Jouer la domestique at Le Tour De GiGi’s

By Christopher Cudworth

I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy — Tom Hanks

Riders no glassesLanguage is certainly a funny thing. Often the things we think we hear are not the things we’re really hearing. Or, others may hear them and take them to mean something other than what we are trying to communicate.

For example, on the drive to the start of the Tour de GiGi’s fundraising event to benefit a local Down’s Syndrome organization, it occurred to me that my water bottles filled with Accelerade were sitting at home in the fridge.

“I’ve got to stop here at 7/11,” I told Sue. “I’ll just buy some Gatorade or something.”

Heading into the store I saw one of several familiar faces working the counter. It was 7:40 a.m. on a Sunday.

“Good morning!” I chirped. They know me because I often stopy by for a Coke Slurpee on the way home from my companion’s house. Returning to the counter I attempted to make conversation but it came out like this.

“Fergot my waterbottles…”

“You want to play Lotto?” the man asked.

“No, my water bottles,” I clarified. “I forgot them.”

He stared at me. Then reached again for a roll of Lotto cards.

“No, no…” I countered. “Never mind…”

He rang me up and that was that. No more confusion. I’ve never played Lotto and never will. I’d rather win the Lotto, so to speak, through my own efforts.

Whether conditions

We rode to the start of the ride in a gathering wind. The bikes creaked on their Thule stands above us on the car. There was no doubt about it. This would not be an easy ride in the country no matter how fast or far we rode.

When we got there, a bunch of the riders were already talking about cutting down their efforts. “I’m only going 21,” I heard someone say. “It’s not worth it in this wind.”

I knew that Sue would want to ride at least 40. And so, seeking inspiration, I happened to glance at the giant dog’s head logo (perhaps it was a wolf) that served as the school mascot for Oswego East High School where the ride began.

“Look,” I said, trying to be funny. “They have an Angry Dachsund for a mascot.”

The rider one car over me looked up at me and then stared at the logo. She gave no reply. I guess I wasn’t getting through. Perhaps it was the wind. The Ill Humors of Autumn apparently obscured the Good Humor of my joke. Whatever. No one was in a laughing mood, it seemed.

Giving their time

At least the volunteers at check-in were cheery. Some volunteers really get it. They help you with whatever you need and show appreciation for your investment in their cause.

Of course the whole fundraising ride or run thing is sometimes lost on me. For example, why exactly do we pay money to ride dozens of miles when we could just give a check? It is a pretty silly concept.

“It’s the thought,” someone once told me.

“It’s an excuse,” I wanted to reply.

Out on the road

Anyway, admit it. Most of us don’t give another thought to the cause we’re helping once we’re out on the road. In a sponsored ride (that’s what we call them) all people care about is whether the blue or green or yellow arrows marking the course show up early enough to prevent you from riding straight into a corn field.

When the roads aren’t closed to traffic those kinds of things actually matter. The impatient drivers of cars and trucks and farm machinery don’t like waiting for cyclists as it is. That’s especially true when there are four or six or eight cyclist spread across the lane and weaving like a bunch of drunken French existentialists as they try to figure out whether to turn or not. They could just as well be arguing over the meaning and direction of life. So very French of us, you know.

One pissed off farmer

That must be what angered the farmer in his burnt red pickup and green cap with the hybrid corn logo on the front. He roared his engine as our little group of four cyclists neared a turn somewhere out in the corn desert. “Left turn!” one of us hollered over the roar of the wind as we neared the corner. Then we heard the honk of the truck horn as he roared between the group with his truck and pulled to a stop after making the turn.

“Uh oh,” someone muttered as the truck door opened.

So naturally I stopped to talk with the kind gentleman.

“Fuck you!” he roared over the idle of his engine. “I pay taxes for these roads.”

“So do I,” was my reply. “I drive a car too.”

He seemed momentarily dumbfounded by that. It’s like it was the first time he realized that cyclists actually might drive cars too. Or pay taxes. Or anything. We are simply The Other to a man who considers the roads his own. He owns them. Don’t you know that?

The wind was still roaring. It was a little hard to hear what he had to say next. But he launched into a diatribe about how cyclists ride four abreast and don’t let their farm equipment through. I had no doubt he was absolutely right. Cyclists can be a bunch of damned pricks on the road. I hate that about us too.

But there’s also the fact that the amount of time anyone is delayed by a group of cyclists usually amounts to about 30 seconds. Yet that 30 seconds seems to make the rest of the world absolutely crazy. That’s the problem. And it stems from a whole lot of deeper reasons.

The wheel world

It’s all about perception. Just a mile before the encounter with Mr. Green Cap I commented to our group that it was not surprising to see a sign for Republican gubernatorial candidate way out here in farm country.  “What, you mean the rest of the state gets to vote for governor too? Not just Chicago?” I was joking of course. But not really.

It’s true. There’s a political imbalance for sure in Illinois. We’ve got one fuqued up state, if you’ll pardon my French. All those upstate Chicago Democrats outnumber the downstate Republican farmers and suburban Tea Party angry bastards and as a result it means trouble when anyone who doesn’t look like they’re from farm country or “fully American” takes over the roads out west of megalopolis.

Of course the fact of the matter is that the Republicans haven’t behaved much better when they’ve run the state either. The last Republican governor wound up in jail just like our famous horse-trader Blago, who spends his days wearing orange in a Colorado penitentiary. Governor Ryan traded favors for trucking licenses and that led to a family dying in a blazing minivan because some truck driver didn’t know how to actually handle his rig. The roads aren’t safe for anyone, it seems.

Low ideals

You’d think we’d see all that corruption coming given the fact that our state is generally flat. You can see for miles if you stand up on your pedals and crane your neck over top of the 8-foot tall corn stalks now bending in the autumn wind. Before long the combines will rape the fields yet again, tossing all that yellow corn spunk into massive storage bins and then shipped out to ADM Corn Sweeteners out in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Or somesuch.

Our seedy past

The land here used to be prairie, you might recall. Most of the productivity of the earth was shunted underground where roots 15 feet deep turned into soil so rich the farmers who settled this state 200 years ago could not believe their good fortune. Now only 1/10th of one percent of the original prairie remains. There has been a cost to that conversion.

You can see how much soil has been lost or blown away when you study an old fence line. On either side the soil is at least one to two feet lower. That’s how we roll here in the prairie state and all across the corn crib we call the Midwest. Churn and burn.

So the farmers may claim they “own” the land but really, they don’t. They just borrow it like the rest of us, and much of it has been wasted.

Finally we’ve come to realize our folly in some respects and farm practices have changed to protect the soil. Yet governmental farm policies alternately seem to punish then reward farmers for abusing the land.

At the trough

No one dares cut off the farm subsidies upon which modern agriculture loves to feed, and that’s killing us too. We pump money into the land and extract high fructose corn syrup that makes us fatter, slower and perhaps a bit more stupid, hence my comments back at the 7/11. More than half the water consumed in the United States is used to raise beef. And other things we eat, pet and ranch.

Our habits and cravings are a perverse sort of gamble with health and fate. We grow corn to make ethanol that drives our cars that shoot out carbon dioxide that traps heat in the atmosphere, cooks the planet and causes global warming.

{Pardon my French}

So hey there, Mister Farmer. You’re actually a big part of an essentially fucked up system. We’re eating ourselves to death.

So shut the fuck up about paying your taxes to drive on the roads. Your fucking truck is also what’s killing us, dimwit. And those precious Republicans who vote to protect your farm subsidies every few years? They are the same political dorks who deny that human beings can have any effect change on the climate. Throw in the religious fanatics on the right who deny evolution, science and anything that questions grotesque American consumerism and you’ve got a pretty clear formula for the wrong kind of American exceptionalism.

This situation blows

These winds now blowing down to Illinois from the arctic in a Polar Vortex? They are very likely the product of massive climatological shifts occurring as a result of our heads-down policies on extracting and burning up fossil fuels and otherwise.

So at least those of us who ride are trying to stay ahead of the curve and ride through the wind when it comes to the slogging effects on our bodies rife with corn syrup, beef and other farm products coursing through our veins. If we hog the road perhaps that’s why. We simply behaving like animals, Mr. Farmer. Perhaps you can relate to that?

Le Domestiques

And of course none of this changes the fact that the roads cutting through all these billions of stalks of future corn syrup and ethanol make for a boring trip unless you have company with whom to share the ride. Our little band of four struggled through 25 miles of insane September wind until we finally turned south and east. But the break didn’t last for long. And by that time our 13-year-old fellow rider Grant was starting to feel the effects of high winds and some rough roads.

So we made the choice to serve as domestiques to our General Category rider. “This is how they protect the top rider in the Tour de France,” I explained to Grant, whose fair complexion and braces were the only things that gave away his young age. Otherwise his cycling prowess seemed spot on. When asked earlier that morning what he liked to do, his answer was simple.

“Ride,” he said.

And so we did. But when we turned north back into the wind for the final 10 mile stretch back home those young legs had a little trouble with the cadence. For good reason. The winds were gusting over 25mph.

This 50+ year old rider with a summer full of long rides in his legs was feeling the effects of the ride as well. So we talked about that with Grant, and how cycling is great as a lifelong activity even if a single ride in a stiff can feel like a lifetime. It still makes sense to get out there. He seems to get that.

That made it all the more fun when our young GC rider came cruising back up to us with half a mile to go after fading a bit in the last couple miles. Seeing my companion Sue riding up ahead on her Scott tri-bike, young Grant took off in a competitive sprint into the wind. The forty miles in his legs did not slow him down now. He chased down and nipped Sue at the finish as she chuckled at the competitor in him.

His father Todd has real reason to be proud of the kid. 40 miles in the wind with no complaint is a sign of great character in a child of 13. His riding skills were obvious with a good quick cadence, a low-slung profile and a growing awareness of the value of the draft.

Jouer la domestique was an honor to do for the kid. The ride was more interesting and it’s funny how much better you can ride into the wind when you’re doing it for someone else, not just yourself.

Perhaps that was the greater reason for the ride as a whole. We’re all domestiques for the causes we choose to support. Ride on.

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Tied to the whipping post

Christopher Cudworth:

When do we turn away from violence, or do we run away?

Originally posted on Genesisfix's Blog:

By Christopher Cudworth

dscn9203.jpgThe Sirius XM Classic Rock channel blaring through my speakers last night featured a song by the Allman Brothers titled “Whipping Post.” That song is technically about the songwriter’s mistreatment by a woman who is unfaithful to the point of emotional pain. He draws the comparison between repeated “whippings” by his gal to being flogged by a whip.

That metaphorical use of a whipping post surely grabs one attention. The idea of being tied up and beaten bloody is not an appetizing thought. In fact the Starz cable series The Outlander recently featured a scene in which a Scottish rebel is beaten bloody to the point of flesh flying away from his back by a sadistic British officer trying to exact punishment and extract confession of disloyalty to the English king.

It doesn’t work. The Scottish lad refuses to emit a cry even when his back is lacerated…

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Any world that I’m welcome to

By Christopher Cudworth

Bubble OneOn the way across a wet field this morning I glanced down to see two bubbles intact in the grass. It was impossible to tell how long they had existed or how they got there. Were they the product of a child’s play the night before? Or were they more mundane, the result of someone washing their car in the nearby apartment complex.

Bubble TwoThey looked like two little worlds unto themselves. The entire universe was reflected in the surface of those small spheres. Infinite colors. Infinite everything

By day’s end of course they would be gone. No bubble of that nature lasts forever. But those of us that have blown bubbles and watched them float away, some big and some small, revel in both the creative flair and the ephemeral nature of their existence.

As kids we purchased giant bubble makers. A foot across, they would release bubbles larger than the size of your head. These creations would blub and float and then congeal into slightly droopy spheres. Some preferred to run after these orbs and pop them.

I always loved watching them move across the yard on their own accord. Invisibly moved by some draft of air, they were a world unto themselves.

It seems that we have so many thoughts and dreams that work just like those bubbles. As a young boy I wanted to play pro baseball, then pro football and finally pro basketball. Some of those sports I actually played well enough to make teams and win championships.

Bubbles of change

It was never my “dream” as a child to become a runner. That bubble came about much like the ones I found in the field this morning. My father refused to allow me to try out for the high school football team. Tough as I was at that age, a child of 5’10” and 128 lbs was ill-suited for the game of football. Winning the local Punt, Pass and Kick competition meant nothing either. Those skills were about as related to playing the real sport of football as throwing stones at a bird on a fencepost qualifies you as a pitcher.

So it was that I became a runner, and loved it. From there the dream evolved into an obsession at times. Through high school and college and beyond I lived in a world that revolved around running. Fall, winter and spring there were cross country, indoor track and outdoor track seasons. Then came summer training as well.

Real world bubbles

The running bubble persisted even after college. As a competitive road and track runner I set all my PRs post-collegiately. That improvement sustained my notion that the bubble was worth chasing a while longer.

But by the time I was in my late 20s and married, I chose to essentially pop that bubble. And within a year of cutting back on the training commitment my times expanded and it was no longer so fun to race. I’d decided there were other worlds worth pursing as well.

My Runner’s World and Running Times magazine subscriptions ran out and I did not renew them for a while. I kept running for fitness however, and enjoyed my weekly mileage without obligation of racing or facing those pressures so readily applied in the competitive years.

I now know that I might have turned down a few more excellent years of racing. But there are no regrets. The world I’d chosen was fulfilling enough.

The RUNNING poster is available for $20. Click for information.

In the interim, I wound up serving the running world in interesting new ways. I’d renewed my magazine subscriptions to have something interesting to read and to keep pace with the world of running. When an article of mine was chosen for publication in Runner’s World, it was noticed by a race director in Lake Jackson, Texas, who asked me to donate artwork similar to that published with the article. I did so, and that set off a relationship with the Brazosport Run for the Arts that lasted five or so years.

In the third year I turned the artwork I was donating into a RUNNING poster for the race. It earned the Runner’s World Cream of the Crop award as one of the Top 5 running posters in the country that year. In succeeding years I did other posters as well. It made the trip fun every year to have some excitement built around the awards ceremonies. The race also featured world class runners from Kenya and America’s leading distance talent. Even the prodigious Eddie Hellybuyck made an appearance one year. His wife was his agent, and we sat around the breakfast table exchanging running stories like old teammates. It actually felt good to be back in the running bubble again.

By today’s world class standards and a marathon record of 2:03-something, the career of Eddie Hellybuyck with a 2:11 PR seems almost quaint. Yet running 5:00 pace for a marathon is still a relatively rare commodity in today’s running world. Even local 5K and 10K races are seldom won in paces much faster than that. The world of running has evolved and improved in some ways and not changed all that much in others.

Now that I’ve somewhat returned to the world of running and love the world of cycling and triathlons too, it feels a bit like coming down in Munchkinland. The colors and characters in tall socks, clown shoes and bodysuits all seem so exaggerated. All our newest gear looks like it was designed by representatives of the Lollipop Guild.

It’s yet another world, and welcome to it. It’s called going with the flow.

Because as Steely Dan once sang:

If I had my way I would move to another lifetime

I’d quit my job ride the train through the misty night time

I’ll be ready when my feet touch ground wherever I come down

And if the folks will have me then they’ll have me

Any world that I’m welcome to

Any world that I’m welcome to

Any world that I’m welcome to

Is better than the one I come from

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The 10 things that you’re not doing for your running that are holding you back

By Christopher Cudworth

TrackYou’ve hit a plateau. Stopped improving. Stuck in a rut. Can’t figure out which distance is best for you?

That means you’re not doing something right. Here’s how to fix it.

1. You’re not running fast enough often enough

Speed work once a week does not cut it folks. Long slow distance and even race paced training will not make you faster. You need to set up workouts that put you in a zone where you’re running as much as 20% faster than your race pace. Only then will you push your muscles into a response rate that makes race pace feel slower than it actually is.

2. Training in your racing shoes

If you don’t put on your racing flats except for race day, you’re blowing the opportunity to teach your body, especially your feet and legs, how to act during race conditions. Buy some racing flats and train in them once a week.

3. Shorten your stride and increase your leg turnover

Most runners have a really slow cadence in their footstrikes. Overstriding is the fastest way to slow yourself down. Cut down your stride and increase the cadence and practice that on the track at known, empiric paces. You will see improvement.

4. Run more hills, more often. 

If you can’t find a hill on which to train, run stairs. Going up puts pressure on your feet, ankles and knees, forcing you to use your quadriceps to drive your stride and your hamstrings to pull the leg through. It’s strength work.

5. Speaking of strength work…

Do it all year round. Go to the gym if you can and do hamstring curls, weighted knee bends (holding 10-25 lbs in each hand) and work on your core with planks and pushups. That’s all it takes. Stop making excuses and get stronger.

Julie on bike6. Find an alternative sport

Cycling is a great compliment to running. So is swimming. You need these activities to still train when running fatigue makes your muscles or joints sore. But here’s another hint: play some hoops or tennis to build tensile strength in your joints.

7. Train with people better than you

If you don’t get into a group that pushes you, the training you are doing will never hold up against the competition you want to beat. Being pushed is vital to getting faster.

8. Stop making excuses after races

There is no such thing as “I could have had a better race.” You didn’t. That’s because you’ve trained your brain to prepare for giving in, then justify it later. Woulda-coulda-shoulda is no way to behave. It’s okay to say “I didn’t do as well as I’d like” but to say you COULD have done better is not the path to salvation. Use your shortfalls to find ways to get better. Using your excuses to take the pressure of yourself does not help you improve.

Helicopters with runner9. Enter a race that challenges your perceptions

It’s easy to find races close to home that hardly matter. It’s another thing to do somewhere and invest in the process to put some happy pressure on yourself. Then get rest, dedicate yourself to the cause and don’t fritter away your preparations by staying up late drinking and eating the night before. Sanctify your efforts and you can challenge your perceptions. If you’re used to doing long races like marathons, jump in a 5K again. If you’re looking to go up in distance, use the simple rule of only doubling your racing distance at first. This is a process, not an insane path to hurting yourself.

10. Keep your most precious goals to yourself

Talking your life away is not the way of a champion or even a good weekend warrior. There are some things best kept to yourself, and your deepest goals are something you should share only with those absolutely closest to you. That counts your coach or other confidants.

There you have it. 10 practical ways to get better at running. Don’t say you weren’t told.

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There’s no sin in enjoying the ride

IMG_0242

After a summer of staring at the cyclometer and measuring up to the Strava app that tells us where we rode, how we rode and who beat us on every pedal stroke, it seems like a good idea to dispense with all that and simply ride.

After a morning visit to church on Holy Cross Sunday, in which Christians are invited to contemplate the true meaning of being nailed to a slab of wood and bled to death, it also seemed to make sense to get out and make sense of the world.

There’s a relationship between those two modes of suffering, you see. The athlete’s propensity to suffer and the Christian’s will to embrace the torture and death of Jesus Christ as salvation for the sins of the world are tied together at the very knot of being.

article-2013327-0CF455CA00000578-386_634x383What else could explain the patent suffering of the athlete nailed to the bike at the perineum of being? Clipped to the pedal for miles of agony. The bike is a cross of sorts. It helps us through the catharsis of daily life. What’s that saying? “It never gets easier. You just go faster.”

And another saying: “When you’re wrestling a gorilla, you don’t quit when you’re tired. You quit when the gorilla gets tired.”

In other words, the competition of life never relents.

Except when you choose to relent.

Which meant that my companion and I drove our cars to a choice spot on the northwest side of St. Charles, Illinois, and rode our bikes 31.5 miles on a loop that climbs up and over a high point near Burlington, Illinois. We did it without suffering. We did it without pain. We did it together for the sake of enjoying our joint levels of fitness and to enjoy the company we share, and our time together.

That’s no sin.

8-devil-guy-crazy-tour-de-france-fansBecause I for one do not embrace a faith of total suffering for the sake of religious dedication. You won’t find me with metal barbs piercing my flesh underneath my business suit to remind me that Jesus died for my sins.

Sure, there’s a time and a place for appreciating sacrifice.  But there’s also a time and a place for breathing in the sunlight. I mean that both literally and figuratively.

We rode happily into a southwest breeze that seemed more amused than tortured by our presence. It was not hard climbing the hills once we’d warmed up. But we decided jointly not to kill it on the climbs anyway. Just ride.

Looking over at her face in 5:00 late summer light it dawned on me how much time we’d spent together on the bike this last year or so. Just last week we thundered through an approaching storm, wind and rain, with neither of us complaining, just enjoying the ride for all its possible misery. So we’re not daytrippers. We don’t avoid the difficulty.

Cud RacingThere is always time to consider our sins and enough time to punish the soul. It is just as important to come to grips with what you can let go, and do it. No sin in forgiveness either, or forgiving ourselves. That’s what the Christian aspect is truly all about.

It’s not just blood on the cross or flesh on the ground, ripped from the back of a penitent Christ by Roman flogging. The crown of thorns that sometimes feels like a bike helmet? It’s okay to remove it. Set it down. Even ride without it on days when the pedaling is slow and the tires are fat. Ignore the risks. Enjoy the ride.

This whole penitence thing does have its limits. There’s a fine line between Holy Cross and Holy Shit, it’s time for a break.,

And when you cross that line, you may find the sun shining, the breeze pleasant and the pedaling magnificent. You might find yourself in a little slice of heaven, or perfection.

That’s where we found ourselves yesterday. In case you never understood that kind of existence, the bible supports that too. This life is not supposed to be all misery.

So don’t be so cross with yourself. There’s no sin in enjoying the ride.

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I’m going to get Nicholas Cage to star in a movie about my running and riding career

By Christopher Cudworth

nicolas_cage_festival_de_venise_mostraIf I got hair implants I’d look just like Nicholas Cage. That makes me think the resemblance might work perfectly in the opposite direction. And that’s why I’m going to write a screenplay about my life as a runner and cyclist and ask Nicholas Cage to play me in the movie.

He can’t be that hard to get these days. After all, he’s starring that horrible farce of a concept movie called Left Behind. Sure, the authors of those books made millions if not billions playing on the violent fantasies of frightened Christians hoping Jesus Christ is coming back to whisk them off to heaven soon.

photo (72)It’s a perfect Nicholas Cage plot, of course. He’s always played tragically misplaced characters in his movies. Weatherman was about a guy abused for his climatological instincts. He kept getting hit with stuff thrown at him by other people.

I’ve lived that reality. Back in the 1970s and 80s people threw stuff at runners out of car windows all the time. I got hit by water balloons, soda bottles and once was nearly clipped by a pair of randy underwear tossed out of a vehicle. I stopped running for a minute and tried to think what the heck that really meant. Turns out it really meant nothing. Some things are like that in this world.

And that’s very Nicholas Cagey too. He’s always staring into the camera with that “What does this mean” look of his. I can do that look pretty well. As well.

So the convergence of my life with the characters played in movies by Nicholas Cage set the stage for the story of my life in film.

CudworthEnglertWith a little makeup and a bunch of extra hair plastered on his head, Nicholas Cage can play a youngish me at 16 years old running high school cross country. Clad in short shorts and made up with one gray bit of enamel where a baseball once knocked out my front tooth, Cage will look the tragically needy type that most of us runners were in the 1970s. We ran for acceptance and to prove we weren’t wimps. It didn’t help that some of us wore crooked wire-rimmed glasses and had arms as thin as pipe cleaners. But we made do.

Sooner or later the film would capture my young self making out with a young girl in the back seat of an oversized 1970s car. She would have slightly crooked teeth and pale breasts. But that wouldn’t matter to a young Chris Cudworth trying to get some action while his older friends drove the car around laughing under their breath at the rustling in the back seat.

Then came the move to a new town, and making all new friends. Nicholas Cage would be great in the scene where my ability to dance actually made a strong impression on the girls and my new friends in the new school. Then came fall and cross country and a team that went 9-1 while the football team went 1-9.

It was heady times being pursued by the lead cheerleader who slept with the top runner each year. But I was too innocent and a bit dumb to truly recognize the potential of that situation. That would be a great contrast to the bold efforts leading the cross country team on the trail of success, winning meets and a district championship. We sang Who songs naked in the shower, a perfect misty scene for Nicholas to play up for pathos.

Then Nicholas could play me going off to college with a still thick head of hair. But not before the blowout end of summer party where we all drank ourselves mad into the night and went skinny dipping in the local pond that sat black and still in the night.

Proof that Nicholas Cage could play a younger and older me. I'm sure he'll love the role.

Proof that Nicholas Cage could play a younger and older me. I’m sure he’ll love the role.

College was a heady rush of long miles and competition for the Top 7 spots on the team. Cage would be perfect in the role, framed on the big screen with a rolling camera catching his carefully stitched hair blowing straight back while his desperate breathing filled the sound track.

Perhaps a dream sequence here, where Cage lies sleeping fitfully as flashes from his young life roll through his mind. The domineering father. Competitive sibling rivalries and fights. A swirl of confused and angry thoughts. Cage wakes to find himself in a cold sweat. He knows now why he runs.

The dream sequence segues into the sudden act of falling in love with a green-eyed girl under an August moon in Wisconsin. We see the walks in the woods, the holding hands across campus and some passionate lovemaking in the college dorm.

At this point in the movie the hairline of Nicholas Cage begins to recede, ever so much, to reflect the destiny of one Christopher Cudworth.

As the movie winds on the penultimate college meet comes around, with the dramatic chance to lead the team at nationals. Cage plays the 21-year-old me running those last 200 meters in slow motion. Because it really felt that way. Then the triumph. And the celebration with a college girlfriend.

4ad1e6849And then college winds down and with it the strange glory of college dreams and athletics. The real world impinges on the happy world of Nick/Chris and his girl. They split under a July 4th sky with lightning coursing through the thunderclouds.

And then sadness. But Nicholas is shown running through long Illinois nights figuring out what comes next in life. As he runs back into fitness, a new dream emerges. He loses a job in the Reagan economy (with film clips of the vacuous Great Communicator inserted for ironic value) and he decides to not go back to work for a bit. He runs full time. Begins to win races again. He starts to write a novel on a jury-rigged IBM Selectric typewriter. It is a story about competition, and running, and we see the typewriter letters racing across the page superimposed over the moving image of Nicholas Cage as Christopher Cudworth running down the Chicago lakefront at full speed. Lake Michigan flashes in the background, and the Chicago skyline. And as the giant letters increase in size on the screen the camera moves in to a closeup of the face of Nicholas Cage, now with a full on receding hairline. He is running with a squint on his face and sweat on his brow.

And then it ends. Black screen. And the movie title appears at full width.

COMPETITION’S SON.

Oh, and the riding part? That’s in the sequel.

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The fading light of September

By Christopher Cudworth

photo (89)The month of August is such a beautiful thing with its yellow flowers, flat blue skies and crickets singing up the twilight.

It lingers into September, this feeling that summer lasts forever.

Then it occurs to you the light is fading fast come evening. That bike ride or run starting at 6:00 finishes in burgeoning darkness. If any clouds mask the western horizon the murk settles even quicker.

Last evening my companion and I managed to get on the bike by 6:30 and headed south with the wind. To the northwest the clouds looked like dirty dishwater. One lonesome cloud to the east, lit by evening sun, stood pink among a sky full of oyster shells around it.

We rode on a wide industrial drive and dialed the bikes up to 25 mph. Then the road curves and we cut through the wind from behind our backs, then the side. On we went together, spinning and winning some prized exertion.

Heading north the sky began to spit and sputter. Our sunglasses flecked with raindrops. “Here it comes,” I smiled and she chuckled something like, “Whatever.”

She is a resolute gal on the bike. Sometimes I cannot read her feelings or form for the life of me. She simply doesn’t let small things on the ride get her down. Not rough roads. Not spiraling winds. Not hills or heat or aching feet from riding hills in the heat on a long day in Wisconsin. She rides. She deals with whatever comes.

The stretch of road from Eola and Butterfield north into Fermi Lab is closed to traffic these days. A broad gate blocks the entrance where one could once happily enter the lab property from the south. It has long since been closed to the public. We creep our bikes around the gravel path and set up to ride again. The road is rough. Badump badump badump we go.

The wind is in our faces now, and the rain. We ride side by side because it feels like cheating to draft on this section. He strong legs work through each pedal stroke and by this time in the summer we are fairly fit together. It’s fun even though the conditions…well, they suck. That is one of the tarsnakes of riding. Sometimes the worse the weather, the more the ride means.

Tarsnakes wait to take you down. Across the intersection of Pine we go, curving into the wind with the rain horizontal and piercing. We’re at 20 mph again, into the gale, and we trade pulls. The light is pretty much gone now, dimmed even further by our cycling shades.

The long last stretch we ride to the west remains a windfest. We top 20 again and trade even more pulls. Then we approach the east gate and the rain lets up. We’re sheltered from the wind by a break of trees and all seems calm. A big truck pulls out from the industrial park ahead of us and she jokes, “Maybe he’ll help us get a light this time.”

Twice that evening we had not registered as real traffic to the stop light sensors at two other intersections. You fake it through on those occasions, riding into a red light hoping it will turn green for your side too. These are the things that motorists just don’t get. Our skinny bodies and bikes and tiny blinking lights barely show up in the big dark world as autumn lurks. We have to make it up as we go along. The rules of the road often don’t apply to those of us on bikes and on foot. We make it through however we can.

SchwinnAnother three miles home through town we keep the speed high and enjoy the sensation of rolling along in the half dark. It reminds me of being a kid again, of riding the Huffy 3-speed and occasionally borrowing the big yellow Schwinn Paramount owned by a friend. We’d ride around the little town of Elburn at night, crossing under streetlights in all seasons, not caring about cold or darkness. No helmets. Just hair to protect our heads, and lots of it.

At home we peel off our sunglasses and laugh. “It’s not that dark after all,” I joke.

“Yeah, right?” she chuckles in return while fiddling with her Garmin and Strava. At least someone’s paying attention to us. The satellite above the earth has watched our ride, traced our signals in a big square route that looks contrived on the app map.

We dismount and store the bikes. The next morning she is going for a run on her training schedule. The day dawns at fifty degrees. Chilly. Raw, even.

This is how it goes. We ride the summer right off our backs it seems. The tan on our knees fades with the light. Candles take over from citronella. The mosquitoes hang in there a week, hoping for one last suck of blood before buzzing their way into oblivion.

It’s not all bleak. There will be more mornings bright and warmer than we thought possible. It’s just this first burst of autumn that sets you on edge. The whirr of your bike tires matches the hum of crickets in the ditches. That can’t last forever. But every revolution counts. “The earth keeps turning,” she wisely notes as we enter the house.

Indeed it does. And so do we.

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Playing hooky on the road

By Christopher Cudworth

ferrisWhen Ferris Bueller took his famous day off from school, he was able to pack a lot of activities into playing hooky. Ramming around with his girlfriend and nervous buddy was a work of art for Ferris. He knew how to play hooky the right way. 

Those of us less blessed with such skills were glad for the few occasions when sneaking out of school was possible. It was always a relief to have a ready-made excuse like an orthodontist appointment to get out of class. That was an obligation too, so the playing hooky part was reduced the small window of joy when your mom or dad picked you up from school until you came back to class. 

If you were really lucky the appointment might let you skip math and social studies and get you back in time for gym class before lunch. That was a good long time away from studies. Then all you had to deal with was the growing tightness in your teeth from the work of the orthodontist. 

Really playing hooky by faking you were sick required a bit of talent too. With Ferris the trick of getting the thermometer to read a bit higher (a fever!) was just part of the act. But that was just the start of playing hooky…

feris friedn

Anxiety

There was always a bit of a guilty, lonesome feeling when you’d actually fooled your parents into letting you stay home from school. You could hear the call being made to school, “Chris is not coming in today. He’s not feeling well…” your mother would say. Then she’d come back into the room and check you one more time before heading off for the day. 

My mother worked as an elementary school teacher so she was gone from 7:00 a.m. to 4:00 or so. That meant eight hours of lonely bliss and usually some more guilt about the unfinished assignment that made me want to play hooky in the first place. 

First there was morning TV to watch, often focused on the model hotties on The Price is Right. Then came the soup your mother set out and finally some actual sleep, or drawing, or doing something stupid you could not do if you were actually at school that day. 

Playing hooky from work during later stages in life had much the same pattern. But as a guy with nearly perfect attendance at work I never had much use for playing hooky. One day I was invited at 10 a.m. to the home of one of my fellow salespeople for the newspaper where I worked. When I arrived at his house three salesman were sitting with their feet up watching TV and eating snacks. “I can’t believe you’re doing this today,” I offered. 

“Today?” one of them replied. “We do this every day!”

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Anger

Honestly that really ticked me off. I went home to talk with my wife that evening and was exasperated while explaining to her that all of them had better sales territories. Business tended to roll their way. My territory was weak in retail and required a lot of hustling around to stay in good graces with the business owners to earn the few advertising dollars they had to spend. 

Ironically two of those salespeople with their feet up on the coffee table that morning went on to become managers at the company. I’ve often wondered how they would have felt if they’d known their top salespeople were now sitting home watching Mayberry R.F.D. and the Dick Van Dyke show. Just like they did. 

Running away from guilt

The only time I truly played “hooky” was during the lunch hour. Occasionally I’d find a place to change clothes and go for a run. The one fitness club in the community where my sales territory was located did not then have a shower. It was pretty much one of those “lifter” gyms where huge dudes and overwrought gals trudged in and out to lift major weights. There was a basic locker room with one light bulb. I’d run, come back, towel off, thrown on deodorant and head back to the streets and more advertising sales. 

I’d also change in the basement of a friend who owned a downtown barber shop. He had a hot tub so I could at least rinse off after a run. 

We’ll drink to that

Too many beers may have contributed to a hallucination of an apparition below the street during Ironman Wisconsin.

Too many beers may have contributed to a hallucination of an apparition below the street during Ironman Wisconsin.

My schmoozy boss didn’t like any of us taking time for workouts during the day. His idea of a perfect lunch was two or three martinis with a client, closing a deal on more business. Anxious young man that I was, drinking during the day simply made me more nervous. I could never process details after drinking alcohol during the day either. So HIs way was not My way.  

Getting in a run during that era was equivalent to playing hooky. Never mind that having time to think and process some of the pressures of sales might actually help performance and productivity. 

Changing times?

It seems like companies have grown in their perspectives in these categories of thinking. But most still have policies limiting employees to one hour at lunch. You can’t get to a club or get changed and get much of a workout in that way. People do it but one wonders whether the mental benefits of exercise are compromised by the stress of having to rush through so much. 

Now that I’m running my own marketing business there is a still a feeling of playing hooky if I go out for a run or ride during the day. It’s taking some time to realize that my main priorities are getting the work done, and done well. When that happens is not so important as how the client feels about the work, and how it works for them. 

So the occasional bike ride does happen at noon, usually an hour or so in length. Then I get back to doing the project with a fresh, enervated mind. 

It’s not playing hooky if you’re still contributing to the progress and the process of creativity and productivity. The more schools, companies and organizations that realize that, the better the world will be. But we’ve still got a long ways to go before feeling like we’re not playing hooky on the road. 

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On becoming an Ironman or something like it

By Christopher Cudworth

An Ironman competitor runs up the spiral transition zone from the lake to the parking deck and bike racks.

An Ironman competitor runs up the spiral transition zone from the lake to the parking deck and bike racks.

The mission of Ironman weekend in Madison, Wisconsin was clear.

Drive up to Madison on Saturday. Hang with the Experience Triathlon crew for the pre-race dinner. Get up early to watch the swim start at dawn. Work as a volunteer during the middle part of the day at the first water station on the marathon course. Gather again near the capitol building to cheer ET people on at the halfway mark of the run. Then grab a bite to eat and wait for the marathon finish. 

It was a long day for all of us. Of course it was not so difficult for as for those competing in the Ironman 140.4 in Madison. As in…2.4 miles of swimming takes a bit of energy. So does 112 miles of biking. And running 26.2? Yeah, there’s that too. 

But for 2400+ people there was nothing they could think of better to do on a Sunday than compete for 8-16 hours. In fact the typical Ironman these days draws numbers like that, for which most local 5Ks would give their eye teeth. People pay quite a bit for the privilege of drawing themselves down into the abyss of fatigue and pain. It costs $675.00 just to enter the race. 

Entering an Ironman

Want to enter an Ironman? They’re held in some interesting places. According to BlurtIt (a website with which I was not previously familiar…) there are 7 Ironman races on mainland US each year. These include: Ironman Arizona, Ironman Coeur d’Alene, Ironman Florida, Ironman Louisville, Ironman St. George, Ironman USA in Lake Placid, Ironman Wisconsin and Ironman Hawaii. The world championships take place in Kona Hawaii for a total of 8 U.S. Races.  

That means about 14000 people will compete in an Ironman race each year in the U.S. with income from entry fees alone at about $9.5M in 2015. 

The line to sign up for the Ironman 2015 Madison race stretched 300 meters. And that's just for people who volunteered this year.

The line to sign up for the Ironman 2015 Madison race stretched 300 meters. And that’s just for people who volunteered this year.

So these are pretty big events in terms of logistics and budgets. The very next morning after Ironman, Wisconsin, the line to register for next year’s race stretched out of the Monona Terrace Convention Center for 300 meters into the parking lot. The orange shirts of this year’s volunteers colored the line because helping out means you get to register early for 2015. 

Brand me an Ironman

The Ironman brand seems to have gone beyond even the top marathons in terms of event pull and draws. A visit to the website documents the worldwide influence and events including Half Ironman events, Sprints and Olympic distances. 

Fans seem to love the events, and thousands lined the Wisconsin course in downtown Madison. Six deep in many places. Out on the hills west of Mount Horeb even more fans lined a series of steep climbs titled the Three Bitches, all situated in the unglaciated driftless region south of the Wisconsin River. 

Like all Ironman races, the course in Madison is a combination of urban and suburban environments where the start, finish and transitions take place. Then the rides take off through the country into scenic terrain. The runs begin for most in mid-day glory and end in ignominious but still-thrilling darkness. In Madison, it all centers around the capitol building with its 15-foot-tall statue of a woman holding an Ironman Water Bottle. 

Okay, we’re joking about that last part. But the city does pretty much turn itself over to the Ironman every September. The finish itself features the opportunity to circle the Capitol toward a narrowing chute filled with bright lights, thumping music and the chance to have your name announced with the words, “You’re an Ironman!” 

But I’m not an Ironman

Our merry band of Next Years. Suzanne Astra. Glenn Robieki. Julie Dunn. Lida Kuehn.

Our merry band of Next Years. Suzanne Astra. Glenn Robieki. Julie Dunn. Lida Kuehn.

Of course if you’re new to all this Ironman stuff, the whole scene is a bit immersive. There’s really no half way in the Ironman world. You’re either training for your first Ironman, recovering from your last Ironman, planning for your next Ironman, or wearing Ironman gear ranging from Ironman watches to every other conceivable piece of clothing, gear or skin onto which an Ironman logo can be stitched or grafted. Ironman tattoos proliferate on those who complete the Big Kahuna 140.6. 

Yes, it’s a bit rich, and overkill. So is the mentality in training for any event in which you’ll be moving for half a day. When you’re in the company of other Ironman athletes or wannabes, the question comes up all the time. “Are you doing an Ironman?”

Between ten and 30 times the question unfolded in my lap over the long weekend. Sometimes it came from sympathetic husbands or wives who, in seeing you in the company of a future Ironman athlete, asked you almost sympathetically. “Are you doing the race next year?” Then they handed you either a beer or a Kleenex, whichever seemed appropriate. 

Too many beers may have contributed to a hallucination of an apparition below the street during Ironman Wisconsin.

Too many beers may have contributed to a hallucination of an apparition below the street during Ironman Wisconsin.

I got asked the Ironman Question by hotel clerks, waiters and one bum lurking in the sewer below the street right on the race course. I was staring down at the water trickling beneath the sewer grate when a wise old bearded face appeared below my feet. His eyes creased shut as he winced, “Are you doing an Ironman next year?”

Okay, I might have been imagining that thanks in part to the three beers I’d just ingested at Capital Brewery restaurant in downtown Madison. The entire town is one big party for Ironman weekend. That’s Madison… 

And there really are some strange people in Madison and always will be. It’s a (thankfully) liberal town with a healthy dose of artsy hobos who sit on park benches talking as if they held their Ph.D’s in Park Benchiness. They look smart for homeless folks, in other words, and there’s no telling where they come from. One homeless yet well-known personality was named Art. He was a giant of a man and a window-washer by trade. His fame in the city led someone to produce a set of bright orange tee shirts that read, “What is Art? Art is a Window Washer.” So there you have it. Life imitates Art, and art washes windows. But he’s dead now. 

Orange tee shirts abound

Those of us volunteering on the race course also happened to be issued orange tee shirts so that we could be identifiable while handing out a feast of race goodies ranging from flat Coke to brown bananas. Seriously, race food is pretty gross. The goo packs and other seemingly ingestible items could be mistaken for suppositories. Yet when you’re doing an Ironman you’ll literally eat anything they stick in front of your face if you know what’s good for you. You simply can’t swim, run and ride for more than half a day without eating and drinking. You’ll die. 

Which fortunately was not the issue in the lake this year. The lake chop was low and the swimming was sweet. Even the heat held off on the bike and run, barely reaching the high 70s. So those of us in orange tees did not look like the horrid result of some heat-driven mirage. We did our jobs for a few hours and then retreated to bars in downtown Madison to drink and cheer the runners on. 

Marching on our next stop in the Ironman Wisconsin Tour. Eats and relaxation after four hours of handing out food and junk.

Marching on our next stop in the Ironman Wisconsin Tour. Eats and relaxation after four hours of handing out food and junk.

The plot to succeed

The other goal was to get inspired to race 2015. Our group of four plus me was in attendance to volunteer and qualify to get in line for early signup for next day. 

That meant keen attention was paid to the condition of all those competing. Were they fat or skinny? Tall or short? Big boobs or little boobs? Was anyone throwing up? The answer to all these questions was Yes, and maybe somewhere. 

Ironman people come in every shape and size, including unreasonably out of shape looking human beings who can still go the distance. In fact this former track runner cannot conceive any range of attributes that actually make you an ideal candidate to compete in the Ironman. Where distance runners are lean and cyclists are strong-legged, Ironman competitors look like they just spilled out of an XSport gym on a Tuesday afternoon in June. There’s no apparent rhyme or reason why any one of them is there or able to swim, run or ride faster than anyone else. They just do what they can the best way they can do it. And people cheer madly for their efforts.

 

A band of Experience Triathlon teammates blocks the setting sun while searching for signs of teammates running up the boulevard to the 14-mile mark.

A band of Experience Triathlon teammates blocks the setting sun while searching for signs of teammates running up the boulevard to the 14-mile mark.

The scene of an Ironman would be a horrid joke if it weren’t compelling in its outlandish, determined sort of way. There were people completing the race that I would not have bet $10 on to finish a local 5K running race, much less 140.4 miles of everything you can throw at them. 

Which is part of the appeal, we must suppose. It’s not about being a pro, or lauding the pros. It’s about promoting the idea that You Can Do It. That’s the plot to succeed. 

The long way home

Therefore the main theme (as mentioned) when you’re decently fit and in the vicinity of an Ironman or an Ironman training club is this: When will you do an Ironman. People repeatedly ask you if you’re all tuned up and ready to go for the next Ironman race. 

Conversations in such quarters feel like an Ironman slalom in which your primary goal is to get around the Ironman question without hitting any of the gates that would tip the person off. But when they ask, you learn to smile and say simple things like, “I’m still working on my first sprint triathlon.” But I’ve also been sarcastic at times, responding, “No, I tend to die when I swim,” or “I’d like to do an Ironman but I need a lobotomy first.”

This rather drunken fellow and his comely mate were later removed for being a little too enthusiastic in their cheering while spilling beer on the athletes.

This rather drunken fellow and his comely mate were later removed for being a little too enthusiastic in their cheering while spilling beer on the athletes.

Not so funny

Among true Ironman aficionados I have learned the sarcastic replies are not very much appreciated. People take this shit seriously and turn away or leave you to find your own way home after the party if you diss their favorite sport(s). 

I don’t really think Ironman people are crazy. I really don’t. I’ve done plenty of crazy endurance stuff in my life and am proud of it. Why should I deny anyone else their particular brand of craziness? After all, our Presidential elections run much longer than they should as well and the results there are often crazy. 

What I really mean to say about the whole Ironman thing is that it’s a great equalizer in terms of human experience. It’s not “just” men or women or anything inbetween out there competing and completing the race. Your tits and ass or the size of your crank don’t matter in Ironman World. It’s how long and hard you can keep moving, and moving on. As a New Rule, men are no better at Ironman than women. Blacks are no better than whites, and vice versa, or whatever. Race and religion simply don’t matter, unless you consider Ironman its own religion, and there is some signs of evidence for that. 

It all has a religious feel to it when people come charging out of the darkness into the light. They raise their arms and slap hands toward the close of the race as if salvation were near. The Finish Line beckons, and that’s where you get to emerge from the hell of movement into the heaven of repose. That’s when you discover the mystery of becoming an Ironman, or something like it. Indeed. 

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Present and accounted for

By Christopher Cudworth

IMG_2214On Tuesday we went to yoga class at Shine in Batavia. A stand-in instructor led us through an incredibly smooth practice in which the mind fused with the moment. During her pre-practice talk she had emphasized the importance of being fully present. It’s not just the poses, she offered, it’s the mind as well that matters. 

Which reminded me of another practice years ago. The week before nationals in college cross country our coach had overhead some of us speaking negatively about training and how much we’d done. “We have an opportunity,” he explained, “And we must not let it pass.” 

To prove his point about the verity of our training plan and the nature of our opportunity, he had called leading coaches across the country to get their opinions about our program and preparation. One of the calls he made was to coach Ted Haydon, leader of the University of Chicago Track Club, home of world-record holders such as Rick Wolhuter, who happened to be from my hometown in St. Charles, Illinois. Our coach talked to other coaches from Wisconsin and smaller schools to gather input and prove to us that we should not view ourselves as burnt out from a tough competitive season. Instead we were ready to go when the national meet came along. 

He sent us out that afternoon into waning October light with simple instructions. “No talking. Just run.” For six miles we clipped along at the prescribed pace, saying not a word. 

It was magical. It was intense. It was what we needed to feel the moment and sense what was about to come. 

Later that week we placed second in the national meet despite the fact that we’d been fifth place in the regional. We beat all those teams and brought home the highest piece of hardware the cross country program had collected to that point. A few years later Luther College would rise again to take first place on a hot day at nationals. When other teams faded, Luther moved forward. That’s an art unto itself. It requires presence. 

Being present. And ready. 

It’s all about being ready for that moment when opportunity comes along. It’s also about not undercutting your preparation by saying things that bring doubt to the forefront of your mind. 

That makes you present and accounted for. 

There is a paradox of sorts in being present. The shorter the race, the more intense the mental preparation and positivity must be. For sprinters that moment of opportunity is short and sharp. 

For distance runners and cyclists in longer events, the idea of presence must be sustainable. That is, you often have to recharge your brain as you go along. That takes discipline. You learn that in training. Then racing. All things point toward a certain day. It is the accounting of presence in what you do along the way that matters so much to your long term success. 

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Wisdom pops

Of course bad things can happen that take your mind off the goal. The morning following the amazing yoga session the ball of my foot started to sting like I’d been stung by a bee. It swelled after that, then turned purple as the day wore on. 

Apparently a blood vessel popped, possibly as a result of putting pressure on my left foot while doing side planks in yoga. It hurt when I was doing them, so perhaps I was a little too “present” and ignored a warning sign that trouble might be brewing. 

We endurance athletes all do that at times; muscle pulls, stress fractures and sundry other aches and pains crop up thanks to our ability to tune out pain. We’re so present we ignore the presence of those warning signs. 

That big gear you pushed in cycling 50 miles can come back to haunt you with knee pain the next day. That means you should be present enough to maintain a higher cadence rather than mashing along. 

Or you get done running and figure out that you’ve run 30 seconds faster per mile on a rest day. You feel so good, but the next morning there’s a dull ache in your foot or knee. Your body is telling you “Back Off.” 

Presently wise

A few weeks back while doing the first speed workout I’d done in several weeks due to achilles problems, my hamstring twinged and that was that. I pulled out of the workout and walked it down. It was better three days later when I started running again.

So being present has all sorts of iterations when you think about it. Being present means accounting for all kinds of responses from your mind and body. 

There’s no easy path sometimes. We learn our lessons the hard way. 

But one of the best ways to figure out what you should do is to shut down distractions and focus on the moment. What do you really feel? What is your body really telling you?

If you’ve done your preparations well, your body and mind will tell you, “We’re ready to go.”

That’s how I felt in the days leading up the first duathlon I’d ever done. I was excited even though training had been cut a bit short by tweaks in injuries that were now healed. 

So here’s the moral of the story: Being positive, realistic and present really is the greatest present you can give yourself. 

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