The world of road racing was flat, meaning that anyone could join in almost any race and compete against the best distance runners in the world. The East Coast offered more important races and more often than the Midwest did, so I sold my motorcycle and crammed everything I owned into my 1978 Honda Civic. The tiny car was a hand-me-down from my brother, who gave it to me as amends after our contentious childhood; all was forgiven, albeit the emotional effects lingered. I drove that rolling peace pipe from Lawrence, Kansas, to Alexandria, Virginia, to become an elite road racer and novelist.
Initially, I moved in with Dad, who’d become a lieutenant colonel and was temporarily stationed at the Pentagon. We shared an apartment but lived parallel lives. We even spent Christmas separately. He was with the woman who’d become his second wife; I was journaling a “Blue Christmas,” documenting how my handwriting and cognition declined with each lonely Stroh’s beer. Dad finally came home with a warning and advice: be careful out there, boy; here’s what can happen during rough sex. He pulled out his blackened penis and let it lop across his palm like a bicycle inner tube. Some things you simply cannot unsee. However, the unconventional lesson stuck with me. Here it is again.
When Dad was transferred back to Santa Fe, I moved in with some track buddies in Arlington. The house was a block from Fort Myer, home of the Third Infantry. I ran past the tall, thin soldiers, the army’s official ceremonial unit and presidential escort. I sort of identified with them, or at least wanted to, being an army brat and tall and thin myself. I thought the Old Guard was elite and very cool, like Special Forces, Rangers, or Delta Force. Many days, I ran through the fort to what today is called Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Back then, I could still run beneath the flight path, the airliners loud enough to tear my eardrums and so low that it seemed as though I could hit them with a chunked rock. Of course, that was before the terrorists took that experience away from us. Then, I’d run onto the bike trails and tow paths of DC, out into Georgetown, and down The Exorcist steps, all while looping The Police’s “I’ll Be Watching You” in my head.
Who watched me? Aloneness was my Achilles’ heel. One of my solutions was to run faster so that I couldn’t be ignored, and I expected to draw people to me. Although I was a running machine, I was never as fast as I wanted to be. Looking back, I worried that if I didn’t run fast enough, people would remain indifferent to me, and I wouldn’t matter. Why did I need a witness to my performance, to my existence? Why did I need to gain others’ approbation to feel that I mattered? Clearly, I’d simply sublimated this need into distance running, whereas previously I’d been scratching my initials into street tar and turning on toy bicycle motors with my knee. Running fast and documenting my life—even fictionalized in creative writing—did that for me, and my drive to do both was unrelenting. When I didn’t run or write, I felt empty and sad. My life felt meaningless. I feared I’d leave no mark. So, I wanted to beat all the best runners currently alive on the planet and every person who had ever existed in recorded human history. Then, I assumed at twenty-three, people would pay attention and be attracted to me.
I’ve teased psychopathic narcissism from the so-called normal level of narcissism that can make people productive, if not irritating. Evolutionarily speaking, being perceived as excellent in some way makes us valued in society and therefore more likely to survive and pass on our DNA. So, we brag. Conversely, being deflated or depressed is less productive, less likely to help the collective survive, and thus less attractive. It places the depressed individual at risk of rejection and eventual death because he or she is a drag on the survival of the collective. So a bit of narcissism is an evolutionary adaptation to survive. The line separating boastfulness from intimacy-increasing self-disclosure can be blurred, though. Hiding what we suspect might cause others to reject us is also evolutionally adaptive. Maintaining a balance between what’s exposed and what’s hidden makes sense.
Running is so primal. I imagine an ancient ancestor running down a gazelle and dragging it back to the village. A crowd greets the returning hero; he will, of course, get the largest portion of meat and the most voluptuous female. The villagers will all obtain protein because of him and survive to create another generation. Humanity will continue on. Ancient skills are not as obviously necessary today, so we sublimate them into sports, but they still sometimes feel as important as meat. We fight over sports. People have died.
These days, now that I carry around a fully developed brain and no longer have to act out my issues as obviously as I did as a young man, I don’t feel the need for so many people to pay attention to me, only the important ones in my life. But I’m still often disappointed. In some ways, this inattention to me is good. It means that the law and professional governing bodies are only spot-checking and would only become interested in me if I were brought to their attention by a misdeed. No wonder I got away with so much as a kid: nobody paid attention to me! Now I think it’s better to accept things as they are rather than agonizing over how we think they should be (but still aspire to excellence and to being our best selves). There’re so many of us, and don’t we encourage people to take care of themselves and mind their own business? Why should we command their attention at all? When people are too invested in others’ behavior, don’t we label them sycophants, nosy, intrusive, prying, controlling, Big Brother, nagging, codependent, groupies, stalkers, or even hagiographical? I like to think of attention as rare and thus a more valuable and pure form of generosity.
Psychotherapy is the ultimate luxury, allowing us to bask in the attention of a respected other.
I wore the color of a professional runner and worked my way toward the front of the pack. Kangaroos Shoes sponsored me out of college, and later Brooks Shoes took me on, which meant I got free shoes and trips. I got an agent and raced against American champions, Olympians, and world-record holders. I improved to national caliber, the top 2 percent, and won tiny amounts of money. I could technically be called a semipro, although it had to be kept secret back then before the Olympics loosened its rules on amateurism. But I never closed the gap between the international-level runners and me. The top 1 percent, the runners who actually went to the Olympics, easily beat me. When I say “easily,” I mean they didn’t even know I was in the race; they certainly didn’t know my name. I remained in the chase pack, anonymous and poor. I didn’t know that I chased an apparition. Now I know that had I run as fast as I’d wanted to, it still would’ve led to disappointment; even the greatest runners are generally ignored. For example, what percentage of the world’s population knows who Kenenisa Bekele is?
But in 1983, I still wanted others to value me based on how fast I could run. The more others valued my speed, the more valuable I was, and the more secure I felt to meet my own needs as modeled by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: physiological (food, water, air), safety (shelter, clothes, work, health), love and belonging (family, friends, intimacy), and esteem (confidence, self-respect, and respect for others). Remember, it was Maslow who said, “What a man can be, he must be.” He called it self-actualization (creativity, morality, and problem solving), which in my case, felt like running and writing; and in middle age, I added helping others to heal and thrive. Later, Maslow modified his hierarchy to include self-transcendence, wherein the self only finds its actualization by giving itself to some higher goal, such as altruism or spirituality. That’s what I’m trying to attain now, in the third act of my life. I’ve given up on organized religion, but I actively pursue understanding spirituality—or at least recognizing it when I experience it.
Because I had a college degree in English, I had to wait tables to pay my bills. “Taco Tim” felt comfortable at a Mexican food restaurant. I wore an open-collared mariachi shirt and averaged forty bucks a shift, which wasn’t much, even back then. The customer I remember best was a neurosurgeon who brought in his patients. He always requested me as his server, and sometimes his patients showed me horrific purple and red scars on their heads and said wacky things. I recommended the best dish rather than the most expensive one, and he tipped me ten bucks—a windfall to me, 25 percent of my daily nut. I think he could tell that I cared about his patients. I learned that people would gladly pay for good care. That’s another event that I cannot unsee, and it is a lesson I held onto.
Daily, I wrote fiction in the local library, ran fifteen miles, waited tables, and partied afterward. I made some friends in Virginia but not any close friends. Now I know that my public persona was too campy and inauthentic. At the time, I didn’t realize that too much of my behavior was histrionic. I now return to Cluster B, yearning for attention, excessively impressionistic speech, theatricality, and rapidly shifting emotions. Remember, I thought that I was being a madman distance runner and wannabe avant-garde novelist. The truth was that I only acted out the mad-to-burn chameleon. How was anybody going to connect with me when all he or she got was my act?
In retrospect—now that I’m a pro in mental health—nothing about me was ever diagnosable. Yes, there were some Cluster B features (not uncommon in young males) and some obsession and compulsion (some due to genetics and some attributable to my brain not having fully maturated due to childhood neglect and family psychodynamics). And too often, I slipped into hagiography regarding distance gods and published authors (overly idealistic). We should probably throw in some developmental arrest due to emotional trauma and abuse. Oh, and there was the whole sex-and-drugs-and-rock-and-roll thing (it was both my youthful environment and the spirit of the time). But I mean diagnosable aside from all that.
By the way, Kenenisa Bekele is arguably distance running’s GOAT, Greatest of All Time. So now I get it: distance running was just my thing. See, I viewed life as if through a toilet-paper tube, and what I saw through it were distance runners. I erroneously concluded that whatever I saw through that tube should be as important to everyone else as it was to me. Making it even worse was that I thought that what I saw through that tube was pretty much all there was to see, or at least all there was to see that actually mattered. Jeez, I was so self-centered. Still am sometimes. In that way, at least, I’m normal. But I obviously didn’t know this at the time.
At the time, toilet-paper tubes were more meaningful to me as something I’d cut a small hole in, cover it with aluminum foil, punch tiny holes in the foil, and use it as a pipe for smoking weed because I was too cheap to buy a real pipe.