Memorial Day and military grade thoughts

“Flag Waiver” painting by Christopher Cudworth, 24″ X 36″ acrylic on masonite.

This morning with rain falling on crowds of families protected by umbrellas, a solemn group of military veterans conducted a quiet Memorial Day ceremony at a small cemetery in Geneva, Illinois. There are likely hundreds if not thousands of such ceremonies going on across America today, each with its own flavor and significance.

When our family lived in Geneva we walked down to witness that Memorial Day parade and service every year. Often I’d rush home from competing in the Elgin Fox Trot 10 mile to shower and pull the kids in our American Flyer red wagon as they sipped on Capri-Sun sun drinks and hid either from hot sun or threatening rain.

Family history

My father was a serviceman in the Navy during World War II but he never made much of his time in the Pacific to his four boys. He rode across the ocean in a rattling old bold that was scuttled to the bottom of the sea once it delivered its crew across to Japan, where the American military was busy in 1945 overseeing the transition from war to peace time. My father took photos of the city of Hiroshima and Nagasaki where our war planes had dropped the bombs that helped convince the Japanese to stop fighting. Those photos, and those bombs, only made sense to me when I was much older and could understand what the terrors of war really meant.

My father-in-law also served in the military. He was stationed in Guam far out in the Pacific where he worked as a radio man for the Army. His tales of service were focused far more on the advent of technology that helped the war effort than on grim scenes of terrifying battles or buddies lost or maimed in action.

Reading up

It therefore fell to me to learn more about what war was about on my own. I read books about wars and a massive tw0-volume biography of Winston Churchill. Those convinced me of the importance of determination and valor in the face of a remorseless enemy. They illustrated both the conservative zeal for country and the liberal guts of taking chances when the odds seem slim.

They also made me consider whether I would have had the guts for war had I been called to service. As it turned out my generation of young men and women never even had to register for military service. The draft was over and there were no requirements to give our names over to the government. That dismissal from military connection might have lasted a mere few years but it was also an apparent recoil from the period in the early 1970s when the draft sent thousands of young men off to that confusing mess of a conflict our country created in Vietnam.

The closest I could then come to military service was to participate in athletics. The head-banging and puking learned through these endeavors, might not have been war, but they do teach you what it means to give your all.

Never called

My brothers were older and their numbers were never called. Yet I knew plenty of Vietnam veterans and few had anything good to say about their time in that war. Of course the war protests were a big part of my awareness growing up. I was in middle school from 1968 through 1970. Peace signs and televised marches and protests against the war were everywhere. I grew up thinking war was a pretty bad thing. That view has not radically changed since I was twelve years old.

That’s the same age at which my athletic career began to careen toward becoming a distance runner. That meant early exposure to discipline and sacrifice as a way of life. I was drawn as well to the idea of triumphing over difficulty. There was a mean streak of anti-authority running through my veins as well. I sometimes wondered how I might have done as a soldier? Would I have resisted command from superior officers or welcomed it?

Perspectives on authority

I know the answer to that question now. As life goes by you experience various kinds of authority in your work and personal life. You come to appreciate that authority can be both smart and stupid. If you’re smart you learn to recognize authority that has purpose and that which is just the product of controlling people with an agenda of their own. Of course that kind of authority is hard to parse in times of battle. Great generals often have outsized egos to match. Churchill was no wilting flower either. We need leaders with guts to make tough decisions. Sometimes that means men and women go to die in the name of country. That’s what Memorial Day is all about.

So I took it as my responsibility to learn about why our nation fought its wars. Sometimes there were good reasons, such as fighting off Hitler. There were wars of fear like Vietnam and Korea. There have been wars of economic and political interests such as the first Gulf War in Iraq. Then came the long war of retaliation in Afghanistan that is still going on. And let us not forget the war of choice America waged in Iraq that led to 4000 soldiers killed and thousands maimed and wounded.

Against war

I did not support the reasons Americans were given for starting that war. I saw through the jingoism and ideological cheerleading (including the media) that capitalized on the tragedy of the 9/11 debacle to rush our nation into war in Iraq.

That made me look even deeper into our nation’s history and its choices in war. One book whose title I cannot recall struck me most deeply. It was a documentary tome about how America has treated its soldiers during and after its wars. It outlined the many promises we made to soldiers in advance of war and the promises broken after war was over. It showed how many times America’s politicians have dragged our nation and its military into war and then sealed its pockets when war was over. For centuries veterans have been placed in horrific situations and told to be brave only to come home from battle to find that the country cared not one whit for their sacrifice. It happened with the Civil War and it is still happening today.

World War II and beyond

The biggest exception to this horrid tradition was the GI Bill that sent millions of military personnel to college after World War II. What followed was a period of great prosperity for our country. This was a quid pro quo with conscience.

Some might call it a liberal folly to actually fund the college education of military personnel and veterans. But truly, this was one of the only times in American history when military veterans were compensated for their service and sacrifice.

It makes no sense that military personnel are paid so poorly to this day. It makes no sense that we don’t reward people who invest their lives on behalf of our country with education and yet, even pensions the rest of their lives. Anyone who serves in the military deserves this. And if you are wounded in action or left without limbs or eyes or half a brain due to impact or concussion, our country should pay every goddamned dime you need for the rest of your life. That’s patriotism, folks. These are the people we need to remember. I’m a political liberal but I support the military 100%.

That’s the personnel I’m talking about however. Our nation’s penchant for military spending as a portion of its overall budget gets a little out of hand. We all know stories about $5000 hammers and other sources of military waste. Where are the so-called conservatives on issues like these? We hear gripes from that side of the aisle about too many corporate taxes and stealing wealth from the jobs-creators and how that’s all wrong. Yet we hear absolutely nothing about being wise with our national treasury and billions in taxes spent on a military that spends as much as the next 17 military nations combined.

That is insanity, not intelligence. Together with our nation’s history of abusing and impoverishing our soldiers with wars of choice, poor compensation in service, neglectful care for veterans and mercenary spending that fuels the military-industrial complex, America has a lot to answer for.

And no one seems to be talking about the answers. Instead we gather annually to wave flags and pretend we love our fallen when in fact there have been millions of soldiers basically chewed up and spit out by our society.

Harsh realities

It’s harsh to remind people of all this on Memorial Day. These are military grade thoughts on what basically is a civilian holiday designed to pay respects to all branches of service.

But the thing that all my running and riding have taught me about life is that sacrifice is often poorly understood by the very people who claim to celebrate it. People mean well. They might slap you on the back and chortle, “Good race!” But in your mind you utter, “You don’t know the half of it.”

And of course that’s vitally true with our military as well. Soldiers hold things close to their hearts that either cannot express or dare not tell. When you’ve seen limbs torn clean off and bodies turned into red mist there is no real place in daily conversation for that imagery. That’s the reason why soldiers become bonded in war. Who else can imagine the sacrifice and solid bonds that come from facing mortal terror?

God and foxholes

We’ve also heard it said “There are no atheists in foxholes.”  When your life is on the line, belief in a higher power may feel like your only salvation. Yet even Jesus Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane wept and sweated blood at the realization of what was about to transpire. We should never pretend that we are more brave than we truly are. Jesus showed the way on that.

Yet there are people who take even that example for granted, flaunting their religious beliefs as if they were the ultimate expression of truth and bravery when in fact they expose the weak and fragile souls beneath all that religious zeal. We see it all the time with the religion known as Christianity. The things for which Jesus preached and sacrificed his own life, such as caring for the poor, loving your enemies and loving your neighbor as yourself are the very things pushed to the background by people fighting to discriminate against the poor, blame them for the ills of the nation, hating people for their gender, orientation or race, and all the while calling people names because they don’t vote for the same political party or adhere to the sickly twisted values expressed in meta-Christianity.

Confusing God and Country

Meanwhile all that gets mixed in with national identity and people can’t separate the notion of God from country. Swirl it together further and we wind heading to war for all the wrong reasons, lashing out against Muslims in Crusades ancient and modern.

Meanwhile back home in the United State we let military grade and easy-to-use weapons flood our streets. The result is that more people have died on American soil due to gun violence than all the soldiers that ever died on foreign soil in America’s wars. Think about that. We’re a nation at war with its itself.

As a result we confuse violence with heroics. And then we wind up confusing our criminals for heroes, lauding men like Oliver North who abused our nation’s laws to throw money and guns around in secret wars for which there were no accountability. Even Ronald Reagan admitted that was the Grand Mistake of his presidency.  We only wish George W. Bush and Dick Cheney had exhibited such moral fiber. If the GOP admires Ronald Reagan so much, how come they seem to have forgotten the ability to admit wrong?  Instead we’re stuck with claims on many fronts that the Iraq War was both justified and a good idea. In fact it was an unbudgeted, mercenary debacle based on speculative desires to tame the Middle East and put it to American uses.

Cutting to the chase

None of this means I disrespect our military as so many conservatives accuse liberals of doing because we’re willing to criticize the political reasons why our armed forces are used like pawns. Quite the opposite.

Having learned a few things about what sacrifice feels like through athletic endeavors and caring for loved ones that are sick or dying, I hold firm in the conviction that use of our military should be both rare and lethal, and only as necessary.

Like athletes in training for the Olympics or World Championships, our soldiers of all genders should be prepared to engage in combat.

But as we gather to stare at those stars and stripes on Memorial Day, and ponder what it means to engage in military service in both an active and philosophical sense, perhaps it is time to consider whether we as a nation have ultimately earned the right to govern those willing and able to serve.

werunandridelogo

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Problems are almost always underfoot

IMG_7618I met a friend at a local Starbucks yesterday. He told me his running was completely curtailed due to a knee injury. This is a guy that already has completed an Ironman. I’ve cycled with him and he’s got an engine that is powerful and the legs to match. Typical rides with him average 24 mph on the flats. He can’t climb hills for crap like many triathletes, but don’t mess with him in the wide open.

So he’s no rube, but he has been through some crazy medical stuff the last couple years. Which is strange in a way, because he’s widely known as a brilliant diagnostic physician.

And that makes what I’m about to tell you all the more weird.

My friend tried to treat his knee problem through a couple channels. These include visiting an orthopedist and possibly a chiropractor. Neither has been able to solve his knee problem.

Having been through a few knee issues myself over the years, I asked where and how it hurt. I told him about my own case of chondromalacia and how, through a combination of physical therapy activity and new orthotics, the problem went away.

“Well, there are orthotics people and there are anti-orthotics people,” he answered.

I told him I was aware there is a divide in the sports world as to the effectiveness of orthotics. Some believe that all injuries are the results of strength imbalances. To an extent of course, they are correct. But there are also issues of raw biomechanical flaws, structural defects in the human body that include bone structure that can lead to chronic pressure and collapsing ligaments and joints. These lead to injury.

Fact is, biomechanical problems may or may not be fixable through strength training or surgery. My friend had already had surgery in fact. There are some orthopedic doctors that love to go in and mess around with things. Not all, but some.

Surgery should be the last resort of course. Any time you enter the human body there is risk of disturbing or even creating material such as scar tissue that complicates things even further. Great surgeons know how to avoid this for the most part. I’m very pleased with the work done on my clavicle by an orthopedic surgeon who repaired my busted collar bone.

But I trust correction of most of my biomechanical flaws to a physician that works from the ground up. As I’ve written before on this blog, I see a pedorthist who prescribes and creates my orthotics. The finished product are a little bulky in some respects yet I can race and train effectively in them.Without orthotics, I’d be dead in the water.

Sue Running Past Pointy ThingsMy companion Sue has had hip and back problems from running. She saw the pedorthist recently too, and the visit was truly revealing. Her new orthotics arrive soon.

I’ve tried self treatments and strength training for my calf muscles. I do the work to strengthen my quads, and do some yoga to increase flexibility. But problem are almost always underfoot. That is, biomechanical deficiencies almost always start at the feet and emanate up the body.

I illustrated a book with a sports podiatrist about this very topic 20+ years ago. Back then, sports podiatrist John Durkin was treating athletes like Sebastian Coe (world record holder and Olympic champion) Jim Spivey (Olympian at 1500 and 5000) and more. They all realized they needed help at the foot level to compete and train at a high level.

Seb Coe’s feet were flat. Yet he could leg lift 700 pounds. So it was a strength deficiency that was his problem and led to injuries. It was poor structural foundation in his feet.

IMG_2157Runners and cyclists who don’t want to be dependent on orthotics have a point. Once you choose to go forward with them, there really is no turning back. But using orthotics is like wearing glasses. No amount of eye exercising is going to correct your vision.

So I told my friend to go see the pedorthist. He seemed semi-convinced. I honestly believe he’ll be fully convinced once he tries running in orthotics and it solves his knee problem. There’s obviously an imbalance leading to a torque in the patellar tendon that is producing knee pain and possibly cartilage wear. You can go in there and scrape away tissue forever, but unless the patella tracks cleanly in its groove on top of the knee the problem will return and persist. It’s that way with a ton of cycling and running injuries. They all come from overuse or imbalances. Combine the two and the problem never goes away.

I wish I did not have to wear orthotics. It’s one of the tarsnakes of an aging athlete however. It’s always ironic to buy superlight shoes and then plop those orthotics inside. Without them I can’t run more than 2-3 miles at a time. I’ve tried. Been down that road. I put orthotics in my cycling shoes as well, so that my pedaling is in a balanced mode.

Pretending your body and feet are perfect won’t do y0u any good. Taking steps to correct your foot imbalances will.

werunandridelogo

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It’s time to wake up. Or not.

GoofyOnBikeOne of the most difficult decisions any endurance athlete must face on a daily basis is when to wake up and when to get more sleep.

You know the feeling don’t you? Lying there in a warm bed on a cold May morning. The road calls you to get in some mileage. Or, you might have a pool workout scheduled and it is 5:00 a.m. and still dark out. The pillow seems to hold your head fast.

If you succumb to the urge to stay in bed you face a day racked with guilt. You missed a workout. You’re falling behind. You won’t reach your goals. Or worse yet, you suck.

Ha. We all know how that brain cycle goes as well. Kind of goofy, isn’t it?

If you are disciplined you overcome the temptation to stay in bed. That takes a firm fix on your objectives and a will of iron. No pun intended. Of all athletes perhaps Ironman triathletes face the toughest get out of bed schedule of all. Balancing training for three sports is both mentally and physically tiring at times.

But a distance runner training for a marathon or any other race needs their sleep as well. And a cyclist hammering miles to ride a Century or compete in a road or crit race find it just as hard to rise, while tired, and go get the miles in.

One of the rude shocks I do not like about adding swimming to my regimen is going from a warm bed or shower into a cold pool. I make the mistake at times of standing in the shower too long at XSport before going into the pool. The warm water of that shower is likely the same cozy temperature of those blankets in bed. When I go to the pool the water feels extra cold. Kind of stupid of me.

So if you want to succeed you need to know how to cut your losses by planning your showers or your sleep accordingly. You know you like the comforts so build in enough time to let them take hold. Otherwise you feel sleep-deprived.

WalkingdeadThat means going to bed at a reasonable hour as often as possible. We all seem to live busy lives and there are nights when we get to bed later than we’d like. We wind up trundling about like the Walking Dead.

Forgive yourself for that. We can’t avoid our obligations in life. But if you’re going to train hard you must be as committed to going to bed early as you are to get up in the morning.

Of course the former (going to bed on time) makes the latter easier. Hard training also tends to make us tired in the evening. That makes it easier to go to sleep at 9:30 because you’re flat out ready to go to bed by then. Hopefully you have a spouse or companion that understands and supports that. The long haul can be just that.

Quality of sleep is important as well. We all know how hard it can be to train when you’ve had a restless night or worse yet, a succession of difficult sleep nights. You get out there but it feels like you’re going through the motions.

Dunning's aloneCompensating for poor sleep or lack of sleep is difficult. Naps help. They can be completely restorative at times. You drift off for a bit and the world flows past without a care. That can be some sweet stuff, right there.

My problem with naps is sometimes more mental than physical. For some reason when I wake from a nap of a half hour or an hour there is a foggy, depressed feeling that sometimes overcomes me. I have not studied the physiology of this, but there are 55 million results on Google for this phenomenon, including this assuring (and short) observation from a blogger on Healthline.com.

It is likely those of us that experience depression and anxiety in our lives have a brain susceptible to shift in chemistry as we’re napping. It usually doesn’t last long but it can hit hard. Frankly I almost view it as a comic tragedy. Like a Shakespeare play going on in my head. Sometimes talking aloud helps me get through the fog and back into the flow.

It is still always better to get a good night’s sleep, the most natural way to sustain good mental and physical health. During college while training 100 miles a week, I could fall asleep in a dorm room full of half-drunk college buddies playing REO Speedwagon at nearly full volume. I was an aggressive sleeper, and people knew not to mess with me because I was an absolute Mink if disturbed. I knew I needed sleep to train that hard and let it be known that it was my top priority.

And there really are times when you know you need more sleep. You court disaster if your body gets so tired that a cold or viral infections takes hold. You can see the warning signs. A sore throat is never, ever good. Neither is a constant craving for sweets. Aggravating or constant thirst. Elevated heart rate. All are signs of a body fighting fatigue and in need of more sleep.

image (1)You can also tell when you’ve compromised the natural sleep cycle when you lose enthusiasm for your training or racing. That means you need to block out the time for good sleep.

If possible, schedule that nap before your evening workout. Sometimes even 10 minutes of “down time” with the phone stashed away and nothing to do but listen to the quiet or the calm whirr of a ceiling fan is enough to give you the juice to go on.

I have noticed that I have a propensity at times to get really tired just before it’s time to work out. What’s up with that? Well, this is the psychosomatic side of sleep. For example, we often yawn before a race because of nerves. It’s our body’s way of collaborating with the brain to confront a period of perceived stress. “We need more air down here!” our bodies say.

This nervous response is a bit like the natural phenomenon of redirected aggression in birds and other animals. A bird trapped in defense of its territory will engage in activities such as “bill-wiping,” a behavior normally conducted after feeding. This appearance of relaxed behavior during times of stress functions in some way as a deflection of anxiety.

photo (89)There we have one of the secrets of sleep and our inability to wake. The human animal is just as susceptible to perceived stress and the physical tension of persistent physical exertion as any other creature on the planet. But unlike less sentient beings, we force ourselves into routines that invite rather than avoid stress.

Welcome the real world that is not so real. So to keep it real we need to prioritize to get the sleep our bodies need in order to perform at levels that are unnaturally good for us.

And if that makes sense, then you’ve gotten enough sleep today. If it doesn’t, go take a nap and come back later.

werunandridelogo

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What does it really mean to age as an athlete?

Fluorescent ChrisIt’s an interesting problem trying to figure out what to expect (or not expect) as you age as an athlete.

See, the idea of aging is both a reality and a mindset. We have no control over the fact that we grow older in years. Yet we can combat how those years affect us through exercise, strength work and healthy eating. So to answer the question “What does it really mean to age as an athlete?” one must consider this duality. .

Measuring how you age

The first component is the reality that aging does have profound effects on our bodies and minds. The physiology of the body begins to decline after an athletic peak at around age 26. By age 40 a trained athlete can still perform at levels similar to that of younger competitors, but age eventually eclipses performance capability past 40 for all but the most remarkable athletes. 

That means we must begin to compare ourselves to new standards as we age, and isn’t that a refreshing notion? It would be insane to beat yourself up for not running as fast at age 45 as you did at age 25. At some point it becomes impossible to match the aerobic and cardiovascular output of our younger selves. But that does not mean the quality of our efforts need to diminish. And that’s the difference.

Training and competing 

photo (50)What do we mean by quality of effort? It means that we can draw the same satisfaction out of training and competing at any age. Fortunately (and unfortunately in some respects) the sports of running, riding and swimming all have metrics by which we can see the specifics of our training and competing. We know our times and how fast we competed. But those are not the sole standards for quality of effort.

For example: a race effort on a hilly course is never going to be as fast as a race on a flat one. The same standard applies as we measure ourselves as we age. The limiting factors of our physiology basically change the quantifiers by which we should judge the quality of our effort.

That means every year constitutes a new start as we age.  The times you ran last year or five years ago may be relevant in absolute terms, but never should dictate or determine expectations or how you view the quality of your effort today.

It’s wonderful of course to do well in your age group. Many even surpass those perceived standards and race well against people younger by 10, 20 or even 30 years! That’s a great feeling in terms of quality of effort. It proves you don’t need to “give in” to age as the years add up.

I’m always fascinated by people who take up running in their 30s, 40s or 50s because having been a runner all my life, there is a big difference in how the body responds the first time to training. Some folks see enormous improvement in the first couple years, then wonder why they can’t keep breaking their PRs. Some might credit it to age. But actually, what they’re often reaching instead is the extent of their knowledge and training base. We call this a plateau.

Age can feel like a permanent plateau. That’s one of the tarsnakes of existence. But you know the old joke: Life is rough, but consider the alternative. So it’s best to figure out ways to adapt to the plateaus of age than to bitch about the feeling of loss of youth, or otherwise.

Quality versus quantity

Improvement always comes down to working with what your body can sustain. Even world class distance runners and cyclists who continue competing into their 40s and 50s and beyond note that more rest and recovery is required as an athlete ages.

monkey-girl01Same goes for training volume and intensity. Younger athletes recover more quickly from the strains and injuries resulting from intense or high volume training. Older athletes may find that injuries persist or become chronic. That requires an adaptive approach to training. Strength and support training in flexibility is important for all athletes, but older athletes especially need to build a base of core strength and work on those muscles that support the joints. Keeping ahead of muscle and joint imbalances is important work.

It also seldom pays throw in that junk mileage that seemed to carry you through youth. It does not hurt to train hard, but aging athletes must consider sustainability over quantity.

Keeping perspective 

Last fall I ran a 45:00 10K, which is an average of just over 7:00 pace per mile.

But here’s the funny thing. My training leading up to that effort was negligible actually. Less than 15 miles a week. That begs the question of how well could I do if I doubled that mileage, or tripled it?

Cudworth Racing SycamoreTherein lies the challenge. In my earlier life as a competitive distance runner I did some very high mileage, topping 100 miles per week in training. That did put some wear on my body. Some of my peers can no longer run at all thanks to sustained training at that level in their 20s and 30s. I backed off a bit and gave up competitive running for a while as I raised a family. So there’s still a bit of tread on the tire. But I have to be smart because the realities of age and use can combine to create problems. That’s not a guarantee, but it is a fact.  

It is quite difficult to separate the wear and tear from a life’s worth of mileage from that which comes naturally with aging. The muscles and tendons in our bodies naturally become less flexible and less durable with age. We can counteract much of that effect through regular training. Strength work is key to this process because it builds back muscle bulks, strength and durability.

Letting go, oh no…

People who don’t train at all tend to age in much different ways than those engaged in physical activities. A body left to age on its own is much like an untended garden.

Life exists as a process of dealing with continual loss. But that does not mean that all is necessarily lost.

Problems crop up like weeds and can take over the whole assemblage. That often leads to chronic issues with joints, organs and blood, to name a few. As recent generations have adopted more active lifestyles we hear less about “trick knees” and “bad ankles” and more about biomechanics and addressing imbalances. That’s a big change from 30-40 years ago. 

It has been proven that regular exercise, even as little as 15-30 minutes a day can maintain the body and mind in healthy ways. Those of us who do more than that, riding four hours on the bike or running two hours at a time, are pushing the other end of the envelope. Our problems come from overuse, not neglect. But the two can feel and look like the same thing!

Tricky problems

Last year when I managed to race 10K in 45:00 at age 57, it was despite a chronic achilles tendon problem. My activities were limited by the soreness yet the work I did accomplish was of decent enough quality that a base level of running fitness combined with the aerobic benefits of cycling made it possible to race at a decent pace. It also helped that toward the end of the training we did a tweak in my orthotics that along with a different set of shoes resulted in an injury-free effort. It’s been slowly improving ever since, and I’m now doing training on the track at 6:00 per mile pace. 

Granted I have a lifelong “base” upon which to draw in terms of training and experience. I would say the latter is actually as valuable as the former. I know how to pace myself and my baseline ability as a runner does give a degree of confidence that I can go out and do it again.

Goals and limits

So if I were to delve into training this year without injury, what are the outer limits that I could gain in an event such as the 10k?

IMG_3850Well, the world record for the 10K at age 60+ is 32:48. That’s just over 5:00 per mile. My PR at the distance is 31:10, accomplished when I was 24 years old and training between 60-90 miles per week. So I have absolutely no expectations of going that fast. 

However it might be possible however to manage a 6:00 per mile 10k. That would put me at 37:17. Hmmm. It feels within reach. But only if I can do the training to carry that pace over 6.2 miles. You can see how the age question becomes a governor on one’s expectations. 

This is where “quality of effort” enters the picture again. Because perhaps my real goal is to run 7:00 pace in the two different segments of a duathlon. That would move my time up 3-4 minutes over the 10K at that distance. Improve the bike speed as well and I’m competing with athletes much, much younger than me. And that’s fun. That’s why I now do these sports.

Factors

Let’s be honest: the aerobic efficiency of a 57-year-old man is simply not as strong as that of a 24-year-old man. Lung capacity and VO2 max rates drop as you age. Your heart cannot even achieve the rate of heartbeats on average that you need to crank at the paces you once did as a youth.

Even world class runners and cyclists “lose a step” as they age for these very reasons. Cyclists such as Chris Horner and Jens Voigt defied age late in their careers and even won races. But take note: the world class cyclists who dope are doing so in order to improve their oxygen conversion capacity and to try to keep up with the peloton for stage after stage. Add in the factor of diminished aerobic capacity as you age and it’s clear there’s a double-whammy going on. Even a “clean” peloton is a hard taskmaster. 

Parsing factors

Bike rethinkingIt is very hard to determine for yourself whether the results from year to year as you age are the product of getting older or changes in training. In my case I started cycling seriously in 2005 at age 47. That’s ten years ago, and I have not stopped to calculate whether I’m improving or losing a pedal stroke or two. That first year I participated in 8 criterium races and learned the hard and ironic lesson that it isn’t fitness alone that wins cycling races. It’s also brains and positioning and the like. So you can impose all the absolute metrics you like on cycling. It still comes back to quality of effort. 

I have also watched cyclists my age and older beat much, much younger cyclists. Their training was sustained over the years and that is a significant “age-proofing” method for all those involved in endurance sports. Let that be a lesson to us all. If you want to compete well into your 40s and 50s, it is wisest not to “let yourself go” during your late 30s or early 40s. 

Muscling up or down


Finish RunIn the last couple years I sense a challenge that I did not anticipate. My quadriceps have not been retaining bulk and strength like they did even 10 years ago. That means to counter that aging effect there needs to be discipline in the weightlifting department, and possibly more riding just to reach pace and distance levels that were possible a decade ago.

To be sure I’ve also noticed subtle changes in my mind as well. It’s subtle how some of these changes manifest themselves. More than one male friend of a similar age has shared that their sexual drive becomes more measured as they age. I would not say diminished in these cases, but tempered. The theories go back and forth about the relationship between sex drive and competitive success, and there is not a straight-line relationship between the two. After all, there are plenty of women who compete extremely well who do so without the testosterone levels found in men to drive them on.

But where aging changes us in interesting ways is in how we apply the energies we do have. There is something to be said for knowing yourself well enough to parcel out your athletic––or sexual––prowess in the most effective ways. Again, shall we say, it comes down to quality of effort. 

Thinking quality thoughts as we age

That goes for thinking too. With age the wisest people often learn to rule out distractions and formulate their priorities in more consistent ways. The energies we blew off in youth may not be available to us in such volume, yet it is clear that with discipline the aging athlete (or businessperson) can often compete on very equal ground with those much younger. That’s called experience. 

SwimmersIt’s a visible reality, this thing we call experience. At last weekend’s triathlon/duathlon in Galena saw five male competitors over the age of 50 finish in the top 10 overall positions in the duathlon. They were given no special advantage in the race. They ran the same course and rode the same hills. Yet they beat athletes 20 and 30 years their junior.

So to answer the question “What does it really mean to age as an athlete” requires a nuanced response. Because we can all do plenty to prevent unnecessary aging and even defy the potential effects of age. It pays to ignore negative expectations and embrace positive behaviors. That’s the real answer to the question.

Because here’s a worthwhile observation:  if you choose to “age as an athlete” you are most likely not going to age as fast in general. You might not always go as fast as you once did, but the quality of your effort can be just as satisfying and contribute great mental and physical health benefits along the way.

werunandridelogo

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It’s all about the transitions

Christopher Cudworth:

A poet can survive anything but a misprint. And I caught one. Thanks for understanding.

Originally posted on We Run and Ride:

Transitions can be tough to handle. Transitions can be tough to handle.

Okay, I’ve studied the statistics from the two different duathlons I’ve done and have arrived at the conclusion that I’m just too happy in the transition department.

I mean, more than five whole minutes were spent in last weekend’s Galena Duathlon. That’s a big chunk of time. My competitors spent less than half that on average.

It has led me to believe that there are some deep down psychological issues going on with this whole transition thing. Maybe the word “transition” has me psyched out somehow. It sounds so much like something a counselor would use when you’re facing  life’s biggest challenges. You know: “Relax: you’re just going through a transition.”

Well, a transition is not quite the same as a religious conversion or one of those wholesale change of life things where you buy a Corvette and get a hair transplant. Which I have not done. Nor will ever…

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It’s all about the transitions

Transitions can be tough to handle.

Transitions can be tough to handle.

Okay, I’ve studied the statistics from the two different duathlons I’ve done and have arrived at the conclusion that I’m just too happy in the transition department.

I mean, more than five whole minutes were spent in last weekend’s Galena Duathlon. That’s a big chunk of time. My competitors spent less than half that on average.

It has led me to believe that there are some deep down psychological issues going on with this whole transition thing. Maybe the word “transition” has me psyched out somehow. It sounds so much like something a counselor would use when you’re facing  life’s biggest challenges. You know: “Relax: you’re just going through a transition.”

Well, a transition is not quite the same as a religious conversion or one of those wholesale change of life things where you buy a Corvette and get a hair transplant. Which I have not done. Nor will ever do. 

But there must be some kind of reason behind my dawdling ways in the transition zones during duathlons. Here are a few possible explanations as to why transitions seem to be taking so long… 

PONDERING SOME OF LIFE’S GREATEST QUESTIONS IN TRANSITION

woody_woodpecker_adhesive_and_girl_friend_color_vinyl_decal_sticker_2__67321Perhaps I’m actually stuck there (in transition) pondering some of life’s greatest questions, like why Woody Woodpecker had a girlfriend but never acted like he got any tail?

I mean the bird was always so frenetic. And that laugh? Only a guy that wasn’t getting much tail could have a laugh like that.

A few of my friends from my early 20s laughed exactly like Woody woodpecker when they were out on the town and not having any luck with the ladies. That meant when the night was over they went home, ate Haagen Daz ice cream by the pint and took care of business on their own. The very next day they were back to acting like Woody Woodpecker again. Who, by the way, was a bird that ate turkey and other human foods. Go figure. 

Ha-ha-ha-hah-hhh haaaaah! Good old Woody Woodpecker. Turns out they were hiding all kinds of sexual innuendo in those 1960s cartoons. Except when they didn’t try to hide it. No wonder Baby Boomers consume pornography. We never transitioned from adolescence. 

CONSIDERING UNREQUITED ACHIEVEMENTS IN TRANSITION

hh_club_uncle_ricoSometimes we take our past for granted or spend too much time dwelling on it. Either one can act like an anchor on your athletic endeavors. Athletes (like Uncle Rico) have been known to focus on athletic failures for decades. We all have our little bugaboos. 

For example, I could dwell on a mile race in which I went through the 3/4 mile in 3:09 on my way to…a possible 4:10 or something like that!  Yet I could only manage a 70 second last lap. What a collapse!

And if you blew that chance for glory, why go on? All of a sudden you’re lacing your shoes a second time in transition and you’ve temporarily forgotten all about why you’re there in the first place. No hurry, Boney Maroney. Just sit here thinking about the past. Then it hits you: Oh, wait! I’ve still got 20 miles to ride and four miles to run! What the hell! I better get going! By then it’s 5:00 since you entered T2 and four people in your age group are a mile ahead on the bike. Nice work, Boney. Now go ride. Fast. 

DEALING WITH BODY PARTS IN TRANSITION

human-rhinovirus-16No matter how well you prepare for a triathlon or duathlon you’re still pretty much a bag of body parts trekking through the water, on the bike and on the run. Sometimes body parts seem to get out of place and don’t want to go back where they belong. You tug and you yank but your crank or your boobs or some other body part just seems to want to be out of place that day. There’s little you can do to fix that kind of problem while you’re in full motion during the swim or the initial run. But there’s transition

So you promise yourself to fix things when you hit T1. But when you arrive, there’s always someone standing right next to you with their gear and $6000 bike in perfect order while all you can think about is the fact that your wang-dang or poontang somehow feels wrong inside in your shorts and you’re too damn embarrassed to fix the problem. So you hop on the bike coming out of transition without having dealt with the body parts issue and off you go for 20 or more miles of distracting discomfort.

It seriously makes you wonder deep down inside if there are other problems you are ignoring in life. And how long can that go on? 

ADDRESSING INTESTINAL ISSUES IN TRANSITION

i-pooped-today-funny-t-shirt_blue_men_tshirts_thumb_a8021dmThe whole going to the bathroom thing is a real pain in the triathlon. You get done with a run or a swim and suddenly you have to pee or poop before you get on the bike.

Some people have real issues in this category. In fact while visiting downtown during the recent Galena Triathlon/Duathlon we saw a tee shirt in the window that boldly stated I POOPED TODAY!

Well isn’t that sweet? Trouble is, this is often quite the opposite problem for people who compete in distance races. When you hit the transition zone and really have to go to the bathroom there is nothing more tempting than the sight of one of those porta-potties with a green GO panel showing through the handle.

Porta_Potty.jpgAC79941A-A6DB-4897-BC5AB086AEBEE81D.jpgLarger“Oh good!” you think to yourself. “It’s not occupied.”

But then you see that competitor to whom you hate to lose and they’re zooming through T2 and you think to yourself, “Well, I can hold it through the next stage.”

And you trek off with a poop turtle pushing at your sphincter and lose 40 seconds per mile because your ass is clenched and you think, “This could be a lot easier if I’d just stopped for 30 seconds.” Such are all the transitions in life. We often make them much bigger than they need to be. And a lot more clenchy too.

LIFE IS PERFECT

Or perhaps you’re one of those people who excels at preparation and don’t have these types of humbling, depressing moments like the rest of us in transition. You’ve sailed through life’s problems, have got lots of money and a bike built to your specific measurements. You wear $600 cycling shoes and $200 running shoes designed and assembled for your personal little feet. You’ve got a tri-suit with aerodynamic diamonds embedded in the surface to guide you through the water. You’ve even had your teeth cryogenically whitened so that your victory smile will show up well on Facebook.

Well, all the rest of us can sometimes say is this: have fun with that. 

We may envy you, but life’s transitions don’t really end there. Because after the race when your personal handler hangs the bike on back of your Porsche and hands you the keys along with an iPhone held in a gold case, you’ve still got to go figure the rest of life. 

Turns out you could actually use a little time in transition to reassess your values and figure out the many things in life that are not so perfect about you. Some might even be painfully neglected. A dose of reality and humility can be the toughest transition of all. That’s one of the tarsnakes of life.

And for those of you who genuinely do have it together, God Bless. We know you’re out there and appreciate your friendship, guidance and leadership. Because it really helps when someone else has the time to help others through life’s transitions. Wherever they may be found.

LIFE ITSELF IS A TRANSITION

 Truth be told, life is a transition from birth to death. Even death is simply a transition of sorts. So there may be no shame in spending a little too much time in transition after all. You might just find and answer or two to tide you through. In T1, or T2. It’s what you do.

werunandridelogo

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Doubling the fun at the Galena Triathlon and Duathlon

At 7:00 a.m before the start of the Galena Triathlon/Duathlon a steady rain fell from the sky as dozens of athletes gathered under the roof of a beach house along the shore of Apple Canyon lake. The rain fell so hard a flock of swallows nesting on the nearby cliff did not seem to want to leave their perches on the old quarry wall. Yet venture out they did, making sorties to catch insects between the raindrops as the day began.

The birds were an apt symbol for the event about to transpire amongst humans lingering along the shore. Between rainstorms, dozens of triathletes and duathletes made urgent runs back and forth to check their bikes and arrange equipment covered by plastic bags. The forecast called for the rain to stop by 8:30, but that made it a pressure to get everything in T1 organized before it closed at 8:45. The racing started at 9:00 a.m. with the first wave of triathletes. The final wave of duathletes would not start until 9:50. 

Cool options

That meant there were choices to be made as competitors huddled together under a beachside shelter out of the rain. Many duathletes decided to sacrifice an old shirt in order to keep warm while waiting for the later start. The triathletes simply stood around in their warm wetsuits like so many tall seals.

Finally the last of four showers passed and the first wave of swimmers gathered in earnest on the sand. It was time first for the national anthem to be sung. Unfortunately the wet weather prevented the singer’s microphone from working. Her quiet voice cast out over the water and died in mid-air, so the entire assemblage took up the song on their own. A calm joy it was to share that space with fellow competitors, who held the notes accurately if not beautifully, and a warm cheer went up when the words “home of the brave…” were complete.

In fact bravery was a keen point of reference in pre-race discussions. “I’m going to let some air out of my tires,” one triathlete noted. “The roads are really wet.” They were indeed. As the first waves of triathletes emerged from Apple Canyon lake and mounted their bikes for the instant climb from the lake basin to the roads above, you could still see their reflections on the wet asphalt below. Some walked their bikes up the steep incline. But most made a good go of it. All were cheered along by a chorus of gray treefrogs singing from the woods along the road.

Du shoes

When the horn finally sounded for the start of the men’s duathlon at 9:45, the sound of feet smacking on the asphalt road made a sticky sort of sound. Yet off we went down a steep hill into a valley, turned around at just under a mile and made our way back up the hill we’d just descended. It was a precursor for many more hills to come.

I’d settled on the idea that for me to cover the logistics of the race would require two sets of orthotics. That meant a pair of dress orthotics were inserted in my original pair of Saucony Triumphs for the initial two-mile run stage. It wasn’t ideal, but the idea of carting my full orthotics for 17 miles on the bike made no sense. So I ran on my forefoot like a middle distance runner and thankfully did not encounter any cramping of the feet or ankles. Confession: I did sit and massage my feet sans shoes for five minutes. And I think it helped!

20 years running

Galena Winner ResultsThe Galena Triathlon/Duathlon celebrated its 20th running this year. That’s a lot of years to conduct an event that requires both the race directors and athletes to perform a double set of logistics. It’s really an impressive effort by race organizers to make use of some beautiful landscape and provide a rich experience for the athletes. Plus the town of Galena is a pleasant and inviting place. All told it’s a wonderful race in that celebrates the distinctive environment of the driftless region covering northwest Illinois, southwest Wisconsin and northeast Iowa. You should take your bike and go there if you haven’t already. It’s the Best of the Midwest!

Upsy-daisy

The course leads from a beautiful spot of land in Apple Canyon where the swim and first leg of the duathlon transpire, then cycles its way nearly 20 miles west to Galena where competitors jump off their bikes and embark for a traditionally cruel run up the nearest steep hill available. This year’s version was a 600 meter incline that reached a likely 6% grade at one point. Then the course continued largely uphill to the two-mile turnaround.  That first hill took the steam out of just about everyone, yet the leader managed the entire loop at a 5:29 pace per mile. 

Double the fun

From their Facebook post:

From their Facebook post: “Always fun to bring home a little hardware from a race! Great day hanging out in Galena with Experience Triathlon. Everyone did awesome in the triathlon and duathlon! Nobody didn’t cross the finish line without a smile. Now, what should Max and I do with the Bubbly stuff?😉😍”

It turned out to be an day for couples actually as a pair of competitors in the duathlon from Plainfield, Illinois finished first and third overall in the women’s and men’s races. In fact female winner Maxine Franck-Palmer (age 48) placed 16th among all competitors and first among women with a time of 1:47:03. Her bike time was a quite snappy 52:07 at an average of 19.34 mph. Her husband Jeff Palmer (age 46) finished third overall and had a bike leg of 50:37 and 19.92 mph, and an overall run-bike-run time of 1:35:33. Jeff competes for Experience Triathlon and Maxine is coached by Jenny Parker Harrison, whom she credits for getting her such progress in racing.  

Julie Logan (44) of Wheaton, Illinois, another Experience Triathlon competitor, was second in the women’s overall duathlon in 1:50:42. Her bike split was also impressive at 19:15 mph. 

Second overall in the duathlon was Bob Jones of Bartlett, Illinois (age 53) at 1:35:04. He is headed to duathlon nationals in Minnesota in a couple weeks, and his preparation seems on target for a good finish there. Jones capitalized on a zippy 49:35 bike leg at 20:33 mph. But it was overall winner Matthew Panke (age 43) whose bike leg shone the brightest with a 22:52 mph average, 44:46 for the ride and a winning time of 1:30:39 overall.

By way of comparison, it was the bike section the defined the race, for the runs were comparatively even between the top three duathlon competitors. Palmer closed the fastest with a 4.2 mile pace of 6:39. Next came Jones at 6:49 per mile average followed by winner Pahnke, who ran 6:59 per mile. Actually that amounts to a 40-second differential in the run department between these competitors. So who knows what actually wins the day? 

Hills of truth

Clearly it was the ability to handle the hills on the bike that won the day. The course for both triathletes and duathletes covered a 17+ mile distance from Apple Canyon to Galena. The first 7 miles consisted of twisting, turning roads punctuated by steep inclines and breathtaking descents. Then the course rose to the highlands for a brisk and focused 8 miles in which rolling grades allowed for some serious pace gains in the aero position. Then came a two-mile descent to the transition zone at Recreation Park.

Quick legs

Several athletes stood out superbly on the ride segment. One was triathlete Ryan Giuliano, a former track and cross country athlete from Cary, Illinois who popped the ride at an average of 24.22 mph. His run pace of 5:29 per mile on the hilly 4.2 mile run course also was an eye-opener, with a finish time was 23:02. However his next competitor was no slouch as Alex Arman of St. Charles, Illinois averaged 23.61 on the bike and  5:36 per mile average for the 4.2 mile run. Giuliano’s overall time was 1:14:37. Arman came in at 1:17:27.

Our coach and President of Experience Triathlon, Joe Lopresto, came in second in the Men’s 55-59 triathlon age group at 1:43:40. His bike average of 18.88 was impressive but age division leader Doug Morris clipped along at just over 20 mph and was quick on the run as well at a 6:40 per mile pace.

Age divisions

55-59 men duathlonMy own time of 1:57: 58 won the age 55-59 division. Interestingly, 5 out of the top 10 finishers in the duathlon were over age 50. I felt fair but not swift on both runs, averaging 7:58 in the first two miles and 8:24 in the final four. 

My bike averaged 16:57 mph,  actually a tad slower than my companion Sue Astra who rode 17:41 in the triathlon bike segment. So I’ve got work to do to catch up to my athlete girlfriend, who took third overall in the women’s 50-54 triathlon category. Another pair of “couple” winners!

The roads really kept the bike racing honest if not downright thrilling at certain places on the course. The wet roads made for interesting bike handling on the swooping downhills. Then southwest winds gathered to make the high roads a strategic playing field and when to pedal hard and when to spin up the next grade.

Not so transitional

That's Sue telling me not to turn into a statue on the brick.

That’s Sue telling me not to turn into a statue on the brick.

As for this budding duathlete, there is still much work to be done in the transitions. I spent 2:46 getting through T1 and a scary 3:07 getting through T2. That’s a total of 5:53 in the transitions! If I can cut that time in half I finish in 1:55:33 but for what? That save only moves me up two places, from 28th to 25th overall. It appears that I do better sitting on my ass changing shoes and catching my breath!

Still, there’s hope in there. Between the relatively careful first run time in dress orthotics to my somewhat fearful bike stage. The long descents were frankly strong reminders of my bike wobble crash, and I hit the brakes some on the steepest and longest downhills. I also need to get better on the brick, as I walked for thirty yards going up the steep hill on the second run leg.

Overall happy

None of that is would-coulda-shoulda. I did my absolute best in every way last Saturday. It was fun. I lived in the moment. That’s why we go to races, to experience life in bolder relief. It’s part of the growth we all go through in our sports. No matter what age we are, there is still a lot to learn, and to do.

werunandridelogo

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The double logistics of a duathlon

My $600 orthotics are specially designed to keep me from seizing up, cramping or hurting my calves or knees. So I will carry them with me for the second running leg of a split duathlon.

My $600 orthotics are specially designed to keep me from seizing up, cramping or hurting my calves or knees. So I will carry them with me for the second running leg of a split duathlon.

This Saturday May 16 I’ll be competing in the Galena Duathlon. Companion Sue is doing the Triathlon that includes a swim in the 55 degree water. I’m not there yet in terms of swimming that far, much less in freezing water. I do not yet own a wetsuit.

That does not mean I do not still face some interesting logistics in this weekend’s race. It turns out the Duathlon event in Galena is a bit of a cobbled together affair. The start and the two transitions zones for the 2-mile run, 16+ mile bike and 4 mile run require you to double up on equipment such as running shoes.

So we’ll have to wear a pair of running shoes for the first two mile run, stash them at T1 for the changeover to the bike, and them jump back into another set of shoes at a different location to complete the next 4.2 miles of running.

I own two pairs of running shoes. So that’s not the logistical problem. I am dependent on a pair of orthotics to wear in my shoes while running. That does present a problem.

Thinking the race through, the best solution I can imagine is to wear my orthotics in the first set of shoes, stash them in my cycling jersey for the ride because they do not fit into my cycling shoes (I wear simpler set of orthotics in those) and then place them in the second set of running shoes when I get to T2.

It’s rather like having double logistics to consider. The first duathlon I participated in last summer was a disaster in the transitions, which cost me over six minutes total race time. Had I cut those down to two minutes total I’d have been second in my age group. Five minutes of my total effort that day was spent sitting on my ass trying to tie or untie running shoes. It was a two mile run, 16-mile bike and two mile run.

Rumor has it the race this weekend has also changed the course to make the second running stage doubly challenging. It apparently goes straight uphill 2.1 miles and then comes back down 2.1 miles.

BrickCompanionsThe “brick” part of a duathlon is hard enough without going immediately uphill. Doubling the difficulty should make things quite interesting. Everyone all week has been telling me to practice my “bricks” by running after riding. But I already know how that feels. You can’t run at first. You can only move your legs at the same cadence as you just cycled, only in very short steps. Then you move slightly longer with each stride until you begin doing something that actually resembles what I call running.

Doing that uphill should be a marvelous joke of an experience. But that’s why we do these things, to have a laugh at our marvelous inabilities.

It can’t be much worse than a half-marathon I once ran in La Crosse, Wisconsin, which is just as hilly a region as Galena, Illinois. We were racing along at 5:10 pace when we turned onto a road that went uphill for a solid half mile at some obscene grade they only make cars drives in the Cheesehead State. At the top my butt muscles were literally locked in place with lactic acid.But when we made it over the top, it was time to fly downhill. And all was better. I finished two of those loops and the 13.1 in 1:12. And learned that you can run even when your butt is locked.

That’s the memory I’m going to carry with me during this weekend’s hilly ass effort. Along with my orthotics. Because they’ve made this race doubly hard for people like me with so many miles on their legs we need support from the ground up to participate.

Away we go.

werunandridelogo

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The time and place for competition

The bay-breasted warbler is one of the beautiful prizes of spring birding.

The bay-breasted warbler is one of the beautiful prizes of spring birding.

Two of the main passions in my life began at about the same age. I was twelve years old when I started running. That was the same age I also became a birder.

Both interests began with seminal experiences earlier in life.

At the age of five I was given a Peterson’s Bird Guide from my Aunt Carol, my mother’s older sister. I learned to draw copying images of birds from that book, which I still have. I can trace my interest in birding and painting wildlife to that gift, and also to growing up in New York and Pennsylvania where there were plenty of woods and wildlife in which to roam and find birds.

I recall an encounter with a kestrel perched just a couple feet above my head on a laundry pole in our backyard in Lancaster. The pattern in the face of that bird filled my entire senses. From then on I was officially obsessed with birds. When my eldest brother Jim took an ornithology course in college and started driving us around the back roads of Illinois, my brothers and I all became real birders. We kept life lists. Planned birding trips. I started painting birds and have sold my work to more than 2000 people.

My interest in running had similar roots. At the age of six I would time myself doing laps around the side yard. I loved the feeling of running. It helped that I lived next to a beautiful golf course (Media Heights) in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I’d often run the half mile to my buddy’s house across the course.

Competing interests

All through high school and college I birded and I ran. Sometimes the two activities would come in conflict with each other. The early hours of the day are precious times for runners and birders. The window in which you can see the most birds often runs from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. After that, many species stop singing and are harder to find.

The spring months of April and May are premiere times for bird migration. Of course those months are also peak training periods for track and field athletes. So I had to make choices sometimes. There are only so many hours in the day.

IMG_6898Same goes for fall and cross country training. More than once I recall glancing up during a cross country race to see a bird in the bush or field that I’d love to stop and identify. Usually I can do that on the fly or at a glance. But once in a while you need a minute or so to pin down the exact species. That’s especially true in fall when birds like warblers go into molt and lose their bright colors. It serves them well to head south in fall with a plumage dull and indistinct. They live with that muted look all winter, which gives them cryptic coloration, and emerge only in spring with the bright colors that serve them so well for breeding season in competition for territory and the right to mate.

Balancing priorities

We’re just like birds in many respects. We have rhythms too, and have to balance our priorities in life. For birds, nature takes care of much of that. Hormones and seasonal plumage set birds up for the cycle of life. But for human beings, we think ourselves smart enough to live outside some of those natural rhythms. We like to think we make choices about the time and place for competition.

But it still shows through. Even among birders there is a natural tendency to compete. Every spring when migration kicks into gear birders sweep out into the field to count as many species as they can. It is not unusual for a good birder to find 100 species of birds in a single day. These lists are often posted to birding sites and mail lists such as the IBET list  (a birding sighting group on Yahoo!) in Illinois.

Reading those posts, it’s easy to fall into the trap of being envious of the birding activities of your peers. The classic Big Year among birders is notably a competition to see who can find and identify the most bird species in a county, or a state, or a nation, or a continent. Or the entire world. Think of that! There are thousands of species of birds in the world. How do you plan for that?

The answer is, you can’t. You must respond at times when and where the birds show up. For that information you are partially dependent on others. That means the competition is a tradeoff between wanting to be the best and needing the help of others, even your competitors, to succeed. There is an important lesson in that.

Throwdowns

student-birders-sh-1Birders may not think of themselves as competitive by listing their finds, but there is an aspect of throwdown when someone posts, “Had 25 species of warbler today.”

These games of finding birds do have scientific value. Every spring and in December there are national bird counts that feed into a database. These annual surveys present valuable information about bird populations in America. We now have decades of data that tell us that some species of birds are doing quite well while others, especially some woodland species, are not holding up as well thanks to predation, habitat changes and competition with invasive species of birds.

Survival of the fittest

blue-gray_gnatcatcher-5What all this observation tells us is that all of nature is competition. Just last week I witnessed a blue jay visiting the nest of a tiny species of bird known as a blue-gray gnatcatcher. The gnatcatcher parents swooped and attacked the jay, but in the end the marauding jay reached into the nest with its beak and gulped down an egg, then flew off to another source of food.

The work that went into laying that egg is tremendous. Gnatcatchers make their nests of lichen bits and spider webs. These they fuse into a cup standing more than an inch tall. The precious eggs are then laid in this cup and protected by the parents. And then eaten, in some instances, by a blue jay.

We all know the feeling of putting hard work into something and then losing the opportunity. It happens in business all the time, and in politics too. It hurts, and it stands us on our heels. But ultimately we have to move on.

Those of us who run and ride know this feeling better than most. We’ve all likely experienced the loss of fitness from injury, or getting sick the week of an important race. These setbacks teach us how to deal with disappointment. Hopefully we also get to experience the joy of completing a goal. Yet even these sometimes come with addendums.

Freeloaders

4719614776_2675335d80_z-1Imagine that you are a small bird like a warbler. You’ve built your nest and laid your eggs. Then along comes a cowbird who dumps a larger egg in with your clutch (the brown eggs in the image at right).

Some warblers simply build over the cowbird eggs and start over. Others raise the cowbird as one of their own.

Cowbirds save themselves a lot of work by dumping eggs in the nests of other birds. It is likely a behavior that evolved out on the prairie where cowbirds followed bison herds for food. They didn’t have time to sit around making nests and raising young. So they dumped that responsibility to another bird, not even their own species. It’s easy to think that we should hate the cowbird for its habits. Yet from the cowbird’s perspective, nothing could be smarter or more efficient than parasitic nesting. It really is a marvelous evolutionary adaptation to environment and need.

It’s true as well with gender and pair bonding. Homosexuality exists in nature, as does serial breeding among familiar species such as the Northern Cardinal. There are also birds where the male does the nesting. This is true in a group of birds called phalaropes, where the male of the species is less colorful than the female. The gender roles are reversed.

Birds and all of nature sexually hedge their bets and interact in ways that defy human perception. It’s a fact: we’ve superimposed a judgmentally dysfunctional value system over a perfectly functional and eternally changing system of creation. Put simply, nature doesn’t give a lark what you think about it. Nature is what nature does.

And if we really pay attention to a book like the Bible, we learn that God actually likes it that way. Neither nature or God are static in their interactions. The entire concept of free will and acceptance of grace (which is love) is dependent on that kind of freedom.

How interesting then that human beings seem to spend so much time trying to impose their vision and version of free will upon others. Talk about contradicting the entire flow of nature!

Role playing

UPR TeamSee, nature has a lot of workarounds that we humans love to think we’re above. We like to think we choose our competitions rather than respond to them by force of nature. To some extent, that is true. Human beings have by force of dominion have actually destroyed entire ecosystems. But we’re not so smart as we think in such actions.

The animal instincts within us still rule or subconscious minds. We still respond viscerally to winning or losing, and to the roles we assign each other. We deeply know that our survival depends to a great extent on our ability to compete. The question is whether this approach to life is helping us evolve as a species of pulling us back down into the primordial muck.

Evolving nature

We consciously compete. That’s the difference. That’s why birders still do the bird list throwdown. That’s why people who run and ride do the half-wheel or half-step drill during training and racing. We like to nudge our rivals, to push the pace to see what they’ve got. 

We also subconsciously push ourselves and then compete with others because when we cease doing that, we feel like we’re less alive. Admit it: when you’re walking around town and see a person that is fat or bent by age, you size them up and compare yourself. It’s an ugly aspect of human nature, but it’s wired into our makeup. 

Transcendence

insanityYet we are capable as well of transcending this animal instinct. Ostensibly our religions are designed to help us do that. Which is why it is all the more unfortunate that sects of religions and entire belief systems fall into patterns of competition. That’s when the human race really suffers. When we blindly combine our native instincts for competition with our spiritual belief systems, people usually die. It happens every day, and we repeat the same processes over and over.

It really is insane. One religion whines about persecution while the other threatens to wipe out all others. The Bible itself is a chronicle of all that ancient conflict. Sadly, the organic foundation of the bible that actually gives us great insight by celebrating nature through symbolism to convey spiritual principles is essentially lost by those who turn the words of the bible itself into law rather than working to comprehend the deeper, more natural meaning that lurks beneath.

Think about it: Jesus taught using symbols based on nature to convey important spiritual truths about the Kingdom of God. He did this to make it accessible to all believers. Yet the leaders of religion most typically push nature to the background to focus on who rules the earth among men (and that gender-specific word is intentional). All the while the more feminine, nurturing aspects of our nature are forced into subjugation. Religion is supposed to help us avoid these primal bad habits. Humans are supposed to learn the nature of God from the foundations of creation. That is how we achieve transcendence.

Moving on

BlueThat is in part why I no longer feel the need to compete in ways that I once did. Don’t get me wrong. I still love to race. It’s fun. And healthy. And good for society.

But when I’m out birding, and I find a beautiful species like a bay-breasted warbler singing so quietly in the treetops that it requires every ounce of my hearing to detect it, there is a great feeling of satisfaction in that moment, that sense of wonder. And I don’t feel the need to compete with anyone by bragging that I’ve seen it.

It’s not about competition then. Nor is it about competition when you’re out riding and you simply feel strong and healthy. You love the feel of the breeze in your face and the rolling motion of running through the woods. You could not care in that moment who you defeat or who defeats you.

The time and place for competition is when you choose. All other moments are yours or better yet, shared with others who also love what you do.

werunandridelogo

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There are times when it does not pay to run for it

World class marathoner Bill Rodgers once stated that one of the benefits of being a distance runner is the ability to rescue yourself during an emergency. His point was thus: “If you’re stranded in your car in a snowstorm, you can always run to safety.”

Well, that’s a wishful thought at times, isn’t it?

Tarsnakes wait to take you down.

Run for your life? It’s one of the tarsnakes of existing that at times you can’t tell what you’re running from.

I’ve tried out that theory of running or riding for emergency and practical reasons and it did not work out so well. It’s one of the tarsnakes of life that when you make up your mind to run for it, there is often a cost that comes with the decision.

Rainy days and Mondays

Emerging from the John Hancock building in Chicago one spring afternoon, I was about to embark on the trip to the train station a mile away when the skies opened up. It began raining so hard it sounded like ice breaking on the sidewalks. I tried to hail a cab as quickly as possible but they were all instantly taken. It was like a scene from some sit-com or movie about a guy with bad luck. All I could see were cab doors opening and people getting in while I stood under the awning of the Hancock with my jaw open.

“Seriously?”

I knew the train I needed to catch to make an evening commitment left in 20 minutes. So I did some quick calculations in my head to figure out whether the bus would get me there on time. Then like another scene from the Bad Luck Movie a bus rolled by that was just jammed with people. There was no way taking the bus was an option.

So I looked out into the rain and said to myself, “Maybe I’ll run to the station.”

All wet

There was just one problem. I had no raincoat. Rain was not predicted that day so I did not bring one. and I wasn’t about to go spend $150 on some North Face raincoat at the basement store of the Hancock. So I took a deep breath, tucked the computer bag under my arm and started running toward Ogilvie Transportation Center.

Within a block the rain had already soaked through my wool suit. It was a light wool suit at least. But it was wool. The fibers started to scratch my skin a little and a trickle of water somehow reached my nether regions. This was not going well.

At some point the puddles on the street became no obstacle. I could not afford to dodge them and keep making reasonable progress. So I ran right through. Fortunately I was wearing a pair of relatively waterproof Rockport dress shoes. They were actually comfortable for running. I’d once seen an advertisement for Rockport that showed a guy wearing their dress shoes to run a marathon. So the footwear was not a problem.

Trucking

I always knew my running paces pretty well and I was trucking along at under 7:30 pace, making good time. People trapped in storefront coves stared at me running through the rain as if I was a crazy man. Of course they were right. What I was doing was crazy.

The suit was now soaked through completely. The rain had never let up. In fact it was blowing in sheets and whirling in visible downpours out of the sky. Litter and city detritus was tumbling down the rain-filled gutters of Michigan Avenue. But I kept on running.

Cutting through a building plaza there was a brief moment when the rain was blocked by some overhead structures. I could now feel how truly wet I was. It was silent and cold in those 100 meters. Then I emerged again into the falling rain and headed on to Wacker Drive. Rain struck my cheeks and I let out a laugh. This was really insane.

The race of my life

I’ve run some races (in fact many races) where conditions were uncomfortable. We once raced through newly fallen snow on a golf course at a national cross country meet. That was cold and wet and muddy and snowy all at once. And pretty uncomfortable.

I’ve also run the steeplechase when they had to chip the ice out of the water jump, and also when it was so hot out the track was melting in spots. And those were uncomfortable runs.

But nothing really compares to running two-plus miles in a soaked woolen business suit on a cold, rainy afternoon in Chicago. The wind kept whipping me and slowed my pace to a near standstill at some point. Time was ticking away and I needed to catch my train. I knew I had a five margin of error but somehow I’d managed to make a mistake and added a couple extra blocks by taking a wrong turn between buildings on the route. A surge of panic hit me. It was close in terms of time and I was getting out of breath.

Meanwhile the computer bag clutched under my arm was shiny and slack with wetness. I prayed the computer inside would not get wet. My arm pit was chafing as I ran. A mad thought of tossing the thing in the river and never going back to my job went through my head.

Saggy and soggy

Jethro Tull AqualungProbably the worst part of the ordeal were the dress socks I was wearing. These too were a wool composition and now hung slack on my ankles. The tops had turned down and I began to imagine that overall I must look like the guy on the cover of the Jethro Tull album Aqualung. How appropos, anyway. That was pretty much the truth. I’d breathed in quite a bit of water. The faster I ran, the worse it got.

Finally I crossed a metal grate bridge and turned the corner for the one-block sprint finish to the lower level of Ogilvie Transportation Center. My suit now clung to my body like a heat vest in a sci-fi movies. As I entered the cool lower levels of the train station, steam rose off my body.

Finish chute

Climbing the final flight of stairs to reach the trains was a soggy, sorry close to the running portion of my commute. My bald head was shiny and my shoes matched. There was a squishing noise from my socks inside the footwear. My underwear sagged beneath the suit slacks. Everything was flopping around down there. It was, perhaps, one of the more humbling moments of my life.

Entering the train meant coming into a closed space. The air was humid and warm. I stood on the platform between trains and tried to cool off. That wasn’t happening. Plus I stank. Of wet wool. And was that sweat too? Yes, it was sweat. What a nasty combination.

So I stayed on the platform rather than go try to find a seat. There was no way I was going to foist my soggy, smelly self on anyone else on that train.

Riding along

The train ride took an hour from Chicago to Geneva. I stood there with one hand holding the bright metal pool while the suit hung from my frame like the flag of a defeated army.

Finally the train lurched to a halt and I could walk to my car. And wouldn’t you know it? A small rain shower came along to soak me one more time.

At home it took several minutes to remove the suit. I hung it on a door hanger with the vow to take it to the cleaners the next day. Would the suit ever have creased again? Had I ruined its texture by running through the rain?

Soggy conclusions

It all felt rather sorry and sad. Yet I was proud in some weird way that I’d managed to make that train through the rain. A month later that job was over. The promises the company had made; that I would only go through training in the city for a couple weeks and then not have to commute anymore had been strung out to months and then almost a year. Nothing they promised me ever happened. No remote connection to the database. No suburban office from which to base our sales operations.

That run from the Hancock to the train station turned out to be a symbolic one. Despite all the adversity I’d done my best to make it all work. But whether you make promises to yourself or someone else makes promises they can never keep, sometimes you have to just suck it up and run right through it. It may not seem to pay in the moment, yet years later you realize it was what you had to do to survive in the moment.

werunandridelogo

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