From the age of twelve through the time I reached twenty-seven years old, I dedicated myself largely to the sport of running. At times, that commitment constituted total immersion. An endurance athlete is both reduced and enlarged through a lifestyle of eating, sleeping, shitting, and running. That’s about all you do when training 90-100 miles per week, which is the typical cost of competing at the highest possible level in running. Every day you get up, empty the tank with workouts, and refill it with food and rest. I learned many times over fifteen years of competition that it’s possible to take that process too far. Too often I made myself sick from the overtraining, too much racing or burning the candle at both ends trying to keep up with a social life that conflicted with the demands of distance running.
But I burned in another way as well. From an early age, I felt pressure from a world that I frequently did not fully understand. It was the competitive pressure to fit in, to be accepted, to succeed at whatever I was doing, and to be loved. Often those pressures stood in conflict with each other. At other times, they complemented one another. I learned that being competitive often led to being accepted by people that might otherwise ignore me. That included my own siblings, whose competitive nature passed through them and into me. But it was all driven by an alternately kind and demanding father. We both created and endured our sibling rivalries, competing to make each other laugh, and at times fighting until one of us, usually me, began to cry.
I was a skinny and impressionable child, sensitive to a flaw, and prone to wetting my pants when tickled too hard. Yet I loved to laugh and would do almost anything to earn the approval of my brothers for a crack I’d made or a joke I’d told. They were a tough audience, so approval in the form of a knowing nod or a quick burst of laughter was hard-earned. The risk was being mocked for any attempt to appear smart or funny. It really didn’t get any easier as we aged.
Despite these difficulties I loved and admired my brothers more than anything in the world. In particular, I was a fan of their athletic achievements, attending their games and even serving as a batboy at the naïve age of six years old. Headed to the first game, I sat in the back seat sweating profusely. My mother turned around to look at me from the front seat and asked, “Chrissy, why is your face so red?”
“This baseball uniform is so hot,” I answered.
“It shouldn’t be,” she replied. Then looking closer at me, she noticed the pantlegs of my jeans sticking out the bottom of the baseball uniform. “Oh, my goodness,” she laughed while looking over at my father in the driver’s seat. “He put the uniform over his regular clothes!”
That incident is an allegory for so many things that I’d ultimately encounter in life but did not yet understand. I recall playing with a friend named Jimmy Morris who lived up the road from our house in Seneca Falls, New York. We got bored at his place and Jimmy pointed to my house and said, “Come on! Let’s run to your house!”
He took off ahead of me and quickly gained a big lead. Sensing something wrong, he turned around to look at me. “Why aren’t you moving your arms when you run?”
I stood there silently. “You have to move your arms to go faster!” he insisted. “Like this!” Then he showed me how to pump my arms when running. I actually did know how to run correctly but something about the idea of competing with him in a race to my house made me feel shy and keep my arms at my side. Such are the effects of native anxiety.
This much I knew already at the age of five years old: the world has little patience for people with profound or visible limitations, and the only way to make up the difference was to prove yourself even after making a mistake like that. This time when Jimmy took off running, I pumped my arms and caught up with him. We finished running to my house together.
But imagine a child so sensitive to competitive situations that the pressures of social interactions could produce such strong reactions. Not only was I sensitive to my own fears and needs, but the instinct to protect others facing challenges from bullies or other social dangers ran deep within me. One day those instincts would evolve into strong beliefs in social justice.
I still had to survive family life first, and my father harbored his share of anxieties and anger within him as well. He lost his mother Rene Stewart when he was just seven years old. She died from getting sepsis following breast cancer surgery in the early 1930s. His father Harold Cudworth later suffered profound depression from the loss of his wife and farm during the Depression. When my grandfather was institutionalized for his condition, my father and his three sisters were shipped off to live with two spinster aunts and an uncle on a tiny farm in Upstate New York.
With plenty of farm work to do as he grew up, my father never got to experience a full-fledged athletic career of his own. From what I could gather in photos from his youth, he played some football and ran track, and was swift afoot. Lean and strong-legged, he yearned to have a go at real competition himself, but alas, that was never the case for him. It is my opinion that my dad always felt a bit bitter about not getting to play sports more. Some of his desire to see his sons do well likely stemmed from that sense of personal deprivation.
Plus, it is doubtful that he ever had any serious counseling about the sudden death of his mother when he was so young. One of his sisters told me that the kids were left wandering the streets of Cortland, New York at one point. Thank God that some relatives had mercy on the children, finding them a place to say when their father (my grandfather) collapsed into a profound state of depression.
Given those experiences, I can’t blame my father for living with some unresolved anger. Losing parents to death and mental illness is hard to reconcile at any age, much less when you’re not even ten years old.
Most of the time, my dad was a friendly, an often gentle man who genuinely tried to teach us everything he could about the world. He encouraged us in art and music as well as sports. But he grew frustrated if our grades slipped and dished out harsh punishment if we genuinely failed at something he considered simple and achievable if we put our minds to it.
But that was part of the problem. In today’s educational world, a couple of us brothers would be categorized as ADHD: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. I struggled in school for lack of attention, and one time arrived in class at the end of the school day to find my mother meeting with the second-grade teacher, Mrs. Helm. I’d fallen far behind in the SRA Reading Program, and the paper sailboat I’d made to track my reading progress lagged far behind the other boats taped to the wall in measurement of the number of stories read. “Chrissy,” she said to me, pointing at my boat on the wall, “Why are you so far behind?”
Thinking fast, I glanced at my boat that sailing two full walls behind and told my mother, “I’m waiting until they come all the way around. Then I’ll race them.”
Clearly that was not the answer either my mother or teacher wanted to hear. But when you’re a kid with ADHD the task of reading stories you don’t like is unbearable. That’s why I stopped after hitting a particularly boring tale in the SRA program.
Looking back, I’m a little surprised that my competitive instincts didn’t make me want to beat all the other kids in the reading contest. After all, I was a killer competitor out at recess, where I led the school Home Run contest in kickball. Every kick that soared over the center field swingset counted as an automatic home run, and I led the entire school in homers when Mrs. Helm called me over before morning recess. “Chris,” she said sternly. “You have a choice. You can stay in and work on the school play or go out to recess. Which would you rather do?”
I stared at her as if she asked the dumbest question in the world. In my mind there was no question about the choice she asked me to make. My foot was burning inside my shoe to kick yet another home run over the swingset and extend my playground lead. My entire sense of self-esteem was tied up in that contest. Stay inside and work on the school play? You have to be kidding me.”
“Recess,” I told her.
“Fine,” she impatiently blurted. “You don’t get to do either. You can sit inside at your desk during recess while the other kids work on the play or go outside.”
I decided right then and there that her decision was not one of justice. She never mentioned the penalty associated with making a choice she did not like. I sat at my desk furious at what I considered an outright lie about the situation.
See, I was already somewhat of an angry kid myself. The previous year, when I was just six years old, an incident occurred in our house that would mark me for life. My father was trying to get my brothers to do some work around the house. One was assigned to scraping paint from all the shutters my father removed from the windows, and the other was supposed to scrape paint off the house itself. It was boring, stinky work and neither would agree to the tasks assigned them on a day when the summer sun beat down on our Pennsylvania yard.
My dad gave my brothers both a powerful sock with the back of his hand, then pulled the belt out of his pants and thrashed my brothers hard as I watched, in terror, tears streaming down my face as my two heroes writhed underneath my father’s repeated attacks. When it finished, I tore up the stairs to hide in my room crying. Later my mother found out about the beating and came to check on me, but it wasn’t much help. During those moments I feared for my brother’s lives, and it left me with wrenching emotional scars that sank deep within my soul.
A week later, my best friend in school did something wrong on the playground and got pulled aside for a spanking by the playground teacher right on the spot. I fell to the earth crying at the sight of him getting beaten with that paddle. Corporal punishment was often doled out for minor reasons at Willow Street Elementary school. If the infraction was perceived by the teachers to be bad enough for real punishment, they yanked you into the hallway, dropped your pants to the ankles and hit you with a paddle on bare buttocks. I once got that treatment for getting mad when some dopey kid knocked over our Stratego game during a rainy day indoor recess. I yelled at the kid, calling him an idiot, and a teacher named Miss Paloney strode into the room, grabbed me by the arm, and dragged me out in the hall to beat my bare ass. I was filled with shame and rage at the injustice of it.
None of that made any sense to me. What it did produce was a kid determined to be tougher than the punishments people were doling out. The most extreme case of that reaction was a kid named Richard who came from a bad neighborhood and refused to comply with many of the stupid rules aimed at the sixth graders in Hans Herr Elementary. Stubborn and defiant, Richard was handed over to the male teachers in the school for even harder beatings. Each classroom in that school had a wooden paddle with holes bored through it hanging by the door. If a kid was targeted for the Paddle, they’d be hauled out in the commons area, told to lean against the wall, and stand there for multiple whacks. We could hear the sound of that torture being administered, and we each feared getting hammered if our day ever came. But Richard was so tough that the teacher broke several paddles over his ass. I only saw him cry once, but to this day I think those tears were more an expression of self-virtue than sin.
Fifty years later I learned that Richard engaged in a life of crime and wound up spending time in prison. That’s tragic, and I can’t help thinking that the manner in which he was treated and brutalized by corporal punishment in elementary school helped make his life situation worse. I experienced some of the same treatment, and to that end, came to realize there are many kinds of “prisons” in this world. Some are physical places. There are millions of theories on whether prison conditions rehabilitate people or make them worse. Other ‘prisons’ form within our perceptions about the world. Anger is one of the most imprisoning emotions of all.
In many respects, I am thankful that I became a runner, for it frequently helped me escape whatever prison of anger might form in my head.