By Christopher Cudworth
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While doing research for an article a few months back, I was perusing a booklet of race results from my senior year in college. It had been a magical year in many ways, filled with thrilling races and a 2nd place finish in the National Division III cross country meet.
While looking through the times I’d run and competitors we’d faced, the name Brian Hantsbarger kept cropping up next to mine. We were closely matched as runners, finishing within seconds of each other in the mid 25:00 range for 5 miles over multiple races.
Brian the competitor and Brian the person
Brian wore black horn-rimmed glasses in college, and he even had a bit of a bookish running style, like one of those classic English runners you’d seen in Chariots of Fire. But I clearly recall he was a fierce competitor, one who would not give an inch in the last mile of a race. I particularly recall a long stretch running together on a golf course in Grinnell, Iowa. His team from Central College was having its best year and they were eager to try to knock Luther College off its conference throne. We battled back and forth those last 400 yards and Brian slipped into the chute ahead of me.
I looked up Brian’s name on LinkedIn and found out that he was a partner in an accounting firm out in Iowa, a position he’s held since 1983. His practice focuses on small business and family-owned firms. His LinkedIn profile lists cross country and track as interests, along with Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
When I messaged Brian complimenting him on his competitive focus, this is what he wrote back:
“Chris – we both had more hair back in our college days! I think that you got your facts wrong – I am sure that you beat me more often than I beat you. My high point of my running days was winning the conference track championship my senior year. We had to outscore the mighty Luther in the next to last race – the 5K – to do it. I believe that we finished 3, 4 and 5 in the race. This was after Luther had finished 2nd or 1st in the cross-country DIII championship that previous fall. My running days are over. When I turned 50 I started running again and was able to break 40 minutes in the 10K but then my legs started giving me problems so I had to quit. I probably should start riding a bike instead as I believe you do. Take care, Brian”
Brian was correct. His team had finally defeated Luther after 17 consecutive years of conference track championships. I also competed in that 5K, but was coming off a double in the steeplechase earlier in the meet and was unable to muster enough juice to place in the 5K.
But that’s not the point. The point is that all these years later, the bonds of competitive fury mold into friendship.
A happy rivalry
Not long after I wrote Brian, I received a phone call literally out of the blue. “Is this Chris Cudworth?” the voice on the line asked. “This is Jim Klein. You may not remember me but I ran for Elgin Central in high school. I saw your picture in that profile in the local paper and a bunch of us runners from Elgin got talking about the rivalry we had with St. Charles, and we’d like to get together, even run a little race or something.”
Klein went on to fill me in on the whereabouts and general history of a group of runners from Elgin, all who had been fierce competitors in a back and forth exchange of county and conference championships.
Uncle Rico Syndrome
My curiosity was piqued that another school recalled our meets as something worth remembering. It’s easy, as everyone knows, to glorify those high school or college days, and live in the past. We must all be wary of living too much in the past.
One of the saddest characters in all of moviedom is Uncle Rico in the film
Napolean Dynamite. Uncle Rico was the former football player who could not get over the fact that his high school career had ended in ignonimy. He even sets up a video camera to tape himself heaving passes while recollecting (out loud) his lost glory.
Honor and respect
This was not that type of conversation, and it wasn’t about living in the past. Instead, the Elgin runners had collectively recognized that competing well had been a mark of honor and respect. They thought it worth the effort to connect with long lost rivals and learn about their lives in the present.
Rivals you never defeated
One runner from Elgin, Ken Englert, had been a particularly strong individual challenger, and I’m not sure I actually ever beat him in any race. He went on to compete for Eastern Illinois University and ran a 10K in the mid-30:00 range, good by any standards.
Ken and I once raced over 3 miles on his home cross country course and exchanged the lead at least 10 times, never more than a few steps apart. Coming into the home stretch neither of us gave way and crashed into the posts at the finish, crushing the chute as we both fell to the ground. Ken tumbled a foot or so ahead of me, and was declared the winner. That’s home course advantage, I guess.
A few weeks after the call from Jim Klein, another Elgin runner named Karl Ulrich called to further relate what everyone on his former team was doing. It was interesting to find out the personalities behind the rivalry: Who people really were, and are nowadays.
The serious business of the hard fight
Even competitor at the most serious of levels, that of war and worldwide conflict, ultimately produce respect and even awe between soldiers on opposite sides. The Ken Burns production of The War showed American veterans talking about how tough their Japanese and German combatants really were. In war there is a fierce sadness even in victory.
The past really does matter to the present
The process of reconnection is no doubt replicated many thousands of times among men and women who were once competitors. There is even a website called Career Athletes that helps people who competed in college sports network for jobs, connections and business opportunities.
But sometimes the connections are even more direct. For example, my daughter’s supervisor in the athletic department at Augustana College, Dave Wrath, recognized her name and asked me to make connections because we’d shared competitive careers in both high school and college. Dave ran for Plainfield High School, and I’d competed against his team while at Kaneland and St. Charles High Schools.
By invitation of my daughter Emily Cudworth, I met up with Dave at Augustana College one bright fall day this year, it gave me an opportunity to ask about the crazy course his high school had thrown together for an invitational. “I came around the corner in the lead,” I told him. “And the flags said ‘go straight’ but there was a cattail marsh filled with water between the two flags. What was up with that?”
“It rained,” Dave chuckled.
“No,” I retorted. “I know for a fact I was the first person ever to run through that chunk of marsh,” I laughed.
Wrath, who was installed into the Augustana Athletic Hall of Fame for his contributions as both and athlete (his cross country team finished 4th in the NCAA D3 national championships) and a consummate sports information professional. During our conversation I had confused the fact that we’d run against each other in college, a faux pas I’ll blame on being really hungry at the moment, and this is a public apology for not recognizing Dave’s achievements in person that day. I’m a dope sometimes.
This is also a public acknowledgement for the mentorship Dave and others at Augustana are providing my daughter in marketing communications/media journalism, photography and sports information at Augustana. It can be amazing sometimes how former competitors can contribute so much to your life in the present.
What goes around often comes out well
Suddenly it becomes evident that the person to whom you did not want to lose might actually be a person you would ultimately most like to know. They make you better somehow in the challenge to win, or the difficulty of accepting a loss.
So it turns out that many of the nicest people in the world are the ones who once tried to kick your ass. Proving once and for all that nice people do not always finish last.