The cycling tragedy of Helmut Jahn hits close to home

CNN photo of Helmut Jahn

World-famous architect Helmut Jahn was killed in a cycling accident in an area known as Campton Hills, Illinois, outside the City of St. Charles. The intersection where he was struck twice by a pair of vehicles is quite familiar to me. I’ve approached Burlington Road on Old Lafox Road many times in fifteen years of cycling.

It isn’t apparent from accident reports why Jahn elected not to stop at the intersection but that is what witnesses reported. Perhaps he swung right not noticing oncoming traffic. The stretch of road immediately to the north (left) bends and cars aren’t immediately visible. He may have turned casually, swung out into traffic and was struck on his bike.

I would never think to criticize Helmut Jahn for poor decision-making. I’ve had so many incidents and close calls I’m probably lucky to be alive myself. Nearly nine-hundred people a year die in bike accidents. Some are experienced riders while others, not so much. Some accidents happen in urban environments while others take place in remote locations where either the cyclist or the driver make a fatal move and that’s it. A life is over.

The Chicago Tribune reported on the life and work of Helmut Jahn this morning. He was educated at Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. HIs famous works include the revitalization of the O’Hare terminal from a dull passageway to a celebratory tour through light. His accomplishments were many, and even his failures bore the stamp of fame. The State of Illinois/James Thompson building was one such “failure” in the sense that it had loads of heating and cooling issues. The building “made his reputation internationally and ruined it in Chicago,” the article noted.

If all fairness, there is no way this tree is normally stretched across the pathway.

We all want to feel like we’ve made some sort of mark in this world. Helmut Jahn appeared on the cover of GQ magazine and his work is known for its clarity and simplicity. That’s a coarse summary for a life lived so fully, yet it ended so quickly and tragically that the ultimate lesson is conflicted by the nature of his demise. Perhaps he was dreaming of a new project when he drifted out in that lane of traffic. Creative minds tend to do that. I once ran smack into a downed tree because I had my head down thinking about a book cover design while riding.

If we have to go, perhaps that’s the best way to go about it. Immersed in a dream of our own making, we move into another realm without even trying. We call it a tragedy from our earthly perspective, but it is our ideas that live on. In that respect, Helmut Jahn transcended life even as he lived it. That’s a great legacy to leave, on two wheels or not.

I can’t leave this topic without making the one cycling joke that fits this tragedy. The story about his death did not say whether Helmut was wearing a helmet. That’s because it likely did not matter. Traffic on Burlington Road moves swiftly, I can tell you that. I’ve ridden that road all the way from Wasco out to Route 72. Cars fly and if they strike a cyclist, people would die. All this hits close to home with me, and to that note, I’ve been extra cautious these past couple years while riding my bike. That’s the takeway here. Look twice, and always brake at intersections. Always.

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Ups and Downs and Sideways too

Cycling down a long descent northeast of Galena, Illinois, I thought I was going slow enough to be safe coming into a thirty-degree curve ahead. I was wrong. At the moment when my bike and body started to angle across the 20 mph wind coming through a gap between the trees, the tires of my Specialized bike gave a small shudder on the pitted asphalt. I’m not a fan of such feelings. The bike wobble accident from nine years ago that resulted in a broken clavicle and a near-death experience keeps me from doing crazy things on the roads these days. I’d rather go slower than crash.

My wife was no fan of the harsh winds either. She was forced to rise out of aero position on her triathlon bike in order to keep control of her Trek when hard crosswinds drove against our bodies in the open sections of the ride. It was far safer to ride with hands on the bullhorns and give up a little speed than to place all weight on the arm rests.

The five-mile section heading straight into the south wind was truly tough going. I just concentrated on keeping a smooth pedal stroke and ignored how fast or slow I was going. At times the wind stood me up as the bike shivered right or left. I was moved to laugh out loud. That was the best strategy of all. Just laugh at the wind like the character Maximus advised in the movie Gladiator:

Death smiles at us all, all a man can do is smile back.”

We’d gotten a little lost early in the ride when we missed a turn marker at five miles. Three miles up the wrong road we turned back, adding six extra miles to the total ride. After 52 miles of total riding, and facing another ten miles straight into the wind on open roads back to the start, we elected to “sag” it back to the starting line. We’d already climbed more than 4000 feet during those miles on the road, and the wind added plenty of resistance when we weren’t riding uphill.

In other words, we’d gotten what we wanted from the ride. A great workout and a safe journey through the ups and downs and sideways too. That explains those smiles in the photos. The wind smiles at us all. All a man and woman can do is smile back.

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Bathing in love and respect

Finding peace between workouts isn’t always easy.

The Right Kind of Pride

She works hard and seldom takes time to slow down.

After our fifty-mile bike ride in the hills of Galena, Illinois, this past Saturday, we awoke Sunday morning to do a long run back home in Illinois.

It turned warm and the long run turned out to be, in my wife’s words, “A lot of ouch.” When we got home she proclaimed that she was going to take a relaxing bath.

She does not do that often. More typically she takes a shower “on the fly” after her morning and afternoon workouts. That’s why her plan for a late-morning bath seemed like a good idea.

Knowing that my wife wanted to slow down and indulge herself a bit inspired me to move into the background. She did request that I bring her favorite shampoo, conditioner, and deep conditioner to her in the tub. I delivered those and flopped back on…

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Cornfield winds and cinnamon buns

I returned to Kaneland High School as a substitute teacher yesterday. I attended that school from 8th grade through sophomore year. Nothing makes you review your life’s decisions like walking the halls of a high school you attended decades before.

In some respects, the memories were thick and I let them pass through my mind. But most of all I realized that kids today are pretty much cut from the same mold that all of us were. When we’re that age most of us have no idea what’s going to happen the next day, much less what comes along in the future.

So I refused to beat myself up for being a recalcitrant student. Avoided second-guessing all those cross country and track performances. Truth: sports occupied so much of my brain in those days, it was almost unhealthy. All that self-esteem tied up in sweaty knots. Yesterday I talked with a trio of boys wearing running shoes and track shirts. They were part of the Kaneland team that won the state cross country meet a year back. They could well have been teammates in my day as well. Same lean look. A bit geeky. But cool in their way.

Beyond sports, girls dominated the other hyper-stimulated aspects of my attention. These days while serving as a substitute teacher it is interesting to absorb bits of conversation between the young women and men chatting between classes.They sound just like we used to sound. It is also true that the Alpha women still don’t mess around. They can’t stand asshole guys any more than they used to, and say so. Without a sister to normalize my understanding of women in high school days, I was left trying to figure them out on my own. Some were patient with me. Others not so much.

Beyond those interests, I spent time birdwatching. My friends gave me constant grief about it. The social maelstrom of high school worked like that. People probing at what they considered your soft spots.

I was a hard-wrought kid in so many respects. We ran all those laps around the asphalt parking lots in the teeth of those cornfield winds. Only then would my brain clear of hormones and insecurities. Refined to a bone and flesh being committed to one thing: running a little faster than the last lap.

It’s no wonder I would save up money to buy sweet cinnamon rolls from the cafeteria during lunch hours. My calorie-strained body craved carbs and those rolls were rich with bread and sugar, gooey cinnamon and delicious frosting. Comfort food.

I will apologize for many things in life, and recognize my failures from fifty years ago as well as today. But I will never apologize for loving those cinnamon buns. They were my salvation.

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Step on the gas and wipe that tear away

The famous closing suite of songs on The Beatles album Abbey Road offers a ton of quotable lyrics. As spring leans toward summer here in Illinois, I’ve been thinking about a few of the transitions I’ve endured over the years.

Chris Cudworth circa 1963

It was spring of 1963 when our family moved from Seneca Falls, New York to a new home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The night before our move, I stayed at the home of my kindergarten teacher, who kindly purchased a gift book about submarines that I cherished, but left behind at her home the next morning. Upon realizing that fact, I burst into tears while perched between my two brothers in the back seat. But we weren’t turning back.

Seven years later in the late spring of 1970, our family moved again, this time from Lancaster, Pennsylvania to Elburn, Illinois. That move was an even greater personal upheaval as I left behind friends made through elementary and middle school. I was turning thirteen years old, and well recall having no one to join me on the basketball court during April because my friends had all gone out for baseball. I was leaving town, so it made no sense to try out. So I shot baskets alone for hours with my ABA basketball with its red, white and blue skin worn thin by hours of practice.

Three years later my family moved again from Elburn to St. Charles, Illinois a city ten miles east. By then I’d earned a spot as the top cross country runner at Kaneland High School, was President of the class and had many valued friends among my peers. Twenty-five years later I asked my father why we moved in the middle of my sophomore year and he told me, “I didn’t want your brother to play basketball for that slow-down offense at Kaneland.” I knew that offense all too well as a starter on the sophomore team who was almost brought up to the varsity team that placed second in state that spring. But knowing that I’d just moved to another town, the coaches passed me over for that opportunity.

My father was right about my brother. He played great at the new school and earned a D1 scholarship at a school back east. But I asked me dad, “That was great for him but what about me?”

“I knew you were a social kid,” my father replied. I knew you’d survive.

To put it plainly, I’ve stepped on the gas and wiped away a few tears in my time. At some point the anchor of sentiment ceases its grip on you. As an adult I was told in the spring of 1982 that I was being transferred from Chicago to an office in Philadelphia. That summer I said goodbye to friends and moved all my junk out to a small apartment in Paoli, Pennsylvania. The job lasted until April of that next spring when the whole department was shut down in a fit of disgust with the VP of Marketing who didn’t have a clue.

Before I packed all my stuff in a U-Haul van I drove down the east coast to get naked in the sand of Assateague Island. Then I gathered up my belongings again and moved “home” to an apartment in downtown Chicago. That spring I went for a run on the beach with a good friend and roommate and had no idea what the future held.

The only thing I knew by that point in time is that change is inevitable. I’d kept on running out east in Pennsylvania so I turned that energy into a personal protest of sorts at all the stupid changes I’d just been through. Chicago became my training ground. I ran and ran and ran. I won races right and left. For two years I ran like a madman while making just enough money to get buy. It wasn’t a future that I could bank upon, but it was my way to step on the gas and wipe that tear away.

When spring rolls around every year and the light takes on a certain tinge, I feel that familiar tug of pain that came with so many moves. But as I’ve always known, the best thing when you’re forced to move is to keep moving. So I still lace up the running shoes or hop on the bike and let the restless wind buffet me until those hard feelings are gone.The Beatles were certainly right. You have to step on the gas and wipe that tear away. It never really ends.

There have been consoling moments. I recall crouching in the back seat of that 1965 Buick Wildcat on our way out to Illinois from Pennsylvania in 1970. The Abbey Road and Let It Be albums were still all over the music charts and my eldest brother leaned down to me and we started singing that short and bittersweet Beatles refrain together…

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven
All good children go to Heaven

Heaven is the place that all people supposedly want to go. In spring of 2013 I realized that my wife was not going to survive into the summer months. Rather than us picking up and moving this time, it was a question of rallying people around her to say goodbye and wipe away tears. Ironically, she’d only gotten to ride three times in the new Subaru we purchased that spring. I still have that vehicle, and during a recent service appointment one of the technicians said, “You’ve done a good job getting 100,000 miles out of this car.”

I thought to myself, “This car is going twice that far, at least.” That’s why we bought it in the first place. So that we could have a dependable car in which to step on the gas and wipe that tear away. Alone or together in this world, you’ve got to keep moving until something good again comes your way.

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In races with our own faces

This photo convinced me to buzz the beard the next morning. No shag for me!

As an artist, I’ve never been one to paint or draw many self portraits. I prefer to look out at the world rather than constantly looking at myself for some hint about the universe. But yesterday, while sitting on a favorite chair in the living room, I held up the iPhone and snapped a selfie. Obviously I’ve done plenty of those over the years. Billions of other people around the world take selfies every day. There’s an entire industry built around “self-branding” now with influencers snapping pictures of themselves to hawk products or their own lives as evidence of some great insight.

It is likely that I’d have a ton more Instagram followers if I shot more selfies rather than randomly taking pictures of my many interests. Generally, social media favors One-Trick-Ponies over broad spectrum personalities. People seem to like the consistency of a confined personal brand. There’s not so much to think about.

As a triathlete these days I occasionally go on a spree of workout or race photos. I follow tons of athletes on Instagram and admittedly enjoy the feeds of fit-looking people from all sorts of backgrounds. Their mostly young faces stare out from those photos and we derive some dopamine pleasure from the bright eyes and beautiful bodies of these boldly branded beauties and beaus.

Not everyone focuses on being perfect. A few big personalities such as Amy Schumer have taken to showing their flaws and posting challenges on every front. In some respects, that’s what I do with this blog. There’s a fine line between documenting your time and being a narcissist in photos or words, but my belief is that being earnest is the opposite of narcissism. Sharing your world and inviting others to share their own is an honest form of dialogue.

A photo of Heather Bouton, one of the many athletes profiled here on We Run and Ride.

That’s why I like interviewing other athletes as well. I haven’t added up the number of people I’ve profiled but in nine years of doing this blog it is likely more than one hundred people. I’m considering publication of a collection of those essays by following up with those folks to share how their lives continue to change.

We’re all in races with our own faces, you see. Age comes right along with us. I love working out because it keeps me healthy, but I’ll admit that I also like that it helps me look a bit younger. That’s a more difficult chore as time goes by and the metabolism slows down, the face draws longer and wrinkles take over. That just means you have to eliminate the traits that by nature leave you looking older. Wild, frizzy, gray hair. Unshaven beards. Ear hair. The like. The irony is that to combat ageism in this world, you have to engage in it yourself.

While I acknowledge the right of some elder athletes to let it all hang out and care not how old they look, I’m not convinced that’s the best way to motivate or reward your efforts. In my limited estimation, it’s still best to keep yourself as trim and trimmed as possible. Granted, that’s not possible for everyone, so we have to find our own parameters. With so much life to live in every moment, it seems wise to face life with a youthful outlook, even if it’s just putting a smile on your face. That’s the best way to win the race.

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Fear of success is a real thing

Our fears sometimes bubble up from strange places

While teaching physical education as a substitute yesterday, I received a request from a teacher to let me know how the class behaved during gym. “They didn’t behave for the sub earlier this week,” she related.

I’ve taught thousands of kids over the years. The process hasn’t changed that much from one generation to the next. Treat them like real people and they generally respond well.

They had fun playing a game in which a court was set up on the grass and the goal was to throw tightly wound yard balls into a square of cones on the other team’s court. It was mildly competitive and largely harmless. They got to scream a lot and work off energy, and we headed back inside.

Walking back toward the entrance, I turned to one of the kids walking next to me and said, “You know, I’d give you guys and “A” for being good in PE today.”

“Oh, no…” the fifth-grader replied. “How about just a B. An A is too much!”

“What?” I responded. “Too high a standard to match next time?”

“Yes,” he laughed. “We don’t want that much pressure.”

That conversation made me chuckle all morning. I shared it with the teacher and she just rolled her eyes.

It got me thinking about times in my life when we don’t want face the pressure of a given situation. It is easy to be intimidated by expectations once you’ve run a good workout in practice. Now do you have to run that much faster all the time?

Or when we set a PR in our event, do we have to compete even better the next time?

It’s natural to experience fear, consternation or dread at the idea of having to go harder, faster or longer in endurance events. That deep-down feeling that it might hurt a bit keeps the confidence at bay.

So how do we deal with fear of success?

Fear and trepidation often turn up at strange times.

The most effective method I’ve found is to gather elements of confidence rather than trying to shoulder the whole boulder of expected or prior success. Fear of success is actually ‘fear of change.’ That’s what that fifth-grader was trying to convey. It was much easier to misbehave, he seemed to reason, than it is to abide by the rules all the time.

He was smart enough to ask for leeway in the “better behavior” department. Most of us like some flexibility in our lives, including not having to try our hardest all the time.

Yet there are times when looking for slack amounts to avoiding responsibility for our efforts. That’s when excuses enter the picture, or we self-sabotage to crawl back into our comfort or “safe” zone where the pressures aren’t so great.

Olympic Bronze medalist Rick Wolhuter once replied when asked how he handled competitive expectations, “Pressure is self-inflicted.” In other words, the drama in our head is what keeps us from achieving at the highest possible level. The ability to turn off or defer negative thought to replace them with constructive thinking, such as focusing on associative feedback, is one way to take the pressure off and concentrate on doing your best in the moment. Some folks like to concentrate on empiric data such as watts, cadence, heart rate, or pace.

Others find it best to find ways to relax and allow the mind and body to do their best work “in the moment” and respond reflexively to challenges along the way. Relaxation is key to mind and body working together. I once ran a great race after indulging in an hour of reading a book that I loved.

Having competed for nearly fifty years in endurance sports, having begun my running career at the age of twelve, I am familiar with the full spectrum of “fear” that athletes tend to experience. If Fear of Failure is at one end of the spectrum, and Fear of Success at the other, how do we actually know which is which?

I believe the answer is somewhat simpler than one might imagine. To quote President Franklin Roosevelt, “The only thing to fear is fear itself.” But fears sometimes bubble up from strange places.

Most of all it’s about trepidation: that feeling of concern or agitation about something that may happen.

The key to dealing with fear of success or failure is to assess the source of those fears. Are they tangible and material, such as lack of training or mistakes in diet? Or are they intangible, such as how you FEEL about your current situation? And where do those feelings come from…?

That fifth grade boy was pretty smart in realizing that being given a higher grade meant being held to more challenging standard going forward. He was being kind in considering its effects on fellow classmates. He was also admitting out loud that new expectations weren’t all that welcome. Why? Because it seemed easier to have flexibility to misbehave than to live up to a perceived new standard.

Embracing even little successes can instantly expand our world.

In truth, he didn’t calculate an important factor in his decision to downgrade his class’ performance. What if the new standard actually made life easier? More exciting? What if getting an A for good behavior by the class meant more liberties, opportunities? Longer recess?

The fear of success is actually the limiting factor in all our objectives. We don’t know how good we can have it until we really try.

Fear is nothing more than a desire to escape responsibility. That’s why we consider people who are courageous to be heroes. They accepted the responsibility of the moment, or in a lifetime. It is also likely that some of the greatest heroes in the world will never be known. They accept their responsibility and move on, not wishing to discuss or celebrate either their accomplishments or their own character. In that light, some of the greatest heroes in this world are people who deal with challenges they never care to admit. Mental health issues such as depression or anxiety make life that much harder for many people. They work hard just to face what would be a normal day. Fear of existence is just as hard as dealing with fear of success or failure. We’re all dealing with trepidation in one way or another.

Tredipation actually wants nothing from you, and you don’t owe it anything. It may be the nearest thing to our minds, yet it is the farthest thing from our hearts.

The cure is do do something you love, the best as you can, and leave trepidation behind.

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Follow the worms

This time of year in Illinois, the rains bring earthworms to the surface. They show up on sidewalks and roads, making it hard at times to run without crushing them underfoot.

An earthworm hustling across a wet sidewalk.

I respect worms. They are amazing creatures in many respects. Way back in high school and college I dissected large earthworms in biology class. We learned the body parts inside and out. Evolution perfected earthworms to live in soil, and also create it. Few other creatures on earth can claim such a mutually beneficial relationship with their environment.

When it rains, earthworms have to crawl to the surface to avoid drowning in the water regions below-ground. They’re not evolved to crawl on hard surfaces that well, but they manage, hitching their long bodies along as they go. They move like caterpillars without legs, and don’t metamorphose into anything but larger worms. However, they do mate without worries over gender or defined sexuality. They exchange reproductive material, fertilizing each other’s eggs. The human race can learn a few things about gender fluidity from earthworms and many other creatures in nature. It’s not just “male and female” as so many like to contend. Much of creation doesn’t care about such things.

A big, fat worm is a joy to some and a horror to others. As kids we dug them up to use as fishing bait. A good rainstorm made the job that much easier. We would walk along plucking worms off the ground without a bit of digging. There was satisfaction in doing a good dig, however. The sight of shiny earthworms in dark soil is one of the most organic experiences of all.

Some worms were so big we’d have to split them into pieces to fit on a fishing hook. Despite our best attempts to bury the hook through the worm, the species called sunfish would often nibble away the worm bit by bit, like little piranha. Our bobbers would jiggle and we’d try to set the hook, but those darned fish were hard to catch. Or worse, they’d choke the worm down whole with the hook. That necessitated a long and often bloody hook extraction using pliers to grab hold of the hook and yank it out of the gut. Too often that left the sunfish wounded and twitching as it died on the surface.

I can’t say that fishing with worms is a legitimate example of the “circle of life” concept. There is too much human intrusion on the ‘circle’ for the colloquial concept of “life taking life” to hold true. I’m not much of an avid fisherman anymore for that reason. I’ve also seen worms respond to other human abuses. I once plunged an earthworm into a jar of formaldehyde. It literally tied itself into a knot as it writhed in the chemicals. That had a profound effect on me for some reason, as if it were a sign of a worm protest. That worm was a sentient being, at least in its ability to feel pain.

My guilt over taking life isn’t so profound that I stop and cry after stepping on a worm. Even the frogs that burst forth from our wetland and get squished on the roads don’t engender much lament. For every frog we see dead, there are thousands more that escaped to some other waterway. That’s how nature works. It is a numbers game by any measure you want to apply. The same holds true for turtles that crawl up a hill to lay eggs in the dirt. They dump their load and return to their ponds without a thought. Some eggs survive to hatch a new generation while others are found and gobbled up by raccoons or some other predator.

I reason that for every worm spotted on a wet sidewalk or roadway there are at least a thousand more still crawling around under the surface. Stats from the Nature’s Way Resource website document the prodigious numbers of earthworms: “25 earthworms per square foot of soil equal 1 million earthworms per acre. Studies in England have shown that in healthy soil forty tons of castings per acre pass through earthworms bodies daily. A new USA study indicates 12 million worms per acre which move 20 tons of earth each year.”

Talk about unseen strength! Those of us that have tried to pull a live earthworm out of its burrow know that worms are indeed strong. Their ability to hold onto their position in the dirt is totally impressive. We’ve all seen robins engaged in that tug of war for their dinner. The birds grab hold of the worm and stretch it out, but sometimes part of the worm breaks off to live another day. Depending on where the break occurs, worms can regenerate a new head and other body parts needed to survive. Talk about resilience! The human race can stand to learn a lesson or two from that example as well.

The message here is that worms really are inspiring creatures if you give them a bit of credit. So many of our “companions” here on earth are like that, regarded as lowly or beneath us, but we deceive ourselves. Without worms, the human race would probably starve to death for lack of soil in which to grow our crops. They do us a ton of favors and in some ways, the dirt flowing from their guts is the stuff of which food is made. We may depend on bacteria in our guts to process that food, but we really depend on worms in the soil to grow it. The same holds true for the gardens in which we plant flowers to enjoy their beauty. Flowers are beautiful, but in many ways they owe their beauty to the lowliest creatures of all, the worms. Every flower owes its life to a worm. So do you.

Every flower owes its life to a worm. So do you.

So next time you run or ride down a wet street covered with worms, give a little more attention to the earthworms you see along the way. Bend down a moment to look at them closely. Follow them a few moments as they travel, because for many people on earth, it is back to earth we go someday, to join the worms underground.

Makes you want to step over a few more worms here in life, doesn’t it?

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Meeting Leah Hayes made my day

Leah Hayes is a 15-year-old competitive swimmer.

Yesterday while standing on the pool deck talking with a fellow triathlete Karah Osterberg, I observed that the person swimming one lane over from the lane I’d chosen looked mighty fast. “That’s Leah Hayes,” Karah told me. “You know, the one with her name all over the record board?” as she pointed across the pool where the name LEAH HAYES filled nearly every category.

Sure enough, I’d noticed Leah’s name at every level from eight-years-old to the current day. Year-after-year she has set pool records. Now she has six national age-group records to her credit.

Her coach sat at the end of the lane next to the pool. Leah was cruising through sets of 50-meter reps making it look so easy that I was reticent to get into the water at all. Karah smiled and waved as I sat with my legs in the water. “Have fun!” she chirped, as I watched Leah spin through a flip turn as smooth as a metal cylinder.

Leah is a gifted athlete. She is also a refreshingly straightforward person, as you’ll see from this Sports Illustrated video about her life and its challenges.

As you can see, this young lady has a big heart in many ways. With seemingly so few genuine people making headlines in this world, it is refreshing to meet someone so determined to do well while doing good with others. “I love to compete!” she notes in this video. Yet she also shakes the hand of every competitor.

I guess I share, in some elder way, an appreciation for her honest approach to losing her hair. Those of baldies know that it makes no difference whether you have hair or not. Mine is male-pattern baldness while she has an auto-immune response that attacks hair follicles. Granted, the loss of hair on the head for a woman is not easy. Yet it might have been far more socially traumatic thirty years ago than it is today. One of the things I love about the liberal aspects of our culture is that people are far more often allowed to be who they are, or who they want to be. Those who can’t accept that are the people with real problems.

Forthright, intelligent and talented. That’s Leah Hayes.

By example, her fourth-grade classmates got the picture about her hair follicles quick enough. I’ve been substitute teaching lately and have observed that in some ways, kids are far more accepting of differences than most adults in this world. They still pick on each other, and bullying still takes place. But when you talk to them about it, they also get the reasons why it’s wrong. That’s progress.

It was an honor to swim next to such a great example of character and purpose in this world. I also learned some technique by watching Leah move through the water. She’d pop up between intervals with a bright smile, a set of sparkling earrings and a willingness to chat quickly between sessions that would leave lesser swimmers gasping for breath and unable to talk.

I’ve met many world-class athletes in my life. I believe I just met one more. And it made my day, for sure.

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Cinders and white lime

The weather was chilly this morning while walking the dog. The wind from the west reminded me of all those laps run around the perimeter of the Kaneland High School parking lot before the cinder track dried out in spring. Our workouts consisted of hard 600-meter repeats around the school under a ceiling of low, scudding clouds or bright, unforgivingly cold skies.

It certainly made you tough.

It taught you the art of concentration in all circumstances.

When the track finally did dry out enough for workouts, we’d get in a few days before an April snowstorm arrived. The track would try to soak up the melting snow, but we learned to avoid the puddles each lap. They became part of our short-term memory, a hazard to be avoided sub-consciously.

By mid-April, if we were lucky, there was a grand occasion to be held. Coaches would line the black cinder track with fresh white lines made of lime. We’d come out from school that day to find a work of art mapped out on the oval. Those lines were the tracing of our pain, of course. Somehow they were still welcome.

That white lime used to line the track was an ephemeral substance. For the first day it shone in all circumstances; cloudy, sunny, even through the rain. Then it would smear, dissipate, dissolve into the layer of cinders and hard-packed clay beneath.

The process took place many times during the season. Think about that. Some coach or custodian or helper walked the 400-yard perimeter laying down lane lines eight different times. Then came all the exchange points. The process was like the reciting of an ancient language or a holy writ. All so that young men and women could line up and train or compete.

Patti Brandli and Leah Peterson were women track pioneers at St. Charles HS. Not the smeared lines.

I’m not wistful of sentimental for those days. Our generation of track athletes was the first to enjoy all-weather tracks. We craved those opportunities to race on Tartan or other rubber surfaces. Some were hard and unforgiving. Others got soft in the sun. I recall a set of Nike tracks on the first turn of the new St. Charles East all-weather track because some idiot insisted on running there before the surface was fully solidified. His stupidity was immortalized in ten quick footprints that lasted as long as the track was there.

By contrast, the footprints we left in cinders evaporated quickly, covered up by the next round of athletes circling the track. In some ways that transient nature was the more honest reality. Fitness is like that. It only lasts as long as the most recent stride you’ve taken.

Even our college track was “cinder” of a sort. More accurately, it was crushed brick or some other stone. That made for a salmon-colored oval. The texture was gravelly and the surface beneath turned a shiny mush when it rained. Too many nights we circled that track at the far edge of the inside lane because the water along the rail was deep.

The noise, too. The sound of athletes tearing by on cinders still resounds. I never envied the true hurdlers, those guys and gals running highs or lows on cinders paid an awful price if they caught a knee and went down. Some of them still have cinders under their skin fifty years later.

I was a steeplechaser, so I got my share of hurdling in as well. Seven water jumps and 35 barriers per 3000 meters. I also ran a 59.2 400 IM hurdle race on cinders. Perhaps that would have been a second or two faster on a clean all-weather track? Who knows?

Those long spikes we stuck in our shoes acted like claws in the cinders and clay. We clawed and pressed our way lap after lap. Those white lime lines were the perimeter of our dreams. That black or salmon surface the realm of hopes. Sometimes we exceeded them. Many times we did not.

We kept on trying. Seasons on and off. Rain and wind. Dirt and grit. Cinders and lime.

It was a fine affair all around.

Posted in 400 meter intervals, 400 workouts, Christopher Cudworth, competition, running, steeplechase | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment