The Rails-To-Trails movement in Illinois started in the early 1980s. The most significant development in the Fox Valley where I lived was the conversion of the Great Western railroad tracks to a running and cycling path. Most of the training I’d done since the early 70s when I started running was on athletic fields, in forest preserves, or on the roads. Having a trail dedicated to running was, at that time, a welcome novelty.
A Kane County forest preserve commissioner named Philip Elfstrom embraced the idea of turning railroad beds into recreational paths. His influence was strong enough to make it happen, and the Great Western opened at the entrance to Leroy Oakes Forest Preserve in St. Charles.
The great thing about that trail was the surface and shelter it provided. Most of the trail was crushed limestone with intervals of asphalt. It stretched all the way to Sycamore, seventeen miles west when it was completed. On summer days the archway of junk trees on both sides of the former railroad tracks provided great shade. On winter days, the same trees blocked the wind. We got to know the section of trail from St. Charles out to Wasco and back pretty well, as it was provided a precise 6.2 miles (10K) workout. The mile markers made it possible to record splits with some accuracy, and the company of other runners and cyclists provided safety for all.
A townie tradition
Otherwise, I ran most of my workouts in the cities of St. Charles and Geneva. I’d formerly lived on the east side of St. Charles and ran a seven-mile loop on two of the main boulevard-style streets; East Side Drive in Geneva and Anderson Boulevard on the west. Back in the early 1980s, the rails from the trolley that used to run from Aurora to Elgin were still visible in the asphalt of Anderson Boulevard.
By 1982, that same county commissioner set his eyes on the abandoned railroad and trolley tracks lining the Fox River between Aurora and Elgin. It took a couple years, but the county installed dozens of miles of paved asphalt paths on former railroad beds along the Fox River. These trails gave citizens access to some of the most beautiful scenery in the entire Fox Valley with trails that cross through popular parks such as Fabyan Forest Preserve, Arends FP and Geneva’s Island Park. The loop of trails between St. Charles and North Aurora made it possible to do a 20-mile run on smooth surfaces with few interruptions from car traffic or stop signs.
But Elfstrom ran into trouble with a larger plan to condemn property on the west side of the Fox River north of St. Charles. His plan to run trails through the back yards of homeowners along the Fox caused property owners to fight back. The county also bought land east of the Fox in a small community called Valley View. The goal was to create a massive trail and forest preserve complex near the bend in the Fox River near South Elgin.
The county did succeed in setting aside parkland in Jon Duerr FP and Valley but, and a bike path runs up the east side of the Fox River from St. Charles to South Elgin. But the county’s plans to install a path on the west side were defeated mostly because the land grab was perceived as evidence of government overreach. A homeowner named Karen McConnaughay (R) was a particularly adamant opponent. She got elected to the Kane County board and deposed Phil Elfstrom President of both the Kane County Board and Forest Preserves. She’s now an Illinois Senator.
The anti-government messaging was the style of the era in 1981. A hardline conservative and former actor Ronald Reagan was elected President. That political movement ushered in an anti-environmental legacy. For a time, additional efforts to install more trails in Kane County were halted. But the people loved the trail system, and eventually, the system was expanded further.
The political and cultural changes taking place in 1981 drove my political awakening. I read about James Watt, the man named as Reagan’s Secretary of Interior, and realized that he was an enemy of everything I believed in. His archly religious and anti-environmental attitude was summarized in a statement he made: “When the last tree falls, Jesus will come.” From that point forward, I never really trusted conservatism again. My instincts have not been proven wrong.
By that point in life, my interests in wildlife and birds were already well-developed. I was involved in citizen science, conducting bird surveys at Nelson Lake Marsh to help protect it as an Illinois Nature Preserve. The idea that a selfish jerk like James Watt was taking power over our nation’s natural lands made me angry. Watt opened everything up to mining by while covering his religio-political ideology under the umbrella of Christian Dominionism––the idea that the earth and all its resources are put there for human use, without exception. To say that I hated that philosophy is an understatement.
In 1981, I approached a local newspaper and started writing a weekly newspaper column titled Straight Nature. It covered local environmental topics and provided profiles on wildlife and wild spaces. Most weeks, I wrote about local wildlife in educational fashion. But it took every ounce of restraint not to rip the Reagan presidency for the ignorance and greed it imposed upon the nation. They called Reagan the Great Communicator, but I saw him as a Massive Bullshitter. I despised his manner of talking soft and slick in that patronizing style of his, all while setting about the work of busting unions, turning natural resources over to industry, and leveraging the viciously specious theology of conservative religion to impose prejudicial and racist policies in America. His entire “wholesome cowboy” image to me was a farce of massive proportions.
It sickened me to hear some people worship the guy like he was a god. I found it ironic that the same batch of people who claimed to despise the politics of Hollywood liberalism excuse the aggressively dismissive brand of hate-filled ‘reforms’ under Ronald Reagan. While he held supposedly “strong convictions,” and that’s what conservative admired about him, he was also a keenly effective phony at the same time.
His “trickle-down economics” clearly created an excuse to grant the wealthy even more money. Meanwhile, his union-busting, policies of corporate tax-cutting and exporting manufacturing capital overseas introduced the brand of globalism that actively gutted the American labor market while shrinking the middle-class.
To anyone with common sense and brains, it should be apparent that Reagan actually hated the America he claimed to love. His famous statement, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” is one of the most cynically hypocritical statements in all of American history. If Reagan didn’t believe in government, then he did not believe in America. Without government, the nation ceases to exist. And if he didn’t believe in the value of government, why did he run for President in the first place?” That same attitude came back to haunt the nation with Donald Trump’s promises to “drain the swamp.” In turn, he created the most corrupt and vindictive administration in modern history.
But it was Reagan, during his hypocritical reign, that set the stage for decades of conservatives gaslighting the nation by blaming government for the ills that conservatives created through their own bumbling inability to govern. George Bush II played the same Happy Cowboy game as Ronnie-Boy, yet he let our nation be attacked by terrorists on our own soil. His response was to go flailing around the Middle East with our military in an expensive and illegal “war” in Iraq that actually increased rather than defeated terrorism in that region. Bush and Cheney even condoned torture and terrorism on America’s part. That’s a sick legacy for a political party whose leader Dwight D. Eisenhower once warned, “Beware the military-industrial complex.”
That’s why it did not surprise me, in the late 1980s, when Reagan’s brand of selfish, corrupt politics was exposed during the Iran-Contra affair. I was disgusted by Oliver North claiming that he acted with a “higher purpose” while breaking the law and lying to the American people. That captures the essence of conservative arrogance carried forward by the cabal of Republicans and conservatives all the way through to Donald Trump, who led an insurrection against our own country on January 6, 2021. The tradition that Reagan started by claiming to hate government directly led to that act of sedition.
I saw the roots of that gaslighting ugliness for what they represented way back when I was twenty-four years old. It angered me fiercely then, and still angers me to this day. At the time, I poured some of that anger and frustration into my training during summer of 1981. The result was a much faster Christopher Cudworth, and the time had come to test it out in races. I may not have been able to change the world, but at least I was going to show that I had some strong fiber within.
In early July, I drove out to Des Moines to stay with my Luther teammate Paul Mullen to run in the Midnight Madness race in Ames. He was home alone with his baby daughter when I arrived that day. He was in the middle of changing her when the precious little girl let rip with a squirt of poop that shot ten feet across the white carpet. I stared at him a moment and asked, “Does this happen all the time?”
“Never, before this!” he said with eyes wide and arched eyebrows. Then he ran to get supplies to clean up the mess. I secretly vowed to myself at that moment I would never have children of my own. That was a vow that I would not abide.
The next morning, we both rose early to run a three-mile race at an easy rate. He won the run and I cruised home in 17:30 knowing that I’d be running a much longer race later that evening. The Midnight Madness run started at 9:30 in the evening. It was held on a three-mile loop on farm roads near Ames. We’d pass through the lights near the starting line and shoot back out into darkness. I did the entire thing under 6:00 pace but was passed in the final loop by a 15-year-old woman runner named Karlene Erickson. It chagrined me to get beat by a girl, but on the other hand, I was impressed as her lean young figure passed by me in the dark.
On July 25, I traveled back up to Decorah, Iowa, to race the 15k Elvelopet (River Run.) It was always tough for me to crack the Top Five during college. But on July 25, the day before my 24th birthday, I ran a 52:19 to take 2nd overall in a tough race against Luther’s lead runner at the time, Mark Glessner. He was a 30:30 10K guy, so I knew he’d be tought to beat. But I’d run a 4:22 mile in an alumni all-comers meet the Thursday night before the race, so I knew that I was getting fit and fast. During that week, I wrote that I was feeling some sort of ‘low-level sickness, fighting something off. Nutrition? I think not.” I observed: “Effects of long term work in humidity. Felt absolutely strong in the mile tonight. Blew past Evan (Clarrissimeaux, a 4:07 Iowa miler) and Jonesy (Doug, an Illinois State runner and high school All-Stater). Those guys have college running to think about tho. Still, I ran really well. Felt queasy and tired beforehand. 1/2 hour nap.”
Due to the summer heat that year, my mileage wasn’t that high with weeks of 65-40-44-44-50 in the weeks leading up to that race. But I was doing plenty of speed work in thatmix, with lots of 200s and 400s in 32-34 and 63-66. For once, I was not really overtraining.
Still, my lack of heavy miles cost me in the last mile of the Elvelopet against Glessner. My body tightened and tied up over the last of the nine miles. The Elvelopet course featured several steep climbs and loops of narrow trail running. It was a test of agility as well as fitness. During the last mile I tried to sprint as Glessner and I traded leads. He had an issue with his back in which a muscle near his shoulder blade would tighten up, forcing him to pound at it with his fist. When he started pounding on it, I thought I had him beat with a half-mile to go. But to his credit, he fought through it all and bested me in the last 200 meters.
I was proud of the effort. That night, I hung around Decorah flirting with women I knew from Luther. But as I moved around town, some of the people I met did not know that I’d broken off my relationship with my college girlfriend. Several of them asked, “How’s married life?” To which I replied, “No, we broke up.”
Other kinds of happy trails
I’d driven up to Decorah that week with a former Luther teammate and running buddy. For a change, I decided to take a different route by driving through Galena rather than taking the tradition route up I-90 to Madison and across Wisconsin. After two hours in the car, we decided to stop east of Galena and go for a short run to loosen up our legs. We took off running down a steep and long incline on a country road. When we got to the bottom and turned around to look back at where we came, he said “Oh God,”and we both laughed. “Look at that goddamn hill we came down.” The run back up was strenuous and tough. Our feet scratched into the gravel and the climb was steep. But I felt great nonetheless.
I told him how good I felt, and made him swear not to tell anyone that I was so fit before the Elvelopet race. “I promise,” he laughed.
Through a long friendship through high school and college, and into the real world beyond, we trusted each other with secret hopes, our swaying goals, and dreams of one kind or another. That’s the real secret to finding Happy Trails in life. Having someone to share them with. That’s also how you smooth out rough patches along the way.
That’s the interesting thing about running thousands of miles together. Along the way, you learn what to say and what not to say to each other, or the world. That builds trust and shared insight, and can help you through the toughest stages of life even when liars and hypocrites rule.
There’s a great amount of value in that. So while the activity of running seem selfish or non-constructive on the surface, it offers the deep benefit of helping you process everything that goes on in life. In many respects, running is life.