50 Years of Running: On the Runway to Life

At the end of January Term, with a mere197 miles under my belt, it was time to get serious about training. But there was also the question of a serious relationship going on, and I didn’t mind that one bit. At some point my girlfriend grabbed my running journal and wrote me a note…

We traveled that next weekend to Grinnell, Iowa with my former roommate Paul Mullen and his soon-to-be fiance. He and I went to the indoor track at Grinnell and paced through a 4:44 mile just to see how it felt. The weekend after that, I ran a 4:28 indoor mile and a 9:48 two mile. The first felt “easy” and the second one “smooth.” That’s all you really want from that first indoor race. To feel decent. My mileage was back up to 66 miles and my love rating was off the charts. I wrote in the journal: “I’m whipped. And you KNOW it girl.”

I came down with the flu and a cold and skipped an indoor meet. I still managed 59 miles through the illness but was careful not to overtrain with too much fast pace. The next week I raced a 9:36 two-mile and a 4:31 at the UNI Dome. That was the site of an amusing mile the previous year. I’d barely made the bus after getting it on with my junior-year girlfriend that morning. The whole way down to Cedar Falls from Decorah I was sort of lazy and sleepy from the lovemaking. We parked our stuff in some far corner of the UNIdome and I laid down to wait through the entire meet because my sole race that day, the mile, was next-to-last on the schedule.

I dozed. And dozed. Then I heard “Last call, one-mile run.” I snapped to attention, pulled on my racing spikes and ran over to the starter. “Are you Cudworth?” the guy asked. “Yes,” I replied breathlessly. “Well, line up.”

The gun went off, and I ran with the pack through a 200-meter lap before moving up. My legs felt great and the pace was manageable. I moved up more and was in position to kick with the leaders with a lap to go. Sprinting around the track, I felt free and loose, and finished in 4:21, my best indoor mile ever. Absent the regular nerves I built up for races, I was free and easy that day.

In late February of 1979, my girlfriend left to attend an education seminar of some sort in Texas. “She left for Dallas this morning for a week,” I wrote. “I’m off tune without her. My schedule today was quite hectic, but I managed some effective racing, An up in mileage is now in order. Other competitors kicked your butt. Get some work, studying and painting done.”

Then I mused, “I love (her) she has helped me come to grips with some things about myself. But it is up to me to remain, no, develop even further.”

The following week we traveled for a dual meet in LaCrosse. I always loved racing against those guys, and I’d plugged in a week of 71 miles with two-a-days as the weather started to moderate into the 20s and 30s. I won the two-mile in a smart race, running 9:27 with a hard finishing kick on the 176-yard indoor track. “Fast run Thursday helped my confidence.” That meet closed out our indoor schedule. I went home for spring break and got in training weeks of 70 and 71 miles. the weather snuck into the 40s.

While at home, I watched my younger brother Greg, who attended Kent State on a full scholarship, play a basketball game at Northern Illinois. I was stunned at the nasty behavior of the NIU fans, some of whom ran on the court next to the Kent huddle during a time out. The rest of the game they screamed and acted like idiots. The Northern team was a bunch of muscleheaded brutes, and I left that contest angry and frustrated. But my brother played with intensity and cool. I admired him so much. He’d fulfilled my father’s wishes of having a truly elite athlete in the family.

The weather warmed into the 60s the third week of March, as my girlfriend and I traded visits while at home in Illinois. I ran four mile intervals under 5:00 per mile, then banged out a 14-miler a couple days later in 1:35. That was sub-7:00 pace. I was starting to feel real fitness and wound up the week with 82 miles. I wrote down some goals for the spring.

On March 28, Coach Bob Naslund assigned us a set of three-mile “intervals” around a route we called Short Loop. The temps were 50 degrees and breezy, and we warmed up for twenty minutes, then took off on the first three-mile interval. We finished that one in 17:17. Thoroughly warmed up now, we ran the second three-miler in 16:17, then finished with one in 16:45. That was nine miles at about 80% effort.

That weekend at Augustana, on March 31st, I ran a 14:37 three-mile after a 78-mile training week. I’d wrapped up February with 251 miles and March with 303 miles. That was 751 miles leading into the outdoor season.

The first week of April, we cranked out a session of 20 330s at 55-57. I wrote, “Just plain horseshit weather. 50 mph wind.” That weekend I raced the first steeplechase of the season with a time of 9:30.7. A good start to my goal of qualifying for nationals.

The previous year, I’d won a steeple in a declared time of 8:47. Problem was, the lap-counters made a mistake and shot bell lap gun with two laps to go, not one. So I kicked in with the win. The time, though highly inaccurate, somehow got out to state officials, and I got an inquiry about running the steeple at the Drake Relays against the likes of Henry Marsh, the American record holder at around 8:15. I think the word got back to Drake and others that my race was a lap short.

On April 17 we traveled to LaCrosse for an outdoor dual meet. Again, I loved racing against that team on every occasion. There was something about the dedication of their guys that I respected. Strapping on my spikes, I jogged to warm up and felt exceptionally loose. Within the first mile, I’d grabbed a lead and ran to a 14:40 win in the three-mile. And just like the race indoors where I won the two-mile in 9:27 and got a compliment from one of the LaCrosse guys, a pair of their runners trotted past and said, “Great job.” Nothing means more to a runner than a compliment from a competitor. You have to earn those.

To me, that was always what running was about. Finding that sweet spot or groove where the pace feels good and you run relaxed. But track and field is not the most relaxing environment in many ways. There are so many races and any delay in the meet screws up the warmup schedule. During high school dual meets, I was typically competing in four different events; the two-mile, high jump, triple jump, and mile. Several times I won all four. But I should have been concentrating on improving at distance running, not messing around with my keenly average jumping abilities.

Strange times

Such are the strange aspects of track and field. At Luther, we also endured many long bus rides across Iowa to compete at far-flung colleges such as Buena Vista, where the 50+ mph winds were so fierce that the pole vault was canceled. I ran a 9:49 steeple that day against a guy from Dubuque College who wore painters’ gloves on his hands and placed his hands on the barriers to vault over them rather than hurdle. I got blown backward on one hurdle and actually grazed my butt cheek on the 4″ x 4″ barrier.

That race was frustrating because I was hoping to get a qualifying mark for national. The standard had dropped from 9:35 my freshman year to 9:24 as a senior. I knew my fitness was good enough. I just wanted the chance at a good race. On April 28 we traveled to the Drake Relays where I ran a 3:09 3/4 mile on the Distance Medley. That showed good promise on the speed end of my training.

The pressures of classes began to add up by early May. I was struggling through a Marketing course that my girlfriend suggested I take. It was taught by an accounting professor named Frank Barth, so the subject matter had nothing to do with creativity or ideation. It was all about the numbers, how to budget for marketing against other expenses, and I was in that class with a bunch of number crunchers. I almost failed the course. I tersely noted: “Getting things done. 5 1/2 hours of sleep.”

We held a dual meet on Luther’s crunchy crushed brick tack and I ran an unmotivated and exhausted 4:34 mile time. The entire scene was getting to me.

“(She) and I need a change of pace. She is too serious for me at times. I desire a strong relationship and she is one to handle it, but the control ebbs and flows so commonly that I am at a loss to refuse the good parts, the fun parts, and my errors and flaws shoe. I still love her.”

What did I mean by that? I wanted, no…desired simplicity. And wasn’t feeling it. On any front.

My mileage dropped to 48 that difficult week of April 29-May 4th. I didn’t even have time to get out birding when the spring migration began. I could hear warblers singing in the trees as the weather warmed, but didn’t have the time to get out and see them. That was a shame because, for four years at Luther, I’d delved deep into the woods in all directions. I even had a secret spot southeast of town where one could stand on a bluff and look back up the Oneota valley and see the campus. In that gorge, I’d once found a Townsend’s Solitaire, a wandering migrant from the Pacific Northwest that showed up on a cool fall day the previous autumn. That was magical. I’d experienced many such moments in the hills and fields around Decorah, Iowa.

That love of the region was all coming to an apparent close as the semester wound down. There were two big orders of business before me in the track and field world. First; competing at the IIAC Conference meet, and second, getting the nationals qualifying time for the steeplechase.

There was just one problem. Our conference rivals, Central College, had grown so strong as a track and field program our 17th straight conference title was no lock. Leading up to the meet, Coach Naslund was figuring points and had us coming out on top if everything went well in every event. The biggest challenge was, quite surprisingly, the emergence of several fast distance runners within the conference. These were Jerry Fitszimmons of Central and Jim Thompson of Wartburg, who was running out of his mind times.

That Friday night, our 10,000 meter guys Joel Redman and Paul Mullen went 1-2, a good start to the meet. Paul was coming back the next day to run in the steeplechase. We’d both been to nationals a number of times during our career, and he was the slightly better runner than I. But having run a 14:37 three-mile earlier in the season, I was asked to double in the 5000 at conference.

So here was Paul, trying to run a good steeple with a 10K from the night before in his legs. Then there was me, trying to run the steeple and save something in my legs for the 5000 meters an hour or so later.

Have rested some that week to begin peaking for the last meets of the year, I felt easy and smooth in winning the steeplechase in 9:20.2. That was the qualifying mark I needed to make nationals, and I didn’t feel like I’d taxed myself too badly to double back in the 5K. Mullen placed second behind me in amazing fashion considering the fitness required for that 10K-Steeple double in 24 hours.

Fighting words

The meet was close from beginning to end. Tempers flared when one of our premier athletes, a 400-meter hurdler named Jerry Peckham, broke his leg while running over the last barrier. He’d been pool-training all season due to a stress fracture, and was on pace to win the meet and qualify for nationals when the leg snapped with a loud noise and he crumpled to the track. In horrific fashion, some of our opponent’s athletes cheered and laughed while mocking the injury. Fights nearly broke out at the track.

With even more motivation, our top distance guys fought hard for places and ran well. But with an event to go, it came down to the 4 X 400 relay and one other event: the pole vault.

Perhaps Luther won the 4 X 400. I don’t recall. But our pole vaulter elected to pass heights all the way up to fifteen feet in an attempt to win the title. Then he missed all three attempts at the height. With zero points in the pole vault, Luther lost the conference meet for the first time in nearly two decades.

We were angry, depressed and frustrated at the outcome. Those of us that attempted to double, and did, were shot-through with frustration. All our pole vaulter had to do was make a decent height, such as 13′ 6″, and we’d have won the overall title. Back home in Decorah, we headed down to the bars to drink away our frustrations. Some guy at the bar made a comment to one of our distance guys about losing the meet, and he decked the guy with a punch.

Looking back, I have a sole regret from that day. If I’d not needed to double, my time in the steeple would likely be five or even ten seconds faster. That would have positioned me in an entirely different frame of mind going into nationals. Running a 9:15 would have been a great confidence booster. But our priority as distance guys at Luther was always the team. I ran the 5K and didn’t score any points. The pace was wicked and even with fresh legs, I’m not sure I would have placed. But at least I gave it a shot. If I hadn’t run that 5K, I might be wondering forty years later whether I could have gotten a few points and saved our day.

Against the bigger picture in life, these things don’t really seem to mean that much. But they do teach us a level of integrity that comes with the territory of sacrificing individual glory for the sake of the team. That’s a much more valuable skill in the real world.

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
This entry was posted in 400 meter intervals, 400 workouts, 5K, Christopher Cudworth, college, competition, steeplechase, track and field and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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