50 Years of Running: Competition’s Son, Part 5

A posed picture of my childhood best friend and I in our Local 285 baseball jackets before we got the patches to adorn them.

Not long after our family moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, my mother made connections with another mom whose son was the same age. That afternoon, she drove me to their house on Golf Road across the street from the Meadia Heights Country Club. As a shy child, I was a bit anxious about meeting new friends. But within minutes of meeting the other boy, I liked him. He had an interesting voice quality, for one thing. His curly hair was quite different from mine, and we had a similar energy levels.

While the two moms talked, they sent us out to play in the backyard. My new friend invited me to try out the golf clubs his father had given him. He picked up an iron, gave it a quick swing, and struck me flush on the side of the head. Down I went in a heap. The pain was profound. My thoughts swirled and I saw lights. My new friend ran inside to report the incident and the two moms came running out to check on me.

“It wasn’t on purpose,” I think he said. My mom propped me up and looked at the goose egg lump growing on my head. “Are you okay, Chrissie?” she asked.

She knew I was a tough little kid used to taking lumps from roughhousing with my brothers. They fetched some ice and we sat for a little while drinking lemonade. Then my mom drove me home.

That knock upside the head didn’t slow our friendship down one bit. Pretty soon we were visiting each other’s houses daily. I lived about a half-mile from his place. The journey required that I pass through the golf course, and I took to running down the side of the seldom-used driving range to cut through the parking lot of the clubhouse to reach his house.

He became the best friend a kid could ever want. We shared all those rites of passage common to young boys. But most of all, we played games and sports together every day. He was a coordinated kid like me, and after that initial golf club incident, we played baseball and wiffleball, football and soccer, basketball and more. We wandered the woods around our house and spent long summer days swimming in the pool and cold winter days sledding on the golf course hills. We became closer than brothers in many ways, sharing our thoughts and fears, hopes and wishes. We made lists of the girls we liked and even shared some grade school teachers together.

He was a largely confident child, especially with girls thanks to having three older sisters who demystified the opposite gender for him. Plus he was handsome from an early age, possessed of curly hair that girls seemed to like, and he dressed well. His mother made sure of that. By comparison, I was nervous around girls but did manage to become a popular kid thanks to my playground acumen in sports. My friend was great support and filled with good advice about how to ingratiate myself to girls. But one bit of advice was tough for me to take. “If you want them to like you,” he told me. “You have to let them win now and then.”

“No,” I responded. “I can’t do that.”

I had the coolest childhood friend imaginable.

Then one afternoon we were playing tag in the yard with his older sisters when one of them chased me down and pinned me to the ground with her knees on my shoulders. I tried to wriggle free but could not move. She was bigger than me and I feared that she might tickle me. Somewhere on the playground that year I’d learned a few bad words and before I knew what came out of my mouth I blurted, “Oh, fuck.”

She sat straight up with a shocked expression on her face. “Chris,” she told me. “That’s not cool.”

My friend came running over at that point because he’d heard what I said as well. “Yeah, you can’t say that around my sisters,” he confirmed. She climbed off me and walked away. The game of tag was over. I’d ruined the fun and felt ashamed. I’d also learned a lesson, that some breaches of etiquette really do matter.

Later that summer my friend came to me and announced that he’d made a big decision. He was going to live with his father in Florida for a while. Perhaps permanently. I knew that their family was the product of a divorce. I’d met his father once or twice. He was a stern man, keen on discipline. One time my friend got stuck high up in the apple tree we liked to climb. He was afraid to come back down, but his father walked out of the house and had zero sympathies for the situation. “You got up there,” he intoned. “You can get back down.” Overcoming both fears of his father and fear of heights, he did climb back down.

When my close friend moved away to Florida, I expanded my network and played with other kids. It wasn’t a horrible period because I made new friends, but I still did miss my closest buddy. A year later he moved back to Pennsylvania, and something about him was changed. He was more cynical, for one thing, and a bit manipulative in his behavior. I quickly learned to be cautious around him, but that part of him eventually mellowed out and we returned to something more like the guy I knew before. That was the first time I became aware of how much a parent could affect the demeanor of a child. It made me think about myself as well.

Local 285

The Local 285 team that won the Lancaster New Era Championship. I’m second in the second row and my friend is fourth. That team learned fundamentals and played disciplined, high-quality baseball. As skinny as I was, I threw hard thanks to competing with my older brothers.

That next year, we both went out for competitive baseball and made the lineup on the Local 285 team that won the Lancaster New Era championship. The coaches taught fundamentals and it was a real honor to be on the same team for which my brother had pitched a few years before. I pitched the team to a victory in the critical second round of the tournament, but when the team celebrated at the local ice cream store I heard one of my teammates complain that I’d purchased both a cone and a shake. “He didn’t do anything to earn that…” the kid blurted. That taught me how shortsighted and narrow some teammates can be.

Following that tournament, my friend and I both received red championship jackets in honor of the win. His jacket stayed clean and nifty for as long as I knew him. Mine grew a layer of grime on the worn-out sleeves because I wore that damned jacket everywhere I went. The fact of the matter is that between us, I was the less sophisticated and refined. My liberal nature took me into the woods and I got dirty. Such is life.

And then our family moved to Illinois. At twelve years old I was forced to leave the best friend I’d made in the world. We sat together above the drop hole on the golf course and he openly lamented, “Why does everything I love have to leave me?”

I think he was referring to his family’s divorce as well as a recent breakup with a seventh-grade girlfriend who dumped him for another guy. At that age, emotions long and short mix together with equal force. I couldn’t blame him for feeling miserable. I did too.

A few times after the move I returned to Lancaster on visits, but the reunions were always awkward. My poor self-esteem drove me to react with competitive instincts toward him. We bickered over who’d become the better athlete, and one time I chose to stay at the house of my former neighbor, now a model-grade attractive young woman, and that served as sort of an insult to my former close buddy.

Years later when we both had kids, our paths crossed again when he moved to Glen Ellyn, Illinois. All I wanted to do was share some fun memories, but he was disinterested in that. He’d left some other parts of his life behind from a previous marriage and had married another woman that he loved and wanted to move on in life. He was successful and I’m not sure that he viewed me in the same light.

Plus our politics and beliefs seemed to have diverged as well. The last contact we had together was through social media. I don’t hide what I think about social justice, morality and liberality. Pretty sure he thought I was an idiot. LOL. He soon disappeared into the mists of late middle age.

I’ll always wish him well. Our gritty little lives were mixed in earthy ways back then. I remember one cold spring afternoon when the late snows were melting in the ditches. We wore no gloves but spent some time making ice dams in the ditches. We looked up at each other and he observed, “Isn’t it weird? Our hands are cold but they feel hot inside.”

Our experiences are often that way, counterintuitive at times. The tarsnakes of life.

I did try one more time to make connections by returning to a 20-year reunion with classmates from that era. One of them walked up to me and asked, “You know, I never saw you much in high school. ” I laughed. “That’s because I moved.” Another fellow walked out from the corner of the room and approached me. “You know what I remember about you? Even though you were popular, you were nice to everyone, even the less popular kids like me.”

That encounter meant more to me than almost any other I’ve had.

The Apple Tree

I will treasure memories of my close friend and I sitting together on the outreaches of a thick limb on the apple tree on his front lawn. We’d climb out there and talk about what really mattered to us in this world. We shared our experiences in sports, our efforts at making time with girls, and trying to figure out how to compete in this world without making enemies. We struggled to manage social lives that from the earliest age felt like a maelstrom of sorts. It was the late 1960s. Social change was in the air. Even young boys were not immune to the influence of the music, the shifting social mores, and social justice movements all around.

We were six years old when John F. Kennedy was killed, followed by his brother Robert. And we understood the portent of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Something gravely amiss was going on in the world. It formed my liberal instincts from an early age. I don’t know what it meant long-term to my childhood friend. From all that I can ascertain, he became increasingly conservative as he aged. And that’s his choice. There’s a fair chance that had I stayed out East, we might have grown apart due to competition over worldviews.

Willing and unwilling competitors

To that end, I had to wrestle my friend in the 7th-grade tournament organized by our gym teacher Mr. Davis, who happened to be both a gymnastics and wrestling coach. He set up a tournament bracket and called us out of class to wrestle against each other. I’d worked my way through the opening rounds by pinning several classmates. Then it came time to wrestle my friend. We faced off and I beat him on points. His heart wasn’t truly in it, and neither was mine, but I still deeply wanted to win and made it happen. Then I went on to beat a much tougher opponent to win the overall title.

The only other time that my friend and I fought each other was on the playground. I was in that weird period of trying to prove to everyone that I was not a sissy. At that point, I was a bit of a fucked up kid, and I was challenging everyone and anyone who crossed me. One day I picked a fight with my best friend and while he put his fists up, he danced away from me mockingly and declared, “I don’t want to fight you!”

But I kept on picking fights, so he offered to serve as a referee for a fight I picked with another classmate. We met at the far end of the driving range at an appointed time. When my friend said “Go!” both of us combatants threw quick punches. I hit him flush in the nose and he hit me hard with a roundhouse hook to the temple. It hurt like hell, and we both quit immediately.

“There,” my friend pronounced. “That’s over!” Then we all three went to play basketball.

Competition drives us to do strange things in this life. Competition between friends is just as real as competition over anything else. Later in life, I counseled my own children, “Even your friends will try to control you at times. Friendship is a power struggle quite often.”

What we all need to learn from life is how to challenge competitive instincts positively. By the time I became a runner, that outlet was vital for my mental health on many fronts. But it was the competitiveness of that early friendship and the trust gained that defined so much of my life, and I have that best friend from childhood to thank for that. I wish him well, wherever he is.

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50 Years of Running: Competition’s Son, Part 4

Early life experiences contribute to the competitive person we become. This is me at far right about to take the lead in the conference cross country meet, 1974. I finished sixth behind the five guys right next to me. But not for lack of trying.

The hardest part in raising any child is achieving a balance between providing challenges that help them grow and providing the encouragement necessary to keep them trying. The positive effects of challenging a child come down to the manner in which challenges are introduced. Letting a child know they may not be an automatic winner is important because few kids succeed at anything the first try.

On the subject of raising children, it is fascinating to study a famous Bible from Ephesians 6: 4. The translations of this passage vary from version to version, so we’ll cite a few here.

New International Version
Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.

New Living Translation
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger by the way you treat them. Rather, bring them up with the discipline and instruction that comes from the Lord.

Amplified Bible
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger [do not exasperate them to the point of resentment with demands that are trivial or unreasonable or humiliating or abusive; nor by showing favoritism or indifference to any of them], but bring them up [tenderly, with lovingkindness] in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

We can see that subtleties in translation do make a difference. The simplest, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children…” cautions against pushing kids to the point of frustration through criticism or impatient pressure. That only makes a child want to quit or react in anger.

Pushy fathers and mothers

Driving a kid so hard that they grow angry or resentful is a famous tactic of fathers (and mothers) projecting their own fears and insecurities on their children. Parents whose self-esteem is dependent on the achievements of their children are notably insecure and prone to public remonstration of anyone that stands in the way of the success of their child. Those are the folks known for haranguing referees or umpires, for berating coaches, or conniving behind their backs. Meanwhile, their children either adopt the same entitled attitude or cower in shame as their parents make fools of themselves. Sometimes these relationships become co-dependent, with parent and child echoing their mutual frustration at how the world treats them.

None of these situations are healthy.

I’ve written about the fact that for long periods during his childhood development, my father had no role model for raising kids of his own. His father required legitimate treatment for depression brought on by life events far out of his control. So my dad was raised by an uncle and two aunts. They made the best of things given the death of my dad’s mother when he was just seven years old. My heart fills with compassion at the thought of him left with so little to cling to.

By the time he became a father, I still think he did a pretty good job with us. But there were definitely some aspects of our upbringing that mimicked that warning in Ephesians not to exasperate your children. My dad had a habit of challenging us in exasperating ways. He often meant well by asking us questions in the face of something we’d said, but mixed with the harsh criticism he sometimes dealt out, the dynamic drew anger from us as often as it drew healthy interaction.

Add in the physical stuff that got passed down the line from father to son to son to son to son and our family somewhat resembled that scene in Saturday Night Fever when people were smacking each other around the table.

Saturday Night Fever

The classic “slap in the head” dinner scene was not uncommon in the 1960s or beyond.

I got smacked a few times at the dinner table. One evening I spilled some milk by knocking over the glass in front of my plate. My dad reach over and grabbed the mustard, took his knife and dished some out, and slathered it across my forehead. “Pay attention to what you’re doing,” he instructed me.

Now, I agree that paying better attention at the dinner table was a reasonable demand. Spilling milk all over the place interrupted the meal, and who knows what other frustrations he’d endured during the day. Perhaps he’d “spilled the milk” in some way at work, and he was still upset at himself for that. The result is that he passed along that frustration to his child. Meanwhile, my brothers sat there smirking at the sight of yellow mustard on my face. I burned with resentment at all of that. After dinner, I went up and cried at the disturbing shame of it all, and vowed to get back at someone, somehow.

The Mink

In fact, my brothers called me The Mink because there was a fierce creature lurking just beneath the sheath of my skinny body. They’d provoke me to anger quite often just to see me react in fury and spit. One afternoon my brother hooked up his record player to the big guitar amp in his room and blasted the song “My Skinny Minnie” at 90 decibels to tease me. I pounded on his door in anger but he just laughed.

And so it went, round and round the family. My dad kept asking us to do chores and expected us to obey his orders, but my brothers often escaped to go fishing or run around with friends… and my dad’s resentment toward them grew in return.

The problem with the chores he prescribed is that many of them were interminable. After a year or two of living Lancaster, he took down all the shutters off our house and wanted my brothers to strip all the paint off them. There were dozens of those shutters as I recall, all clogged with thick black paint that had to be scraped off using a blow torch and a scraper knife. My dad wanted to repaint and re-hang them all, but the job wore on through the summer, and all through winter the shutters sat outside in the snow. The house itself was a charred mess from all the places where my dad scraped and burned paint off the wooden siding. We apparently could not afford to have someone do that work on the house or else my dad believed in doing it himself and reasoned that with the help of his sons he could get it done.

But we loved our sports and games and friends far more than scraping shutters in the summer heat. So my dad grew exasperated, and exasperated his sons in return. We didn’t respect his wishes, which in a biblical sense of honoring your parents was quite the insult.

Growing up

That said, we all did evolve a work ethic eventually. My eldest brother became self-supporting quite quickly during college after we moved from Lancaster to Illinois. My next oldest brother even helped support my mom and dad at one low point in their work lives. I became my father’s caregiver for fifteen years after he had a stroke. And my youngest brother is one of the most focused, hardest working guys I know on top of having been a Division 1 athlete in basketball.

But early in our lives, we struggled to abide by our father’s directives because of the way they were delivered. My failures in math particularly frustrated him. He had zero patience when my grades slumped into Ds during junior high. He took me out of basketball, the one area where I was really succeeding, and the embitterment between us was palpable. The same dynamic occurred whenever he want to cut off my hair. I liked it long per the style of the era, but it was thick and bushy and kind of ridiculous. Looking back, I can see his point. So it went, back and forth. None of it was helping my self-esteem.

Because I think about the Amplified Bible version of Ephesians 6: “do not exasperate them to the point of resentment with demands that are trivial or unreasonable or humiliating or abusive; nor by showing favoritism or indifference to any of them…”All I know is that my struggle with poor self-esteem lasted years and years. At least some of that came from those family circumstances. I even had young women that I liked tell me as much. “You just need to think better of yourself,” one of them told me. “Girls find that attractive.”

Knuckleballs

My father’s father, Harold Cudworth.

For all of the sidelong frustrations of family life, my father would indeed play catch with us out in the side yard, tossing baseballs back and forth with his boys until twilight and darkness forced us to quit. We all learned to throw the pitch called the knuckleball. When thrown correctly, a knuckleball swerves and flutters through the air. There is an art to throwing knucklers that involves neutralizing the spin on the baseball so that the seams catch the air. A good knuckler creates crazy wobbles and dips as it travels.

One evening my father tossed a knuckler that dropped straight down from eye height to the knees, nearly hitting my brother in the feet. We all erupted in roars of laughter at the sight of that pitch. That unpredictability was the joy for which we all lived. After throwing the pitch that defied physics so wonderfully, my father lightly swung his arms and raised a baseball glove on one hand to smile, “Now… that was a good one, wasn’t it?”

What a symbol for life itself.

We all compete for attention and love, for direction, truth, and inspiration. All that my father ever tried to teach us is that life isn’t easy, and his certainly wasn’t. Part of the reason he exasperated us at times was to teach us that sole, important principle. That life isn’t always going to be easy. I truly believe he had a purpose in that.

And he also taught us that the best we can do sometimes is throw good knuckleballs, and enjoy the ride.

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50 Years of Running: Competition’s Son, Part 3

My father Stewart Cudworth (far right) with from left, my Uncle Lou, his sisters Helen and Marion, and my grandfather Harold Cudworth in back during happier times following the Depression and post WWII.

The advent of DNA genealogy and its revelations make it practical these days to understand family history even to the point of health risks and almost pinpoint accuracy about ethnic origins. While those scientific tools are helpful, they never tell the full story.

That only comes from oral or written testimony by people that were actually there when things took place long ago. In our family’s case, the truth about my father’s upbringing and family circumstances only emerged when I was in my late 20s.

My dad was born in 1926. His father Harold Cudworth was a farmer in Cortland, New York. His wife Rena (my grandmother) was a Stewart by family name. Our ancestors were English with perhaps a bit of Scottish mixed in.

When my father was probably five years old, his mother contracted breast cancer. She underwent a double mastectomy to rid herself of the disease, but in the wake of recovery, she developed sepsis infection and died.

By then, the nation was in the early stages of the Depression. My grandfather Harold lost his farm, then lost his wife. The impact sank him into a horrific bout of emotional depression. Apparently, he’d also started a store in the wake of his farming life, and lost that venture to the bad economic times as well. It was all too much for one man to bear.

So severe was his emotional state that he required institutional treatment. Back then, one hardly knows what that all involved. Perhaps if I dug into the New York State medical records, the information could be retrieved. Was it shock therapy? In any case, he was unable to remain home to care for his four children; Marion, Helen, Stewart and Margaret. Apparently the kids were barely supervised during parts of this ill adventure. Then they were shipped to the homes of relatives. My father and his sisters landed with two aunts related to my grandmother, and their brother Leon. They lived on a small farm south of Bainbridge, New York next to the Susquehanna River. That farm sat 200 yards down the road from the farm where my mother lived. So my dad and mom were childhood sweethearts, of a sort. Their relationship had to pass through the Depression and World War II, but they ultimately made it and got married.

The Stewart Farm

Living on the Stewart farm was both difficult and a pleasure for my father. Leon was a reticent, soft-spoken man with a firm work ethic. My great aunts Helen and Shirley were loving in their way, and my father was raised for years under their guidance. One of those aunts was a hoarder of sorts, and a visit to the home meant walking through stacks of newspapers and magazines, old furniture and objects that would become prized as antiques one day. Once they all passed, robbers raided the home and stole away with everything inside, including an incredible arrowhead collection gathered from the land where they lived.

I do recall a fourth party living in the home, a man named Homer that was largely confined to the upstairs bedrooms where his occasional moans could be heard. He was gassed in the first World War. I know nothing else about him.

Eventually, my grandfather Harold emerged from treatment and returned to regular life. By the time I was five years old, he visited our family now and then. Like my father, he adored kids and loved engaging us in challenging little antics. He knew some “magic tricks” that he did with his hands. One involved using a match to transfer the black mark from one side of his hand to the other. I wanted to know how he did the trick, but he wouldn’t tell. He’d just chuckle.

He was a gruff man in some respects. I recall the moment when I winced in his arms due to a hangnail on my thumb. He said, “Let me see…” then to my horror, pulled out a large pocket knife and proceeded to slice off the hangnail as I stood stiff and scared within his strong arms.

I hardly dared ask more about my grandfather, and my mother never volunteered much information. Nor did I have a conversation with my father about his relationship with his father. On the day that my grandfather died in the early 1970s, my dad went out for a long walk and did not return for several hours. We didn’t talk about that either. The style back then was not to hold such discussions. I just told him that I was sorry that his father died.

It might have helped my dad to talk about that loss. Not long after that, he lost his job and got involved in a network marketing scheme in which he invested thousands of dollars and effectively lost it all. The hucksters that ran the scheme were rife with phony motivational language common to such “ventures,” and my dad bought it wholesale. I call it his “weird period.”

Compensatory behavior

It certainly might have helped my father to engage in some sort of discussion about the effects of depression on the human mind. Instead, he was left to figure all that out for himself. He also likely fought ADHD, as his grades in college as an electrical engineer were, I supposed, average at best. So were mine from grade school all the way through high school. By college, I’d figured out how to survive, but it was still a struggle at times. I finished with a 3.1 GPA and led the cross country team to a NCAA D3 second-place finish. So I enjoyed success, and hugged my father the day that we ran that meet, telling him that I loved him.

My father’s painting of a male moose, circa 1962.

He was a brilliant man in many ways, and in some respects, he even suppressed certain talents in favor of more practical pursuits. As far as I know, the sole example of his artistic talents remains in my possession. It is a watercolor and ink painting of a male moose. Why he chose the subject matter I do not know. He did have a strong association with nature and grew up hunting on the Upstate New York farm. Later in life when I took to painting birds, my father sold my work to friends and even framed it up to show in local restaurants. As a result, one of my paintings of downtown St. Charles, Illinois, hung in the Manor Pancake House for more than forty years. My father got me that commission.

His advice about producing artwork was a bit dismissive, but simple and smart. “Paint squirrels,” he told me. That was his way of telling me to paint the things that people liked. Familiar stuff. Things people would buy. For the most part, I followed that advice, and over my lifetime I’ve sold nearly 2,000 artworks. It’s never been my full profession, but it continues to this day.

My painting Peregrine and Prey, 2016.

My father was encouraging on the sports front too. He’s the one that guided me into running, insisting that I should not go out for football because it would destroy my body. He was surely right about that.

He loved all our sports careers, and to some degree, his desire for us to succeed probably drew from his own lack of opportunity growing up. He worked on the farm and his aunts and uncles weren’t all that keen on him spending time playing sports. At least, that’s how I understand the story.

So there was some sense of loss about his own sports career. This much I knew: he was fast afoot even into his late thirties when I challenged him to a footrace and he dusted me easily. He was also a famously dedicated and fairly talented golfer. The only thing I didn’t admire about his game was a tendency to engage in “woulda-coulda-shoulda” lamentations after some of his rounds.

Flipside

The flipside of those lamentations gained expression in his sometimes pressuring us boys to perform. The ironic product of that pressure is that we might tighten up, and he could see that. Then he’d whoop out with some loud directive like “Stay LOOOSE!” which of course had the opposite effect.

My father Stewart with my brother and I. That mantle behind us was painted by my father to resemble granite. Through many changes in that house at 1725 Willow Street Pike, I recently looked at interior photos to discover that the mantle remains the same.

In other words, he could be a bit exasperating in the conflicted ways that we were raised. We all knew how badly he wanted us to succeed. Yet we were also a stubborn bunch of boys who hated the idea of household chores and either tried to avoid––or refused to do them. That angered my father, whose upbringing involved tons of chores in place of the sports he might have loved to do. He had little patience or our excuses. On occasion, he’d react with rage at our reticence to obey him. We endured some harsh discipline and over time, considerable verbal abuse as well.

I believe that some of his inner rage came from his long-untreated anger over the loss of his mother at such a young age. While my father likely received sympathy from those around him, the stories I heard about he and his sisters being left to wander the streets after his father was institutionalized suggest a period of emotional trauma that few people can overcome on their own. Imagine losing your mother suddenly at age seven, and then being shipped off to live without your father as well. The trauma is massive.

That is why I don’t entirely blame my father for his conflicted nature. But on the day that he launched a disciplinary attack on my two brothers while I stood watching, the emotional impact on me was profound. I was traumatized, anxious, and afraid.

In that period, we all got spankings and my mother used either a brush or a “switch” that she kept on top of the refrigerator. It was common in the 1960s for parents to whup their kids as punishment for doing wrong.

But this day was different. I was frightened for my brothers, and as a sensitive kid, that fear sank into me in ways that produced anger all its own. Much of my later behavior passed through that portal of fear and rage. A week after my father administered that beating on my brothers, I broke down at school after seeing my best friend get hauled off and spanked on the playground by a teacher who didn’t like how he was behaving. My first-grade teacher pulled me aside right then, and in a thoughtful way asked why I was so upset. I tried to explain, but it appeared only situational to her. I understand that. How could she have known what I’d experienced at home? Such is the case for millions of kids to this day. Teachers are vital influences in our lives and do their best to help us.

What we’re all trying to figure out is how we go from being a sweet child to absorbing all these problems and flaws in our lives. I don’t think parents are automatically the ideal portal for gaining that understanding. It has to come from multiple influences. If anything, many parents hold their children back. So this idea that so many political and social conservatives advocate, that parents are always the best judge of what’s best for their children, is largely a lie.

Christopher Cudworth, age three.

It is also a fact that not all teachers are great. In fact, during that era of the 1960s when I was attending elementary school, the specter of physical punishment was all around us. At our schools in southeastern Pennsylvania, dominated in part by a religiously conservative ethos, the teachers made a practice of paddling kids on a regular basis.

On a rainy fall day when the entire school stayed inside for recess, I was playing a game of Stratego indoors, and I was winning when some dopey kid lurched into the desk knocking over all the player pieces. I was mad and told him so. He made a face at me so I shoved him. At that moment a strict old teacher named Mrs. Paloney was walking past the classroom. She saw me shove him and came marching in to grab me by the arm demanding an explanation. I told her that he ruined the game. She scowled and hauled me outside the classroom door. She told me to stand alone against the wall, then she marched into her own room to grab a wooden paddle. I recall her stretched back hair and wire-rimmed glasses. Then she hissed at me to drop my pants in the hallway. “You deserve a spanking,” she sputtered. After that, she administered a few hard whacks on my bare bottom with the wooden paddle. “Now pull up your pants,” she said.

And what did all that discipline prove? Nothing, except her unwillingness to listen.

Yet the humiliation and rage compounded in me. Between the conflicted nature of my father’s disciplinary style and the institutional injustice experienced at school, I lost trust in authority in many ways. My sense of fairness was contradicted by these circumstances. But I didn’t give in. I sought to defend justice as I saw it at every turn. A few weeks later, I got kicked out of Cub Scouts for calling out a kid who cheated at kickball.

Granted: I don’t think any of these events or circumstances were uncommon at the time or unique to my experience. All the kids around me endured them too. One poor kid named Richard in my sixth-grade group had eight or nine paddles broken over his ass in a single school year. He was defiant the entire time, and never cried until one male teacher berated him so badly the poor kid erupted in tears of rage, not sadness or fear. That kid grew into a man that later wound up committing crimes and served time in prison. We all did our best to deal with the weird and messed up way so many adults dealt with children. I have no romantic instincts about the “old days” of parents or teachers using corporal punishment. I think it’s stupid and wrong.

Fighting back

The fuel of childhood anger can contribute to adult endeavors if channeled into healthy pursuits. The urge to “win” is strong among those that feel they’ve been wronged in some way.

Looking back, I now realize why I started getting into playground fights in elementary school. Combined with the difficulties I had with some types of learning due to ADHD (not diagnosed until late in life) the daily struggles were real. One afternoon, exhausted from the teasing at home and the contrary punishments being dealt on several fronts, I burst into tears when someone running the classroom projector either purposely or accidentally pointed it at my eyes. The light was painful, and it should not have happened and even though the kid denied running the project insisted he did not do it on purpose, he still made a face at me to mock my concern.

The teacher had me put my head down on the desk. Then I overheard a girl that I really liked mutter under her breath, “He’s such a sissy.”

That’s when I started getting into playground fights. I set out to prove that I was not a sissy.

So these cycles of anger and frustration––along with the injustice and rage of it all… fuel who we become whether we like it or not. Much of this is about the competition in life. We compete for attention ––and lacking that in some way, we engage in compensatory behavior or redirected aggression. We compete for love, and if neglected or rejected in that category, we ruminate or circle back on our own constitution, engaging in self-blame, or fear. We compete for social survival, and if mocked we put up defenses that become the first face of who we are. These cycles pass through the lives of individuals and families––even whole generations. Cycles of rage and disenfranchisement even infect entire societies, and people go looking for someone to lead them through their personal conflict, and often choose wrongly. These cycles get passed on from parent to child until someone decides to break the cycle and take a different path.

That process takes self-knowledge and courage. Sometimes it also takes “digging in the dirt,” as Peter Gabriel once sang, to figure out how and where we got hurt.

The more I look, the more I find
As I close on in, I get so blind
I feel it in my head, I feel it in my toes
I feel it in my sex, that’s the place it goes

Because yes, these things sink into our souls. We often don’t even know how it works, or where the hurt goes. We indulge in pleasures to hide our pain. We eat our feelings or sex them out in some way. Some people simply never get around to any of that. As a result, they never forgive either themselves or those they perceive to have caused them pain. Others turn to religion or God for exoneration of these “sins.” In reality, they are not sins at all, but a product of the evolutionary realities of the human condition and natural competition, and what it relentlessly calls us to do. That is to survive.

It runs in the family (of all)

At the most basic level, it helps to know that conditions such as anxiety and depression, ADHD, or other mental health issues “run in the family.” In this competitive world, that type of knowledge is critical to adapt and thrive in the healthiest fashion possible. Otherwise, we’re left floundering with brains that don’t function the way other people expect they should. That’s a miserable path to trod as millions can attest.

Baseball was my way of striking bat in a healthy way. I became a winning pitcher due to my aggressive and focused nature. Here I was at age four learning to hit.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Mental health advocates are making progress in de-stigmatizing all sorts of emotional and intellectual conditions. Unfortunately, this is hard-won progress that conflicts with the real-time “pressure to succeed,” a euphemistic phrase if there ever was one.

That is what I’ve learned from all my running and athletics pursuits. It’s all about understanding pressure and processing it in a healthy way. I used self-pressure to test myself and ultimately learned that the best way to succeed was not to impose pressure at all, but to embrace what opportunities you can create, and accept the outcomes. I performed best when I learned to relax, which is what my father was trying to tell us all along with his phrase, “Stay loose!” That was just the wrong way to convey it.

These pursuits have also helped me learn how to survive in the face of deeply personal questions. Because while I was competing I was fighting instincts within myself that define self-esteem, and these needed broader attention than just the platform of athletics. Which is why I decided to step out of the competitive arena in my late 20s and grow in different ways.

But first I woke up one night pounding my pillow in some unknown source of rage. At that moment, the trauma of that beating I witnessed on my brothers flashed through my mind. It stood as a symbol of sorts, a type of PTSD that I’d never diagnosed until then. So I started getting counseling, but it took years of digging in the dirt to sort it all out and find a path to self-acceptance. A therapist finally nailed it when she said, “You seem to be good at forgiving others. How are you at forgiving yourself?”

Talk about a healing insight. I’m still far from perfect, but working toward full life acceptance.

So often it’s the case that ideas about our self-image either can’t be spoken or the answers just aren’t there yet. As a distance runner and later as a cyclist and triathlete, those miles help me answer these questions. They have also led to the recognition that the equally wounded people in my life were just as focused on surviving––in their way––as I was. We come to recognize at some point that our parents are not perfect people. Then its our job to work on our own imperfections, inherited or not.

That is the true path to forgiveness, self and otherwise. I absolutely accept that I am Competition’s Son. We’re all Competition’s children. Once you learn that a whole bunch of life becomes much easier to understand.

Posted in Christopher Cudworth, college, competition, cross country, Depression, evangelical Christianity, mental health, mental illness, sex | Leave a comment

50 Years of Running: Competition’s Son, Part 2

With my brothers in the early 1960s.

The town of Seneca Falls, New York, is well-known as the cinematic source for the town of Bedford Falls as depicted in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Even at the age of 60+ years old, I can well recall the main strip of the downtown just after crossing the metal bridge that passed over a dark canal. My memories include the rolling road we took from town out to our rented brick house at the intersection of Bayard Street and Route 89. The smaller road that turned downhill from our house connected to 116, a modest avenue passing by lake cottages. I’d sometimes wander down that street even at the tender age of four years old. We had a ton of freedom back then.

Up the highway sat Montezuma Marsh, a massive wildlife preserve at the northern tip of Cayuga Lake. All the Finger Lakes in Upstate New York were carved out by glaciers that left cat scratch rifts in the landscape. These days there are wineries all over those hills, a hallmark of the region. In the late 2000s, my late wife and I traveled with my daughter Emily to visit the area between her bouts of cancer treatment. The weather was too hot and the wines were too sweet for our taste, but it was beautiful just the same.

My early memories of living next to Cayuga Lake include warm summer days visiting a cottage at the bottom of the hill. It was owned by the people from whom we rented our house, and it had that creaky lake sound of water lapping at the dock and spider webs shifting in the breeze because no one used it that much. I don’t know how old I was when we were visiting one afternoon and my mother had forgotten to bring my swimsuit. “It’s okay, Chrissie,” she told me. “You can swim in your underwear.”

There were guests visiting the lake with us and I was not keen on stripping down to my underwear in front of everyone. Somehow I got up the courage because it was so hot outside, and stepped into the cool water with bare feet, wandering in until the water dipped under my little heinie and soaked my genitals. I stood there not daring to look up at anyone, eager to swim but fearful that people would see through my underwear when I climbed back out. It all felt like a bad dream one might have later in life. Only it was real.

I was already a sensitive, anxious child with a habit of biting my fingernails and massively prone to peeing my pants if tickled too hard. Yet I recall being happy quite a bit, especially in the company of my older brothers, whom I revered. They were interesting, funny, and athletic. They were all I wanted to be in life.

We played in the big front yard quite a bit, engaging in sports based on the season. Baseball dominated our summers. I learned to swing a bat and hit the ball early on. My throwing arm grew strong at a young age, and I yearned to impress my brothers.

Our father sometimes joined us in yard sports. He had a graceful throwing motion and was pretty darned fast on his feet. He was 37 years old when we moved from Seneca Falls in the spring of 1963. My mother had given birth to four boys by then. The last one came out large, kicking, and in breach position. That meant she needed time to heal and recover, so I spent a month or so at the farm run by my Uncle Kermit and Aunt Margaret in Bainbridge, New York.

I loved that farm as much as I loved our family. My Uncle Kermit was a strapping, tanned farmer with massive biceps and pectoral muscles that he could make dance in the summer sunlight. He loved to drive fast, and once plopped me on his lap as we sat on the tractor and went tearing down the flats next to the Susquehanna River with the manure spreader flinging shit all over the pasture. I glanced fearfully down at the tires spinning fast next to me but reasoned that my uncle knew what he was doing. Well, perhaps. He was kind of a wild dude.

My Aunt Margaret had a sweet, high voice and caring manner that made my stay away from home a joy. She fed me Rice Krispies in the morning and let me roam all around the farm. I’d spend mornings catching frogs in the watery tractor tire ditches next to the springs at the base of the Catskill mountain on which the farm sat. I’d pick up pieces of dark-gray shale and stare at the fossils embedded in stone. Up on the “hill,” as we called it, a stream ran down the ridge in small cascades over that slatey shale. Walking barefoot in that cool water felt like magic.

I also had some chores to do. One of those involved shoveling the cow shit from the floor into the manure trough as the cows came back in for milking. I loved that job. It felt good to use the wide scoop and push the cow pies into the trough. The barn had an automated belt that pushed the manure down to the end where it was gathered and pitched into the manure pile and spreader. My uncle hooked up the milking machines to all the cows and they sat there munching hay. He’d named each of them after former girlfriend because he didn’t really like cows all that much. To that end, I was sternly warned by my uncle that if the bull ever got out of its stall, I should run to the house as fast as I could. Talk about your malevolent characters. The bull stood in its stall with eyes that spoke of murder.

So I learned to respect and appreciate farm life, and how hard it was to make everything work well. My uncle ultimately got out of farming due to a bad back and was relieved to find work as an assessor, an occupation he enjoyed the rest of his life. And more power to him.

New York state chill

My younger brother and I during a fall visit to the New York State farm in the Catskills.

Back in Seneca Falls, when winter came around, the snows coming off Lake Erie and south from Lake Ontario buried Seneca Falls so deep that we made tunnels in the ditches. It fascinated me to be able to walk standing tall through those snowy passageways. But one day my brothers were so occupied with making longer ditches they sort of forgot about me. It was bitter cold outside and that chill soaked through my fat snowsuit. I started feeling weird inside and decided to make my way back home alone. Fortunately, all I had to do was follow the ditch tunnels back, but by the time I reached home and walked inside the house, I was delirious with what must have been hypothermia.

My mother recognized my condition immediately. She stripped off the cold, wet snowsuit and wrapped me in blankets. She made warm lemonade and rubbed my little legs with her warm hands. Then came the painful “chillblains” as the cold subsided from my muscles. I sipped that hot lemonade and welcomed her embrace as my senses came back to me.

Part of me has always been able to work through fatigue or cold, pain or fear, and that early experience taught me a few things about putting one foot in front of the other until you get where you need to go. Sometimes the most important competitions in life are within yourself.

A child’s mind can play cruel tricks at times. I remember walking home from a neighbor’s house over a big hill and large field. On the way, I developed a strange fear that a savage dinosaur might be tracking me. My ears burned with fear and I kept looking back to make sure I was not being caught. Perhaps I’d read too many books or had seen pictures of a T. Rex that freaked me out. In any case, I ran home the last few hundred yards just to be sure I’d make it. Yes, I had an overactive imagination.

Gunning down the Whistle Pig

But we were not imagining things the day that my father called us all inside the house and told us to gather upstairs. He’d grown tired of watching a groundhog dig holes beneath the barn on the property and decided to take the critter out. We stood by the upstairs window as he aimed his .22 rifle at the groundhog from what must have been thirty yards away and CRACK! went the rifle and the groundhog fell dead. I loved guns and carried my toy six-shooter or a water pistol around all the time. But that was the first time that I saw what guns can actually do.

I was quite impressed. Up to that point I’d never seen my father use a gun, and he never mentioned hunting as a kid, though he did plenty of it on the farm two hundred yards down from my mother’s place in Bainbridge. That’s right, they were childhood friends that made it through World War II to get married and have all of us boys.

But my father’s journey was far from placid. There was tragedy and loss in his early life. Then came family scrambling and many harsh challenges. His upbringing affected our lives in ways that we did not understand at the time. Over many years I’ve developed compassion and understanding for all that he went through, and how it affected him. For better and worse, those realities affected ours in many ways.

Posted in Christopher Cudworth, competition, Depression, fear, foregiveness, life and death, love, mental health, mental illness, running | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

50 Years of Running, Competition’s Son, Part 1

Christopher Cudworth at five years old.

Over many years of running with hundreds of teammates, I’ve learned many ‘origin tales’ about how people (both men and women) got into running. When I began this blog series on 50 Years of Running, the origin tale began with a freshman season in cross country at tiny Kaneland High School in the cornfields of Illinois. By then I was fourteen years old, a skinny, determined kid with a mix of anxiety and competitiveness at his core. I made the Varsity that first year of running. From there, the sport of running defined much of my teenage and young adult life.

No one arrives at such a journey as a blank slate. By the time I competed in high school cross country at the age of 14, I already had five years of high-quality baseball experience under my belt. Even before that, my world was defined by sports and especially by a combination of sibling rivalry and admiration. All that was mixed together with parental guidance that both shaped and warped my sense of being.

By the age of twenty-eight years old, I’d gotten married and started to taper down the training in anticipation of bringing our son into the world. Perhaps I could have gone on running and training hard into my early 30s, but by that time I also recognized that there were other parts of me that needed attention, and perhaps some fixing. Running was a good treatment for my native anxiety and depression, and even helped to some degree with my as-yet-undiagnosed ADHD (though I should have known) I sensed it was time to seek a better balance in life rather than continue pursuing the competitive running side of my personality.

As part of the journey of self-examination at that age, I thought back to the events that drove me to compete so hard for so many years. This is the record of events and experiences that turned me into Competition’s Son.

Time trials

I want you to picture a kid of just six years old, standing on one corner of a perfectly green lawn the size of a tennis court. That’s what our side lawn in Lancaster, Pennsylvania once was, and after we moved from Seneca Falls to that home, that side lawn was the focus of my world. So you can imagine me holding a sweep-second-hand watch in one hand, staring intently at the quietly advancing dial approaching the number 12. Then I took off running.

Before starting that time trial, I’d gone to each corner of the tennis court lawn and dug small holes in the grass with the heel of my sneakers. They were Red Ball Jets, perfectly white since they were new shoes, and I regretted getting the heels dirty when I dug those holes in the ground. Thus began a lifelong fascination with athletic shoes that I’ve never abandoned. My “Red Ball Jets” these days are far more sophisticated, but I still believe they make me go faster.

That childlike appreciation for fancy, fast-looking shoes never completely goes away.

I dug those heel marks in the grass at each corner because I wanted to be honest about my efforts. I already possessed a deep sense of fairness, a native instinct that would cost me in some ways over the years. But I felt it was important to set some standards by which to compete in that mini track meet in our Pennsylvania yard. “If you can’t play by the rules,” I reasoned, “Why play at all?”

The grass was slightly slick that morning due to the morning dew, and when I started running on the first end of the lawn and made a hard left turn, my feet slipped. I don’t know why I chose to run counter-clockwise, which is the direction in which all the world’s track competitions are held, but that’s what I did. Lord knows there were be many laps to come while running in that direction.

I ran the longer length of the lawn and had to slow a bit to make the sharp left turn on the west end. As I wheeled around that corner and covered the far end, I had to first dodge a cherry tree and then cut around a holly tree with its sharp green leaves. I knew better than to crash into that thing.

The third turn was complete and I charged past the pear tree on the south side of the lawn and went sprinting home with the watch clutched in my hand. I glanced down as the second hand swept to its next number and I recall a sense of satisfaction in the effort.

Then I stood there panting, glancing again at the watch and wishing I could somehow make it stop so that I could check the next run against the first with utmost accuracy. It took several minutes to catch my breath and I lined up to run the perimeter again. And again. Somehow my young mind figured that I’d get faster each time. That’s not how it worked out. My second run was faster, but after that, my legs grew tired and my times faded by a second or two. That was my first lesson in the act of building fatigue and lactic acid in my legs.

My white tee shirt was soaked with sweat by then. Pennsylvania summer mornings are typically hot and humid. I stopped to pick up the hose end and get a drink. Reaching down to twist the handle, I got a shock and jumped back with a yelp. I’d forgotten that the hose knob conducted electricity if my hands were wet. I stood there angry at my stupidity and looked around to see if any of my family saw my reaction. If they had, I stood for some serious teasing.

I shook my hand and stuffed the watch back in my pocket. Heading back inside, I took a long drink from the kitchen sink and returned the watch to my father’s bedstand. It was a good session, I decided. It sure felt good to run, even if my Red Ball Jets were now grass-stained on all sides.

Posted in adhd, anxiety, Christopher Cudworth, competition, Depression, race pace, running shoes, track and field, training | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

50 Years of Running: Adventures in Race Direction

Being in charge of the Finish Line is indeed a big responsibility.

Working for the Boy Scouts of America in 1985, I inherited leadership of the annual Friends of Scouting 10K. Like most races in that era, the event drew between 200-300 people who paid an entry fee of $20-$30 for the honor of running six miles. Before working for the Scouts, I’d competed in the event and didn’t do all that well. When I joined the Scouts, I raced during the month in which I was about to get married, and didn’t have the concentration or consistent training to win the damned thing. I took second that day, and the Scouting bigwigs weren’t impressed that I’d somehow failed to show the Council Colors.

So the assignment to run the 1986 Friends of Scouting 10K was for me, at best, an equivocally acceptable assignment. Going into the race, I was instructed to collaborate with a great volunteer who actually organized a 10k in Geneva that I’d won two times previously. His name was Chuck, and I should have let him run the whole show, but I was a determined young man eager to prove that I could do things even better than they’d been done before, so I launched into the act of race direction a little too aggressively for my own good.

Part of that non-experience came from working at events organized by my former coach and erstwhile business partner, Trent Richards. A few of his former athletes worked for pocket money and free goodies at some of Trent’s races. So we knew a bit about what it took to put on a running event. But not really. Trent ran most everything by the seat of his pants, and thus what I knew about race direction was at best secondhand, and far from detailed.

I knew that I wanted to change the event from what it had been for several years, a humdrum run usually held in mid-summer heat, but occasionally conducted in fall as well. But Chuck wasn’t available on some of the dates that we discussed, and as race plans began to develop, he kind of backed away. Perhaps I was too forceful in my objectives. I was known to be that way in my 20s, so I likely caused the key volunteer to dump his involvement.

That left me holding the bag, so to speak. My first goal was to get approval from the City of St. Charles to host the race in its downtown on a Saturday morning. The plan was to start the course on the east side of the Fox River, cross over the Fox River walking bridge, do a loop or two around Mt. St. Mary Park, and finish back on the west side.

I showed up to the City Council meeting only to be greeted by Mayor Fred Norris, who I’d met many times through my high school and college years. He was a kind and genuous man. But he turned to me and said, “You’re not going to get this race site approved, you know.”

Steering people to your point of view can be like guiding oil on water.

That stoked the competitor in me. I got up in front of City Council and gave the best damned speech I could while wearing my adult Boy Scout uniform. The Council approved the concept of my race because I pulled at heartstrings with appeals for fundraising goals, and following the meeting Fred came up to me and said, “I knew you could do it!”

I was so shocked at his behavior I said nothing. But his “yay and nay” approach was typical, I would learn, of some many conservative political types that I’d meet over the years.

Wanting to create something different for runners, I pre-ordered polo shirts as age-group prizes. I also reached out to a company called Flagsource to ask for a donation of two American flags as top awards for the race winners. So the finish awards were a blend of red, white, and blue. Pure Americana.

On race morning I arrived to set up the finish line with a group of volunteers and noticed that a massive art show was set up on the northern part of the course across the river. I walked across the bridge and realized we now had a massive problem. The city had miscalculated where the art show would reach and booths were set up along the path where the race was scheduled to proceed.

I wandered the path looking for the art show organizer. When I found her and explained the situation about to occur, she immediately went into a manic rant. She was a woman possessed of a prodigious figure and a ruddy complexion that turned even redder when she started screaming at me.

She was inconsolable, so I decided the best approach was to go on the offensive. “Well, I told her,”I’ve asked nicely, and we’re both in a jam. So I’d advise you to have people move everything off the path and we’ll come through their quick and fast, and everything will be over in a hurry.”

That’s exactly what happened. Sure, it was chaotic. But I think some of the runners even saw the additional complexity as a challenge. A friend won the race and collected one of the flags, if I recall. The rest of the awards were well-received, and the race did make some money after all.

Sometimes we take on projects that are much bigger than we supposed. However, a bit of determination to get to the ideal tipping point for success.

But I swore never to take on the responsibility of race direction again. And true to that promise, I’ve not done that. I realized that day and in all the days leading up to that event that I was much happier as a runner than as a race director. That said, I’ve volunteered and worked many events since then, including water and food booths at Ironman races, and putting together fun runs in collaboration with non-profits. It is gratifying to help out when you can, and I highly encourage everyone to give back to the sports they love. I make it a habit to thank race directors and the volunteers, and especially the police and EMT personnel on hand to provide support and safety. I’ve seen the benefit of having those folks available when athletes get into trouble.

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50 Years of Running: Newlyweds and beyond

In the summer of 1985, my wife and I drove to Glacier National Park in Montana for our honeymoon. The drive across Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Montana took a few days. We stopped at the Badlands to stay a night and had to set up our tent in a fierce western wind. I burned a hole in the picnic table making dinner. Some camper was I.

Those are Boy Scout socks. You can see how frightfully lean I was in those days.

But when we pulled into the park all those miles melted away. We were alone together as man and wife.

Cooking dinner at our Glacier Park campsite. Those are my Alberto Salazar Nike Racing shorts and the NYRRC long-sleeved tee my downtown girlfriend had given me the previous year. Life moves on.

We pitched the Eddie Bauer tent we’d been given for our wedding at the Rising Sun campground. There were rumors of grizzlies wandering the park, of course. Grizzlies and Glacier go together. But it wasn’t until we hiked high into the Otokomi section of the park that I really worried about bears. The further we hiked into the wilderness, the wilder the scenery got. On the way up the trail my wife turned to me and said, “I’m not sure I brought enough supplies.”

“Wait, what? Supplies…” I asked her.

“I’m getting my period,” she told me. “I’m not sure I brought enough tampons.”

“This is not good,” I told her. “I’ve read that bears can smell that kind of thing. And we’re definitely in bear country.”

“Well, I think I’m okay,” she told me. So we kept hiking. And hiking.

Wearing my Running Unlimited racing singlet while carrying our pack up the mountain.

It was several miles up to the campsites set in a big glacial rock bowl with half-dead trees sticking up against the twilight sky. We set up our tent and quickly cooked a meal, careful to put our dishes and extra food in a backpack that we hung sixteen feet up on a metal pole. So the bears wouldn’t smell it.

But there I lay in a nylon death trap with a menstruating wife. It wasn’t the most restful night of my life. I thought about what to do if a bear did approach. Mostly I thought it would be best to lie perfectly still and hope that a set of giant teeth did not penetrate our skulls, or that a paw the size of a dinner plate with claws the size of dinner forks did not rip the flesh from my skinny bones. But I vowed to lie on top of her to protect her if a bear did come along.

Here’s a famous pic of a truly frightening grizzly bear paw.

Because yes, I was still skinny as heck from all the running I’d done thus far in life. The next morning we happily hiked out of Otokomi and later that day, while perusing the book rack at Rising Sun, I spotted a book titled The Maulings of Otokomi. I held it up to show Linda, and she just laughed. “Well, at least it wasn’t us,” she responded.

Glacier was gorgeous. It was a wonderful honeymoon that wrapped up with a trip to Waterton-Glacier Park where we stayed in a beautiful hotel overlooking a pristine alpine lake. We posed for pictures on our last day of our honeymoon and I still desperately wished she had not had her period that week, because I like sex, and we didn’t have any. On our way back home, we stopped in Minnesota to visit some of my college buddies. We went for a run together.

Luther College teammates Dani Fjelstad, Paul Mullen and Chris Cudworth

Back home I set back at the Boy Scout job and dreaded November when I was scheduled to attend the National Executives Institute training in Irving, Texas. The training last three weeks, which I found absurd. But it spoke to the mindset of the Boy Scouts that they thought they owned you.

Fortunately I found a friend in Irving named Tom. He was a runner from Greenville, South Carolina and a good Southerner in every possible way. His stories were long and interesting, including one tale about grabbing a ride across town on a northbound train that only sped up as it crossed the city center. They were stuck in a boxcar as it rolled north through the Carolinas into Virginia and all the way up to New York City. Between them, they had about fifty cents in their pockets, money used to call his father back home in Greenville to come pick them up. The way Tom told the story in his casual fashion had me laughing so hard that I nearly lost my senses.

Every morning Tom and I would go run six to ten miles before breakfast. We both despised the long classroom hours and the dull subject matter. To break the monotony, we also bashed around after dinner. One night we snuck into the Texas Rangers stadium and ran around the bases. On one of our last nights in training, he got me so damn drunk that I let him push me down the hall in a stolen laundry cart. We crashed into the far wall and woke half the floor, then scurried back to our rooms. I was so hungover and sick the next morning that my main goal was not puking on the floor during class. They kept strict attendance so we couldn’t skip class, but I stole a half-hour nap during break and made it through the day.

We climbed over the front gate behind the Texas flag and ran around the ballpark.

I think I talked to Linda two or three times the whole three weeks. The entire enterprise of forcing people to spend all that time away from home was ludicrous to me. The flight home was bittersweet because it also meant going back to that job I hated.

But I did the best job I could nevertheless. I made my numbers in both membership and finances. Not by much, but I made them. Come fall the next year, we welcomed my son Evan into the world on October 30, 1986. I was up all night helping Linda through contractions every three minutes, for she was in difficulty and pain in delivering her first child. She stayed in the hospital that day and I made a swing by the Boy Scout offices to hand out some bubble gum cigars and tell everyone I had a baby boy. The Field Director said, “That’s nice. You’re coming in later then?”

But not to support a young father after the birth of his first son.

I stared at him. “I was up all night,” I told him.

“You look good. You can come in tomorrow then.”

Here was an organization that claimed to value and support youth, especially boys, telling a new father that there would be no time to spend at home with his wife after the birth of a child. Before that incident, I questioned the real values of the people that ran that council. After that incident, I knew that it was high time to leave.

Little did I know that there were conspiratorial plans to force me out of the job. A few weeks before my child was born, I’d presided over a weekend Camporall that ran from Friday night through Sunday evening. I worried all weekend about Linda but wasn’t allowed to leave the event at all. When Sunday night came along, I raced home to be with her, figuring I could deposit the receipts for the event the next morning when I came to the office.

I turned in the money and receipts right off the bat that morning. But a few days later I was called into the field director’s office to answer questions about why I didn’t drop off the money on Sunday night. “My wife is pregnant. I was away all weekend,” I told him.

“Well, some people wonder if all the money was turned in,” he said, implying that I’d stolen some.

“I turned in all the money,” I said flatly. “You know I did.”

“One of the volunteers wrote us a note about it,” he said, handing it over to me. I looked at the name on the paper and recognized him as a stalwart Scout leader. But I’d done him some solids over time and believed we’d built a relationship. Apparently not. He’d composed some formal-sounding note about the fact that he was not sure I could be trusted because he’d seen that there were ghost units in the district.

Tiger Cubs, Cub Scouts, Webelos and Boy Scout uniforms.

The Council had put the guy up to lying about me. They wanted me gone for one reason or another. A series of events ran through my mind. The corruption I’d seen. The perverse behavior of the Chief Scout Executive on one of our staff retreats in Wisconsin when he sat around leafing through porn magazines showing us his favorite pictures. These were corrupt and disturbing people, I realized, who would stop at nothing to get their way.

My native appeals to honesty were a threat to them. I’d write the volunteer’s name right here if I felt it would do any good. I can still recall it quite clearly. But that’s not the point. The real point is that I learned not to trust people that hid behind organizational values to do horrible stuff. These supposed pillars of conservative values, who recited the Scout Oath with regularity in their profession, were cheating the books, cheating other non-profit organizations, lying to volunteers and asking volunteers to lie, all while pushing people to abide by their corruption no matter the cost.

I think about that pack of amoral slobs and realized at how poorly they represented the principles recited in the Scout Oath.

Scout Oath
On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to kee
p myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.

The minute they showed me that note from the volunteers was the motivation to get the hell out of there and get on with life. I’d fulfilled whatever angst or guilt about self-indulgence that half drove me to take the job in the first place. I was sick of the bloated attitudes and secretive graft, and most of all sick of the fat asses and fat heads of those running the council.

Fat chance at success

Before I left the job, I did one of my fellow executives a big favor. He was living in the same house that my family had rented back in 1977 when my parents decided to try life in the country again. We moved out of that house after a year because the commute into town for my brother’s sports career was nuts. But we also left because the landlords were daffy.

My compatriot had even worse problems with them. He was so angry that he’d decided to try to scare them to death by throwing a bowling ball through the plate glass window at the front of the house while they were sitting in the living room. I said, “You’re not serious,” but he lifted the trunk of his car and showed me the sixteen-pound bowling ball he planned to use. “I want to scare them to death,” he told me. “I want them to have a heart attack.”

He surely would have gone through with the plot if I had not pointed out the possible ramifications. “It’s hard not to get caught at stuff like that,” I warned him.

And despite all the calculated crap that Council staff pulled on me, I left the place without a fuss and on civil if not good terms. I took the advice of every career counselor I knew and let bygones be bygones. I’d found a new job working for our hometown newspaper the Chronicle, and I was excited to be leaving the Boy Scouts of America behind forever.

Lie about one thing…

But it sure didn’t surprise me that the entire Boy Scouts of America organization was found to be corrupt and hiding the long-term effects of the pedophiles using the Scouts to gain access to boyhood prey. If you lie about one type of thing, it’s common that you’ll lie about another. Based on my experiences, the lying runs from the local councils all the way up to the top of the organization. That’s just like the Republican Party and many other conservative organizations from megachurches to supposedly Christian to business networking organizations and the entire Trump debacle of Make America Great Again, conservatives flat out suck at behind honest about anything. Scout’s Honor? Bullshit.

And it now really disgusts me that to make up for the abusive follies, the BSA has raided the realm of the Girl Scouts by welcoming school-age girls into the Boy Scouts of America. I don’t trust the BSAT or anything it has ever said, or ever will. It is my belief that the world would be better off if the entire enterprise were forced to close its doors forever. It is flawed with the same sort high claims of principle and lowbrow behavior that is vexing America today. We’d all be better off without them.

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50 Years of Running: BSA Blues

Coming from the world I’d inhabited in the City of Chicago, where there were few rules and fewer people to enforce them, the culture shock of working at the Boy Scouts of America was profound. I’d enjoyed being in Cub Scouts as a kid, earning badges for simple tasks. But that ended one afternoon while playing kickball at a Den meeting. One of the kids in the Pack stole second when no one else was looking and I called him out on it. “You have to go back!” I declared. “No stealing!”

He mocked me boldly. “No way,” he insisted. “I didn’t steal.”

I walked toward him ready to challenge his claim when the Den mother walked out of the house to find me in mid-stride, yelling at the cheater. “Okay, Chris, that’s enough fighting. You can leave if you don’t want to play nice.”

“But he cheated!” I turned and told her. “He stole second when no one else was looking!”

“Terry, did you steal second?” she asked. He shook his head, saying nothing.

She glared at me. I walked off the field and strode straight home. And never went back.

So perhaps I should have known that the Boy Scouts of America were not the most honest organization in the world. Despite Scout’s Honor and pledges and all that quasi-military stuff the Boy Scouts use to collar kids into controlled behavior, deep down the BSA is a conflicted, contrary and anachronistic organization with more to hide than it has to offer the world.

For example, I quickly discovered that several of the “high-performing” District Executives were cheating at their membership numbers by paying for kids that weren’t even signed up. Those “ghost units” showed up at legitimate kids in the program. The criminal aspect of those actions wasn’t just limited to lying to the Council Executives and volunteers about membership levels. Those figures were also used to solicit money from local charitable organizations like the United Way. The Council leadership knew that some DE’s were cooking the books at some level. But when I asked questions I was told never to mention it, and that it was my responsibility to hit those numbers no matter where they came from.

This was just the rot at the core of the BSA council where I worked. The stench of strange intrigue existed at the periphery as well. One of the far-flung camp properties owned by the council was a “ranch” about forty miles west. An elder District Executive ran the ranch, and everyone pretty much left him alone in that endeavor. He was sort of kind and chill, and known for hosting kids that like to ride ATVS and dirt bikes.

But somehow a rumor floated back to the Council that the Gold Old Boy running the ranch was up to some real no good. The Council executives and perhaps a policeman or two showed up unannounced at the ranch one day and Good Old Boy put a gun to his own head and fired. The child pornography he’d been created was discovered in his domicile, and the ranch was sold soon after.

In fact, the Council was in the process of a big property sell-off. The tax burden of multiple camps, one for each District at the time I joined, was too large for the organization to sustain. But the District volunteers were not happy about selling properties on which they’d grown up in Scouting. So the head Scout Executive was not a popular man.

Working for the Boy Scouts was not my idea of a good time. So I kept running to keep sane.

Every morning I’d get up and go for my modest three-mile run to process all that was going on in the vortex of the Scouting world in which I’d become immersed. Days would be spent mulling over membership numbers and visiting elementary schools to recruit Cub Scouts and Tiger Scouts. We’d face gymnasiums full of restless boys and try to keep their attention long enough to interest them in signing up for the program. The fliers would go home (we hoped) and sometimes enough kids would emerge through that process to fill a unit or start another. It was a big churn dependent on the goodwill of the school officials allowing the BSA to conduct business inside their public and private schools.

I had friends on the BSA staff. One was a former track athlete and teammate that I’d once coached as an AAU athlete. He ran the Explorer program, a career and interest resource for kids beyond the Boy Scouts in age or experience. Another of my peers had indeed earned his Eagle Scout award during his Boy Scout days. The two of them were a pair of the biggest pot smokers I’d ever met, and when spent most of the trip high as we traveled to a big Scouting professionals convention in Columbus, Ohio.

Such were the contradictions of life as a BSA professional. My peers warned me not to get too close with the volunteers, but I made the mistake one day while riding around with a volunteer that I liked of admitting that I’d smoked pot in college. I really liked the guy, but he turned around and reported me to the Council the next day. His conservative belief system could not tolerate the idea that someone had done something even slightly illegal in the past.

The Scouting Life

Working with the volunteers in my heavily urban and somewhat socioeconomically poor district was a daily adventure in managing expectations. The head volunteer was a man in his sixties named Clem. His big white mustache indicated his love of tradition, where the Scout uniform was almost a holy object, and “training” to be a Scout leader was equivalent to being ordained. I admired his dedication, but lacking the romance of having a full scouting experience in my past, I took a far more objective and frankly jaded view of the enterprise.

Clem clashed with a heavy-duty district volunteer named Bill. He was an imposing dude who wore the large-brimmed Scouting hat as if he were the Field Commander for a military operation. Bill would stalk around a weekend event at one of the council properties inspecting camp sites and pointing out flaws in the way that Scout leaders wore their uniforms. Clearly there were some compensatory control factors at work with Big Bill. He’d stand at the back of district meetings and stare at people to intimidate them. And when he talked, he made no effort to lower his voice but sounded forth like an old bull elk trumpeting in the trees.

But Bill didn’t intimidate me, and that meant he didn’t quite know how to act in our encounters. During one weekend Camporall, he showed up to inspect my non-traditional Eddie Bauer tent perched on the bank of a quick-running stream a hundred yards away from the cluster of tents on the main field. I’d decided to camp where it was quieter and not overrun by the noise and smell of cigarettes and fat weiners burning in blackened frying pans. As Bill approached, I look up and called out, “Isn’t it nice out here?” He trudged through ankle-high grass to reach me and stood next to a big tree. I pointed up the stream and told him, “And look, there’s a spotted sandpiper on the sandbar!”

Bill sort of harumphed and walked off. Though he still tried to control everyone else he encountered, he never really bothered me again. I considered that a quiet triumph. Because, fuck him.

Volunteer relationships

I felt compassion for some of the volunteers trying so hard to make the program work for underprivileged kids. Many times these folks gave to the program money they didn’t really have, buying supplies or giving time they could hardly afford to give. One of these women had obviously been a real beauty in her time. But years and the strain of having four kids by four different “husbands” showed in her. She was a chain-smoker, and when I visited her home to drop off a requested set of membership forms and literature, she invited me inside where it was difficult to breathe due to all the smoke. Then I noticed a different, quite-familar smell as well. Natural gas. She had a leak somewhere in that home, I was sure of it. I told her so, and she grinned the wan grin of a woman that had faced a million strange threats in her lifetime, and chuckled. “Well, I ain’t blown up yet, so I guess it’s okay.”

Another volunteer named Glenda had such bad hygiene I could hardly stand near her for wanting to puke. Her hair was greasy and her skin oily. The uniform skirt worn by Scouting women was hitched up to the wide mounds of her breasts, and she stank. One day I pulled up to the serving window of a Burger King in my district to find Glenda serving the food. I saw her visage and kept on driving rather than pick my my food.

Her husband Jim was a sweet man but hardly the handsome type. His ears stuck out and he wore a perpetually fuzzy haircut about 3/4 of an inch long. His learning disability was also evident, but you’ve never met a more sincere man in your life. He kept asking me about a pin that he’d earned, and I wrote down the name of it. But when I asked around the Council to find out more about his prized pin, no one had ever heard of it. I wrote the National office and tried to secure the pin that way, but no one there could answer my question either. So week after week I’d see him at meetings and he’d approach me to ask about the pin. I never did find the damned thing. He had a picture of it, but that didn’t help either.

Then one night I met Glenda and Jim at a District meeting. Standing next to them was a tall, strikingly handsome young man. He wore his Boy Scout uniform with a panache I’d never seen. Other Scouts gathered around this pillar of virtue, and for a few moments I wondered where he came from. Then Glenda and Jim grabbed me by the arm and introduced me to their son. I honestly wondered, “How could that Adonis come from those two people?” Just goes to show you can’t judge people. Ever.

Sanity runs

Running every day kept me sane through all those Boy Scouts of America shenanigans. All day I’d recruit kids or raise money. At night I’d attend district meetings or visit Blue and Gold Banquets where Cub Scouts and Webelos earned their badges. I’m a social guy, but it wore me out talking to gaggle after gaggle of babbling mothers asking for supplies to be brought to their next meeting.

I tried to make the best of the relationships I had with other district executives. I liked my immediate boss well enough, but he was exceedingly enigmatic about most of our dealings with volunteers. When he was replaced with a big guy named Mo, I wondered how long I’d last. But Mo was one of those calmly resolute Black guys wanting to do a good job despite the corruption he saw all around him. Mo’s biggest piece of advice was, “Don’t project anything. If you don’t see it, don’t say it.” That’s another way of saying “Don’t bet on the ‘to come.” Mo was one smart man.

Come fall, I pulled enough fitness together to race the Park Forest Scenic 10-Miler and finished in a decent time of 54:00. That gave me the confidence and interest to try running a marathon that fall in the Twin-Cities. So while the insanity of working for the Boy Scouts kept escalating, I increased my training and made little mention of it to anyone but my friend Bruce, the guy that recruited me and loved running himself. We ran some slow 20-milers together heading into fall, and I asked him questions about how to better get along in the Scouts. He had a mellow demeanor balanced by a completely focused work ethic when it came to Scouting, and I was quite the opposite. But I tried to learn from him.

One crisp fall day we got back from a long morning run and he hit the shower while I dined on a glass tray of chocolate chip cookies that he’d baked. I was so hungry from the run I downed half the tray before he got out of the shower. He laughed upon seeing the carnage, and asked, “Hungry?” “Stress eating,” I told him. That was certainly true. I had the BSA Blues and didn’t know what else to do about it but to keep running and make the best of every day possible.

Preparing for the marathon in October, I trained hard through the month of September. Coming up to the weekend before the race, I worried that I needed one more long run to prepare. Dumb idea. I bonked at around eleven miles and had to job back home for a harrowing 18-miler. For the rest of the week I felt half-sick and worn out. But I’d committed to run and had the plane ticket and a place to stay with my former college roommate in Edina, so I stuck with the plan.

The morning of the race dawned fearsomely cold and windy. The temps were just above 30 degrees and I unwisely chose to wear only a tee shirt under my Running Unlimited singlet. Standing at the starting line, I looked over to spot the former Olympic marathoner Don Kardong in his long-sleeved Salazar cold-weather tee, so I sidled over and joined the group around him.

We ran 5:20 miles through 5, then 10 miles. I felt far better to that point that I deserved after messing up by running that last long run. But at 15 miles, I felt a numbness set into my hands after circling around the lakes in Minneapolis. The cold wind coming off the water froze my face and my tongue started to swell. I had hypothermia. My lips turned blue. At 16 miles I saw Dani Fjelstad standing by the trail. He knew me well as a teammate for four years at Luther. “How’s it going, Cud?” He asked. When I could not answer without speaking in a slur, he ran over to clasp my arm and said, “Come on, dude. You’re done.”

The kerchief around my neck and the thin short-sleeved tee shirt could not keep me from freezing up. Kardong is thrid from left, and I’m two oer from him.

And that was that. My only serious marathon attempt ended with my climbing in a warm car and calling it a day. I was tired beyond belief anyway. But I’d run all those miles with Don Kardong cracking jokes as we wound through the Tri-Cities. It was still a great experience. And even though I didn’t finish, it was the type of hard work I truly admired, a far cry from the groveling manipulations of those corrupt Boy Scout executives scrapping over the next $50 they could raise to make themselves look good.

Not everyone on the Scout staff was a nasty person, but the nice ones tended to suffer the scrutiny and debasement of the insecure manager above them. One o the nice guys was an older man named Pete, whose daughter happened to attend Luther College, my alma mater. When Luther won the NCAA Division III national cross country championship that fall, Pete stopped at the Luther Book Shop and bought me a tee shirt honoring the achievement.

Pete did his job well and it made his superiors insane. He’d annually hit his numbers in both membership and the Friends of Scouting (FOS) campaigns. His volunteer corps was complete and capable, and Pete relied on them to help him achieve his goals, but the top executives harangued him to do more. “C’mon, Pete,” they’d harass him in meetings. “You always do just enough to get by,” they’d complain. But actually, Pete usually beat the annual goals even when they raised them by goofy percentages.

In other words, Pete was an honorable man among dishonorable characters. We shared quiet moments talking business and I’d sometimes turn to him for advice on volunteers and such. He’d give the best answer he could, then seal it with a glinty wink of the eye. God, I appreciated that man. He was conservative in the best sense of the word, but he was working for leadership that was ‘conservative’ in the worst of all ways. In that regard, the Boy Scouts of 1985 foretold a future of conservatism in America that would compromise even the roots of democracy in the year 2020. I knew it back then, and I saw it coming in the world today.

None of it shocks me anymore. The brand of conservatism that for decades hid sex scandals and pedophilia among Scout leaders is running amok in America now while gaslighting the rest of us as if “liberalism” were the enemy. It is the secretive dealings of the ardently repressed that we should watch most closely in this world. There are fascists among us, and the BSA is and was no exception.

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50 Years of Running: Transition time

Forty years after my 1984 engagement as an essentially ‘full-time runner,’ I got interested in triathlon and started competing in Sprint and Olympic distance events. I quickly learned that the most awkward part of triathlons are the transitions, those moments when you’re changing gear and switching from swim to bike and bike to run. Some people navigate those passages with ease. Others, especially those of us with ADHD or other distracting mindsets, find it that much harder to smooth through transitions.

Such was the case with the life transition I was going through in the spring of 1985. That winter, I’d asked my girlfriend Linda to become my fiance. We asked her parents to host the reception in their Addison backyard, and met with the pastor at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church to plan the wedding. I purchased her wedding ring through a high school friend that worked for a local jeweler. He secured a nice diamond and built the ring according to her design.

It wasn’t a huge ring, but neither was it tiny. Linda was happy that we were finally on our way to marriage, and I was figuring out what to do next for an income. The job managing the Norris Sports Complex was winding up in May with the advent of spring, and I’d begun searching for a full-time job in the tri-cities of St. Charles, Geneva, and Batavia.

Some close friends introduced me to a guy named Bruce that worked for the regional district of the Boy Scouts of America. They were looking for a District Executive, and my buddy Bob had worked for them years before. It was worth talking it through. But I was also concentrating on my sponsorship from the Running Unlimited store. By that spring, I’d used the holdover fitness from the previous year and the training I’d done all winter on the indoor track at the Sports Complex to race a few times. I started off the year with a slow 26:30 in the Shamrock Shuffle but the weather was again freezing cold. Then in April, I broke 20:00 in a four-mile race and felt fantastic. It felt like I was on my way to a good year.

Raced results through late May of 1985

After another late-night effort at 5K on the track at North Central College where I almost broke 15:00 (and ran about 14:30 for three miles) I competed in a big event called the Rundo in Chicago. But struggling with the effects of a heavy cold from the previous week, I stumbled along to a 33:08 and wanted to swear off running forever. It’s never any fun to have a bad race.

But I was still racing for the Running Unlimited squad, and wanted to redeem myself. So I entered the Elgin 10-mile, an epic race rife with sets of steep hills over the first eight miles. My goal in the race was always to finish in the Top Ten, but it wasn’t easy to do. Most of the Fox Valley’s top runners showed up at the race, and usually a couple much tougher “ringers” who took the pace out fast.Such was the case that morning, but I hung on through the eight-mile mark and finished hard on the last two miles that wound through the north part of downtown Elgin and closed with a final mile in which you could see the Finish banner from a mile away. My time was 53:36, the second-fastest 10-mile in my career.

Then I found work. Sometime in early June, I signed on to work for the Boy Scouts of America. “You’ll love it,” my newfound friend and training partner Bruce told me. “The summers are pretty easy, and in the fall and winter you recruit kids and help raise money.”

“And by the way,” he told me. “I told them you’d run in the Boy Scout 10K in June.”

I showed up to race and wasn’t feeling at all excited about running that morning. It was hot and humid, and the race didn’t even start until 9:00 a.m. The sun beat down and my head hurt a bit. But Bruce had talked me up among the other Scout executives so there was quite a bit of pressure going into the event. I led for four miles before grabbing my side with a terrible stitch. It took me eleven minutes to finish the last two miles and some jerkwad plodder passed me up for the win. I walked around after the race disgusted by the whole experience. To make matters worse, one of the execs walked by and muttered a snarky comment about my being a “big star” as he passed. It certainly didn’t set a good tone going into the job. I watched him walk away with his fat frame and blurted an insult under my breath. Most people have no idea what it takes to achieve and maintain race fitness, or to perform at a top-level every time you step on the tarmac.

The prep for the wedding was occupying much of my brainpower anyway. I was excited about the wedding, but starting a new job at the same time was tough. The job required that we buy a full Boy Scout uniform to wear at council events and I frankly felt ridiculous in the thing. We all looked like grownups playing at child’s games. That was a factor I hadn’t counted on. The immersion into an entirely different culture. But I did like the blue jacket and requisite grey slacks we wore for formal events and wished we could wear that all the time. So the transition to working for the Boy Scouts was for me…a little rough.

Then in late June, it was time for me to defend my 10K title at the Community Classic in Geneva. The previous year I’d triumphed in a course record 31:52, and though I’d run that early 19:56 for four miles in mid-April and the 53:36 10-mile in late May, my brain and body weren’t in sync for the start of the Geneva race at all. I was not fooling myself. I knew that I was not going to win that day.

Atrio of fast-looking dudes showed up to run, and I knew that my competitive Mink Factor was low at best. I just didn’t have the fight within me, nor the feeling of fitness required to beat any of them. I stood on the line with that tiny #1 on my chest and tried to escalate my hopes and quell my fears. But it was not to be.

At the starting line of the 1985 Geneva Community Class 10k. I was fit, but not ready to race.

The race ended predictably, with me nearly jogging home in 34:10. Adding insult to injury, some nerdy kid from Kaneland that broke my freshman record in the mile passed me with a mile to go. I could barely move my legs after that. But considering all the changes in my life that first half of 1985, and the fact that I was getting married a week later, it makes total sense that I was not the hard man that I wanted that morning.

A week later, we got married in a beautiful ceremony at the church. For the groomsmen, I purchased a set of Nike Air Pegasus in silver and gray to wear with the silver tuxedos we all sported at the wedding. I used the Running Unlimited discount on the shoes, and it was a fun look suggested by my bride Linda.

Linda and Christopher Cudworth, Paul Mues (brother-in-law, Jack Brandli and my Best Man Gregory Andrews)

The wedding reception was held outside and it was gorgeous weather. We gathered under the massive tents rented by my in-laws, and a quartet from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra played as guests arrived. My sister-in-law Diane Mues had just earned a spot as a violist in the symphony. There was much cause for celebration all around. We danced until midnight and Linda and I were driven up to a nice hotel. But my Best Man forgot to bring my change of clothes bag along. I had nothing to wear to breakfast the next morning but the tux. We made do.

Teary-eyed and happy all at once.

And so began our journey through life together. That entire day I was impressed with Linda’s grace and composure in the face of so much social attention. People from all sections of our lives showed up for the wedding, including a few of my Luther College buddies who dragged me out of bed at 9:00 the night before to take me out drinking. I’d planned on getting plenty of rest and being ready for the wedding, but “the boys” were having none of that. We partied at the Mill Race Inn Gazebo, and I sat with a close friend Randy Steinheimer, whose wife Debbie was with him the night I met Linda four years before. He doled out some marriage advice and I tried to listen carefully.

I was lightheaded and hungover during the wedding ceremony, but was careful not to lock my knees and faint forward as a friend had done a few years before. He’d whacked his head on the altar and bled all over his white tuxedo. I felt so bad for him that day, but the key to life is learning from the mistakes of others, and also your own.

There were a lot of mistakes yet to come in life. I knew that much for sure. Now that I was one-half of a married couple, I wanted to try my best to keep those mistakes to a minimum, or else keep them to myself. Yet what one learns about marriage is that it doesn’t really work that way. Every good thing or bad thing you do affects the other person somehow, or someday. That’s a whole different dynamic than the lonely, self-absorbed life of a committed distance runner. I was realizing that the real transition in life was just beginning. It was my hope not to stumble along the way. But that’s yet another lesson one learns about life on many fronts. We all stumble sometimes. It’s how you pull yourself together and get back on your feet to keep going that really matters. To everyone.

Posted in adhd, anxiety, Christopher Cudworth, college, competition, life and death, love, mental health, running, running shoes, track and field | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

50 Years of Running: Escape from prisons

Photo from 1980

From the age of twelve through the time I reached twenty-seven years old, I dedicated myself largely to the sport of running. At times, that commitment constituted total immersion. An endurance athlete is both reduced and enlarged through a lifestyle of eating, sleeping, shitting, and running. That’s about all you do when training 90-100 miles per week, which is the typical cost of competing at the highest possible level in running. Every day you get up, empty the tank with workouts, and refill it with food and rest. I learned many times over fifteen years of competition that it’s possible to take that process too far. Too often I made myself sick from the overtraining, too much racing or burning the candle at both ends trying to keep up with a social life that conflicted with the demands of distance running.

But I burned in another way as well. From an early age, I felt pressure from a world that I frequently did not fully understand. It was the competitive pressure to fit in, to be accepted, to succeed at whatever I was doing, and to be loved. Often those pressures stood in conflict with each other. At other times, they complemented one another. I learned that being competitive often led to being accepted by people that might otherwise ignore me. That included my own siblings, whose competitive nature passed through them and into me. But it was all driven by an alternately kind and demanding father. We both created and endured our sibling rivalries, competing to make each other laugh, and at times fighting until one of us, usually me, began to cry.

I was a skinny and impressionable child, sensitive to a flaw, and prone to wetting my pants when tickled too hard. Yet I loved to laugh and would do almost anything to earn the approval of my brothers for a crack I’d made or a joke I’d told. They were a tough audience, so approval in the form of a knowing nod or a quick burst of laughter was hard-earned. The risk was being mocked for any attempt to appear smart or funny. It really didn’t get any easier as we aged.

The Cudworth boys and father Stewart at Indiana Dunes, circa 1973

Despite these difficulties I loved and admired my brothers more than anything in the world. In particular, I was a fan of their athletic achievements, attending their games and even serving as a batboy at the naïve age of six years old. Headed to the first game, I sat in the back seat sweating profusely. My mother turned around to look at me from the front seat and asked, “Chrissy, why is your face so red?”

“This baseball uniform is so hot,” I answered. 

“It shouldn’t be,” she replied. Then looking closer at me, she noticed the pantlegs of my jeans sticking out the bottom of the baseball uniform. “Oh, my goodness,” she laughed while looking over at my father in the driver’s seat. “He put the uniform over his regular clothes!”

That incident is an allegory for so many things that I’d ultimately encounter in life but did not yet understand. I recall playing with a friend named Jimmy Morris who lived up the road from our house in Seneca Falls, New York. We got bored at his place and Jimmy pointed to my house and said, “Come on! Let’s run to your house!”

He took off ahead of me and quickly gained a big lead. Sensing something wrong, he turned around to look at me. “Why aren’t you moving your arms when you run?”

I stood there silently. “You have to move your arms to go faster!” he insisted. “Like this!” Then he showed me how to pump my arms when running. I actually did know how to run correctly but something about the idea of competing with him in a race to my house made me feel shy and keep my arms at my side. Such are the effects of native anxiety.

This much I knew already at the age of five years old: the world has little patience for people with profound or visible limitations, and the only way to make up the difference was to prove yourself even after making a mistake like that. This time when Jimmy took off running, I pumped my arms and caught up with him. We finished running to my house together.

But imagine a child so sensitive to competitive situations that the pressures of social interactions could produce such strong reactions. Not only was I sensitive to my own fears and needs, but the instinct to protect others facing challenges from bullies or other social dangers ran deep within me. One day those instincts would evolve into strong beliefs in social justice.

Life has a way of uncorking situations of great difficulty.

I still had to survive family life first, and my father harbored his share of anxieties and anger within him as well. He lost his mother Rene Stewart when he was just seven years old. She died from getting sepsis following breast cancer surgery in the early 1930s. His father Harold Cudworth later suffered profound depression from the loss of his wife and farm during the Depression. When my grandfather was institutionalized for his condition, my father and his three sisters were shipped off to live with two spinster aunts and an uncle on a tiny farm in Upstate New York.

With plenty of farm work to do as he grew up, my father never got to experience a full-fledged athletic career of his own. From what I could gather in photos from his youth, he played some football and ran track, and was swift afoot. Lean and strong-legged, he yearned to have a go at real competition himself, but alas, that was never the case for him. It is my opinion that my dad always felt a bit bitter about not getting to play sports more. Some of his desire to see his sons do well likely stemmed from that sense of personal deprivation.

Plus, it is doubtful that he ever had any serious counseling about the sudden death of his mother when he was so young. One of his sisters told me that the kids were left wandering the streets of Cortland, New York at one point. Thank God that some relatives had mercy on the children, finding them a place to say when their father (my grandfather) collapsed into a profound state of depression.

Given those experiences, I can’t blame my father for living with some unresolved anger. Losing parents to death and mental illness is hard to reconcile at any age, much less when you’re not even ten years old.

Most of the time, my dad was a friendly, an often gentle man who genuinely tried to teach us everything he could about the world. He encouraged us in art and music as well as sports. But he grew frustrated if our grades slipped and dished out harsh punishment if we genuinely failed at something he considered simple and achievable if we put our minds to it.

But that was part of the problem. In today’s educational world, a couple of us brothers would be categorized as ADHD: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. I struggled in school for lack of attention, and one time arrived in class at the end of the school day to find my mother meeting with the second-grade teacher, Mrs. Helm. I’d fallen far behind in the SRA Reading Program, and the paper sailboat I’d made to track my reading progress lagged far behind the other boats taped to the wall in measurement of the number of stories read. “Chrissy,” she said to me, pointing at my boat on the wall, “Why are you so far behind?”

Thinking fast, I glanced at my boat that sailing two full walls behind and told my mother, “I’m waiting until they come all the way around. Then I’ll race them.”

Clearly that was not the answer either my mother or teacher wanted to hear. But when you’re a kid with ADHD the task of reading stories you don’t like is unbearable. That’s why I stopped after hitting a particularly boring tale in the SRA program.

Looking back, I’m a little surprised that my competitive instincts didn’t make me want to beat all the other kids in the reading contest. After all, I was a killer competitor out at recess, where I led the school Home Run contest in kickball. Every kick that soared over the center field swingset counted as an automatic home run, and I led the entire school in homers when Mrs. Helm called me over before morning recess. “Chris,” she said sternly. “You have a choice. You can stay in and work on the school play or go out to recess. Which would you rather do?”

I stared at her as if she asked the dumbest question in the world. In my mind there was no question about the choice she asked me to make. My foot was burning inside my shoe to kick yet another home run over the swingset and extend my playground lead. My entire sense of self-esteem was tied up in that contest. Stay inside and work on the school play? You have to be kidding me.”

“Recess,” I told her.

“Fine,” she impatiently blurted. “You don’t get to do either. You can sit inside at your desk during recess while the other kids work on the play or go outside.”

I decided right then and there that her decision was not one of justice. She never mentioned the penalty associated with making a choice she did not like. I sat at my desk furious at what I considered an outright lie about the situation.

See, I was already somewhat of an angry kid myself. The previous year, when I was just six years old, an incident occurred in our house that would mark me for life. My father was trying to get my brothers to do some work around the house. One was assigned to scraping paint from all the shutters my father removed from the windows, and the other was supposed to scrape paint off the house itself. It was boring, stinky work and neither would agree to the tasks assigned them on a day when the summer sun beat down on our Pennsylvania yard.

My dad gave my brothers both a powerful sock with the back of his hand, then pulled the belt out of his pants and thrashed my brothers hard as I watched, in terror, tears streaming down my face as my two heroes writhed underneath my father’s repeated attacks. When it finished, I tore up the stairs to hide in my room crying. Later my mother found out about the beating and came to check on me, but it wasn’t much help. During those moments I feared for my brother’s lives, and it left me with wrenching emotional scars that sank deep within my soul.

A week later, my best friend in school did something wrong on the playground and got pulled aside for a spanking by the playground teacher right on the spot. I fell to the earth crying at the sight of him getting beaten with that paddle. Corporal punishment was often doled out for minor reasons at Willow Street Elementary school. If the infraction was perceived by the teachers to be bad enough for real punishment, they yanked you into the hallway, dropped your pants to the ankles and hit you with a paddle on bare buttocks. I once got that treatment for getting mad when some dopey kid knocked over our Stratego game during a rainy day indoor recess. I yelled at the kid, calling him an idiot, and a teacher named Miss Paloney strode into the room, grabbed me by the arm, and dragged me out in the hall to beat my bare ass. I was filled with shame and rage at the injustice of it.

None of that made any sense to me. What it did produce was a kid determined to be tougher than the punishments people were doling out. The most extreme case of that reaction was a kid named Richard who came from a bad neighborhood and refused to comply with many of the stupid rules aimed at the sixth graders in Hans Herr Elementary. Stubborn and defiant, Richard was handed over to the male teachers in the school for even harder beatings. Each classroom in that school had a wooden paddle with holes bored through it hanging by the door. If a kid was targeted for the Paddle, they’d be hauled out in the commons area, told to lean against the wall, and stand there for multiple whacks. We could hear the sound of that torture being administered, and we each feared getting hammered if our day ever came. But Richard was so tough that the teacher broke several paddles over his ass. I only saw him cry once, but to this day I think those tears were more an expression of self-virtue than sin.

Fifty years later I learned that Richard engaged in a life of crime and wound up spending time in prison. That’s tragic, and I can’t help thinking that the manner in which he was treated and brutalized by corporal punishment in elementary school helped make his life situation worse. I experienced some of the same treatment, and to that end, came to realize there are many kinds of “prisons” in this world. Some are physical places. There are millions of theories on whether prison conditions rehabilitate people or make them worse. Other ‘prisons’ form within our perceptions about the world. Anger is one of the most imprisoning emotions of all.

In many respects, I am thankful that I became a runner, for it frequently helped me escape whatever prison of anger might form in my head.

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