By Christopher Cudworth
In the summer before starting college the group of guys that ran together and hung together began plotting a major league blowout party for an end-of-summer sendoff.
We all got blotto. Drunk. Falling down stupefied. And maybe a little high in spots. Although I didn’t smoke dope yet. But someone did. I recall that much.
The party lasted all night and well into the next morning. Two days later most of us headed off for college and our changing lives.
Rite of passage
The day after I arrived on campus was a nervous affair. The 35 members of the college cross country team were gathered a week before school started to begin practice. The entire team took off on its first practice run and the pace soon ramped up to 6:00 per mile. We tore through unfamiliar streets and trails for most of us freshman, who clung to the middle of the pack as best we could. A couple even dared slipping to the front where sophomores, juniors and seniors aggressively jockeyed for position.
It was intense, requiring an almost race-level performance on my own part to keep up. The summer had not been that heavy on training, so it was raw ability and determination that largely carried me along.
Climbing into pain
Up and over the hills at Palisades park we climbed where the vertical space we climbed reached 250 feet. I recall being at the edge of absolute exhaustion while cresting that hill .
Then we descended furiously, leaning into turns on cambered roads. The race back to campus was on. No one was giving an inch. This was territoriality and male machismo and self-image and team position and social status and sheer guts and glory all in one 8 mile run. It hurt. And it felt good at the same time.
It was one of the harder runs I had ever done to that point in my career, 8 hilly miles at 6:00 pace surrounded by runners superior to me in speed and maturity. It was an induction to college running that would never be forgotten. The next day was more of the same. And the next. We improved in fitness and started to race in earnest. But that first run was a test of resolve. Had I failed, it all might have turned out different. Lost confidence is hard to restore.
When finished, the group surveyed who had survived and who had not. Standing in front of the fieldhouse, I felt a surge of triumph at having come through the crisis of pace and nerves. Suddenly a junior walked up to me and said aloud to everyone, “Look at this guy. He’s not even sweating. It was easy for him!”
I did not know it at first, but getting called out like that was something of a dangerous thing in terms of reputation. A crop of five freshman who had all broken 15:00 for 3 miles in high school cross country brought high expectations to the team, and everyone in the upper classes was fearing for their spots in the Top 7, and with good reason. All 5 of us ran varsity at times that season. Four years later that core of runners would place 2nd in the national Division III cross country meet.
But it was not exactly no sweat along the way. The journey between all that would be fierce. In those moments following the first run of a college career, all that effort and achievement could only be imagined. But I wondered why, indeed, I was not sweating like the rest of the team. It was hot and I normally sweated plenty.
Last call for alcohol
It was the alcohol from two days before that was still impacting my body. In truth I was still dehydrated from all the drinking we’d done at that blowout back home. I didn’t know that at the time, and wouldn’t figure it out until years later, but I’m lucky that a lack of sweat was all that came of the stupidity.
One might have learned from such an experience that drinking and running don’t mix that well. Yet the culture of running at the time, and to this day perhaps, was to run hard and drink hard.
The culture (and fun) of drinking
But we kept running, and we kept drinking hard. A couple years after college a buddy and I traveled to La Crosse, Wisconsin for a half marathon and the party following it was insane. Naked people wandered around the house all night and most of us woke up in a stupor on the floor, half covered and half alive.
Then we all got up and ran 10 miles hard, half hungover and still tired from the half-marathon race we’d done the day before. Yet the group trundled along at 6:30 pace until one of the best runners in the group stopped suddenly to spit on the road and glanced down to see that his loogee was actually purple. “Oh my God!” he shrieked in humorous half horror. “Did that come out of me?”
We distance athletes are fond of extremes and a purple loogee is about as extreme as it gets. All in good fun.
Years after my competitive career had cooled I was the featured artist for a race in Texas where world class runners flew in from all over the world. The night after the race the American distance runners all got drunk and half of them siphoned off to screw the night away, men and women on the road, in lonely hotels, fit and horny. Then add alcohol. What did you think was going to happen?
The Kenyan runners, by comparison, settled quietly into their rooms and woke early in the morning to do a 10-miler together in the soft light of a Texas dawn. The contrast in habits between the American road-racing-circuit runners and the Kenyans was pronounced. It was easy perhaps to see why the Kenyans won the day before.
One must be careful however not to slice the bread too broadly on the issue. People of every race and nationality abuse drugs and alcohol. The point here instead is that it truly is possible to choose a different course. One can compete hard and enjoy a few drinks and not let it own the process entirely. We all like to work hard and play hard sometimes. Our habits do start early however.
All through college the runners on our team and other schools ( we learned) tended to engage in binge drinking at least. But the truth is, several teammates went on to deal with real cases of alcoholism, and one actually died from it.
At one point a teammate turned to me and asked, point blank: “Do you think I’m an alcoholic?”
I answered, “On weekends, yes.”
He later required an intervention to stop his drinking. When stress hit him he simply drank too much and it became a habit. So it turned out that the pattern of drinking in response to the stress of running was, in fact, a rehearsal for later realities.
Another college runner finished 26th in nationals his freshman year and then got hooked on pot (yes, that can happen) and never ran in the Top 7 again. There’s something that goes on in the brain when substances take over. It can’t be balanced, really, with the discipline of pure performance. That’s the tarsnake of drugs and endurance sports.
“Help me find my car”
Another college runner asked us several times to go running around town on Sunday mornings to help him find his car. “I can’t remember where I left it,” he’d say, and at the time we all found that funny. But deep down, not really. We could see in his face what alcohol abuse was doing to his esteem and self-confidence. And indeed, he died later in life from drinking too much. That’s not funny. But it happens.
Athletes don’t differ from the general population in terms of their ability to use drugs. A certain segment of the populace is always going to have a tough time managing substance use. The trick is to see it coming.
Rookie mistakes can cost you
At the end of my college freshman season we won the conference meet and I placed 9th overall. Then we held a big cross country party. Girls liked to come to the event because it was known as a crazy time where bunches of skinny, funny guys got drunk and danced wildly until they either fell down or collapsed from exhaustion.
But I drank too hard and too fast that day. The 90 proof punch we’d made got into my bloodstream and pretty soon I was leaning over to kiss a girl and missed entirely, kissing the thermostat instead. Don’t lie to me. You’ve been there too.
They had to haul me home by my feet and arms and throw me in bed. The drunken state was a harsh and painful fog. All night long I lay there writhing from the alcohol, and likely was in a state of alcohol poisoning at one point. My liver could have failed. It happens.
40 years on
It’s not something to be proud of. I could have died. Easily. Kids still do it all the time.
As time went by the propensity to get drunk rapidly grew less and less appealing. I learned how to drink responsibly.
You look back, and you wish you could hand along that valuable perspective to others so they don’t have to go through it the hard way. Turning life into a hangover is not the way to succeed at anything. Not in the long run.
And the truth is, it seems that nothing has really changed in 40 years of the college experience. The entire picture we seem to get about the college experience these days is one constant party. Accurate or not, that’s the vision pumped out in the movies, the media and on Facebook. It is somewhat self-perpetuating as a result. Colleges are desperate to change that culture, and can’t in many cases.
I recall going back for a 10-year reunion and meeting a brilliant, funny young man on the cross country team. His presence was wonderful, and his humor engaging and insightful. As the day wore on the group of alumni and current runners joined for a party and it was hard to witness that young man devolve into a drunken mess. His joy and verve went away. I recognized myself in that young man, and wanted to literally yank his soul right out of his body. Fortunately he righted himself and it was only one of a billion instances of college binge drinking, but it’s the stuff of parental nightmares. Innocence drowned, as it were, in alcohol.
It’s not alcohol marketing that is at fault. It’s our lack of perspective in society as to what constitutes a real rite of passage.
Here’s the deal: If there is not enough substantive stimulation from our priorities, we invent ways to test ourselves with risky behavior. The whole genre of “teens get drunk” movies is all about that. I love the movie Superbad because it is so funny and true. Trying to find ourselves is hard, terrifying work, and alcohol feels like a shortcut, but it’s not. It’s actually the longest way around to finding out who you really are.
Sure, some forms of drinking really are harmless. The risk-taking forms are not. The hard part is that people can’t really identify where the risks lie. Some are short term risks, like drinking and driving. Others are long term risks, like a predisposition to alcoholis. Genetic and relentless, alcoholism cares not if you survive or not.
Even people engaged in seemingly constructive self discovery like competitive distance running or any other sport are just as susceptible to the deception of self medication. Those of us who are double risk-takers need to recognize the deep need for challenge and stimulation. If you don’t run and ride, and then drink, you might smoke instead, and then drink too. I’ve known many runners who start smoking when they quit training. It’s hard-wiring.
But many runners and cyclists and triathletes do know how to compete and still drink sensibly.
Knowing how to drink well, not hard
This is not some preachy harsh warning to teens or adults to avoid drinking. I actually think we all need to learn how to drink, and drink well. The sad thing is there is no warning system to let you know when you’ve really been over-served. The only demarcation point is a hangover. Then you know you f’d up. It hurts. You swear you’ll never do it again. But the fact is, that’s a little too late.
And honestly, we can say the same thing about marathons and Century rides and most certainly the Ironman. All these pursuits involve a certain amount of indulgence and risk-taking. We consider them positives because in many ways they enhance our life experience, refine or motivations and make us healthier both in the heart and mind. Yet people who don’t do these things consider those who do a bit crazy and overwrought. So it’s a matter of perspective and insight.
That famous abuser of drugs Hunter S. Thompson once covered the Honolulu Marathon and saw himself in the trudging obsession with endorphins. He knew a drug when he saw one, and laughably ridiculed the sport for its carb0-loaded-mileage-invested passion for mileage and pain.
Yet he admired greatly the best of the lot. Here is what he wrote:
We are talking about two distinct groups here, two entirely different marathons. The Racers would all be finished and half drunk by 8 in the morning, or just about the time that the pack was pouring through the halfway point. They run smoothly, almost silently, with a fine-tuned stride. No wasted energy, no fighting the street or bouncing along like a jogger. These people flow, and they flow very fast. Watching the Racers race is like watching Kobe Bryant in the open court or Michael Vick turning the corner. Each one of them is literally one in a billion. A racer in full stride is an elegant thing to see.
Drunk on marathoning
We run to drink and drink to run. The substance that goes down our throats may be Gatorade one minute and White Rascal the next. The difference is so subtle in our engagement that the line between addiction and connection is hard to discern. The marathon and any distance event for that matter, especially the Tour de France, is immersion into the soul of a drunken obsession with hard effort.
So it doesn’t do to simply preach. Not if you admit what really happens to your body in endurance events. It’s a chemical exercise in which you dance with destruction. Then you have an exercise hangover the next day. It hurts. You swear you’ll never do it again.
But you do. Because living well simply demands that we test ourselves.
So we drink too much and we run and ride too much at times. Sometimes we wind up naked on the floor at a party with a bunch of other runners and we stand up and look around and go, “Damn, that was fun.”
Hooked on drugs
It’s all a drug. Every second of life is a drug we drink with varying degrees of common sense, or lack of it.
We run and ride and swim, and many of us drink afterward. The hard part is not letting the drinks rule the things we do to get there.
It all comes down to this simple philosophy: As a habit and matter of practice, teach yourself to drink sensibly, of life and ale, and live to run and ride another day.
It’s that simple. Except it isn’t.