Four miles and counting turkeys

CrowdThe ability to download results almost immediately after a race these days is a remarkable feature of modern competitions. You can walk from the finish line of a triathlon over to a guy sitting under a canopy and get a printout of your time splits, transitions and your credit report if you ask nicely enough.

TurkeyThat last part might be a stretch, but it is entirely likely that races these days can access your credit report if they would like. With entry fees topping $100 for most triathlons and Ironman basically seeking to take over the world along with Google and Facebook, your private information surely isn’t as private as you might think. We’re all just data turkeys waiting to be cooked in the Thanksgiving of life. And remember, the day after Thanksgiving is always Black Friday for the turkey, even if it does have nice legs.

Checking in

ResultsSo it’s a little creepy in some respects to check your times the day of a race such as yesterday’s Fox and the Turkey Four Mile and find out you’re a cog in a great big data wheel.

There were 2251 runners in the race, of which only 991 were male. “Four miles and counting,”you might say.

There were 1260 female runners. That’s 269 more women than men. And that says a lot about the distance, the timing and the state of modern running. Women are taking over.

As it stands, I would not have finished in the top five among women with my 7:06-mile pace yesterday. The women’s winner was Nicole Lopez-Villegas in 24:07. That’s a good time of course. I was a four minutes behind.

Legging it

The men’s winner was Ryan Giuliano in 20:58. I met Ryan at last winter’s Sno-Fun Run in Lake Geneva where he won the five-mile race over snow-covered roads. He’s the real deal as a runner, competing also at a top flight level in triathlons.


My own best at four miles was 19:49, run in a four-mile Turkey Trot many years ago. Ryan is capable of running that fast, and probably faster, on the right course.

However, the Fox and the Turkey Four-Mile ascends a steep hill at the start that in my case added 20 seconds to the opening mile time at 7:00 flat. There was also a noticeable wind in the third mile, where I ran a 7:20 mile. The second and fourth miles were both below 7:00 pace. I closed in a 6:52. Yay! So I was pleased with the effort. It was a fun and positive experience. That’s all I ask from my running these days.

Data mining

But I wonder, if in some digital universe divided by two I’s and O’s for the number of legs in the race, some data mining companies are not already finished downloading the names and times of everyone in the race. That’s how it all works in the Data Era. Absolutely verything you do is a measure of your value as information through which companies can assess your worth as a target in the marketing puzzle.

Turkey Dudes.jpgAs a result, I’m fairly certain some new and running or age-related products will pop up in my Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feeds in the next two weeks. It happens with uncanny predictability.

The ads will most likely it will feature winter training shoes or fur-lined Equipo bikini underwear. When that happens, I’ll spare you the photos of me modeling such gear. My girlfriend thinks I’ve shared more than enough photos of myself in underwear for one year. And for a lifetime, for that matter.

So I’ll just shared this photo of two guys who were pretty darn proud of their crotch turkeys at the race. Perhaps it was their way of telling the data mining companies to “Eat Me.” We can only hope.






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Tapering for a Turkey Trot


The last time we raced I ran so fast the pumpkin face I’d taped to my shirt flew off. 

I’m running four miles tomorrow and you know, that’s a long, long way. I mean, four miles is 21,120 feet. That’s about 7,040 steps if every stride is three feet.

So in order to prepare for this race I started tapering back in January, 2015. Never did I run more than 30 miles in one week. In fact, I only did 30 miles in one week one time, and that was quite a load. For me.

That means my taper is nearly complete. I did not run at all yesterday, or the day before that actually. Saturday we ran six miles in a driving snowstorm, and I actually had to take a nap after that. Something about the weight of the snowflakes on my eyelashes really tired me out.

The challenge when you’re tapering for a four-miler is that just about anything can tire you out. For example, right now I’m typing at a rate of probably 70 wpm. I’ll probably have to lie down for three hours to recover that energy.

See, there’s this hill at the start of the race that goes up the very banks of the Fox River Valley. It lasts about sixty yards and a hill that size in Illinois has been known to cause people to implode on the spot. It is no more than four degrees of incline, but even at that angle, if you run fast enough you could launch off and plop down in the cornfields a couple miles west.

HandSo I’m being cautious just in case. A few years ago I missed this race because of a surgical procedure on an infected finger. The cause was a sliver, and that means you can’t be careful enough in protecting yourself before the race. It’s often said by Ironman athletes they wish they could wrap themselves in bubble wrap the last couple weeks before competition. With all that training under your belt it would be tragic to fall on your bike and miss the Big Day.

And tomorrow’s a Big Day here in America! It’s the day we actually celebrate a tradition where a bunch of immigrants came to America and were saved from starving by the people who already lived here. The rest of the story isn’t that pretty to talk about, so we won’t get into that. But it’s always good to celebrate our traditions.

Next up is the holiday where we essentially traded one bearded, Middle Eastern guy who prayed for the poor for a fat white guy who disappoints when he does not come through with the goods.

Yes, we’ve got our priorities straight and we’re headed for bear into the Holiday Season. But first I’ve got to negotiate the only hill in our town and eat some turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes in recovery. We Americans have it tough, and we’re willing to run four whole miles to prove it.


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Sharing a pup named Chuck

IMG_3847In a few weeks, my life will change once again. That’s when our dog Chuck will begin living with my daughter Emily. She’s been working toward this goal for some time, and is finally getting out on her own with a condo where she can have Chuck move in.

Our dog Chuck has been a shared part of all our lives for six years now. He was originally discovered on the streets of Chicago by my son Evan and some friends at a very late hour. They brought him back to their fraternity house and cleaned him up. Reportedly he was covered in white paint, cold and shivering from the cold spring air.

IMG_4297They held a beer bash to raise funds for his vet bills and Chuck lived in the fraternity house with my son for several months. He got the name Chuck because the guy who owned the frat house was named Chuck. My politically savvy son named the Dog after the frat house owner who said, “Well, I can’t kick him out if he’s named after me.”

When my son began traveling for his work in admissions for the University of Chicago, Emily asked if we could keep Chuck at our house. My late wife Linda was not keen on the idea. In fact she’d long discussed a book she’d like to write titled 1001 Reasons Not To Own A Dog. She’d had family pets as a kid and some of them were rather interesting, to say the least.

Yet the first night Chuck came to stay, he won her heart with an attentive little mind and a propensity to snuggle. Those two built a bond, and Chuck IMG_4445was there for her through countless days of chemo and surgery recovery as well as bright sunny days sitting together in the garden. Through health and through challenges, Chuck was a stalwart buddy.

I was worried he’d be devastated on her passing. In fact, he did sit at the front window quite a bit wondering when and if she might come home. I kept up our routine of walking him twice a day as I’d done since he came to live with us. My daughter was living at home at that time following graduation from college, and Chuck was an important partner in helping her process grief.

When my son Evan came back home for visits from New York City, Chuck was always ecstatic. Their original bond has never dissipated. That dog is full of love and he shows it, sometimes too much. We’ve never trained him not to jump up when greeting family, friends or strangers. It’s a bit obnoxious, but it only lasts about 30 seconds. His loving character is revealed in a rather enthusiastic way.

Chuck yin and yangWith all the comings and goings in our lives these past six years, it has remained my responsibility to walk and feed the dog. There’s a rhythm to all that, and it has helped on many occasions to have to walk the dog when dealing with change or difficulty in life. More than once during my wife’s health challenges there were times when the world could find me bent down and crying at the side of the dog, stroking his fur as he looked at me with his deep, dark eyes. He seemed to understand, and by the time I’d get home the tears would be dried and Chuck would pile back into his couch routine.

My caregiving responsibilities did not end with her passing, however, as my father was still in my care. For thirteen years since he’d had a stroke in 2002, and my mother passed away in 2005 I took care of my father. He died several weeks ago of fairly natural causes. We’re having a Memorial Service in his honor tomorrow. Even he grew to love Chuck, who would hop up into his lap on the wheelchair or beg to be placed on my dad’s lap when he visited in his Volkswagon van.

IMG_4407It strikes me that when Chuck leaves my home there will certainly be a void in my life. Yet the bond would never have taken place had my son not helped save Chuck that night, and Emily had not wanted to bring him home. To me, this next step is a natural extension of both their love and their character.

So sharing the pup is what we do. And it’s time for Emily to have her well-earned time with the dog she so loves. He’ll still come for visits pretty frequently I bet. She’s a busy gal with her boyfriend Kyle, whose dog Dozer is a pit mix with a heart of gold and the voice of a UFC announcer. So Chuck will have some weekend visits now and then, and that will be fun.

First we’ll all be celebrating Thanksgiving as a family. Chuck loves when tons of people come over to visit. I tell him in the morning, “All your people are coming today. Then when the first car pulls up I ask, “Who’s here?” He piles up onto the sofa back to look outside and paw the big window. His nose marks cover the glass in a wide swath. He’ll whimper and whine a bit when he sees who it is. He even recognizes the sound of certain trucks.

Changing times

IMG_2928On Thanksgiving morning my companion Sue and I will rise early to race in a Turkey Trot. We rise early to do quite a few things actually. This past
summer during training for her Ironman triathlon there were many weekend trips to Wisconsin and early bike rides. Always that means finding someone to look out for Chuck or take care of him overnight. A neighbor across the street can help once in a while, and family members have taken him in when we’re on one of our athletic junkets. But honestly, there might be a touch of relief not having that obligation. It will be the first time since 2000 that I’m not directly responsible for the caregiving of another. I can’t really tell you how that will feel. Good or bad, it is what it is.

As for Chuck, I’m sure I’ll miss his little face and snuggling with him when he climbs under my covers once he eases out of his crate with a long stretch in the morning. Then he takes a couple steps and jumps up onto the bed. That little dog has been a big part of my life for a long time. Longer than the years I spent in college or other ostensibly significant periods of time. Our pets are a big part of our lives. Fortunately Sue has some really great cats that live with her. Fur Friends are important.

Chuck and I have also walked an estimated 1000 miles together over the years. When we get near home I give his leash a nudge and say, “Let’s run!” For fifty or so yards we sprint full tilt toward the house. He has three modes of locomotion. Walk. TripTrot. And bounding run. He’s just a touch faster than me at a full sprint. But I can still motor too.

IMG_2585It’s that last bit of speed that I really enjoy seeing in him. He’s still a healthy pup and not too old to really motor. His ears fly back and his paws swing forward and back with speed. We’re flying home and I almost always start laughing and tell him “Good Boy!” when we cut across the yard and head back inside.

Usually, he goes and takes a long drink from the plant watering can. That’s what he prefers over a boring little bowl. Then he often sacks out on a chair or the couch for a good long nap. He loves it if someone sits next to him to quietly scratch his ears or stroke his fur. He also loves his “brush,” and he’ll sit up and look back at you to encourage you to use it if you say the word.

He’s got all kinds of funny little quirks like that. From his crooked smile with a snaggle tooth on one side to the foxlike arc of his face, he’s a IMG_4175Schnoodle with character, caregiving and community all built into one little dog.

It’s time to Share the Pup however. Which means I’ll engage in my long time practice of petting other people’s dogs. A few weeks back after Run Club in Naperville, it was a nice day outside and that’s what I did. I wandered around downtown after running and did some shopping while stopping to pet the dogs I met along the way. They are all souls like us. Perhaps not gifted with the same brand of intelligence, but they all have their unique and valuable qualities. It’s a nice thing to share in this world.


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Making it happen

Zach PlankThis past summer while shopping for running shoes at Naperville Running Company, I met a young man that worked at the shop during breaks between school years at North Central College. We talked about running for a bit and one got the sense this was a kid on a mission. So I wrote about his passion for running and his goals for the coming year in NCAA Division III Cross Country.

Well, Zach did pretty darn well at Nationals, placing in the top 10 for an All-American ranking. His team from North Central placed 5th overall after having won in 2013. This is what the official story from the meet said of his individual performance. “Plank hung tough with the leaders and went on to place fourth overall, hitting the finish line in 24:26.9 and becoming the 69th North Central runner to earn All-America honors.”

Yes, you read that time right. 24:26 for five miles of racing. Fortunately, the snows held off in Oshkosh, which was a little too far north to get hit by the weekend storms. How ironic and beautiful is that! Too far north to get snow!

You never know what you’re going to get in terms of weather this time of year. When my alma mater Luther College won its first national championship back in 1985, the meet was held down south and the temps topped eighty degrees. Great programs know how to prepare and perform no matter what the conditions.

North Central is such a perennial favorite to win, the ideals of living up to that long tradition can put strange pressures on the program’s athletes. Of course, teams with that level of tradition know that a few challenges can come up along the way. Such was the case this year for the Cardinals, who placed fifth overall at the national meet. That is not a shabby day for any collegiate program. But for the North Central Cardinals, every year is an opportunity to succeed and possibly win. Here’s what Zach wrote on his Facebook page about the experience:

“I wish I could give everyone in this program – coaches, alums, teammates – a championship, because we are a championship team. However, today was a day to understand what it takes to be at that level. We knew we had it; we were ready, but it was just not what was in the cards. We’ve learned so much from each other and now, with this chip on our shoulder, we will work harder every day to never feel like this again. To each and every one of my teammates, coaches, alumni from every generation, I thank you for creating a program and history that takes every ounce of work and character to be a part of.”

So the tradition continues. You can read about the results of the meet here, in the official summary from North Central College athletics department. It bears noting that the women’s team at North Central has built just as successful a tradition of competing at nationals. Congratulations to all that have represented this program and many other division III schools. This is sport for the love of it. And a grand thing at that.




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Baby’s got back

This swimming thing is turning out to be a blessing on a number of fronts. As the combination of learned form and increased endurance add up, it is finally possible to enjoy the experience of being in the pool. Up until recently, I would not call it dread at heading to the pool, but it was something just short of that.



Baby’s Got Back. 

I recall one summer day watching my girlfriend Sue swim in the lake at Governor Dodge State Park in Wisconsin. It was a quiet August afternoon. The water was still and dark against the backdrop of tall pine trees on the hills surrounding the water. She leaned forward, and in a moment transformed into something lovely and moving in the water.


And I thought, I want to be able to swim. Like that.

That was several years ago. For a while, I avoided even trying. Then I joined XSport and began experimenting in the pool. I’d get tired and blow like a whale after two laps. I could swim, and my stroke wasn’t awful because I’d swum quite a bit while growing up. But there was a lot to learn.

I’ve written about the process enough. Learning to swim has taken time. There is still lots of work ahead to hit my goal of swimming a mile in open water come spring. But it’s going to happen. That I can see.

Sue has served as an excellent sounding board through all this. She’s a swim coach but we’ve decided that’s not the best way to go about this, her coaching me. In the interim, I share progress and we discuss issues of form and solutions. I’m working with a great swim coach named Whitney whom I met through XSport when she was coaching there. I learn from here. There’s progress.

BackLast night I took a look at myself in the mirror and realized that by swimming more I am actually changing my body. The muscles in my back are developing in response to better form and increased time in the pool. I’m no Michael Phelps, but my formerly parallel sides have developed a bit of a vee to them. Combined with regular weight work, this is a most healthy thing.

My goals with swimming are about two things: enjoying competitive opportunities and sustaining health. Plus, this trying new things is really good for the brain. Swimming is as much a mental challenge as it is physical. It requires considerable concentration as you refine technique. Most recently, this has meant learning to rotate the body during the stroke. This opens the shoulders, maximizes extension and actually helps propel you through the water.

Then it was time to work on the kick. Learning to kick from the hips and use the legs like extended rudders has resulted in being level in the water, and the feel of a stronger kick builds confidence too.

Getting my elbows raised and coming through was learned quickly through the “fingertips to the armpits” drill. Now I’m also breathing on both sides, an assignment given by swim instructor.

Yesterday, a new revelation hit me in the water. This was not technique oriented, but common sense. I’d only been breathing from the upper lungs. Suddenly I felt myself take a breath starting from the belly, like I do when I run. This was the result of relaxing in the water, and instantly it relaxed me even more. No more gulping. This was real breathing. So that’s the next level of rehearsal. Breathe deep. Exhale fully. Go for the distance.

And when things work,  you can feel your movement through the water gaining in strength and efficiency. There is a real sense of accomplishment.

I know my body is nothing special. It is what it is. But it is also what you make it, and what it can become. Even as we age, there are rewards to be found in the process of challenging ourselves. This whole Baby’s Got Back thing is part of the process of staying healthy and whole.


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Bad gas

gas canNovember is the time of year that we all try to clean up our yards. For many people, that means bagging or raking leaves out to the curb. I prefer to mulch them and distribute the fine fragments of leaves onto woodland gardens in my back yard where they get turned back into soil  with a fresh layer in spring.

That means I keep the mower running through the middle of November when the last giant leaves from the sycamore tree next door finally give up and fall to the ground. They are always the last to go. I love that tree for the shade it brings in summer, preserving part of my lawn in green posterity through the dry August heat (and sun) that turns the rest of the lawn brown.

There’s a trick to mowing leaves through November. The gas can I use holds two gallons. My goal is always to guess how much gas I’ll need to finish the season and not have a bunch left over to sit all winter in the cold. That’s when gas goes bad even if you put that preservative in it that is supposed to keep it from being ruined by time.

A couple springs ago I tried starting the engine in April with bad gas and it resulted in a repair bill. The mower engine had to be cleaned out completely, and new plugs installed. I trust my mower repair guy because I once helped him get a date with a woman he’d met at a bar. I told her what a nice guy he was and they went out on a date. That date didn’t turn out well, because he apparently he tried to pull her starter cord at little too early and that never really works. But he remains grateful for my help.

This year during my mower tune-up he clearlly told me to use mid-grade gasoline, and from what station to buy it. Yes, I should probably invest in an electric mower someday. The exhaust the mower emits and gas usage are not exactly a green solution to a sustainable lawn. But it’s a Honda mower and will probably keep working through the Holy Apocalypse, so I’m not going to trade it in.

However the lessons about bad gas have gotten me thinking about what kind of fuel I’m putting into my running, riding and swimming tank. It’s a serious business you know. Nutrition is the principal sustainability factor in racing and training.

I know one thing: Whole milk is off the menu for me. Talk about bad gas! I accidentally bought whole mile about three years ago and for three days thought my gut would explode. I had gas so bad it was almost necessary to leave work.

Coca-Cola is not good fuel for my tank either. For one thing, it runs a bit high on carbs and that makes me fat. So screw that. My exception to the Coca-Cola rule is when used with a bit of whisky or run. Then they’re high-grade fuel. And oh yeah, drinking a Coke on a long, hard bike ride in the heat is acceptable too. Fuel for the brain and body.

There’s no set formula for the fuel we put in our respective bodies, but it does pay to recognize bad gas when you see it. The side effects aren’t that great either. Bad gas equals bad news in mixed company, or otherwise.

pffffbbblllllt. That wasn’t me. I swear it.

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Running into temptation

On the heels of publication of my writing and illustration in Runner’s World magazine, a race director in another state contacted me about donating work to their cause. It made sense. The race was a fundraiser for an arts center. So I produced a pair of running art paintings that were used as prizes for the race drawing.

That proved popular, so the race director asked me to contribute the next year as well. “We’ll fly you down this year and you can present to the winners,” he offered.

I decided to take things a step further and produce a race poster using the two illustrations. That poster earned a Cream of the Crop award for running posters from Runner’s World.

Star treatment

Fluorescent ChrisThat honor resulted in a bit of a star treatment that year in the race festivities. Sitting in the expo that morning, I signed posters and fielded questions from happy participants.

During the hubbub, I noticed a female runner that had finished in the top ten that morning. As a writer back home in Illinois, I had covered the state meet where she actually led the race before placing in the top five. She was surprised that I’d recognized her the previous day. As she stood in line to have a poster signed, I looked up and smiled. She smiled back and gave a small wave.


She was a truly beautiful young woman, possessed of a bright smile and thick locks of curly black hair. She also fit her tights quite well.

After she purchased a poster and had it signed, she hung around watching the other runners. We talked casually about her career in cross country and track, and she offered assistance in organizing posters for me.

If I’d been a younger man at the time, and unmarried, the drive to connect with her would have been irresistible. It was difficult enough to resist thinking there was some sort of connection going on. I was only in my early 40s at the time, but there was definitely some sort of Lost In Translation moment going on.

On the road

IMG_3786Perhaps it was just the connection of a person from home that interested her so and kept her occupied in my assistance with the poster. She’d been on the road for months, she told me, racing in strange cities and hanging around with other national class runners on the circuit. She seemed lonely however, perhaps tired of the burdens of racing and training in an itinerant lifestyle. Perhaps she just needed a father figure at that moment.

Ironically, her level of athletic prowess and achievement was a lifestyle I’d tried to achieve, and could not. My abilities as a runner stopped short of national class. I won races at the regional level and was sponsored by a running store.  I even traveled some to races out of state, but the facts were clear by the time I reached my middle 20s. I was never going to break through to a national level, much less anything approaching world class. I would never be sponsored by a running shoe company or travel around the country racing. I’d tried my best, but came to understand the limits of my natural ability.

How good you aren’t

There’s a certain liberty that comes with knowing how good you aren’t. Knowing you’ve tried your best is sufficient in the end.

But my new young friend was in the throes of those experiences. Her status as a top flight runner was affording her opportunities few get to experience. Despite the apparent joy of that potential, it can get old. Week after week of living on the road is not as glamorous or fun as it sounds.

Yet here she was, as fit and beautiful as anyone could imagine. And that juxtaposition, that when it came to the raw results of racing, her beauty did not help her, was likely an odd challenge for her. Perhaps she simply wanted to be loved.


suzy-favor-hamiltonInstead the world demands something else of so many comely young women. It’s an odd and somewhat unjust truth that women runners and athletes don’t have to be the best to benefit from their sport if they happen to be attractive. Women tennis players and golfers, volleyball players and lingerie football players all either learn or know this. All must field the vagaries of lustful attention as they engage in their respective sports. Some welcome that and turn it into endorsements. Others would prefer to be recognized for their ability, not their looks. Yet there are young women on sites like Reddit garnering 100,000 views a day while others leverage their looks in a thousand other ways. Is that a bad thing? Temptation is a two-way street.

It’s the urge to find the bad girl in the virginal image that drives all that, and it’s a familiar cycle in modern culture. Young women athletes and media stars are funneled through a cycle in which they are allowed to perform in athletics as a child to a certain age. Then it is almost demanded they show more skin and show off their “athletic body.” Tennis players such as Anna Kournikova and golfers like Natalie Gulbis play the game quite well. But it might be annoying in some respects.

As The Producers say, “If you got it, flaunt it”

Granted, any woman should have the right to use their body as they see fit. Consider the success of actress/singers such as Miley Cyrus, who started out as a child star and has turned the sexual game into a power move by almost disembodying her sexuality. At last count, her video Wrecking Ball has more than 812 million views. It’s no coincidence that Miley is getting rich off the temptations she throws right back in the faces of all those with prurient interests. That’s a power move if ever there was one. It shows fidelity to the notion that she owns her image, and her audience gets owned as a result. Call it the quirk of the twerk.

Guilty as charged

I fully acknowledge that in my case, the imagined flirtations with that young runner friend could well have been just that, imagined. I would not be the first male to engage in such wishful thinking.

Yet later that morning while headed back to the hotel room, I looked up at the second level to see that same young woman emerging from the room of another young male runner. Her hair was tousled and they exchanged a quick kiss as she was leaving. Quite obviously they’d spent a couple hours having some a most excellent liaison without commitment. Life on the road. The running circuit. Indeed, she’d hooked up with someone more her age, and single.

Young fury

Logan LermanThere’s a scene in the movie Fury in which the tank commander played by Brad Pitt leads a young soldier up to the apartment of two women trapped in the events of war. The Pitt character essentially assigns the young man to go to a room with the teenaged girl in the apartment and have sex.

It seems to be intended as a tender moment actually, and when the older woman protests the notion of wartime sex, the Brad Pitt character basically says, “Relax, they’re young. And alive.” But actually, it’s a form of rape. Such is the apparent ambiguity of all such temptations. At some level, there seems to be some justification for the arranged sex. Pitt organizing the tryst with one young soldier seems the far better option than the women being ravished by multiple men in the tanks below. But does that make it right?

So it was with a bit of wistful realization that morning that I watched the young woman leave the company of that young man. Both were finding solace and love in some sort of runaway world. It was not for me to judge. Perhaps they were lovers on the road all along. But perhaps not.

As for me, I was glad in the remaining fact of my own fidelity. We run into a lot of temptations in this world. It is our job to resist them, imagined or not, and stay true to who we are.

External affairs

We all know someone that has engaged in an extramarital affair. As a result of these transgressions, their world often shrinks rather than expands. Guarding that secret takes all sorts of energy. Personalities turn into repeating loops. When (and if) the affair finally ends, the relief can be so great it feels as if one were floating again through life.

Transitions can be tough to handle.Some hit that temptation head on and emerge on the other side a changed or chastened person. Others never seem to learn the lesson, and many can’t seem to live without it. Serial sexual cheaters are just like corrupt investment bankers in the sense that the rush of triumph and new territory is just too powerful to resist. It then becomes the norm for that person. And corrupted by that power, they hunger for more.

We also know that a soldier returning home from war can find everyday life too mundane. The ethics of war and the practiced art of killing others is all so ambiguous. We saw that strain in the movie American Sniper. Chris Kyle’s attention and fidelity to his wife is tested by the draw of war and his sense of obligation to his fellow soldiers.

These are all external affairs of different types. They tempt us and make life challenging and complex.


This is no judgment on my part of those tempted by circumstance, only an observation that it is our obligation as human beings to understand the full perspective of our actions, and our beliefs. If we do fail, we had better ask forgiveness, because it is vital.

It’s an age-old story, after all. There’s a reason why the words “lead us not into temptation” is an integral part of the Lord’s Prayer. We run into temptations of all sorts, and all the time. The trick is running right past them, or at least don’t slow down enough to let them trip you up. Temptation is the ultimate tarsnake. Run over the tarsnakes.







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Circumstance sometimes really can make the man or woman

1526506_10201442490560459_2021046237_nBetween the sophomore and junior year of my college experience, summer jobs were hard to find. The economy was sputtering in the late 1970s due to the centrifugal force of world politics and America’s sagging malaise coming off the exhaustion of the Vietnam War.

We were also a country in transition from a manufacturing base to a service and technology-oriented economy. In the throes of that transition, jobs were being shed across the Rust Belt and down South in the textiles industry. Corporate downsizing would soon be invented with the advent of Reaganomics and its trickle-down approach. That included invitations to so-called “wetbacks” to handle farm labor, and the cycle of downward mobility for the Middle Class was begun.

Finding work

In this morass of all this current and pending change, it was tough for a college kid to find a summer job. That summer of 1977, my mother finally put me in touch with a guy that had found work at Olympic Stain, a paint company in the town where I now live. I needed the money to help pay for college, which cost about $3800 per year at the time. That doesn’t sound like much by today’s standards, but working in the dish room at Luther College paid only $1.10 per hour at the time. So I had to make money before I ever got to school. Then I still worked mornings at 5:30 a.m., and trained 80-90 miles a week running on top of that.

That summer working at Olympic Stain did not prepare me well for running that fall. I wrote this poem about the experience of working at the paint factory.

Olympic Stain 

Those of us who worked at Olympic Stain

were there for different reasons.

For some, it was a full-time job.

and for others, a summer of suffering.

The cruelty of words was our main entertainment

in the face of work so dull it numbed the mind.

Above us a blue haze of turpentine gathered

near the ceiling, and we worked in fear that someone

might light a match and send the place up in smoke.

Yet the actual smokers still all congregated

in the lunch room behind their puckering flames

in a congregation that did not make anyone

feel much better.

Indeed, it seemed that to each of them,

cigarettes were more important than life itself

and the rest of us never breathed easy.

It was a job we did moving cans of paint

on and off conveyors while some slapped wire bails

into slots so that others could lift those gallons

and send them out to cover the world in stain.

And that is why we worked there.

And to make matters worse…

It was all made worse by the fact that people who worked full time felt it was their responsibility to haze all new workers and summer employees with industrial pranks. On the second day of the job the crew convinced me it was necessary for me to personally hold a long hose into the open vat of turpentine so that they could “shoot the pig,” a sponge designed to clean the pipes carrying paint above our heads. The pig was propelled by compression from the other end and came shooting out at a hundred miles an hour into the 50-gallon drum of turpentine. Chemicals splashed up and covered me head to toe in stinging agony. I had to be rushed off to the industrial shower, stripped naked and forced to soap down while the supervisor watched.

Where was OSHA? Who the hell knows. Perhaps that agency had not been invented by then, because intentional and unintentional industrial accidents happened almost every day at that plant.

While working in the loading dock, I watched a forklift driver buzz around a corner with the forks still lifted high. He knocked drums of black paint off the third storage level and they came crashing down, emptying their contents all over the floor. Indeed, they washed over the feet of the President of the company who was taking a plant tour. He pointed at the driver and said, “Fire that man.”

But it did not stop the safety violations. Later that summer I got covered in liquid Latex when some pipes were opened in the wrong order during cleaning of the giant storage tanks. No one had instructed me how to do that task, and I got it wrong and wound up in the industrial shower again as a result.

That day a bit of cosmic justice took place. One of the full time workers made fun of me all day long for the accident I had caused. He was driving a big floor cleaner past my work station, laughing and pointing as he went. “Rubber man! The Human Condom!” he teased. So distracted was he in the attempt to harass that he drove the floor cleaner right off the dock onto the railroad tracks.

Mercifully the summer workers all got laid off at the end of July. For me it was a relief. I had hardly had the energy to train much all summer for cross country. Plus I’d developed a stingy little cough from breathing in all that turpentine. My runs were a struggle every day.

It was also a mentally depressing place to work. As mentioned in the poem, the workers all engaged in vicious teasing and harassment of each other. I’d come home sick and sad from the whole environment.

Not quite transcendant

But I loved running, and that fall I managed to perform well the first six or eight meets, running in the low 26:00 range for five miles. But when daylight savings came along and the afternoons turned dark, something switched off in my head.

The conference meet was held the week after the time change and I failed miserably in the race, running well below the 9th place I’d gotten as a freshman and a relatively high place I’d accomplished again as a sophomore. That conference race my junior year was one of the most difficult moments of my life, a living nightmare of exhaustion and depression combined. But I did not quit.

There were no words and my teammates said little after the event. Yet I went on to run at Nationals and performed reasonably well with a team that place 8th or 10th so or 12th. I can’t remember and it’s moot.

Because by the next summer and senior year circumstances had drastically changed. My summer job as a janitor that summer was not easy, but it was relatively harmless compared to the awful world and poisonous environment of Olympic stain. I was able to train that summer without coughing up chemical phlegm. Then I shaved my hair shorter and cut off my Lasse Viren beard, got contact lenses and felt like a different human being entirely going into that senior year. I even fell in love.

With all that positive change, I moved from 7th man to 2nd man for most of the season. Our team placed 2nd in the National NCAA Division III cross country meet.  We’d achieved a long-held goal of a trophy at nationals and the ugly recent past of all our struggles was forgotten.

Why it matters

If all this seems like it doesn’t matter, or that it’s just the recollections of yet another runner and age-old circumstance, I can share that the difficulty of getting through that ultimately ugly season and realizing the power of depression over my mind would prove vital in the coming years. At such a young age of 19 or 20, it is hard to imagine all the things that life can throw at you later on. I could not imagine that later in life the person to whom I was married would go through cancer treatment that stole pieces of her again and again. Each of those chemo treatments was for her an Olympic Stain summer. I could relate to the feel of poison in her veins.

When facing other dark moments in life, and circumstances beyond my control, I’d alos learned that holding on to faith in yourself and believing something greater than yourself really can matter in life. It’s a lesson that running, and riding and swimming teach us all pretty well.

And I urge you, if you run into circumstances beyond your control,  to reach out if you are facing challenges that negatively define who you are. Way back when I was a college kid, there was little known or accepted strategy for dealing with depression or other emotional strain. That’s not the case anymore. Not these days. Ask for help.

Olympic Stain

There’s a hidden meaning in the title of that poem, you see. The Olympics are the height of achievement in the sporting world. We hold such things as high ideals.

Yet the word “stain”  is both a noun and a verb, and working at that plant was a stain on my life at the time. But it was not permanent. It also helped me forge a strong sense of social justice, and a determination to help others in the workplace who are harassed, made to tolerate ugly environments or  to feel intimidated by hazing, manipulation and abuse. I literally hate the stain of all those things in this world and have spoken out against them in the workplace. At times it has cost me personally to do so. Some people might say that is a lack of emotional intelligence. I say screw that. I’d rather be honest and ethical than “emotionally intelligent” in that respect. That kind of emotional intelligence has a different set of names. Sociopathy. Psychopathy. It comes in different grades, and even nice, successful people engage in it. But let’s not mince words. We all know the workplace can be a snakepit in the end. Social and economic pressures demand it. We’re happy to survive when the shit hits the fan. Some even come to believe they deserve their good fortune, and that God is on their side. But be careful what you believe.

Habits of mind

The liberal approach to fairness and supporting others fuels my ideology and politics as well. My liberalism is hard tested, and hard-won. It is not, as some conservatives I have encountered like to suggest, some lazy habit of mind.

I abide by this quote:

“An unexamined faith is not worth having, for fundamentalism and uncritical certitude entail the rejection of one of the great human gifts: that of free will, of the liberty to make up our own minds based on evidence and tradition and reason.”  –Jon Meacham

I would add that critical certitude is even worse when pointed at those with the sensitivity and compassion to discern reality in the world, and who attempt to do something about it.

How enlightening it truly is that the term “libtards” has been invented (and frequently used these days) to describe people who advocate for social justice, racial equality, economic parity, environmental sustainability, and more.

We simply believe that everyone should have an equal shot at the starting line. Yet some seem to think it’s only fair that those who can afford buy a spot at the front of the race should be allowed to do so. That’s America in a nutshell right now, with a lot of people complaining that the poor and the slow are actually causing the race of downward mobility.

But it’s the same harsh crap that went on at Olympic Stain. The hazing and the abuse in America (and the candidates who personify it) are products of segments of society successfully pitted against one another by political forces that only care about getting America’s resources and wealth at the cheapest rate possible. That is the real stain on society, and Donald Trump is just one of the figureheads. Mitt Romney was another. The list goes on. The rest are just zealous sociopaths whose emotional intelligence goes toward manipulating the public psyche through anger, fear and force.

Resisting the stain of ugliness and struggles forced upon others in this world through religion, politics and economics is worth the fight. Even if it costs you something in the short term, the ultimate triumph is doing good.  So go forth, and do good.

Or do well as the case may be. Do good and do well through all your running, riding and swimming. It teaches you the value of perseverance in the face of difficulty and liberality in the joy of the human spirit.


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Err on the side of caution when running and riding after dark

Yesterday I ran at dusk. As I approached a major intersection a mile from my home, I stopped to take a panorama of the traffic waiting to move in the growing darkness.

Panorama of Intersection

I had arrived as the traffic lights changed. Drivers were shooting through the intersection at the last minute, eager to be on their way home. A few cars made sweeping right turns in front of me.

It all made me realize how invisible a runner or cyclist can be to traffic in a November twilight.

Because our running and cycling makes us feel good, alive and present in this world, it is easy to forget that most people still do not anticipate our presence. When you think about all the things going on behind the wheel, with drivers already struggling to read traffic and deconstruct the various types of headlights and taillights zooming around in the half dark, you really can’t blame a driver for not noticing a small figure jogging in place at the corner of an intersection.

Add in the fact that drivers now have other distractions taking up their attention such as touch screen directional and radio controls, cell phones and even iPads within their reach, and you really cannot trust the idea that anyone is going to see you.

Cyclists should very well know that you cannot ride after dark without good lights on your bike. But even bright lights can be missed in traffic, or construed for some other type of vehicle. Runners wearing headlamps are frankly hard for many motorists to interpret. The reaction is more likely to be, “What the hell is that?” over the desired response, which is “Oh, a runner. I need to separate hazards.”

So be careful out there. That’s the simple message on this Friday. Let traffic have the right of way. Even when you have the Walk sign at a busy intersection, look both ways and take full measure of the traffic around you and what it is doing. For all the reflective clothing we wear, drivers are still confused by the phantasm of headlights coming at them from all directions.

Err on the side of caution. Plan your routes well, and give yourself plenty of room on the side of the road when you run or ride after dark. It’s that simple. And that vital.


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The wind is bully good outside

IMG_4202Winds with gusts of more than 50 mph are blowing through the Chicago region this morning. I sat with my little dog on the couch listening to the wind and whispering to him. The house creaked and he jumped. Then he spun around and laid next to my leg while looking out the far window at trees shaking and leaves blowing by.

The Chicago Tribune reported this: “Chicago police shut down part of the Skyway on Thursday morning after debris kicked up by high winds struck two semis.

The Skyway closed down between 91st and 106th streets around 2:20 a.m. after winds blew cables from nearby scaffolding onto the road and two semis were hit, according to authorities. One truck’s windshield was broken and another’s side mirror was broken.  No injuries were reported.”

Those of us that run and ride know the force of the wind all too well. If it kicks up on race day, throw that hope of a PR right out the window. The amount that the wind blows you from behind when running never makes up for the time lost trundling into the wind.

In cycling, it may be more of a balance. I’m never sure. Riding west from my house more than once I’ve averaged a meager 14 mph into the wind and come back my favorite route averaging 25 mph the whole way. Basically, that averages out to what I’d ride on an average or good day.  It’s a tarsnake of balance and proportion.

Running track workouts in a strong wind is an exercise in frustration and futility. Knowing that you’re going to come around a turn into a fierce gale every time works on your mind. You get almost paranoid about it, facing choices about whether more or less knee lift is better. Should I bound or should I scoot? Is it all just foolish and moot?

TarsnakesWe call the wind around here an Illinois Hill. Lacking many real hills on which to build leg strength, we depend instead on riding into the wind. It’s not the same of course. The body position tends to be completely different while riding into the wind or climbing. To make matters worse, as a road cyclist often training with triathletes, it is not possible to get into same aero position without aero bars on the road bike. I finally installed them on the Waterford and gave that a try late this summer, but the gearing on that bike is for racing criteriums. The experiment did not really work.

I humped along as far as I could and turned around at an hour rather than go out the full 1.5 hours and come back. I was worried the entire affair would turn into a slogfest. The wind had me down in aero full time and the longer I went, the more my lower back hurt. It was almost a spasm.

For an invisible source of anguish, the wind is certainly a proud and fearsome nemesis. One can only thank God there is typically not much of a current in the lakes or pools where triathlons are held. The swimming done in rivers tends to be done in the same direction as the current. Doesn’t it? If not, I will never enter a race where you are swimming upstream. I refuse to do that. Ever.

As for today, I have a five-mile run planned. Perhaps the wind will die down now that it has stripped the landscape bare and pasted the remaining maple and Sycamore leaves to the side of my house with glee.

Chris Cudworth 4Yes, the wind has a wicked sense of humor alright. I can hear it laughing at me from outside my windows now. “C’mon out, let’s playyyyy,” it whooshes around the neighborhood, brushing through my yard like a bully. “We can have Some Real Fun!”

First I have to walk the dog. He’ll hate this I know. His fuzzy ears pin back and he squints as we walk around the block. The wind today will nearly blow the poop right back up his arse. It’s blowing that strong.

We can’t get to winter if the wind never comes around, so I suppose all this is necessary. I’ll bundle up if it’s genuinely cold and choose a route in the river valley so the wind won’t beat me up too badly. They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? When you wind up running or riding in the wind, there is no greater truth in the world.


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