There are times when it is actually acceptable to give up or give in a little

Riding GroupThis past Sunday morning a group of 10 cyclists took off on a 50-mile ride from Aurora out to Big Rock and back. The course was nicely crafted by an engineer in our group for an enjoyable route of quiet country roads. There weren’t many hills, but that’s a product of glaciation 10,000 years ago. You can’t fault even an engineer for that.

It was down close to 30 degrees fahrenheit as we set out on the ride. We jokingly complained about numb fingers but I took precautions to protect the middle finger on my left hand that had been operated on last fall due to infection from a sliver. The finger now has poor circulation and turns white in cold weather. You have to know where your limitations lie at times.

Group dynamics

The group mostly stuck together but soon enough the fittest riders rolled ahead and the group split up a bit. At those moments every rider has to determine for him or herself what they want from the day’s effort. You can bust your thighs into hamburger trying to keep up or accept that due to circumstance and choice you’ve ridden only three or four times in the last few weeks. Weather and darkness and business obligations all combine in autumn to reduce the cycling miles.

So I watched the group advance ahead of me after 20 or so miles and settled in at 18 mph in a crosswind that wasn’t too bad. I wasn’t speeding along but neither was I crawling. The tagalong yo-yo effect happened a couple more times during our 50 mile ride and it would have been easy to get upset over the inability to keep up. Even when I was protected in the pace line my thighs were tired and on the edge of dodginess.

Not alone

Finally I had some company off the back of the group with a woman that in September completed her first Ironman in Wisconsin. I’d been there to watch her cross the line and had been on training rides and runs with her. “This is the first time on the bike since Madison,” she chuckled. I’ve been tired since we started out.”

There is still a bit of racing to be done this fall, likely winding up with Turkey Trots around the Thanksgiving Holiday here in America. After that it’s a time for rebuilding.

But it sure felt good to give in and give up a little and let the legs find their own pace. There’s no sin in that, just as there is no sin in rocking your partner’s world when the occasion comes around.

It’s all good. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

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Who is she?

She doesn’t mind the shape of my legs,

Or that I might shave them.

She cares not that I devote a little time out on the road.

In fact she’s always with me in one way or another.

She knows that I need to work out.

That it’s good for my head.

In truth she is part of my head. Like a beautiful thought,

that is also sometimes difficult, complex

and challenging.

That is why she cannot be trifled with.

Love doesn’t work that way.

And when I come round the last turn on a track workout,

or a long ride with hills, wind or even rain,

her memory rolls along with me.

She likes my body the way it is, sometimes,

but isn’t afraid to encourage a little more work

on the weaknesses, and the strengths,

and everything in between.

And there is lovemaking in there too. It builds the spirit.

She has a few friends and I always pay attention to them

even if a few days of the week is all that can be managed.

She travels along with me, saying,

“this is how it’s done.”

And forgive yourself

if you’re not perfect. But never quit trying.

In other words she is manifold, not just one soul

but many, built through seconds, minutes, hours,

days, months, years, a lifetime.

Through all this there are recollections she brings about

but she cannot be too sentimental.

That gets you nowhere, she says.

And she is right about that.

Yet we can learn from our sentiments

and our hopes, just how much we can take

and still survive. That which does not kill us

makes us yearn for answers to all those questions

that begin with, “How” and “why” and “when” and “who” and “what?”

For she always asks many questions.

Because guess what, there are also many answers

and they have to come from somewhere.

Which you find out with every footfall

and every revolution of the tires.

A stroke in swimming or a push of the weights.

Through yoga she whispers and at first

it is hard to listen. Through all things

you’ve been listening, now it is time to actually hear

what she is saying, and who is she?

She is running and riding and swimming.

She is that being within yourself

that knows no gender, only

weak or strong, tough or vulnerable.

Made from the carbon of the universe

yet distilled into muscle, bone and brain.

She is you, and all the things you do. And thensome.

She doesn’t mind the shape of my legs,

Or that I might shave them. 

She cares not that I devote a little time out on the road. 

In fact she’s always with me in one way or another. 

She knows that I need to work out. 

That it’s good for my head. 

In truth she is part of my head. Like a beautiful thought,

that is also sometimes difficult, complex

and challenging. 

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Sometimes fat is good if it is the size of your bike tires

By Christopher Cudworth

Fat Tire MeA few years back while researching a magazine article on recreational opportunities in the Chicago area, I was tooling along one of the mountain biking trails in the Palos area, the hub of off-road cycling in northern Illinois.

While pedaling along I approached a steep, gravelly hill on which my rear tire spun and skated as I climbed. As I neared the top a murderous noise came from behind and up the hill came a dark-clad dude riding a really fat tire bike.

It didn’t look like he could go that fast on the bike. But he did. The hill was no problem for him.

He ripped on by and disappeared ahead of me on the trail. At the time I thought, “Those Fat Tirefat tire bikes are just a bit too weird.”

But then I began reading about my friends up in Decorah, Iowa riding fat tires on the very same roads I used to train on for distance running in college. It was hilly terrain with gravel road surfaces. In winter they cake over with hardened snow and fat tire bikes are perfect for doing long winter rides in the hills and valleys out of the wind.

So my mind started to change about fat tire bikes.

Sue testThis past weekend we spent a couple days in Decorah and at noon on Sunday we rented a pair of fat tire bikes. We’d stopped by Decorah Bicycles the day before and inquired about rentals. We test rode a couple bikes to find the right size with Sue pedaling around the lot in her jeans and tall boots. Frankly she looked kind of hot in that getup, but I could hardly expect her to want to do any serious (much less fun) riding in those togs.

So we had them put SPD clips on our pedals because we’d brought our mountain biking shoes in case we had time to rent and ride. Neither of us had time to properly pack extra bags for cycling stuff so we just brought shorts and a vest along with our shoes to make the riding better. That’s called keeping things simple. It’s okay to do now and then. You don’t have to cart all your cycling gear through three states to prove you like to ride.

Sue malanaphyIt was worth the $50 for a four hour rental. We only used two of those hours but we got about 15 miles of cycling in with stops at parks along the way, including the very beautiful Malanaphy Springs park.

At one point I turned to look over at Sue and she smiled so wide I thought her chin strap would come off. “This is fun,” she enthused.

And it was. There were no preconceptions in place. We had fun up the hills and had fun down the hills. We had fun taking gravelly turns deep in the valleys around Decorah and when the ride was nearly done, coasted 1.5 miles back into town on Locust Road.

So we can heartily recommend the whole fat tire experience. Find some gravel or mud or snow and just ride. Your body and brain will thank you for it.

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Cigarettes and chocolate milk and the challenges of temptation

By Christopher Cudworth

TriBeerAdmit it. The biggest challenge in your training isn’t the hard work it takes to get fit. It isn’t the pain you suffer from giving 100% effort. It isn’t even the injuries or the illness that make being an endurance athlete so hard. We run and ride and swim every day to resist…

Temptation.

That’s right. All that hard work and sacrifice you do to make yourself a better person can go up in smoke when temptation sets in. You cave to your cravings. Succumb to your own internal ravings. You’re tempted to go crazy.

But you’re not alone. Rufus Wainwright wrote a song about the dangers of temptation. It’s called Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk. Here are the lyrics:

Cigarettes and chocolate milk
These are just a couple of my cravings
Everything it seems I like’s a little bit stronger
A little bit thicker, a little bit harmful for me

If I should buy jellybeans
Have to eat them all in just one sitting
Everything it seems I like’s a little bit sweeter
A little bit fatter, a little bit harmful for me

Oh Yeah. Now we’re getting somewhere aren’t we? Temptation takes you down so fast it’s like an unfair fight in the UFC. First you take a hit to the stomach. Then the brain follows. Finally temptation kicks you in the vag or the crotch. You’re going down for the count…

And then there’s those other things
Which for several reasons we won’t mention
Everything about ‘em is a little bit stranger
A little bit harder, a little bit deadly

2014 230Hang in there. The best is yet to come, so to speak. We stay up late. Fuck ourselves silly. Skip a shower. Drink too much beer, wine or spirits. Eat till we almost puke from comfort food. Participate in events that demand ever more of our bodies and souls.

It isn’t very smart
Tends to make one part
So brokenhearted

Sitting here remembering me
Always been a shoe made for the city
Go ahead accuse me of just singing about places
With scrappy boys faces, have general run of the town

And how do we resist all these vices and stay strong for the cause of primal fitness? We add a workout here. Join a gym there. Buy gear for the basement and pedal like furious beavers all winter on Computrainers. We invest in $5000 or $10000 bikes. Or stare at screens and heroes in Kona, Berlin or Brazil 2016. Somehow through it all we try to keep an equilibrium but never seem to break through to total freedom from temptation.

Playing with prodigal sons
Takes a lot of sentimental valiums
Can’t expect the world to be your Raggedy Andy
While running on empty, you little old doll with a frown

We find religion, or make one out of the activities we do. Sunday morning workouts replace Sunday meeting clothes. We pray for results and curse God if we don’t get them. Even the Lord’s Prayer tries to help us resist, “And lead us not into temptation….but deliver us from evil…”

You got to keep in the game
Retaining mystique while facing forward
I suggest a reading of a lesson in tightropes
Or surfing your high hopes or adios Kansas

WIZARD-OF-OZ-THE-1939-001Even Dorothy had to run a marathon to get to the Emerald City. Follow the Yellow Brick Road and all that shit. Along the way she was tempted and torn by the whims of her companions. One wanted a brain. Another a heart. And Oh, That Courage! It takes Courage to resist temptation! That’s the ticket!!

It isn’t very smart
Tends to make one part
So brokenhearted

GIBBONS 10 OZ 3It was a long journey down that winding road indeed. But Dorothy finally melted the Wicked Witch with just a touch of water. That’s all it took. The lesson here is that simpler is better. If you quit drinking Cokes and drowning your sorrows in too many cookies there’s hope for you now. Stay hydrated. Count some calories, or at least keep your meal browsing to a patient pace. Let the food sink in. Do some yoga and eat some yogurt instead of stretching to reach the Cheezits and indulging in a licorice trance.

Still there’s not a show on my back
Holes or a friendly intervention
I’m just a little bit heiress, a little bit Irish, a little bit
Tower of Pisa, whenever I see ya
So please be kind if I’m a mess

Cigarettes and chocolate milk. If those are your “after” you’re probably like most of us. A little bit smart and a little bit stupid about giving in to temptation.

alg-chippendales-jpgBut who knew that chocolate milk was going to turn out to be good for you? Does that mean Nestle’s Strawberry Quick is just as good? Or a Swisher Sweet when you complete a triathlon?

It’s so hard to tell temptation from a celebration. Seems like we’re all a hot mess when it comes down to temptation.

Meet you at the bar after the workout. Let’s do wine after a trip to the club. It won’t hurt to stop at Dairy Queen on the way home from the track.

Cigarettes and Chocolate milk, indeed. It’s one of the tarsnakes of existence that temptation is the thought process that makes us both more interesting and a lot more fat.

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So this liberal, a conservative and a libertarian go for a bike ride…

By Christopher Cudworth

IMG_7142The Saturday morning group ride was a great tradition in South Wendon. Up to 40 riders showed up at 7:00 a.m. each week. That meant for fast-paced rides from April through September.

But on a cold October morning just three cyclists showed up for the ride. There was Philip, the converted distance runner, Lutheran, political liberal and nature lover.

Then came Frank, who took up cycling to work off weight and participate in the RAGA, the Right Across Great America, an extended conservative fondo from Philadelphia to Council Bluffs, Iowa following the Oregon Trail.

The third cyclist was a younger fellow named Titan. His parents had home-schooled him and used cycling as a non-school sport. He’d won the state championship at the age of 22 but became disenchanted with the oppressive entry fees at races and now spent all his time hammering group rides and voting for at least one of the political Paul clan in every election.

The three riders started off slowly, looking back perhaps in hope that at least one more cyclist would show up to help with the growing wind. At the first stop sign all three cyclists slowed, but none of them came to a full stop.

“It’s actually better to roll on through,” said Philip. “Studies have shown that clipping and unclipping actually put you at greater risk for a self-induced fall.”

“Where’d you read that,” huffed Frank. “On the Huffington Post?”

“I don’t really believe in Stop signs,” said Titan. “Besides, I’ve heard that the white line around the outside means they’re optional.”

Up a long hill they rolled together. Frank took the lead, pumping his strong legs in a long, slow cadence because he refused to drop gears on any hill. “It doesn’t suit me,” he often said. “It’s the same amount of effort one way or another.”

Philip trailed behind in second position secretly happy to be riding in the draft. It struck him that Frank held a good line and that his rather broad butt and back made a good wind break.

Titan hung impatiently off the back. The climb wasn’t tapping him at all. He could have ridden to the front with no issue. Instead he drifted along 10 yards in the lurch. His mind was occupied with the width and breadth of the shoulder, which varied from 6 inches to two full feet. “There’s a waste of tarmac,” he muttered to himself. “The government can’t do anything right.”

Frank most likely would have agreed with that opinion. But his attention was grabbed by the blinking yellow light at the top of the hill. He’d once had a near miss on that corner when he was turning left and a flower truck roared up behind him. Now the very thought of flowers made him angry to the point of distraction.

At that point Philip moved around Frank to the front with about 300 yards to go. “Typical liberal,” Frank thought to himself. “Led me lead and then look like the hero at the end.”

But then Titan came swinging by, dancing on the pedals as he stood on them. All three pulled even on the last 40 yards of the hill, none giving an inch.

Going downhill forced them to line back up as cars sought to pass them on the road. It was a long, curving section of road leading down to river valley. Titan bent into a tuck and the other two were forced to follow suit. Frank’s still-ample gut was cramped. Philip felt his back grow tight. He’d been ignoring his core work because his gym membership had lapsed when his debit card failed because he could not find his new one in the mail because of all the literature from Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund.

Turning right away from town, Titan floated to the back and teased, “Alright, time for you wheelsuckers to take over.”

Which made no sense because Titan had done no real work on the ride as yet. His long “pull” was mostly downhill and now he was calling Frank and Philip wheelsuckers?

“That’s bullshit,” Frank growled as he pushed to the front again. “You’ve got no principles, boy.”

Titan felt the sting of the comment and so drifted off the back again, plotting a way to demonstrate that his long years of home schooling had taught him more than a thing or two about the ways of the world.

Philip meanwhile had noticed a giant billboard that said “Abortion Kills.” There was a picture of a baby with a target on its chest and a young woman pointing an index finder like a gun.

“What a mixed message,” he blurted before catching himself.

“What?” Frank reacted, thinking Philip was talking about his complaint toward Titan. Instead he looked up to see the billboard and chuckled, rather hoarsely. “She might as well use a real gun,” he growled. “It’s just as quick.”

“And what, being pregnant is called Concealed Carry?” Philip jested.

“Best law ever made,” Frank flatly stated.

Titan rolled up behind Philip and asked, “What are we talking about?”

“Abortion Kills,” Frank said in a sure tone.

“Well that might be true,” Titan responded. “But shouldn’t everyone have the right to make their own decisions?’

“Sure,” Frank blurted. “But the baby you just killed doesn’t get to speak, does it?’

Philip rode to the front to avoid the growing confrontation. Frank refused to relinquish the lead pull at first, but Philip persisted. “Let’s work together,” he suggested.

“Oh sure,” Frank grimaced, feeling the effects of his three mile pull. “Just like a liberal to avoid the issue at hand.”

“Let’s talk about something else,” Philip beckoned. “We still have a long ways to go.”

For three or four miles they rotated pulls with Titan nudging the pace past 23 mph each time. Frank and Philip struggled to hold their cadence. The clicking of gears could finally be heard from Frank’s cassette as he strived to find his comfort zone.

They crossed a high bridge over a river. Philip rode close to the edge and glanced at the water far below. “I heard they wanted to damn this gorge,” he said as they slowed to hold their lines in the growing winds.

“And well they should,” Frank asserted. “The cost of power in this area is way too high.”

“They’d just tax us to make up the difference,” said Titan.

“So true,” Frank agreed, almost laughing at the thought. But not quite.

“Thank God for the recession,” Philip said. “At least they didn’t start some boondoggle project that would ruin the environment anyway.”

“Who cares about that?” Frank insisted. “What is the environment anyway? It’s everything! Are we supposed to sit around and do nothing? Build nothing? Be nothing?”

“That’s not the point,” said Philip. “And you know it. It’s more about being intelligent with what we do!”

“And who gets to decide that?” chortled Titan, again swinging to the front for a punishing pull. “All those faux intelligentsia are so full of shit about the environment anyway. Half the time we try to preserve things they only grow wild with invasive species. It’s just about as bad as human immigration.”

“Harrr!” Frank threw back his head in agreement. “Ain’t that the truth?”

“Funny how you guys think you’re so smart about anything that abuses others,” Philip hissed. “Jesus would be disgusted.”

“Jesus is irrelevant in government issues,” Titan maintained. “Freedom from religion is law you know.”

“But I thought your mama was a Jehovah or something?” Frank queried. “Isn’t that why you home schooled?”

“Not at all,” Titan replied. “We just didn’t think public schools have a clue about what’s important, or how to teach it.”

“On that I can agree with you,” Frank said. “Everyone should get vouchers and just pick their school. It’s the best of all worlds…”

And at that point a large truck came blasting past the three cyclists. The truck gave no quarter and the rush of wind sent them reeling on the edge of the road. Philip caught his wheel in the gravel and began to swivel and swerve trying to keep his bike up. But his wheels sunk into the tarsnakes hardened by the fall chill.  He swerved and pitched into the ditch with stones and gravel raining down on top of him.

“Holy crap!” Frank yelled, shaking his fist at the truck that roared on up the hill ahead of them. He thought he saw the guy stick his arm out the window and flip him the bird. He flipped the guy off in return.

Frank and Titan circled back to find Philip climbing up the grassy embankment. His kit jersey hung off his shoulder and a red rash showed through.

“Thanks for stopping,” Philip blurted.

“Of course,” Frank said. “We wouldn’t just leave you here. The hell!”

Titan helped Philip back up the bank, taking the bike over his shoulder and inspecting it by the side of the road. Frank climbed off his own bike and stood over the front tire to straighten the handlebars. Titan placed the chain back in line and lifted the bike to spin the rear wheel. Frank tested the brakes, then pulled a kerchief out of his jersey pocket and handed it to Philip. “Here son, your chin’s bleeding.”

Philip glanced back at the embankment where he’d started to crash. “Look at those tracks in the road shoulder,” he laughed. “That’s crazy.”

They all laughed. There were S-curved ruts in the gravel. “Nice try,” Titan chuckled.

With the bike checked out they all got back on their rides and began rolling up the road again. “You okay?” Frank asked quietly as he rolled up beside Philip.

“Couldn’t be better,” Philip said bitterly. They bumped fists.

“I crashed last year and laid in the ditch for about half an hour,” Titan related. “I hit my head and didn’t know what time it was, or where I was.”

“Well that explains a lot!” teased Frank.

“Yeah, maybe,” Titan said.

“Honestly, I feel like shit,” Philip explained. “Can we hold this pace a while?”

“No problem,” Frank replied, feeling a sense of commonality and responsibility in the situation. This was how it all worked, he thought to himself. Someone has to take the lead.

Titan rolled along behind, whistling to himself as he imagined adding a few miles to his ride once they were back. His fitness was near peak. These group rides were great for socializing, but the real work needed to be done on your own.

As the trio rode along Philip glanced down at his cyclometer and said, “Not bad. We’re still averaging 19.5 at 35 miles.”

“I don’t trust those things,” Titan responded. “I ride by feel. It’s much more honest anyway.”

“I know my pace by heart,” Frank somewhat agreed. “I know exactly how fast or slow I’m going at all times.”

“To me the empiric feedback is important,” Philip said. “You can’t really make decisions or know where you stand without information to back it up.”

“Not really true,” Titan stated. “All facts are subjective to the source of input. That’s why it’s best not to make too many laws. I mean, what does a speed limit mean on the highway if no one obeys the law anyway?”

“But you have to have standards,” Frank insisted. “Otherwise society is a free-for-all.”

“What you’re both saying is that we need guidelines,” Philip suggested.

“That’s a namby-pampy liberal viewpoint if I ever heard one,” Frank snapped. “Guidelines. What a joke!”

Titan rode up to their sides and challenged them. “Let’s put this theory to the test!” And he rode off the front at 25 mph. Frank and Philip gave chase, then clung to Titan’s wheel as he pushed faster and faster. 26. 27. 29. Then they were all riding at 30 mph. The road dipped and climbed and still the pace stayed high. All three were hammering with Titan starting to sweat even though his fitness was superior to the other two.

Finally they reached another long downhill stretch and the pace reached 40 mph, then 45. Titan howled in excitement and Philip kept his eyes glued to the rear wheel of the leader. Frank stayed in a low, dense crouch and pedaled at times to find his gear when they would finally emerge on the flats. Then he planned to take the front and bury them all in the long sprint to the finish.

To his surprise crazy Philip pulled out from behind Titan and wheeled around with his hands on the upper hoods. He seemed to be defying the wind itself. Indeed, even Titan laughed as Philip pedaled like the old woman in the Wizard of Oz. They all started laughing and kept it up as they clamored together in the last sprint. None of the three could muster any sort of lead, perhaps because they’d used up so much oxygen laughing at Philip’s idiot attempt at a sprint in the final stages of the hill.

Then they rolled to a stop and high-fives were exchanged. “I may hate you bastards but that was a good ride,” Frank admitted.

“Not so bad hanging out with liberals and libertarians after all?” Titan asked.

“It all comes down to the rubber meeting the road, doesn’t it?” Frank stated. “We’re all just chunks of meat on a seat.”

“You wheel suck and then you die,” Philip added.

“Speak for yourself,” Titan retorted. “I’m going out for another 20. No limits, you know?”

“Have at it,” Frank observed. “I’ve got a Bible study in 45 minutes. Time to go home and change. Then I’m watching the Big Ten games this afternoon with a beer and a good chunk of red meat.”

“How delightfully cliche,” Philip chimed. “And do you expect that I’ll be watching dance with my gay friends and eating quiche enchiladas?”

“Suit yourself,” Frank spouted. “What you liberals do on your own time is none of my business unless you want to tax me for the right to do it.”

“The only sure thing in this world,” Titan insisted, “Is that hell is other people.”

“Existentialism,” laughed Frank. “I had to take that at my liberal freaking college too. Bunch of French freaks sitting around pushing their fingers into their foreheads. Jesus could have answered all their questions with one picture drawn in the dirt.”

“Yes.” Philip countered. “Love one another does go a long way. And forgive the rest.”

“Ha!” Titan laughed. “How very predictable. Was that John Lennon or Jesus who said that?’

“More like Buddha or some other fatheaded liberal,” Frank blanched.

“Well, love is truth whether you like to admit it or not. You can call me liberal or whatever, but love really is the answer.”

“And I love to make fun of you both,” Titan jested.

Frank huffed and pulled his handlebars up in front of his chest. “Someday,” he aimed the wheel at Titan. “I will run the both of you down just to save the world from your pathetically disconnected worldviews.”

“Good luck catching me brother,” Titan said, gripping his hoods in a flexing motion.

Philip added: “Thanks for not leaving me in the ditch though guys. You’re both Good Samaritans in my book.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Frank noted. “See you next week.”

“It’s supposed to be 30 degrees. Even colder,” Philip said.

“I ride until my tires freeze,” Frank grunted.

“See you then,” Titan waved, riding away for his extra 20 miles.

Philip pedaled over to his Subaru and loaded his bike into the back. The bumper sticker on the back said COEXIST. Next to it was the silver shape of a fish with feet and a word inside that said DARWIN.

He noticed that his shoulder was pretty sore. He noticed in the reflection of the rear window that his chin also had a knot of coagulated black blood. As he closed the hatchback he glanced up to see Titan disappearing into the trees on the first climb out of town. Frank was rolling back toward the city with that earnest pumping style of his.

Philip drove home to his farmette in the country and hung his bike in the barn that served as a garage. His golden retriever came lapping up to him and his red-headed wife emerged in her peasant dress with nothing underneath. They made love in the straw behind the shed, and all was good with the world. Except the part where his shoulder hurt.

In fact there was a fracture in his collarbone. But he was glad for his Obamacare, the conservative hospital where he had surgery and the quiet little coffee shop where Titan had done much of his home schooling by using their free Wi-Fi. That’s where Philip wrote this little story to recall all that had happened, and why he did not show up for the 30 degree ride that next weekend.

Frank still led, but Titan dropped the other 2o riders in the last four miles and rode home merrily alone. And the world was still good. Except for the part where Frank got into an argument with a rider who belonged to the Tea Party. The only thing on which they could agree is that carbon fiber was not the cause of global warming.

But all the cyclists in the group ride agreed that triathletes were all nuts. There are some principles that really are immutable in this world.

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Mortal soles and immortal souls

This outcrop of sandstone along the Mississippi is near MacGregor, Iowa. I've driven this road perhaps 200 times.

This outcrop of sandstone along the Mississippi is near MacGregor, Iowa. I’ve driven this road perhaps 200 times.

While driving from Batavia, Illinois to Decorah, Iowa for a reunion at Luther College this past weekend, I performed a little math in my head. In a way I’ve always loved numbers, but adding them up in my head is has never been an easy enterprise. Still it seemed important to do a rough calculation on the number of times I’ve driven to Decorah and back.

During college each year there were six to 10 trips each year during breaks. So that adds up to about 30 trips in four years.

After college I worked admissions in Illinois for a year, a position that required driving back and forth to Chicago and Illinois every week from September through November and again from February through May. That adds up to another 30 or so trips.

For the next twenty years or so I’d visit campus or meet up with friends at least twice a year for road races or reunions. That’s another 40 trips at least.

In the last 10 years or so the trips diminished a bit as my late wife had grown tired of trekking to the same place and back. Can’t say that I blame her.

Topography

The limestone bluffs of Decorah, Iowa are some of the most scenic in the Midwest.

The limestone bluffs of Decorah, Iowa are some of the most scenic in the Midwest.

Except Decorah, Iowa has a strong call with its natural beauty and exceptional topography, great for running and riding, cross country skiing and paddling the Upper Iowa river.

The 100 or more trips I’ve made over the years from the Chicago area to Decorah and back have made those roads a template for memories. The trip involves a northwesterly shot up I-90 through Rockford to Madison, then rolling through Verona, Mt. Horeb, Dodgeville and Fennimore to Prairie du Chien on the Mississippi. From there its a 40 mile jaunt through the Driftless Region to the town of Decorah on the national wild and scenic Upper Iowa river.

This time of year the leaves on the tree-covered bluffs along the Mississippi turn the river valley into a candy-colored joy. My art professor Douglas Eckheart often travels the forty miles down from Decorah to stand on Pikes Peak, a park overlooking MacGregor. His paintings of that area over the years have taken wonderfully bold turns over the years, celebrating the feeling of the place as much as the reality.

This print by Douglas Eckheart shows his wonderfully bold treatment of landscape.

This print by Douglas Eckheart shows his wonderfully bold treatment of landscape.

I share those bonds, having studied with Doug at Luther College and sold work through his gallery. Over the years it has been a pleasure to stay with him at his home on Day Street. That tradition has covered many years. First it took place with a college girlfriend with whom I was much in love, but it did not last. During 28 years of marriage to my late wife Linda there were many such visits. She shared the struggle with cancer with Doug’s wife Georgiann, who fought breast cancer during the same period my wife was being treated for ovarian.

Along with a college reunion, my purpose at Luther College as to conduct a book signing for The Right Kind of Pride, a memoir of character, caregiving and community.

Along with a college reunion, my purpose at Luther College as to conduct a book signing for The Right Kind of Pride, a memoir of character, caregiving and community.

There are special bonds that form from such struggles. As it turned out, my freshman year roommate and fellow cross country runner at Luther College also lost his wife to ovarian cancer two years ago. The odds of life are sometimes strange.

He has been Class Agent for 20 years or so after my 10-year stint in the role. At this year’s 35-year reunion my longtime friend received a standing ovation for his service to our class. He’s turning over the reigns as he has his own serious health issues, as random as cancer, to address in life. They slow his speech and his physical affect.

But to me he will eternally be the friend in full flight, possessed of a stride that was both fluid and strong. He won our college conference meet before back problems his senior year caused him to miss most of the training that season we took second place at nationals.

Quick wits too

He was always an insightful sort, quick of wit with a sort of sardonic sense of humor that on more than one occasion left me chuckling for hours after a prime joke. At one point he took aim at a freshman teammate that was trying to prove himself smarter than the rest of us in some way that was far too obvious. “Matt,” he barbed. “You’re such a thick quinker.”

Another cross country teammate attended the reunion. We got out for a 7-mile run on a crisp Saturday morning. The route we chose was a standard during our college days, yet never loses it beauty. It hides under tall limestone chimney bluffs in several places, then loops up and over a park that stands 150 feet above the city of Decorah. The hill is a tough climb. The back side of the park is these days lined with mountain biking trails that everyone in the Midwest should experience.

Dream sequences

Fat tire bikes are simply a blast.

Fat tire bikes are simply a blast.

In fact Decorah is a bit of a dream place for runners and cyclists. My girlfriend Sue and I rented fat tire bikes and pedaled out onto the back roads north of town. “It’s like going back in time,” she observed, and it’s true. Nothing has changed along the gravel roads around town. Farms built into the sides of steep hills resemble Wyeth paintings. Bald eagles nest in the area and wild turkey lurk in the dark canyons.

Sue and I pedaled deep into the hills and stopped briefly along Malanaphy Springs, a linear park that leads to hillside waterfalls emerging from the limestone hills year round. Later we stopped for a rainy visit to Dunning’s Springs, where the waterfall serves as the sight for hundreds of reunion photos and wedding proposals.

Pausing at Malanaphy Springs outside Decorah, Iowa.

Pausing at Malanaphy Springs outside Decorah, Iowa.

It’s funny the hold that natural places like this have on you. Yes, the Luther campus is more beautiful than ever, graced with new buildings and landscape that pulls you through the bluff-top scenery in all seasons.

But a big part of the reason I attended Luther College was the draw of nature. Our running routes were both gorgeous and difficult. The route my companion and I rode was called Wonder Left, and to my surprise I did not recall that going counterclockwise meant a lot of climbing. Yet the fat tire bikes we rented for the journey made the climbs fun even on thick gravel.

In college we my teammates and I ran 100-mile weeks on those roads. The twisting routes took us through dark hills and cedar-lined bluffs. Mornings were often bone-chilling cold in winter. The roads in deep shadow were blue as arctic ice. In spring the rains turned them to mud, yet the rich gravel gave us footing. We suffered ourselves to fitness over and over again. We wore out shoes on those roads, for all soles are mortal.

Immortal feelings

The eternal flow of water emerging from deep within the hills at Dunning's Springs in Decorah, Iowa.

The eternal flow of water emerging from deep within the hills at Dunning’s Springs in Decorah, Iowa.

And yet there is a feeling of immortality in returning to that place. The memories roll along with you or pop up in conversation.

Lying in bed I could truly feel the years. For one thing, my calves and thighs hurt from the hills! But that was just a temporal sensation. What I could really feel was the relationship with that place, both in time and in the present. This weekend was thus a journey through both time and the present with my friend Sue, who enjoyed a good dose of Decorah hospitality in getting to know the place.

One is capable of loving in the moment, and also loving over time. Perhaps love is the fuel of the immortal soul, not discriminate by time, but sustaining in truth. We travel to find ourselves standing still in the moment, trusting our minds to make sense not just of the journey, but the company as well.

Lifted up

When we attended the Sunday morning chapel service in the Center for Faith and Life building that was constructed during my years at Luther College, it was impossible not to feel lifted up in the eternal tones of the music rising from the bell choir and the amazing choral groups that sat in the seats with us. Their voices immersed us in that sad and yet joyous beauty of Christian liturgy and song.

In the end it is true. There is only so much running and riding we can do. At some point we must be carried along by music and time and memories.

Yet while we’re living and can keep moving, these experiences are like time travel, going back and forth from the past to the present. Mortal soles blend into immortal souls, and we imagine the future into being. That is as it should be.

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In which we learn that we’re all really playing on the same team

903f28e3788238b257b8be49b6f33425Today’s We Run and Ride features a link to my Pulse article on today’s on LinkedIn. It reveals how even people in sports, business, politics and religion are actually collaborating in an evolutionary process known as competition.

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/article/20141009151308-18039128-there-may-be-no-i-in-team-but-there-is-one-in-evolution

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The Ebola virus is about to run rampant

By Christopher Cudworth

I have this friend that gets sick fairly often. When he gets sick, he gets very sick. Coughing, hacking, spitting blood even. For years he has jokingly called these episodes for what they are.

“I have Ebola,” he’d say.

And for 20 years or so, that has been the running joke.

Bad diarrhea? Ebola. Stomach flu and vomiting? Ebola. Bad headaches that make you feel like your brain wants to bleed? Ebola.

Then he got a hemorrhoid so bad it required surgery. Before that he was literally bleeding out his ass. The pain was so bad he considered, for a crazed moment, cutting the offending pulpy nodule off his own ass using one of his razor sharp arrow tips. I talked him out of it by text. I did not want to see the selfies from that operation.

That’s what Ebola can do to you.

All these run-ins with Ebola have cost him training time. Or perhaps it was the opposite way around? His training brought on these cases of faux-Ebola.

Ebolification

Was this a bruise or an early case of Ebola virus?

Was this a bruise or an early case of Ebola virus?

That’s how it was for me way back in the early 1980s when I was running 90-100 miles per week and trying to get by on six hours of sleep per night because I was young, horny and stupid. Drinking some too.

But I was fast, goddamnit.

And then the crash would come. It would start with a cold and migrate into something much worse. I’d get so sick it was impossible to function in daily life. Then I’d recover and cough up a bunch of green and purple phlegm and wait for the next cold to come around in six months. I was good at that.

Colds are caused by viruses too, you know. There’s no real cure, only stopgap and preventative measures can deal with the effects of the common cold. I choose zinc.

Perhaps zinc will be effective against the Ebola virus too. Wouldn’t that be marvelous? If a bleeding emigrant from another continent stands next to you on the commuter train tracks and you’re wondering what to do, just pop a Cold-Eaze and hope for the best.

No mercy

It may be our only real defense. A disease such as Ebola has no real mercy you see. Infectious diseases propagate by fucking you over and then moving on to the next blind host that can be eaten from the inside out and left as a bleeding hulk. Dust to dust, baby. Don’t say God didn’t warn us.

Are we to blame other apes for all this Ebola stuff?

Are we to blame other apes for all this Ebola stuff?

There is no ethical or moral lesson in any of this unless you consider the workings of evolution, which is the most ethically advanced system of all. It rewards the strong and punishes the weak. But just like religion, sometimes it works the other way around. Evolution does not care who survives and who doesn’t. Which is why sometimes a really successful disease can burn itself out because it runs out of hosts to feed upon and kill.

The entire evolutionary concept of survival and death is played out regularly in shows that feature zombies, the living dead who seem to want to feed on living flesh. Well, that’s not so very different from the Ebola virus. Only we stand the chance to become the walking dead if we contract the virus.

Payback?

And that sort of sucks, if you think about it. But are we really surprised? Human beings have been fucking with the environment in a big way the last 250 years or so. There are 7 billion of us on this earth. Yes, there are major expanses where there are no people at all. I’m thinking Terre Haute, Indiana on a Sunday night mostly, but we digress.

It’s our concentrated populations that make us vulnerable to diseases like Ebola. Out where the virus evolved in the African Outback, to mix a few terms, there is not such a concentration of human beings.

Dark thoughts

It also happens that the predominance of human beings in Africa happen to have dark skin, which makes them less a focus of concern for billions of other people in the world who base their values upon such things.

But Ebola does not care if you’re black or white or Asian or Inuit. It wants to eat you no matter the color of your skin. Inside, we’re all pink and bloody and yummy. Just like Ebola likes it.

A frail proposition

Triathletes sporting protection against Ebola virus.

Triathletes sporting protection against Ebola virus.

Who knows if any of the things we do to keep ourselves healthy will be of much value if the Ebola virus takes hold on other continents besides Africa. While a healthy constitution from running and riding can help us combat the common cold virus, it may turn out to make us more susceptible. Efficient cardiovascular systems may carry the virus faster to other portions of our body. It may turn out the fattest people on the planet are the ones that survive. Like I said, evolution works in strange ways. It does not always favor the strong or the fit. Sometimes it just likes to fuck with you for the fun of it.

Emigrants

International travel almost guarantees migration of the virus to other human population centers. We’ve long been dealing with the effects of world travel on native plant and animal populations. A few years ago when the nuclear reactor blew up in Japan it unloosed a giant concrete raft covered with all sorts of nasty, aggressive forms of sea life that if unleashed on American shores could devastate native wildlife and plants. Scientists converged on the thing when it reached land and exterminators arrived in quick pursuit to alternately sample and then kill whatever came across the ocean.

There are feral raccoons all over Germany and Japan because some idiots decided they should import the critters based on how cute they looked in the book about raccoons called Rascal. Now they’re a pest that can’t be eliminated.

Asian carp are fucking up the Illinois River because they breed so fast no one can keep up with them. They also jump up in the air when frightened and can take out a fisherman flying down the river in a boat.

That’s one crazy twist on evolution if you ask me.

A marathon to end all

Watch out for Ebola zombies in next year's Chicago Marathon.

Watch out for Ebola zombies in next year’s Chicago Marathon.

There is the very real possibility that by next year’s Chicago Marathon, there may need to be a division for Ebola Zombies. They’ll have their own cage at the starting line of course, but other than that they’ll have every opportunity to compete like the rest of us. Never mind the bloody trail and body parts strewn on the course. You’ll just have to step around them or else run fast enough to keep ahead of the Ebola crowd lurching toward the finish line. The goal for all such participants will be to finish before they die.

Yes, Ebola is running rampant. Best to keep on running and riding to stay ahead. Otherwise you could be part of a human race that you wish no part in.

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There’s a little Apocalypto in us all

By Christopher Cudworth

BlueThere are certain movies that are watchable again and again. One of my guilty cinematic pleasures is the movie Apocalypto. It is directed by Mel Gibson, whose Passion of the Christ and Braveheart films are some of the most violent movies on record, and Apocalypto is no exception to the rule that gore makes for entertainment.

The plot is simple and fairly stolen from a movie I also liked as a kid. That was Naked Prey starring Cornell Wilde. Basically the hero of both movies uses their wits and will to elude hunters determined to kill them.

In Apocalypto, the pursuers are killed off one by one as the alternately blessed and cursed hero runs for his life. His hunters, both bloodthirsty and dismissive of the hero’s culture and individuality, regard him as something just above an animal.

pursuersWhich makes it all the more symbolic when the runaway hero emerges from the jungle being pursued by a black panther. His speed enables him to stay ahead of the cat, then he cuts in front of one of the men trying to kill him and the cat opts to strike the man down and gnaw on his head. It’s not the best cat gnaw you’ve ever seen, but you pretty much get the picture.

The hunters impale the cat but can’t save their compatriot. They debate the vision and merits of a prophet among them who claims the death is a “bad omen.” You think?

One by one the hunters die at the hands of the runaway whose goal is to get back to his former village where his wife sits at the base of a cave in the ground. The rest of his people were killed or taken captive by the warring Central American tribe that used slaves as sacrifices to the sun god. They cut out the heart of their victims, lop off the heads and toss them down the stairs of the giant altar where men with nets play games by catching the tumbling heads in nets.

So you can see why the hero really wants to run. He was himself laid out for sacrifice when the sun goes into eclipse (a little fast, mind you, but it’s the movies) which results in the “release” of captives in a game where the hunters force them to run a gauntlet of arrows, stones and spears before being whacked upside the head by the “finisher” before they can escape complete or incomplete into the jungle.

But our hero is faster than his pursuers. We see that from the start when he sprints in zigs and zags down the length of the arena where his first two companions are struck by stones and spears and slaughtered.

fallsHe escapes into the jungle wounded and afraid, but this is his turf. He washes the blue dye of captivity off his flesh and turns into a fast-as-hell killing machine in order to survive.

The vengeance is wonderful. Perhaps it’s a Guy Movie in that respect. Competition is fierce when it’s your ass on the line. As the young warrior rips through the jungle he resembles a world class sprinter or a wide receiver in full flight. His pursuers try to take him down, but he’s too fast, too smart and too determined to save his life and his wife.

The whole thing is an allegory for life in general. There are elements of faith and prophecy communicated by a sickened child standing in a devastated field where his tribespeople lay ill or dead with small pox or some other disease. The main character is even laid out Christ-like on the sacrificial stone before his life is spared by the eclipse.

apocalyptoBut it all comes down to outrunning and outgunning his pursuers. His worst enemy gives him the name Almost as an insult and the promise to dispatch him one way or another. In the end the hero slams the guy’s head open with his own club. Sometimes almost is just good enough. That’s the message.

The Big Kill is saved for the leader of a killers, a giant man with piercings and armor and tattoos that say I’ll Kill You. He threatens to skin the hero and wear it in front of him.

But he gets his due when a booby-trapped spear swings out from a tree to put a hole in his body. End of story for Mean Guy.

We all know we’re supposed to turn the other cheek. We all know that movies use blood for drama. Violence makes our blood run faster, and our hearts too.

But the fact of the matter is that we’re all running from something, in some way. It’s the mark of human evolution that we’re in a competitive race to see who wins and who survives. All the faith in the world really doesn’t change that for most of us.

There’s a little Apocalypto in us all. So get out there and run. It’s your only way to survive.

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What a 5K for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and National Mental Health Awareness week can teach us all about healthy minds

By Christopher Cudworth

Trees

Families and friends walked and ran in honor of those who face mental health challenges.

For the last six or seven years it has been a joy to rise on an early October morning to support a local race in Batavia, Illinois called the NAMI 5k. The race raises money each year for a local chapter of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Originally the race was called the BatRun, a race title I convinced them to change. I just didn’t think the term “bat” or “bats” went well with the serious issue of mental illness. The organizers meant well, trying to relate to the Halloween season and all, but my point was in trying to place the focus on something more important than frightening fun.

For years I’ve pedaled out to the one-mile marker to read times. It is a race after all, and usually the winner breaks 18:00 or so.

But the bulk of runners and walkers cares less about time than participation. The race this year raised $10,000 for the local NAMI chapter. That’s important funding for an organization that provides mental health guidance and resources to individuals and families impacted by people with mental illness.

That’s a wide range of the human population. This fact sheet outlines the scope of people impacted by mental illness in America alone.

bridge

Participants walk the bridge across the Fox River to the start of the event, which is all about creating a bridge to people with mental health challenges.

One in four people in America experiences mental illness in a given year. Too many don’t want to admit their challenges. They might see it as a sign of weakness or disability. That keeps people from reaching out for help, leaving them to suffer alone.

13% of youth face mental illness issues that legitimately require treatment. Society too often writes these serious issues off as “kids being kids” or “moody teenagers.”

In fact most mental illnesses are a direct product of chemical imbalances in the brain. Some forms of mental illness are not only chronic, they are debilitating. It is estimated that the cost of lost earnings due to mental illness reach $193B per year.

So one would think that there would be more fund raising to address these issues. Certainly the various channels of cancer fund raising are admirable and worthwhile, but perhaps the idea of raising pink funds for “the girls” and breast cancer is a bit more alluring than raising money for darkness of the soul.

Nuts

Having mental health issues does not make you “nuts.”

Yet it’s possible and people do get the idea that mental illness is a serious issue once they engage with the issue. With one in four people experiencing difficult challenges in mental health every year, it is obvious we are all in contact with people with depression, anxiety and other disorders of the brain that produce dramatic or unseen costs.

So much about mental illness is a question of context. While roaming the race grounds taking pictures the song Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen came pouring through the speakers. In context of the NAMI 5K the lyrics took on a whole different meaning…

The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive 
Everybody’s out on the run tonight 
But there’s no place left to hide 
Together Wendy we can live with the sadness 
I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul 
H-Oh, Someday girl I don’t know when 
We’re gonna get to that place 
Where we really wanna go 
And we’ll walk in the sun 
But till then tramps like us 
Baby we were born to run 

Anyone that has felt genuine depression and anxiety knows that there is a fine balance between determination to survive and complete ambivalence at the same time. If that fine line slips there is even the intent of suicide that can creep in. Mental illness can take away the will to carry on or even survive.

Mental health issues can flare due to seasonal, dietary or stress factors.

Mental health issues can flare due to seasonal, dietary or stress factors.

The degrees of mental illness put individuals at other risks if their condition removes social constructs or rationality. When people lose their ability to reason their behavior can even run afoul of the law. One of the important NAMI initiatives is working with law enforcement to provide education about how to identify and handle people experiencing profound mental health episodes.

So it was heartening to see families walking in honor of their loved ones or friends with mental health. Some wore placards on their back stating “I’m walking for my mom” or other friends and family.

It was cold. And it was windy. Yet there were breaks in the forest where the winds abated and people ran or walked along without being buffeted by the brisk October weather. It was perfectly symbolic of the entire journey through a life impacted by mental illness. There are calms and there are storms. There are dark moments and also trees bright with color and hope.

People of all ages need to be assessed for good mental health.

People of all ages need to be assessed for good mental health.

Because it is also true that people with mental illness often experience life at a more intense level than some of the rest of us. Certainly the challenge of working with someone gifted with savant capabilities yet nicked by the inability to recognize social cues is becoming more of a mainstream issue. Conditions such as Asperger’s and autism are now discussed with more frequency. Schools have struggled with whether to be inclusive or exclusive in these efforts. But at least there is a social movement to recognize the value of better engagement.

It’s National Mental Health Awareness Week October 5-11th, 2014. Take some time to visit the NAMI website to educate yourself on mental health issues and learn where you can find resources for people you know or yourself. There are many healthy ways to gain better mental health.

Even our pets need to be watched for good mental health. They can also provide a healthy support mechanism for all of us.

Even our pets need to be watched for good mental health. They can also provide a healthy support mechanism for all of us.

I know. I’ve worked through a lifelong engagement with anxiety. The effects have been profound and impactful at times. My running and riding are healthy ways to deal with anxiety and the flipside of depression that can go with it. Through all the frightening challenges of caregiving for my late wife when she had cancer, it was important to get both chemical treatment and counseling to better deal with life events that can accentuate one’s propensity for compromised mental health.

It’s not just something you will or pray away, although cognitive and spiritual attentiveness can help. Good mental health is primarily awareness of your condition and finding ways to not just cope, but thrive in your own context.

It’s very possible, but if you or someone you know is struggling with personality or mental health disorders it is so important to seek help. Don’t be afraid. You are far from alone, and that’s the point. We’re all in this together.

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