The Anthropocene Triathlon

IMG_4361I recently did some simple calculations, adding up the number of hours spent outside running and riding. It totals more than 7,000 hours, approximately 40,000 miles of running over a lifetime and just as many on the bike. 80,000 or so miles.

As an avid naturalist, I’ve also spent considerable time in the field birding and studying nature. That time is impossible to quantify. But given the fact that I’ve been birding since the age of 12, and pretty much lived outdoors whenever I could as a child, it’s been more than 100,000 hours outside in nature fishing, some hunting and a lot of plain appreciation.

My love of writing and painting completes the Anthropocene Triathlon for me. Converting my experiences into paintings and stories is a great love of mine. For more than forty years I’ve published articles in newspapers, magazines and online media. I’ve served as Editorial Writer at a major newspaper and published dozens of freelance articles in publications large Chris Cudworth 7and small. That includes a fun piece I did for Runner’s World years ago that led to a contract with a running race in Texas for whom I produced a poster won the RW Cream of the Crop Award for Best Designs.

Added up, all that writing amounts to more than 5,000 articles or about 4,000,000 words. I’ve also published two books now, The Genesis Fix, A Repair Manual for Faith in the Modern Age (2007) and The Right Kind of Pride, a Chronicle of Character, Caregiving and Community.

All this running, riding and writing has been conducted during a period now titled Anthropocene Era. Here is how it is defined: “relating to or denoting the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.”

As an environmental writer with a background in biology this phenomenon of the Anthropocene Era has been quite evident across a number of fronts. Back in the early 70s when I first began reading and writing seriously about environmental issues, environmental pollutions such as smog, acid rain, groundwater destruction, Superfund sites and health issues related to cancer agents were in the news every day. All thse issues were introduced into the environment by chemical or industrial means. Humans, in other words.

Some of this influence has been moderated thanks to human response to our own presence and harmful activities. Certain harmful chemical such as DDT were banned, allowing species of birds such as peregrine falcons, bald eagles and other creatures to rebound from near extinction. Without that action, these species would certainly have been lost.

SunriseSo the Anthropocene Era is certainly real. That includes the massive influence of carbon emissions on the atmosphere. We’ve already taken steps to reduce use of accelerants and other substances that destory the ozone layer. The Montreal Protocol of 1997 took some products off the market that were causing the ozone layer to deplete. Human beings had singlehandedly created that problem. We got together, figured out what was causing the problem, and moderated the issue.

Of course, there were people who pooh-poohed the idea that humans were the cause of any of this. A certain worldview refuses to accept that human beings can affect anything at the planetary level. This neglects the absolute evidence that our chemical pollution and habitat destruction is responsible for the loss of thousands of species of creatures. There is a massive extinction going on just as they have occurred in the past. This time, however, nature is the agent but not the cause of this extinction.

That’s us. 

Now we’re faced with the very real problem of global climate change. There are moneyed interests claiming there is no problem with global warming. They fund science to disclaim the relationship between human activity, especially carbon-based pollution, and the potential effect on overall climate.

Monarch scalesAs a person that spends considerable time outdoors, and who knows a few things about animals, plants and living things and the ecosystems on which they depend, I share concerns that human activity is responsible for this problem. I’ve seen firsthand the effects of chemical and environmental pollution on all sorts of creatures. I watched a great blue heron teeter and fall over from the effects of pesticides in its system. I’ve seen the gangrene-infested gizzards of ducks that ingested lead shot. I’ve watched fish float up on a river rife with suds, and seen cancerous boils on bass fished out of a polluted creek. I’ve seen monarch butterfly populations plummet due to destruction of habitat, loss of milkweed host plants and possible impacts from chemicals in their systems.

So I do not naively assume that human beings have no effect on the environment.

Because I’ve also run through cities thick with pollution. In China where environmental restrictions have not been as strict as here in America, people are forced to wear masks just to get to work. Health problems abound wherever anthropocentric pollution takes over. Does anyone recall how difficult it was for runners and cyclists to prepare in advance of the Beijing-pollution-4_784300aBeijing Olympics? There were absolute concerns for the health of endurance athletes. All that was the product of anthropocentric pollution. It did not happen naturally. It did not happen supernaturally. God was not involved. And God is not going to fix this thing. More likely God has shown a propensity in history to tell the human race; “You screwed this up. It’s your problem now, not mine.”

So prayers are not going to whisk away the carbon choking our atmosphere. What will fix the massive problem of anthropocentric global climate change is cooperation between nations and governments.

Yet America can’t even budge a set of stubborn politicians so selfishly absorbed in their own moneyed interests they refuse to acknowledge that climate change is a problem. Never mind the direct evidence of choking athletes in Beijing or other regions around the world. Never mind the potential desertification of the Great Plains as we already saw during the Dust Bowl, another product of human activity.

Never mind there are 7 billion people on the planet and we’re shooting up toward 9 billion. Climate change threatens to ruin millions of acres of currently fruitful agricultural zones. California is already parched and fighting over water rights.

imgres-2Meanwhile, companies such as the Nestle Corporation have intimated that access to water is not a basic human right. So we’re faced with a world in which corporate profits and human greed are taking precedence over fair use of resources and basic human rights. That is the definition of the Anthropocene Era in a nutshell.

Those of us that have spent 80,000 miles and thousands of hours out in the field, on the roads, and under the sun understand the real risks of neglecting the facts before us. 97% of the world’s climate scientists agree on the fact that profound changes are taking place on our planet, and that human beings are a direct cause of these changes.

To me, it is the height of irresponsibility and selfish greed to ignore the recent and ancient history of human foible as a profound influence on this world. Both the environmental community and Christian apologists with an understanding for the call for stewardship of creation understand this.

IMG_3085But there are tons of people who interpret these signs instead as the inevitability of human sin rather than the opportunity to prevent it. In other words, they’ve given up. Quit the race just when it is beginning. They are failing the human race as a result. Throwing in the towel. They are admitting they are losers and that their worldview is defeatist and dependent on a bailout from God to solve human problems. Their only concern is that they remain flush with cash. Leave the rest of that shit for others to deal with.

Every time I run and ride and sit down to write I think about these things. This is the Anthropocene Triathlon for me. Every time I go birding and see cranes migrating through the skies and recognize their rebound as a species is the result of human efforts to protect habitat and fix the mistakes of the human race, I get the feeling there is hope.

I choose hope and collaboration. That’s the solution to the problems of the Anthropocene era, not self-centered greed and belief that money trumps all human compassion and environmental responsibility.






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25 meters of joy

Swim FormLearning to swim again has taken more than a year. That’s because there’s a balance between developing form good enough to swim efficiently, and then building muscles and endurance to support the effort.

But there’s real progress happening now.

I’m writing about this because I encourage you to try it too. If you have not tried swimming in a very long while, it is an activity that you can add to and gain all sorts of benefits. It’s a whole body workout for one thing, and low impact at that. Two, you get to smell like chlorine and play in the water. Three, you can actually do a triathlon if you can swim. And that’s fun.

As noted, this has not been an easy experience. While I have not been tempted to quit, there have been moments where I stood in the pool with my face very near the water breathing hard while trying to figure out when it might get a little easier.

But there has been progress. And yesterday I had a swim lesson with Whitney, the coach with whom I’ve been working off and on the last year. Now we’re meeting every three weeks and she gives me assignments to practice between sessions.

Yesterday she asked, “Do you want to do endurance or sprints?”

Honestly, I’d never thought about it. Early on the most I could swim at one stretch was 25 meters. Then it was… stop, breathe, and start again. I wasn’t so much swimming as surviving from one end of the pool to the other.

Now, I’m up to 400 meters straight and haven’t yet tried anything longer. That’s coming this week. My relaxation in the pool is such that the idea of going long is no longer a threat. I can breathe on both sides now too, albeit still better on one side than the other. That will come with more practice.

Bu to test my stroke mechanics, Whitney gave me a workout of 8 sets of 50-meter repeats. 25 as fast as I can go, short rest, and back at a slow pace. We did sets of four and put some float swimming of 100 meters in between.

The 25-meter sprints were fun. I actually had never been given license to go as fast as I can, so I had never done it. Having the opportunity to let loose was a real joy. She asked me after the first couple, “You’re only breathing every fourth stroke. Is that feeling okay?”

“More than okay,” I told her. “It feels great!”

Fast or slow, learning to swim well is basically a task of being able to use your stroke mechanics to efficiently move through the water. If you can’t swim slower, it is very likely there is something wrong with your form or balance between kicks and strokes.

Three weeks ago, Whitney had me practice kicks with the focus of using my butt muscles to propel my legs as well. That engagement clicked in my head. I envisioned my butt making me go faster. But that’s just me. Some of us need pictures in our heads to make things work.

So it was fun to “feel the churn” on those sprint sets. I was under 20 seconds on each, so things are coming along. Each was 25 meters of joy.

On my next swim coaching session, it will be time to learn flip turns again. I did them as a kid swimmer and it should come back pretty well I hope. Once you get the feel, it’s a matter of practice.

I’m grateful to be learning something new like this. The challenges have been real, but the revelations have too.




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So many Sunday mornings

I’ve been a churchgoer by choice even since I was a little kid, and even when my parents attended a church ten miles away from our home in Elburn, Illinois, I chose to be confirmed at a Congregational Church three blocks away.

That does not mean the search for God has been a straight line journey over the years. Not in any respect. During my high school years, our group of friends participating in an organization called Campus Life. There were weekly meetings in which teenagers gathered to discuss Christianity. The counselors were a committed group of Wheaton College exports with a mission to proselytize in the name of Christ.

At that age, I found issue with their brand of messaging. At one point a counselor pulled me aside for a discussion. “If you keep asking questions like that, you’ll never be a Christian,” he told me.

Chance encounter

I chanced to meet that former Campus Life Counselor in a McDonald’s restaurant ten years later. He looked away when he saw me. I walked over to find tears in his eyes. We sat down and had a very frank discussion in which I told him that my questioning manner had actually increased my faith, not reduced it. I told him that if he felt he needed forgiveness from me, he already had it. But I also told him that it was not necessary. There was nothing to forgive.

Sunday mornings

As mentioned, during college my church attendance fell by the wayside other than a few chapel talks during the week. Mainly that was due to the long runs our running teams planned every Sunday morning from September through May. So many Sunday mornings were spent piling up mileage for cross country and track.

I attended an ostensibly Christian college where taking at least one course in religion was required. I took New Testament and got a C in the course. The manner in which the subject was taught did not interest me. Everything about the course was dry and dead. I am pretty sure Jesus himself would have gotten a C in that class, and then trashed the classroom in which it was held.


Late in my college years I met a girl who was taking religion courses and was fascinated with the Jewish faith. We began to explore those subjects together and she introduced me to a man named Richard Simon Hanson, who later in life read my book about religion and in turn gave me one of his unpublished manuscripts to use if I ever choose to do so. Currently, I am in the process of writing a book titled Sustainable Faith about reconciling Christianity to the Modern World in positive, constructive ways. His portion is titled Religion From Earth, and I need to get that work done because he is getting on in years and I want him to see how our combined hope for the Jude0-Christian world can work.

Somehow I feel that the world of endurance sports and faith go together quite well. There are famous quotations from the Bible that suggest this is true, such as:

[ The Need for Self-Discipline ] Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.
I went in response to a revelation and, meeting privately with those esteemed as leaders, I presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain.
You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us…
Allegories and The Word
Of course, these are all allegorical references, comparisons between the race of endurance to the race of faith. The Bible is full of allegories, parables and symbolism. In fact these literary methodologies form the very foundation of all truth. Even the reference to The Word in the Book of John makes clear that The Word itself is a symbol for all truth. In actuality, the worst sin of all is to anchor The Word to some fixed notion that we’ve invented about God to own that narrative for ourselves, our religion or our politics. That’s an insult to how The Word is supposed to work in our lives…

John 1 [Full Chapter]

[ The Word Became Flesh ] In the beginning was theWord, and theWord was with God, and theWord was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. …
There is absolutely nothing literal intended about that statement. Yet there are people who anchor The Word by claiming that the Book of Genesis and its reference to “the beginning” is supposed to be interpreted as some sort of literal doctrine. That leads to all sorts of defensive, anachronistic doctrines that harm the faith and hearts of all those who abide by them.
Wearing blinders
If were are truly going to run the race of faith set out before us, then it does not pay to affix an anchor to our hopes and understanding. If you were to line up at the start of a 10K race wearing blinders over your eyes that prevented you from seeing anything in front of you, do you think you could run your best time? More likely you would stumble, be hesitant and fearful all at once. That is not what God wants for us, but it is what people who want to control others seek to do by placing literalism before all else in faith.
I have spent so many Sunday mornings pondering these issues in 58 years of faith and life. Many of those Sundays have been spent in the pews of a church. For 25 years, I was a member of a very conservative branch of Christianity. It was the synod in which my late wife was raised, and we had many close friends there. We were married in that church, and our children went through confirmation there. They dutifully memorized the doctrines of that organization and passed confirmation with flying colors. The pastor went to great lengths to compliment us on how well they did in confirmation class.
But my children were smart enough to realize the impracticality of that brand of faith. They had studied science and understood evolution as a theory that materially explains the origins and development of life on earth. That church tradition denies evolution.
So we ultimately migrated out of that church, and Sunday mornings are now spent listening to a Harvard Divinity school Ph.D who understands and preaches the reconciliation of faith and science and many other positively liberal principles that frankly hew much closer to the methods and ministry of Jesus Christ. Who would have had no problems with science, as he taught using parables deeply wrought with naturalistic principles.
Challenging beliefs
Perhaps I’ve spent too much time on the roads thinking about these things. Some people have tried to tell me that it doesn’t really matter what people believe, so long as they believe. When I challenge belief systems some people take offense, calling me mean and intolerant, and worse. People really do not like to have their faith questioned.
But I’ve spent so many Sunday mornings trying to figure out why the world is so screwed up, and quite often it comes back to the fact that people that don’t like to have their faith challenged are often the very same people telling others what to do and how to live. They try to force their beliefs into society through politics or law.
So I’ve made a practice and a indeed, a life’s work to challenge those perceptions whenever possible. This sometimes earns me enemies on Facebook and even loses me followers on this blog on occasion, but so be it. Once I had a friend give me this piece of advice: “Don’t give people a reason to hate you,” and it’s certainly not how Jesus behaved. He gave many people reasons to hate him for challenging their misguided brand of faith and authoritative claim to special providence. That willingness to challenge the status quo was what ultimately got him killed.
It takes guts to challenge perceptions
So I think that whole “don’t give people a reason to hate you” meme is a stupid, chickenshit way to live. While I don’t think I’m right about everything, I also don’t think you can really learn where you’re potentially wrong without having the guts to speak your mind.
Jesus encouraged and taught his own disciples by challenging their perceptions and asking them to answer hard questions. Sometimes they earned an admonishment or correction for their troubles.
The only times Jesus really backed them down was when his disciples asked to be granted special favor for their service to God. He appreciated their intentions but had to explain that the right to sit at the Right Hand of God was not in his power to grant.
Sadly, that method of seeking favored status in the eyes of God is how so many Christians lay claim to authority these days. It is the single most damaging feeling of entitlement that none of them likes to admit because it exposes their ulterior motives. Some of these are anchored in the love of money, others in social advantage and racial superiority.
The race of life
Chris Fun Pic TooThis is how I believe God works in our lives. God is real to me because I’ve put effort into examining how and why spiritual experiences come about. I don’t pray for specific things very often, but pray instead for the presence of mind to recognize grace as it exists and where it occurs. When I pray, I pray in acknowledgment that there is a source for that grace, one that is bigger than our material perceptions.
We cannot know for certain what (if anything) comes after this life, but we can know what a dose of heaven and help feels like on this earth. That “kingdom of God” is good enough for me. If embracing that operative and call for hope in this world somehow results in some eternal benefit well that would be lovely. But laying claim to heaven by some calculation of our own is like expecting to never run in the race of life and still be granted the prize at the end.
False promises
I also don’t need the promise of a thousand virgins in the afterlife to want to live a good life or follow the way of God. That reward-oriented brand of of faith is shallow and stupid. All Christians or Muslims andanyone that thinks they need a big gift in heaven to life a good life on earth are a greedy, selfish band of misfits who don’t deserve our fealty or respect.
That applies to the often manic protection of the image of Allah or “the prophet.” Killing people for drawing a picture proves the stupidity. If your God is that fragile and weak, they are not worth worshipping.
All desperate attempts to prove ourselves to God are foolishness. These instincts beget wars and intolerance and repression. They have also been used to perscute people whose instincts and orientations are quite natural, biological and fiercely human.
Hardly inerrant
We need to recognize that even our most holy scriptures are lost on the truth when it comes to some of these subjects. It’s a clear fact that Christians have abandoned many practices that no longer have merit in this world. Yet too many believers still cling to practices and prejudices that are borne of fears desires to repress feelings or thoughts that really do not harm anyone.
Instead, we should all seek to appreciate the organization of the universe and the grace it presents. This does, however incorporate the very real presence of evil in this world. But I believe that the call to resist evil with the power of love is our main purpose in this world. The supernatural is, to me, an absolute product of love.
Common purposes
These are commonalities we all can share, and they do not conflict with the material explanations of science despite the contentions of stubborn creationists whose science of denial does more harm to the kingdom of God here on earth than it does to honor God in any respect.
Somehow there are many of us who see no conflict between the fact that human beings descended from apes and evolved intelligence that enables us to conceive the supernatural instincts of love. What’s so hard about that? Why are people so stupid and stubborn they cannot find their way to enlightenment and appreciation about the facility of human intellect and emotion?
Evidence of absence
IMG_2250While browsing through a running journal to study my own mentions of God over the years, I found the passage below. It was written on January 1, 1983. I was living near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where I’d been transferred from Chicago in a corporate consolidation that did not pan out for the company. That meant finding my way socially in a strange city. I was far from home with a need to find all new friends, which accomplished while training with a sponsored running team. That meant all my Sunday mornings were spent doing long runs with a group of runners far more talented than me. It was a difficult yet exciting time. I was trying to make sense of being 25 years old and tossed about a bit by life.
Yet I was also on the cusp of accomplishing the best three years of running in my life. It began with those long training miles with the Runner’s Edge team in Philly. My 10K PR had finally dipped under 32:00 and it was my goal to take it all the way down to 31:00 in the next year or so. Some could say that was a bit self-absorbed.
But God was still not far from my mind.
Running Journal Entry January 1, 1983
“I ran a very relaxed but determined two hours today. Most of it was 6:30 pace with the late middle miles faster and the last three very slow, because I became light-headed again. This feeling did not hit me until probably fifteen minutes past one hour of running, when I picked up the pace on the flat shoulders of Route 252. The entire route went: Paoli Pike to Sugartown Road, Sugartown to Goshen, Goshen to Grub (Or Grubbs Mill) to intersection of Barr & Whitehorse, Whitehorse to 252–One lap around local golf course, up to Route 30 on 252 and several dizzy laps around the cemetary and park. Ran from 1:55 yto 3:54. This got me all over the stigman, somewhat, of two hours but I learned precisely at what point and what pace the ire of fatigue too over.

TarsnakesIt is and was a beautiful, warm winter day with a cool breeze from the northwest. Wore GoreTex top, two t’s and a pair of Luther sweats. Oregon’s (adidas) felt good. Strangely, my knee problem, tendinitis around the outside of the joint, is eradicated. Knee felt quite fluid going up stairs. I was locked out when I got home! Climbed the house to get back in.

God gave me a helluva an illustration today. Some guy walked into a door today while staring at me. ‘Don’t let the fascination with life occupy your better senses.’ He seemed to be acting the fool, or needing sympathy or something. But his eyes were so fixated, and with all those people watching. “He comes in here quite often,” the manager says. “And he seems like a sedate guy.” There you only resolution, Christopher, on this, the beginning of a New Year, and you’d already begun in the Old Year. Let or make the balance of activity come and you won’t walk into any closed doors. Happy New Year! Artist • Painter • Writer • Runner • Lover. Believer in a God who gave you joy and love on Earth.”
And so it has gone throughout my life. Always trying to assess my own intelligence and attention against the demands of life and the expectations of God. So many Sunday mornings have been spent in consideration of these ideals. Perhaps you’ve spent a few Sundays thinking about these types of things as well.
And if not, such is the pity, for Sunday mornings are excellent for such endeavors.



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Four miles and counting turkeys

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

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

Checking in

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

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

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

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

Legging it

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


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

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

Data mining

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

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

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

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






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Tapering for a Turkey Trot


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Sharing a pup named Chuck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Changing times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Making it happen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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Baby’s got back

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



Baby’s Got Back. 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Bad gas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Running into temptation

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

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

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

Star treatment

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

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


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

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

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

On the road

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

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

How good you aren’t

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Guilty as charged

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

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

Young fury

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

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

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

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

External affairs

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

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

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

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


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

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







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