I was too young to have read anything by Hunter S. Thompson when I was a freshman in high school. But it would have been good for me to absorb some of the fearless antics of the Gonzo journalist that hung out with Hell’s Angels and got beat up during his efforts to integrate with the traveling band of motorcyle thugs and their culture of confrontation and violence.
Thompson wasn’t afraid of much in this world. At least, he waded into situations that most of us would avoid. Often that fearlessness was fueled by massive amounts of drugs and alcohol, so he wasn’t much of a role model for most of us. But there is something to be said for facing life with the belief that you’ll pretty much get through anything you encounter if you’re willing to kill it, rhetorically or not.
Stepping to the line
That first time you step to the line as a young runner in cross country, the sensations are overwhelming if you let them drag you under. Typically those first meets are held in late summer heat, so there’s sweat soaking your hair and trickling down bare arms. Standing beside you are teammates that you’ve trained with, and who represent the same school. Yet you still want to beat them in the race because that determines how valuable you are as an individual runner. The whole experience can create conflicted emotions.
Yet Hunter S. Thompson never seemed to feel conflicted. One of his most famous quotes is, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”
He also described his approach to life in terms that make most hearts tremble: “The Edge… there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.”
The same can be said of distance running. Once the gun goes off, the entire race is an attempt to run on the edge: of exhaustion, fear, and pace. To really improve, one has to push through the edge of those things to find out what lies beyond. It could be collapse and exhaustion. But it could also be transcendent. Remember those breakthroughs? The days when it finally came together. When you actually ran past fear and into anticipation?
That is what runners live for. And it starts the day you realize that’s what it’s all about.
That yin and yang of fear and excitement is how I felt that entire first season of freshman cross country. Dealing with fear is a key aspect of learning how to run and compete. Fear begets nerves. Nerves turn up more fears. It’s possible to ruminate yourself right into the ground with questions swirling around your head.
“Will I run well?”
“Can I beat my newfound rival?”
“What if I fail? What will people think?”
“Are the girls watching me?”
And fear? It also leads to loathing. That sensation of self-disrespect is the worst enemy of any runner. Kids are especially prone to self-loathing due to peer pressure and other factors at work on the young mind. Add in parental approval and sibling rivalry and the mix can get a little toxic. All you can hope to do is run past it all.
No waiting around
So I’ll toss out another quote by Hunter S. Thompson that fits here: “A man who procrastinates in his choosing will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstance.”
That’s about the most truest thing I’ve ever read. It certainly applies in the realm of distance running, especially in those formative years. Every second of every race is an exercise in self-determination. Finding success in running is the exact opposite of procrastination. You cannot put off until tomorrow what you need to do today. It doesn’t pay to wait around and see what will happen next. If you’re not moving, you’re not improving. That’s not an absolute, because we all need rest too. But effectively, that is how it works.
It also comes down to this: fear and loathing can have no permanent place in your psyche if you want to succeed in distance running. That’s why I treasure those early experiences in Kaneland cross country. They taught me lessons that my father tried to install in me, but I was too stubborn to receive. I learned how to accept responsibility, to do the work, and put that effort to good use on any given day. I think my father saw that in me eventually.
It’s not that I had never stepped up to the plate in sports before. Already by the age of thirteen I’d gotten good enough as a pitcher to play American Legion baseball with players three-to-five years older than me. I’d sunken a half-court shot with three seconds left to win a basketball game against an undefeated 8th grade rival the year before. I wasn’t afraid to compete. Yet sometimes, fear of success is as great an impedance to individual development as fear of failure. You have to learn to accept the next level of pressure and achievement to continue to improve. For some athletes, that’s a source of fear and loathing unto itself.
Learning to deal with success and how to handle it among teammates and peers is a critical aspect of self-actualization and personal development. It meant something more to compete for a real school team. I’d watched my brothers do it. Now it was my turn.
That meant facing the fears that come with lining up against older, faster, tougher runners. There were plenty of them around in those days. Illinois cross country was a hotbed of top-level athletes in the early 1970s, including a guy named Craig Virgin that in 1972 would set a course record at the state meet in Peoria. I was there that day. Little did any of us know that his time of 13:51 would stand as the course record for almost 50 years before it was broken. Many great runners tried, and barely missed over those five decades. All I can say is that watching him run that day inspired me, yet it also planted a bit of fear and loathing in me. Could I ever come close to running anywhere that fast? I sincerely doubted it.
Frankly (pun intended, see illustration above) I was not afraid of trying. Instead, I was being honest with myself. While I set goals and met many of them over fifty years of running, improving along the way, I also learned that I was not a national or world-class level athlete. Even at the age of fourteen, I saw that while I had talent, there were others that had more. Much more. The thrilling truth is that once in a while I was able to beat some of them on a given day. But many times not.
I would never reach the levels that runners like Craig Virgin, or my former track teammate Ron Ackerman who ran at University of Kentucky along with Tom Burridge, a conference rival from Batavia. I revered the likes of Frank Shorter, and later Bill Rodgers. Of course Steve Prefontaine was a favorite icon as well. I imagined myself running in their footsteps in some way. As Hunter S. Thompson described it, the lifelong pursuit of running falls into the category of obsession pretty well when he said, “Faster, faster, faster, until the thrill of speed overcomes the fear of death.”
If that seems a bit dramatic, then perhaps you’ve forgotten how the mind of a fourteen-year-old kid (or a 64-year-old man) sometimes works. Failing was worse than death to me. Losing felt worse than torture. I resented the people that caused me to fail or lose. I wanted to beat them more than anything in the world. My brothers branded me The Mink for the competitive fury I’d show in a fit of spit and determination. Even Kaneland Coach Rich Born once stated in a newspaper interview, “Cudworth isn’t afraid to compete with anyone.”
That was accurate on the surface. Yet not completely true. I was afraid in many ways. But that’s the thing. Being nervous is part of competition. We all have self-doubts and fears. Killing them off is the height of satisfaction.
I think that’s how many of us go through life. We put on the face we need to compete and succeed, yet secretly each one of us harbors doubts and fears. A few of us even confront personal loathing at times, thought we dare not show anyone. Fortunately, even that is changing as mental health rises to the forefront of public consideration.
Running for fifty years has confirmed what Sports Illustrated writer and author Kenny Moore once wrote, “Running is hard, clean, and severe.” That’s what I always liked about it. And I still do. And I’m no longer afraid.