Running At Dusk in Early January

Most of my Evanston Running Club friends run in the morning, some getting up really early on a Tuesday or Thursday to begin their run at 5:30 am, while I am still comfortably ensconced beneath our down comforter. I am one of the few club members who cannot abide the thought of leaving a warm bed to go running, so I run solo in the late afternoon or evening. Many, many years ago when I was an elite runner in New England I did try running twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. My recollection is that I was so stiff and inflexible that I would trip on cracks in the sidewalk, as I shuffled along, barely able to raise my feet off the ground. Once that experiment failed I stuck to my afternoon/evening running regimen. Because I run then, I always look forward to January, after the holidays, when the days start getting longer so more of my run is in daylight and not darkness.


Snowy Lakefront Path Curving Through the Park at Dusk

In late December the sun sets in Evanston about 4:20 pm, but then minute-by-minute the days gradually get longer, as each day darkness descends later and later. When I leave my house the sun is usually far down on the western horizon, but the tops of the tree branches still glow red and orange from the rays of the setting sun.

winter trees

Twilight in the Trees at Lee Street Beach

Lake Michigan too is awash in the colors of twilight, pink and purple on the water and the horizon as I begin my run along the Lakefront Trail in Evanston. On my way home I again find my way through the Northwestern University Campus with some of its barren trees wrapped in twinkle lights. Then its on to the Lakefront Path again, but now darkness is descending, and I can see the lights of jet planes reflected in the water as they queue up to land at O’Hare Airport.



Lighted trees on the Northwestern University Campus

Admittedly January can often be quite cold, and snowy, in the Midwest, but there are many benefits to outdoor winter running. One of the main benefits is solitude, especially compared to summer when the lakefront path is awash with people—other runners, bikers, dog walkers and families pushing babies in strollers. I can often run for miles without seeing another soul along the lakefront. On windy days the silence is broken by the sound of waves crashing on the shore, or the sound of the ice crystals beating against one another along the bulkheads on the Northwestern University campus, creating a kind of winter water music. And then there are the trees! I really love winter trees after they have shed their leaves and their naked twisty branches are exposed, with no two trees alike. I especially like them after snow has covered the tops of the branches.


Snowy Trees Outside Our Window

As poet Mary Oliver says,    

 In winter

 all the singing is in

the tops of the trees 

William Carlos Williams also has an homage to winter trees in an aptly titled poem, Winter Trees.

All the complicated details

of the attiring and

the disattiring are completed!

A liquid moon

moves gently among

the long branches.

Thus having prepared their buds

against a sure winter

the wise trees

stand sleeping in the cold.

So I will continue to enjoy my evening winter runs, until spring, when the trees transform themselves once again with unfurling buds, blossoms and new leaves, signaling the end of another winter.



Lost My Mojo—And It’s Not Coming Back

I don’t race anymore—I run in raceswhich is not the same. Somewhere along the way, after more than 50 years running and racing, I have lost my mojo, and won’t be running in very many races in the future. It started in the past year or so. I had been racing the Chicago Area Runners Association (CARA) age group circuit, consisting of 8-10 races with distances varying from 5k to the marathon. In 2015 I finished 2nd in my age group, and was very satisfied with my season, although it was a bit of a slog making sure I got to enough races to qualify. In 2016 I didn’t finish in the top three and found it difficult to fit in the required races, given our travel schedule and my predilection to avoid longer races.

Then in 2017, I decided to see give it a go to see if I still had the fire in the belly to race and compete on the circuit. I did interval training once a week with a group called The Posse indoors at an LA Fitness facility, spending most of my time holding down the back of the pack as we ran around the six-laps to the mile track. The first circuit race I ran was the Wintrust Lakefront 10 miler in March this year. I had run it several years prior, each time getting slower and slower, and this year was no exception. I finished in a PW (personal worst) of 1:34. Making matters worse, I stopped several times during the race to walk, an irritating habit that was plaguing my races. In April I ran the Shamrock Shuffle 8k in Chicago again in a PW, with several bouts of walking. I thought, well this is it. Maybe I am done with racing. In May we went to Portland, Oregon in March and New Mexico in May to visit friends. Usually I am determined to get a few runs in when we travel, but this time I just relaxed and enjoyed our time with friends and finding the next best restaurant.


When we got back from Portland I did resume my running regimen thinking I would see what kind of shape I was in at Northwestern University’s 4.1 mile “Run for Walk,” in late July. Was that ever a mistake! I thought I should be able to run a bit slower than eight-minute miles for the race. Dream on Will! I did okay for about two miles, but then I stopped to walk along the route on the south end of the campus, and then again several more times before the finish, getting passed by many of my Evanston Running Club teammates as I slogged to the finish in NU’s football stadium, that will always be Dyche Stadium to me. That is when it hit me. I am done racing. It just wasn’t fun anymore. I have known racing and running at the front of the pack, even winning an occasional race or two, but what I was doing was not racing. With apologies to anyone hoping to run eight-minute miles, it just is too slow for me.

I have had a good run, so to speak, or as someone said to me, “You have checked off all your boxes, and there aren’t any more left.” That’s true, or mostly true. In the early 1970s I ran with the big dogs in New England and won a few races, and New England AAU championship races. I’ve finished 30th in the Boston Marathon and 10th in the Chicago Marathon and have run some reasonably fast times. I’ve been proud to be a member of the Evanston Running Club since 1975 and “wear the ERC colors” to local and regional races. My only regret, if I have one, is that I never broke 2:30 for the marathon, even though I believe I had the capability of doing it, as many of the New England runners I finished ahead of in races have done. Legendary runners like Rick Bayko, Tom Dederian, Paul Thompson, Larry Olsen, Peter Stipe and Amby Burfoot, although I only beat him when he was out of shape and getting back into training. But running a fast marathon requires an alignment of the planets with a fast course, no injuries, cool weather and an evenly paced race. Alas, it was not to be. Other than that I am satisfied, although I really do miss running fast and being at the top of my game as a runner. Most people think of running and racing as being a struggle filled with pain, but my own experience is quite different. I have found that running and racing fast is much different, with an ease and effortlessness that I can only characterize as a state of flow, and being, in that precious moment of focusing only on my breath as my body moves through space. That feeling is what I miss most of all as I now slog through races and workouts.

I will continue to run as long as I am able, and will even run a race occasionally especially if I have the opportunity to win an apple pie, as I did recently in a St. Louis 5k, but I will not race the CARA Circuit. The energy, passion and creativity that I have devoted to racing will now be channeled into my post-retirement career as a ceramic artist, but I look forward to still running 15-20 miles every week, resting on my laurels and reminiscing about when I used to race and run fast.


Who is Sara Mae Berman?

It’s April and my thoughts, as always, return to Boston and Patriot’s Day, the third Monday in April, and the Boston Marathon, and this year I fondly remember my friend, Sara Mae Berman. Who is Sara Mae Berman? I wonder how many of you have heard of her? She is a pioneer of the women’s running movement, who ran the Boston Marathon in the late 1960s before women were officially allowed to compete.

The first woman to run the Boston Marathon was Roberta “Bobbi” Gibbs, who did it in 1966. She applied to run the race that year, but was turned down by race director, Will Cloney, who informed her that women were not physiologically capable of running marathon distances and under the rules of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) women were not allowed to run more than a mile and a half competitively. She not only ran, but finished in 3:21 ahead of 290 of the 415 official male starters. The following year she ran 3:27, almost a half hour ahead of Katherine Switzer, who Jock Semple famously tried to remove from the course when he discovered that a woman was running the race. Parenthetically it is the 50th anniversary of that event in 2017 and Switzer is planning to run Boston this year in commemoration.

Sara Mae won the Boston Marathon three consecutive years. In 1969 she finished in 3:22, and in 1970, the year I ran my first Boston Marathon, she and her husband, Larry, also ran. I did not know either of them then, but we all had great races on that rainy, cold Patriots Day. Larry finished first in a PR time of 2:38; I followed not too far behind in 2:41; Sara was the first woman to finish in the splendid time of 3:05, another PR, and a glimpse of what was to come as women knocked on the door of the three hour marathon, and ultimately broke through to run faster and faster times. After Larry finished, he quickly turned around and went back out on the course with Sara to offer encouragement, and run with her to the finish.


Sara Mae Berman with husband Larry near the finish of 1970 Boston Marathon

On that April day I didn’t know the Bermans, but later that May, Johna and I moved from Petersburg, Virginia to Somerville, Massachusetts, just across the line from Cambridge. I arrived first and stayed at the Cambridge YMCA while searching for an apartment to rent. As a runner, one of the first things I did on my arrival was to search out running routes from the Y. I quickly discovered the joys of New England running, and found myself gravitating to Fresh Pond, the municipal water supply for Cambridge and site of local 2.5 and five mile races sponsored by the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU). CSU was founded by Larry and Sara to promote running and fitness. It was the first competitive club for both men and women. The two of them were instrumental in transferring my AAU membership from Virginia to Massachusetts so I could compete for their club in New England AAU races.

At that time women were just beginning close in on the first sub-three-hour marathon. Sara Mae came within 35 seconds of being the first woman to do it when she ran 3:00:35 at the Plodders Marathon in Brockton-and-Avon, Massachusetts on May 1, 1971. Then less than six months later, the barrier was finally broken by Elizabeth Bonner with a 2:55 at the New York City Marathon on September 19, 1971. Sara Mae came so very close to being that woman, but it was not to be.


Sara Mae Racing the Boston Marathon with One of Her CSU Teammates

In 2015 Sara Mae was inducted into the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) Hall of Fame, based on her achievements as a runner but also for her other contributions to running, including serving as the first female RRCA officer from 1966-67. She was also one of the original road race course certifiers in New England in the 1960s. In 1967 she certified the Boston Marathon course so that it could be used by runners to qualify for the 1968 Olympic Marathon Trials, which were held in Alamosa, Colorado.

She was at the forefront of women’s long distance running, and I feel blessed to know her, and to have had the opportunity to run for the Cambridge Sports Union, and to share her story with other younger runners, who may not know of her contributions to women’s running.


The Van Dykes and the Bermans at the Cambridge Sports Union 50 Anniversary Party

“Shoe Dog”—Phil Knight, Blue Ribbon Sports and Me

I recently read “Shoe Dog,” the story of the beginning of the company that would later become Nike. For those who don’t know, a “shoe dog” is someone “who devoted themselves wholly to the making, selling, buying or designing of shoes.” The company initially started out as Blue Ribbon Sports in 1962, when Phil Knight started selling imported Onitsuka Japanese running shoes out of the back of his green Plymouth Valiant, first on the west coast, and then later on the east coast. It is a candid story of a start up company filled with a cast of misfits and intrepid characters, who somehow managed to keep the company afloat as it sold shoes to generate enough cash to pay off the bankers, so they could buy another shipment of shoes, and so on. Somehow it all worked, but Knight details the struggles of the company and his own as the company changes from an exporter of Japanese shoes, to a designer and maker of shoes. It is an enjoyable book and I heartily recommend it to my running friends.

The book reminded me of some of my own encounters with running shoes, and my connection to Phil Knight, Blue Ribbon Sports, Onitsuka Tigers and Nike. Before there were running shoes and Tigers, there were the ubiquitous Chuck Taylor Converse All-Star gym shoes, worn by most basketball players in the 1960s and early 70s. I wore them too, on the basketball court, and when I began running, on my training jaunts through the neighborhood, and in races. In late 1969 while serving in the US Army at Fort Lee, Virginia, I wore them in my first marathon in Beltsville, Maryland, finishing a respectable 2:52, which prompted me to enter the 1970 Boston Marathon.


Striking a pose in my Converse All Star Gym Shoes

I knew that my trusty gym shoes were not suitable for “The Boston Marathon,” but what to wear? I knew nothing about running shoes, and there wasn’t very much information available then either. We went home to Chicago on leave early in the spring, and my mission was to find a pair of real running shoes. I don’t remember where I found them, but it may have been Vertel’s Running Store, which is long gone. The shoes I found were Adidas Marathon shoes, perfect for Boston, I thought. I couldn’t find any others that were suitable, so I bought them, even though they were a half size too large, but they were light and had very little cushion. I wore those shoes to a 91st place finish in 2:41 in the rain, but with blistered toes and feet because they were slightly too large, but I didn’t care. I was elated.

Following my stint in the Army, we relocated to the Northeast and Somerville, Massachusetts, where I became a member of the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU), and that is where my connection to Blue Ribbon Sports began, because CSU bought their shoes from Jeff Johnson, who was the first employee in Phil Knight’s Blue Ribbon Sports enterprise. They bought their shoes from Onitsuka in Japan, and distributed them in the US. Jeff Johnson was their eastern representative. The first shoes I bought were blue Tigers with the familiar logo on the side. I wore them in my second Boston Marathon in 1971, finishing in a disappointing 44th place in 2:36. Disappointing, since many of the people I normally beat ran under 2:30.


Slogging Up Heartbreak Hill in my Tigers

But those shoes were my steady companions, and were usually reliable in getting me a good race place and a fast time. One Christmas, or birthday, I can’t remember which, Johna had them bronzed and gave them to me as a gift, and they now stand as a memento of those days running against some of New England’s best runners.


Bronzed Onitsuka Tigers

The year 1972 was an Olympic year, and several New England runners had qualified for the Marathon Trials in Eugene that year by meeting the 2:30 qualifying standard. I was not one of them, but among them were Rick Bayko, Peter Stipe, Paul Thompson and Tom Dederian, who were among my competitors in local and regional races. I was injured, plus I had not met the standard. That was also about the time that legendary Oregon coach Bill Bowerman was developing the Nike Waffle Shoe, using his wife’s waffle iron and all sorts or synthetic rubber concoctions to develop the unique sole for the shoe. Prior to the Olympic Marathon Trial race Nike gave out the shoes to some of the participants, and several elected to wear them in the race, ignoring common sense, and racing a full marathon in brand new shoes. Well, surprise, surprise, that didn’t work out well for some of them, including my friend and competitor Rick Bayko, who had to drop out after developing blisters. I asked him recently about that event, since I had heard about it, but didn’t know the details, or who had worn the new shoes. Here is what he said.

“Oh me, oh my. I was that idiot. Had to drop out halfway despite feeling great otherwise and moving well through the field. Deep blisters under both heel bones. Couldn’t walk right for nearly two weeks after. Dr. Paul Thompson once used the story as a cautionary tale while commenting on TV for the NYC Marathon. Said ‘one of his teammates’ used new shoes in the Olympic trials and it ruined his race. Was nice enough to not mention me by name.

Silver lining in that dark cloud though, in that as a dropout I was sitting in the steeplechase water pit with other dropouts cooling my blistered feet when the epic Prefontaine/George Young 5,000 race took place. Got to within 2 feet of them on each lap and went hoarse yelling for them.” Below is a link Rick’s full account of that event.

For me the Waffle Trainer story has a happy ending, because I wore them in 1977, in the first Mayor Daley Chicago Marathon and finished 10th in a time of 2:32, and as you can see by the picture below, I was elated.


Finishing the First Chicago Marathon in Nike Waffle Trainers

Thank you Blue Ribbon Sports, Nike, Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman for putting wings on my feet and keeping me shod in those early years of your developing empire.


When was the last time you ran a 3-mile race, or a 6-mile race? Those are distances from the old days, superseded by the metric equivalents of 5k (3.1 miles) and 10k (6.2 miles). But every year the City of Kirkwood, Missouri has their annual Kirkwood/Webster Turkey Day Runs on Thanksgiving morning with almost 5,000 runners participating in either a 3-mile or a 6-mile run. I ran it with my family and grandsons a few years ago, and this year our son invited us to celebrate Thanksgiving in St. Louis with his family, rather than go to Tacoma, Washington, which we usually do to be with our daughter, Gretchen VanMiller. This was a special year for the blended VanRosie family (a combination of Van Dyke and Rosenblatt), because our son, Garrett, and his significant other, Kelly, would each have their two boys for Thanksgiving, plus Kelly’s father passed away this summer and she had invited her mother and sister and her husband to join them from Pekin, Illinois so she could be with her family. Also joining us would be Gretchen, and our 15-month old granddaughter, Nola, from Tacoma, Washington.

The day begins with the race in the morning, followed by the annual Kirkwood/Webster high school football game, one of the oldest high school football rivalries in the country, dating to 1898. Followed later by Thanksgiving dinner. So the agenda was set. I was looking forward to running 3-miles instead of the 3.1 miles of a 5k for a change. Gretchen, grandsons Jack and Ben signed up for the 6-mile race, the rest of us signed up for the 3-mile race. Grammy Johna stayed home with Nola, while we ran. Prior to the race I looked up the previous year’s race results for my 70-74 age group, and based 2015’s winning time of 26:29, I figured I had a reasonable chance of running 24 to 25 minutes to win my age group, so I was quite confident of winning my age group.

The three-mile race started first at 7:30, followed by the six-mile at 8:15. The 7:30 start would not have been early, except that Gretchen’s plane arrived from Seattle just before midnight on Wednesday, so we didn’t get to sleep until about 1:30 a.m. after picking her and Nola up at the airport. So, somewhat groggy, we arrived at the race site hoping for the best. The gun went off and the five of us who opted for the shorter distance ran down hill on Argonne Drive, made a few turns and then proceeded home on a slight incline up Lockwood before turning a couple of times to finish on Argonne opposite the start. I had run the hillier 6-mile a few years prior and was grateful for the slight incline on the way to the finish. After pausing for a while to check in with the other members of our clan, I went to check the results. As predicted, I had run between 24 and 25 minutes, with a time of 24:54, but I was surprised to finish in second place in my age group. Another runner had run under 24 minutes, and had beaten me handily. But I was content with second, knowing I couldn’t have run any faster.

I missed seeing Garrett or Kelly finish, but did see Alex and Peter come in together. Alex is a very talented soccer player and runner, but has recently developed back pain, so he and Peter, affectionately dubbed, “brothers by another mother,” had walked the three miles together and finished together. Garrett was just glad to finish; because of knee pain he has been experiencing. Kelly ran a PR for the race and was pleased.

Ben, Jack and Gretchen started the 6-mile race soon after I finished. I expected all three to do well. All of us three milers lined up on the curb near the end of the race to watch them finish. Ben came in first, speeding around the corner on Taylor Street to the finish line on Argonne. He ran an excellent time of 38:35. We continued to watch and saw the first woman runner go by, but then a few minutes later Gretchen came by—the second woman in the race, with a time of 40:53. Next would be Jack. Suddenly he appeared, but he wasn’t just running; he was sprinting with a splendid kick, passing runners on his way to the finish line. I had expected him to come in sooner, but he said he developed a side stitch, and had to stop running for a bit during the middle of the race. Even so he finished 6th in his age group in a time of 44:15.

We later found out that Ben had finished second in his age group, so it was a total of three second place finishes and an overall good day of running and racing for the Van Rosie Miller clan, and a great way to start Thanksgiving.


VanRosieMiller Clan Mostly Smiling After the Race

The Dogwood Tree

I originally wrote this piece about 15 or more years ago, when we lived on Asbury Avenue in Evanston, Illinois. I never got around to publishing it, but thought it was appropriate now that the dogwood tree is once again full of blossoms.

The Dogwood Tree

Dogwoods are very rare in my neighborhood in Evanston, Illinois. We live too far north for them to withstand the rigors of winter. But there is a dogwood tree near my house on Asbury Avenue. It is about two blocks south outside the house that was once the “Chandler” house, owned by the family that owned and operated Chandler’s Department Store in downtown Evanston for many years, the store that published the “Chandler Assignment Notebook,” that my children and thousands of children bought each year in September to help them organize their homework and other assignments.

Chandler Assignment Books

Chandler Assignment Books

The tree sits on the southwest corner of the house next to the front porch where it is warmed by the sun. It is always a delight to see it each spring with its magnificent white blossoms, letting the world know that spring is back.

The Chandler House and Dogwood

The Chandler House and Dogwood

I’ve been thinking about that particular dogwood this spring. I had an idea, a thought. Why not take a photo of it, and possibly write a poem celebrating it. Before leaving for work the following day I put my camera in my backpack, hoping to take a photo or two with the morning light shining on the branches, with the delicious white flowers adorning the tree.

I approached the white house holding the dogwood and its blossoms in my consciousness. Just as I was passing the house, the owner came out, a slender man in his mid-40s. He opened the door, went out on his porch, and walked slowly, deliberately to the southwest corner near the dogwood to admire it. I marveled that we were both intent on the tree at the same time. He approached the tree and took a blossom in his hand, touching it gently, caressing it. Then he twisted off the blossom to take it with him.

Dogwood Blossoms

Dogwood Blossoms

I was in awe that we had each come from our separate places intent on the tree and its blossoms. I did not want to break the spell or intrude on his time with the tree. It was a shared moment of love for this tree, giving us both joy in its being. I enjoy that he loves and appreciates this tree, that others are entranced by its beauty, that is gives us this just by its being, to him, to me and to countless others walking or driving by. We are kindred spirits—him, the tree and me. What a blessing.

Is Your Running a Spiritual Practice?

“Run not to be fast, or to beat others, but to discover who you are and what you can become.”
Will Van Dyke 1998

I’m not sure what a spiritual practice is, but after running for over 50 years, it seems to me that my running has turned into a spiritual practice. It has turned into a kind of moving meditation that feeds my body, and my soul, each time I do it. As I began thinking about this I did a bit of research on spiritual practice to find out what it is. I found quite a few definitions, including this one–“Regular performance of an action or activity for the purpose of inducing spiritual experiences and cultivating spiritual development.”

Recently my minister, Bret Lortie, did a sermon about Buddhism, and he said that a spiritual practice has three components.

1. It is an activity that one does over time that encourages beneficial habits.
2. It has a foundation built more on experience than on philosophy.
3. Acceptance of things as they are, that we cannot control or fully know.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that over the years my running has developed into a spiritual practice.

I certainly didn’t start running to develop a spiritual practice, but over time, it has evolved into one. There is within me a genetic disposition to run. I have no idea where it came from, but I have always enjoyed running, from running on the playground playing “boys chase the girls” (but hoping the girls would catch me), to running to get in shape for my high school basketball team, to finally running in my first cross country race as a high school senior, where I had much more success than I did at basketball. It is a gene I see in my grandson Jack and my daughter Gretchen. My son Garrett even says that Jack looks like me when he sees him running on the soccer field. I can’t see it, but I don’t often get a chance to see myself running either.

The arc of my running career has spanned over five decades and began modestly enough, but then changed as I trained more and began running races, first in New England, and then in the Chicago area. In New England I ran with the “big dogs,” and placed high up in many championship races, when I was running upwards of 80 miles every week. As I have aged, and am now in my 70s, I only run 20-25 miles a week, but I still enjoy running, although at a much slower pace, and fewer days a week than I did when I was younger.

So what makes running a spiritual practice? It is certainly something I do on a regular basis. Instead of running seven days a week as I did when I was younger, I now only run three days a week, but I do it outside, week in and week out, out no matter what the weather, although occasionally shifting the day of the week if the weather is particularly bad. Some days are a struggle just to get out the door, but I do, knowing that my body and mind will thank me when it’s over. Other days my body floats along effortlessly, and I feel at one with the universe. Who can deny that it doesn’t promote beneficial habits, and connect us with others on the same path? Running teaches perseverance and commitment. If you practice over time you can achieve goals that would seem inconceivable to you the novice runner, and in the process you learn about yourself.

There may be a philosophy to your running, but the experience of running is what matters. All the philosophy in the world cannot make you faster or fitter—it is in the doing and the training that you get better. It is engagement with the practice of running that matters most. It is the experience of running farther or faster than you thought possible. And in the process you discover who you are as you tap into your inner reserves and resources. If you are training for a marathon, you discover that yes you can run 26.2 miles. Or you may discover that you can run three miles without stopping, when months before you couldn’t run 100 meters without stopping.

Running certainly promotes an acceptance of things as they are. We must accept the weather for what it is when we go out to run (unless of course you run indoors on a treadmill, which I do not), our body and its limitations and our age with its own unique limitations and circumstances. Plus I believe running helps us process the pain and losses in our lives and learn to accept life, as it is, both the good and the not so good. To me there is something about the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other and breathing in and breathing out that has a calming effect. Is it the endorphins? Who knows, but it is definitely a form of meditation—a moving meditation—that helps us cope with what is and the mystery that is this life.

I know that my running has become a spiritual practice—one that I cherish. Is it one of your spiritual practices too? If you are a runner, I bet it is, especially on Sunday, when many of you run together outside with other kindred spirits, instead of sitting inside on a church pew.