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.
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.
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.