50 Years of Running: Dark nights and glimpses of light

As October days grew shorter the days at work started and ended in darkness. Fortunately, Van Kampen Merritt uprooted from its Chicago office and moved out to a newly constructed building at the corner of Naper Boulevard and I-88. It took only twenty minutes to get there by car, and I was relieved and happy to be done with the train. I produced a painting of the building for the corporate brochure. The building languished after VKM moved out, and was torn down a few years back. It is strange to drive by and see a blank field where that building once stood.

Yet despite the lack of an hour-long commute, it still took considerable discipline to go running at night in the dark. I’d raced one last time on October 17 and felt a complete lack of zip, so I vowed to give that up for the fall. Plus the race was a local affair and the course was so obviously long that everyone complained after the finish.

Party at my place, not

On October 11, we planned a party at my coach house but broke it off and went out dancing in Oak Brook instead. “So we blew off my place and hit “Outlaws,” I wrote. “I had fun. Love to dance. Met Linda Star, a G.A. for Macs (McDonalds.) She danced so free and cool. Might be a bit like me. Big Ol nose. Like mom? Hee hee. Aso a blond, breasted chick from S. Illinois. Nice hair spray, eh?”

The party life was fun, but it had its costs. “Didn’t feel so good this morn. Crawled to phone.”

That day, one of my running buddies and I finally had it out about our differences in training philosophies. “He’s talking no compromise, 6 minute pace or else. It’s just that he starts out, stops, then bango….I like to see my runs as a developing thing, he an explosion of movement. Ran ourselves ragged. We admitted our anger and frustration last night. Told him I won’t be frustrated by him as friend. Friends. By God, by God.”

Honestly, that tug-and-pull dynamic between us lasted for decades. Competitive rivalries that began in high school and lasted through college are like that. Some old hurts or fears refuse to dissipate with time. If anything, they grow larger within a relationship until they are confronted and exposed. Once my children grew old enough to understand relationship advice, I counseled them, “You know, it’s good to have friends. But remember that even your friends will sometimes try to control you.” Watching my kids grow up and navigate the world from grade school through high school and college and beyond, I saw that my advice was true. To their credit, both of them are keen on the emotional intelligence front.

Young lust

In my early 20s, I wasn’t always motivated by the right instincts. I tried one last time to test my relationship with my elder girlfriend. “Stopped to see her. I admit I wanted to f*** her eyes out, but she’s too smart. Knows she can be strong, doesn’t need my pandering lust.”

So we broke it off. I never entirely knew what to do with that sort of love. I had strong feelings for her. She was intelligent, intuitive, and actually kind even with her critical advice. One of the most important things she ever told me lasted a lifetime. “We all make mistakes,” she counseled. “But it’s all in the recovery, how people view you.” There were many more sage bits of caring insights that she provided, including basic instructions on how to treat women better, or a bit rougher––shall we say–– if they liked it that way. What more could one ask from a woman? And more importantly, understanding that not all women are the same. That’s one of the most important things a man needs to learn in life.

Dating and dining scenes

That said, I wasn’t standing still. I called and asked out the Linda that I’d met at Outlaws. That date aborted early when we realized how little we had in common beyond dancing. We both kind of laughed about it. So we drank our wine and left without much fanfare.

That week, I asked out another woman named Linda that I met at the laundromat or somewhere else. That date also ended early when I sat down to dinner at her apartment and her cat swooped around the back of my chair, scratched my face, and bit me in the neck. I reacted with an instinctive swat at the cat and she proclaimed, “Leave! If my cat doesn’t like you, neither do I!’

The social life never slowed down. That week, another friend from Luther College showed up in town to visit my running buddy. They were close friends, but I really liked the guy too. So we sat together in a bar called Rocky & Bullwinkles while our mutual friend worked waiting tables. He was new at the job and had some challenges going on. So we sat there with beers in our hands empathizing about how many tables he had to cover. We had settled our differences after our clash over training techniques, so we both looked forward to hanging out with our chill fellow Luther dude.

But first, he had to finish waiting tables, so we sat there drinking the entire time. And four hours is a long time to sit at a bar and drink. By the time my friend got off work, I was pretty drunk and it was already 11:00 at night. He was all full of fire, however, and demanded that we visit another bar across town. “Let’s go to Scotland Yard,” he proclaimed.

Late-night carousing

We walked across the Fox River bridge and sat at a group of tables facing the classic old bar with its phalanx of shiny glasses hanging above. I loved that place. It had been around a long time, and featured a host of overstuffed chairs on the upper level where people could sit and drink and smoke. So the air always smelled of cigars and cigarettes, but we drank right through the haze on many a night.

After settling at the tables, we ordered another set of drinks. Then another. And so on. At which point, I slowed down and tried to sober up. But the two boys were busy pounding them one after another. In a fit of laughter over some story they’d just told, one of them knocked a glass off the table, shattering it on the floor.

That’s when I spun around and said to the people at the table behind us, “I don’t want to be with them. I want to be with you.” A couple was sitting on one side of the table, and their companion was a tall woman with long blonde hair hanging all the way down her back. She smiled back at me and laughed. “Oh yeah? Who are you?”

That’s how I met the woman to whom I’d get married four years later. Her name was Linda. “Go figure,”I thought to myself. “I keep meeting Lindas.” I immediately liked her shy smile and bright blue eyes. So I tore off a sheet from my checkbook and wrote my number on it. She gave me her number as well. That Sunday night, I called to ask her out on a date. She accepted. I wrote: “Called and asked out Linda Mues. That’s 3 Lindas. Could be interesting.”

On Alberto

That Sunday morning, I watched the New York City Marathon on TV. “Cried watching Alberto Salazar break the world marathon record on TV. He was so strong. So tough. Calloused to the distance, as Dellinger says. Lovely Allison Roe.”

That race inspired me, and I did a couple runs that Sunday. “Ran twice today. Peck Road and back.”As always, I also recorded the birds I’d seen recently. “Rusty blackbirds. Gadwalls Friday at the beaver dam.”

That week, I showed up on the wrong night for my first date with Linda. “What are you doing here?” she asked. “Our date’s tomorrow night.”

“Well, can you still go out tonight?” I asked.

“I have parent-teacher conferences, but we can go out for a bit.” So we did, and the conversation was earnest and warm. I asked her out for another date on Halloween. She dressed up as a cowgirl. I dressed as the god Mercury, replete with dark blue tights, a face covered in silver paint, and a set of actual duck wings attached to my ankles. We went out dancing, but that wasn’t really her thing. Somehow, we set up another date after that. Apparently, she was willing to look past the fact that I wasn’t the actual god Mercury.

Earnest hiking

On the first weekend in November, at her suggestion, we went for a hike at Starved Rock State Park on the Illinois River. It was a calm, warm day for that time of year. We saw common loons on the Illinois river and hiked several miles before sitting down for a picnic on a bluff overlooking a sandstone canyon. She’d made sandwiches with apple-walnut bread, salami, and cheese. They tasted delicious after the long hike.

But toward the end of our hike, she embarrassedly admitted that she’d just gotten her period, and needed to rush back to the car. So we had an earnest finish to our third date. I realized that we had little to hide between us, and quite a bit in common as well. She liked that I was a runner, and did some running herself. We both liked nature and the outdoors. “Totally calm day,” I wrote. “She’s thinking I’m thinking. Watched Goodbye Girl on TV. I’m not perfect. I’m going to be myself.”

And speaking of imperfect. At the same time that I started dating Linda, a young woman from work (only 18!) was drawing my attention in all the ways that make a man weak and full of desire. She was tall and blonde, Swedish by descent, and possessed of a killer body that she was not shy about. “Should I ask her out?” I wondered. Should I call Linda? Does she own my weekend? I don’t want to hurt her. Neither of us need that.”

All these things ran through my head on my daily runs. That’s the only way I’ve ever been able to figure anything out, or be creative, and fight anxiety or depression. Running is how I’ve always kept moving in life. Without running, I don’t think I could ever have made it this far. I’ve run through the darkest of nights and found glimpses of light. That is hope, defined.

Posted in alcohol, anxiety, Christopher Cudworth, college, competition, cross country, God, life and death, love, marathon, mental health, mental illness, nature, running shoes, sex, track and field, training | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

50 Years of Running: Wonder Left

Winning the West Union 10K race in Wonder Left Racing gear.

The running scene in the early 1980s was largely about adapting to the road racing world. During the late 1970s, runners such as Bill Rodgers, Frank Shorter, and Craig Virgin led the American scene while African and European runners racing for colleges in the United States saw opportunities to “go pro” as road races started offering prize money. It still wasn’t easy making a living as pro runner, but thanks to the efforts of Steve Prefontaine, who bucked the Amateur Athletic Union system as a high-profile distance runner, the idea that runners should remain amateurs was quickly falling apart.

That was the world into which our band of college runners graduated. We’d had such fun and done well enough in cross country and track that the guys from Luther College decided to form a racing team. We called it Wonder Left after one of our favorite training routes in Decorah, Iowa.

My pastel painting of a road on the Wonder Left loop (2020)

There wasn’t yet an active club circuit in the Midwest, but there were enough races going on that it seemed like a good idea to team up and race in them. Logistically, I’m not sure anyone thought that completely through. We were spread out across Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois. It would take some doing to expect more than a few of us to show up at any given race. But the goal was to keep competing, so a bit of idealism was in order.

The recruitment sheet described the background and goals of the club. I don’t recall if this was used in attempts to recruit sponsorship or not. Wonder Left was an experiment in progress…

“All the runners on this team have attended Luther College. Luther College is located in Decorah, Iowa and is a member of the Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (IIAC) and competes within Division III of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. (non-scholarship).

The Luther College Cross Country team has won the last ten straight Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championships. In NCAA competition, Luther has finished in the top ten teams seven of the last ten years. The 1978 team finished second and the 1980 team finished third in the NCAA meet.

Track and field has also brought out the best in Luther athletes. The track and field team has won the Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title seventeen of the past eighteen years. Luther has also sent numerous runners on to NCAA competition in track and field in the distance events.”

GOAL

“The overall goal of the Wonder Left Racing Team is to unify the individual efforts of past Luther College athletes who have been running road races around the Midwest. The members of the club have enjoyed great success over the last three or four years running local races within their area of their individual communities. By forming this club, we wish to continues competing in local races as well as arrange a schedule of major competitions that we will be able to race in as a club. Forming the club and unifying our efforts towards major competitions will allow the members of our club to improve on an individual basis as well as promote the Wonder Left Racing Team in club competition.

The club wishes to be in operation by May 16 in order to compete in the Syttende Mai race in Madison, Wisconsin. The race is listed in Runner’s World top seventy-five road races. Last year Bob Emmons was our top finisher in that race placing seventh. We are presently drawing up a competitive schedule with certain races receiving major team emphasis. Future plans include directing our own road race in the Decorah area.

Dan Johnson of Minnesota racing in Wonder Left Racing gear. Dan ran a 2:24 marathon and is currently the national record holder in the half marathon for 60-year-old men at 1:23.

TENTATIVE SCHEDULE

  1. Syttende Mai (Stoughton to Madison, WI) 20 miles
  2. Hopkins Raspberry Festival (Minneapolis, MN) 5 miles
  3. Bix Road Race (Quad Cities, IA) 7 miles
  4. Cudahy (Milwaukee, WI) 10 miles
  5. LaCrosse Half Marathon (LaCrosse, WI) 13.1 miles
  6. Iowa Governor’s Cup (Des Moines, IA) 10 kilometers
  7. USTFF Cross Country Championships (Kenosha, WI)

The team ordered orange and white uniforms in the Bill Rodgers (BR) brand. That change from Luther Blue to an all-new color scheme was interesting, because our key conference rivals in college was Wartburg, whose uniforms were orange and black.

But the BR gear was appealing and stood at the forefront of early 80s chic. The Wonder Left team name only made sense to us, but that was part of the mystique.

I ran a series of races wearing the Wonder Left Racing Team gear in 1980 and 81. I won a local road race in West Union, Iowa, took second in a Lake Forest, Illinois 10k, and placed in the top fifty or so in the Chicago Distance Classic in the spring of 1981.

Our plans to convene at the ‘major’ races never really coalesced. But Wonder Left Racing Team members did win a bunch of races during our short-lived status as a road racing club.

World-class Wonder Left racer

The pinnacle of Wonder Left exposure came through the talents of a former Luther runner named Morton Warland. He hailed from Norway and came to Luther for a year of two thanks to Luther’s long connections to Norway. The Norwegian-American museum is located in downtown Decorah, Iowa.

Warland was a top-flight competitor for Luther, running 1:51.6 in the 800 and 3:47.8 in the 1500 meter run. Those times and some competition in Europe earned him a spot in a Dream Mile won by American Steve Scott in 3:47.66, just shy of the world record held by Sebastian Coe at the time, of 3:47.33.

Morton Warland lines up in a Dream Mile with some of the world’s best milers in his Wonder Left Racing gear.

Video of the race shows Warland stoically sporting his Wonder Left Racing Team jersey on the starting line next to the world’s best milers in Craig Masback, John Walker, Ray Flynn, and Scott. The race was fast from the gun, with a first lap of 56 seconds, and it didn’t slow down. Warland finished a bit back from the leaders, but still ran a pretty credible race.

His name in lights and the Wonder Left Bill Rodgers gear on the world stage.

I wore the Wonder Left gear through the fall of 1982 when I landed out in Pennsylvania with a work-related move and joined up with an active club team called Runner’s Edge. But while it lasted, the Wonder Left Racing Team was a candy-coated ideal wrapped in Dreamsicle orange and white. Somewhere there are probably Wonder Left jerseys still hanging in the closets of club members, but perhaps not. It was all so long ago.

It’s fun to look at the list of guys on the team. Many of them went on to run times even faster than those listed. But what this list really signifies is that burst of youth in young men (and women) that know in there is only one time in life when you’re in your twenties, and what are you going to do about it?

We did our best to run our fastest. There’s always some wonder left about whether we could have gone faster, farther, or smarter along the way. That’s the nature of running, and of life.

Posted in 10K, 13.1, 5K, aging, Christopher Cudworth, college, competition, cross country, healthy aging, mental health, mental illness, race pace, racing peak, running, track and field, women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

50 Years of Running: Party till you drop

I had a problem during the summer of 1981. The coach house I was renting became Party Central for my circle friends including my running buddies and a group of co-workers who loved having a place to toke up in peace. And lacking any other concrete plans, I hosted one social gathering after another at the Coach House. I wrote in my journal: “Center of attention at party tonight. Can’t let it go.”

One of my best friends started a lusty romance with a woman from my office that I adored. They took to using my living room couch for dalliances before going their separate ways. I tried to fall asleep as they made it together one room away, but it was tough being objective, because I really liked that girl. Still, they were both happy, and I felt like the keeper of some secret joy in the world. So it was worth it.

Wearing thin

All the hard running I was doing left me with a physique that was desperately thin. I weighed 140lbs at 6′ 1.5″. My body fat percentage was down around 3%. All it took was one tired night to put me over the edge into some sort of cold or flu. This was unknown territory for me. In college, I’d been fastidious about getting rest and seldom came down with a cold. But now that I was out in the real world, where things were less predictable with far more influences coming my way, it was tough to sort it all out and stay healthy.

Plus, I never thought I had allergies of any kind, but in 1981, at the start of August, I came down with what I thought was a “cold.” During high school and college, I had several teammates that suffered during allergy season in the fall. When the ragweed sent out pollen, their nose clogged up and they could barely run. I never considered that I might have a similar problem. That first week of August, my nose and throat closed up with drainage, and running mileage dropped. I sank from a 55-mile week after my fast race at Nordic Fest in late July down to a 29-mile week. Everything in my body felt achy, tired, and awful. A hamstring injury bugged me too. “Need new running shoes probably TRX Trainers again. Hamstring (Left) is a little tight. Be careful. Stretch out, idiot. Too much training when overtired. TOO MUCH BEER! Need a woman.” Yes, the same testosterone that drove me to run so much was also vexing brain. Clearly, I was having a hard time managing my hormones. “Horrible case of blueballs from overwrought afternoon,” I wrote.

I popped a few Contac cold pills to deal with the stuffy nose and jammed some vitamins down my throat trying to beat the”cold” that season. I was gunning to win a race in early August, but things weren’t looking good for that. Over the years, I figured out that I almost always came down with a “cold” in early August. Most likely, I have n allergy to some sort of pollen at that time of the year.

But back in 1981, it could also have been a cold brought on by training and too much. I’d just finished running a series of hard workouts in the company of two former St. Charles runners, Doug Jones, and Vern Francissen. On August 11 I wrote: “Wracked by some cruel disease last week, a cold never the likes before seen since 1972. Totally wasted my mental strength and physical endurance. I made it through OK, but the lesson was hard-learned since I missed the St. Charles race where I figured to run 31:30 (I’d won the year before) or under, and most likely would have. I overtrained or overpartied or just plain had it coming, I don’t know which, but I overdid it. Started with a sore throat, two days. Then 1 day nose wet and throat raspy. Sniffles progressed stiffly until I was downright physically washed out on Friday. Made it through 1/2 mile and quit the race.” That was a major disappointment because my oldest brother was in town visiting my parents. I’d told him how well my running was going, then dropped out of the race he came to watch.

With the cold waning and my erstwhile girlfriend driving around the country in her Volkswagen van, I decided to go out on a date with a woman friend named Alice. She was a nice, wholesome Catholic girl who wasn’t up for my typical shenanigans. At the hint of anything else beyond making out a little during our date, she told me, “I’m a little backwards.” The next day I wrote in my journal. “No, she’s not. She’s sweet. Nice time. Had her home at three. Strange kisses in the kitchen door. Next day in Lake Geneva. I dunno what she thought. All in all, coughed all night on date.”

To think that she put with me through all that coughing proves what a sweet girl she was. I still met up with her younger brother Larry to run now and then. They were sort of a sane influence during the general insanity of that summer.

An august proposition

With August wearing down I felt an urgency to assess my fitness after the hot summer we’d had. I added up the mileage for June, July, and August to determine that I’d been averaging 45-50 miles per week, about 6.2 miles per day. “10km a day, tee hee!” That was a reasonable but not an august amount.”50 miles a week is middle-of-the-road,” I wrote. “Sure you can run. But the times you have done more, running has been a fuller part of life. You get what you put into it. If you want to party, party. If you want to run well, TRAIN, don’t destroy it all through idleness and excuses.”

The third week of August I traveled East to visit my oldest brother in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the city where I lived from the age of five through twelve. Eager to impress my brother with my burgeoning fitness, I signed up to run a 10km race in Elizabethtown the day after arriving. Tired from the drive, I could only manage a 33:51 on a hilly course.”Little road weary,” I noted.

After returning from Pennsylvania, that next weekend I drove up to Decorah for the wedding of Keith and Kristi Ellingson the first weekend in September The day before the ceremony, I ran in the Luther alumni race and managed 21:45 on the four-mile course. My best friend Greg Andrews beat me. I wasn’t too happy about that, yet I should not have been surprised. He had dusted in a pair of races earlier that year as well. That bothered me because I’d been a better runner in college than he was. Part of me was determined to get so fit that he could not come close to beating me.

Still stinging from the race, I partied late into the night. The only thing I really recall is somehow cramming an entire pool ball into my mouth. To this day, I don’t know how I did that. I was really drunk at the time, and trying to prove to someone that I could be crazy enough to do it.

In later years, I read about the tendencies of young men to engage in risky behavior. The frontal cortex of the male brain used to gauge risk is not fully developed during the late teens and early 20s. But tribal instincts are strong, and many young men consider it a far greater risk to disappoint their peers than to engage in activities that could lead to physical or emotional harm. That explains why so many young guys do stupid things. Add in some native anxiety or depression, a lack of self-esteem, or need for approval, and the formula gets more complex. I had all of that going on. Throw in some alcohol or drugs, and the formula is predictably unpredictable.

Competitive instincts

The party pace hardly slowed down as I slammed out a 77-mile week the second week of September. I eased back to a 45-mile week leading up to a 10K in which I passed three miles in 15:03 only to cramp up with a side stitch. Apparently, I made some comment after the race that sounded like an excuse to my buddies. They didn’t call me for a week after beating me by a minute or so. Our disagreement centered around the fact that for all the partying we did together, I wasn’t fond of drinking beer the night before a race. They gave me incredible grief the Friday night before the race about being too uptight. I gave in and drank a beer, then blamed the sidestitch on the beer. “See?” I commented. “It doesn’t work for me.”

That whole next week, it was Radio Silence from both of them. I was pissed. They were disgusted. So I threw my anxieties into a wild game of backyard football with a bunch of ten-year-old kids. I often threw the football around with them in the backyard behind my house, and that week they challenged me to some kind of ‘run back’ game in which we traded kickoffs and tried to run the ball back for touchdowns. It was three against one, and we had fun and competed for keeps. I’d played so much football growing up that I enjoyed being a kid all over again.”Outcrafted them for the winning TD in half light,” I wrote. “Probably some sore spots tomorrow.”

Marooned in LaCrosse

To cap off September, I joined my buddy John (Jack) Brandli on a trip to LaCrosse, Wisconsin to run a half-marathon. He’d attended the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and knew all the LaCrosse guys from competing against them in college. I was also familiar with LaCrosse after running against them at Luther. “This race is great…” Brandli told me. “But the party after the race is amazing.” I had no idea what he was actually talking about.

The LaCrosse half-marathon course was a beast consisting of two loops of just over six miles. There was a half-mile-long hill in the third mile that just about stopped me cold the first time around. On the second loop, I ran until my butt locked up right at the top and was almost reduced to walking. Then the downhill began and I gladly descended and raced home to the finish. My time was 1:12:21, my longest race since the Chicago Distance Classic in June, when I’d managed a 1:09 for the 20km distance, and the half marathon up in Whitewater, with 1:16 in high winds.

My sketch of Naked Guy.

The party following the race was indeed beyond anything I’d encountered before. Dozens of people gathered in a downtown LaCrosse house. The first thing I saw upon walking in the door was a guy standing completely naked in the living room. He went by the moniker Naked Guy as his party persona, and he really fit the role. In real life, he was a former UW-LaCrosse athlete and a national class runner that qualified for the Olympic trials marathon. I recognized him because we’d run against each other in college.What I admired at the party was his complete comfort at being naked among both men and women. He had a strong, body and was hung well enough to intrigue any woman that might like to take a look. But here’s the thing; he carried on the conversation just as if he was wearing clothes like the rest of us. Most of the women at the party didn’t even seem to focus on Naked Guy. He stood there with a beer in one hand and a pile of bright, curly blonde hair sticking out from his cap. I remember thinking, “Man, that’s confidence.”

The drinking and partying went well into the night. With the fatigue from running a half-marathon still in my body, it only took a few drinks to get pretty plastered. I wandered around half-alert to the goings-on and by 2:00 a.m. I grew weary and grabbed a blanket off the couch. I used my Frank Shorter gym bag with sweats inside as a pillow. I fell sound asleep with the party still going on. No one cared.

Wakeup calls

At some point in the half-light of morning, I woke up to the sight of a woman stepping over me on the way to the bathroom. I groggily glanced up to see her naked crotch above me as she minced her way over the line of bodies sprawled across the floor. “Well, that’s nice,” I thought to myself. Then I rolled back and fell back to sleep.

Another hour or two passed before voices entered the room and one of them called out, “Who’s going for a run?” It was one of the famous Hanson brothers, either Jim or Joe. He was already in his running gear. For some reason beyond my own understanding, I sat up and said, “I’ll go.”

So did plenty of other guys. Hungover and sleepy, we all wandered outside in our running gear. My legs were tired from the race the day before, but something in me didn’t want to wimp out on the post-party run. We all started running in a pack. The Hanson brothers were in the lead as we jogged down the street. Everyone was laughing and telling stories about the party and the race the day before. Along the way, someone broke into a coughing fit and the whole pack stopped to look as one Hanson brothers stopped and pointed at something on the ground. “Oh my God!” he exclaimed, pointing at a purple blob on the pavement. “Did that come outta me?”

Everyone laughed even harder. Then we ran ten sore and half-drunken miles before gathering back at the house. All the while I kept thinking, “God, I thought Luther guys knew how to party. This is a whole other league.”

Back at home that evening, I thrilled to the fact that I’d improved in the half-marathon. The splits were 5:20 at the mile, 16:26 at three, 21:47 at four, 55:13 at ten, and 66:14 at twelve. I’d been troubled by a slight case of blisters, but hung in there.

“Got a glimpse of what I can be if I continue,” I wrote. And then, quoting a Bruce Springsteen song I scrawled… “Badlands….’I want to find out what I got…” Then concluded, “Keep training, you almost had it.”

Posted in 10K, 13.1, alcohol, anxiety, college, competition, cross country, half marathon, love, mental health, mental illness, racing peak, running, running shoes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

50 Years of Running: Why running is life

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.

Fighting back

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.

Angry vision

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.

Posted in 10K, 13.1, 400 meter intervals, 400 workouts, 5K, anxiety, Christopher Cudworth, climbing, college, competition, cross country, healthy aging, it never gets easier you just go faster, life and death, religious liberty, running, running shoes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

50 Years of Running: The running rube factor

My full-on “runner look” in 1980: corduroys, a graphic tee under a dress shirt, and “casual elite” running shoes. Plus the hair and beard.

All through college, one of the keys to my self-esteem was running. A large chunk of personal identity was wrapped up on the sport and its year-round commitment to training and racing. Like many runners in those days, when I wasn’t running, I was hanging out in running tee shirts, wearing old running shoes with jeans and corduroys, and generally trying to look like a runner all the time.

The problem with all that ‘look like a runner stuff’ is that it wasn’t really a great look. Those old running shoes with the dingy sides and worn-out laces certainly weren’t attractive. Nor were the graphic tee shirts with typically ugly logos printed on the front. Layering dress shirts over printed tee shirts was certainly the worst look ever, but most of us did that too, as if our running “look” was some sort of superhero power.

We felt like it was. The running boom was just beginning to gain real legs in the early 1980s. The Moscow Olympics were a bust for the United States because we pulled out for political reasons, but the LA Olympics were just around the corner in 1984. We had running heroes to adore in th likes of Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter, Craig Virgin, Alberto Salazar and African athletes such as Henry Rono.

And so, like many running rubes in the early 1980s, I dressed the part of a committed runner, and typically looked like hell.

It didn’t always (or often) impress the women. My friend and I would come home from the bars some nights wondering why women never gave us a second glance. To commiserate, we’d stop at 7-11, usually half-drunk or half-stoned, tp grab a pint of Rum Raisin Haagen Daz ice cream, and down it in one sitting. Then we’d plan the next day’s run.

“See you at 8 a.m. for a ten-miler?” Come Sunday morning, we’d be out there pounding the roads like the night before never happened. Hungover or not, we got in our runs.

Getting lucky

Things went like that for most of the winter in 1980, until I met the 33-year-old woman at a bar who knew nothing about running at all. Her main hobby, it turned out, was smoking prodigious amounts of pot. She had a large collection of Turkish pipes and bongs that she’d garnered by traveling overseas. She also knew where to find gloriously powerful pot.

I’d never smoked pot that much in college. But I learned quickly that my skinny body with its keenly tuned cardiovascular system responded quite strongly to pot as a drug. We sat toking on a one-hitter on a February night when she asked, “Do you want to listen to music?” I said sure. She put an album by Cream on her turntable and the song Tales of Brave Ulysses began to play. We listened, and she turned her head toward me and smiled as these lyrics rolled over us.

And you see a girl’s brown body
Dancing through the turquoise
And her footprints make you follow
Where the sky loves the sea
And when your fingers find her
She drowns you in her body
Carving deep blue ripples
In the tissues of your mind

Those eight lines of rock lyrics have deep effects to a pot-laced mind. She dwelled upon those words as if they were scripture for the stoned. We hung together deep into the night found ourselves entwined on the couch. That’s when realized that I was in over my head with this woman in the league of recreational drugs. But I was loving it.

After that, we kept seeing each other. As time went by, the relationship took on a bit more normal rhythm, which was a bit of a relief to me. But one night I showed up for a date and she stood in the doorway looking me up and down, and commented, “You think I’m going out with you when you’re dressed like that?”

I had on my typical rube runner’s outfit with a new shirt that I thought she’d like. I’d dropped by the local mall to shop at the County Seat. I bought a new plaid shirt with pearl buttons and snap-down pockets. I put it on with brown corduroys and completed the outfit with a set of slightly funky Nike shoes with white laces.

“Listen,” she said, placing a hand on my chest for emphasis. “You need to go to Marshall’s, buy yourself a nice blue and white Oxford shirt, and some decent khakis. Then come back, and we can go out to dinner.” I stood there stunned for a moment. “I’m serious,” she said. “You need to learn how to dress.”

I was a bit shaken up by her direct assault on my runner’s look. But when I got home and looked in the mirror, I had to agree. She was right: I looked like a clueless rube. So I did as she suggested, and bought some decent clothes, including a set of dress shoes that looked like they belonged on a human being, not a running store mannequin.

We went out for dinner a few nights later. I was learning what it meant to dress like a grownup rather than a running rube.

Running commentary

That didn’t mean I was giving up my love of running. I was determined to show her why I loved the sport. She was curious enough to come with me to a local track where I met up with a close running buddy. The planned workout was twelve 400-meter intervals with a half-lap jog between. She parked herself up in the bleachers with the sun on her back and lit up a joint as we ran our 400 repeats. I’d trained with the guy for years, and we were in a similar state of fitness, so the workout went smoothly. We cranked off twelve 400s at a pace of 65-68 per lap. Every lap, I’d glance up to see her in the stands, watching us run. After the workout, while walking back to the car and she observed, “Your legs were in perfect synchronization. It was fun to watch.”

“Yes…” I responded her. “That’s natural. We’ve been training together for years.”

Into the fold

That same running buddy hooked up with her roommate a week or two later. We double-dated at a local pizza place, but on the way out of the restaurant, he saw a female friend we both knew from high school and stopped to chat with her in the entryway. The rest of us kept walking to the car, but his date by then was fuming. “I can’t believe he did that to me,” she hissed.

I tried to apologize for him. “We’ve known her a long time,” I pleaded.

“I don’t care,” my girlfriend stated flatly. “That is rude as hell.”

My girlfriend cranked up the engine and started to drive away. “We’re leaving him here,” she growled, glancing over at her roommate.

“No!” I begged. “He’s just like that sometimes. He doesn’t mean anything by it. Please don’t leave him here. He’s one of my best friends.”

“Then you should teach him some manners,” my girlfriend said, and pulled the car over near the restaurant entrance. We parked a distance away to see when he’d come out. At that moment, my buddy poked his head out the restaurant door to look around. “Please,” I said to myself, hoping he would come outside. “Do not go back inside.”

He walked out to the parking lot and stood there, looking around. We pulled the car up close to the curb and he opened the door. “Thanks,” he said cheerily. “I haven’t seen her in a long time.”

The women sat there in silence. I turned around to look at him in the back seat. “Dude,” I said. “That wasn’t polite.”

“Aw, come on!” he laughed. But no one else did. So we drove home with a funky scene going on in the car. But then we smoked some pot in the house, and all seemed to be forgotten. My girlfriend and I stood in the kitchen watching while her roommate and my friend got busy on the long lounge chair outside. My girlfriend just shook her head.

Age differences

Perhaps there really is nothing more self-absorbed in this world than 23-year-old guys. To be sure, my buddies and I proved that on more than one occasion. As I got older, I realized that it would have helped to have a sister in my family to set me straight on how to treat women. My brothers were better around women than I, which I credit to my own native anxiety. But from what I’ve seen, having sisters does help men gain perspective on women. My best friend growing up had three sisters. He was always really relaxed and friendly around girls, and I admired that quality in him.

I’ve talked with many women about dating guys when they’re in their 20s. While the patterns are not absolute, there is a broad dichotomy at work, no pun intended. Either guys are great with women and get it, or they tend to be selfish or self-absorbed. It takes a while to breed that out of a guy in his 20s.

So it was a learning process for me while dating a 33-year-old woman. She didn’t put up with dumb guy shenanigans. She also knew what she wanted and wasn’t all about trying to please me to get it.

Most pointedly, she didn’t give a damn about how obsessed my friends and I were with running. She already had her life in pretty good order, working as an interior decorator. She had eye for antique furniture restoration and many of her jobs involved refurbishing Oak Street apartments in Chicago. In other words, she knew where the money was, and how to make it. We even stayed in those condos on weekends when the owners were out of town. That gave me an entirely different perspective on what city life was about.

Her proficiency in her profession was so strong that she only had to work six months out of the year to make a really good living. The only person I’d met before with that kind of lifestyle was the party-happy carpenter I’d met in Ocracoke during my trip to the Outer Banks earlier in the spring of 1980. It occurred to me that the people who chose such interesting lives without devoting themselves to running knew something that I did not know.

A restless spirit

But true to my nature, I kept running for all that I was worth. Through winter, spring and early summer, I kept increasing my mileage in advance of the racing season. Then she announced a plan to go traveling during the country that summer. She owned a green Volkswagon van and had a month-long itinerary laid out to to drive around the country. “Do you want to come with me?” she asked.

“I have a job…” I replied.

“Suit yourself,” she told me. “Jobs aren’t everything.”

Testing limits

It seemed she was testing the limits of my understanding at every turn. Our physical relationship was interesting because she sure as hell did not want to get pregnant with some 23-year-old guy whose life revolved around running. We used protection at all times. Her preferred birth control method was a diaphragm, a little cup-like device popular in the 1980s. She offered to let me help her put it in, but I declined. “I thought you’d like that,” she suggested. But I was still inhibited in many ways, and despite an active sex life with previous women, the vagina was still something of a mysterious region of a woman’s body. But I hated that diaphragm because it banged against the end of my crank when we had sex. So we switched to condoms eventually.

The other thing I learned was that it is possible to be too gentle with a woman. My vision of sex to that point in life was was largely about gentle touching and feeling, but she liked things a bit rougher, even accidentally. One time at the 7-11, I swung around to ask if she wanted an ice tea and slammed my elbow into her breast. All my life I’d been taught to respect women’s bodies, and still thought of women in a delicate sense, so I apologized for ramming her boob. “Why, I like it,” she told me, and laughed. “You can do that any time.”

As it became known around town that we were dating, I’d bump into friends and associates that were curious about our relationship. “An older woman, huh?” they’d often ask. “Learning some things, are we?” But one day a guy I’d known from track in high school walked over to me in a bar when my girlfriend and I were together. “Her boobs are nice. Too bad she’s got such a big ass,” he growled. Actually, she didn’t have a big ass at all. In today’s terms, her ass was incredible. But according to his 1980s judgment, any women lacking a tiny set of butt cheeks wasn’t worth his time. “Fuck Off,” I told him.

She saw that I was upset and stepped over to ask what the guy had said. “Nothing,” I responded. “Absolutely nothing.” Truth be told, he was a jerk the entire time I’d know him, so I wrote him off. But I also knew that if I’d told her what he’d said, she would not have been bothered by it. She’d have told him to fuck off, too. Probably to his face.

Measuring up

So it was that I tried to understand a woman with a far different level of life experience and expectations than my own. At times, it made me feel foolish to go out for my daily runs while she seemed to exist in a partial zen state. Then again, running was my zen.

One day I stopped by her house during a training run to find her diligently refinishing an antique––yet long abused––chair that she’d found at a garage sale. I asked her what she was doing. She explained why the chair was valuable and showed how to protect the wood while removing the old varnish.

While I was an artist of sorts, and was actively producing work of my own at the time, her efforts seemed so much more grounded and serious than my own. I was mostly impressed with her ability to be a self-sufficient woman in her work and life decisions.

Needs and wants

Yet, there was no doubt she wanted genuine companionship, and possibly a true partner in life. I was nowhere near ready to fulfill that role for her. She probably knew that, but I was fun for a while, so it worked for the both of us.

I recall one manic weekend in which her roommate piled us into her tiny BMW touring car to drive to a concert in southeast Wisconsin. Between the drive up there and the pot in the car and the brews at the concert and the drive back home I was so tired I collapsed to sleep in the back of the car. But she was still going strong. We had different kinds of endurance, it turned out.

While dating her, I did the math and realized that when I turned 33 years old, she’d be 43. When I was 43, she’d be 53. And 53-63, and so on. My mind was too young handle that kind of relational calculus. I did not understand that at some point in life, age is not what matters. What matters is how you connect, and what you value. But we also knew there were differences along those lines as well.

For me, I couldn’t quite get past the pot use. One afternoon we walked to the Colonial Ice Cream shop a half-mile from her home. On the way, we smoked whatever pot she was carrying with her, and I immediately felt the effects. After I bought an ice cream cone and sat down to eat it, the pot took over my entire brain. The walk back to her house felt like it took an eternity, with spins and trails and flashbacks along the way. It was wild and fun, but I was also scared at losing so much control over my mind and body. That type of experience didn’t seem to affect her, or the pot didn’t seem to hit her so hard. But it bothered me. The athlete part of my persona wanted to remain in control in some fashion.

The running game

As the road running season arrived, I plotted out a series of races. On May 3, a bunch of us traveled to Whitewater, Wisconsin to run a half-marathon. We took off fast that day, cranking through the first mile in 5:15. We reached the four mile point in 21:41 and hit the 10K in 33:10 before turning back into a wind gusting to 25 mph. At that point, the lead pack blew apart and it was every runner for himself. I passed ten miles in 56:20 and finished in 1:16. That day, I wrote in my journal, “Very windy last 7 miles. Pretty wasted.”

A week later on May 10 I ran a six-mile race in 32:16. It was a cold, rainy day with temps of thirty-six degrees. On May 17, I raced a 32:38 10K and took sixth overall. My fitness was coming around and real improvement seemed possible after putting in a spring of sometimes solid training.

But the weekends away from my girlfriend allowed us to drift apart. Plus, my notion to skip her planned trip out west put the relationship on hold for the time being. When she returned, we did continue dating, but eventually came to understand that our schedules and lives were headed in different directions. By October, the commitment between us fizzled out. I regretted the breakup, but at least I’d taken a chance and shown some courage in the wake of the recent breakup with my college girlfriend.

That spring, I’d purchased the album Arc of a Diver by Steve Winwood. It featured the song While You See A Chance that seemed to describe my life and relationship that year almost perfectly.

Stand up in a clear blue morning
Until you see what can be
Alone in a cold day dawning
Are you still free? Can you be?…
 

When some cold tomorrow finds you
When some sad old dream reminds you
How the endless road unwinds you… While you see a chance, take it
Find romance, fake it
Because it’s all on you…
 

Don’t you know by now
No one gives you anything?
And don’t you wonder how you keep on moving?
One more day
Your way

When there’s no one left to leave you
Even you don’t quite believe you
That’s when nothing can deceive you… 

While you see a chance, take it
Find romance, fake it
Because it’s all on you

Posted in 400 meter intervals, 400 workouts, addiction, alcohol, anxiety, Christopher Cudworth, college, competition, mental health, mental illness, nature, race pace, racing peak, running, running shoes, same sex adults, sex, women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

50 Years of Running: The smell of candles burning at both ends

My journal drawing of a candle burning at both ends, circa April, 1980

As a hormone-driven, partially obsessed early 1980s distance runner in his early 20s, I was constantly seeking partners in crime. One in particular, a best friend you might say, had followed a similar path from the same high school to the same college and was now living back with his parents while doing graduate work in downtown Chicago.

So our running schedules matched up, and we’d go out pounding the miles in the dark and the cold of an Illinois winter. Most of our runs were conducted at 6:00 pace because that’s the only speed my friend liked to run. We’d go out the door and within fifty yards be clipping along at that rate. No warmup. Just step on it and go.

And go and go. He didn’t like predetermined routes, so we’d hammer along making choices as we rolled along. He lived three miles away as the crow flies, and we’d trade running the distance to each other’s place. Sometimes we’d be joined by a third partner in crime. He was a year older than me, and I was a year old than my other friend, so we all had the same manic early-20s energy going on.

We also partied together quite often. That meant plenty of late nights, crazy weekends, and squeezing workouts in between. Both of them were cross country skiers and cyclists as well. But I stuck mostly to the running, other than to join them on wild weekends in southern Wisconsin skiing the trails at Kettle Moraine or Governor Dodge State Park. Our ski sessions often lasted 2-3 hours. One February day after a major snowfall dumped 15″ on Illinois, we started skiing as the sun came out and temps climbed into the low 30s. The snow was still great, so we skied far and wide, covering thirteen miles. Eventually, our layers of clothing got too hot and we stripped to the waist and skied without our shirts on. It wasn’t even cold when I wiped out into a huge drift. I lay there laughing my head off, feeling more alive than ever. Then we just kept on going.

Back home, we brewed up a huge batch of spaghetti and drank beer all night while watching Second City TV on the UHF channel. We were scrambling our brains with constant simulation.

Sleep deprivation

So the candles of youth were burning at both ends. At one point, two of us decided that getting eight hours of sleep a night seemed extravagant. Why not cut that down to six hours a night? That’s enough, right? We reasoned that since we were young and healthy, our bodies would adjust. We kept up the same running schedule on top our our daily commutes and both wound up sick as hell with bad colds in less than two weeks.

That didn’t stop us from burning more candles. When my friend heard about a Stolichnaya vodka night at some bar in Chicago, we drove downtown after arriving home from work and drank and danced until three in the morning. I begged him to go home earlier, but he looked at me with those wild eyes that told me he was not having any of that, so we stayed until the place closed. I was Ralph Steadman to his Hunter S. Thompson. Or so we perhaps imagined ourselves.

We drove back home to the suburbs as the sun threatened to come up. I, for one, was still drunk Iat 4:00 in the morning. I still rose and made it to the 6:30 train for the commute into the city. Never a coffee drinker, I tried drinking Cokes to stay awake all day, but I must have smelled of alcohol in any case. So I kept to myself while working in the small office with three other people. Little was said. They knew I was hungover and just wanted to go home.

Party hearty travelers

With all that energy spilling out into the world, it was inevitable that we’d meet up with some people who shared our manic visions of life. Indeed, we met up with a family in Naperville with a couple sisters and a few brothers, one of whom was a top half-miler named Larry Wood. Somehow I got the idea that I could provide some sort of guidance for the guy. I even dragged him up to visit Luther College in hopes of recruiting him for the team. But he wound up choosing Indiana University because he was initially seen as a Division 1 talent with an 800-meter time in the low 1:50s. But he disliked the D1 atmosphere and later transferred back home to Naperville and North Central College, where he became an All-American in the steeplechase with a time under 9:10, ten seconds faster than I ever ran.

We had fun though, ramming around like a strangely extended family with the eldest sister observing her young male friends with an attitude of bemusement. Half the time our half-assed plans came together, and the rest of the time, they fell apart. We didn’t care. We just kept going.

One afternoon my running buddy announced that we’d be making chili that night for the whole gang. His brother worked at a butcher’s shop in Naperville, and handed him five pounds of ground beef with which to make our chili. The massive pile of meat was dropped off at my folk’s house and he told me, “Here, cook this up.”

I’d never made chili before, so I asked my mom what to do. “You need to brown the beef,” she told me. So I flopped the first giant wad of ground red flesh into a pan and started turning it over and over. That process went on for nearly two hours. Five pounds of ground beef is a helluva lotta meat, I learned. We made a giant pot of chili that lasted for weeks.

I kept training through the month of February when the wind chills dropped to -28F. Out of some sort of sense of dedication, I traveled to race a two-miler in Sterling, and managed to run a 9:48. But I had trouble racing because I’d slammed my shin hard on a tree limb while cross country skiing and it hurt like hell to run.

But when candles needed to be burnt, I was up for the burning. On February 21, I noted in my journal, “Up for 24 hours straight. Intense goings on. Prove it all night, girl there’s nothing else that we can do.”

Work tripping

The company purchased the snow New Zoo Revue as some sort of investment vehicle. I illustrated the characters.

The company flew me out to Philadelphia in June to show some watercolors I was producing for the corporate brochure. I was so tired going into the trip that I got on the wrong flight and wound up in Washington, D.C. The airline was aghast that they’d let that happen, so I was given a ticket and rushed to a flight to Philly right away. I had to call the Philly office and tell them I’d be a little late. That evening, the Philly staff took me out drinking and dropped me back at the hotel wiped out from the alcohol and the traveling. I still got up to go for a run in Fairmount Park the next morning.

Yes indeed. if there were candles to burn, I was going to burn them. Our energies were fueled, as one could imagine, by the music of Bruce Springsteen, the Talking Heads, and the Police. I played albums, made cassette mixtapes, and we ran while singing those songs at the top of our heads.

In early March, I had a strange dream in which the father of my former girlfriend’s new fiance had three eyes, and he told me that she wanted me back by June. That wasn’t going to happen, of course. I was trying like hell to forget her. “God she made me guilty, and gunshy,” I wrote. “Well, no more. Get her out, out!! No more vacant dreams.”

On March 17 I wrote, “I wish I had more time; to run, to anything. I’m not in bad shape, but phase 1 is not long enough. I have been fairly consistent, barring last weekend’s severe craziness. Monday was overheated, crabby. Attitude returning. Shin still hurts; either bruised or splintered. OOCH>”

I was trying to figure out so much of the world at the same time. It even showed up in the artwork I did for the company brochure.

Hustle and muscle

Then I met a much older woman in a downtown St. Charles bar. I’d been working to meet girls for weeks on end, and I’d calling a cute girl named Gail from the health club in hopes of getting a real date, but our schedules never meshed. So I was excited when a 33-year-old woman took me home to her place and we got busy long into the night. “Did the hustle with my thin muscle,” I wrote. “All so fine.”

I was still living with my parents when the new relationship started up, and my mother was not too keen on my sudden disappearances overnight. But weirdly, she also told me that she’d been warming up in her exercise class that week and overhead a conversation between 30s-ish women talking about the men they’d met the night before at a bar. “They said they’d met some cute runner boys,” my mother told me. “And one of them mentioned your name.”

Indeed, I’d talked with a couple other older women that week. Sometimes there was more than one candle burning at the same time. As Neil Young sang at the time, “It is better to burn out than it is to rust…”

Then I got word that an apartment was available for rent. My former track and cross country coach Trent Richards was splitting up with his wife. They were moving out of the coach house where they lived. I jumped on the opportunity and moved all my stuff out of my parent’s house and had a new place to live. It was even closer to the train station. And now that I had a place of my own a sense of freedom kicked in. Or so I’d hoped.

April 8: “Bittersweet new love,” I wrote. “Can’t let my heart go. So strange. Sex slips away. Such control, no control.”And later, “Ahh, I’m so confused. Spending time with her is nice, but I’m hedging my bets. Do I want to be a friend or a lover? I can’t tell. I’m so antsy. Spring calls me and I can’t answer. Maybe God and I have to talk again. Concessions must be made. Her presence controls my life. I’m probably scared.”

For the birds

I retreated into the fields to birdwatch and to try to gain some perspective on everything that was going on. Spring migration had begun, and I found dozens of bird species in the middle of April. My soul felt satisfied at last. The trees were coming into bloom. One morning, she and I lay in bed watching squirrels dine on fresh green shoots of maple buds outside the window. Her companionship felt good, but I knew was not in any way ready for a deep relationship again.

During April, I threw weeks of 40, 58, 43 and 45 miles together on top of all the commuting, the partying, and the new relationship.

On April 13 I drew a candle burning at both ends next to the word “Headaches.” It had been a crazy winter after a manic year of transition and learning experiences. But if I planned to survive and thrive, it was time to figure out what I really wanted from life. In the moment, that seemed immediate enough. Who knew that the answer would require a lifelong journey filled with candles, matches, and smoke in the eyes?

Posted in alcohol, Christopher Cudworth, competition, cross country, love, mental health, mental illness, running, track and field, training | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

50 Years of Running: Packing and unpacking life

Moving back into your parent’s house after four years of college isn’t most people’s idea of a fun time. But given the timing of my return to Illinois to start a new job in the fall of 1980, I had little choice. So I hauled my stuff home and packed it into the garage and bedroom until I found a place of my own to live. I’d make the best of it, I decided.

Commuting to the city got more difficult as the days got shorter. I’d jump on the train in the light of dawn and return with the skies turned dark. It was tough to get out the door and run in those conditions. A bit of misery set in, and I rued the commuting life. Sometimes, I’d connect with running friends but most of it was done alone.

The benefit of the new job is that I was meeting all sorts of interesting new people in my work for Van Kampen-Merritt. I worked in a corner office with three other people. The 208 S. LaSalle building was once an office headquarters for US Steel in Chicago, a firm for which one of my uncles worked in the 1960s. He and I compared notes when he visited my parents and we figured out that I was working on the same floor and in the same office he’d occupied decades before.

With four people now working in 25-foot office space, we tried to respect each other’s need to concentrate. I’d learned enough about office life from the job in admissions to tone down my daily commentary. And yet, we had quite a few laughs as well. One of the women in that office went on an all-keto diet. I was teasing her about it one day as she was sipping on her coffee and I made some wisecrack about her turning into a piece of meat. She burst out laughing and sprayed coffee across my face and chest. That left an outline of my head and body against the wall. We laughed about that every time she brought coffee back into the room.

Fast times

The company was moving quickly on all fronts, as Robert Van Kampen and his team were busy exploiting opportunities in the financial world by developing unit investment trusts. They’d pull together a package of investment opportunities, bundle them up and sell them to investors nationwide. As wholesalers, the company needed an expanding network of retail distributors for their product, so the Van Kampen team recruited a bunch of go-getters in institutional sales to get their products out the door and into the hands of Americans eager to grow their investment portfolio.

Most of the institutional sales guys were former athletes or graduates from big universities. Their leader Bill Molinari was dating one of Van Kampen’s daughters, and he was a key part of the firm for many years. He’d gather their team in weekly motivational meetings. I was called upon to paint a big tiger on the wall to symbolize a predator and its prey.

I’d had my own foray into animal-instinct iconography, having placed a hawk talon talisman around my neck in college. So I summoned up my taste for the absurd and drew the best tiger I could manage. I also painted a big batch of tiger paws in the same tradition as Clemson, where one of the guys attended college. It was all a bit hokey, but the job those guys were hired to do was difficult, and I knew it. So whatever it took to help them out, I wanted to try. All of them went on straight commission once the company was up and running. It was a tough gig as they got on the phones selling product out there in the investment world. Some of them did quite well by making money in that arena.

I was just a salaried guy riding in and out of the city every day. Grateful to have a job with a future, I tried to figure out where I fit in best. To do that, I talked to as many people as possible during lunch hour. Often I’d share my love of running, as many of the associates had athletic backgrounds as well. But running was still considered something of an outsider’s sport compared to the basketball, football, or baseball careers of mainstream American athletics.

The real education

Just as importantly, I talked with the many women who worked at Van Kampen as well. Some were my age, and we formed friendships outside of work, even partying together on the weekends out in the suburbs. We all had similar backgrounds as many of us attended small Midwest colleges. Several came from DePauw in Indiana.

One of those women loved the fact that I was deep into reading books. She kept asking about the authors and topics. When I wasn’t writing my Admissions novel longhand on the train, I read the works of John Irving and John Updike, Tom Robbins, Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac, and the magical works of Carlos Castaneda. That last set of books fueled my sense of wonder about the mystical side of religion. One could not tell if the books were written as works of fiction or a record of experiences. I mused about the “crack between the worlds” as I went running at twilight with the red seam of a sunset striking the horizon.

Later in life, I completed a pastel drawing by my daughter Emily Cudworth when she was four years old.

My lunchtime meetups with that woman became a regular occurrence. There was clearly an attraction between us, but she was already engaged, so I kept my distance in terms of asking her out on a date. That didn’t stop me from dwelling in the joy of her clear blue eyes and silken voice. To be honest, I’d grown to love her.

That was a welcome sensation after the relationship drama and demise of love after the two years in which I’d tried so hard to hang onto love only to discover that she’d moved on to another man. On October 31 of 1980, that woman and I officially broke off our relationship. The day after that call, I sat in the cafeteria distractedly trying to read a book while an older woman observed me going through some thoughtful moments. She asked me what was up, and I told her.

“So, how serious was this relationship thing?” she asked me.’

“Well, we were kind of engaged,” I admitted. “Kind of…”

“No you weren’t,” she replied. “You’re too young to be engaged. What are you, 22 or 23?”

“23,” I replied.

Then she invited me over to her table to talk. I put my book down and we talked a while about what getting married really meant. Then she teased, “You haven’t experienced much of the world yet,” she told me.”Have you ever gotten a blow job under the breakfast table?”

I sat back and laughed. “Well, no, not exactly,” I chuckled.

“Then you haven’t lived,” she said with a wink from one of her heavy eyelashes. “You know,” she continued. “I was not always a like this,” she said, shifting her somewhat ample weight around in her chair. “I was hot as hell, and dated tons of men. But at some point, I decided that what men wanted from me wasn’t what I am really about…” she observed, “So I said, ‘fuck it.” Then she shook her thick head of red hair in a show of defiance.

We talked some more about my relationship, and she informed me that she was 27, and not a bit impressed with the atmosphere at Van Kampen, either. “There’s kind of a weird thing going on here with religion and all,” she said more softly. “Just keep your eyes out.”

A Christian covenant

Indeed, I’d already learned that a strain of intensely fundamentalist religion existed at the core of the company. Most of the key leaders were fervently Christian men. Many were also adventuresome in spirit, flying around the Midwest in private planes. Then came a horrific shock. One of the lead guys in the firm by the name of Richard Kessler died when his small plane crashed on a fishing trip flight to Canada. The mood around the office was beyond somber. Kessler was a nice and classy guy, a key leader in his church and community, and his family was devastated by the fateful plane crash.

At the time, I’d been designing a paint job for the airplane owned by Robert Van Kampen. I’d drawn up the colors and even painted them on a model of the aircraft he owned. Up to the point of Kessler’s accident, Bob was excited about the plane project. But when Kessler died, most of the men that owned or flew private planes gave it up. Van Kampen ultimately hired a big turboprop aircraft to fly back and forth between Chicago and Philadelphia, where his partner Jack Merritt ran the eastern wing of the firm. I flew on that plane several times, even sitting in the cockpit as we soared over Cleveland.

Despite the tragedy, the Van Kampen firm forged ahead and grew rapidly. Meanwhile, I kept up my running the best I could while commuting and living at home. Between all that, I joined the local recreation center to work out and meet girls. I even summoned up the courage to ask a few women out on dates.

Then one December night, after a stressful dinner date with a clingy woman that I didn’t really like, I dropped her off and was heading home when I got stopped at the traffic light at Route 25 and 38 in Geneva. That’s when the news came over the radio that John Lennon had been shot and killed in New York City.

Portrait of married musicians John Lennon (1940 – 1980) and Yoko Ono, both in leather jackets and berets, as they pose across the street from the Dakota Apartments, where they lived, New York, New York, November 21, 1980. They were in the process of filming a video for the song ‘Starting Over’ from their album, ‘Double Fantasy.’

I’d grown up listening to the Beatles and had purchased Lennon’s album Double Fantasy that fall. I sat at the light screaming at the radio…”NO NO NO NO!” Tears flowed from my face and I pounded the steering wheel. Finally. someone honked at me from behind and I pulled away from the light and drove home in a state of sunken sorrow.

“Why does the world have to be like this?” I shouted at the night sky after getting out of the car back home. “Why?”

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50 Years of Running: Chicago Time

The Rookery in Chicago

I have an embarrassing confession to make about starting the job with Van Kampen Merritt in the late summer of 1980. On the first day of work, I was scheduled to show up at 208 S. LaSalle, the office headquarters for the company. I put on a suit and tie, drove to the train station in Geneva, and rode the train into the city. Not knowing much about city life, I tucked my wallet down the front of my pants just to be sure that I wouldn’t get robbed.

The absurdity of that action given the way I’d driven all over the inner-city the previous year is obvious. Somehow I allowed naivete to consume my brain in the moment. But once I walked to the office and saw all the other businesspeople bustling around the Loop, I stopped worrying and started to embrace this new life I’d discovered.

Not long into my job as a graphic designer in marketing, I was taken under the wing of Ralph Van Kampen, the elder brother of Robert Van Kampen, the firm’s owner. Ralph was a huge fan of architecture, and Frank Lloyd Wright especially. The Rookery in Chicago was his pride and joy. He took me on a walking tour during the lunch hour, effusively pointing out the finer points of the building. Ralph also lived in Oak Park, the home of the Frank Lloyd Wright studio and many other fine examples of homes and buildings designed by the famous architect.

To that point in life, I had not thought much about architecture other than what I’d read about in Art History class at Luther College. At one point, I wrote an ignorantly contrived paper about the play of light in European Cathedrals, a missive that my art professor John Whelan firmly returned to me with instructions to take up an entirely different topic. I’d based my paper on photos in art history books. That’s about as idiotic as claiming the moon is made of cheese.

My acrylic painting of Taliesin, the Spring Green, Wisconsin home and studio of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Much later in life, I’d take a greater interest in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, touring properties the Robie House in Hyde Park, Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin, the Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob homes in Pennsylvania, the Johnson Wax building and home in Kenosha, and finally Taliesin West north of Phoenix. I grew to appreciate and even love Wright’s incredible vision of prairie-style architecture. But at 23 years old, my education was just beginning.

Watercolor and ink drawing of Fallingwater by Christopher Cudworth

The joyful and humorous part of this story that relates to running is that in 1983 and 1984, I won the Frank Lloyd Wright 10K in Oak Park. During the first race, I held a big lead over 3,000 other runners, and who should burst off a lawn and run beside me for fifty yards? It was Ralph Van Kampen. He shook his fists and cheered. I can still see his excited expression and his eyes wide beneath his wire-rimmed glasses. He thrilled to the idea that I was winning a race in the locus of his life’s interest. I was proud to give him that moment as well.

The City of Chicago

The daily commute to the city was not my favorite aspect of the job. But it did give me time to write, and I began to compose a book titled Admissions, writing out chapters on yellow legal pads in my capital letter handwriting. I’d mapped out the plot and wanted to look into the future with the book. I’d learned so much about the admissions process in that single year of recruiting that it seemed like a topic ripe for exploration in a book of fiction.

Remember that I was writing the book in 1980. I conceived a place called the University of Wisconsin-Dells. The college was funded by tourism rather than corporate money, tuition, and alumni donations. All the students were employees of the college rather than just students. The campus drew on the same markets as the Tommy Bartlett Water Show and other tourist attractions popular in central Wisconsin.

The main character was a young man named Sean whose impatience with his first job out of college as a park ranger led to his getting fired. His father landed him a job as a pressman working at a Vietnam War buddy’s printing business in Chicago. From there, the adventures began. His boss at the printing plant was a seemingly abusive floor manager named Eugene Tierney who ran a clandestine porn business out of the back of the plant. Sean could see that the profits were good enough for this dad’s buddy to justify that seedy side of the company. But Tierney mocked Sean’s innocence, stuffing copies of the magazines in his locker until Sean eventually begged to move into sales. His wish is granted thanks to the fact that his dad once saved his buddy’s life in Viet Nam, so Sean feels like his life is about to take a turn for the better.

To compose the book, I sifted through ideas on my nightly runs. I’d get home from the commute out of Chicago, shift into running gear and blast away for a few miles. I’d sort through the plotlines of the book while running, and try to imagine what life would be life in the future so that I could write about it. I wanted the book to predict the future while taking the characters through twists and turns––the way life itself seemed to do. I also wanted to write the book in freestanding chapters dealing with cultural and political themes linked together by the characters and the plotline.

Sean meets a girl named Charise who works for her aunt’s real estate business in the city. Sean and Charise carry on their relationship in secret because her mother back home in rural Illinois fears for her independent daughter’s safety in the big city.

As the book built out and the storyline broadened, I looked for the plot twist that would set things in real motion. That’s when Tierney messed with Sean by slipping copies of pornography into a presentation he was scheduled to give to a well-known Christian client seeking printing for his religious publishing company.

The meeting explodes when the pornography falls out and the Christian publisher freaks out. In fear, Sean drives out of the city to points west without even knowing where he’s going. He continues north on I-90 all the way north of Madison and winds up pulling off the road out of exhaustion in the Wisconsin-Dells area. From there, the chapters take on an observational tone as Sean links up with a professor of biology at the University and quickly finds out that the college is seeking admissions counselors to recruit students for the all-new school.

But Sean’s recent past follows him. The Christian publisher turns his name over to The Mandate, a moralistic, religiously-driven, quasi-political organization that buys up AM Radio stations all over the country to broadcast its messaging to willing ears.

Again, recall that I was writing this in 1980. The idea of completely biased media channels was still a decade or more away. And the network I imagined used its radio reach to empower citizens to act in vigilante fashion by harassing supposed enemies of the organization.

During 1980, when I was writing the book, an actor named Ronald Reagan began running for President. He would introduce an entirely new level of conservative oppression of competing ideals, crushing unions, cutting taxes for the wealthy, and introducing men such as James Watt, who publicly stated that “When the last tree falls, Jesus will return.”

Sean runs afoul of The Mandate, who at one point track him down to harass him during his commute from the Dells to Chicago. But Sean leans on the life experience of his newfound friend, the professor at UW-Dells, to keep away from his tormentors.

Following Sean in his travels, we encounter a new radio network called the All Beatles Channel. Again, I was writing the book in 1980. The concept of an actual all-Beatles channel was still two or three decades away. But as I did my daily runs, I studied the news and kept thinking “What could happen in the future?”

I wrote about a motel property out in the stick of Wisconsin where Sean stopped to gas up one day. In talking with the owner, he learns that the joint had bec=me a swingers palace. The “wildlife” within the motel was exceeded only by the native wildlife residing in the wetland and swamp formed when broken field tiles flooded the property. But the motel is seized and closed when it is discovered that the liquid underground storage tanks (L.U.S.T) under the property are leaking toxic fluids into the environment.

In his travels, Sean also meets a woman with a unique fetish for seducing team mascots and other costumed characters. Eventually, he connects back up with his Chicago girlfriend, whose running career takes off when she turns out to be more talented than she expects, and wins a major marathon. That brings her into the spotlight, but a photo of her and Sean together, and a reporter’s byline that they are a “couple” following the race again attracts the attention of The Mandate. The pair of them are forced into hiding because Sean fears for himself due to possible legal ramifications from the pornography incident. He reasons that Tierney placed the stuff in his presentation, yet doesn’t know for sure whether the company president would believe him. Charise in turn fears that her aunt will tell her mother about their relationship and she’ll have to give up her life in the city.

So they take off north together, and Sean brings her to meet his professor friend. He is a unique character indeed, the progeny of an East Indian and Native American mother and father. He is an expatriated professor from Eisenhower College in Seneca Falls, New York, a school where he loved to teach, but the school closed for lack of funding. That embitters Jith Lakota, who embraces the commercialized atmosphere of the University of Wisconsin-Dells as a vengeful antidote to the death of his purely academic career.

He schools Sean in the use of new technologies such as the Voice Recognition Device (VRD) that takes voice samples from prospective students and runs them through data analysis to assess and summarize key personality traits and psychiatric tendencies. “Mostly,” the professor tells Sean. “It tells you what you’re not good at. We use it to help people avoid failure and give them a profile of what they should do. Sometimes you have to be stupid enough to know what’s good for you.”

Upon meeting Sean’s girlfriend Charise and learning about her marathon success, the professor grows excited. “I will put you in touch with some tribes in northern Wisconsin,” he tells her. “They have created a process using petroleum to suck the toxins out of your system. It has been shown to improve athletic performance by as much as 7-10%. Think about what that could mean to your running!”

Then he takes Sean out to show him a new car prototype that the University’s experimental automotive division has created. “Look,” the professor says, opening the hood. “The engine is replaced by a set of oppositional magnets in a coil,” he explains. “When you magnetize the two coils, the force of opposition is transferred to the drive shaft. No emissions. No pollution. And every vehicle on the road can be retrofitted with this technology.”

He sends Sean and Charise north for her detoxifying, and Sean drives the magnetic car up and back. “Think what this will mean for the automotive future,” the professor enthuses before they drive away.

Following the treatment, she and Sean head south with the intention of arriving back in Chicago. Charise reasons she needs to inform her aunt of her whereabouts. But somewhat along the way, Sean is spotted by a member of The Mandate, and they are pursued by a convoy of vehicles with AM radios blaring, all the way to Chicago.

They use back streets to escape and park in the underground garage of Charise’s apartment. Sean tells her, “I’m sick of this. I need to get this figured out. I’m going to meet with Tierney and the President. What about you?”

“I’m going to get in touch with my aunt,” she admits. “I’m tired of hiding from everyone.”

The Chicago skyline.

Sean runs on foot over to the printing plant, and enters the building through the back. There he immediately encounters his nemesis, Eugene Tierney. “Sean,” he says. “I’m glad you’re here. Come with me.” Sean balks, but Tierney assures him in a tone he’s never heard before. “Seriously. We’ve got important news to tell you.”

They meet with the President, and Tierney lays it all out for the three of them. “Listen, Sean,” he begins. “I admit that I put that porn in the presentation to the Christian publisher,” he says.

“I knew it was you,” Sean says bitterly.

“But I did it for a purpose,” Tierney continues, glancing over at the President, who stands up from behind his desk and says, “Sean, we had a plan all along.”

“That operation in the back, the porn plant?” Tierney explains. “All of that is funded by The Mandate. It’s their profit center. And that Christian guy you met? He’s the operational head. Their whole organization is a hypocritical farce. They claim to be high on morals, but actually, they’re really scummy people who exploit women through porn to advance their political agenda. We needed you to draw them out and create a way to expose them.”

Sean stands shocked. “You used me.”

“But we knew it would work,” Tierney says. “And we’re on solid legal ground. Because actually Sean, I’m not really a press floor manager by trade. I’m an attorney. A prosecutor. Your father and I also served in Vietnam together. He saved my life too.”

“So, my father knows about all this too?”

“He does, Sean. And he’s really proud of you for staying out of trouble while we made all this happen. The newspapers are breaking this story tomorrow. The Mandate will be destroyed, or at least in its present form. You’re really part of a heroic tale, kid.”

And that’s the plot of the book I wrote back in 1980. It predicts many things that came true in the future, some of them decades away. I conceived it all while out running, and wrote is all while commuting back and forth to the city in the fall and winter of 1980-81.

The Macintosh 504c on which I transcribed the book Admissions.

A few years later, having transcribed the book from handwritten legal pads through an IBM Selectric, then a Swintec typewriter with 10KB of memory, I attempted to enter it on magnetic floppy disks on an Apple computer my wife brought home from school. That was abortive, because the disks kept fillingup or failing. I finally copied it all over to a Macintosh Powerbook 540c laptop. Where much of it sat for several decades.

Recently, I received a tool to transfer files from floppy disks to my current laptop. I saved the files first as Raw Text, then loaded them onto a set of floppy disks I’d kept all the years, and plugged the transfer tech into the USB of my Mac laptop. I’ve saved the entire book now in Word form, and plan to edit and publish the thing someday because, as I’ve stated, it predicted so many things correctly about the future.

It may be a labor of love that only I appreciate, but what the heck! I love writing as much as I love running, and so much of what I write comes to mind while out on a run, or a ride, or while swimming. They all go together. Why not honor that even if it was years in the making?

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50 Years of Running: Detachments

Once the optometrist found the retinal detachment in my left eye, all the other stuff that occupied my mind fell away. I pushed him for information about how the condition came about. Was it trauma? I’d recently gotten hit in the eye by a tree branch that snapped back at me while birding. He said that was unlikely the cause. Was it my steeplechase career? All those water jumps and hurdling? Not likely either. What might have caused the retinal detachment was the rapidly changing structure of the eye related to astigmatism.

The detachment in my retina was on the lower side in the back of the eye. It was cauterized with laser surgery.

So there I was, a 22-year-old kid who considers himself an artist fearing that the vision in one of his eyes might disappear overnight. Thus far, I had not experienced any symptoms such as flashes of light that would indicate a retinal tear. But I was not going to mess around waiting to find out.

“These two days––and the past week, have been a struggle with emotions. The eye appointments, and the brevity of hard truth of eyesight, scared me into a near adolescent state. Silly jokes. Angry silences.”

A friend of my girlfriend drove me up to LaCrosse, but I had mixed up the appointments. Nevertheless, I saw a physician who inspected the eye. ‘The Doctor in LaX let me know the story. I can’t lose my right eye. I love to see too well. My paintings sit here before me. They are right-eyed paintings. Lord, let me keep what I have.”

An appointment for laser surgery to cauterize the retinal detachment was scheduled for the next month. But that scared me. Was it safe to wait that long? Could I go blind in the meantime?

That afternoon, after getting back from LaCrosse, I went for a long run in the summer heat, then stripped naked and knelt down in the cold water of the Upper Iowa river. “I bathed in the river,” I wrote. “Hard and hot, I knelt in the muddy rush. My brown thighs looked strong. I dug my body. I wished she were here to cool off with me. The catharsis of frustration.”

Not knowing what else to do, I was looking ahead. “Running went well this past month. Next week I run the steeple (in a Chicago All-Comers meet). I hope my middle-of-the-road strength and layman’s flexibility will allow me to excel. I can run hard. One more cool, tough session on the track, and go for it all, as best I can.” I planned on sneaking out of town to have some fun back in Chicago. At long last, the admissions work was winding down.

Catching a break

Then came some good news. I received a phone call from a longtime art client to whom I’d sold a number of paintings during my high school and early college years. His name was Robert Van Kampen, and he’d started his own investment firm. The company was growing fast, he told me, and they needed a graphic designer in the marketing department. “Can you do that?” he asked me. Without pause, I said “Yes.” He also wanted watercolor illustrations for the company’s collateral. “That sounds exciting!” I told him.

On June 16, I journaled: “Today, and yesterday, I decided on working for Robert Van Kampen. I asked too many opinions, though I received the same answer. Do it. She and I are really nowhere near getting married. I love her though. I think she’s glad I’m taking this job. As she said, “I had a chance to go on my own. This is a real opportunity.”

My relationship with Robert Van Kampen was interesting all on its own. During my high school years, he’d seen some of my watercolor paintings hanging in Manor Pancake House restaurant in downtown St. Charles. The credit for that opportunity goes to my father Stewart, who framed up my paintings and worked with the restaurant managers to hang my art on their walls. Some of the work featured hawks and owls, and that’s what caught Van Kampen’s attention.

Robert Van Kampen was a hobbyist falconer. He was interested in having some paintings done of his hawks. He owned a red-tailed hawk and a kestrel, and I seem to recall a prairie falcon that was not entirely legal to have. The red-tailed hawk was kept in a cool basement room with a single window. He sat me on a stool behind a stand where a hunk of bright red meat hung from the perch. “Now watch this,” he told me. The hawk flew across the room and landed on the meat with a loud thump. “Did you see that?” he asked. “How the wing feathers don’t separate during flight? Your painting shows them separating, but they don’t do that.”

I replied that I didn’t see that particular detail. He laughed and brought the hawk back to its original perch to fly again. That time, I did see how the wings worked. “Okay,” I replied. “I got it.”

We went upstairs to share a meal with his family, whereupon he walked out with a small falcon on his fist. It was the kestrel––known back then as a sparrow hawk. Painted on its chest was a small black cross. “What’s that?” I wanted to know.

“It’s the cross of Christ,” Van Kampen answered. “These birds wear the same colors as the knights of the Crusades. I quickly learned that his Christian faith infused everything he did. After I finished the first two paintings he’d commissioned, he contracted me for a larger project, a bald eagle painting. I worked long and hard on the project, and someone in my family told me, “You should be charging more for that painting.”

So I showed up at Van Kampen’s house with the painting, displayed it proudly, and asked him for more money. “I would like to be paid $120 for this piece,” I told him. A stern look crossed his face. “I thought we had a bargain,” he told me. Then he pulled out his Bible and read a passage about honoring your word, and looked me in the eye. “What do you think about that?” he asked.

“That’s great,” I told him. “And I get it. But I worked really hard on this and I still want $120.” He gave a wry chuckle. “Okay,” he told me and wrote out the check. “But we have a bit more to learn about doing business in the future.”

My watercolor of the bald eagle painted for Robert Van Kampen in 1974 wound up in a Michigan antique shop where one of my brothers found it for sale in 2019.

Negotiations

After the hard year that I’d experienced working in admissions, I was elated when Van Kampen offered me the job, He told me to show up later that summer to start work in the fall. My girlfriend was not satisfied with that approach. She pressured me to call him back and demand a contract. I followed her advice, and he laughed a bit and said, “My word is good. You don’t need a contract.” I trusted him. From that point forward, I focused on taking care of other business so that I’d be ready to start a new job with a company called Van Kampen-Merritt.

Operations

The summer still held a number of challenges. I set up the laser surgery appointment in LaCrosse, then sat down to write out some feelings. “I’ve got a lot ahead of me,” I wrote. “The eye appointment. Moving. The trip to Pennsylvania (with my girlfriend). The internship in Minneapolis. The new job.”

On the 22nd of July, I traveled to LaCrosse to have laser surgery done on my right eye retina. They sat me down in a chair facing a large machine. Once dilating medicine kicked in, the nurse slid my seat forward until my eye was an inch from a gooey lens. At that point, I started to hyperventilate and fainted. I was so woozy when I woke back up that I hugged the nurse around the waist and told her that I loved her. She sternly sat me in the seat and again and said, “Okay, we’re going to get this done. Now breathe, normally.”

The green flashes pulsing in my eye reminded me of the lights in a copy machine. Nothing hurt, but the tension of sitting still with an eye was smashed onto a long lens was difficult to handle. Finally, they finished, and I was beyond relieved. “It went well,” the physician told me.

Back in Decorah, my ride dropped me off in town and for reasons only I understood at the time, I wound up going to a dive bar called The Pub in Decorah. My right eye was still severely dilated, and the guy sitting next to me at the bar noticed the big black orb of my dilated pupil, He leaned back and started to ask…”Dude, what’s up with your….”

I blurted, “I’m half drunk.” And laughed out loud.

The whole world felt half-real by that point. All through June and July, I’d been running decent miles to keep my sanity as I wound my time in admissions and dealt with the ongoing vicissitudes of my love relationship. “She was cold on the phone tonight,” I lamented. ” Has she turned off the faucet of her emotions? Our last goodbye was so painful I’m not even sure she wants me anymore. This time apart is so unfair.”

Following the eye surgery, I could not run for ten full days by doctor’s orders. I had a quiet 23rd birthday on the 26th of July and went another whole week with no running. Once the eye surgery quarantine was over, I jumped back in to run 49 miles the week of August 10-16th. I wrote, “I’m really ready to race. Running felt good.” And then, reality came boring down, as I came to the realization that the whole girlfriend thing was coming apart: “She’s out with some guy. We met another time today. I’ve not dated anyone else in so long, why must she? Is this penance paid? Am I subtracting without balancing? I love her so. But I must not take pain for granted.”

Other realities were dawning on me as well. That July, knowing that I’d soon need a car of my own to get around in the world, I’d taken the $1500 I’d been given for graduate school and purchased a bronze Plymouth Arrow from a retired Naval engineer in Decorah. The car was tuned so well that you could not hear the engine running. My father lectured me that I should have consulted him on the purchase because he considered himself an expert on used cars. But the car was almost brand new, and given the fact that my father’s cars often broke down, I made the decision on my own to buy it.

Posing with the bronze Plymouth Arrow that I purchased in the summer of 1980. That silver Frank Shorter back at lower left was one of my all-time fave pieces of equipment.

The Load Out

Finally, the admissions job ended for real, and the time came time to move out of my little upstairs apartment in Decorah. I grew to love that little place that year, as it was rented from a Luther custodial employee and birdwatching friend named Arnie Rolm. That “home” upstairs was like a little refuge from the world. Yet one night, while sitting in the kitchen with the lights off while talking to my girlfriend long-distance, I glanced across the yard to the house next door to find a woman undressing in her bedroom. I tried like heck to pay attention to the conversation at hand, but as the woman across the way peeled off her top and then her bra, revealing a wonderful set of breasts, I lost track of thought and shifted my attention fully to the event taking place next door. Off came her jeans and panties as well. By then, I was transfixed. After all, how often does it happen that an attractive woman bares all before your eyes. Sure, I was being a voyeur in that moment, but it was not calculated or intentional. What was I going to do, look away?

“Are you there?” my girlfriend asked.

“Um, yeah,” I told her. “I thought I saw an owl outside.” For me, that was a plausible excuse for my distraction. I was always looking at birds.

The last day in Decorah, I collected the security deposit, emptied the bank account in downtown Decorah, and loaded up my car with my most valuable and portable belongings. I headed up to the Twin Cities for one more visit with her before heading back to Illinois and the job in Chicago.

I stayed one night with her at her apartment, but her roommate was fussy about groceries and such, so I drove across town to stay the week with my former college roommate Dani Fjelstad at his St. Louis Park condo. That night, when the car was parked in the condo lot next to a set of railroad tracks, thieves smashed out the windows and stole all my good stuff. Whatever they didn’t take was strewn all over the parking lot. The belongings they did take were heartbreaking to me. The Olympus OM-1 camera and accessories that my parents gave me for college graduation. The deerskin art portfolio that my girlfriend’s parents gave me. My favorite brown dress suit. The tape deck and speakers. My prized Frank Shorter running jacket. All so they could either sell the stuff for cash or keep it for themselves. I seriously wanted to kill them.

The robbery frightened and depressed me. My girlfriend was less than sympathetic. “I can’t believe you let them steal that portfolio,” she said. I wrote in my journal, “Is this God teaching me simplicity? I’m weak for now.”

Hold on, hold out

That summer, I fell in love with the Jackson Browne LP Hold Out. How a guy can write lyrics that relate to so many people always impressed me. But his music helped me process all that was going on in the world of love and loss.

Give up your heart and you lose your way
Trusting another to feel that way
Give up your heart and you find yourself
Living for something in somebody else

Still, I stayed another week in the Twin Cities and even ran a 21:37 four-mile race. A day after that, I ran around the Twin Cities lakes with my former roommate Dani. He got so coated with summer flies that he ran straight into the lake, shoes and all. I stood there on the shore laughing my ass off as he climbed back out. “I can’t stand bugs,” he told me. The next day I ran with my girlfriend, “Nice and slow.” Then I made the long drive back home to Illinois. “Some tears,” I wrote. “Hold out.”

You’ve done your time on the bottom line
And it ain’t no thrill
There’s got to be something more
Keep a hold on still
You know what it is you’re waiting for
Now you just hold on
Hold on hold out, hold on

I knew by then that no matter how hard I tried, things with my former lover would never work out. I recalled sitting with her on a 4th of July night to watch fireworks over a lake in the Twin cities. As we waited for the skies to grow dark for the fireworks display to begin, a massive thunderhead rose to the east of us. A constant show of lighting flashed inside the towering structure of the cloud. The deep sound of thunder rumbled across the smooth water between us. The vibrant light show inside the cloud was more thrilling than the fireworks to come. There was nothing fake or contrived about it. Just the earth’s heat and moisture, rising up to heights of 40,000 feet or more, all while electricity ripped through it all. The thunderhead looked as if love and life were being born within, like the beginning of time itself. I remember thinking that our lovemaking earlier that evening was akin to that thunderhead. The roaring pleasure of inseparable elements. Then, as night came on, the thunderhead calmed and dissipated in the east and the fireworks burst and poured across the sky. A human contrivance replaced all the natural glory that we’d witnessed. So much of life is like that. The glitz and drama of instant gratification too often replace the glory and simplicity of genuine experience. So it was that the towering thunderhead sank into the night. What matters most is whether bearing witness to such events creates a change within us.

Posted in aging, Christopher Cudworth, college, competition, Depression, God, life and death, love, marathon, mental health, race pace, steeplechase, track and field, We Run and Ride Every Day, werunandride | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

50 Years of Running: Sorting through a box of slides

One of the most challenging aspects of life on the road doing admissions work was feeling disconnected from the core mission of Luther College. It all seemed abstract out there in the field; showing photos ins a binder, talking with kids and parents, and standing there at college nights wondering who might come along. What I did realize was that Luther’s growing fears about enrollment and funding were pressing. As admissions counselors, we were called upon to be the cure.

Yet no one really had that conversation with us, at least not with me. Perhaps the senior admissions counselors knew what the numbers meant, but those of us just starting out in the admissions game were given some near-term numbers, our quotas, and little else to go on. Go get it done.

Running blind

I felt a parallel between that circumstance and all the running I’d done. Distance runners in the 1970s and 80s were running blind, in many respects. We had no technology or data to measure our efforts other than a watch and a resting heart rate. The training strategies now available simply didn’t exist. Of course, there were evolving “theories” about training. Some, like Arthur Lydiard, advocated Long Slow Distance while others like Brooks Johnson at Stanford insisted that running long and slow was a waste of time.

So we picked and stole what we could from the prevailing theories. Most of the time––in track especially––we made it up as we went along. Steal a workout concept here. Borrow a training schedule there. Hope that your coaches knew what they were doing. Sometimes they did. Sometimes they didn’t. For most of my four years, we just ran hard every single workout. That wasn’t the best approach, but it’s all we knew how to do.

That “run hard all the time” was how it felt out in the admissions world as well. Throughout February and early March of 1980, I went all out on the high school visits and college nights. Then I’d drive back to Luther and work in the office on Saturday, meeting students and parents, leading campus tours, and making follow-up phone calls with prospects I hoped to meet in the following weeks. I drove thousands of miles to reach students in all kinds of situations, from rural homesteads to inner-city tenements in the space of a single day.

Yet in mid-March, when I got back to Luther, I was pulled aside by the director of admissions who had a message for me. I journaled: “I got a talking to from (name redacted.) He asked me if I “was really in the game.”

Surely he was getting pressure from the higher-ups to make the numbers that year. Like all small colleges operating during the crunch of a recession, Luther was facing tough economic circumstances in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As documented on FederalReserveHistory.com, “The economy was already in weak shape coming into the downturn, as a recession in 1980 had left unemployment at about 7.5 percent. Both the 1980 and 1981-82 recessions were triggered by tight monetary policy in an effort to fight mounting inflation.”

I understood why the director of admissions had that conversation with me, but I got the feeling he still categorized me as the guy that couldn’t navigate a stick-shift car up a hill––as if that was all he needed to know about my problem-solving capabilities. But I looked at the job from a highly objective and analytical viewpoint. I understood quite well that I was a rookie admissions counselor taking over the territory of a guy that was successful in that role for ten years. I knew it was a big task to do better than he had done. From the outset, I was running just to keep up with the past pace.

My numbers to that point were decent, but not superior to prior years. So I kept up the spin cycle of weekly trips to my territory, meeting new prospects (juniors) while encouraging high school seniors to get their applications submitted and their deposit fees in. More than any other territory in the Luther domain, recruiting students in Illinois and Chicago was a complex process. I visited Lutheran churches to meet with pastors, and followed up with guidance counselors after my visits. I was making connections and building relationships. It all takes time, and I knew that.

Spoke in a wheel

Years later I had an incident that served as a perfect metaphor for my admissions experience. I was out cycling on a 60-mile ride when one of the spokes in my bike wheel snapped. It rattled for a few hundred yards before I figured out what was making the noise. I tried to keep riding, but the entire wheel started to shimmy and go out of shape. At that point, the bike was unsafe to ride. I never knew that a single broken spoke could undermine an entire wheel. That’s why bicycle maintenance before a ride and tying your shoes before a run is so important. Success––even basic survival–– is about taking care of the small things the best way you can. As an admissions counselor, I was one of the spokes in the big wheel of Luther College. The college had made some big changes, but I’m not sure they understood all the pressures it was placing on the spokes in the wheel.

I tried to be honest with myself about my performance. “Come to think of it,” I wrote in my journal. “I treat this (job) like I used to treat basketball––I play how I like and don’t sense the concept of the game. I wonder, does Elly? Even Mary?”

I was referring to two fellow “freshman” admissions counselors. Years later I learned that the President of Luther College invited them in to discuss their admissions experience and how the department could be improved. They pointed out inefficiencies in the recruiting process and proposed changes that the college made the following year, including a salary increase. The most significant change made from year-to-year in the Illinois territory was a return to the policy of allowing the Chicago market admissions counselor to reside in the market rather than driving back and forth every week. That took the pressure of a critical spoke in the wheel. I was glad about that for the guy that followed me in the role.

In the city

I spent the third week of March meeting with students in Chicago’s inner-city schools followed by college fairs at night. “How frustrating,” I wrote. “School visits were the pits.”

It was tough getting inner-city kids to attend a college six hours away in rural Iowa. In particular, it was difficult to get the parents of young black women to consider sending their daughters so far away. I met many athletes interested mostly in our football and basketball programs, but they’d walk away upon hearing that Division III offers no scholarships. Who could blame them?

The other challenge was aligning kids academically with a school like Luther, where the average ACT score at the time was 24. Studies over the last four decades indicate that the ACT test has a built-in cultural bias. As chronicled on FairTest.org, “Race, class and gender biases give White, affluent, and male test-takers an unfair edge. ACT scores are directly related to family income: the richer students’ parents are, the higher are average scores. But score gaps between groups on the ACT cannot be explained away solely by differences in educational opportunity linked to social class. According to ACT research, when all factors are equal, such as course work, grades and family income, Whites still outscore all other groups. If the ACT were not biased, Asian Americans, who take more academic courses than any other group, would likely score even higher. Moreover, boys score slightly higher than girls across all races, despite boys’ lower grades in high school and college when matched for identical courses.”

When meeting with inner-city students that had less-than-average ACT scores, I’d still encourage them to apply to Luther. They’d clearly worked hard for the grades they’d achieved, and it didn’t seem to matter what some test said about their learning ability. One student had a composite score of 8, and I had no idea what to make of that test outcome. Who knows the circumstances in which that student took the test? And years later, I read an unconfirmed story that some whiz got a score of 0 on the ACT. That’s probably an urban legend, but to do that, one would need to know all the right answers in order to get them wrong. One of my best friends scored a 35 on his ACT, but I still refer to him as the “dumbest smart person I know.” He shouldn’t get too cocky, right?

Yet somehow, despite the hurdles of culture and location, we did have success enrolling students from Chicago at Luther. Today, the campus encourages and embraces diversity in many ways, including cultural, academic, sexual orientation and more. Some even say that the college has gone too far in the diversity direction. So the debate over admissions policies continues to this day.

Pragmatic concerns

Rural Iowa: Pastel by Christopher Cudworth 2020

As for my own state of mind, I was getting fed up with the insane amount of traveling to do my job. On March 24 I wrote, “This situation sucks. This job has no demands, just a complement of necessities (hassles––by my attitude) I have to leave.”

The doubts on other fronts didn’t help. My girlfriend continued yanking my chain. “(She) is half-courting it again. She shoots nothing but jumpers, saving her heart, in my eyes. Her parents think I lack ambition. Yet if I make it, they’ll say it was their way of helping me achieve my potential. They distrust me.” I wrote a few comments about her drinking, smoking, and sleeping habits, and observed: “I may not be holy, but I’m healthy. My maturity may be behind two years, but everyone is nowadays.”

There was another incident that didn’t help my attitude in late winter. I dropped into a Luther friend’s college dorm one weekend while I was in town. The Pink Floyd album The Wall was playing, and his friends were toking up and took delight in mocking me for giving in to “the man.” The implication was that I’d somehow “sold out” by going to work for Luther––or even going to work at all.

I thought to myself, “Screw them. They’ll get their turn.”

Besides, I was quite familiar with the meaning of Pink Floyd songs. During one of our college track meets at some other small school, I looked up to see a counterculture kid perched in his dorm window with his giant speakers blasting Pink Floyd’s Have A Cigar toward the stadium. The lyrics are disdainful toward businesspeople thinking they know everything yet are in many ways clueless:

Well I’ve always had a deep respect
And I mean that most sincere
The band is just fantastic
That is really what I think
Oh by the way, which one’s pink?
And did we tell you the name of the game, boy
We call it ‘riding the gravy train’

I wasn’t riding the gravy train at Luther. I knew where I was struggling, and the reasons too. Most of all, I was trying my best to be honest with myself––and with them. On April 10 I wrote, “I’ve made up my mind to leave Luther. I will try to weigh my strengths and go for a position that will contribute toward or make a career. I have not done Luther justice, although I have tried––my successes have been in the quality of my work, and quantity is what we need this year. Too bad it happened so fast. But I must be myself now, and work on the talents I have.”

Attempting to gain some normalcy through it all, I ramped up my running mileage in late March and early April with a a set of fifty-mile weeks. During that whole month, I used the time between the high school visits and college fairs to go for runs or get out birding. Spring migration was underway. It was a tremendous relief to get out in the woods in the early morning with the birds singing and forget about tracking down high school kids.

As for migration, I felt the urge to move on myself. On April 21 I returned to the Luther campus and let the director of admissions know that I’d be leaving at the end of the year. “Today I told Dave I am through with Admissions. He didn’t seem too disappointed.” I would finish out the year and fulfill my commitment of recruiting 70 students. I had not failed after all.

The Big Exhale

Mirror selfie taken in my Decorah apartment.

Feeling relieved and determined to move on once the job was done, I jumped into a six-mile time trial with some Luther guys in early May and ran a time of 33:00 with splits of 5:13, 10:23, 15:51, 24:30 (4.5). I ran decently, but was pretty tanked. I wrote: “A struggle. Glessner 30:29.” Mark Glessner was Luther’s top runner at the time.

On May 10, I watched Luther win the conference meet at home, reclaiming the title we’d lost the year before when our pole vaulter screwed the pooch by passing to an impossible height. Watching Luther win again should have felt like a vindication of some sort, but by that point, it didn’t seem to matter.

The weather was warming and my hormones were flowing. I missed my girlfriend who was busy bouncing around in her first job for the Dayton-Hudson company up in Minneapolis. To work off energy, I piled on the running miles as a way to process all that was happening.

Blindsided

Then I sat down for an eye appointment with a local optometrist and received the scare of my life. At first, the doctor would not tell me what was wrong.

He said, “Oh…” and stepped back from the examination. ‘

“What… Oh?” I demanded to know. “I’m not leaving this chair until you tell me what you saw.”

“Well, I can’t be sure,” he replied. “But I think you have a retinal detachment.”

I’d never heard of that. He explained that if left untreated, the lining of the eye would likely come undone and I’d lose sight in that eye. I sat there stunned.

“What do we do?” I asked.

“You need to go to the Gunderson Clinic in LaCrosse,” he told me. “I’ll call right away.”

That was how the summer of 1980 began.

Posted in adhd, bike wobble, cycling, mental illness, nature, race pace, racing peak, sex, steeplechase, track and field | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment