My slice of the pie

Amanda Marek, Suzanne Astra, Lida Bond-Keuhn, Pumpkin Pie Head Cudworth and Todd Walters post-ride.

Amanda Marek, Suzanne Astra, Lida Bond-Keuhn, Pumpkin Pie Head Cudworth and Todd Walters post-ride.

At the start of the Ottawa Pumpkin Pie ride we gathered outside the YMCA for a last minute discussion about distance. We had choices of 20, 26, 66 and 100+. “We’ll go to 40 and see how we feel,” it was agreed.

The skies were grey and the wind was low and insistent. As we stood there I felt that strange little bit of headache you get when there’s a trace of flu or cold still in your system. I had a craving for a cold Coke, or something. Despite some nice oatmeal and a rich banana on the ride down, there was a strange hunger in the pit of my stomach.

Emphasis on the word pit. For that would be the theme for the day. I know, pumpkins don’t have pits, they have seeds. But from the get-go my stomach felt as if all that stuff from the insides of a pumpkin was roiling around down there. Not a fun feeling. And you probably know the feeling too, like there’s a combination of goo that might or might not come up, our out.

But you know, sometimes you gotta suck it up and just go. So we did. And I did. And for 23 miles we sliced through the wind and enjoyed some tailwinds for about 12 miles to arrive at the first aid station.

There was food, including a Sloppy Joe sandwich, some grapes, cookies and a bit of blue Powerade. Yet we all got chilled standing around, and when the ride started again it was hard to warm the body up.

As the pace picked back up to 19mph my legs still felt okay. That part of it was not a strain. But like I told Sue back at the aid station when she asked how I was doing, “My stomach is giving me fits.”

It had been that way all week. Every run this week was an awkward balance between feeling okay and feeling less than okay. Nothing better. It had started with a zinc battle against a tingling ‘cold coming on’ feeling in my nose on Monday night, and lasted all week. Nothing came of it except this half-tired all the time feeling. It was as if whatever bug did not set in also refused to go away. So I slept a little extra, or tried.

By Friday I skipped a run to try to recharge my battery. By Saturday’s 30-minute run with Sue I thought it was getting better.

But not really.

So the bike trip across the flat landscape got a little more difficult as we rolled along. Every increase in pace against the wind set my stomach churning. The legs were okay for the a while, but the tension took its toll. Sue hung back a couple times, but I told them all to go ahead. I know my body well enough to know that I’d make it back fine.

With a group ride like that I hate, hate, hate to impact the pace and the mood of the day. Everyone was pedaling along fine but me. Ugh. I’m the middle child, and I hate to cause anyone inconvenience.

It was hard to keep my mood up on the surface where it should be. I got angry with myself. Then I was angry with Sue for asking if I could stay on her wheel. It always occurs to me that life and cycling are much the same. Sometimes you don’t want to have to hold anyone’s wheel. But you know, it becomes a test of personal character to do so in the best way you now how.

So I drank and ate a little, hoping to feel better. But the Accelerade in my bottles, while ideal for energy, makes me burp. That was no fun. The idea of barfing that Sloppy Joe was no fun at all, and seemed imminent. So I pedaled along in this flux state, sometimes alone, sometimes with Sue patiently pulling me through the wind.

Well, we’re even in some ways. We’ve pulled each other a few times and through a few things this year. Life is indeed like cycling. Her bike was wrecked before her Ironman and that was a stressful deal, to say the least. During her Ironman, her stomach was pretty upset after getting thoroughly dunked during the swim,  which by all accounts was insanely aggressive in Madison. Don’t people have any consideration for the hard work put in by others in preparation for that race? Is it really necessary, and does anyone really gain anything but a few seconds by clobbering other swimmers? Questions for the ages.

There’s little you can do but make the best of such situations. Her stomach was upset by all the water she’d take in, and the ride was compromised along with it, and her ability to take in nutrition too perhaps. All that preparation and it often comes down to stupid stuff out of your control.

And yet, I was so admiring of her response while coming in from the run on the last mile of the Ironman. “Well, it wasn’t the day I wanted,” she called to me with a smile. “But I’m going to be an Ironman!”

If only we all had iron guts when we need them.

But it’s part of the deal when you’re an endurance athlete. You have to dine on the slice of pie you’re given on any given day. Sometimes you feel great, and ride or run the whole way without a problem. Other times you’re the one left gnawing on a gnarly piece of crusty dreams.

So I was grateful that the last five miles of the Pumpkin Pie Ride turned into a tailwind stretch. By then I’d forced down some nutrition and was feeling better. Probably on top of feeling lousy in the stomach I was missing nutrition the last half of the ride. It’s pretty easy to lose that balance.If it was the flu of some sort, I’d fought it off in large part.

Sue classily rode in the last few miles with me and all was good. We gathered together as a group and snapped a selfie showing our smiling faces. No one told me that I suck as a rider. Not that anyone would. Because we’ve all been there. We all must dine on our slice of the pie, for better or for worse, on any given day.

It reminds me of what my brother told me before a 20-year high school reunion. “You’ll like this one a lot better,” he chuckled. “By now everyone’s had their ass kicked in one way or another.”

So enjoy your slice of the pie when it tastes good and goes down easy. And when you’re forced to dine on humble pie of any flavor, know that tomorrow is another day. And what a slice it will be.


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PechaKucha your way to happiness

11225349_10204932966620179_8569137128825084643_nLast night we attended a liberating event right in my hometown of Batavia. To its eternal credit, our little city has a quirky artistic side that is willing to try all kinds of new things. There is a great organization called Water Street Studios that took over a warehouse and turned it into an artist’s colony, with great success.

And while art is important, it’s not everything. Some citizens including Lane Allen, an architect in our town with a longtime commitment to art, thought it would be a good idea to host a Pecha Kucha night in Batavia.

The format is wonderful. People sign up to share one of their life’s passions with 20 images during a 6:40 talk. Which is the perfect length somehow to convey something important or interesting in life.

I can’t sufficiently encapsulate the brilliance and insight from the talks we heard. Lane related the relationship between origami and folded plate architecture. Another man talked about his experience with adoption.

Each talk was so interesting and the diversity of not really knowing what comes next was fabulous. In some ways, it was the opposite of the Internet. You had no choice but to listen and watch as each version of truth unfolded.

It made me happy. I felt real, and alive listening to each person speak. It was a peak experience in community and social networking as well. Friends and acquaintances were there.

So if the phrase PechaKucha comes up in your experience, or you want to host one of these in your town, go for it. I know it seems to having nothing to do with the general topic of this blog. But truly, it does.

All of us need diversity in our experience. If we don’t get it, even the things we love can become arduous or mundane. That can happen to your running, riding and swimming. It’s especially true at the end of a long summer season.

Don’t forget to stimulate your mind beyond your love of sports. That’s the simple message here.


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Meet Maura, a great little runner to know

IMG_3393A few weeks ago following an Experience Triathlon Run Club, I sat and talked with Elena Tawney, a former high school runner and soccer player that has taken up the triathlon.

We shared some stories about running and she brought up the fact that she’s excited to have her daughter Maura running middle school cross country.

This week her daughter ran in one of the final meets of the season, and we gathered to watch 50 girls compete on a windy, chilly afternoon.

“It’s been so good for Maura to do cross country,” IMG_3392Elena related. “She’s made friends she would never have met otherwise. And the running helps her focus, because she’s on the autism spectrum.”

With her father Jeff Nyman cheering her on, Maura ran near her best of 17:30 for the two-mile distance.

Running is certainly a unifier of people and spirit. The crowds cheering on the runners recognized the effort of every girl and boy out there covering the two-mile distance.

So elemental. So vital. And we hope your running feels the same to you.


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Sorry, John Wayne shooting cyclists is not really funny

So, a “friend” on Facebook posted this video with the comment, “I don’t care who you are…this is funny.”

So I watched it. And it wasn’t funny to me. Not after having watched several of my cycling friends this summer get crunched by aggressive drivers and people who “don’t care” what happens to other people on the road.

You might ask, what’s the connection between John Wayne jokingly picking off cyclists with his rifle and people running cyclists off the road, or crashing into groups of them and driving way?

Well, there’s a dangerously Freudian aspect to all such casual aggression. It’s quite clear there is a growing movement of people who hate cyclists for a number of reasons. Some think cyclists should pay road taxes for the right to ride. Neglecting, of course, the fact that a great number of us also own cars and houses and pay plenty of taxes. Giving us the right, by law, to ride our bikes on the road.

But the glee in the hatred toward cyclists seems to go to some deeper place for some people. As in, I Hate Cyclists Because They Exist, and wear Spandex, and enjoy a spot of coffee now and then.

And thus, some people think it’s really funny to watch a video in which it appears that cyclists are being picked off by a weapon-bearing John Wayne, who seems to stand for everything “American,” versus cycling, which feels so threateningly foreign to the pickup driving, gun-carrying crowd, or whoever.

To perhaps explore this reality, let’s take a visit to the website, where these comments about the video were traced with a simple Google search. The discussion was raised by one of their own members as to whether such a video was a potential harm “to the cause.” We must assume they mean the cause of carrying weapons defensively, which John Wayne clearly does not do in this video.

But here’s what one of the members wrote.

I really liked it!

I am so sick of cyclists using lanes meant for cars while pedaling away at two miles per hour. Share the road? Sure, as soon as you buy a vehicle that is suitable for use on the road.

And so, here you have a quick leap from glowing in the supposed humor of the video to expression very real aggression about cyclists.

Are we to assume that such thinking never manifests itself on the road? If your attitude is that all bikes should be banned from the road (despite laws protecting that right) then it is unlikely you will respect laws governing interactions between drivers and cyclists, which i many states require motorists to allow three feet between their vehicle and any bicyclist. In fact, and in direct contradiction of the law, you may be prone to flaunt your motorized superiority over cyclists based on what your idea of the law looks like, passing within inches to assert your dominance. That happened to me no fewer than three times this summer alone.

And that is the type of behavior so many of us cyclists see on the roads. People flaunt their power and authority in aggressive or careless ways. It has cost people close to me money, personal injury, legal implications, insurance deductibles and genuine grief and stress.

All because some people are so selfish, distracted or aggressive they can’t stand the notion of a cyclist using the road.

The laws

These are the facts: bikes are perfectly legal to ride on the roads. Laws in all 50 states protect those rights. They are the same type of laws that govern the right to responsibly own and use firearms. So cyclists do have an equal responsibility to obey the law. There are some who don’t obey the law, and some who don’t understand their obligations.

But what the comment above reveals is a prejudice against all traffic on the road that is not motorized. That would include young children, we must assume, riding their bikes along a neighborhood street, or even crossing a street, to get from one house to another. That’s a perfectly legal thing to do, but not acceptable according to this person.

All bikes are legal

It is also perfectly legal to ride a road bike, a triathlon bike, a mountain bike, a hybrid bike or your 1967 Stingray with a banana seat down every public road in America with the exception of Interstate Highways, where they are banned, and along certain designated roads. Most of us who ride know genuinely know how to avoid bad or congested roads. But there are people who don’t. Not everyone rides every day. Some are just trying to get from one place to the other and don’t choose roads very well.

Yet in urban areas where there are designated bike lanes, some people still get manic over the idea that bicycles exist. It Drives. Them. Crazy.

So they probably really like the idea of picking off cyclists with a rifle. It pleases them in some psychotic manner. So let’s look at another comment from a reader about the video:

a- it made me laugh.
b- cyclists are jerks
c- drivers are jerks
(why are we always at our passive/aggressive worst when we are collectively on pavement???)
d- if you are a driver, a shooter, a cyclist, an anti-driver, an anti-shooter, or an anti-cyclist …. and you were offended by this video?

then you are a whussy. the kind that is turning this country into a PC nightmare. it’s a joke. a dumbstick video, poorly edited together in some guys basement with free-ware editing software. did I say poorly edited?

I am really getting tired of people not being able to collectively take a joke.

personally the moral in all of this is that I highly doubt “The Duke” would be offended, butt-hurt, crying, calling lawyers, filing petitions or greivances (sic), or basically acting like a little kid if someone slapped together a video of him getting “shot”. he would laugh it off, act like a man, and go do manly things. not cry in his starbucks frappacino vente.

Perhaps he had something of a point, until the very end there. It is true. It is important to be able to “take a joke” as he suggests. I listen to raunchy comedy all the time on Sirius radio that flirts with racism and sexism and hurtful takes on culture and politics. I know how to keep things in perspective, and I believe in taking risks with your perceptions. You can learn things about your own sense of right and wrong. But sometimes I change the channel or turn it off. I have my limits.

But apparently this guy thinks it’s just fine to whack cyclists as a joke. And toward the end of his comments, he displays his real problem with cyclists, which seems to have to do with some sort of class or cultural difference characterized by the “unmanly” aspects of cycling. So he groups all cyclists into a category handy for prejudicial judgment, and his gun buddies on are expected to laugh along.

I don’t want to take away anyone’s guns. That’s not my point at all. I think they should be well-regulated as our Constitution states. My friends hunt and many keep guns in their homes for self-defense and protection. All very American.

It’s wanton shooting and casual acceptance of violence I protest.

And so, despite his claim that it is a harmless, slapped together video from some person’s basement, it has been viewed more than 4M times (according to one Internet note) or 4,000. The difference is not the point. The real joke is how poorly this guy gets the potential impact and reach of this “joke.”

Missing the point intentionally

What these people don’t get is that symbolism, even unintentional symbolism, has real power to drive emotions in this world. Just look at the manner in which these two quickly jump from calling the video a joke to ranting about why they hate cyclists. They don’t pause a second. It’s the excuse to go off on someone they clearly hate. That means the “joke” video is a fulfillment of some aggressive instinct in them that the images on the screen satisfy.

And then we take a look at what happened in the Gabby Giffords shooting, where aggressive targeting of her politics led to someone actually hauling off and shooting her and several people in her company. Certainly that’s not what anyone would call “defensive carry.” Unless, we must assume, people feel so threatened by the politics of a female liberal politician that the only way they can conceive to stop her is to shoot her dead. Someone shot John Kennedy. Robert F. Kennedy. Martin Luther King, Jr. Ronald Reagan. John Lennon. The list goes on and on and on, and when people aren’t famous, they get mowed down in classrooms or movie theaters. And the illogical response to that is to force everyone to own more guns. Meet violence with violence? So where does it stop? That’s all that some of us want to know, and we think sensible gun regulation remains a tool to accomplish that aim, and curb the potential for aggressive instincts to become public tragedies.

No one can anyone honestly stand there and insist that there is no connection between aggressive instincts and the ultimate decision of some person to actually start shooting other people for political or personal reasons. Clearly there is a thought process there. And that’s no joke.

Aggressive logic

This idea that all people who go on shooting sprees are “crazy” or “mentally ill” neglects a very important element of each and every story. In many cases, those people were judged to be “harmless” and/or “good citizens” until they got the idea that shooting a bunch of people, or setting off a bomb at the Boston Marathon, would solve their problems or satisfy their need to be heard. This may seem radical to say, but that’s not crazy. That’s acting on aggressive logic.

And that points out the irony and cognitive dissonance of the comments expressed on the website called Granted, someone in the group raised the question, “Is this something we should support?” Because,  you would think that any use of a weapon, even to make the supposed joke of shooting people on bikes, should be frowned upon.

But no. Instead the members raced to dismiss any such responsibility. And there we have the approach of so much of the gun lobby in a nutshell. The means always justifies the ends.

This is a brand of cognitive dissonance that drives so much cultural conflict. People who put doctrine, even as a joke, in front of genuine logic are prone to laughing at the suffering and pain caused to others.

Because to some people, racism and sexism are “just a joke.” Because it’s really not about “political correctness” in the end. It’s being able to discern what has deadly or painful consequences, and what does not. I simply didn’t find the visual attack on cyclists to be all that funny. It’s hit too close to home, too many times.

Perhaps it really is time for us to start shooting back.


Source of quotes:

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Running Shoes and Souls: A We Run and Ride video special on biomechanics, orthotics and healthy running


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A harvest of reason from the seasons

It was not until my early 20s that I learned that my uncle Kermit Nichols had been a tremendous runner in high school and college. What I knew about him to that point was gleaned from summer visits to the Upstate New York farm where my mother Emily Nichols Cudworth had been raised. The farm was situated on the side of a Catskill hill overlooking the Susquehanna River. Her brother Kermit had taken over the farm from her father, and that’s what I recalled about the place, and him.

Nichols familyIn his farming days, Kermit was a robustly strong man with large biceps and chest muscles that he could flex independently, and thus with humorous rapidity. He’d scoop up my skinny body and toss me on his tractor seat for a ride at high speeds down the flats by the river to send manure flying out of the spreader. I recall staring down at the whirring rubber wheels and thinking, “Death is near.” But Kermit loved things that went fast. He drove his cars too fast and had a couple frightening wrecks, if memory serves.

Once a runner

He may have gotten his love of speed from his own running career. He was well-trained from years of chasing after the cows on the big hill behind the barn. Due to this organic training, Kermit was something or a natural in his day. My mother tells of a moment when she went to watch him in a road race. Kermit was so far in the lead he stopped to talk with his family for a minute or so before running off to victory.

My father grew up right down the road from the Nichols farm. He was raised by aunts and an uncle that took in a family of three sisters and a brother after their mother died from complications of breast cancer, and their father experienced intense emotional instability after losing his Cortland farm and a store through the Depression.

The Stewart farm where my father was raised sat just 200 yards down the road from my mother’s farm. That farm was a more humble affair, yet had its charms as well. Behind the farm sat a deep Susquehanna marsh where the deep voices of bullfrogs tempered the night, and great blue herons came in soaring through the trees.

I recall walking into the Stewart barn to encounter the massive hooves of workhorses that helped Leon Stewart in all his farming duties. The horses regarded me with suspicion but not fear. I dared not get too close.

Two farms. One life. 

Having the wander of these two farms made a deep impression on me. Catching leopard frogs in the water-filled tire tracks on the hillside was a favorite occupation. Nature was so close you could taste it some days. The hills were thick with fossils in the shale. A hillside spring held deep, clear water into which we introduced a chain pickerel from the river. It lived there dining on frogs for an entire year, for when we returned that next summer we could see the fish fifteen feet down, slick and happy.

Working around the farms was a joy and filled me with a sense of being needed. Kermit assigned me to sweep up the manure when the cows came back for milking. I’d take that scoop and work from end to end shoveling manure into the trough with its automated belt that it into the bed where it was gathered for use on the fields.

I’d rise early to do these chores, then wander into the hay loft to tumble among the massive piles of bales. My cousins tell of finding kitten litters in this upper barn, but I never did.

The cats were smart and somewhat careful around people because my uncle was not necessarily fond of them. He scooped one up on the way back from the barn and tossed it onto the roof of the house. Letting forth a chuckle, he then turned and spit tobacco on a hapless grasshopper. The insect was pinned to the ground and I marveled that a man seemed to have such control of this environment, his farm.

No love lost

But farming was not Kermit’s favorite occupation. His back strained at all the milking and chores, and ultimately he made the decision to sell the farm and move into government work. “You should work for the government,” he once told me. “It’s steady work and you build a pension for the rest of your life.” He later moved to Florida as a land assessor and enjoyed a long retirement driving his cars around the flat Florida roads.

The man might seem like a contradiction in terms, but in many ways my uncle’s life made perfect sense. His love of liberty and the freedom of running likely conflicted with his obligatory work on the farm. Going out for runs in the fresh air of dawn is a very different endeavor from ushering cows into stalls for milking. Every.Damned.Day.

I am only speculating on these ideas. But I once asked my uncle why he sold the farm and he was firm about his resolve to do so, for all the reasons shared above. My mother once told me that Kermit named all his cows after ex-girlfriends so that he could kick them going into the stalls. I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but it makes some form of cathartic sense.

My mother loved that farm. I think my father enjoyed certain aspects of his farm upbringing as well. He did lament that at times during his high school career, he was not allowed to pursue sports because of his duties on the farm. That would be a theme that haunted him his whole life. Some of his fervent devotion to his son’s athletic careers may have stemmed from the denial he felt at never having the opportunity to pursue his own sports career.

Father knows best

I now realize there were aspects of projection in some of his urgency. Perhaps if he’d have just come out and told us how lucky we were to participate in sports when he did not have the chance, we might have processed his occasional frustrations with our careers.

At some point, it struck me that things might have been very different in life had my family somehow stayed on the farm. I have no way of telling if I might have been a decent farmer. People speak of loving that life, but I am not sure I was ever cut out to be a farmer.

Just this weekend we visited the farm of a longtime friend whose husband is a leading farmer in Northern Illinois. He was the focus of a surprise birthday party and he took the opportunity to speak to a group of 50 or so people gathered in the barn to celebrate the birthday of his wife as well. He explained that his family has been farming their land for more than 100 years. Now their children are farming as well. I felt a deep respect for his legacy.

Like my uncle Kermit, this man has in some ways moved into the government realm as well. His service to the agriculture industry has included eight years in Washington working with government officials to plan and implement broad spectrum farm policies. His own farm has been incorporated in a county program designed to preserve farmland where the suburbs of Chicago threaten to chew up good agricultural turf. Recently he’s been counseling national interests on a plan to turn Illinois into a better food hub than it already is.

All this speaks to a great mind at work. His ties to the land have never been broken, yet he’s taking a broader look at what that means.

People and the land

We need people like that for sustainability, and intelligent growth. The trouble with farming these days is that its industrialization has created confusing scenarios. Seed companies have patented protected technologies and now refuse to let farmers even keep seed year to year. If you’re caught doing that, these mega-companies are known to sue, even to the point of putting farmers out of business. It’s happened all across the country, with sleuths from agribusiness swooping in to threaten and instill fear in farmers simply trying to make a living.

The cultural shelf

NEL fallThe reason I think about all these things is also simple. I live on the edge of the Chicago suburbs. It takes just two miles riding west to enter a vast complex of farm fields. All summer long I ride among fields of beans and corn. There are hog farms as well, but no so many dairy cattle as there once were.

Having come from farm roots, and growing up in places like Lancaster County, Pennsylvania where the Amish dominate the countryside, I have never been far from the world of farming. Every time I cycle or run past a farm and smell the hay or the manure, it takes me instantly back to the family farms we visited each summer. Even where I went to college in Decorah, Iowa, farms owned the landscape. Our 100-mile weeks took us through and past farms of many types. Cows roamed up and down the limestone hillsides and land that closely resembled my birth roots in Upstate New York.


All this rolled through my mind as I considered the legacy of that farming friend and his birthday. His wife was one of the first people I met when we moved from Pennsylvania to Illinois. Their wonderful marriage has produced so much good in the world, including many children and grandchildren.

One grandchild in particular caught my eye at the party . She danced among the grownups while wearing a monarch butterfly costume. Perhaps she and I have something in common. During one of the first years we lived in Elburn, Illinois there was a massive monarch butterfly migration that came through our area. The insects were so numerous my younger brother and I rode our Huffy bikes along the east-west roads collecting dozens of monarch carcasses.

Now the monarch is threatened by farming practices that include a detergent approach to eradicating milkweed, the host plants for monarch caterpillars. Monarch numbers have dropped precipitously as a result of these corporatized attempts to wipe out plants that interfere with industrial agriculture.

There are consequences to all such attempts to manipulate nature. As a result our family has taken to “monarch ranching” the past 10 years or so. This summer my daughter and I raised and released monarchs by growing milkweed in our garden, harvesting the eggs and raising them in the indoor safety of small pens until they go through metamorphosis and hatch into new butterflies.

Freedom with a cost

Monarch scalesIt may perhaps be a cliche to note that “butterflies are free,” but in fact they are not. All of nature is intertwined, and there is no such thing as freedom for any creature here on earth. Some people may refuse to belief it based on religious consternation, but all of us are tied together in an evolutionary venture without guarantees. This especially includes those who farm the land. We all depend on decisions about food production and land conservation. The fact that these decisions are now concentrated in the hands of fewer minds is not necessarily a good thing. A

ll of nature depends on room to experiment with success and failure. That is how evolution works. When we concentrate and eliminate the competitive virtues of this system, we may imagine that we are cutting down risk and increasing production capability. In fact we may be increasing our exposure to crop failure, disease and other afflictions. It certainly works that way with biopharmaceuticals. The stronger the medicine becomes, the more germs adapt to overcome them. We might be breeding our own superkillers and never know it.

Careful what you farm

Nature is an immensely powerful force, and it is principally the hubris of the human race that imagines our position as a separate and superior species to the genetics, competitive history and evolutionary processes that delivered us to this point.

The commitment to farm the land may be one of the noblest of occupations in all mankind. It is a mark of freedom in its way. But it is also a commitment that comes with huge obligations and risk. Farmers know this better than anyone on earth. You can’t really afford to oversell yourself or make too large a bet against the vagaries of the occupation.

For these reasons I’ve never quite understood the largely conservative politics of my farmer friends. Perhaps it has something to do with farm subsidies and the pursuant corporate welfare for the agriculture industry.

But what about the fact that hundreds of thousands of family farms no longer exist for the simple fact that farming is now so industrialized that the costs of operation, market competition and insurance far exceed the ability of a simple family farm to survive? It seems like people are voting against their own interests in the long term.

The very liberal response of our culture has been to raise money for family farmers through concerts such as Farm Aid, which attempt to support those individuals who want to continue their family traditions and be able to farm successfully through this generation and the next. These may be nothing more sentimental notions at work.

But there are signs that society is sick of this brand of existence. Small financial institutions keep cropping up to fulfill the needs of people sick of being denied and neglected by heartless banks and the banksters who run them. That’s not sentimentality. It’s basic human respect.

Humbling thoughts

Is that too humble a request to fulfill? That is a question I’ll never be able to answer for myself in terms of my association with farming, and whether I could have succeeded as a farmer. But I’ll give you an honest answer. I doubt it. I don’t think I’d have liked it any more than my uncle Kermit ultimately did. My mind is too restless and I was always too anxious to deal with being tied to one thing too long.

I know it hurt back in when our family farms were sold. A part of my childhood vanished with them. I have certainly carried those farming associations with me through all those miles covered in farm country. And they are many. Every barn is a point of fascination to my soul. The walls of dry corn we now pass during long autumn bike rides are like chronicles of years gone by.

I believe you can take the boy out of the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the boy. I’ll freely admit that I’m a hayseed at heart. Some part of me will never be city-sophisticated and I’m frankly grateful for that. In my case, I’ve become an environmentalist and a birder, a painter and a writer about all things natural. Even my theology is anchored in organic fundamentalism. This is the belief, as described in my book The Genesis Fix, A Repair Manual for Faith in the Modern Age, that because Jesus––IMG_7334and the whole Bible for that matter––use parables based on natural symbols. Through earthly examples, we learn the spiritual truths of heaven. We should follow that example and learn about and respect nature first and foremost.

Jesus used many examples from farming to teach us about our responsibilities in the Kingdom of God. His parables about vineyards and harvests, about yeast and mustard seeds all pointed from earth up to heaven.

Farming roots

So our natural theology about sustainable existence should include deep consideration on how we farm and use the land. Over the last 100 years, the human race has tamed the land in ways that amount to exploitative and wasteful practices. Billions of tons of topsoil have flowed from the heartland through the Mississippi basin into the Gulf of Mexico. On the Eastern side of the continent, runoff from farms has polluted the Chesapeake Bay, causing massive damage to fisheries and the entire ecosystem. Over and over the pattern of waste and degradation is repeated. Even the quality and climate of our atmosphere has suffered consequences of waste released into the air. Cars and cow farts all contribute to these problems.

As I’ve ridden through farmland for more than 30,000 miles the last ten years,  I’ve thought about these things. So while I am not a farmer by trade, there is a planting and harvest of intent that still goes on. I don’t buy the idea that one political party owns farming as a cause over the other.

We can turn to a very basic passage from the Bible to explore our various roles in society, and how important it is to consider the importance of balance in all this:

Jesus told us how to think about such things in simple language. Here in the Book of Matthew:

30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

The Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast

31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

Yes, I think about such things even as I pedal past all these farms on roads that bisect the fields. Every one of us has a role. Even the weeds, you see. Even the weeds you don’t see.

This is the harvest of reason from the seasons. That we should all be more considerate of where our future really lies. Or does not.


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Suzy Favor Hamilton and the rush to judgment on mental illness

Suzy HamiltonA recent issue of Sports Illustrated ran an excerpt from the upcoming book by Suzy Favor Hamilton. You may recall she is the former track star that through her own need for excitement began working as a highly paid escort.

The story was shocking at first. But as details emerged about her challenges with mental illness, it all made strangely logical sense. The book outlines how her brother faced similar difficulties with bipolar depression. He engaged in thrill-seeking behavior as well,  and ultimately succumbed to his illness.

Her own story strikes at the heart of women trapped in perceptions. At one point her own breasts became a source of torment. They were large enough to attract male attention even (or especially) when she was in peak running condition. As reported in her book, one of Suzythe coaches at Wisconsin showed a video to his male athletes of her breasts bouncing as she ran. It can be difficult for female athletes to run past the male breast fixation.

Living in this world where her athletic accomplishments were not enough to distract from the objectification of her beauty motivated her to have an $8000 breast reduction surgery.

Between two worlds

When she finally met a man she loved and married, their relationship took twists and turns that evolved in difficult ways that became exaggerated when Suzy retired from competitive running. She’d made it several times to suzy-favor-hamiltonthe Olympic Games, but the last effort was essentially a commentary on her mental state. She dropped to the ground in a state of collapse.

Throwing herself into the next phase of life, she worked toward a career but found it unsatisfying. Such is the transition for so many world class athletes. The purity of competition can be both a blessing and a curse when compared to the world of business, where a sale or a business deal are supposed to fill the space in which winning a race once sated the mind. But it does not always work. It’s simply not the same rush.

Be like Mike?

And so, like many athletes, Suzy Favor Hamilton went off on a new thrill-seeking mission that led her to become a highly paid escort providing sexual favors to wealthy clients. And as she put it, she’d found her new rush.

michael-jordan-95But she’s not alone in her pursuits of excitement and new experiences. It’s a pattern of sorts with athletes. Look at Michael Jordan and his baseball career. The death of his father and the pressures of pro basketball pushed him into a mental state where something had to give. So he quit basketball and took up baseball.

Who knows if the man does not also have some emotional baseline of depression, anxiety or other mental illness that has never been revealed? The death of his father was an emotional challenge that even his far-reaching athletic prowess could not serve to obscure. So he returned to something in his roots, a rediscovery. Some criticized him for the decision. Yet when he returned to basketball and own three more NBA championships, the criticism fell away.

 Running into trouble

Apr 1981:  Dick Beardsley (left) of USA and Inge Simonsen (right) of Norway in action during the London Marathon in London, England.  Mandatory Credit: Tony  Duffy/Allsport

Apr 1981: Dick Beardsley (left) of USA and Inge Simonsen (right) of Norway in action during the London Marathon in London, England. Mandatory Credit: Tony Duffy/Allsport

The book Duel in the Sun about the lives of marathon runners Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley, documents the mental illness and substance abuse issues of those two runners.

To treat his underlying depression, Salazar ultimately benefitted from using the drug Prozac.

Meanwhile Beardsley struggled to halt his addiction to painkillers stemming from medical treatment for a farm accident. This contrast in needs illustrates the difficulty of diagnosing or even understanding the correct approach for those faced with emotional challenges.

Million to one

Running RodgersMore than 10M people in America experience chronic depression. That means they have to work hard just to get to the emotional baseline of a so-called “normal” state of existence. If you are fortunate enough not to have to deal with mental illness on that order, it can be difficult to imagine why or how it manifests itself in the lives of those who do.

But know this: mental illness produces real emotional pain. It’s as real as a biomechanical deficiency that leads to running or cycling injuries. None of us is perfect. It is important to have compassion.

Often depression is paired with an equally difficult state of function known as anxiety. The twin conditions often trade off roles in the minds of those who are chemically wired to be anxious and by turn of mind, physically and emotionally depressed.

Fortunately for many people, there are now intelligently crafted drugs that can help people manage their emotional baseline and deal with symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Look around you. It is highly likely that some person you know experiences these symptoms every day. They may not talk about it. But they should. Cognitive therapy can be just as vital as drugs for treatment of mental illness.

Living with chronic emotioTriathlete groupnal pain is exhausting. Some people “self-medicate” as a release from the work it takes to achieve basic functions. Maintaining and sustaining relationships at home and work can be next to impossible at times. People then fall into patterns of engagement that are not healthy. Marriages can dissolve. Friendships break up or can be strained to the limit. Work performance can suffer. All these pressures acting together can cause a person to break down, cry out, or behave in unhealthy ways.

Keep an eye out

IMG_2797So before we judge someone like Suzy Favor Hamilton for becoming an escort, we all ought to step back and look at our own lives, and keep an eye out for friends or associates who seem to be struggling.

You won’t have to look far. It may be someone in your running or cycling or triathlon group. Endurance athletes gravitate to these sports because they can help people fight depression and anxiety. It’s clinically proven that exercise can help brain chemistry.

But that does not mean it solves problems. Sometimes the pull toward athletics is so strong it becomes its own drug. Then, when a big event is over, the withdrawal begins. Training ebbs and the rush toward a goal is over. What does life have to offer then?

We’ve all been there

Going back to daily life can feel mundane. We all know that feeling. In some manner, we’ve all been there. So have you, most likely. The push toward completing a marathon or brainqualifying for Boston or Kona or some other big goal is a life force unto itself.

But I think about the former wife of a friend. It was not until recently through conversation during a long bike ride that I learned she had profound anxiety. None of us ever knew. But my friend explained that she once wound up in the hospital due to anxiety attacks centered around their negotiation for a mortgage. Ultimately the marriage did break up, and it can never be known what portion of that outcome could be attributed to anxiety, or something else. But back then the drugs for anxiety were blunt and forceful, and it was not so practical to treat anxiety as it is today. Today she might have been able to better manage her anxiety, and both of them might have been able to work through their relationship challenges.

Big time problems

Mental illness is no imaginary thing. It is not choosy either. Men such as Winston Churchill fought through depression. He called it the Black Dog.

IMG_7141So mental illness does not equate to lack of intelligence or emotional strength. Instead, it refers to the brain chemistry that causes people to wrestle hard just to start the day.

Depression can steal sleep as well, leading to a wicked cycle of exhaustion, fear and insomnia that can take people down a devastatingly difficult road.

It is best to get help for these challenges.

NAMI is there to help

In a week or so our local NAMI chapter is hosting a 5K to raise money for the National Alliance for Mental Illness. If you’ve never heard of NAMI, you should look it up. The organization provides vital mental health services and referrals for the families of those with mental illness. Much of its funding comes from contributions, and our local 5K does a great job of outreach and raising money for this local chapter. NAMI provides services to millions of people. And it’s worth it.


Perhaps, if Suzy Favor Hamilton had an opportunity to meet and talk with a NAMI chapter, she might not have run off to Vegas on a thrill-seeking mission. But like the lead character in the movie Wild said about her own journey, and I paraphrase, “What if all this was supposed to happen the way it did?”

In other words, do not be quick to rush to judgment. The vagaries of our lives teach us things we might not otherwise learn any other way.


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Porta Pottie politics

IMG_3086At last weekend’s Fox Valley Marathon, the lines of Porta Potties were prodigious. There’s no way any runner was caught short or had to wait in line for very long before the race. The organizers had also thoughtfully placed them in two locations near the start so that there was not a confused mass of people trying to figure out the lines.

Once the gun had gone off and all the pace groups had departed, nature finally called and I walked over to the phalanx of potties waiting for this non-participant. Even if I had needed to go before the race, I likely would have held it if at all possible. There’s an etiquette there, you see. Spectators should give way to competitors unless it’s pretty urgent.

When I stepped into the pottie it was per the usual scene. A few dribs of pee were perched on the toilet seat. I’m not some germophobe, but it always amazes me that some men, and I assume in large part they are men standing up to pee, cannot use either the provided urinal or sit down to avoid peeing all over the seat.

Yet at every race it seems there are slobs who somehow cannot bring themselves to show that mere basic of Porta Pottie etiquette. Just don’t pee the seat, guys. Don’t do it.

I’ve had discussions with women about using Porta Potties at races and there are perchers and hoverers. Some line the seat with toilet paper or else wipe it down. Some refuse to sit at all, hovering above the toilet seat somehow like a Porta Pottie angel.

One cannot blame them. So many people, and especially men, are particularly piggie about their use of publicly provided Porta Potties. They piss where they please, it seems.

And then I looked down in the toilet and saw a water bottle tossed into the latrine with the piles of excrement and toilet paper. And I said, “What kind of shitty human being does that?”

IMG_3085Everyone knows, or at least they should by now after years of Porta Pottie use, that throwing garbage of any sort into the waste area can mess up the system of cleaning them out. Yet there are people who simply don’t care. In fact they go beyond simply not caring and throw whatever they like in there.

The thought process here is not some isolated group of individuals out there who don’t know how to poop. It’s a sign of a portion of society that eminently does not care what happens to others, or how other people are treated. Because they’re not stopping to think that some person cleaning out that Porta Pottie has to somehow extricate the bottle or other item of trash they’ve tossed into the latrine.

Now the Porta Pottie people are probably smarter than that. They’ve no doubt gotten quite used to the piggie habits of certain runners, cyclists and triathletes who don’t give a shit how they treat the world. You’d think, in a sport where individual character is so often put to the test, that the average quotient of human standards of behavior would be a little higher.

But apparently not. Absolutely anyone that wants to participate in these activities can pay and show up for a race. And they can walk into that Porta Pottie and do whatever business they see fit in the style they choose to do it.

I’ve walked into Porta-Potties before and walked right back out because it was too disgusting to use. People and their asses must have a really strange relationship at times. I don’t know how they manage to shoot their business so high, or accomplish the performance art in some Porta Potties. Same goes with public restrooms. I know the drama Breaking Bad pointed out the extremes to which the human character can be stretched, but seriously, if there were camera posted in Porta Potties we might have the most viral video ever. If people could stomach it.

Because the human character is truly revealed in this most basic of activities that all human beings must partake.

If it were at all practical, I would advocate a separate group of Porta Potties for women only. Of course that means we men who care about such things would be forced to accept that men might care even less if they were only concerned about pooping and peeing ahead of other men. I rather believe that it is only the sight of women going into Porta Potties that makes some men behave at all.

Barely that. It’s the opposite of the “I’ve got mine” mentality that is vexing so much of politics today. It’s the anally driven expression of selfishness that makes a person leave a piss-driven or excrementally insane mess in a Porta Pottie. Or throwing garbage in there when it is well-known that causes difficulty for the business and people who cleaned these conveniences for us. It’s the idea that “My shit doesn’t smell” or “People can just deal with my shit” that is causing so much grief in this world.

It’s inconsiderate, in other words. Which begs us to ask the question: “What kind of human being cares so little about others and so much about themselves that they cannot carry a plastic bottle to the clearly marked recycling bins that were everywhere around the marathon site?”

In that answer we find the problem with so much of society. Either there are people so self-unaware they do not even consider it a problem to behave so badly, or they are very well aware of their bad Porta Pottie habits on every front and think it’s the responsibility of others in the world to deal with their shit.

The first option is bad enough. The second is what drags down entire societies. Porta Pottie politics have a lot to say about where this world may be headed.

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Come along with Christopher Cudworth on a nature run!


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It’s a long way to Boston any way you run

Russ Bauch competes in the Fox Valley Marathon.

Russ Bauch competes in the Fox Valley Marathon.

So my friend Russ Bauch was running the Fox Valley Marathon in an attempt to qualify for Boston. He missed by only 30 seconds, due primarily to some cramping in his legs in the final two miles of the race. Still he averaged 7:45 for the 26.3 mile distance.

You read that right. Either the course was long or he did not run the tangents correctly. But given that the course has no real curves and goes pretty much straight down and back the bike trails along the Fox river, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and say that perhaps the course is .1 too long.

I’ve seen it before.  We’ve all seen it before. There’s no way you can truly measure a marathon course perfectly and accurately.

I mean, think of the logistics involved in measuring a 26.2 mile course. You can do it by bike. You can haul along a GPS. You can walk it with a wheel. Probably each time you do it, the course distance will come out a little different. It all depends on the angles you choose from point to point. Over a 26-mile distance, it would be pretty easy to miss .1 mile. Knowing the organizers at the Fox River Trail Runners as I do, however, it is very likely the course itself is accurate to the best standards available. They are one of the best running groups in the Midwest and perhaps the country, and this race has grown as a result, because it is so well run. Pun intended.

Long time coming

Having won a few 10K races that were definitely long, I can testify how discomfiting it can be to run a race course that is longer than the prescribed distance. During a streak of races where I was averaging well below 32:00 for the 10k distance, along came a charity run where the prizes were tempting, so I entered.

CudworthVersusCudworthBy the time I’d raced 33:00 I knew the race was mismeasured. Then came 35:00. And finally 37:00 passed. I won the damn thing in 38:25 or some crazy time. Everyone that came across the line was moaning and complaining about the long course. Perhaps because it was a charity run, the race organizers were trying to give everyone a good value for their entry fee. But given the time-obsessed nature of most runners, all would probably have preferred the course be a little short. “Yeah, some people think it was not the full distance,” you can hear runners repeat to one another. “But you know my training’s been going really well, so I’m not going to write it off that I almost got a PR.”

Sure, sure. We know how all you people think. It’s the same thing with cyclists riding with the wind at their back. On you go for 20 miles at 20mph+, thinking all the while you’re in such great form. Only when you turn around and come crawling back those 20 miles at 14mph does reality hit home. Then you turn off your Strava and try to find a shortcut. Reality sucks and it blows.

Long traditions

But there are situations where reality becomes twisted into tradition. Even races with long histories can turn out to be too long. One local 10k that I won two or three times was finally measured by an area high school coach who noticed this his times were longer than any other race he’d done. He measured that course by walking with a wheel not once, but twice. It measured more than 200 meters long both times.

That’s at least 37.5 seconds at 5:00 mile pace.

It all comes down to this plain fact: we should not expect perfection on our race course measurements. And while we’d love to think that a sanctioned and certified road race is accurately measured, there simply are no guarantees. Much depends on how you run the course when you finally have the opportunity. An accurately measured course will definitely run a bit longer if you do not run the tangents, for example.

Long miles

Russ at the finish line. His watched measured the race at 26.3 miles.

Russ at the finish line. His watched measured the race at 26.3 miles.

It makes sense. Running in the second lane of a track meet, for example, or the third or fourth lane, adds distance per lap. Even in a mile competition, some competitors run a longer distance than others. It’s the dynamic of a race that people have to accept. Even the winner in most races likely runs more than a mile. Simple geometry tells us that the 400 meter distance is measured along the inside rail of the track. Put yourself out a foot or two out from that and you’ve run more than a mile. Yes it sucks, but that’s how the world of running works.

Marathon mashups

This is not to torment my friend Russ about his missing Boston by only 30 seconds. I once had a friend on our sponsored running team that ran 2:19:20 for the marathon. He missed qualifying for the Olympic Trials by 20 seconds. The Olympic Committee would not cut him a break. Even if he could somehow prove the course he ran was too long, it doesn’t matter. You can’t mashup a marathon.


Women’s winner Tera Moody in the black outfit nearly won the overall half marathon race.

All this time and distance does illustrate how subtle our sports can be. The men’s winner of the half marathon yesterday ran 1:17:05. The women’s winner was Tera Moody, an Olympic Trials competitor, and she was just 15 seconds behind the overall male leader. What an interesting headline that would have made! “Woman Wins Overall Half Marathon title!”

And had she run her PR for the distance she would have won the overall race by five minutes. She’s a 1:12 half marathoner and a 2:30 marathoner. Tera was running in her hometown of St. Charles, Illinois, where she represented St. Charles East and won two state mile titles. Suffice to say she’s covered a lot of ground over the years.

We all run our own race

It’s tempting to consider how much difference there might be between the distances run by all those competitors in the race. Some might actually run shorter than the 26.2 mile distance if they somehow (by chance, or intelligence) take a shorter route through tangents than those who measured the course.

And there are some who, no thanks to race meanderings for water stations and porta potties, that probably run 26.4 miles, or even more, as we weave or wander our way through the course.

It is what it is

None of this is fair, or unfair. It just is what it is. There is no way to control all the variables in a given race or any race. It’s a funny comparison, but you have to consider that the sport of golf is even crazier when it comes to distance played. One player might hit the ball a total of 430 yards and get a score of four for a par. Yet another might scattershot their way across the fairway and hole out from 40 yards and get the same score. Is that fair? You be the judge. It is what it is.

Even on a point-t0-point course such as the Boston Marathon, some runners take a longer course than others. There are water stations to consider, and potty breaks too. All potentially add distance. You may recall that Rosie Ruiz figured out a way to cheat the distance at Boston. But she got caught. And shamed. There are no shortcuts to glory unless the course itself is short. And really, you don’t want that.


The cheer crew for Russ met him at 5 miles, 12 miles, 17 miles and 22 miles.

The cheer crew for Russ met him at 5 miles, 12 miles, 17 miles and 22 miles.

But my friend Russ can take some consolation that he came darn close to his goal of qualifying for Boston. Standing with a group of friends he quietly muttered, “26 miles is damn long way to run.”

Indeed it is. And the distance is the arbitrary product of a legend from long ago, about this Greek warrior and all, who possibly ran to his own demise bringing news of a military triumph back home to his people.

We’re all are own warriors when it comes to the marathon. And we don’t always bring news of victory or success home. Heck, we don’t even run the same distance, if you stop to think about it. But what you carry around inside you after any race, and especially a marathon, is the knowledge that you set a course and did it. It’s a long way to Boston any way you run. So congrats for doing it. All of you.


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