50 Years of Running: Rough surfaces and deep dives

My pastel painting (2020) of the running route we called Wonder Left, named after a sign pointing to Wonder Cave, a local geological attraction north of Decorah, Iowa.

The winter of 1977 was, like so many winters in the late 1970s and early 80s, as cold as hell and frozen over. We trained through the cold by running on snow-packed roads. We’d often leave in the near-dark and run traditional loops called Wonder Left and Mink Farm, named after signs or features found along the way. The gear we wore was primitive. Knit caps and nylon jackets as big as tents. Tube socks for gloves. Yet on we went for 70-80 miles per week. Through the night and back to campus.

There we’d stand around in the pale blue showers waiting for the water to warm up enough to stand in it. I’d grown my hair long that winter and sprouted a scraggy college beard along the lines of Lasse Viren, whom I idolized as a runner.

Then Christmas break came along and I rode home jammed into a van with eight or nine other Chicago-area kids eager for a college break. My mind was not in a good place at the time, and I had it in my head to take a pass on the next semester of college. There were no plans in place, just a hankering to pull away from the pressures of school and running. I was desperately trying to find myself in the dark, the cold and the running malaise.

My mother was having none of that. She was a huge supporter of my running, and had attended so many sporting events during my life that they couldn’t be counted on ten hands. She also understood my mind in ways that I perhaps did not understand on my own. My father, after all, had his share of “down” moments, and his father before him suffered from acute depression. There was a song by The Who that later captured the exchange in rock clarity:

I went back to my mother
I said, “I’m crazy, Ma, help me”
She said, “I know how it feels, son
‘Cause it runs in the family.”

Once I got past the negativity in my mind, things began to change. Heading back to school that winter, I grew excited about taking on a massive January Term project, painting four 4′ X 8′ murals for the Lake Meyer Nature Center in Calmar, Iowa. Back on campus, I threw myself into that project day and night, often working long hours as guys on the dorm floor sat watching me paint as they drank beer or pontificated in the middle of a strong pot buzz.

The murals generated a healthy amount of attention, including a big story in the Cedar Rapids Gazette and the Luther Collage newspapers.

Cedar Rapids Gazette Newspaper
Looking the artist part in 1977.

All the while, we’d be out training for indoor track. But I was fed up with running so damned hard every time we went out the door. On most days, we’d truck along for two miles and the pace would ramp up to 6:00 miles. That’s how it went, day after day. One night I finally made a comment about it and was talked down by a couple members of the team. I’d had it, and took off at 5:00 pace for as long as I could hold it. That lasted about two miles and I could still feel the team behind me by a couple minutes, but I dared not look back or let up.

That night, I was talking with a close teammate who suggested, in a statement of tough love, “Cud, you just need to shut up and run.”

Okay, I thought in anger. That’s what I’ll do.

From then on, I didn’t let much distract me from the mission of running as fast as possible. A few years later while training with a group of top-flight athletes in the Philadelphia area, I would learn that my instincts about too much hard running were correct. They taught me how to train in a strong yet sane fashion.

It was a fact that we had a bad habit of running too hard all the time in the Luther program. Lacking an actual distance coach for the track program, we trained according to our own devices and it was up to each of us to find our sweet spot if we found one at all. Last year while talking with my late friend and Hall of Fame Simpson College coach Keith Ellingson, he agreed that we’d all been a bit nuts in our approach. One dark February evening we ran a workout of 28 quarter-miles at 80 seconds with thirty seconds of rest between.

There was one relatively good thing going on that winter of 1978. I’d met a girl and was going steady. The raw comfort of companionship can carry a man a long way. I can’t say that I was the best boyfriend to her. I casually mocked the daily devotions she liked to read. In truth, she was a sweet Lutheran girl looking for a long-term relationship. I was a cynical expatriated Christan coming off a semester’s study in the Philosophy of Existentialism. We met somewhere in between and tried to make it work.

At that point in time, I was so determined to run better and break out of a terminal funk that I didn’t care that much who I dated. If that sounds dismissive or shallow, at least I’m being honest. There was plenty of conflicted behavior flying around the campus in the late 1970s. As a member of the somewhat revered Alpha Psi sorority, my girlfriend hung with an intense social crowd. They conducted an annual fundraiser on campus during Valentine’s Day. Students could purchase tickets that delivered either a Kiss, a Hug or a Slap to whomever one wanted to send it. And sure enough, those girls delivered kisses, hugs and slaps as ordered. That stuff would never fly these days.

My gal was obsessed with this strawberry lip gloss that she applied every day. I couldn’t stand the stuff, but didn’t dare say anything for fear of offending her. What I cared about, to be quite frank, was getting laid as often as I could.

Because that seemed to go right along with me getting faster that winter. I still recall climbing onto the team bus for a morning drive to the University of Northern Iowa with the fresh funk of lovemaking on my person. It gave me confidence. My indoor times in the 1500 meters dropped from 4:10 to 4:03. My mile time improved to 4:21. I won an indoor two-mile on a 176-yard track while going away with a time of 9:33. At that point, one of our coaches pulled me aside and commented, “It’s about time you made up your mind to run.”

He was right, but that was a sort of backward compliment. Yet I can still remember the feel of soaring around that track in complete control of my fitness and focus.

As the spring track season arrived, I concentrated on the steeplechase again and qualified for nationals a second time. I won the conference steeple title too, and dropped my three-mile time as well.

But things were getting weird with my girlfriend, as she showed some jealously toward my running as the weeks wore on. That was something I was not about to tolerate. Not when track success was finally mine. Granted, I was only half-committed to the relationship, and even dated a girl that I really liked when I was back home on spring break. But one night, as we were making out in the front seat of my car, I muttered my college girlfriend’s name. She pulled back, stared at me and said, “Okay, it’s time to go home.”

The mind of a hormone-obsessed twenty-year-old kid is not really rational. That’s why it helped to have outlets like running and art to keep me sane.

One of the four murals I painted that year for the Lake Meyer Nature Center in Calmar, Iowa.

In spring during a break in our track meet schedule, my college girlfriend and I decided to go on a trip to LaCrosse with another couple. They were not the sort of people with whom I normally associated, so I felt a little off from the get-go. Then we started drinking and my girlfriend was mixing really strong rum and Cokes. Before I knew it, I was plastered and staggering drunk. We somehow drove into town for dinner and I recall slumping to the floor in a McDonald’s in downtown LaCrosse.

That night was not a pretty sight. Nor was the feeling of our relationship after that. I sensed there was a bit of spite in the strength of those drinks. It almost felt like she was trying to destroy a part of me and take some control. Part of our relationship was like two rough surfaces rubbing together. It created friction.

A week later we dressed up to go to the formal held by my fraternity. She came dressed in a puffy mint-green chiffon dress that I instantly hated. It made her look fat, for one thing, but I didn’t say a word. We walked out the bottom floor of Dieseth Hall and were making our way down the steep incline of the icy driveway when she slipped and fell on her back. I tried to stop her from sliding but she outweighed me by ten pounds (I weighed 140) and it was no use. We slid all the way down the hill and stopped in a black, icy mud puddle. Her dress was ruined. We went back to the dorm and she changed into something less formal that I actually liked much better. In the back of my mind, I thought, God works in strange ways sometimes. We actually had a nice time that night.

By the end of the year, I came to the conclusion that our relationship should end. My father picked us up at college and we drove back to Chicago so that she could catch a flight to Cleveland. On the five-hour drive home, she kept reaching up from the back seat to rub my arm and by that point, it annoyed me. I wanted nothing to do with her anymore. My selfishness was rude, but that’s how it is when whatever love you had is gone.

We took her to the airport the next day and I gave her a long hug. “Promise you’ll write,” I think she said, and I nodded back and smiled. Back in the car, I turned to my father as we drove away and said, “Well, I’m over her.” In profoundly practical fashion my father responded, “Well, at least she kept you warm for a while.” I could always count on my father to put things plainly.

I’ll not claim that I was good to her. Mostly I was caught up in the ’70s psychology that dating was about getting what you wanted from someone. I wasn’t thinking about marriage at the time, or the fact that some young women might actually look at college as a place to meet a potential husband. Those were deep dives I was nowhere near ready to take. I was just a young kid pushing social buttons so that I could prove myself to others. In some ways, that relationship was a product of that attitude. If I ever meet her again, I’ll apologize for that.

For me, that need for approval was what so much of life was about. It was a cycle to which I submitted my self-esteem for far too long. Yet as the semester ended and I returned home with some running and art success under my belt, a renewed sense of confidence began to emerge within me. It was time to make some changes.

About Christopher Cudworth

Christopher Cudworth is a content producer, writer and blogger with more than 25 years’ experience in B2B and B2C marketing, journalism, public relations and social media. Connect with Christopher on Twitter: @genesisfix07 and blogs at werunandride.com, therightkindofpride.com and genesisfix.wordpress.com Online portfolio: http://www.behance.net/christophercudworth
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