilly courses. She was good enough to win it all. Would a top fifteen goal be smarter? Yet even that made me nervous. Might be too big of a stretch. How about somewhere between fifteen and twenty? It sounded a bit more reasonable.

The truth was that I didn’t have a clue.

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