50 Years of Running: Breaking barriers

Running has its barriers for everyone. Until Sir Roger Bannister first broke the 4:00 mile barrier in 1954, people speculated that it could never be done. Now the world record set by in 1999 by Hicham El Guerrouj stands at 3:43.13, and it has not broken for 23 years. The marathon record of 2:09 set by Derek Clayton stood for a decade or so before men like Alberto Salazar and Steve Jones lowered it. Then came the African runners who dropped it precipitously. Much like the mile, it was believed that the barrier of a two-hour marathon could never be breached. Yet the open race record set by Eliud Kipchoge now stands at 2:01:39, with Kenenisa Bekele just a second or so behind. Kipchoge did run a sub-2 hour marathon while paced by a contingent of world-class runners. So we know that under the right conditions it can be done.

These marks were set by the most talented and hard-working runners in all of human history. The world’s top women are now crushing records once thought unapproachable by the female gender. As described on Olympics.com,  “Letesenbet Gidey has crushed the women’s half-marathon world record in her debut in the event on Sunday (24 October) as she raced to an amazing 1:02:52 in Valencia. Helped by male pace-makers, the Tokyo 2020 10,000m bronze medalist meant business right from the start in her first-ever half-marathon race.” Brigid Koskei now holds the women’s world marathon record in 2:14:04, set in Chicago in 2019.

The men’s 10K record on the track is 26:11, a mark set by Joshua Cheptegei of Uganda. For women, the world track 10,000-metre record is held by Almaz Ayana of Ethiopia in 29:17.45 to win gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics on 12 August 2016. The world records for the 10K road distance are 26:24 minutes for men (Rhonex Kipruto, 2020) and 29:43 minutes for women (Joyciline Jepkosgei, 2017).

Against these records, my goal of breaking 32:00 for the first time in the late fall of 1982 seems a bit trifle. But it mattered greatly to me then because just like running a first sub-5:00 or sub-4:30 or sub 4:20 mile, it indicated progress.

At the end of October, I scheduled a series of races and started with an October 31 race in Philly. The distance was an odd 8.4 miles, but that made a great test of managing pace. I ran a solid 44:36 after coming through the five-mile mark in the low 25s, then hung on for a 5:10-per-mile average. That was a good sign.

But then, trouble hit. During lunch the next day at my job in downtown Philly, I was walking next to a building when a spray of Windex or some other cleaner from a window washer caught me in the side of the face. It shot up my nose and I lurched sideways with a dizzy spell. For the rest of the day, I experienced vertigo, and couldn’t get to sleep. “Wide awake at 11:15 tonight,” I wrote. In actuality, I’d probably developed some sort of ear infection brought on by a series of colds throughout the fall. The reaction to the Windex incident may or may not have been coincidental. In any case, I went to bed the next night at 9:00 and slept through to six a.m. the next morning. Clearly, I needed the rest.

Racing at the zoo

On November 7, I signed up for a race at the Philadelphia zoo. My confidence was mixed due to the issue with the ear infection, so I wondered if it was a stretch to race at all. But I also knew that I was making good running progress according to my race the week before. My goal at the zoo race was to break the sub-32:00 barrier for the first time.

My journal report was satisfying: “31:58 10 km. Ran with leaders first 2.0. Winner was 30:54. Let a guy go at 4.2. Didn’t kick. Afraid I was gonna puke or something. Good race though. Considering health and state of mind during week.”

That was that. Despite the self-criticism, I was actually ecstatic to have finally broken the 32:00 barrier. It felt like I was nearing the status of some sort of “sub-elite” runner. According to the Liquori book, the elite runner barrier for 10K was 31:00, or five-minutes per mile. And so, the next barrier would be a sub-31:00 10k, a pace under 5:00 per mile for the distance. First, I’d need to run a sub-5:00 race for four miles, then five. That’s typically how such progressions take place.

I was just about as fast as the world’s top women runners at the time. International stars such as Grete Waitz and Mary Decker were busy trying to break the same barriers. To my reasoning, it was no shameful thing to be running as fast as the world’s top women. But these days, women are running times that I never came close to achieving. Even my friend Tom Burridge, who once held the American half-marathon record at 1:04, would be almost a half-mile behind the likes of Letesenbet Gidey at 1:02.

The point here is that it is a noble measure to set goals for yourself, whatever level you hope to achieve. There’s also lifelong value in that. As that distance ace Marty Liquori once said about racing your hardest and doing your best at running (and I paraphrase), “You’ll never feel the need to prove yourself at the family picnic.”

Posted in 10K, 13.1, aging, aging is not for the weak of heart, Christopher Cudworth, competition, mental health, race pace, racing peak, running, training, training for a marathon | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

50 Years of Running: Muscleheads and kryptonite

Always on the lookout for another fitness opportunity, I wandered into a weightlifting club about two blocks from my apartment. I’d heard of the place from a co-worker that had just joined the firm. We rode the train in together some days. He insisted that I come by and check out the place.

Stepping inside the door, I was greeted by a wall of free weights and a line of large gentlemen shifting around like a herd of dinosaurs as they pumped iron. There wasn’t a guy under 200 lbs. in the room. At the time, I weighed 140 soaking wet. “Hey bud,” the large dude at the counter greeted me. “What can I help you with?”

I snapped out of my stare and replied, “Probably nothing,” and walked back out the door. There was no way I was going to join that gym.

Musclehead

I should have known what that gym was about from the guy that recommended it. He was a recent graduate of a big-time football school in Maryland or somewhere. That was obvious from his size, especially his neck, approximately twice the size of mine in circumference. His shoulders and chest were also huge. That added up to an embarrassing inconvenience for my meaty new friend.

The first day we rode the train together, we made small talk for a few stops when he finally turned to me and said, “Hey, can you help me with my collar? I can’t reach it.” I stared at him for a moment, realizing he was serious. His arms and shoulders were so big, and his neck so thick, that he could not reach his collar with his hands. I reached over and flipped his collar down, careful at the same time not to touch his skin. That felt awkward.

He waited a few minutes and shifted around in his seat. “How about the tie?” he asked. Even I was astounded at that moment, thinking, “How does this guy survive daily life?”

I tied the tie around my neck to get it right. Then I lifted it over my head and pulled it over his prodigious noggin. I pushed the knot into position, gave it a shove and he was all set. “Thanks, dude,” he muttered. Then it was time to get off the train. We gathered up our stuff and walked into the office together.

A few days later on the train we repeated the routine. Then again a few days after that. I didn’t mind, but it made me want to ask some questions. “Did you mean to get this big?” I inquired.

“Oh yeah, dude. I want to get even bigger.”

When asked how he planned to do that, my musclebound friend told me, “Well, steroids help.”

He went to to describe how that worked. The guys at the gym that I’d visited took turns injecting steroids into each other’s buttocks. He said the needles were pretty big, so they had to help each other out.

I glanced at my train companion and saw the familiar sheen of sweat on his face. His complexion was dotted with red skin irruptions. He reminded me of a co-worker back in Chicago who adopted an all-meat diet. Her goal was to lose weight, but her hair and skin got so oily she seemed to have been spattered by a greasy pan. It was not attractive, and she smelled too.

Kryptonite

Their respective obsessions with muscle and weight loss made me wonder at my own form of madness; this habit of running miles on end, year after year. To prove what? Something to myself, but also to others? My running only intensified when other challenges in life weighed me down. Every time I experienced some hit to my self-esteem in one part of life, I’d dig into the running all over again. “I’ll show them…” my brain would say. That need to prove myself all the time was my kryptonite.

Was it healthy or unhealthy? All my battles with colds and illnesses suggested the latter was the case. Yet there were definitely benefits on the mental and spiritual side as well. Running helped me cope with a native anxiety and anger management as well. The same could be said about my drive to compete, and sometimes win. I liked that part of running, and the running boom at the time was fueling that interest.

Roid rage

As the weeks wore on, my steroid buddy grew more insistent about his morning collar routine and tying his tie. Rather than a request, it became a command. “Hey, fix my collar,” he blurted one morning.

When it got to that point, I decided to start taking an earlier train. It seemed impossible that he could get up any earlier. He looked flustered and haggard enough at that early hour. But for me, it was always easy to get up early in the morning. It was a simple thing to pull on whatever layers of clothes I needed to cover my body. I was no fashion maven, yet I was as skinny as a supermodel. On some nights, bathed in the light of the dance clubs near my house, I imagined myself a clone of David Bowie. I’d become the Thin White Duke of my own existence.

One of those nights, I wooed a tiny girl home to my apartment. We’d danced together and won the Twist contest that night. She was excited to find someone that could keep up with her. Though she was my age, she weighed under 100 lbs for sure. She was built like a bird, with tiny bones and a butt and pelvis to match. We messed around a little and the thought went through my head, “I don’t know how this girl could ever bear a child.” Plus she was a Catholic girl, and her defenses were strong.

During that stage of existence, my whole life seemed like an experiment in extremes. I was being strong in so many respects, yet like my childhood hero Superman, I knew my kryptonite. It was not just the need to prove myself, it was also the fear of being alone. While I was in love with a woman back home, I was living a secret life far away from her. I’ll grant that any woman reading this might deem me nothing more than a typical 20-something male musclehead. Or better yet, a knucklehead. But sometimes the only way to learn what’s inside your brain is to bang your head against a wall until it hurts enough to make you stop.

I wasn’t done banging away quite yet. Far from it. The mentality of an endurance athlete would not let me quit that easily, or compromise my selfish pride. As cyclists and runners sometimes say, “It never gets easier, you just go harder.”

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50 Years of Running: The Villanova Factor

A page from my high school running scrapbook prominently featuring Villanova’s Marty Liquori in hero pose.

Adjusting to life in the Philly suburbs took some doing. With rare exception, I took the train downtown because driving into the city was a manic experiment in age-old expressways and traffic backups right and left. The main route into the city required driving on the Schuykill Expressway, a multi-lane accident waiting to happen. The entrance ramps to the road were so short it was like being shot down the ramp of a pinball machine. You had to hope there was no one in the right lane when you roared down the incline trying to gain enough speed to match the pace of traffic. Sometimes you just hit the gas and merged like a Roller Derby contestant. I never had an accident on the road the locals branded the Sure Kill Expressway, but there were enough close calls to deter me from making it a regular practice to commute by car.

By comparison, taking the train was safe and secure, and it was quite a nice ride from Paoli into Philly. When I first moved to town, the commuter trains were operated by Conrail. Their conductors were classy guys, professional and courteous. The trains were typically packed, but boarding out in Paoli meant there were plenty of available seats. Yet one night on the train from downtown, we jammed in like cattle thanks to an engine problem that cut down the number of trains that evening. I wound up cheek to cheek with a woman of perhaps forty years old. I admired the fine lines around her eyes, and perfect brows. She looked lovely in her plain white blouse, and I wrote in my journal. “Exchanged eyes with a crinkled-eye, lace bra’d woman on the train. She seemed to like me. Did I come on like a clam? When will I meet these women twice? Get it right the first time, that’s the main thing.”

Yes, I was constantly on the make yet good at beating myself up at that age. Everything was so new. Events were happening so fast and coming at me from so all directions. It was all I could do to make sense of things in the moment.

A map showing how Paoli sat to Villanova.

The one thing I absorbed from all those train rides was a realization that the town of Villanova and the University of the same name sat right on the main line. I’d grown up watching Villanova basketball with my father and brothers on a tiny black and white TV screen. Once I became a runner, I watched as many world class runners emerged from that school. Marty Liquori and Don Paige, Sydnee Maree and Marcus O’Sullivan. I loved the look of the famously simple Villanova white singlet and deep blue shorts. It screamed track and field all on its own. I determined that I should get over and run on the Villanova track, if that was possible. To my surprise, that opportunity came sooner than expected. “We’re going to do a track workout over at Villanova,” one of the Runner’s Edge guys called to tell me one evening. “Wanna join us?”

“Hell, yeah!” I replied.

My training to that point was a mixture of long road runs and fartlek. To test my fitness, I competed in a race and on October 10 I wrote, “Raced a.m. 26:03 on a hilly course. 5:10 pace. 21:08 four mile. Felt Good. Relaxed. Winner 24:32. 1:30 away.”

That next Wednesday, I drove over to Villanova and ran a session with six other guys. We planned a session of 6 X 880 in 2:18 -2:20, but I was so excited I led my two intervals in 2:17 and 2:16.

While warming up, we watched a TV crew interviewing Don Paige, the world-class Villanova half-miler. In 1980, he’d planned to lead the US distance squad, but the team didn’t go to the Olympics that year. Through the running grapevine we heard that he’d recently done an insane workout or five or six half miles at 1:55 or faster. Seeing him on the track in that classic Villanova uniform was a bit intimidating. Yet I still wanted to look fast in any case, so that Paige or any other world-class Villanovans that showed up wouldn’t think we were trash runners.

Business at hand

On that next Tuesday, we returned to the Villanova track for another 6 X 880 workout. This time we hammered a bit harder. The set included: 2:16 X 3. Three 2:15s and one in 2:14 before we backed off and ran the last one at a saner pace of 2:18.

That workout felt great, but it was harder than I knew in the moment. I was gassed two days later, but still went out for an hour run. “60:00. Ugly tired running. “No zip. Tired. Thinking about race. Went to be early.”

I wisely took the next day off and did not race that weekend.

Marty Liquori’s Guide for the Elite Runner

Taking my own advice on backing off was hard, but I’d begun training according to the principles mapped out in a book titled Marty Liquori’s Guide to the Elite Runner. Published on January 1, 1980, the book emphasizes that real commitment to running is not an easy thing.

He was clear about one thing in particular, a concept he calls “The Day After the Day Lag Rule.” That means the real fatigue of a hard workout does not hit you until 48 hours later. It was a lesson I struggled to learn and kept making the mistake of doing too much intensity so close together. That’s one of the ways I made myself sick all the time. The partying didn’t help either.

But the thrill of running on the Villanova track where some of my running heroes earned their reputations was a calling to go fast. While I knew that I’d likely never become a world-class runner, it still felt like there was business to finish in my running life. I was strongly motivated to improve, to be the best runner I could be, even if I was a sub-elite journeyman in the grand running scheme. I still wanted to find out how good I could become.

To do that, I strongly embraced the practices laid out in Marty Liquori’s book. I was also learning from the Runner’s Edge guys how to balance levels of training to avoid getting hurt, sick, or burned out. That was still something of a running practicum, and I kept making mistakes.

The Mink inside

In fact, it was partly my fault that we’d run so hard on those intervals over at Villanova. Something in me never wanted to back off. My nickname growing up was The Mink for having competitive instincts so strong and an anger so close to the surface of my being that it flared whenever I was challenged at anything in life. It would be years before I figured out the source of that spitfire and flying fur within my soul, but I would eventually come to understand myself better than I did as a young man in my early twenties. At the age of 24, the only thing I knew how to do was keep pushing ahead.

Ultimately, I was surprised to learn that the Latin word Villanova means “new town.” My life history saw me making strides in a series of villanovas, as I moved to new towns many times. It was the Villanova Factor that played a big role in my personal development and finally, finally a degree of maturity. No matter how difficult things seem at the time, life often turns out for the best, villanovas and all.

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50 Years of Running: Hilarity on the move

As any runner knows, it is conversations that help make the miles go by in training. The ribbing and joking, the racing tales and discussions about dating, and more. These are the graces that get you through hours on the road.

I think back to all those miles run with teammates in high school and college, and it was the conversations among us that built strong bonds. That kinship was vital to progress on many fronts. It developed lifelong friendships, for one thing. It also created memories, some of which are associated with unexpected events…

Like the time our Luther College team came around the corner on a country road to find a teammate that had run ahead hanging by his hands from a guardrail with his butt out over ditch. At the precise moment we spotted him, he let loose with a spray of diarrhea that was backlit by the sun. We all nearly crashed into each other laughing at the sight. He earned himself the nickname Dumpy that day.

Even if you don’t know the people you’re running with, there are moments when unforgettable things take place. So it was, that on a calm, clear fall day in Paoli, during an 18-mile training run with the Runner’s Edge club, that I witnessed one of the strangest, yet funniest things I’ve ever seen on a run.

We’d been on the roads for quite a few miles when we cut through a set of woods along the way. There were horse trails through the undergrowth, and moving along in single file, we all kept our eyes on the winding path below our feet. Suddenly, the group in front split and we found our lead runner Peter Crooke standing still and looking down at the ground. Now, from my perspective as the new guy in town, and after only a few weeks of knowing him, I already had great respect for Peter. His endurance and speed were remarkable. That fact was borne by his college success at Providence. He continued his racing prowess on the roads.

Peter Crooke, at left, was a leader of the Runner’s Edge club.

So I wondered what would make Peter want to stop in the middle of a run. The group gathered around him wondering the same thing. He pointed at a hole in the ground and said, “My shoe’s down there.”

“What?” someone inquired. They peeked down the hole. Sure enough. Pete’s brand new Nike shoe was stuck deep down in a slowly shrinking crevasse. He’d stepped into a wet spot in the Pennsylvania clay, and his entire lower leg splurched down into the muck. I peered down into the hole. I could see the back end of the shoe, but not much else. Eager to help, and always the nature guy, I shoved my hand down the hole and gave the shoe a tug. Then a harder tug. It wouldn’t budge. That show was going nowhere. Pete tried again, yanking and pulling but it refused to come out.

I walked away at that point because I found the scene too funny. I didn’t want to offend anyone or make them think I didn’t care about Pete’s shoe, and it wasn’t all that funny to Peter. Sure, he could get another set of shoes given that his family ran a running shop. But it was also the principle of the thing. Who the hell heard of losing a running shoe a foot deep into the mud? He stood there with an incredulous expression. Who could blame him?

Pete did get the shoe out at last, but it was filled with oozy mud. I seem to remember him considering whether to finish the run in socks or not. We had a long way to go, so he pulled the gooey Nike back on his foot and we proceeded.

In love with the absurd

During the rest of the run, I kept chuckling at the strange incident. So much of life was serious at that point. it felt good to find something absurd to laugh about. Perhaps I was laughing at the absurdity of my own situation, feeling so far away from home and trying to make things work the only way I knew how. Running into whatever joy I could find.

The guys on the Runner’s Edge team were really great. I valued their company and didn’t want to screw it up somehow. No one wants to be that odd dude that people try to avoid every run because the conversation is weird. I’ve known a few people like that over the years. Socially awkward. Trying too hard. Or just plain idiots. Have I been any or all of those at times? To be honest, likely so.

My long line of interests qualifies as a bit odd to some. From my longtime love of birds and nature to being an artist and writer willing to quote existentialism on the run (the irreversibility of time…for example) there are times when I’ve brought up subjects only to be met by avoidance or muted silence. Then the conversation moves on. I drift to the back of the group and recover my confidence. I’ve also been known to blurt put an ID on a hawk I’ve just seen or identify the call of a singing warbler or other songbird. Years ago before birding earned public acceptance, I generated many mocking comments from that habit.

The Odd Bird in the flock

I’ve always been an odd bird on the run.

So, I was cautious at times to avoid being seen as the odd bird in the group. But I’m not sure it always worked. I’ve always been something of a counterculture guy, especially on the macho Bro front, where the only acceptable talk was about sports, or women, or making sport of women.

Fortunately, the guys in the Runner’s Edge group were not like that. Instead, they were largely friendly and fun. But also smart and serious.

Passing the time

That’s what made a long run we did in the middle of winter so fun. The plan called for a three-hour training run at an easy pace. We took off at a sane rate. Everyone was relaxed and joking around as we cruised along. Then a fine rain started to fall. It turned into a drenching rain.But we kept on running and everyone felt good.

To pass the time we started a game in which everyone took a turn naming a city or place starting with the last letter of the previous players’ word. The game would go around like that until we reached a guy from a Philly background, and he was simply not quick on the draw. He could not seem to come up with names no matter how hard he tried. After a couple rounds, we all got laughing at how long it took him to put his answer together. We threw hints at him to no avail. The longer we traveled on the run, the funnier it got. I got to laughing so hard it hurt to keep on running at some points. He’d exclaim and complain that there were no cities or places that started with the last letter of the word before. A couple times I think we just skipped his turn and moved on. And that was funny too.

We weren’t trying to be cruel. It just wasn’t his schtick. But truth be told, he seemed to operate in a bit of a narrow sphere. He’d already entertained us that morning with a story about how he was approached by some kind of “movie producer” in downtown Philly. The guy walked up to him after one of his runs as he stood around in shorts. “Yeah, he wants me to appear in some movie he’s making,” our runner friend insisted. Someone asked, “Well, what kind of movie is it?”

The more questions we asked about his potential film career, the more it became evident that the producer looked him up and down and decided that he might make an ideal porn actor. He had the equipment, you might say. That set us off laughing as hard as hell. He made it all the funnier by his naïve denial that the film producer was probably a porn director. And so, between the porn story and the halting word game, the three-hour run went by quite nicely.

Rainy day blues

“Oil and Water” acrylic painting by Christopher Cudworth, 2018.

Unfortunately, the rain didn’t let up. The farther we ran, the stronger it got. Our body heat saved us even though it was barely 45 degrees outside. To our good fortune, none of us went hypothermic. Thank goodness for that.

Back at the apartment that Saturday afternoon, I took a hot shower, ate a huge meal of waffles and eggs, and crawled under my sheets to keep warm. I woke up six hours later. It was dark outside. I lay there wondering where the hell I was. The sleep was so deep that I could have woken up in a different dimension in time, for all I knew.

That’s often how I wake up from an afternoon nap. Sometimes a depressed sensation controls my mind for a number of minutes. I have to forcibly think positive thoughts to ward off a feeling of dread. That day all I had to do was think about the laughs we’d had out there on the run. No matter how much suffering takes place along the way, it is still the good times that tend to replace the bad. And when the bad times are intense, or we puke or collapse, shit our pants or feel the bear on our backs, we gather around and laugh about that later, or for years to come.

That’s what I’ve always loved about running. It helps you deal with the crap in life. And what’s not to love about that? 

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50 Years of Running: Caught between two worlds

The Main LIne ran from Philly through Ardmore, Bryn Mawr and Wayne before Paoli. That was my daily commute

Living in Paoli was a compromise. Sitting at the end of the Main Line commuter route, it marked the outer limits of the Philadelphia suburbs. I only found the place through a realtor kind enough to show me around the area. On hearing that I worked for the investment firm Van Kampen Merritt, she likely assumed I’d have money to burn, and possibly there was a house to sell. In reality, I was a mostly broke young country boy looking for a cheap place to live while figuring out what might happen with the job in downtown Philly.

That was my style if you could call it that. I mostly wanted to live where I could go running with some degree of freedom. I didn’t know Philadelphia well enough to know where to find an apartment. And anyway, I was not much of a city kid. My time in Chicago as an Admissions counselor was immersive in some ways, but it was completely abstract in other ways, because I didn’t live in the city. Commuting from Geneva far out in the suburbs didn’t provide much insight into city life either. I was a man between two worlds.

Know thyself

The house where I lived at 18 Paoli Pike.

That’s why I chose to live in the third story of a house on Paoli Avenue right near the city’s downtown. I rented from a couple looking to make money toward their mortgage and the place offered just enough room for a single man.

There was no time for two-a-day workouts with the commute downtown and back. So I concentrated all my running in the evening, plus long workouts on the weekends. In between, I found time to do some painting as well. And also chased women when I could.

That restlessness was the result of an undiagnosed case of ADHD, partnered with anxiety, that sometimes led to depression. There, I’ve said it. No real surprise to write it these days. But back then, it manifested itself in the perpetual pursuit of stimulation.

Made for each other

Running suits the ADHD/Anxiety personality. It dissipates excess energy, for one thing. Fatigue is the friend of the restless. It’s also activity of concentrated focus. Hyper-focus is a trait of ADHD. That’s why I could also paint or write for hours on end, losing myself in the process.

Yet the other factor involved in this young man’s life was desire, sexual and otherwise. Like the main character in the Saul Bellow novel Henderson the Rain King, I ran around hearing “I Want, I Want…” thoughts in my head that never seemed to be satisfied. Hence, the peripatetic pursuit of female attention and a keen desire for approval.

That need for approval emanated from even deeper sources. My sometimes demanding father and a set of competitive brothers set this sensitive boy on a path of perpetual pursuit of favor. All that was complicated by a pursuant lack of self-esteem. The wicked cycle.

Different worlds

None of this kept me from achieving success at times. I’d long learned how to be a leader. Sports helped quite a bit at that. As a baseball pitcher, I was fearless on the mound and typically only lost a game or two per season. Then in high school, thanks to my father’s guidance, I entered the world of running and tried to compete with everyone I could. The fact that one doesn’t always succeed is instructional on its own and develops important leadership skills as well.

Transferring those leadership skills to the world of work isn’t always easy. Down in the city, working amongst a group of relative strangers, and a gang of women to boot, I still felt a bit intimidated and a little lost. The head of the marketing group was no paragon of leadership. His academic style and appearance breathed East Coast effete, and I wondered if he held the real respect of the big bosses out in Philly. Even his name, which I shall not repeat in full, smacked of urban privilege. I tried to like him, and managed well most of the time. But then his somewhat flirtatious approach with the Assistant Vice President made me suspicious. I didn’t fully trust him, in other words.

Measuring up

Plus, he ran like a geek. During the fall, our company signed up for a corporate Olympics of some sort, and the first time I saw him run, it made me queasy. He was a massive overstrider, and to me, that indicated an undiagnosed naivete and an element of cluelessness. His feet struck so far back on his heels that it looked like he was putting on the brakes with every footfall. Blame me for being judgmental if you like, but I saw symbolism in that.

The other people in the workplace, mostly women, were all nice enough. But the whole enterprise felt a bit forced. Much of the main team in my department sat at a set of desks all facing the same direction, much like a game show or a Supreme Court photo opp. I faced the wall with my inclined art table and a cabinet with hanging files. Every time I turned around, I faced this crew of women sitting at their desks.

A British woman I’ll call J was large-breasted and seldom wore a bra beneath her mostly black wardrobe, so you can imagine, I was readily distracted by that. Next to her sat D, a pure Philly girl with big hair, an earthy figure, and a rich accent. Then came B, the prettiest girl in the office. She was gorgeous without even trying, blessed with beautiful hair and a perfect complexion, crystalline green eyes and a set of naturally pouty lips. Filling out the side was a true Philly guy named Lenny, with whom I crafted a cautious relationship because he was the sole other guy my age in the office. We had little in common, but we made it work. Lenny was the down-to-earth city guy and I was the down-to-earth country guy. We even went to a Phillies game one afternoon. Bro time.

The restless age

Given my ADHD, sitting at a desk eight hours a day was never my favorite thing to do. That meant the runs at night were critical to my sanity. I was pretty much still a country boy trying to make life work in the city. I dressed the best way that I could afford, but I failed many days, and overhead the women talking, “He’s sort of homely, but he seems to get dates.”

They were actually correct about that. On my worst days, I was a homely guy. I still had a dark front tooth caused by a baseball accident years before. My hair situation was changing as I balded. When I let the side mane get too long, it tended toward a thick and scraggly look. My thin runner’s face looked haggard on my tired days, and there were plenty. And yet, I still didn’t let any of that slow me down. Whatever drove me, drove me hard.

Dealing with duress

That had its consequences because a naturally anxious person only gets more anxious under fatigue or duress. During long staff meetings, I’d sometimes take to gnawing on my fingernails. One bitten nail snapped so loud that it resonated through the room. Recalling my elder girlfriend’s advice that the best way to deal with mistakes is in the recovery, I laughed it off and said, “Hangnail, sorry.”

I finally started to settle into the office routine, and relationships formed. The Assistant VP and I started a running joke because we’d each begun to notice that the large digital clock on the building across the street often read either 11:11 or 1:11 during our meetings. We’d wait for that moment to arrive and give each other a glance and a thumbs up. Other people bought into the routine, and it formed a nice bond between us all.

So I didn’t hate the place or the people. I was just a guy caught between two worlds. The one I imagined and the one in which I actually lived. The only way to bridge that gap, I reasoned, was to keep on running.

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50 Years of Running: A wild ride on the white horse

When white horses are seen, it is often an indication of being spiritually aware. It can symbolize innocence and purity, be a symbol of good fortune, or even represent prosperity. Being chased by a white horse in a dream can be a reflection of relationship issues.

An excerpt on the symbolism of a white horse on Karen Brez Jewelry

I doubt this was the breed of horse I rode but this is definitely how big and powerful it felt.

On September 6, a week after I met a girl in Valley Forge State Park, we met up to go horseback riding. “Hair looked pretty in the late summer sunshine,” I wrote about her. And then: “Really jarred my insides on that horse, starting out.”

That journal entry hardly touches the truth of that situation. When I showed up to ride, she led me to a stable where the largest white horse I’d ever seen stood waiting for me to climb on. I was wearing tight jeans, which wasn’t the best choice for horseback riding. But I stuck my foot in the stirrup like I knew what I was doing and climbed aboard an animal that felt as wide as an aircraft carrier. My legs were stretched to their maximum flexibility on either side. When that horse started to move a genuine shiver of fear shot through me. Would I be able to stay on this creature?

We started slowly. Then my date glanced over and said, “Wanna go faster?”

At that point, I did not want to go faster on that horse. Not at all. I wanted to ride slowly along for a mile or so to get used to controlling that beast’s massive head with its great shock of silvery mane. Instead, I said, “Sure,” and gave the horse a gentle kick. We started to trot. Up and down I went in vertical motion in the opposite of the direction the horse was headed. I had to learn how to use my thighs to get into the rhythm of that horse. But its body was so wide I struggled to maintain any sort of control. “God,” I muttered to myself. “I’m going to be so sore tomorrow.”

We cantered across a big field and through a gate where a wide pasture opened. Ahead of us lay nothing but a green expanse of low grass. Karen gave her horse a low kick and they started to trot, then gallop. My horse, almost without prompting, responded in kind. “Whoa!” I shuddered. Then genuine chaos began. That big white horse turned into a completely different machine on the run. The muscles of its shoulders flexed before me. The head rowed back and forth. The faster the horse ran, the less I could contain myself on its back. My hips started sliding off the saddle, and I grabbed the horse’s neck to keep from falling off. In that state of affairs, we tore across the field. My guts were being hammered right where the solar plexus met my runner’s six-pack. “Oh fuuuuuuuccckkkk…” I moaned. One more slip and I could have fallen off entirely, either breaking bones or worse, getting kicked in the head and suffering a catastrophic brain injury.

Mercifully, the field came to an end and I managed to rein the horse in with some sort of false composure. She turned to me and asked, “How are you doing?”

I lied. “Great!” So we kept at it a bit, and I improved after that. But when the ride was finished I was so traumatized I swore that I’d never ride another horse again.

To whit, we never had another date. Perhaps she sensed what a fool I was to ride with so little experience. Or else I chickened out on calling her for fear of having to ride anything that big again. So the white horse did turn out to be a symbol for that relationship, even if it its meaning was more literal than allegorical. Here I was, this skinny waif of a runner on top of a horse the size of a Jeep. Who was I trying to fool? I was terrified on the back of that horse, clinging to its neck with those giant hooves thundering below me. The whole experience symbolized, for me, the wild ride I was on in life. My native anxiety was hardly the issue in that circumstance. Staying alive was my top priority. And what a lesson that was.

Equestrian confessions

My journal entry the next morning was full of confessions. “My legs are sore both front and back. I’m tireder than I think, I think,” I wrote. “Really jarred my insides on that horse, starting out. I learned to gallop on a horse, though. This morning’s three was barely a roll.”

The night after the horse ride I took stock and found myself struggling to feel a positive flow. “Can’t shit, ache and feel washed out. Too much ice tea? Not enough fluids? Tomorrow I’ll feel fine.”

I had a problem in that I’d become addicted to the ice tea sold at the Turkey Hill convenience store next door to my apartment. That stuff tasted so good that I’d down the entire quart in an afternoon. Then I kept getting sideaches during my runs, and mentioned that to Rich Crooke at the Runner’s Edge shop. “That stuff’s full of caffeine,” he observed. “It dehydrates.” Duh, I thought to myself. That was clearly true in my case. It didn’t take much to push my body off-kilter with the intensity of training I was doing and my low body weight. So I backed off the tea, and it helped right away.

The wrong ride

The third week of September I ran 64 miles with a 0 day on Wednesday because I absentmindedly got on the wrong train out of Philly. Ten minutes into the ride I realized that none of the towns sounded familiar. We were headed north on the Chestnut line, and I walked up to the conductor to tell him that I needed to get off and turn back around. “Not here,” he said with a serious tone to warn me about the neighborhoods we were passing through. “You’ll get killed.”

So I waited for another few stops and got off on a platform somewhere far north of Philly. I caught a train back downtown to Penn Station. Then I bought another ticket and got on the right train back out to Paoli. Passing through West Chester and Villanova and Wayne was by now familiar territory. I got home late and ate a quick dinner before heading to bed.

And that night, just before throwing back the sheets to sleep, I glanced out the upstairs window to an apartment building across the drive. The shades were wide open, and a light was on. I could see a guy lying on his back whacking his pud in clear view. I couldn’t help myself, and grabbed my birding binoculars to watch. There was nothing miraculous about it, I realized. For all the secrecy and shame associated with whacking off back then, I took solace in knowing I was not alone in that category. “Go for it,” I chuckled after lowering the binoculars.

Fading light

As September progressed, the light available to go for runs in the evening after the commute home was starting to shrink. Rather than run on the roads after dark one night, I slipped onto the Waynesborough golf course to do some interval training on the fairways. I ran intervals on whatever distance the holes were from 200-500 meters. Toward the end of the workout, I was tearing along at 5:00 pace when my thighs hit a taut rope stretched across the fairway to keep carts from driving too close to the green. The impact flipped me head-over-heels. I lay there in the cool grass groaning for a few minutes. A rope burn creased my thighs, and my right hip felt extended and sore. I hobbled home that night.

Thus far, life in Pennsylvania had been a wild ride and the fall racing season hadn’t even started yet. The weather cooled and I met up with Runner’s Edge boys every weekend for a long run followed by a mid-week track session at Villanova. On one of the first long runs that fall, I took off at my standard 6:30 pace and found myself far in the lead after a half-mile. Turning around, I ran back and asked, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” one of them replied. “What’s wrong with you? Listen, we’re going to run an even, slow pace for the first seventeen miles. Then we’ll close at race pace for the last three. If you can do that, you’ll be training right.”

His statement hit me like a brick. “He’s right,” I realized. “That’s how my roommate and I chose to train our senior year in college.” So I fell into the pack determined to learn from runners that were actually far superior to me in talent, training knowledge, and race results. That was the right kind of wild ride for me.

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50 Year of Running: What drives a young man?

Starting up my new running journal was a strange feeling, but the timing was interesting. New apartment in a new city. All-new running routes. On August 12, 1982 I wrote:

“Two nights ago the run went marvelous, physiologically. After having cranked four miles of fartlek, I setting into finding my way home. And settled. And settled. About seven miles later I crawled, strongly, back Paoli Pike & home. Mentally the run was strange. Directions are clear but the roads are deceiving. I keep thinking south is north, and east west. If I walked out my door I could probably point east….but for a few days there!”

It’s funny how ‘art imitates life’ sometimes, because I was navigating all kinds of change in those first few weeks in a new town. Finding my way around an all-new landscape was challenging. The area around Paoli is a mixed region of horse farms and country estates. Old stone walls line the country lanes, and tall maples and sycamores shade the way in season. The difficult part was that a road might suddenly end in a T-intersection, yet pick up with the same name and continue in the same direction another 200 yards to the right or left. It took several weeks to figure out the maze of names and directions.

The roads south of Paoli were my primary training grounds, but getting to know the smaller roads beyond the bigger grid was confusing for weeks. I got lost quite a bit.

Along with the running maze, there were practical concerns as well. “The bank probably won’t cash my check tomorrow,” I wrote in a bitter realization that my finances would soon get tight. “Something about ten days grace. Expenses are finally figured but that will take a while to get much back. We’ll see what happens tomorrow.”

Indeed, the bank resisted my begging attempts to push my paycheck through faster. I’d deposited the cash that I’d brought with me on the trip east to open the account. But then came the wait. The money I’d transferred from the bank in Chicago had not cleared, and my first paycheck was on hold for more than a week. On the day before my checks finally cleared, I took out twenty bucks to buy a train ticket to Philly and saw the little Cash Station receipt pop out with a balance of $10. Talk about stress.

I was making the best of it all. “Work’s going well,” I wrote. “Got to balance the creative with the creating.” But the stress of life was getting to me. “Got a sore mouth. Herpes…or a cold sore. No one can tell in this odd world of afflictions. Guess I’ll eat a wry salad, flick on the fan and draw till I drop. There’s money out there. Ran 2 1/2 miles, mostly on toes. Pulse only 52 last night.”

With little else to do after coming home from work, I ran every night. “Fast and slow running, two miles… then turned on watch…began series of four to six wandering miles. Then put watch on three approximate half-mile loops around cemetery and park, on grass. Ran around three minutes each, probably at 75 to 80 second pace. Hard to tell. Haven’t been on a track lately. Sore or aching ear. Very muggy. Yesterday cool but sunny.”

The Runner’s Edge

A photo of the adidas oregon shoes with their “adiweb” sides that osteensibly provided a “rebounding” force to the soles.

And then, an important discovery. There was a running store called The Runner’s Edge within walking distance of my house. I stopped by to introduce myself and met the owner Rich Crooke and his brother Peter Crooke. “Tonight I bought adidas Oregon running shoes,” I wrote. “The depth of my obsession is great. Joined the Runner’s Edge track club.”

I was thrilled to meet the guys and get invited to train with the club with a group run on Sundays and some track workouts during the week. My mileage was increasing steadily, and the terrain was proving as challenging as my days in Decorah during college at Luther. “1 hour run. Yellow Springs and back. HILLY. Made it up North Valley HIll. These hills seem to push me past the fear of anaerobism. Perhaps they force the use of unfatigued muscles. I got lost, but not really, on the run tonight. I just overpressed my directions. Another two miles and I’da hit 252. But who knew it then? Not this hombre. So I ran 1:27 minutes, approximately 12-13 miles. Not much more, I’m sure the pace the first ten miles was 7:00, with a couple hill sprints thrown in thinking I’d turn around soon. When dark fell I took off at 6:00 pace, a little angry, and feeling good in this cool, wet Pennsylvania air, and rolled home four miles in around 24:00, I’m sure. You hit the spot.”

What drives a young man?

What drives a young man to push so hard? Is it hormones? A need for approval? Some aspect of personal fantasy or a need to explore the limits of existence? Looking back, it is obvious to me that all those factors enter into the equation. At least they did for me. If someone were to figure out the formula for why men in their 20s will focus strongly on something like sports while ignoring or dismissing more substantial commitments in life, there would be millions of people––young women and men alike––happy to know why that is true.

Recently I heard a psychiatrist on NPR talking about the male propensity for risk-taking during their late teen years and their early-to-mid twenties. Apparently, in many young men, the frontal cortex of the brain develops more slowly than the rest of the grey matter inside. So given this gap in growth, young men don’t necessarily associate taking risks with a legitimate need to feel fear in risky situations. Perhaps this has some evolutionary value as many young men spend considerable time trying to prove themselves to other young women, sometimes in the most inane ways. After all, many species of animals in this world engage in mating rituals that can maim or even kill the weaker opponent.

The psychiatrist also explained an interesting phenomenon discovered while studying the minds and behavior of young male human beings. “They fear disappointing their peers more than they fear physical or emotional harm,” she noted. By “peers” we can ascertain she means “friends” or even “anyone standing close enough to watch.” Hence, a generation of MTV watchers (many of them young men desperate for crass stimulation) tuned in to the show Jackass as a means to exist vicariously through the life-threatening stunts of Johnny Knoxville and his crew.

A harsh epiphany

While I was never fond of taking physical risks for the sake of it, there is risk involved in running all those miles. Add to that risk the fact that for months on end, I’d been burning the candle at both ends and partying late into the night, and the outcome was obvious. I kept making myself sick with colds. My body was razor thin with a 3-4% body mass index. Once while getting tested at a 10-mile race, the nurse doing the pinch test on my body looked up at me and said, “Don’t get caught out in the rain. You’ll die.”

I brought up the subject of my repeated illness with a Runner’s Edge teammate and physician during a long run on August 29. “Just ran 1:33 with Sol Epstein, a SudAfrican with a temper. I felt great today. It’s cool and sunny out. Wore tigers. Small cramp in tight leg, but legs wouldn’t quit. He said 14 1/2 to 15 miles. Felt like 10. Left some poor guy in the dust and sunshine. He was sturdy, but we did start out fast.”

During that run, I ran along with Sol for quite a few miles. As we raced over the roads, he listened intently to my training tales and finally, screeched to a stop, shook his fist at his sides, then turned to me with fierce eyes and from behind his giant silvery mustache these words came pouring out, “You’re fucking overtraining!”

I almost burst out laughing. But he was absolutely right. It took someone with the guts and honesty of that man to tell me the truth. He saw right through my vain risk-taking habits and the propensity to run too hard all the time. Some of that was a carry-over from my college days when we ran all our mileage at six-minute pace. But soon enough, I’d learn even more lessons from the Runner’s Edge guys that would change my perspectives on training forever. It was time to step back and look at what I was really doing with this running thing. Was I doing it right, or just flailing around hoping for good results? It was time to settle down and figure that shit out.

Running away

But, when it came to relationships, I was clearly not ready to settle down, even with a woman that clearly appreciated whatever qualities I had to offer. I wrote in my journal, “Linda called bummed today. Probably running from that.”

I can hear the collective groans of millions of women that have had to deal with men like me over the millennia. Guys eager for love and willing to take it, but not quite ready to make a full commitment in return. It doesn’t matter what genre of music one chooses, the theme of young men unwilling to settle down is found throughout. The lyrics from the 5th Dimension song Wedding Bell Blues tell it well:

I was on your side, Bill
When you were losin’ (when you were losin’)
I’d never scheme or lie, Bill
There’s been no foolin’ (there’s been no foolin’)
But kisses and love won’t carry me
‘Til you marry me, Bill

And so, as I struggled to find myself a place in Paoli and Philadelphia, I elected to date rather than spend all my time alone. I knew that I loved Linda, and she loved me. But it was impossible for me to tell at that point if we were meant to be together forever. We’d only been dating for nine months to that point, and I was only a year or so out from a relationship that damn near ate me alive. Let’s face it, love is a risk that some young men aren’t always ready to take. For many, it is a tarsnake on the journey to self-actualization. Part of me was running away from so many things in life. So I looked for connections on the fly.

On the last day of August, I wrote, “Let’s see where we can drag our hopes now. Drove to Valley Forge cause 1) I refused to beat it and 2) the sun was out and it was still cool 3) my energy level was high and strong 4) had the feeling or desperation that I’d meet somebody. There she was in green, by George. Pulled the car in, jumped up the hill and stood there, “Looking for a friend?” Her dog ran to me. Medium talk. Too lazy, it’s too nice to run right now. She’s a nurse. Neat legs. Thighs not flabby. Rides horses. Your time is now. Walk in the woods, She’s a people girl, not a nature girl. No mention of guy friends. No pressure. Me neither. “You going jogging now?” Yes. Phone number is ###-####. Karen is her name. I’might be being silly. Big fat zero?”

I can’t say that I am exactly proud of my vicissitudes in that era. On the other hand, I was showing courage in not letting circumstances out of my control grind me down. Running was the one thing carrying me through. Now I had to learn how to manage that much better. So I got on that train every day and made the whole work thing go the best I could. Then I came home and ran and painted and wrote my heart out. That’s all I really knew how to do.

Posted in 400 meter intervals, 400 workouts, addiction, Christopher Cudworth, college, competition, cycling, healthy aging, mental health, mental illness, nature, race pace, racing peak, riding, running, running shoes, sex | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

50 Years of Running: Moving stories

Posing for a picture at two years old.

The first time I moved from one state to another, I was five years old. The night before we left Seneca Falls, New York, I stayed at the home of my kindergarten teacher because the rest of my family was at other peoples’ homes. I found comfort in the company of that kindergarten teacher. She fed me dinner and gave me a big new illustrated book about submarines, then tucked me into bed with a pat on the head.

I pored through the submarine book and fell in love with the paintings. But in the morning, my family arrived to pick me up in the car and I hurriedly gathered all my clothes and ran downstairs to join my parents and brothers. The kindergarten teacher gave me a big hug as I walked out the door. An hour later, as we drove south toward Pennsylvania, I remembered that I’d left the submarine book behind at the teacher’s house. Sitting between my two brothers in the back seat, I let the tears flow in sadness about leaving the gift book behind.

Leaving Lancaster

Seven years later, after building friendships and a life through elementary and junior high school in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I looked forward to following my brothers into Lampeter-Strasburg High School. Then my father lost his job at RCA and our lives experienced a profound upheaval. For starters, he left us back in Pennsylvania while he moved to Illinois to start the new job at National Electronics. My mother was left to manage four boys on her own. To be real about it, my father was going through some major mid-life crisis at the time. He’d come home from the Navy in the mid-1940s and married the farm girl down the road right out of college. His love of sports was never sated, as he’d lived with two spinster aunts and a stern old uncle running a small farm in Upstate New York. His own father was treated for institutional-grade depression after losing his wife to cancer, a farm to the Depression, and another business to the same thing. So my dad dealt with all that going on in his head, and once he was removed from the bubble of forced existence, he may have engaged in a dalliance so far from home.

But once he’d found a house for us to live in, our family’s fate was cast. In March of 1970, my father came home to tell us we’d be moving to Illinois that summer. For some reason, whenever our lives changed like that, it was always in the month of March.

Going away party

Before we moved, the teachers at school and my friends at school held a big going away party for me. The kids in class bought me a watch and some other gifts. I was a bit overwhelmed by the attention.

The toughest part of all was saying goodbye to my best friend David, with whom I’d shared so much early life together. He was the best friend a kid could ever have. We were the closest of buddies and navigated through the earliest years of sports like baseball and basketball together. We helped each other learn about girls and built a trust that only kids in their early years understand. By the time we reached 7th grade, we were involved in the most popular group of kids in the school, gathering for parties in basements where Spin the Bottle games passed kisses around the room. We each had steady girlfriends, even giving them ninety-nine cent rings from Allen’s drugstore.

A junior high basement party in early 1970. My girlfriend Lisa Marx is leaning on the pole, and I’m next to her in my favorite sweater. I owned the same pair of plaid pants as the guy at left in the foreground. One of the kids I most admired is at direct center, a handsome, charming guy named Jeffrey Eissler. He could sing, which I envied. The party host Debbie is next to him in the pants with the stripes. One of the cutest girls in class, Kimberly Hess, is at back with the white turtleneck and chain. My friend David and his girlfriend Brenda Herr, is at far right. She later married Steve Ulmer, the guy seated with his right arm on his thigh.

On the morning our family was set to drive to Illinois, the Mayflower moving truck sat in our driveway like a giant green and yellow metaphor. That morning, I met David at his house that sat on the 17th fairway of the Meadia Heights Golf Club. We walked to the elevated tee above the drop hole on the north side of the course. Next to the giant apple tree in his front yard, it was one of our favorite places to sit and talk. It all felt strange, this loss we were facing. We both cried, and David lamented, “Why does everything I love have to leave?” His father had divorced his mother years before, but his mother and three sisters made a great family along with David’s younger brother, who was actually the product of her mother’s relationship with another man.

So David and I had forged a bond of friendship in the wake of our respective family dramas. Yet during the month in which I was scheduled to move, his seventh-grade girlfriend had broken off their relationship for another boy whom she would one day marry. So David was bummed about breakup on top of my departure. We talked through our pain and walked back to my house. We stood by the car for a minute or two, then hugged. I climbed into the backseat between my brothers and we drove away from 1725 Willow Street Pike. My oldest brother and I leaned together and sang the closing refrains from the Abbey Road album, “1234567…All good children Go to Heaven…”

At my going away party, my friends had given me both Beatles albums, Abbey Road and Let It Be, along with the 45RPM single Get Back. The lyrics of that song were not about some thirteen year-old-kid, but to me they were somewhat literal at the time…

Get back, get back
Get back to where you once belonged

We left Lancaster, Pennsylvania to live in Illinois. But for part of me, that place and time will forever be my home.

Transitions

Chris Cudworth circa 1969

My brothers and I were all desperately sad to leave our close friends in Pennsylvania, But big transitions were taking place for us on many fronts.

My brother Jim had just graduated from high school and was starting college back east at Millersville. That would mean he was on his own back east, and to his credit, he earned all the money he needed to go to college.

My brother Gary was just going into his senior year in high school. He’d have to start all over again at a new school 750 miles away. Worst of all, we’d discover that Kaneland offered neither a soccer nor baseball program, the sports in which he excelled. Gary would instead go out for cross country and track, but with little experience, he spent most of those seasons building fitness. Yet he did credibly well.

Sadly, the basketball coach already had his favorite players, and Gary never broke into the starting lineup. But one day he tripped on a stair-running drill, smashed his head on the floor, and cussed out the coach in real-time in a state of half-conscious fury. I always took pleasure in knowing that he’d been able to vent.

Moving up

In eighth-grade at Kaneland, I played hoops and ran track. I’d already learned back east that I had a talent for running. During a seventh-grade gym class, I ran more than two miles during a 12:00 time trial on the cinder track at LS high school. That day I came home to brag about my accomplishment and my brother punched me in the arm, calling me a liar. We were so competitive, the four of us, that punches often preceded acceptance, so I took the hit as a compliment.

That same brother had run a 4:40 mile as a freshman in high school. The year was 1966 or so. That’s still an impressive time for a freshman to this day, and my brother Jim could certainly have run a mile at some point in the low 4:00 range. Our neighborhood friend Marty Keane had gone on to run a 4:04 for Penn State. I’m pretty sure my brother Jim could have done something similar. He was both fast and strong, and was built tall and lean like the great miler Jim Ryan. But he ultimately bulked up and played fullback in soccer, forward in basketball, and was a fireballing left-handed pitcher in baseball. Granted, his control sometimes sucked, but no one is perfect.

My brothers were heroes to me, and I’d hoped to follow their legacy at LS back in Pennsylvania. But once we moved, I forged my own path out in Illinois, playing baseball American Legion baseball at the age of thirteen (the starting age was sixteen), becoming a starter in basketball in 8th grade, and making varsity in cross country as a freshman. By the time I was a sophomore, I led the cross country team in points, was a starter in basketball, and was even named class president. The only thing I recall doing correctly in that role was choosing the class ring.

Ten miles east

So I’d made a name for myself at Kaneland, but during the middle of my sophomore year, my father announced that we were moving yet again, this time ten miles east to another town. We moved in March and I commuted with Kaneland coaches kind enough to carry me to school every day.

But my classmates thought I was dumping them to go run for Trent Richards at St. Charles. He was a Kaneland grad himself, and had been my baseball coach in Elburn, so there were suspicions that he recruited me. Nothing of the sort ever happened. In fact, my dad moved us to St. Charles not for my benefit, but so that my brother Greg could play basketball for something other than the slow-down offense at Kaneland.

My father told me later in life that “I knew you were a social kid. I knew you’d get along.” He was right. I led the team in cross country and track, and made lifelong friends. We’re still the best of friends to this day.

Home is where your friends are

That was what made my move to Philly so tough to consider. It was two of those close cross country and track friends from St. Charles that I was leaving. And just like the time I left Pennsylvania in seventh grade, my friends pulled a going-away party together in mid-summer of 1982. We gathered at the house of a friend. The party was attended by my close co-workers and my running buddies, along with two of my brothers. We drank beers and it all felt so weird and strange to be leaving the life I’d built on my own in Illinois.

My two work friends Crystal and Susan at the going away party in 1982

Worst of all, my girlfriend Linda Mues was bumming fiercely. We’d grown close over the summer and it felt like the real thing this time. Rather than “love at first sight” like the girl I’d dated in college, Linda and I grew together like the pull of a zipper, sealing our lives together gradually. Leaving her felt like unzipping that zipper in a rush.

During the middle of July I wrote, “Typical week, but mostly on the road in Philly. Ran all mileage in Tigers. Outer legs sore down below.” Then I followed up with a sad note. “They had a going away party. I ached like they thought I would.” On July 10, I ran eight miles with Linda biking along, and wrote: “Lots of beer last night. Crystal says she will be getting hitched on May 28.” So I learned that my “work love” was moving along in life as well.

I kept on running through all the change, recording four miles of speedwork on July 12 “220s in 30-31. 8 X 200. Curve to straight.” Running was the one constant that kept me sane through all that change.

At the Paoli apartment during the first weeks in Pennsylvania. Again.

Then my journal goes silent. I’d written on the last page available. My life was literally starting a new chapter. I’d begun that journal as a sophomore in college. It held all my running and personal secrets and loves and losses on its pages. I’d converted an unused lab book from Field Biology for that purpose. It even had a drawing of a wood duck on the cover. That tough little book was a faithful companion. It also obviously served as a form of personal therapy through probably 10,000 miles of running and a series of relationships during those 5-6 years.

Now my life was starting anew, again. I’d only moved back to Illinois from Decorah after the year in college Admissions the year before. August arrived and I packed up what I could and the moving van sucked up the rest, all my furniture and books and stereo and a bed that still rested on the floor. I was left with a carload of essentials with which I drove East. The trip back east was like going back in time. I stayed with my brother in Lancaster one night, then made the hilly trip over to Paoli to see what life in Pennsylvania would offer me again. My rental apartment was on the third floor of a big house near the train station. I’d be train commuting on the Main Line into Philly.

Solo adventure

On the day that I moved into the Paoli apartment, none of my furniture had arrived. The moving truck was running a day or two late. I carried my clothes and personal belongings up the flights of stairs and when I was finished, flopped down on the carpeted floor with a blanket on the floor and my pillow for my head. I curled up in the fetal position and bawled my eyes out. It was early August. I was all alone.

Once the furniture arrived, I pushed things around and tried to make a home out of the situation. A week later, Linda. We were both tan and happy to be together again. It was a struggle when she had to leave. I was missing her already. It left me wondering why the fuck companies had to yank people around like pawns? What about a job could be so important that moving 750 miles east was necessary? I’d been doing just fine at work with the occasional plane commute out to Philadelphia. Someone got the big idea that “consolidating” the marketing department was the best thing to do. Well, we’d see how that worked out. I was in pain over the move, but determined to make the best of it.

Linda during her August visit to my Paoli, Pennsylvania apartment.

After Linda flew back to Chicago, I opened my running journal to find a note inside. It read:

Chris–

–Hope you find this some day when you really need it~

Do you know how much I love you? Well…I love you enough to let you be who you are and who you want to be. I love you enough to realize when you need to do things on your own—and when we should do them together. I love you more and more everyday. I love you enough to put faith and trust in you. Even though you’re so far away, you are always close in my thoughts. I love you enough to make love to you. You are most special to me! I love you enough to know that I need you and your hugs. I know that my love for you will always grow. I love you enough to know that I will always love you.

Love (appropriately)

Linda

Of course that note meant the world to me. But now I had to figure out how to make the whole Philly thing work. It would be running that came to the rescue again.

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50 Years of Running: I got the news

Broadway Duchess…darling if you only knew…Half as much as, everybody thinks you do

“I Got the News,” by Steely Dan, from the album Aja

Photo by H Matthew Howarth

During my nightly runs in the City of Geneva where I lived, I’d often glance at the eastern sky where the orange glow of sodium vapor lights rose from the streets of Chicago and bounced off the low clouds. Driving home from a date with one of the women I met that year, I mentioned the appearance of that light pollution to her. “Look,” I pointed out the window. “The lights of Chicago turn the sky orange.”

She stared out the window for a moment and said. “No way,” she told me. “That can’t happen.” No matter how I explained the phenomena of light pollution, she could not believe that the glow from streetlights could reach all the way to the clouds.

She reminded me of a woman I met in college. I was walking back to the dorms along with my RA and his beautifully doe-eyed girlfriend Lois. She was pretty beyond belief, and I often wished that she was my girlfriend, not his. But that evening she looked up at the sky and asked, “What are those?” My friend Steve turned his head to follow her gaze and said, “What, those clouds?”

“There’s clouds at night?” she asked, incredulously. I nearly burst out laughing, but Steve gave me a sharp glance before kindly informing her, “Yes, Lois. There are clouds at night.

Fear of looking dumb

Up to that point in life––as a freshman in college––I’d always thought that most women were smarter than me. I thought they somehow knew things that I didn’t know. In many ways, that was pretty true. In other ways, my attitude was a form of self-protection. I feared looking dumb in front of women. And yet, it gradually became evident to me that there were women who were just as stupid as my male friends, and me.

For example, during a 20-mile run in college, one of the top women runners on our squad stopped to go to the bathroom in a roadside ditch and wiped her private parts with poison ivy. The infection spread across her entire body from the inside out. She was covered in rashes so intense she had to run with bandages covering her arms. To her credit, she still trained well enough to finish third in the Chicago Marathon.

Another female teammate in college ran great during her freshman year. Then she decided to go vegetarian without knowing what she was really doing. From then on, she could not sustain the performance levels she’d attained before. Neither of those women was dumb, per se. But they had done dumb or stupid things.

Smarter than me

That perspective only made me appreciate my new love interest Linda even more. She was an intelligent, often insightful person. The more we hung out together, the more our conversations became rich and rewarding. We’d become an item.

She also supported my interests in every way, even coming to watch me race in the Elgin 10-mile held on Memorial Day. The weather was muggy, and the race was hilly, but I completed the race in 54:57 for a tenth-place finish.

I also did a stupid thing the night before the race. Hungry and out of time toward evening, we pulled into a Long John Silvers restaurant for dinner. I had a fish sandwich in mind, which was healthy. But the fried fish I wound up eating left me feeling thick in the gut that next morning. That hurt my racing effort, and my digestive system was actually messed up for days. I spare you those details even though I wrote about them in my journal. Some of that was the fish. But some of it was also due to a new vitamins regimen I’d adopted to help me stay healthy. I’d gotten so many colds that winter and spring that I’d come to believe I was lacking enough vitamins to stay healthy.

Golden Leg Syndrome

I was also super protective of the energy in my legs before races. Linda teased me a bit about my race preparations in general. I didn’t like to go out to parties or stand around at some social occasion the night before a race. It made my legs feel tired. She branded that “Golden Leg Syndrome.” That ability to make light of precious instincts was something that I grew to love about her. She always had a way of giving snarky, funny names to things like that. They were kind jabs to remind me not to be so self-centered.

But it was hard knowing where to draw the lines. As a man in his early twenties, I was trying to figure out what the whole racing thing still even meant to me, and wrote in my journal: “Bill Rodgers’ favorite psyche-up song, “Into the Mystic,” on the radio. An omen? Why does this racing (nice sax!) have so much significance? Am I also pulling up carrots? To see if they’re growing? I trained tonight. Don’t know how much to push myself. I raced back when (my friend) didn’t. He’s as fast but not as obsessed. Smarter but no more intuitive.”

Part of me was imitating a fictional character in the John Irving book The Hotel New Hampshire, whose wrestling coach once told him, “You’ve got to get obsessed, and stay obsessed.”

Racing days are here again

I piled Linda into the car with me to travel to a race the following weekend in Decorah. We drove up together and camped. That was one of our favorite things to do. But we’d left so late that afternoon that we had to set up our tent in the dark. We finally climbed into our sleeping bags around midnight.

As a result, I only got six hours of sleep, and my performance tailed off as the race went on: 5:00-10:03-15:30-20:46-26:08-31:45. I finished the 10K in 33:00 flat. It was also a progressively hilly course, and the wind hit us hard out in the open spaces. Overall, I saw the race as a positive effort. “Sometimes you’ll have to forgive yourself for losing that drive,” I observed in the journal. “It just means yer too tired. The wind was a-blowin’. Tough mile weather.”

May of ’82 had offered a bit more sanity than usual. I’d gotten out birding a number of times, and on May 8 I was joined by a small team of friends to record 94 species in a single day. Our goal was finding 100 species, and we even happened upon a rare set of unexpected yellow-headed blackbirds at a marsh on Fabyan Parkway. But the day grew warm quickly, and the winds picked up. As a result, we didn’t find some common species. “Missed hairy woodpecker! Red Tail! Kestrel! Marsh hawk! Grebe! Virginia rail! Ah well, good birding with warblers.”

A pine warbler. Photo by Christopher Cudworth

News from above

Then on May 26, I received a visit to my office at Van Kampen Merrit. The big boss himself, Robert Van Kampen, stepped in to have a talk. “I have some news,” he told me. “We’re thinking of moving you out to Philly,” he said. “That’s where the rest of the marketing team works. We think it would be best if you joined them.”

Though I’d been working just over a year in the job, I’d already visited the Philly office several times. The first time out I was so nervous and distracted that I actually got on the wrong plane and wound up going to Washington, D.C. rather than the scheduled Philly flight. As we made the approach to DC, the pilot came on to announce our arrival in Washington, and I panicked. Turning to the flight attendant, I cried out, “I’m supposed to be flying to Philly!” They quickly arranged for me to catch the next flight, but I had to call and let the office know I’d be delayed a bit.

Heart dump

Informing Linda that I might be transferred to Philly did not go over well. We’d definitely solidified our relationship by that time, despite my occasional dalliances. So she was immediately depressed by the prospect of my departure. I was faced with a tough decision. Stay in Illinois and risk losing my job, or go to Philly and see how it all works out?

I was trying to be positive and wrote in the journal: “Is this another fresh start?” There were mixed feelings, and I went back and forth about it. “How many times do you have to tell yourself? Quit acting like you’ve already left. Quit assuming those Easterners are going to gobble you up. Quit looking at the Midwest clouds like they’re a vanquished girlfriend. Nothing’s for certain, and when it is you’ll be ready. Until then, enjoy life, run hard, race well, paint as if your life depended on it. Last night’s run a silent one on a sunlit misty road on Johnson’s Mound. Tonight the thunderheads rose high and mighty.”

I played a weekly round of golf with fellow Van Kampen employees. “Shot a 43 after 7-5-7, then 4-4-5-4-4-3. Birdied nine, just relaxed and hit on. Lot’s of cussin’. Employees aren’t happy. Lots of talk about Philly. I hope it’s half as good as I’ve made it in my mind. Who knows?”

Broadway Duchess on the line

Adding to my mental algorithms was a phone call from my recently married college ex-girlfriend. She’d written several times in the previous months, and I’d sent short notes back. She clearly had some things to settle with me, perhaps centered around why I had seemed to give up so easily on keeping her. But this call came out of the blue, and we talked for a bit. After hanging up, I wrote in my journal: “I sure loved that girl. Still do, parts of her. She sounded good, even cute. I’m sure I sounded confident on the phone. She would have run my life though. She’s headstrong. So am I, but I give in to love. I gave in to what I thought her wishes were. I thought there was someone else. That someone else was me. Get some sleep. You’ve got to be strong tomorrow, and tomorrow.”

But in late June, I had decisions to make about the near future and whether to move to Philadelphia or not. A combined momentum of fear and motivation was carrying me forward. “Good day,” I wrote on June 22. “Got a contact for apartments in Philadelphia. Saw a freckled breast, got a hug (tho guilt–ridden) from Sue, a heart tug from Linda, and a schedule to visit.”

Racing from the heart

On June 26, I raced the first-ever Community Classic 10K in Geneva. I was determined to win and defend my home turf. The course started on Third Street, looped east on State over the Fox River, then jumped on an all-new bike path for a shot down an old railroad bed 2.5 miles south to Batavia. The bike path had just opened that week with fresh black asphalt and piles of half-graded gravel on both sides. There was a small gap of gravel where the path was not fully connected. I hopped over it, and that’s where I took the lead and raced off alone down to Batavia.

On the way back up the west side, the trail follows another railroad bed with a slight incline for a mile. Then the course veers left to Route 31 and makes a sharper climb to the top of a hill next to the Fabyan Villa. By then, I had built a minute lead and knew that I’d earned the win. I cruised in at 32:37. Years later, a coach from St. Charles measured the course and discovered it was a bit long. 200 meters long, to be exact.

But I was happy that day to have run a time in the mid 32:00 range and win by a good margin. At the finish line, I clapped my hands while wearing a HAWAII singlet that I’d purchased in Oahu the previous December. It felt good to win.

I got the news

But a new reality was kicking in. And, on July 3rd that following week, I committed to moving out east to the Philadelphia office. I talked about it with Linda, and we considered whether she should move out east with me. “Let’s see if this works out first,” I told her. Wise move, it would turn out.

I’d be moving that August, and noted: “Linda is bumming fast. Stares and hangs her head. I don’t know what to do. She’s followed my every request.”

Then I received yet another missive from the college ex-girlfriend arrived. I made another note in the journal: “She sent another letter. I still feel right in not marrying her.” And quoting the Elton John song “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” I wrote: ” ‘I remember those east-end nights…altar bound, hypnotized, sweet freedom whispered in my ear, you’re a butterfly, and butterflies are free to fly…fly away…high away…bye bye.”

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50 Years of Running: Head games

Photo by Christopher Cudworth

In March of 1982, I picked up training mileage as the weather slowly improved. February saw a series of thirty-mile weeks, but March jumped to the mid-forties and then the mid-fifties. Then disaster hit.

“Took ill at end of March,” I wrote. “Bad cold, well, not too bad. 5-day course. Then pushed all week, miles, tension stress. By Friday I knew I was in trouble. What followed was severe sinus headaches, (missing good running weather) a helluva case of pleurisy (visited the hospital) and wound up with a raw sore throat (whitish red spots.)All on the back of my throat. Penicillin for four days (no running) knocked that out. Health turned in the second/third week of April.”

That brief summary doesn’t describe all that took place during the siege. Rather, the headaches were so severe I was incapacitated. Migraines, really. The kind that make you nauseous and incapable of functioning. Whether caused by the cold or hormones, or whatever, they were beyond awful. Such as, “the top of my head feels like it is on fire” awful.

I wound up in the hospital in an odd way. My two older brothers were in town, so we snuck into Geneva High School through a loose back door that I’d learned about from other open gym players. That gave us access to the upper gym, so we were playing hoops when my left arm suddenly went numb. I’d never felt anything like it, so I stopped playing and sat on the sidelines. “You better get checked out,” one of them said.

But the doctor’s office wasn’t open, so I drove over to the Community Hospital building in Geneva and was put through a series of tests, including a chest x-ray. That showed a fluid buildup near my lungs, and the diagnosis was pleurisy.

See, I’d been taking strong doses of Tylenol with codeine to counteract the headaches. Something in that combination sort of collided with my lungs. As I kept on running, the problem got worse.

“You need to go home and get some rest,” the physician advised. So I drove home to the coach house and laid down for a few hours. Then my brothers showed up in late afternoon. “Hey dude,” they told me. “We’re going downtown to Mothers (a Chicago bar), You’re coming with us, right?”

Down to Mothers

Not wanting to disappoint my older brothers (I’ve always been eager to please) I got dressed and we drove into the city. My brother’s future wife was one of the women who joined us, along with her elegantly beautiful friend Marie. She was what sealed the deal for me. The bunch of us danced well into the night.

At least, that’s how I recall the evening. My brothers were always far ahead of me in terms of their knowledge of the world. About women. About life.

So I dragged along with them, but came home feeling ten times better. The alcohol seemed to help clear up my lungs. Or perhaps it was the dancing. At any rate, my March came in like a lamb and went out like a lion. My common had been put through the test those first few months of the year. Coming off the illness, I realized that takine care of myself really was necessary.

But once March was over, and I had some time to train without hacking up bits of lung, I was eager to race. In late April, I found a 5K to race on the track. My training by then included quite a bit of speedwork, with sets of mile repeats (“4:58-5:04-5:17 whooo”) and quarters (12 X 400 at 70-73). In any case, on April 30 I ran a 14:57 three-mile during a 15:29 5K.

“Good kick even! Cool, 65 degrees. NO WIND! NC College track. Legs not too sore. Linda and (my friend from work) watched.”

Work friends

That “friend from work” was a soul mate to me on many fronts. She and I first started talking when our company offices were downtown. Our friendship carried over after we both moved out to the suburbs. One cold January night, she and I were driving around after socializing and the tire on the borrowed Honda Civic we were driving went flat. We got out and tried to get the tire off, then realized that the bolts were rusted shut. It was six below zero outside, and the winds were horrific. Fortunately, a Good Samaritan saw us by the road and stopped to help. He used some sort of power tool to spin the nuts off the lugs that we could not move by hand. Otherwise she and I might well have frozen to death that night.

Frankly, I was a little in love with her, but I knew she was technically spoken for with a longtime boyfriend. So while she and her fellow college friends often partied at my coach house, and she even messed around a bit with one of my running buddies, I took a “hands off” approach myself. She looked on as my relationship with Linda grew, and approved. So we took a trip together to watch Linda play softball in Addison one night.

Fireside confessional

Self Portrait of Christopher Cudworth running.

We were also dealing with some strange goings-on at work. The entire company was invited to attend an outdoor fireside event at the home of the company president, Robert Van Kampen. I’d been to his home and property several times starting in late high school when he purchased some of my paintings. His house sat on a hill in the north part of West Chicago, and his property included a large field on which a herd of exotic deer and other animals roamed. The animals turned into a local attraction of sorts, and he seemed to like the attention. Apparently, it was all part of his belief in the concept of Noah’s Ark. His obsession with the Bible was deep and real, and everything about the man was ‘biblical’ in one way or another. .

But that kind of gave the rest of us the creeps.The night of the fireside gathering, my friends from Van Kampen and I warily walked on the property. We were greeted by a scene that had all the makings of a tent revival meeting. During the evening, Van Kampen invited people to step forward and give testimony to their faith. I remember one of my co-workers stepping forward. He was normally a reserved and rather uptight fellow, but he talked about his personal faith in terms that would surely be pleasing to the boss.

Those of us standing on the fringes sensed the pressure and felt like the testimony we’d just heard was calculated and fake. It all had a cult atmosphere, so we slipped away, climbed into our cars, and drove away. To be sure, it was made clear all along that attendance at the meeting was not mandatory. The internal audience at Van Kampen Merritt was already strong. There were a great number of associates whose Christian faith was an open-face sandwich. But the revival event felt like head games to those of us that did not come from a confessional tradition. Trouble was, we didn’t know if proclaiming our personal Christian faith was the only way to get ahead in the company.

Strong beliefs

For all of Van Kampen’s strong beliefs, I still really liked the guy. He was smart and talking with him was never boring. But I didn’t share same biblically literal worldview that he did. Bob was massively committed to promoting that worldview, and even formed his own churches a few times. On a bigger scale, he was apparently active in funding efforts to find Noah’s Ark. Or at least, some of his Christian associates across the country wished that would happen. Some of the nation’s top creationists were known to visit our offices. I know that because I engaged one of them in a lively discussion one afternoon while the guy was waiting to meet with Bob.

As the creationist dude made point after point about his beliefs; I listened carefully to hear him out. He contended, with great fervor, that the Book of Genesis was meant to be taken literally. He insisted that the earth was quite young, about six thousand years old by his calculations. And yes, all the animals we knew in the modern age were direct descendants of those gathered up by Noah and rescued from the flood.

Then I casually disassembled his contentions one by one, using what I’d learned in geology, field biology and yes, my religious upbringing–– to debunk his entire narrative. He grew flustered as I outlined the integrated way in which the theory of evolution and the emerging understanding of plate tectonics fit together to explain the age of the earth. I was in the middle of explaining how living things fill niches and adapt to environmental conditions around the world when Robert Van Kampen emerged to invite the creationist into his office. The man turned quickly away from me and slipped inside as Bob gave me a quick glance. He knew me well enough to figure out what transpired. I didn’t care. I was just being honest.

Once the creatonist and Bob were back inside his office, one of the professedly Christian women in the room chided me, “Don’t you know who that is?”

“Not exactly,” was my response. “And I don’t really care. Because I buried him.” Then I walked out of the room. Despite my relatively lowly status within the firm, I had no interest in playing head games to please anyone. I figured that if Robert Van Kampen could have his principles, I was entitled to mine as well.

There would be no Christian confessionals from any of my peer group at the company either. They were smart people with their own ideas. And while there was some reward, it would seem, for those who climbed on board the Van Kampen ark, the business grew so rapidly it was no longer possible to hold employees’ feet to the Christian fire. To his credit, Van Kampen grew the firm to the point where he sold it for $400M to Xerox, and was later sold to Invesco.

Sadly, Bob Van Kampen developed a disease in which his muscle tissues hardened, including his heart. That’s what took the man down. But not before he made a giant mark on the world around him, including a book titled The Sign in which he used his enormous bible knowledge to write a book about the prophetic end of the world and The Rapture.

I was deep into the music of Neil Young by that point in my life and particularly loved his live album Rust Never Sleeps. The lyrics described so much of what was going on in my life at the time.


It’s better to burn out…Than it is to rust

These are some of the head games we play without ourselves when we are young.

Posted in 400 meter intervals, 400 workouts, 5K, alcohol, evangelical Christianity, mental illness, running | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment