Continuing the Dream Without Disillusion
Like many a track & field athlete before me, I started out as a soccer player. Though at first reluctantly torn from my Gameboy color and strapped against my will into our Toyota Forerunner on its way to the local park for practices, I eventually became tied to the routine and embraced the no consequence fun of blindly thrashing my limbs around in pursuit of the spherical McGuffin three times a week.
As I aged from a barely coherent toddler to a somewhat worldly child, I graduated to traveling soccer, a Saturday-sucking affair that always seemed to take me to some odd Morris County school that seemed an eternity’s drive away from my comfy Culver Lake home in the western corner of north Jersey.
Knowing this, my parents were kind enough to incentivize the trips by capitalizing on my eager young mind’s love for reading, leading us to make a pit stop on every ride home at Borders, a bookstore chain located in the Rockaway Townsquare Mall.
Borders wasn’t so much “in the mall” as it was “in the vicinity,” located at its own standalone strip next to a Michaels Arts & Crafts a few parking lots distance from the actual center of American capitalism. The massive bookstore was one of those sacred places that 10-year-old me was allowed to wander freely without supervision, the most independence I had ever received up to that point in my life. I would spend hours poking through the children’s section for hints of the new Guardians of Ga’Hoole volume only to realize I’d read the most recent one already and dejectedly submit myself to walking the seemingly miles-long journey to the magazine section at the front of the store.
Usually nothing jumped out at me but one particular instance, a copy of Nintendo Power mesmerized me. It was a long-time running video game publication that focused solely on, you guessed it, the Japanese gaming powerhouse’s intellectual property. This particular release contained the striking image of a computer generated teen with white super saiyan hair surrounded by three colorful dog-like beasts that appeared as if they would sprint off of the cover and rip me to pixelated pieces in the name of unspecified vengeance. It was, of course, the mainstay franchise of my gamer youth: Pokemon. The usually handheld series had been ported to Nintendo’s newest console the GameCube, and this edition of the magazine featured a tell-all article about the gameplay of the recently released Pokemon Colosseum. I excitedly waddled my way to the Starbucks knockoff contained within the bookstore and presented my find to my mother, who was quietly relieved that this time I chose the $5 magazine over the $25 comic strip collection.
I read the crap out of that thing. I flipped its cover open so often that I had to staple it back onto the spine of its century of pages–twice! It became a constant companion on the next few months’ car rides to family barbecues, piano lessons, and even more soccer practices. Yet despite Pokemon being the catalyst to purchasing the publication, what kept me rereading over and over again was this interestingly mundane game called Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life.
The ten or so pages dedicated to the farming simulator described the ins-and-outs of a simpler virtual life. No need to trap any wild creatures and pit them against each other Michael Vick-style.There were endless hours of planting crops and wooing farmwives at the touch of a joystick.
As the edges of the magazine deteriorated thanks to months of hasty backpack-stuffs and greasy finger-tugs, my impressionable child brain only grew more curious about the world behind the pages. It opened up my relatively white collar childhood to the possibilities of a good honest day’s work. Waking up before dawn to water the crops. Making sure to squeeze some milk out of the cows before lunch. Plowing new fields each season to prepare for appropriate plantings. Hauling my goods to the local market for sale. Sure, I wouldn’t actually be doing any of those things in my real life. But does that mean I would feel any less accomplished in my virtual endeavors? Apparently not, because although it was still a handful of months from Christmas, I kept Harvest Moon at the very top of my wishlist.
Time excruciatingly ticked down until finally Christmas Eve arrived. My parents let my brother and I open one gift each, a sort of appetizer to the main course to keep us behaved for 8 o’clock mass. Crafty little me had kept tabs on the wrapping, so I shot like a bullet towards the green-and-red wrapping that held inside it the only thing I’d wanted the entire year.
I rabidly clawed off the paper and foamed at the mouth with anticipation. Once freed from its captivity, I sprinted as fast as safely possible to my upstairs bedroom and slammed the tiny disc into the GameCube to stick and click my way through as much of the game as possible for the hour before my mom had to stuff me into a tiny sweater and khakis for Jesus’ birthday bash at Our Lady Queen of Peace.
One glorious hour of planting and milking, then I’d be out of commission till tomorrow afternoon post-gift opening. I thought about all the long, fulfilling hours I’d pump into the game. The satisfaction and accomplishment I’d feel completing it a few months after receiving it, then I could restart it over and over and relive the heartwarming, hardworking moments I’d spent on my modest farm in Forget-Me-Not Valley.
As it turns out, that one glorious hour was all I ever put into Harvest Moon. Maybe I became too busy with school and soccer. Maybe I was beginning to grow out of video gaming. More realistically, I was a 10-year-old with an awful attention span, and after spending sixty minutes playing the slow paced game my dopamine-fiending brain decided, no thanks, this isn’t firing my nerve centers quick enough.
A psychological detective would likely pin this on Wanting What You Don’t Have and it’s partner in crime When You Get It You Don’t Want It Anymore. As expected, this winded video game analogy leads me to a difficult and unfortunate constant in life: the anticipation of the thing being better than the thing itself.
The long soccer Saturdays came to an end after being cut from the JV team my sophomore year of high school. Turns out that if you stripped away the running-up-and-down-the-field part of being a midfielder, I was pretty much useless on the pitch. Thereafter, I left behind the soccer cleats in favor of track spikes.
As it turns out, I was pretty good at this whole running thing.
By the end of my junior year, a JV soccer reject paced himself to a top-8 finish at the state championships in the 1600 meter run. Though at the time running wasn’t something I was particularly passionate about, I couldn’t complain about the self-esteem and social boosts that attached themselves to it.
The introvert of yesterday traded in late night gaming with anonymous internet strangers for rambunctious hangouts at local Qdobas and Chinese buffets with newfound friends in the other gangly track boys.
All of sudden the state level success led to nods from college recruiters, offering me scholarships and spots on their NCAA Division I track & field programs.
I forewent most offers in favor of the glitz and glamour of the Ivy League. The University of Pennsylvania didn’t offer scholarships, but they did offer some of the best academics I was going to get. I was an average student who had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. I must have figured an expensive degree could easily sew shut the gaping hole in my aspiration sweater.
At that point all I really had planned for my future was to marry my high school girlfriend (we were gonna make it!). To complete the recipe for the perfect suburban life as seen on every 2000s CBS sitcom, I only needed one final ingredient: a degree in a major that casted a wide enough net in the job market to ensure our income was on the lower threshold of upper middle class.
Then the hometown relationship ended abruptly, leading to an increased focus on distance running as an outlet for my ambition.
Sure, school still mattered. I had important Communications classes to pass after all. But I spent most days and nights visualizing myself on top of podiums, medals around my neck, successfully proving my worth to the world around me.
I roomed with two fellow long-distance freshmen upon my arrival in Philadelphia during the fall of 2013. For those first few months, periods between classes were spent mythologizing hypotheticals: the school records, national qualifying races and personal bests that were inevitably to come as we aged alongside the Penn program.
It must have been a combination of youthful idealism and the coaches’ expert sales pitch to each of us during recruiting that led us to kickstart these sessions, because Penn was bad at running then.
Just two years prior, we scored last place in the Ivy League Cross Country Championships (aka the Heps) by over 100 points, a catastrophic failure equivalent to the 2017 Cleveland Browns going 0 and 16.
One of those nondescript afternoons, bullshitting unknowingly transitioned to premonition.
In the midst of typical conversation, Brendan thrusted a sheet of poster paper bigger than his wiry 5′ 8” frame against the brick wall and took multicolored markers to its blank canvas. A few scribbles later, he ecstatically presented his creation.
The name of each Ivy rival was written in its school colors, capitalized to shout Brendan’s challenge: “We’re gonna cross each name off before we graduate.” No small feat for the worst team in the league.
I looked at Nick, our other roommate. The usual lighthearted goofball nature in his tan face hardened into a mature determination that only unveiled itself in special situations. Words didn’t need to be spoken.
Forget school records, NCAA qualifying races, and personal bests. No matter what else happened in our Penn careers, we would leave campus as cross country team champions.
And we did. Four years after that conversation, six years after being last by over 100 points, the three of us finished top-10 at the Heps to lead Penn to its first conference win in over 40 years. We crossed every name off of the list that night, popped bottles of $10 victory champagne in hand, wondering what there was left to accomplish.
“Chris, I just received this. Are you interested in speaking with this group? I don’t see any reason not to have the conversation even if you are still evaluating your next step in life.”
Below my college coach’s email was a recruiting message from District Track Club, a professional middle distance track team based in Washington, DC.
The momentum from our Heps cross country win propelled me to a breakthrough track season in 2017, highlighted by a sub-4 minute mile. I now felt like one of the big boys, someone who could actually make a splash on the national stage, maybe even fighting for an Olympic team spot in a few years’ time.
Becoming a professional athlete was a secret dream of mine that I only let be known in scratchings on the pages of the inconsistent journal I kept throughout college. Every time it came up the wording was some semblance of “I need to get good enough to keep doing this for a few more years.” I foresaw more podiums, more medals – except this time, it would be my job!
District wasn’t my first choice, but it offered the best financial situation. The 2017 Cleveland Browns may have gone 0 and 16, but even the worst player on the team still made hundreds of thousands of dollars.
I was on the best team in a pretty competitive NCAA conference, but District could only provide me a rent and food stipend. I wasn’t complaining; many athletes have to work full-time jobs to make ends meet.
You don’t do it for the money or fame because those things only exist in narcissistic fever dreams. You do it because you want to, because no other option makes sense
There is only the forward motion that comes with consistent improvement over time.
I wanted more than anything to keep experiencing the rushes of adrenaline flooding to every extremity that propelled each sweat soaked workout to exhausted completion, and the elated high of having pushed the human form past its physical limit in breakthrough races.
After subconsciously botching every job interview I had post-graduation to limit myself to the inevitable option, I stuffed a U-Haul with my belongings and chugged the beastly vehicle through I-95 traffic to my new home in Arlington, Virginia.
The transition was relatively smooth.Within a triad of months’ time I felt as if I was the fittest I’d ever been, finishing off fall training by trialing a 4:02 mile in practice.
A brief break to visit family and enjoy the holidays followed, before we were to fly to Tallahassee, Florida for a warm weather training camp to avoid the snow and prepare for a short indoor track season.
I spent a considerable amount of time in Philadelphia that holiday break, visiting friends and goofing off on the college campus I once called home, reveling a bit too much in the ghosts of past successes.
It wasn’t till much later until I realized that I should have quit then.
Tallahassee was an exercise in isolation. Despite sharing an AirBnB with a half-dozen club teammates, each of us drifted through our own days with individualized focus, as if we were a “team” in name more than anything. Some studied for their graduate programs between morning and afternoon training sessions. Others played video games.
I covered myself in bedsheets, obsessively swiping through old Facebook photo albums, attempting to pull water from a well that dried up nearly a year ago upon crossing a stage in front of thousands of families, diploma tucked inside a sweaty palm.
Our little band of athletes meandered from Tallahassee to Birmingham to Charleston, a southern tour in which we took to no stage and performed no show, just moved from warm city to warm city to keep the scenery fresh and the training stimulus piqued.
As the work vacation neared its end, I entered a double-sided twilight zone, contrasting physical peak and mental depth.
Denial is a powerful mental trick. Things can’t be bad when training is going well, right? I ran some of my best workouts to this day on that trip, yet each completion was met with a shrugging “meh” rather than a jubilant fist pump.
I was at the next level, right? Olympians definitely don’t get excited about these things, they shrug off each workout and move on. Right?
I bombed race after race after race throughout that season. Struggling to make it through three-quarters of a mile, I tripped and went down. Was it an accident? Or did I do it on purpose so I didn’t have to dig deep? 2000 meters into a 3000-meter run later on, I hit my limit and jogged the remaining laps to the finish.
Was the pace too hot from the get-go? Or was I afraid to embarrass myself if I lost this race in front of former Penn teammates who happened to be in the audience that day?
The week following that dreadful 3000-meter race I got a call from the head District coach, saying he entered me in another competition the coming weekend. To “face my demons.”
He was right, I needed to face something. But demons was the wrong d-word for it, and I didn’t face them in the race itself.
The coach also asked me to walk his dog for him, as he was out of town for the week. I borrowed a teammate’s car and drove to the apartment nestled in the center of Rosslyn, a business district across the Potomac River from Georgetown.
Scrambling for free parking hadn’t worked out, leading me to disdainfully drop the few dollars it cost to park in the garage next to the nearby Safeway. The complex hung above a Jimmy John’s, and as such the building held the aroma of fresh bread and cured meat like a mother clings to her newborn.
I made sure to stop at the coffee bar, as I often did after borrowing the apartment keys from the front desk. I don’t touch caffeine much, so I always opted for the caramel hot chocolate that the machine offered under “Other Beverages.” I guess it made up for the parking fee.
Up the elevator and down the hall, the thick bulldog was waiting for me, grunting and drooling at the smell of my hot chocolate. The usual five-minute chase around the studio ensued before I was able to hastily fasten the harness around his torso. I only had to begin saying W-A-L-K and the scrunch-faced madman raced out the door and around the corner to the rooftop terrace.
The dog always relieved himself in the same spot, a patch of turf dotted with splotches of fountain grass which I knowingly guided him to speed up the process. The coach’s dog was very, let’s say, “outspoken,” so I ushered the pup back inside the building carefully and hurriedly so as to not cause a ruckus and disrupt the peaceful, surprisingly warm February evening.
As I placed myself back in the driver’s seat of the car post-walk, a great scalding pressure began to grow outward from my chest, spreading bubbling heat to every part of my body.
I didn’t want to go back to my apartment. I didn’t want to fester in my loneliness. I didn’t want to open my laptop to social media feeds displaying friends I was missing. I didn’t want to plug my phone into my speakers to listen to the same dejected indie folk tunes I tended to wallow in.
I didn’t want to pour a glass of Dewar’s from the untouched bottle I bought for my birthday four months prior to fulfill some fetishized ideal of the lost twenty-something.
I didn’t want to go back. I couldn’t go back.
Instead I drove down the local highway, the Lee Highway, to my favorite store in the area, the Italian Store, known for its wide array of imported goods and traditionally made foods and desserts.
I fumbled around the aisles packed with assorted jars and pastas looking for something, anything that might settle the pressure that was building up so quickly that I thought my ribs might burst open, turning my insides out for all of the patrons to see.
I settled on two humongous cannolis, probably because I was overwhelmed by options and they were placed in front of the register to smartly stimulate an impulse buy.
I crossed the parking lot and collapsed back into the car, scarfing the sugary treats down so fast that I had to pant to catch my breath for a full minute afterwards. I thought the sweetness would help, but it just forced the pressure from my chest up through my throat and into my nostrils, taking residence behind my eyes, blurring my vision and reddening the whites so rapidly that I had to snap them shut and massage the bridge of my nose.
I couldn’t go back to my apartment. Because if I did then the evening would blend to night, I would have to sleep, and I would get up the next morning to make a breakfast of eggs and oatmeal paid for by the club, leading me to remember I had to race later that afternoon.
And if I didn’t, then how could I eat the food they provided me?
I would be a freeloading, washed up athlete with no direction or ambition, scamming his way to free rent and meals for barely succeeding at doing something he used to love that now pretzels his stomach and congeals his other organs to stone.
But I did go back to my apartment, and I did run the race.
Because as far as I knew, there was nothing else I could do.
I finally worked up the courage to quit in May.
I survived three more months and squeezed out some good races, but finally admitted to myself that some things have to come to an end. I was so infatuated with the magazine that I read it ragged, but when it came time to play the game, I didn’t want to anymore.
I was presented a fantastic opportunity, but never gave myself the chance to fully grasp it.
I’d put too much pressure on myself to perform at a high level rather than understanding how truly difficult the transition from college to the “real world” is.
Penn was a safety net, a controlled environment where life was laid out on syllabi and schedules. I was constantly surrounded by close friends, all with likeminded goals and ideals that reinforced the already existing ties between us from rope to steel.
The “real world” didn’t have that. I had empty days that I didn’t know what to do with. New teammates from all different socioeconomic backgrounds and familial situations.
As I’ve grown older I’ve embraced these factors and learned from them, but transitioning from the sheltered world of a university to the complex rhythm of normal living led to a debilitating fear of the unknown.
I needed some sort of control over the external factors of my environment to ease my mental instability. So the only option in my eyes was to relocate back to Philadelphia, a place that was comfortable and familiar, to rediscover what had made me happy in the past and use that to fuel my ideas for the future.
I reconnected with college friends, hung out at the old haunts, and ate at my favorite restaurants again. It scratched the itch for the summer, but I was left unfulfilled.
I needed to know what my ‘next big thing’ was going to be.
I searched for jobs and worked on other projects. I really did. But I had moved into a house with family friends that was within a mile of my favorite place to run in all of Philly, the Wissahickon Valley Park, an immense park with nearly 6 miles of wide uninterrupted gravel trail, and numerous more miles of hiking trails that circled the perimeter.
I needed to offset the beer belly that came with a rekindled social life, so I decided to run some miles every couple days to keep aerobically fit.
A few miles every couple days turned to fifty a week. Fifty a week turned to seventy. Then eighty. Then before I knew it, I clicked send on an email to the local running club, asking for a spot on their elite roster. I figured I would get in good enough shape to clean house at some local 5ks and 10ks, no problem. I didn’t have a full-time job yet, so any way to make moolah sounded like a good idea to me.
I joined Philadelphia Runner Track Club in August 2018, and immediately flashed back to the sense of community that came from Qdoba runs and buffet hangouts in high school.
Running was something you did with friends and to better yourself, not to win big titles and qualify for impressive meets.
It was the laid back reintroduction I needed to the sport I loved so much, the sport I dedicated myself to five years earlier in my freshman dorm room while goofing off with my Penn teammates.
I won some money in a local 10k that month, spurring me to put pen to paper for some more goals for the coming fall.
If I could run 31:06 in August with hardly any training, surely I can break 24 minutes in the 8k by November?
Most runners know that once you get a taste of success, it’s hard to stop the ball from rolling. The goals kept pouring out, so the training ramped back up.
My college coach sent me a text to join the Penn team for a practice in November. I swung by and helped out for a workout. The energy was contagious. I felt like I’d come home after a long vacation. I immediately fell back in step with what had driven me and fulfilled me as an athlete and person.
After the practice, he put me on the spot. What was I training so hard for if I had so dramatically quit competitive running? As I dwelled on it for a couple minutes, I realized there was something beneath the surface of the casual running and racing that I had put in over the summer and fall.
I had been working out at a higher level than I did in undergrad, even with taking a big chunk of time off. And, what the hell, the Olympic Trials were only a year and a half away.
I looked him back in the eyes and realized that for the first time in over a year, my heart and mind were bopping to the same beat.
That night I would blow the dust off of my old GameCube, a click a tiny disk titled Harvest Moon into its chassis. It might just be more fun than I remembered.
CHRIS HATLER — PHILADELPHIA RUNNER TRACK CLUB / UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA
2016 PENN RELAYS 4xMILE CHAMPION
2016 IVY LEAGUE CROSS COUNTRY TEAM CHAMPION
2017 IVY LEAGUE CHAMPION—INDOOR MILE
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