Following a successful conference meet, our team earned a trip to Nationals out in Boston, Massachusetts. We’d swept the top five spots at the IIAC race and our coach Kent Finanger followed through on getting us an entry to the NCAAs. That was the ticket we needed, as there was not yet a Regional meet to determine qualifiers.
I was included on the Top 7 roster thanks to my ninth-place finish at the conference meet. But it was also thanks to the graciousness of senior Kirk Neubauer, who turned down a nationals spot to allow me to run despite the fact that we’d tied for team points that season. “Let Cud run,” he told Kent. “It will be good for the future of the team.”
So we all traveled to O’Hare airport in Chicago. Several of the small-town Iowa guys on the team had never flown on an airplane before. We landed in Boston and somehow wound up having dinner with an MIT runner named Frank Richardson, who’d go on to place 4th in the 1976 NCAAs and have a solid career at a marathoner, winning the 1980 USA marathon championships and the1980 Chicago Marathon in 2:14:04– at that point a race record. He went on to place 9th at the US Olympic Trials as well.
What I recall about Frank was his natural humility and somewhat wry sense of humor. To us, he seemed like a worldly fellow, not nervous at all about the upcoming nationals race. In fact, he’d finish fifth the next day behind Tim Fleming of Lowell. Bruce Fischer of North Central was 4th.
First Nationals competition
Luther did not have a great effort that day. Boston was a big city in all our eyes, and we ran a bit intimidated. We didn’t have any clue how we stacked up against other NCAA teams, and went into the race trying to figure that out. North Central College won that year with 91 points. Luther finished 16th with 441 points. Our top runner was Doug Peterson in 47th. Paul Mullen ran 75th, Mike Smock 85th, Damian Archibold 100th and Keith Ellingson’s place is now illegible in my result book thanks to the fading mimeograph ink. I finished 171st and Dave Hanson rolled in 203rd. That first experience running at Franklin Park Golf Course in Boston prepared us for bigger things to come. There were 318 runners that race, so I didn’t even finish in the top 50% overall. But that’s expected for most freshman. You run for experience as well as a result. Someday that experience would pay off.
We dined that night in downtown Boston at a restaurant overlooking the water. I downed a plate of soft-shelled crabs before asking, “Was I supposed to eat the whole thing?” I’m not sure I ever got an answer.
Back in Decorah following Nationals, the team prepared for its annual Cross Country Party. We gathered at a small house somewhere off-campus and the mood was light and humorous. I watched some team members haul in large bottles of alcohol and pour them into a giant barrel. “What is that going to be?” I asked innocently.
“Wapatuli!” someone crowed.
The Hard Stuff
Up to that point in life, I’d never drunk any hard liquor at all. Just beer, for the most part. So I didn’t know the punch was that strong as I downed a couple cups while trading stories with the boys. A band of women showed up to witness the spectacle of skinny guys getting wasted, and I was talking with one of them when I started to feel a heavy drunk coming on. I turned away to gather my courage to engage with one of girls and turned around to try giving her a drunken kiss. She’d stepped away and I planted a smacker on the thermostat right next to my head.
That is when I knew I was in trouble.
Perhaps I stopped drinking at that point. Or perhaps not. In any case, I recall the party ending for me at a point where someone said, “Maybe we better get Cud home first.” They piled me in a car and we drove up to campus where they helped me up the stairs, took my keys to open the door to the dorm room, and left me sideways on the bed to “sleep it off.”
The next thing I knew, I woke up dead. Or so it felt. My liver hurt like hell. Or at least, that’s what I figured out. I never knew I had a liver before that night of insane drinking. I felt sick in the stomach and my head felt like it was turned inside out. For a few minutes, I just lay there wondering how to get to the bathroom. It did not feel like I was in control of my 138 lb body. Everything hurt so bad I wondered if I was fully alive, or was I half deceased? It was that bad.
If I’d crawled to the bathroom, I would have forgiven myself. Instead, I lurched and leaned down the hallway and leaned over the toilet, but nothing came up. There I hung for a bit, head leaning on the toilet seat with an arm underneath. Pathetic and ignorant of what I’d just done to myself.
It took the entire day to recover. It was more than a hangover. Looking back years later, I realized that what I’d survived was alcohol poisoning. One more cup of Wapatuli might well have killed me. I was that close to being dead, I’m pretty sure.
I took some kidding about that massive drunk over the next few days, and laughed along with my friends. But deep down, the experience scared me. Never had I blacked out or had that type of reaction to drinking. While I’d go on to get drunk more than a few times in college and beyond, there was only one other moment when I was that drunk again.
It happened during my junior year in college with a girlfriend who got me ripped on rum and Cokes. Our relationship was a tug-and-pull affair of sex and commitment, and at some point, she expressed jealousy over my dedication to running. It felt like she wanted to destroy that part of me. We partied in LaCrosse and I wound up falling over drunk in a McDonald’s.
After that, I started looking ahead at life without her. She may have been sweet in some respects, but the fear and resentment I felt in her presence never really left me. Perhaps she felt the same about me.
There’s no question in my mind that my dangerous drinking was the result of a lack of personal confidence and self-esteem. That was combined with an intense desire for acceptance and approval. So many of us wrangle through life with these conflicted internal dialogues going on in our heads. Add in some self-medication due to anxiety or depression, or to cope with social situations, and we find ourselves in toxic cycles of self-doubt that can lead to drug abuse.
I never fell into addiction or anything at that level, but to this day I watch my alcohol consumption carefully because no one is really safe from their weaker instincts.
There are better ways to approach the party life, and my son Evan Cudworth has astutely created a way to approach matters of self-awareness with his coaching business, Club7van. He’s been through some big life challenges and has much to offer people seeking ways to party healthily. Many of us could have used that perspective during our lives. He even featured some of the advice I used to give him when I was a young father.
I’m just glad to be alive, rather than living as someone’s tragic memory of a person that once was, or the guy that drank himself to death at a college party. The risk is real. Too many kids get themselves into situations they can’t handle. My liver hurts just thinking about that November day when I woke up dead. I don’t wish it on anyone. Ever.