You do your best with the body (and brain) that you have

GoofyOnBikeAs children we imagine that all things are possible. You can be what you want to be.

That childlike innocence has its purpose. It enables the mind to grow unhindered. We explore through play. Some of us take up that banner of play and pursue a passion for sports. We initially explore our abilities by playing games.

At some point a refinement process begins. Those blessed with ability are chosen first. They make it through formalized tryouts too. The rest are told to sit out or go home.

Obviously we can’t all be pro athletes. But given the errant behavior and massive personality flaws in so many pro athletes, perhaps that’s a good thing. We’re faced with the fact that athletes who have been pampered for their abilities and given a pass on responsibilities often turn out to be real jerks.

Extremes

Against these extremes in physical ability the rest of us are somewhat forced to measure our own efforts. The exploits of the world’s fastest runners are largely lost on the masses. Most people don’t even get to see these people at the starting line of a race, much less the finish.

article-2514861-04FA3F7900000514-951_634x446Cycling also has its heroes. Yet in recent years all have been tainted by accusations of performance-enhancing drug use in cycling. For perhaps 15 years there were no exceptions to the rule that athletes were doping. The most talented cyclists in the world were forced to cheat in order to compete. But not everyone. The challenge at times seems to be discerning who’s clean, not who’s doping.

Think about that for a moment. Here you own this massive cycling engine and amazing legs. You can ride for 100+ miles at a pace most cyclists consider their top speed. In fact you can average that speed for more than 2000 miles in a Grand Tour that includes climbs beyond category.

How must one feel to be that good, and yet not good enough (somehow)? How frustrating it must be to have a body capable of that level of performance and yet be left behind when the leaders surge off the front?

Sure, doping is not fair. But it shows you that no matter how good you become there will always be challenges to your perceived level of talent and ability. You’re left to do the best with the body (and brain) that you have.

The mirror

SwimmersWhen we stand before a mirror in the morning, what do we see? Typically we assess our fitness by the amount of fat we do or do not perceive on our bodies. That’s the visual test, but it can be deceiving. I have ridden with cyclists that outweigh me by at least 50 pounds on a similar sized frame. They are capable of riding me right off their wheel at speeds in the low 20s even in a high wind. They seem to defy all physical laws.

In moments like that, we’re left to consider whether all our efforts to stay thin are really worth it. Watching last year’s Ironman Wisconsin race I was struck by the wide variety of bodies slugging it out through 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling and the run of 26.2 miles. I saw people so big they did not look like they could complete a 5K, much less do all of that endurance training that leads up to an Ironman. I also saw tiny little wizened women with wrinkled tanned skin and tri-suits hanging off their shoulders. You think to yourself: How the f*** does that woman do it?

It turns out there’s no magic formula for success in athletics. Having a bit of fat on your body can actually be a benefit, to some degree, in a sport like triathlon. There’s buoyancy in swimming, for example. Fuel to burn in a long bike ride. By the time you’re ready to run you don’t care what you weigh. You have to move your ass one way or another, no matter what it weighs. Everyone feels pretty much the same by that point. Legs are dead. So’s your head. Keep moving.

Twice over

Finish Run TooLast year I did my first duathlon. I’m in my late 50s and this woman at least as old (young?) as I am came blasting by me on the bike at 14 miles. I’d left her in the dust on the run but she was killing it on the bike. Killing it! Screw gender, I thought. She’s fast.

That’s the triathlon in a nutshell of course. Some competitors do best in the swim. Some ride the bike like a dream. Others make up time on the run. It’s a simple fact that all of the athletes have these relative plusses and drawbacks. Even at the top level of the sport this is true.

Imagine that

From a very early age I imagined myself an athlete and even imagined myself into something of a winner at times. But deep in my soul I also sensed my limits. Training with superior runners it was easy to see that something else was going on with them. Their engines were bigger. Better. Stronger. When I stepped to the line in a July 1984 race in company with Alberto Salazar, Thom Hunt and other world class runners, I knew the outcome. I ran with them for three miles and then blew up. So what? I tried.

In those situations you just do your best. Once in a while you hang on to achieve more than you imagined possible, surpass your expectations in ways that seem to defy your own perceptions. On another hot day in July 1984 I ran to a very high placing against runners whose PRs at the 10-mile distance were minutes ahead of me. And yet, it happened. I stuck it to them.

Up and down

You’re probably like me too. You look yourself up and down and wonder what it might be like to be built slightly different. In my case it’s simple. What if my torso was not so long? Would I be a better runner at only 5’10” versus 6’1″? My 34″ inseam is forced to carry all this extra body around. And yet if I had not been six feet tall my basketball career might not have gone as well as it did. Which was not that exceptional. But who cares? It was fun.

CraigVirgin2I recall being 15 and traveling downstate to Peoria to watch Craig Virgin run his 13:51 record for three miles at the Illinois State Cross Country meet. I tried to imagine running that fast, but it was hard. My best at the time was 16:31. After college, I’d go on to run 14:14 for three miles on the way to a 14:47 5K on the track. But I was 24 years old then, not 18.

Yet we must acknowledge that even Craig Virgin might have liked to have changed some things about his body. He overcame a potentially debilitating childhood disease and poor kidney function to become World Cross Country champion. Twice. And he’s not the only distance runner to overcome challenges of the body and mind. Steve Prefontaine had sciatica. I recall a runner from Michigan actually chopped off his big toe with a lawnmower and still went on to run a sub-4:00 mile and compete in the Olympic Trials.

Call me strange, but I might have plunked that severed toe in a jar of formaldehyde. Just to remind me to keep trying. That’s a twisted take on body image, I know. But no more twisted than some…can we talk about plastic surgery and those LA doctors turning faces and bodies into decomposing shrines to vanity?

Body image

So let’s not imagine ourselves unfortunate for being stuck with the bodies we have. If we want our thighs to be stronger, it’s always possible to do the work to make that possible. And consider the terrific challenges faced by those with real physical disabilities. Those without functional legs who climb into wheelchairs and compete as hard as they can.

You do the best with the body (and brain) that you have. It’s the ultimate tarsnake of endurance sports. So be careful not to let your body or brain become an excuse not to try. There’s a whole world out there waiting to see what you can do. It makes a world of difference if you don’t start out by imagining reasons not to try your hardest.

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Posted in Christopher Cudworth, cycling, duathlon, marathon, running, Tarsnakes, triathlon | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Loss is what we’re ultimately founded upon

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

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

Tomorrow night I’ll be speaking at our church on the topic of loss. The foundation of the talk will come from the book I’ve written titled The Right Kind of Pride. The book addresses dealing with loss in a positive way.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that a sense of anxiety hits when you lose something. If it is a material object, you search until you find it. If it remains lost, you go through a period of mourning. This is all very natural. However some people deal with loss better than others.

With small things like a set of gloves or something else lost in the hubbub of daily life, we might smack ourselves in the forehead and try our best to move on. This past week I lost a pair of gloves during a trip to the health club. I thought perhaps I had left them in the small cupboard by the drinking fountains at the gym. So I called to ask if the gloves had turned up at the Lost and Found. The desk personnel told me there was no sign of them. The next two times I went to the club it was north to the St. Charles location to swim, so I was not back at the Batavia location for several days to check for the gloves. Plus I figured that by them my gloves had either been lost somewhere else or been taken by someone who used the cupboard hole where I’d left them.

Last night when we arrived to lift weights it occurred to me to check the cupboard to see if the gloves were still there. Sure enough, they were right where I’d left them. They were jammed up against the back wall of the lowest cubbie on the far lower right of the cupboard. No one had apparently seen them in there.

Gloves

The gloves I thought I’d lost were not lost at all. They had never been found by anyone else.

I was quite grateful to find those gloves. I like them. They’re wool with rubber nubbies on the hand surface to help you grip things. They cost $20 at Gander Mountain and they hardly showed any wear from this winter. That meant they were good for another season or two.

In March of last year I’d lost a favorite pair of gloves that I had worn for five consecutive winters. It pissed me off that I’d dropped them in some dark parking lot the night before. I went back to look but they were gone.

I try to be careful with my stuff because I really am absentminded at times. My brother recently told about his system for checking stuff as he moves about in life. “I have systems guarding my systems to check my systems,” he said. Made me laugh.

As an inveterate pocket-checker I’ve got my own little systems. But life has a way of interrupting our thought processes. Sometimes our diligence winds up being our undoing. Several times I’ve locked the keys to my gym lock inside the locker. That’s an example of all the systems working in reverse. Not good.

However my day had gone extremely well yesterday. I felt truly engaged and in tune with life. Some business research had turned up a potentially productive partner for a program I’m putting together with a media company. The rapport and solutions they offered appeared to be everything I needed. Then my swim session when great as well. Yeah baby!

So, I had hope but no real expectation that my recently lost gloves would turn up where I remembered that I’d left them.

Recovering something lost always seems sweet. But some things we lose can never be recovered. The day that I tore my ACL the second time I knew that there would not be a second surgery. Not all over again. That meant giving up the ballistics sports I loved to play. Basketball. Soccer. Tennis. You name it. If it involved cutting hard to the right or left, doing activities that required hard pivots would be out of the question. I went through a period of very real mourning for the self that I knew had been lost.

"Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone." Truer words cannot be spoken.

“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” Truer words cannot be spoken.

Still I worked hard to re-strengthen the knee and learned that there were still plenty of things to do without an ACL. I could cycle. I could run (thank God) and now I can swim. At 50+ years old my ballistic sports days were numbered anyway. The ligaments and joint flexibility necessary to excel at those sports simply diminishes with age. I can no longer jump as high as I once did.

At one point I witnessed in bold relief how far my own skills and speed had been lost. That came about by playing soccer on the same team as my son when he was in his early 20s and I was in my late 40s. He could steal the ball and score with ease. It made me realize how much life had slowed me down.

Yet it was all relative. Just the week before I’d played, a teammate turned to me and asked, “How old are you? You don’t appear to have lost any speed.” I had told him: “I can still run fast. I just don’t have the brakes to stop.”

It’s all relative, you see. So much of our sense of loss and purpose is relative to our perceptions of who we are and what we can do. That’s the thing about loss. Sometimes the things we supposedly lose actually open up new chapters in our lives. We re-invent ourselves. We learn to live with loss because it sheds light on what we truly value. Perhaps we gain more through the experience of loss than we might through business as usual?

One of the lone times we got out on her new bike together.

One of the lone times we got out on her new bike together.

That was certainly the case with my late wife and I. We lost all kinds of things in eight years of cancer survivorship. She lost the ability to do some of the things she wanted to do. We bought her a new bike but riding bikes turned out to be tough. Even walking for fitness was nearly impossible at times. Her feet were so numb from neuropathy due to chemo her balance could not be trusted, especially in the dark. We just did our best. She was a gamer.

In order to deal with loss both temporary and permanent, you need to develop a sense of perspective about loss as you go along in life. So many times our losses are not so important as we think. Yet if our losses do turn out to be profound, such as the loss of a parent, a sibling, a spouse, a marriage or a friend, then it’s all the more important to examine what they truly meant to you. As you can imagine, there are no easy answers to some of those questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help coping with loss. We all need counsel to help us through life. Some depend on friends. Some on faith. Most of us need some combination of both.

Our losses ultimately cause us to consider the very meaning of our lives. We lose material things and come to realize that those are not what defines us. For if we are spiritually healthy, we realize that we are founded on something else entirely. It is this internal sense of self-respect and soul that we need most to protect. We do not want to lose that. Ever.

That is why it is so important not to raise our athletic endeavors to the status of life or death propositions. It is fine to challenge ourselves and build a positive self-image through the sports we do. But you can lose yourself in the process if you are not careful. I know that I have done so in the past. There is still a propensity to do that in the present.

A friend of mine just experienced a nearly fatal cycling accident. Life is random and things like that happen so fast you have no time to consider what it might have meant to slow down in the moments before calamity. I’ve crashed at 40mph going downhill with bike wobble. I’ve run head-on into a tree with my head down thinking too deeply about a business project. Both of those incidents could have turned out much, much worse.

It simply doesn’t take much to lose ourselves in the sports we love.

Photo Copyright Christopher Cudworth

Photo Copyright Christopher Cudworth

The sad and difficult thing is that life is also random and unpredictable. We lose things when we can least afford the inconvenience or thought required to get them back. Suddenly we’re faced with a world that looks entirely different. Yet as we come to grips with what the loss might mean, we also are forced to sense the core of our being.

It’s true: loss is ultimately what we’re founded upon. Life demands that we process that fact. As I’ve always told my children, “Enjoy the process.” That’s literally all we have. All that has gone before is lost except to memory. All that is bound to happen ahead can only be gained by going through it. Then it too is lost.

I count myself blessed to have won a few things in life. Races. Championships. Business deals. Yet the things I have lost have also built character, defined values and given me reason to try again. Our losses are quite often our greatest gains. And you can forgive yourself for knowing that.

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Follow this blog and please share to your social media connections. Your readership is most appreciated.

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That swimming thing, Part Deux

IMG_6695This morning was my second swim session with Whitney, the swim instructor at XSport St. Charles. What a gift today was!

Over the weekend with my companion Sue I was reviewing the things I was doing with swim class last week. Understand something: Sue is an excellent swim instructor. She’s also a most excellent girlfriend. But those two things are not necessarily things you want to mix in a relationship. Not at the basic level where I’ve been swimming anyway. Like playing tennis together, there is quite a bit of room for conflict if things don’t progress at the rate one mate expects of the other. By choice I’ve kind of absorbed what she has to offer and tried to implement it at my own pace, so to speak. There was just one problem: I’ve been trying to go too fast too soon. I kept getting fiercely out of breath. Yet I wasn’t out of hope.

Soaking whet

So the unspoken agreement from my prospective has been simple. She whet my whistle for swimming. It was my job  to use what she taught me in the early sessions we did together. Eventually I’d get good enough at swimming to join the Master’s Swim group at Marmion, a high school where they swim at 5:30 a.m.

But I’ll admit I’ve been a slow and intermittent student. Mostly it was a breathing issue. I knew there’d be a breakthrough at some point but somehow it kept escaping me.

Incremental measures

Last week I joined a swim class with an instructor named Whitney who slowed me down. Her instruction helped me relax in the water. Lo and behold, I also had enough time to breathe. There are still plenty of things to learn, but hey I’ll take the progress it wrought.

Because today I was swimming 150s and 200s when formerly I could barely manage a 50. Seriously. There were times when even that was tough.

So I texted Sue because I know she knows how much I care about doing this the right way. Someday I’m going to be swimming 400s, 800s and more. But it all comes down to a moment in time when you go against all your intuitions and lose your inhibitions.

Today was one of those days. And I’m thankful. That’s all.

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10 Reasons Why You Should Go Out and Buy New Running Shoes

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It’s a cold, cold world and that’s snot funny

Zinc for colds

I trust zinc to help combat colds. But the science is not clear.

Sometime late yesterday afternoon I choked a bit on a section of Clif Bar. Immediately after my throat felt funny. I’d upset the equilibrium somehow…

By evening there was a familiar tingling in my nose that told me a cold might be coming on. I reached for the zinc tablets and sucked on one of them for a while. It felt better.

Still, there was that low-grade sensation in my head and body that told me something was not quite right. I grabbed another zinc tablet and sucked on that for another hour.

That morning I’d run 6 miles on little more than six hours of sleep. Not a great combination. Working out at the health club the last couple days probably put me in contact with cold germs somewhere along the way. That’s what was up. A virus had crept into my head somehow.

Viruses

Look. They know what a cold virus looks like. Yet there's no cure. Hmm. Maybe we need to shrink Bruce Willis and send him in to do the job.

Look. They know what a cold virus looks like. Yet there’s no cure. Hmm. Maybe we need to shrink Bruce Willis and send him in to do the job.

Which is weird to say. Because is a virus just one critter? Or is it tons of critters doing their virus thing in your sinuses?

Whatever the case, you know the drill when it comes to the common cold. The typical pattern is to feel that tingling in your nose. Then comes the sinus drip or a simultaneous sore throat. Then you know you’re screwed. Not much use popping zinc much by that point. With a sore throat you’re in for the long haul. Zinc may shorten a cold, but by that point you’re already screwed.

I bring this up because I believe zinc consistently helps me fight cold viruses (yes, they are plural). Actually they are better known as rhinoviruses. That’s sometimes how they feel inside your nose anyway. Like snot rhinos are thrashing around inside your nostrils. So the nomenclature fits.

Treatments

The common cold can be sneaky and persistent. Unlike a rhino in that respect.

The common cold can be sneaky and persistent. But they can also hit you like a rhino. Then you’re out of action. 

Medical studies show mixed results about whether zinc actually shortens or prevents colds. All I can tell you is that for me, it works. I know too well what it feels like when a cold is coming on. During my days of chronic overtraining I was sick half the time and worried about catching a cold all the time.

Colds come on for a variety of reasons. Mostly they hit you when your overall resistance to infection is down. That can occur when your body is overtired from training. Most likely we come into contact with cold “germs” all the time. Our bodies generally fight them off with white blood cells. But when you’re low on sleep or exhausted from too much running, riding or swimming, a rhinovirus can set its horns into your sinuses and the whole cycle of cold symptoms begins.

Zinc possibly works by making it harder for cold viruses to take hold in your sinuses. I’ve always felt like it gets up there and coats your throat and penetrates your sinuses. Hence the value of sucking on the lozenges. Cold-Eaze works well for me. But so do good old zinc lozenges from any pharmacy.

Can’t whack a cold

This is an actual image of a human rhinovirus. Notice that the nodules look like flaccid penises. Perhaps the rhinovirus is just jealous it can't get it up and wants to make you sick as a result.

This is an actual image of a human rhinovirus. Notice that the nodules look like flaccid penises. Perhaps the rhinovirus is just jealous it can’t get it up and wants to make you sick as a result.

The weirdest confession I can interject here, since you rather expect it from me by now, is that late night antics like masturbating when you’re overtired can cut your resistance. I know that sounds like an Old Wive’s Tale or the product of some jerk like that Christian Control Freak James Dobson, but it’s true. There’s something about the pursuant rise in body temperature in an overtired male, anyways, that does not too good things for your resistance to colds.

Go ahead, Call me crazy or accuse me of TMI. Back when I was a horny young runner between girlfriends I pushed my body to the limit too many times. So I speak from experience. Good old companion sex can do the same thing if you’re overtired. It’s more about fatigue and pushing your body’s basal state more than it is about sex or masturbation.

Cold truths

Any combination of activities that wears you out while training can set you up for a common cold. Stress is a good one for that as well.

Many of us react the same way to all these situations. We grow anxious with fatigue and eat all the wrong things. Sometimes we gravitate to sweets, which actually feed the virus. Sugar in general is the enemy of the human body when consumed in too much quantity. Diseases like cancers love to feed on such fast fuels. CAT scans and PET scans all look for areas of high cell activity and sugar certainly fuels that activity.

Usually colds progress from runny nose to a sore throat to a cough to phlegm. And then comes the clearing out stage. None of it is very fun. I will confess that I had one doozy of a cold back in the early 80s that produced so much phlegm it was rather like a sport to go out for runs and aim that stuff by spitting at telephone poles. God that was awful. But it was awful fun too.

Deal with it

At about the 10m mark of the Lake County Half Marathon. By this point the cold seemed a non-issue. I went on to run 1:10:58. But the first  10 miles felt miserable.

At about the 10m mark of the Lake County Half Marathon. By this point the cold seemed a non-issue. I went on to run 1:10:58. But the first 10 miles felt miserable.

One year that I caught a cold I was obligated to race a half-marathon under my sponsorship contract with a running store. The night before the race was awful. It was that horrible stage when your nose is running so badly you can hardly sleep. I jammed bits of tissue up my nose to stop the tingling sensation so I could sleep.

The next morning the gun went off and my body took over the running part. All I could manage to do upstairs where my nose clogged up my face was honk and blow Farmer Snots from either side of my head. I felt like some crazed pelican out there.

Still, I passed the 10K mark at just over 33:00 and was on my way to finish in 1:10:58. I even beat a close rival by a few seconds. To this day it makes me wonder if I would have run any faster without the cold symptoms. Every step was an achey mess. The breathing was difficult. And yet, there was the result. Maybe it didn’t make that much a difference. My PR was not that much faster.

Training through?

There were many other times when I trained through or raced with colds. That’s how I developed this aggressive routine trying to stave them off. I know the symptoms. I can sense the warning signs. So I zinc it up and that seems to work.

I just have one hard, fast rule. When I have a sore throat I do not run, ride or swim. There’s no benefit in it. You’ll only make things worse in the long run. Let your body recover instead.

Drugs and such

New treatments for rhinovirus drugs apparently include plans to wrap the virus in green slime. Kind of like fighting snot with snot.

New treatments for rhinovirus drugs apparently include plans to wrap the virus in green slime. Kind of like fighting snot with snot.

I’m not that big into alternative medicines or anything like that. I don’t believe in praying away the illness or shoving herbs up my ass. But there was one experience that made me wonder if there isn’t something to all this organic medicines. In the first few days of freshman year at Luther College, I was getting tired from all the training with the cross country team. We’d been cranking out 70 mile weeks and doing some partying as well. I felt a cold coming on.

Part of our freshman orientation was to meet with counselors off campus in their homes. I was invited to the residence of Orchard and Lillian M’Dzonga. They were both from Africa. For some reason I mentioned to Lillian that I felt a cold coming on. She led me to a room where there was a cabinet with dozens of little drawers. Opening one of the drawers, she scooped a small portion of dark powder and laid it out on a wooden plank. “Here,” she instructed me. “Sniff this up.”

I stared at her. I’d never done anything like that before. Nor would I ever again. But I bent down and sniffed that black powder up my nose. Within an hour, the sensation of a common cold coming on was gone. Sure, I was a little freaked out. But it worked. That’s one of the tarsnakes of modern medicine. It does not pay to ignore some ancient remedies. Chicken soup? It still works. Hot tea with honey? Helps too.

Bee pollen? Not so sure. More for allergies. And even on that, the jury is out. Colds and allergies feel the same, but come from different sources. It all comes down to knowing your body. Sometimes from the inside out.

No stimulants please

Relax. This isn't an actual picture of my personal prostate. What do you think I am, nuts?

Relax. This isn’t an actual picture of my personal prostate. What do you think I am, nuts? Well, those too. 

What I don’t do is conventional cold medicines. Years ago as a young father my doctor told me to stop using caffeine because it caused my prostate to enlarge. That once led to a prostate infection. That was enough for me to quit stimulants of all kinds. If you check the warnings on cold medicines this often language about not taking it if you are susceptible to enlargement of the prostate.

That ruled out all the antihistamines and other crap we ingest and take for colds. And you know what? I’ve had fewer colds than ever. Some of that medicine is so harsh I’m convinced it weakens your sinuses for the next time a cold comes around. So I don’t touch any of that. Better to face a cold organically and take better care of your body than jam it full of symptoms-related medicines that mess with the natural state of your nose and throat.

Wacky but it works

You can judge my weird little beliefs all you want. I’ll do just about anything to keep a cold at bay. So would you I bet, if you knew the method would not hurt you.

It’s a cold, cold world out there. Viruses are everywhere you turn. On the cart handles at the grocery store. On the stairclimber at the gym. On the lips of your lover. Yes, we trade germs all the time. That’s the fun part of life after all.

But colds aren’t fun. So whatever strategy you can find to keep them away, I support you. Got any strategies to share? Leave them in the comments below.

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Posted in Christopher Cudworth, half marathon, marathon, Tarsnakes, triathlon, We Run and Ride Every Day | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Running and riding through personal history

I belong to XSport, a fitness club with two locations within 5 miles of my house, one in Batavia where I live and one in St. Charles, just up the road.

The St. Charles location is on Randall Road, one of the big thoroughfares that connects Batavia, Geneva and St. Charles. I’ve lived in all three towns over the last four decades. I attended high school in St. Charles and was the top runner on the cross country team and competed in the mile, two-mile, high jump and triple jump in track.

That was back in the 1970s. And this morning as I trotted out to start a 6-mile run it struck me that I was about to run down Dean Street, the road that links the former high school campus (now a middle school) to Leroy Oakes Forest Preserve where we ran our cross country meets.

When you’ve lived in an area as long as I have, there is a tendency to let those memories slip away. It’s not really functional to dwell on the past that much. So what if you drive the same roads, or run and ride the same. It’s where you live. Move on in life.

Three summers ago a fellow distance runner from St. Charles came back to visit his parents who still live here. We went for a long bike ride with friends and the old stories about coaches and training routes and races all came to life. That’s fun.

But at one point during the ride he turned to us and said, “So it’s weird. You guys still, like, live here…”

Yes we do, we all laughed. My two best training friends competed on the same track and cross country teams in high school. One of them ran with me in college too. After college we kept racing and those guys took up cycling too. I don’t know why I didn’t back then. Too busy running I guess.

Strava Run

I’ll admit that big split in the third kilometer was me trekking into the woods to take care of bathroom issues. Ha.

So as I ran down Dean Street east toward the high school it occurred to me that I was wading through these thoughts about time and treasured friendships. We’d all run that mile stretch from Randall back and forth to the high school so many times. I was sixteen years old when we met.

Heading all the way into town I turned north on Route 31. I thought about what an insane little group of airheads we were, and wondered why some of us never got hit by passing cars. I guess there was enough common sense to survive. That was about it.

Cutting through Wildrose Springs I arrived through a shortcut at the driveway of my senior year girlfriend’s house. The new owners have done all kinds of nice things to expand the place. Still I can recall making out with her in that driveway with the windows cracked on my car. Her father once came past and pounded on the window. “Time to head in,” he told his daughter. She was a great kisser, that girl.

Turning west on Crane Road there is a series of rolling hills. On my bike they require concentration to maintain speed and use the last hill to shoot up the next one. Running these hills is a little less glamorous. You set your pace and plod up the best you can.

For a mile the scenery is country beautiful. Big homes and long driveways. It was all farms back when I ran that route in training after college. It was 10 miles round trip from my home in St. Charles to Crane Road and back.

There was good reason to run that route. The Randall Road Hill. It climbs for half a mile and covers 200 vertical meters. Not steep, but it keeps you honest in either direction.

I passed the school where my mother taught elementary education for 20+ years. She passed away in 2005. She had me visit the school many times over the years to talk to her children about birds and biology and art.

Halfway up the Dean Street hill sits the house of a longtime birding friend named Paul. He’s in his late 80s now and I have not seen him for years. He was also athletic director while I was an athlete in high school. Later he hired me to run the Norris Sports Complex indoor track, soccer, basketball and volleyball facility. I loved that part-time job. There are still many people from those years that I see running and walking in the Tri-Cities. Most of them are slower these days of course. But they’re still at it.

Same can be said for me. Yet I was happy to average in the high 8:00 per mile range on that hilly run through personal history. It reminds you that while life has its ups and downs, if you keep going there’s always something new to see, and new ways to think about times past.

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That swimming thing? Hasn’t been going that well. Now it will.

Swim FormPicking up a sport that you did as a kid can be one of the most humbling enterprises in the world. When I went back to playing soccer as an adult after coaching kids for 10 years it was shocking to realize how much coordination had vanished with age. But I persisted for several years, getting nominally better and even scoring a few goals.

That was soccer. Swimming has been an equally amusing challenge at the start. Way back in 2003 I took swim lessons. The only thing I got for that trouble was a lost contact lens that led to another weird chain of events. So I quit the whole swimming thing.

But now I’m desirous of two things. To add swimming as a lifetime activity and to actually compete in sprint and possibly Olympic triathlons.

My return to swimming has involved numerous sessions in which I swim a series of desperately difficult two-lap intervals in a 25 meter pool and sit there heaving on the side between efforts.

Part of that difficulty, I’ve now realized, comes from the basic fact that I was still trying to swim like I did as a kid. I swam for a team that had me do 50 meter sprint races all the time. So when I got in the pool as an adult, that’s how I swam. All out.

Well, that’s like going to the track and doing 200 meter repeats at 35 seconds right off the bat. It isn’t going to work. Not for long, anyway.

If it seems like I should have had better sense than that with all the training I’ve done over the years, allow me to add one factor of consideration to the formula of becoming a swimmer again. When you don’t swim, you sink.

swim-formSo there’s this weird tension you first get when you go back in the water. It removes all rationality from your thought process. No, I wasn’t afraid to drown or anything like that. But it was disconcerting to run out of breath mid-pool and realize that I had better stop for a minute or life itself my come to an end. Something like that.

Not exactly a constructive thought process. Which brings me to the swim session I joined yesterday. There were eight other people filling up the lanes. I shook hands with the instructor named Whitney and without being too obvious she assessed my general athleticism likely wondering whether she’d have a dead man on her hands any minute.

Fortunately I surprised her. My swim stroke has been reviewed by several instructors and the basics are all somewhat in place. So after a couple laps Whitney pulled me aside and said, “Let’s do this. I want you to not think about anything for the next couple laps. Just swim. And Slow. Down.”

She was spot on with those instructions. My frantic swimming approach caused me to think too much at the same time I was pushing too hard.

Then she had me swim a session of two-lappers with floats between my legs. Finally we got to some technique work in which she encouraged me to reach more with my hands and gain the glide.

All these were things I’d tried before. Yet her low-pressure approach and encouragement seemed to have a positive effect. Perhaps I was just trying too hard? It happens to the best of us. We want to impress the ones we love. Or the people we want to beat. Or compete with those ahead of us on the scale of progress. It’s human nature to want all those things.

But they’re all dysfunctional when you’re trying to learn or re-learn a skill. You must concentrate fully on your own needs and abilities to make progress.

That swimming thing? It’s now going to go much better. I can feel it.

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Designed by air

This Toyota vehicle was designed by air.

This Toyota vehicle was designed by air.

During a visit to the Chicago Auto Show this past weekend, we were entering the Toyota arena while a speaker laid into the benefits of some sort of concept or luxury sports couple gleaming in the bright lights. He was talking about how the car came about and spouted a phrase that stuck in my head. “This vehicle was designed by air,” he said.

It certainly looked the part. The car looked like it was formed from a pile of molten grey metal on a slab blown free of anything that did not fit the aerodynamic scheme of a fast-moving piece of machinery.

Then it struck me. I’m the opposite of that machine on the bike. I admit it. Despite a bike-fitting that was supposed to build comfort and aerodynamics, my position is still all wrong. It hurts me in particular on windy stretches of road. I can see over the heads of literally everyone in front of me.

Bike fit. Fit bike. 

A group of yoga students tests their aerodynamic position.

A group of yoga students tests their aerodynamic position.

How this came about I’m not exactly sure. One has to trust that a bike fitter will arrive at the best solution. Tweaking yes, we have to do that ourselves. As the season went on last year I moved my bike seat back a centimeter or so because my strength allowed me to do so.

But that’s about it. I have not the courage to radically experiment with the fit lest I screw it up altogether. There is nothing worse than a bike that does not fit. Nothing. Basically it becomes a torture device. The longer you go, the less efficient you become. And the pain. It can arrive in the lower back. The hamstrings. Even the calves, the neck and the face.

Well, the face is the part where you make angry pained expressions at having to try so hard to ride easy. Professional bike racers actually spend time in wind tunnels testing their aero positions. My wind tunnel is a stretch of road 15 miles west of where I live. Out there among the flat cornfields of Illinois, there is no place left to hide. Headwinds. Crosswinds. Either you are riding in an efficient position out there or you are not.

Aero position

The real test comes when you are riding with triathletes. Road cyclists sit up a bit when riding in a group. We use the draft to move along together. But ride with a group of triathletes and no one gives a rat’s ass if you’re chewing the wind by yourself. They’re all tucked down on the aero bars with thighs pumping. So either you crouch down behind them or you take about a 30% efficient drop from the wind gulping down your throat.

If you have not experienced that gap in efficiency, just trust me. It’s depressing.

Running tall

The air coming out of you mouth tells you you're going forward. That's about the extent of my aerodynamic studies this winter.

The air coming out of you mouth tells you you’re going forward. That’s about the extent of my aerodynamic studies this winter.

Frankly that has long been a problem in running as well. At 6’1.5″ I was often taller than my nearest competitors. The fastest runners tend to be in the 5’8″ range. That meant the wind was almost always hitting me in the face. Thanks, guys. Grow a little.

So okay, that can’t be controlled while running. But on the bike I think something can be done about it. And I’m just now headed up to a swim lesson. And if your efficiency in the water is not what it should be, you literally go nowhere in the pool.

Designed by air. Refined by water. But it all comes to trial and error. And then trial by fire. Yes, I learned a couple things at the Chicago Auto Show. Now it’s time to put them into action.

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10 Stone Cold Good Reasons to go Outside and Run Today.

10ReasonsToRunOutside

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Is Classic Rock really good for you?

IMG_5755In the early scenes of the movie Silver Linings Playbook, the character played by Bradley Cooper has recently been checked out of a treatment center for mental illness. His anxiety remains at a boiling point. When he walks into his therapist’s office for an appointment, the song My Cherie Amour by Stevie Wonder is playing quietly over the sound system in the office.

He stares at the receptionist and asks:

“Is this song really playing? This song is killing me. Can you please turn it off?”

It was the same song playing in his bedroom when he came home to find his wife engaged in sex with another man. He physically attacked the man. That crushing incident led to a nervous breakdown and a restraining order to prevent him from stalking his own wife.

Trigger points

His therapist purposely had the song My Cherie Amour playing as a test of his emotional stability. The song was a trigger for his anger and mental stability. “You have to find a strategy,” his therapist warned him.

IMG_5757Inspiration or desperation

More typically we tend to think of songs as inspiration for our best efforts. The music played at big athletic events such as marathons or triathlons usually features anthemic tunes designed to motivate, enervate and concentrate our mental energies on the moment. One wonders whether this dynamic is truly a sign of inspiration or desperation for motivation?

Clearly songs can have the opposite effect of positivity. Music from moments in our lives that were not so great can have a deleterious effect on our psyche. We recall music from the breakup of a love affair with a very personal and contradictory mix of wistfulness, doubt or unrequited anger. “Why did it end?” a breakup song might make us think. Or, “Why did I ever go out with them?”

Beast of Burden

Just this morning while running four miles on an indoor track, a song came on that made me think back to a college relationship. The Rolling Stones “Beast of Burden” was playing as part of a long set list of 70s tunes. It struck me funny that here, 30+ years after these tunes were released, the old associations still ring true. I remember singing that song as a bit of a joke to my college girlfriend. We were in the midst of one of those discussions college kids have about what their relationship means. Or does it mean anything at all? She was playing me against another guy she’d met back home. Later she’d make a real choice to date and marry someone else. So the warning signs were there, and the song almost perfectly captured the moment when it became apparent that we were definitely in love, but not for good.

I’ll never be your beast of burden
My back is broad but it’s a hurting
All I want is for you to make love to me

I’ll never be your beast of burden
I’ve walked for miles my feet are hurting
All I want is for you to make love to me

Am I hard enough
Am I rough enough
Am I rich enough
I’m not too blind to see

Associations

IMG_5753In fact there are hundreds of songs like these that bring back memories from our past. We use them as the “soundtrack of our lives,” to steal a cliche from a broad cultural meme. One wonders whether that’s really a good thing for us, long term. Are we all secretly locked in an emotional cycle like the Bradley Cooper character in Silver Linings Playbook? Are we constantly replaying the 1960s, 70s, 80s or 90s in our minds? Do we need to stop this right now? Find a new strategy perhaps?

Decade by decade

Music from the 1940s creeps me out. Music from the 50s, the decade into which I was late born, generally feels trite. Music from the 1960s is rich in personal history and growing up with the Beatles, Doors and Beach Boys. This was revolutionary music. Music from the 1970s filled my high school and college years. This and the late 1960s was Classic Rock at its most powerful. Music of the 1980s was reactionary yet always felt a little lost with exception of the Talking Heads, perhaps, and a few others. Music of the 1990s was bombastic, looking for its purpose. Music of the 2000s felt repetitive at times, but began to resolve itself with bands innovating sounds from the roots of rock’n’roll. The Black Keys come to mind. Arcade Fire. Cold Play kept on playing.

High and dry

keith-richards1As a denizen of all these decades I feel a bit like all this music washed me up on a beach somewhere. Or it makes me feel like a pale imitation of Keith Richards, high and dry but covered with the sands of time, I look back and think about all the ways we consumed our music as well. 45s. Albums. Tapes. CDs. MP3s. And now most of it is streaming. Through my Mac. iPhone. On and on we go.

The method of delivery may change, but the music remains largely the same. And each time we hear certain songs, we roll up on the same beach in our minds. We recall getting high to Led Zeppelin in the back of a cargo van with no seats to hold us still. Or we remember that time we were puking under a table at McDonalds from having too much to drink at a college weekend formal. And what was that song playing? Oh yeah, Baby Come Back by Player. “Any kind of fool could see…there was something…in everything about you…”

Singing our lungs out

IMG_3468As runners in the 70s we had no way to portably carry our music. So we sang all the time. Those are powerful associations with running for sure.

Just last Friday night my girlfriend and I attended a production of the rock opera Tommy. The music was familiar in a strange way. All those lyrics, sung so many times over in our youth. Like a musical hook through our heads: “How can we follow?” 

We sang that entire album in the showers after cross country practice in high school. But that makes me determined, in a way, to move forward in my musical tastes. One can certainly appreciate the hallowed halls of Classic Rock without getting stuck in time. Or are we truly deaf, dumb and blind like the lead character in Tommy? Should we stay in our Classic Rock confinement, or is it time to branch out? How dysfunctional is it to think that our minds and souls depend on old songs to create new and fervent memories? In other words, is Classic Rock really good for you?

The Rock Canon

There is indeed a retro appreciation that has grown up around classic rock, especially music recorded on vinyl albums. The universal idea that rock music sounds better on vinyl has produced a whole new market for vinyl records. My own turntable was fixed a couple years ago but recently stopped cold. Something in the direct drive motor must have given out again.

Or perhaps the Technics turntable quit in quiet testimony to recently announcing closing of the store chain known as Radio Shack.  That’s where IMG_5758I originally bought my stereo equipment back in the late 1970s and early 80s.

Actually there is very little music in my album collection that feels good to listen to. My Bowie and Beatles and Eagles and Dan Fogelberg all still sound good. So does Joan Armatrading in that 80s sort of way. And Dire Straits. But there are so many other albums for which I just don’t have the energy or time to consider again. I won’t bore you with the names. Well, just one. Elvin Bishop.

So much of that music is tired out in my mind. It’s quite interesting to have satellite radio in my car with its choice of Classic Rock and Deep Tracks channels. But quite often a song comes on that I cannot listen to for the 1000th time and I just change the channel. Find something new, my brain keeps telling me.

Sure, on the way to Run Club on Saturday morning it sometimes feels good to pop on the 70s channel. One needs familiarity at that time of day. It’s enough to consider running 90 minutes without tiring your brain out trying to take in new music as well.

I don’t listen to music while I run or cycle. It’s generally too distracting. In some ways, it can be dangerous. I’m enough of a space cadet without having my attention occupied by the 536th listen to Space Cowboy or other 70s classic by the Steve Miller Band.

Something new

IMG_3473Something in me now prefers having my musical tastes challenged and stretched by the bands I hear on The Loft, for example, or The Spectrum.

After all, we buy new shoes every few months. Shouldn’t we be consuming new music as well? Aren’t our brains worn out by hearing the same songs over and over and over again? Do our minds fatigue just like our legs when our shoes are worn out?

There is a Classic Rock station here in Chicago that calls itself The Drive. But I call it The Drain, because that’s what it does to all those old songs they play. Drain all meaning from them by repetition. It’s exhausting, like running or riding the same route day after day.

Perhaps its just one of the tarsnakes in life. Classic Rock is good enough to stick around, yet it also might be wearing us down without our knowing it. Like a brake pad rubbing the rear wheel. Life’s a drag sometimes.

Worn out soundtrack

Classic Rock is fine and has its role in life. Yes, it was definitely the soundtrack of my life. I’m grateful for that in fact. The Beatles alone made life worth living more than once. I grew up air guitaring to that amazing solo in the middle of Steely Dan’s Reeling In the Years.

I also love Stevie Wonder’s music, and in fact have my own (pleasant) associations with the song My Cherie Amour. It was playing all the time during a road trip with my best friend’s family to Rehobeth Beach, Delaware. We camped that summer and the mosquitos were so bad outside that the boys were forced into the camper where my friend’s sisters were all sleeping soundly. Sometime early in the morning when the light was streaming in a slat trhough the camper’s curtains, I glimpsed a pale full breast in the early morning sunlight. And I was in love. My Cherie Amour. That’s a good memory, alright. Especially for an eleven year old boy.

Counterweights

IMG_3505But these thoughts are also counterbalanced by songs that drag the brain down into the abyss, or punch us in the emotional gut.

Bruce Springsteen’s album The River is one of those albums that for me is chock full of angst-ridden songs heralding the 1980s, a breakup with a great girlfriend and the ensuing falseness of the Reagan era and all those newfound conservative yuppies showing up at parties with their polo collars turned up. It was a confusing, disgusting period one does not need reminders about. Some of those songs feel like a punch in the proverbial face. And it seems like much of the world is stuck in a cycle of such negativity. America seems confused right now by its own recent history. Perhaps its time we all moved on a little. Stopped living in the recent past as some sort of “better time.” Both the good and the bad in music have staying power. Being aware of these emotional triggers can be an important tool for mental health. One wonders if society as a whole does not need to consider a little emotional or sentimental hygiene.

There is music calling us forward if we pay attention to what it’s saying. Because it really is ironic that in some ways rock-and-roll has become its own brand of conservative voice in the world. This belief that Classic Rock is somehow a canon for our existence really is a bit warped as a worldview. We’ve learned enough from sex, drugs and rock-and-roll to last a lifetime or two, have we not? Let’s all vow to give something new a listen. It will do us all a bit of good.

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