50 Years of Running: Jousting Knights

My mother was no great photographer, but she captured this image of my racing to the chute at Naperville.

One of the unique aspects of cross country running in the 1970s is that dual meets were held between every team in the league. The Upstate Eight Conference consisted of St. Charles, Elgin, Elgin Larkin, Wheaton Central, East Aurora, West Aurora, Naperville Central, and Dekalb. Each of these programs had a lead runner of course. Some had more than one.

At Naperville Central the top runner was Rick Hodapp. We toured the course and I thought I had it memorized, but would soon learn that memory fails, especially in the brain of a kid with partial ADHD. I raced to a significant lead and had Rick beat, but upon reaching the North Central College track the second time around the course, I turned right again to go around the backstretch. To my horror, I glanced left to see Rick headed straight down the track across from me. I sprinted to protect my lead but he reached the chute six or seven yards ahead of me.

I’d like to think that there should have been someone posted at the part of the course to direct runners, but there was not. My mother was at the race that day and took photos of the race. I can’t look at those photos without thinking about losing under those circumstances.

A week later we met the Elgin Maroons on their home course. The previous season our two teams had slugged it out in a dual meet out on our home course. St. Charles barely won 27-29. Elgin came back and won the county meet over us a week later.

My senior season the dynamic was a bit different. The pressure to concentrate on winning individual races was more intense. At least, that’s the impression I was given. The goal going into the Elgin race was to give it all I had against Ken Englert.

That race was one of the most intense experiences I had in all my distance running. Ken and I traded leads several times during the race. I’d beat him up a hill. He’d race past me going back down. He’d dump me on the next hill. I’d come racing back against him. We pushed and pulled and increased the pace on the flats. Neither of us gave an inch, that’s for sure. As we topped the final hill and did a U-turn toward the finish, we ran side-by-side toward the chute and crashed into it together. Ken fell a bit further forward, and the victory was given to him. As I recall, we broke the course record by nearly 20 seconds.

I have no problem with “losing” that race to this day. I’m thankful to have had the ability to race like that with a guy that I respected. He actually was the superior runner, as proven by other results in which I did not keep up with him. Somewhere along the way, Ken offered me a compliment in stating, “You were a force to be reckoned with.” That might be based on that single race alone.

Again, my mom tried her best, but this cropped-off photo of a race at Leroy Oakes shows the intensity of racing.

Following the Elgin race, some events at home took over my concerns. My mother Emily was hospitalized with serious abdominal issues related to giving birth to four boys. She was massively sick and could have died. My younger brother and I were taken to the hospital to visit her. The room was half-dark and my mother was barely able to talk with us. At home, my brother and I said little about the visit. In fact, no one talked to either of us about it. My father was obviously concerned, but it wasn’t his style to go all explanatory on such issues. Such was mental health in the 1970s. No one talked about anything. We were left to deal with our moods.

I tried leaning on my girlfriend at the time for comfort. She was super-smart, but just a sophomore in high school. She was the younger sister of a cross country teammate, who was also dating a sophomore. The senior guys were all dating sophomores because their class had a massive number of cute girls. My girlfriend’s name was Meg. Later in life I dated a woman named Jenny. I found that funny because growing up the brown and black dachsund dogs next door were named Meg and Jenny.

At any rate, my mind was not completely into racing after my mom fell ill. I was distracted by difficulties in class too. My grades in Algebra II were tanking. Ultimately, I’d get a D in the class, and that was a gift. I saw no purpose for Algebra and found it exasperating. The further I fell behind, the more it gutted my self-esteem. On Sunday nights I’d dread going to school knowing that my Algebra homework was not done. I didn’t understand the formulas. They made no sense to me. I’d done fine in geometry but algebra was toxic to my mind. There was no tutoring involved or assistance offered. I just struggled along like a half-brained idiot.

Mid-season, we traveled to Elgin Larkin to race in a downtown park. The kid from Larkin leading the course tour took off at six-minute pace. We all tried to follow and were exhausted by the time we finished. When the gun went off, I was confused and angry. Their top runner John Ciontea left me in the dust. He was the better runner, I’m sure. But I’d have liked to have had a fair shot at him without that speedy course tour. Following the race, I was approached by the St. Charles Chronicle sports writer Elmore McCornack. He asked me what I thought about the race and I blurted, “I don’t know.” That wasn’t like me, but the pile of issues in my head was too thick to relate.

Against Wheaton Central, I again raced to a lead only to be reeled back in by their top runner Paul Vestuto. He ran with patience and focus, moving past me at a point when I felt the energy start to lag. That was a lesson in racing tactics that I needed to learn again. My habit of front-running evolved out of a weird combination of determination and fear. On one hand, I ran with impunity in the style of a Steve Prefontaine. On the other had, I hated being caught and dreaded the idea it could happen. Later in life, I learned that those are patterns of anxiety. At the age of eighteen, I hardly knew what that meant.

Racing cross country is often mano-a-mano.

I’m pretty sure that’s how the Knights of old once felt about jousting. Surely there were plenty of anxious moments knowing that you could be wracked in the chest by a pointed lance. So many small things contribute to a big hit. A moment’s distraction. Lack of practice. It’s pretty easy to get knocked off the horse in a second. Such is the case with the sport of cross country. You race your best. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you get knocked off.

Our meets against West and East Aurora were less eventful. I won those races easily enough. Then came the last dual meet of the season, against Dekalb. We raced on a big campus somewhere. It might have been a golf course or a park. Whatever the case, it left us out in the open with nothing but a few trees and flags to run around. Unlike other teams in the league, Dekalb didn’t have just one top runner. They had five. Those five guys chatted to each other and ran easily while running me into flags as a group and toying with me on the straights. It was one of the more humiliating races I’ve run in life. I don’t recall if I beat any of their runners, but it didn’t matter. Their team was in a ‘different league’ than us that year. I admit to being a bit envious of their dynamic even though I hated them for the moment. They looked intimidating and ran with such confidence. I was not typically that type of runner. At least, not that season.

Near the mile point in the 1974 Conference meet, I’m next to Rick Hodapp with Ken Englert over his right shoulder. Dekalb has three runners in the front pack, and Elgin’s Karl Ulrich is right there too. This Polaroid was taken by my father Stewart.

When the Upstate Eight Conference meet came around, I girded myself for a battle with the top guys from all those schools. We ran on the golf course campus of Elgin Community College. For the first mile or so, everyone ran as a pack. Something in me decided to take the lead and stretch it out. During the middle mile, I felt strong and determined. But the likes of Ken Englert and Rick Hodapp and all those Dekalb guys were not fooled. They roared past in the last mile and I finished sixth overall. I took my chance and tried to win it all. There’s no shame in that.

Finishing hard at the 1974 Upstate Eight Conference meet. Polaroid by Stew Cudworth. Shoes: red suede Adidas Saturn.

The ups and downs of that senior season were plenty. The yearbook states that I won ten meets that season, but I don’t remember them all. There were meets against teams from other conferences, and an invitational or two as well. We did fairly well as a team coming off the previous successful season, but our pack was more spread out so winning invitationals wasn’t in the cards. What I most recall is the friendships. Singing in the locker room showers. Training together on wet grass in early morning workouts. Running until it got dark later in the season. We did so much together.

That said, we traveled to Peoria for a mid-season invite on the state cross country course. The night before the race, our coach tossed my teammate Paul Morlock and I in a hotel room with a Playboy, and told us to get to sleep. The rest of the team stayed up late. We could hear them down the hall.

I ate breakfast the next morning and drank some iced tea. Paul turned to me and said, “Are you sure you want to drink that? Is that good for you?” I hadn’t thought about it. But sure enough, I ran the first quarter mile hard to get ahead of the large pack and wound up with a painfully sharp side stitch that stuck with me the entire race. I learned the hard way that my body and caffeine don’t get along together.

Such are the vagaries of all sorts of competition. Little things add up to big mistakes. I’m sure those knights that jousted felt the same way years later. More likely it was like, “What the fuck were we thinking?” Then again, how many of them lived long enough to tell those tales? I guess that’s the difference in this day and age.

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50 Years of Running: Picture this

Leading the Plainfield Invitational in September, 1974. Photo by Kurt Mutchler.

Following a couple of early season dual meet wins, I lined up for the start of the Plainfield Invitational. The race was not held on the golf course usually recruited to host the school’s races. Its new course was on a converted quarry.

There were sections of flat turf grass that constituted much of the race. But there were wild and wooly injections of gravelly hills that we climbed up and scurried down. I loved that kind of running because I grew up a partly wild child roaming the woods and fields of eastern Pennsylvania. One of my favorite memories from grade school was running the obstacle course during outdoor education. I set the best time early in the day and kept going back to improve my time. Finally the teachers told me “That’s enough” and blocked me from any other attempts.

I wore running spikes that day in Plainfield, and they came in ultra-handy as we cut across sandy barrens covered by autumn leaves. Then the course turned right into a cattail marsh. I don’t mean “around” a marsh. I mean “through” a marsh.

By that point, I had a hundred yard lead and was feeling victory at hand with a mile to go. The sight of a cattail marsh straight ahead gave me some pause, but not really. I checked the flag direction approaching the marsh, and it indicated “straight ahead.” So, straight ahead I went. Right through the water and muck and trimmed down cattail stalks.

I don’t know who designed the course for that meet, but I love them to this day. In all my other cross country experiences, nothing matches the joy I felt racing through that water in plain old cross country fashion. It suited a hayseed, nature-loving kid like me to run through that shallow, water-filled ditch.

Tromping through the water served as a precursor to my college steeplechase career. When I emerged on the other side, I was laughing and excited and was almost tempted to slow down and watch what happened to the rest of the field. Instead, I picked up the pace and raced the last mile for the win.

A photographer named Kurt Mutchler took photos of the race that day. I saw them all when he developed the roll the following week. How I wish I’d snagged one or two of them, but they were bound for the yearbook editor and I was denied the opportunity. Kurt shot those photos in a calculatedly grainy fashion. They captured the best of what cross country was about. Unfortunately, they were likely tossed out years ago in some file-cleaning effort at the high school. I think I’ll ask about that. Perhaps they’re in some storage bin or archives…

Kurt Mutchler was a cross country teammate that went on to become the National Geographic magazine Senior Science Picture Editor. So I’d like to take credit for his amazing career because I was such good subject matter on that day in September, 1974. You’re welcome, Kurt.

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50 Years of Running: Don’t be a dick about being a jock.

Heading into a senior season in high school cross country, I can’t say that there were a list of concrete goals at work. Knowing that the Sectional Wall awaited me at the end of the season, I had little confidence that I’d make it downstate against such tough competition at York, where the perennial state champion York Dukes were one of several talent-filled teams that dominated the top spots. I didn’t mark that down as an ultimate goal. That would be a ‘wait and see’ objective.

The “Duke” jock strap

What I did know is that I was running really well during early season practices. That created some odd friction and awkwardness within the team, as I was torn between running my best and helping the other guys along. I loved my teammates and wanted them to do well as a team. At the same time, the pressure to beat the top guys from other schools required absolute intensity. That comes with the territory. So I can’t say that I was the best teammate to everyone on the squad. I was too focused on trying to beat everyone I could.

Our first meet against Lake Park was held at Leroy Oakes Forest Preserve, a rolling layout that included a mile loop through thick woods on the east side. I took off in the lead and raced through the familiar trail knowing when to duck under a series of overhanging blackberry bushes. There were two guys from Lake Park on my tail until that section, and I could hear them griping about the blackberry branches over the trail. It was kind of a dick move to take the lead there. But hey, all’s fair in love and war.

Then the course moved along the flats next to Ferson Creek and climbed a gravelly trail to to the upper level of the preserve. By then, I’d built a decent lead and was preparing to bring it home in under 15:00 for the three-mile when I felt something go slack down low.

Earlier that day, I’d found a beautiful set of silky orange running shorts in one of the gear bins of uniforms. There were a holdover from the classic uniforms of the late 1960s. I loved their look and frankly, they felt great compared to the clunky nylon shorts we were issued for meets. So I snatched the orange silk shorts for use in the first meet that day.

Up until that moment before the finish, I was looking forward to running home in first place with my flashy retro orange shorts. As the finish line neared, what I felt was a strange loosening in one side of my jockstrap, which I’ll have to admit, was only hanging by a few threads when I pulled it on. It was an old, worn-out thing that I liked because it wasn’t so bulky. It held your junk in place without chafing in the heat.

With 200 yards to go, the old jock snapped. Suddenly I felt a rush of air down below and realized my dick was popping out from beneath the silky shorts, which were considerably shorter than the standard nylon shorts we were supposed to wear. I quickly turned around to see if the Lake Park guys were catching me, but I still had a good lead. I panicked for a few strides as I bore down on the chute.

All I could do was take hold of the edge of the shorts to hold them firmly in place as I ran in the last fifty yards. From there, I ran straight to the team bus and pulled on some sweatpants. Unfortunately, that meant I could not stick around for a handshake with the guys from the other team as they rolled through the chute. It probably looked like a prick move.

Yes, that was an obvious dick joke.

That night, I had to explain to my mother why we needed to go out and buy a new jockstrap. That wasn’t a favorite thing to do, go jock shopping with mom. But with four boys involved in sports, she was not squeamish about such things.

When I was really young and not yet participating in school sports, I saw my brother’s jocks in the laundry and wondered what it would be like to be old enough to wear them. My brothers also wore cups in their jocks while playing baseball and soccer. That was a good strategy to protect the junk in potentially damaging sports.

Of course, runners don’t need protection as much as they needed support. Over the years, more than one gym teacher warned us that if we didn’t wear jocks while we were young, our balls would hang down to our knees in old age. We had no way of knowing whether that was true or not. But the first jock I was required to wear was for 7th grade P.E. class. Our gym teacher was a stickler about wearing jocks. If you got caught wearing regular underwear beneath your gym shorts, the punishment was writing “I WILL NOT FORGET MY JOCK STRAP” fifty times on the locker room chalkboard. Writing those words on the blackboard burned the commitment into your brain. I only forgot my jock one time that whole year.

That gym class teacher saw jockstraps as part of the discipline of physical fitness. He was a wrestling and gymnastics coach at the high school level, so he knew the importance of functional apparel and equipment. That gym teacher was right on all counts. As I learned in cross country a few years later, taking care of your equipment (that’s another dick joke) was an important part of being prepared for competition.

Jockstraps eventually became less common as running shorts evolved with briefs built into the shorts. Even those required a period of adjustment. I too well recall the first time I ran in a pair of silky Sub-4 shorts that I’d ordered for my senior cross country season in college. I went jogging in those new shorts with my girlfriend one afternoon, and immediately got a full-on erection from the back and forth stimulation of the smooth briefs. She found that pretty funny.

So we did away with jocks at the running garment industry improved their wares. Along the way, however, the word “jock” became a derogatory slang word to describe guys (and even gals) in sports. A couple years after college, I was hanging out at a local bar trying to meet women and started a conversation with a gal I’d known in high school.

She asked, “What are you doing now?”

I replied, “I’m a graphic designer in marketing…”

She stared at me. “You’re an artist? I thought you were a jock…”

“I didn’t know the two were mutually exclusive,” I responded.

Little did she know that jocks would someday become an erotic fashion statement, as evidenced by the selection shown below.

I doubt any of my teammates would have sported these jocks in the locker room back in the day. The see-through models in particular would have drawn some comments. We pretty much ignored each other’s dicks even though we spent plenty of time naked in the shower. Being naked in front of others just wasn’t something we worried much about.

But that didn’t mean I was going to complete the first race of the season in “balls to the walls” fashion before the home crowd. I happily wore the new jock the rest of that year, and ditched those tiny silk running shorts for good.

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50 Years of Running: Another Turn of the Page

The three Varsity cross country captains of 1974: Rob Walker, Paul Morlock, and Chris Cudworth.

After a largely uneventful junior year spring track season, in which my mile and two-mile times barely improved year-over-year, I stumbled into the summer season not quite knowing what to do with my time. We had no organized summer run program. I begged my mom to buy me new running shoes but the only thing running shoes sold at the downtown shop in St. Charles was a pair of paper-thin Tiger running flats suited more for bowling that putting in miles. I went for a few runs in them and my knees instantly started to hurt. So I said, “F*** it” and played hoops to stay in shape instead.

Batting for the Blue Goose baseball team.

The previous summer I’d played baseball on the Pony League team sponsored by the Blue Goose Supermarket. But the age group for that league ended at fifteen, and there were no American Legion teams available in St. Charles. That was a shame, because I’d pitched to a 7-1 record the previous summer and wanted to continue playing baseball. The door to joining the older teams out in Elburn had closed, thanks to our move to St. Charles. My lone tryout with the Kaneland varsity summer program ended badly when I showed up for a tryout and took an at-bat only to miss all fifteen pitches thrown to me. It might have helped to actually swing a bat a few times before that adventure.

Pitching for the Blue Goose.

Left in a void in the summer of ’74, I played tons of golf at Pottawatomie Golf Course with my close friend Rob Walker. He’d been employed the previous summer in the locker room at the St. Charles Country Club, shining shoes for golfers heading out on the links. I caddied some but hated it. So I spent my summer days golfing in the morning and drawing and painting the birds I loved to watch the rest of the day.

1108 S. !1th Avenue. The tiny split-level where our family moved to St. Charles

The ugly little house to which we’d moved in St. Charles was a less-than-inspiring place to live after the three story house we’d occupied out in Elburn. Frankly, I was a little depressed all that summer.

417 Gates Street in Elburn where our family lived in a three story home.

When August came around, I went out for a run with my two best friends Paul Morlock and Rob Walker. We met in the parking lot of a grocery store and ran for a few miles. I got an instant sideache and felt sluggish the whole way. That didn’t seem to bode well for the season ahead.

Then cross country practice started and it was an explosion of activity and training, with two-a-days in the heat and humidity of late summer. Our coach Trent Richards invited two stellar runners that were headed off to college to join our practices. Greg Birk and Tom Burridge led the way every day. The rest of us suffered in their wake. That lasted only a week as they took off for Wabash College and the University of Kentucky, respectively.

I might have been relieved at their leaving if their presence had not jolted me into reality and snapped me into shape. After a week of running all-out, I could feel my body come alive. That left me in the company of yet another outsider in our presence. His name; John Rath. He was a short but highly competent distance runner from nearby Burlington Central High School. We weren’t in the same conference, but I felt an intense rivalry toward him just the same. He was the faster miler, but I tended to keep even with him over longer distances.

Trent knew Rath through coaching him in the summer track club. They both had the same acerbic temperament, a bit testy at times. I wound up running some summer track races against him the following summer. He was always a bit fitter and more intense during the summer months. As the days went by that fall of ’74, we fought for dominance in practice when he showed up on breaks from running with his own team.

Then came our St. Charles intrasquad meet. Before the race started, John suggested we run race pace together but not compete. I agreed. We took off running at 5:00 pace in the August sun with sweat already dripping into our eyes. At the mile mark, John’s shoe came untied and he stopped to tie it. Not knowing how that affected our agreement, I glanced back, paused a moment and kept running. My reasoning was basic: “Why should I stop if he forgot to tie his shoe?”

Thirty years later, I met John at some social function and he still seemed pissed about that day. He openly harbored bitterness about the incident. That’s how competitive he was. I thought I was competitive back in the day, but he was far more intense. That’s why Trent liked him. John Rath never backed off.

Summer track running was always a mixed bag of half-fitness and hard efforts. My close friend Jack Brandli is in the URP Brothers shirt. Geneva’s Dave Bashaw is right off my right shoulder. The dog is the guide for Bob Rosene, a blind runner whose wife Carol coached summer track.

I don’t know whether I was right or wrong not to stop that day. At the time, I figured, “This is my intrasquad. I’m supposed to do my best.” So I left him behind.

Later that season, John would finish one second behind me at the District meet at my old Kaneland High School course at Elburn Forest Preserve. He’d turn around and beat me at the York Sectional. He never backed off. But neither did I. I call that fair game in running.

If he still thinks I cheated him, so be it. With some things in life, you gotta turn the page.

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50 Years of Running: Basketball Jones

Sometime in the school year of 1973, the duo of Cheech and Chong came out with a comedy album featuring a novelty hit song titled Basketball Jones. It was filled with bald-faced cliches and overwrought background singers singing the refrain over and over. It was dumb. And we loved it.

Yes, I am the victim of a Basketball Jones
Ever since I was a little baby, I always be dribblin’
In fac’, I was de baddest dribbler in the whole neighborhood
Then one day, my mama bought me a basketball
And I loved that basketball
I took that basketball with me everywhere I went
That basketball was like a basketball to me
I even put that basketball underneath my pillow
Maybe that’s why I can’t sleep at night.

That song, while it was a parody, was actually quite descriptive of my life. I was obsessed with basketball from the age of eight or nine years old. I got good at the game, was a starter on every team on which I played, and achieved some heroics along the way such as sinking a half court shot at the buzzer to beat a rival and win the conference championship. Just like you pretend on the playground.

By the age of sixteen, as a junior in high school, I’d reached six feet in height and could touch the rim with ease. At 137 lbs, I was lean and fast, and had built a flashy game around the style of Pistol Pete Maravich. Perhaps that was a mistake.

Basketball 73-74. I’m at the far right, first row. My friend Curt Berg is next to me, and Steve Mendel, the other guy that skipped hoops camp senior year, is next to him. Paul Morlock is over my left shoulder, and above him, #20, is Deane Westland, another cross country runner turned hoopster. I later played lots of open gym with #32, Bill Birkinbine, a great guy and equal gym rat.

When cross country ended in 1973, I showed up for basketball practice and quickly learned that being a transfer from another school meant having to start all over. The varsity team sorted itself out with some pretty fine players and the rest of us muggled around on the JV squad. I was a starter there, but it didn’t mean too much. Come varsity game nights, we sat sweatless and morose on the team bench.

I still wore glasses, and at that level of basketball, they were not helpful at all. During one practice, our top forward came down with a rebound and mashed my wire-rimmed frames into my face. The lens popped out and shattered into a thousand tiny fragments on the slick gym floor. The look on Coach Ron Johnson’s face was beyond disappointment. I felt guilty and chagrined.

Up for a jump shot, wire-rimmed glasses and all. Nice Converse.

Rather than buy me contact lenses, which I would have preferred, my mother dragged me to the optometrist for a pair of black horned rimmed “sports glasses.” Those were awful. Sickening, really. I couldn’t see out the side of my eyes, which is important in basketball, especially for my sleight of hand game.

Our team did win the Dekalb Holiday Basketball Tournament that season, and I got some playing time when we ran up the score. But mostly my classmates and I toiled away in empty gyms on Saturday mornings. We played the same offense under the guidance of the assistant coach, and I scored plenty and helped lead the team. That didn’t transfer to varsity action.

If anything, showing leadership at the JV level led to confrontations with other teammates. One of them accused me of being arrogant and looked to start a fight in the locker room. He was bigger and stronger. I was not about to take up his offer to slug it out.

The fact of the matter is that competition for playing time is ugly in the underbelly of any program. That’s why I liked cross country. You either ran faster, or you didn’t. That gave me great admiration for guys like my teammates Bob Baert and Dave Brown, Orland Cole and many others who put in the mileage week after week in cross country, competing mainly in Open or JV races. That respect continued through college when many other guys ran 70-80 miles a week along with the varsity guys and appreciated the sport for perhaps different reasons than the fastest among us.

Sure, there are measures of success in basketball, like points and rebounds and steals. But one still has to impress the coach in terms of game awareness and fitting into the system. I admittedly didn’t always have a grasp of the bigger picture, at least not at that age.

Hanging out on the perimeter, #30. Cross country physique.

Ten years after high school I was playing in pickup games at a local high school and had learned much more about the game after hours honing my Basketball Jones in Open Gym. I’d settled down the floor game and worked as a swing forward. I didn’t weigh much more, perhaps 145 lbs by that point, but I could still jump and run better than most players. After finishing a game, I walked off the floor and met up with the assistant coach for whom I’d played JV ball in high school. “You know,” he told me. “Maybe we made a mistake with you. You’re really good.”

“No, probably not,” I told him. “At that age I didn’t really understand the whole game the way I should.”

It was nice to receive that compliment anyway. Yet a part of me never trusted that coach. At one point during the JV season that year, my friends Paul Morlock and Rob Walker rode out to visit a college in Pennsylvania. We left on a Thursday as I recall, and were back by Sunday.

That Monday when I showed up for practice, the assistant coach treated me with a weird deference. That weekend, we were scheduled to play my former teammates from Kaneland High School. I was excited to have the chance to meet those guys on the floor, but when the game began, the coach had me sitting on the bench. I’d started every game up to that point in the season. Anger welled up within me. It was embarrassing to not play against my friends. What would they think?

After half, the coach finally put me in the game. I was wild at heart by that point, and playing recklessly. I picked up fouls, and the referee was a former teacher from Kaneland that counseled me to settle down. But I couldn’t. I was so frustrated and angry at the hard sleight from the coach that I nearly fouled out with ugly hacks and raw defensive moves. It wasn’t me that was playing by that point. It was my wounded ego.

Following the game, I asked the coach why I didn’t start. “You missed a practice,” he told me. “That’s against team rules.”

“But we told you that we were doing a college visit,” I protested.

“Doesn’t matter,” he replied. “Don’t miss practices.”

My longtime friend Paul Morlock shooting a jump shot as I scope out the rebound prospects.

By that point in the season I’d begun not to care about basketball so much anyway. Indoor track season was approaching and my interest in hoops was waning. Still, there were a few games to make it through. As one contest wound down and the varsity pulled away from a weaker team, I watched the clock tick off the seconds until there were only thirty left in the game. My playing time that season was always confined to the last two minutes or so. After sitting in the stands for that long, getting in to play without warming up was almost a worthless thing to do. So when the coach turned to me with thirty seconds to play, and asked, “Cudworth. Do you want to go in?” I shook my head no.

That next summer I didn’t show up for basketball camp. But following the senior season in cross country, I showed up for basketball practice thinking I’d give it a go. Immediately, another teammate and I that skipped summer ball were sent to a corner to “practice passing.” We were in the dark part of the gym, actually, when my cross country coach Trent Richards walked by and said, “Cudworth. You know you’re not going to play this season, right? You didn’t go to basketball camp. I talked with Johnson. Don’t waste your time. We’re starting indoor track in December.”

He was right. In fact, our entire senior class didn’t get much playing time that year. The coaches made the decision to transition to younger players and bring them up from scratch rather than give the seniors a chance to play much. My friend Paul Morlock did go out for hoops, as did another friend Curt Berg. They saw little varsity playing time, and at one point a group of us sat up in the stands chanting their names to get them into the game. Maybe it worked. Maybe it didn’t.

Far away from the glory, things tend to get ugly.

That year I played intramural ball, and illegally switched teams in mid-season to help confront a bunch of cocky guys beating up on other lesser squads. During the championship game, play got rougher until their big center flipped me over his shoulder. I slammed to the ground. Before I knew what I was doing, I jumped up and slugged him flush in the eye. I could feel my knuckles embed in his flesh. He reacted with a wild swing that I ducked. Then I ran out the door into the cold winter air and kept running all the way home. That night, I got a phone call at home telling me not to come to school the next day or I’d get beaten to a pulp.

Forty years later, I showed up for a high school reunion and the guy I punched was sitting at the front of the room. I blanched at the idea that he might recall our encounter. But he didn’t. I reason that he was in so many fights that he didn’t recall that lone punch I threw.

Following my aborted career in scholastic basketball, my younger brother Greg entered high school and earned All-State Honorable Mention. He went on to play D1 basketball for Kent State University. As I mentioned in an earlier article in this series, my father had moved us from Kaneland to St. Charles in part to advance my brother’s basketball career. And it worked. He built his vertical leap to 36″ and had a wonderfully soft left-handed jump shot and a mobile floor game. He was a joy to watch when I got the chance to see him play between my college time and commitments.

I’d also loved watching my oldest brother Jim play basketball when I was growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He was an exceptional all-around athlete who ran a 4:40 mile as a freshman in the late 1960s. He could dunk the ball from a standing position and was great at defense. He played a season at Millersville College until he contracted mono.

My other brother Gary was a great defensive player with quick hands. He later became a competent fencer and exceptional table tennis player. We both won some local tournaments in that sport. But mostly we enjoyed hitting Open Gymn.

As adult siblings, we played together many times over the years. We jokingly branded ourselves the Flying Zambini Brothers. One time we were shooting around on an outdoor playground basket when a group of much younger players showed up and challenged us to a game. They had no idea what they’d just done. We wiped the court with them, including a couple resounding dunks from Greg.

I have no regrets about my Basketball Jones. All that lateral movement kept me largely injury free as a runner for many years. The jumping also prepped me for competition in the steeplechase, where the act of stepping on the barrier and leaping over the water jump was just another day at the office for one of the Flying Zambini Brothers.

As for me and my temper, I learned to tame it thanks to an incident I witnessed at Open Gym one Saturday. A player known for his temper got worked up and started threatening everyone. He even picked up a chair as if to hit someone. At that point, a massive former football player with a scary blonde buzz cut stepped in front of him and said, “Go ahead. Hit me. It will be the last thing you’ll ever do.”

The chair dropped to the floor, and the player walked out the door. We all went back to playing basketball, and I vowed never to lose my temper again.

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50 Years of Running: The Sectional Wall

As the cross country season rolled to a close in November1973, our squad ran in a tough sectional in the Chicago suburbs and didn’t advance downstate. That would have been a stretch for a program that was just beginning to grow into believing that it could compete with bigger schools such as York, Glenbard East and other powerhouses in Illinois cross country.

That day would arrive in a few years for both St. Charles East and St. Charles North, the two schools that emerged from the single high school serving the community through 1978 or so. As it was, I ran 15:26 at that Sectional, a credible time but nothing spectacular. I finished 20+ seconds behind Elgin’s Ken Englert and a few seconds behind his teammate John Shorey. The big names in Illinois running at that time dominated the day: Bill Fritz in 14:05. Dave Walters in 14:20 and Batavia’s Tom Burridge moving downstate in 14:37.

We’d run into the Sectional Wall, as it were. I ran nearly the exact same time the next year at sectionals, and placed in a somewhat similar position. Never quite made it downstate thanks to that Sectional Wall in Naperville and York.

The Open Toilet

There’s one amusing aspect of competing in a meet that season that was held at the North Central College campus. I believe it was the Naperville Sectional, but I could be wrong about that. Whatever the meet, I felt the classic need to hit the bathroom before the race began. Walking into the old North Central fieldhouse, I searched around for a toilet and walked into a room where a lone runner sat on an open stool with a line of guys waiting to go next. I stood there aghast. In the back of my mind, I vowed, “I am never going to go to this school.”

As luck and life might have it, I received a recruiting letter from Coach Al Carius a few weeks later. Knowing nothing about the North Central cross country tradition or what it might have meant to my career, I set the letter aside and didn’t take it seriously. As it was, our Luther College team placed second to NCC five years later in the NCAA D3 championships. The course of my running career was literally shifted by the sight of an open toilet. I have no regrets about that, but it is kind of funny that it was an open toilet that determined my choice in a college.

Growing futures

As for the program in St. Charles, there were other signs that the cross country team was developing talent in a positive way. A sophomore named Greg Andrews had won both the Kane County invitational and the Conference meet in 1973. That’s a difficult double in any season. He ran Varsity during dual meets to get used to the three-mile distance, but his accomplishments showed the importance of helping distance runners develop at their own rate.

Greg and I would soon travel similar paths with interests that converged not only around running, but around music and writers such as Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Robbins and others. He also grew close with another St. Charles runner, (John) Jack Brandli. Those two would dive deep into the sports of cycling, cross country skiing, roller skiing and triathlon together. I went cross country skiing with them dozens of times and took up cycling and triathlon years later. Our lives converged and mixed over the years. We definitely had some crazy times together.

The significance of our respective high school classes diminished as the years passed on. At one point, a fourth St. Charles runner named Greg Birk came back to Illinois from his job in Europe. We all cycled fifty miles together on a cool day swapping stories about our days running for coach Trent Richards, the girls we knew and life in St. Charles.

“I can’t believe you guys stayed here,” Birk wryly observed at one point. The rest of us laughed. We’d all been plenty of other places in our lives, but arrived back in the Tri-Cities. I’ve run something like 50,000 miles in my life, and cycled that and more. All that moving time amounts to plenty of travel. In the end, it’s all a journey within our minds, and breaking through the walls of our perceived existence. As Beatle George Harrison once wrote:

Try to realise it’s all within yourself
No one else can make you change
And to see you’re really only very small
And life flows on within you and without you

St. Charles runners: Cudworth, ’75, Birk, ’73, Andrews, ’76 and Brandli, ’74.
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50 Years of Running: Forgettable and Unforgettable

Looking back at a running career is a bit kaleidoscopic. Memories sometimes mix and turn circles in the mind. Others bubble up unintentionally, driven by autumn light or the smell of the air on an October day. While many of my recollections of certain events are clear, others escape me until a friend or former teammate tells a story. Once in a while, I’ll turn to one of them and say, “I don’t remember that at all.”

Some memories bubble up to the surface easily. Others we cannot so easily recall.

Even some entire races are collectively forgettable. I’ve asked teammates from the 1973 St. Charles High School season about our performance at the Upstate Conference cross country meet, and few can recall much about the day. We finished third behind Dekalb and Elgin. I placed sixth overall.

That would have qualified me as an All-Conference athlete once the high school started recognizing Top Ten performances in each sport. Years later while walking the hallway of the high school for a speaking engagement with the art department, I noticed a long line of photos mounted in the hallway leading to the locker room. I recognized a few runners that in later years were given the All-Conference designation, and admit to feeling cheated out of similar status. Once I gave it some thought, the jealousy felt petty. I finished sixth the next year in conference as well. Not a bad performance, but nothing to brag about really.

As a team, we’d somewhat failed in that conference meet after a largely triumphant season. For some reason, we weren’t “up” for that race as we’d been in others. Perhaps it was something about the odd course at Elgin Community College, or the strange pressure of forced expectation. In any case, we’d missed our goal of winning the Upstate Eight for the first time ever. Dekalb and Elgin were tough teams. They outran us that day. But we’d come back…

The next opportunity for success came at the District meet held on our home course. Our program had achieved some previous success in District competition, but we turned our sights on winning at our home course.

Former St. Charles High School runner Rick Wolhuter became one of the best American distance runners of all time.

Individually, the highest accomplishment in St. Charles cross country history was an All-State performance by Rick Wolhuter, the sprinter turned distance star who went on to run for Notre Dame and then the University of Chicago Track Club. Running for a school where an athlete of Wolhuter’s caliber once competed was by nature humbling. Yet he didn’t hold our school’s mile record, focusing on the 880 instead. By 1974, he held the world record in the 880 with a time of 1:44 and had run the mile in 3:54. He also ran a 1:43.9 800. If you’ve never read about his track and field career, Track and Field News wrote about it in their profile of Rick as their 1974 Athlete of the Year.

Despite the fact that our coach Trent Richards knew Rick Wolhuter, not much was said about his accomplishments during our 1973 season. They really weren’t relatable. As our top guy, I wasn’t about to place third in the state as Wolhuter once did. My goal was to run the best I could and help lead our team to Sectionals if possible.

Our team had an unforgettable day that day at Districts. All of our guys that had trained and sung together all season ran really well. Each of them had their own personality and style. Marty Van Acker, quiet and bookish. Paul Morlock, enthusiastic. Jack Brandli, a rocker on foot. Kevin Webster, determined resolve. Rob Walker, inspiration and grit. Again, I finished sixth overall, which seems to have been my favorite Big Meet placement. The truly interesting result that day was the run by John Ellwanger, a protege of Tom Burridge in Batavia, as their team qualified for sectionals as well. He’d been a decent runner up to that point, but racing with Burridge improved his running so much that he placed seventh place overall at the District meet. I was always impressed by that.

Looking at the newspaper clippings and photos from that era, I realized how times have changed in so many respects. The coverage on cross country meets given by local newspapers was gratifying through both the wins and the losses. Bill Kindt of the Beacon News was a longtime sportswriter among many in the Chicago suburbs who dedicated their lives to covering high school sports. I later contracted with him at the Beacon to write a yearlong series of nature articles for the newspapers.

Our local meets in St. Charles were covered by Elmore McCornack, whose family was a big part of St. Charles history. I don’t know why Mac wrote about cross country meets, but he was this classy gentleman who showed up at meets and knew the sport well. One of Mac’s nephews (or such) named Evan Clarrissimeaux went on to run for St. Charles and then the University of Iowa, where he posted a 4:07 mile. Evan and I trained together some after college. Our lives, and my connection to the McCornack family, converged again when I served as an officiant in the wedding of Evan’s sister Annie in January of 2019. That was a great honor.

There was a wonderful anticipation and joy to opening the weekly newspaper to read about meet results. We’d walk down to Bagge’s Pharmacy in downtown St. Charles and buy copies of the St. Charles Chronicle. Sometimes there were black and white photos accompanying the stories. These we kept as images that defined our accomplishments and our lives. Some of those clippings have survived decades in my collection, but a few are now lost.

They remind us that as young men and women, we pushed ourselves to efforts that in our later years become hard to imagine. We know that our results were not “woulda-coulda-shoulda” or Glory Days recollections. The outcomes are there in black and white, quite literally. Forgettable or Unforgettable, the record speaks for itself. There is great satisfaction in that, and no hubris or false pride in doing so.

Bill Sanders (Kaneland) John Schumaker and Jeff McCoy (Lake Park) Ken Englert (Elgin) Randy Russell (Burlington Central) Jay White (Wheaton) Chris Cudworth (111) John Shorey (Elgin, 47) Jack Brandli (115, St. Charles) Kevin Webster (St. Charles 114) and John Ellwanger (Batavia, headband.)

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50 Years of Running: Where Respect Is Due

Tom Burridge leading the St. Charles District race in 1973. He won and went on to earn All-State honors in cross country. Immediately behind him are my former Kaneland teammates Merid Dates and Bill Sanders.

Midway through the 1973 season, I’d run well enough, and our team was doing so well, that we began to gain the attention of some local sportswriters. The newspapers that covered our team included the St. Charles Chronicle, the hometown newspaper, and a larger paper out of Aurora, the Beacon News.

The Beacon published a story that documented our team progress and mentioned my name as a “junior sensation” leading the squad. In that same article, Coach Trent Richards was quoted, “Cudworth is a good runner, but not a sensational one.” He was absolutely correct in that statement. My times were decent, but not exceptional in any sense of the word.

When it came to revving up a potential rivalry in an upcoming race, the timing of that article could not have been worse for me. It published the week that St. Charles, Geneva and Batavia were scheduled to compete in the Tri-Cities meet. The rival that I both respected and feared in that meet was a runner named Tom Burridge.

Close associations

I knew about Burridge because my coach Trent Richards was consulting with the Batavia coach Joe Yagel, who knew enough to know that he did not know enough about running to coach an athlete like Tom, who had transferred from Hersey High School in the northwest suburbs where his prior team enjoyed success at the state level. Plus I believe Tom ran with the St. Charles Summer Track Club that Trent coached as well.

There were few more competitive runners in the Chicago suburbs than Tom Burridge. Yet I recall their being a friendly atmosphere before the Tri-Cities cross country meet because his father was there along with other parents and families of many other runners from all three teams. There were even folks watching the meet from previous teams at St. Charles. These included Herb and Joyce Birk, the parents of Greg Birk, the St. Charles athlete that graduated the previous year to run for Wabash College in Indiana. The Birks were present at almost every St. Charles meet that year because they loved running and always had kind words of encouragement for us (and me) after every race.

Neutral territory

The Tri-Cities meet was held on “neutral” territory that year rather than on anyone’s home course. The site was a three-mile route mapped out in in Fabyan Forest Preserve, one of the most popular spots in all of Kane County for nature and recreation. In those days, the railroad beds that once served the tri-city trolley line were not yet converted to bike trails, so the course was confined to a series of loops over and around the Fox river. We ran on both grass and asphalt with metal spikes rattling underfoot. I recall that the conditions were not ideal for those of us wearing 1/2″ spikes.

As the race neared, I was nervous at the thought of running against Tom Burridge. I knew that he was a superior runner but didn’t know by how much, since I’d been competing with other top runners fand doing well. But Burridge wasn’t messing around that day. He stepped up next to me on the line with his bright red and yellow Batavia jersey on, He didn’t even turn his head and muttered, almost under his breath, “Junior sensation my ass…” Then the gun went off and he left me in the dust. I watched him pull away with the skittering stride and the thought went through my head, “Man, you got to respect that…”

That was Tom. The fire within that guy always impressed me. Even so, I decided to go with him as long as I could. At the mile mark I was already 50 yards behind. After that, the race was not a matter of contention at all. In fact, I recently learned that while Tom was racing ahead of the rest of us, he spied Herb Birk and his wife along the way. He knew them because he was friends and sometimes training partners with their son Greg. He paused, then stopped, and politely told them. “Mr. and Mrs. Birk, you’re standing on the course.”

That’s how much of a lead he had at the time. I could see him crossing the river well ahead of me, the autumn light flickering on his crimson and gold jersey. By then, I didn’t care. I was feeling fairly decent myself and happy to be in second place. I knew where respect was due.

A rising tide lifts all ships

Tom’s leadership of the Batavia team lifted their entire squad to better performances that year. While St. Charles won the meet, his crew of John Ellwanger and others made it a tight score. I think Geneva’s Dave Bashaw had graduated by that point or I would have placed third in the Tri-Cities meet behind him as well. “Bash” was a tough runner in every respect.

Tom Burridge went on to run for the University of Kentucky. As I understand the story about how he arrived at that decision, he was introduced to Kentucky’s coach by my coach Trent Richards, who set up the meeting following a state meet. The Kentucky program was focused on recruiting Illinois runners, and attracted some of its best, including Craig Young of Stillman Valley and many others. The strategy worked, as Kentucky became one of the strongest running teams in the nation.

Tom went on the win distance titles in the Southeast Conference and set a PR of 13:45 in the track 5K. My personal best at that distance wound up being 14:45, demonstrating that I’ve always been in a bit different league than runners like Tom Burridge, who I’ve always considered a sensational runner.

Not one for compliments

Of course, knowing Tom as I do from years of association, he might argue with that characterization of himself as sensational. No one is more judiciously critical of his own performances than Tom. But he was always a fierce competitor no matter who he ran against. I raced in the same Chicago Distance Classic 20K in which he competed with Frank Shorter, the Olympic marathon champion and one of America’s best-ever distance runners. Tom kept up with Shorter quite a ways before the two-time Olympian smoothed away with his bellows-breathing stride to win the race.

One of my favorite Burridge stories is centered around the fact that he once held the American Half-Marathon record. He sit it during a race in which he finished behind some international runners, so he didn’t factor the idea that he might have set a national record. A couple decades later, Tom looked up the history of the American half-marathon and learned that he’d been the best-ever American half-marathoner with a time of 1:04.

A late cycling prodigy

These days he’s one of the top Over-60 road cyclists in North America, so he’s still putting that “big engine” to use. He’s won 200-mile races and competes in criterium races across the country. That competitive verve has cost him a few broken bones, including a busted thigh and a whole rack of broken ribs. Yet he keeps coming back to top form because his persona does not have any quit in it.

I loved running against the likes of Tom Burridge and other top Midwestern runners in high school and into my college career and beyond. I had the occasional great performance against some of those guys, but its a privilege to have gone toe-to-toe with better runners even when I got my unsensational ass kicked. That’s what distance running is all about. You put it out there, do your best, and show respect where respect is due.

That’s all any of us can do.

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50 Year of Running: The Maroons Come to Play

Coming off the St. Charles victory in which we snapped the 60+ dual meet streak of Naperville Central, we faced a squad from Elgin High School that was more than our equal. The afternoon broke cool and slightly overcast. Classic cross country weather. The late afternoon sunshine cast long shadows even as we toed the line. Our seven guys and their seven guys lined up at the bottom of the athletic fields near Route 64 in St. Charles, and we took off running up a series of inclines to the upper campus.

From right to left, and corrections are accepted: Karl Ulrich (Elgin), Marty Van Acker (STC), Ed White (Elgin), Paul Morlock (STC), John Shorey (Elgin), Kevin Webster (STC, (unknown Elgin), John Brandli (STC), (unknown Elgin) Rob Walker (STC).

The St. Charles High School Campus course was a series of loops that included some sharp turns so that it was easy to see how the race was developing. That day in 1973, there was little separation between the two sides. The squads were so evenly matched that it only seconds separated the first through fifth men.

Chris Cudworth leading Ken Englert, John Shorey and Marty Van Acker

I led the race early with Elgin’s Ken Englert a step behind. He was an intimidating opponent with his strong legs and surfer boy looks. His teammate John Shorey stuck close and our second runner Marty Van Acker was right behind. All within two seconds of each other nearing the mile mark.

Cudworth, Shorey, Englert and Van Acker

We circled past the start and began climbing the west side of campus in a series of right turns culminating at an elementary school on the far southwest side of campus. The four leaders stayed close through every turn. Englert and Shorey kept the pressure on.

Shorey, Cudworth and Van Acker

As we made the last turn toward the finish chute John Shorey had crept ahead and Ken Englert launched a sprint. My teammate Marty Van Acker was right there as well. The placement of this foursome would effectively decide the outcome of the meet.

Engler, Cudworth, Shorey

I launched my own sprint in an attempt to catch Englert. But as you can see from this photo, he was in full flight and not to be caught this day. I had my eyes on the finish line, and our cheerleaders had seen us home, but Ken won the race.

In the finishing chute

The final score of the meet was 27-29. St. Charles won the dual.

But a week or so later, Elgin outran us at the Kane County meet. Their coach Jerry Cusack knew how to motivate and coach kids as well as our coach Trent Richards.

The thrill of that rivalry was something that I thought I alone relished all these years. Yet one day about six or seven years ago, I received a phone call from an Elgin runner whose name I can’t recall. He talked about the joys of competition between our two teams, and we reminisced while recalling the names of our fellow teammates. “You guys were fun to run against,” he told me. I agreed. It was always fun when the Maroons came to play.

Then he made a proposal of sorts. “Would you want to get some guys together again to run a cross country meet?”

I laughed a bit at that. While I’m still running and competing, and a few of my teammates still put in some miles, the substance of a full squad just isn’t there fifty years later. “I love the idea,” I told my fellow running enthusiast. “But I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

The newspaper clipping to that Elgin versus St. Charles race got lost in a move a few years back, but I feel blessed to have gotten the yearbook photos from that year to share the atmosphere of a cross country race that was epic in its small little sphere. As I’ve written, I also found this old program photo that lay buried next to the football field for ten years.

I guess we can all thank our rivals for creating those moments in time. Win or lose, it makes you part of an intense ritual that in many respects can last a lifetime.

That starting line when everyone is nervous and anxious. The first mile when the legs and lungs starting talking together. The pack forms and the positions jostle. The hills come along to test your resolve. The turns force you to slow and start up running again. Then that finishing sprint. Do you have what it takes?

In fifty years of running, those are the sensations that I treasure the most.

The other interesting facet of this rivalry is that my competitor Ken Englert and I share a love of nature that has carried through our lives. Ken is an exceptional wildlife photographer and I’m a wildlife painter.

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