By Christopher Cudworth
At times one must accept that personal history is both a direct and parallel consequence of having lived. We all construct narratives around who we are and how we got here. As runners, we create an additional layer of history through the extra effort given to sports.Yet by necessity some of that history is embraced and some of it disregarded, if not discarded altogether.
Running under the radar
These are emotions many of us suppress. It does no real good to lament the past or even wonder what might have been. One small choice that seems inconsequential at the time can change your entire future. But you never know that. It’s like that episode when Homer Simpson goes back in time and steps on a mosquito in the Jurassic Age. When he flips back to the present it’s raining donuts outside, but he doesn’t know it because he’s no smarter for the rate of evolution that has taken place around him. The world’s evolution is no guarantee of our own. It’s like we’re running under the radar. Making it up as we go along.
That is how I felt standing in the hallway of the field house at North Central College in Naperville. I was there to support the woman I’m dating as she ran the inaugural Naperville half marathon. She’d trained well with a pulse rate in the mid-40s and blood pressure at 115/78 or some nice smooth measurement. My own training has been interrupted by the weird joint infection, surgery and recovery. So I was there as the support crew. And all good with that.
It was chilly though, and we stood with hundreds of others inside a long corridor next to the football field, keeping warm on a 32-degree morning.
As she drifted over to talk to a friend my attention turned to the photos of North Central Cross Country teams on the wall. It happened that the spot where we were standing aligned with the very era in which I competed for Luther College in cross-country. Our team finished 2nd to North Central College at the national in 1978. For us it was an incredible triumph to finish that well after placing 5th in regionals just a week before. We peaked at the right time, in other words. But for North Central College, winning the national meet that year was yet another example of the quality of the nation’s very best Division III College cross country program. Coach Al Carius was eventually named Coach of the Century in the NCAA for his incredible ability to turn average runners into great ones.
Al Carius once sent me a recruiting letter. I was the top runner for St. Charles High School. Having not gotten many recruiting letters it made an impression on me. However my other impression of North Central College at the time was not so positive. That year the cross-country regionals had been held on the North Central campus. Feeling the urge to go to the bathroom just before the race, I ran to the field house hoping for a quiet stall. Instead what I encountered was a line of perhaps 20 runners waiting to take a crap or a whiz at a lonesome toilet sitting on an open floor. It seemed barbaric. Hell, it was barbaric.
And I was horrified. There as no way a guy with a shy bladder was going to make anything happen in that circumstance. It stunned me that all those runners were willing to make a go of it in that circumstance. It made me feel weak and strange at the time.
So let’s face it. At that time in the late 1970s North Central College was not the world-class small school it is today. As a 17-year-old runner I could see neither the future of that college or even appreciate the quality of its running program. All I knew is that I didn’t want to take a shit at an open toilet for four straight years.
Sure, it was a naive judgment. But can you blame me at the time? Really? It’s all I knew of the place. At 17, sometimes that how decisions are made.
So I attended Luther College, and that experience holds many treasured memories. Yet when I looked at that photo of the North Central guys against whom I competed in college and beyond, on the road racing circuit many years following graduation, it is almost like I knew those North Central guys like teammates. In many cases that become literally true. If that seems strange, then you don’t understand the bonds forged by competition, or how similar the programs at small colleges can be. And how lives converge sometimes.
Running into the present
While watching the half marathon that morning a group of current North Central cross-country guys ran up to watch. You could see the quality of their strides and knew they were each capable of jumping into the half marathon that day and winning it.
Probably easily. The winner ran 1:14 or thereabouts, which is credible, but hardly the work of an elite or sub-elite runner. I can remember running half marathon times in the mid 1:10s and finishing between 10th and 20th many of those races That was the early 1980s when road race competition was at its keenest.
Truth be told, nine out of 10 of those races seemed to be won by former North Central College guys. The program pumped out competitive runners with verve and enthusiasm for running. No matter how fit you were, you knew you were in for a tough race if you saw the vertical red pinstripes on the starting line.
North Central Track Club
For a while I trained with the North Central College Track Club, a group loosely affiliated with the college. We ran intervals on the new all-weather track. I ran my PR 14:45 5K on that track at midnight during an All-Comers meet, and got 14th place because so many other faster runners were prepping for nationals or other competitions that night. That’s North Central College in a nutshell. Competition for competition’s sake. I once watched one of their talented half milers throw on a pair of cutoff blue jean shorts and a set of borrowed spikes run a 1:52 half with no training per se. Crazy talent is a joy to behold. More guys were laughing than cheering at the insanity of it. That is what makes sport such a brilliant part of life. Tradition is always part planning and part inanity. You need both to succeed in life.
The college now has world-class facilities and even an innovative dormitory built around a fitness center. The sleepy little college in what was formerly a sleepy little town of Naperville is an integral part of a community repeatedly recognized as one of the best places to live, work and study in Illinois. There are no more isolated toilets on campus. I can assure you of that.
Cinders and directions
But those of us around in the early days recall when that track was nothing but a ring of cinders. I’d raced in a dual meet on that campus against a Naperville Central High School rival and lost on the second loop around campus when I forgot to go straight instead of run the backstretch again, which added 200 yards to the course. Was it my fault that I lost the race that day, or should someone have been on the course to direct the lead runners on the proper path? Those are the types of questions that vex you in life. What is really your fault, and what is not? Would life have changed in significant ways had I won rather than taken second by two meters to a runner who did not have the sportsmanship to call ahead and yell, “Go straight!”
It’s a dog-eat-dog world. Some of us think it’s fine to sit on an open toilet and take a crap in front of 20 other runners. Others do not. Some of us think it’s a sportsmanlike thing to correct a runner off course even if it means losing the race.
Some of us wonder about these things and mull on the histories that might have been even though it is fruitless, in many respects, to dwell at all on the past.
Yet when I returned to the Fieldhouse corridor to warm up a little while waiting for the half-marathon to finish, two women were standing in front of the same pictures I’d noticed earlier. They turned to me and said, “It’s fascinating they have all these photos here. They’ve never taken them down. They go all the way down the hall.”
“Well,” I told them. “I know almost all the guys in this photo right here. And most of them in the photos next to them too. I competed against all of them in college and in road races. It’s nice these photos are here, don’t you think? It’s their tradition…”
They both smiled. “Yes,” they said. “It is.”
“And that coach, Al Carius? He’s still here. And many of the guys in these photos are coaching at high schools all over the Chicago area. They really give back to the sport. That’s part of their tradition too.
I pointed to one runner I knew that had competed against me in high school, then went to North Central College and ran 250 miles a week in training. “He’s the sweetest, most intense guy in the world,” I told them. “He was an All American in cross country. But he has a mental illness, and the signs were there showing even then. Those of us in the running community understood it, and tried to help when we could. It’s interesting that his head is bowed in this picture when everyone else is looking at the camera. Almost symbolic. He’s done his best in life. I see him occasionally.”
You can take that story or a thousand other stories of all the runners who have come through the North Central program over the years. Stories of ascendance. Stories of challenge and triumph. They are all parallel lives.
Because it’s true: We are all running through this life together. You can put on vertical red stripes and call yourself a Cardinal, or wear Luther Blue. We’re really all on one team here on this earth. Running both to get ahead, and to stay in place. And once in a while, we stop to glance at a picture on the wall, and realize that it’s important to capture those moments when time stands still. Marking tradition.
We can admire that in others and even call it part of our own. That’s called unity, or community, as you choose. It runs parallel to our own realities whether we realize it or not sometimes.