Rough landings

I was a high jumper during my high school career and first year of college. I jumped 6′ 1/2″ in college, my best ever. Not bad for a distance runner with skinny calves and not much in the thigh area either. I jumped to earn points in high school while trying to help our team win. During some dual meets, I’d run the two-mile, go do the triple jump, high jump, and come back to run the mile at the end of the meet. I never won all four events in one meet, but I did win the two-mile, triple jump and mile one meet.

Early in my career, way back in junior high, we jumped over the bar into crusty foam rubber strips wrapped in nets. Foam bits would fly up in your face every time you landed, and the netting was no bargain either, leaving striped welts wherever it scraped the skin.

By the time I was in high school, a new invention called the Cloud Nine came into play for high jump and pole vault pits. Those inflatable pits relied on the force of a big fan at one end. If you landed on the edge somehow, the rebound of the air inside would send you sideways. The risk was far greater for pole vaulters landing on those pits from heights of 12-14 feet, which our Kaneland vaulters often reached.

Occasionally a big gust of wind would catch the Cloud Nine pit with enough force to rip the stakes out of the ground. The pit would flip over and people would run to grab it before it blew completely away. I documented these experiments in high jumping in a previous post, but the main allegory that matters here is that the Cloud Nine invention was not that great at providing safe landings. Rough landings were quite frequent.

I also slid off the edge of all-foam mats later in my career. All it took was a good rainstorm to create a slick surface and off you’d go. By then I was a Fosbury Flop guy and landing on your back and shoulders only to slide off the back of the pit was never a joyride.

Getting off the ground

That brings us to other kinds of rough landings in life. I’m thinking specifically of a period in late 2006 and early 2007 when it became evident that staying in my job as Community Marketing Manager for the Daily Herald was becoming untenable. I’d survived a 360-degree review during a tough period in my wife’s cancer treatment and was trying to settle back into a consistent work routine when the newspaper started panicking out losing readership. Some desperate minds at the company decided to build a youth-oriented newspaper called Beep, and recruited one of my direct reports, a young woman two years into her job, to lead the Street Team in some nighttime antics at bars and events.

She wound up working twenty to forty hours extra every week. Running around handing out Beep newspapers at nightclubs was awkward at best, and also stressful. The guy behind the Beep project was a VP to whom she had a “dotted line” report, and I never knew what that meant other than she was racking up hours on her personal time on top of her regular job.

I raised this issue in an email to the VP and got no response at first. So I raised it again in a meeting with my boss, who told me “Well, you’ll just have to find ways to reduce her hours overall.”

That wasn’t actually possible. Our little department managed more than two hundred community events every year. We prepped booths and tents and got them shipped out to locations like community festivals where the circulation department depended on us to get their salespeople in front of potential subscribers. The pressures to maintain circulation revenue required us to increase those opportunities, not reduce them. My direct report person was stressed beyond belief by all these demands.

So her hours piled up and I told her to document them. We added them up and I put them into an overtime report submitted to my boss, and he blew up. So did the Operations VP in charge of Beep. “How could you let this happen?” they both demanded.

“I didn’t let it happen,” I calmly replied. “You made it happen.”

You can imagine how well that was received. The HR department pulled me down for a talk. “You can’t talk to a VP like that…” she told me. My boss sat there mutely, not eager to defend me or enter the situation in any way. His main goal, I always knew, was to make it another 6-7 years muddling along as an Assistant VP with access to all the pro sports tickets and free admissions to show at the Allstate Arena. Beyond that, he was never really interested in much else in the way of marketing. He came from the sports department, after all. The job was a salvation after twenty-five years of writing fishing columns and the like.

So the atmosphere got heavy, but she got paid for her time after all. Then VP kept on assigning her extra hours and I told my boss, “You need to stand up for her. This is beyond my pay grade, obviously.”

“Don’t let it happen again,” he told me. But I was following employment law. So I turned the hours in again.

At the same time, the paper was convulsing with threats of layoffs. I began to look at opportunities outside my job knowing that marketing is almost always one of the first chopping blocks, and our department was flush with specialized employees. One of them managed the weekly auto reviews in a shrinking Automotive Section. The Special Sections editor was also targeted, and both were soon let go.


I’d built a parachute for myself by freelancing outside the company for several years. A former associate and boss from Aspen Marketing had started his own company. At his request, I’d flown to Richmond, Virginia with his team to do a pitch and land a $1M account. That day was so successful he spent $800 on four of us with a Surf and Turf dinner that night. When the meal was over, he leaned over the table and said, “Watch this.”

As a high-spirited Italian guy with a crude sense of humor and a history to match, our leader at the agency was a master of pranks. Seated at the table after the meal, he called the waiter over and pointed to the five-pound lobster whose flesh we just consumed. Somehow he’d learned to make a Squeaky Toy sound with his lips that he used for humor and pranks on many occasions. He’d squeeze things at random while making the squeaky noise and people would stare, thinking the sound was coming from whatever he squeezed. It worked on escalators, at stores where he’d make a mannequin squeak, and so on.

That night, with the lobster laying there with its body open and its claws splayed on the plate, he started rubbing the lobster’s back with his index finger while making the squeaky nose, he told the waiter, “I think this thing is still alive…”

The waiter was instantly horrified. He called a fellow waiter over and our leader rubbed the lobster making the squeaky noise again. The rest of us were trying hard not to laugh, and finally, when the waiter turned to get a manager, our man said “Nah,” he told them. “I’m just kiddin’ ya…”

Making the leap

A few weeks later I decided to make the leap from the newspaper to join the agency full-time. With all the threats of layoffs and the bad vibes emanating from HR and management, I decided it was time to vacate the premises. I’d had seven great years and loved working with those peers on many fronts. I wrote a note to the Publisher thanking him for the opportunities I’d been given and started with the agency a few days later.

The only challenge was the need to commute even farther from Batavia up to Palatine, an hour each way. But the salary was good, more than $30K more than I’d been making with the newspaper, so my wife and I decided it was a worthwhile risk.

Sadly, the woman that I most trusted at the agency, a highly competent former AT&T manager than had driven the company to profitability announced her departure around the same time I was investigating the change. She was doubly incensed when the owner told people what she’d been making, a faux pas of the highest order, but by then I was too far into the process to back out.

My title as Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) because I’d led more than one successful pitch. But internal politics made the title seem insignificant. I was given a desk out in the open with the rest of the staff because there were relatives and friends involved. My first meeting as CMO was not a show of strength either. I took a friendly approach and kept my talk short when people were actually expecting a person like me to fill the void of the woman leaving the company.

Meanwhile, leadership on the account I’d won for the company was taken over by an aggressive account executive. The big paychecks felt good, but I was far from happy.

“Such is life,” I told myself and kept working on copy assignments and pitching new accounts, the work I’d been hired to do. I’d learned from years of running and training that the best way to make progress in any situation is “one step at a time.”

Into a shell

About three weeks into the job, my wife had a checkup with the gynecological oncologist. We’d finished up cancer treatments 18 months earlier and she wasn’t having much trouble overall, but the CA-125 numbers on her blood tests had risen suddenly. I arrived home from work one day to find her anxiously waiting for a phone call from the oncologist. When it came, she sat there stunned for a moment, then hung up the phone. “The cancer’s back,” she screamed and cried together. And she went into a fit of rage.

Who could blame her? The stress of chemotherapy had almost killed her. Surgery hadn’t caught all the cancer either. I watched her tear at the world in that state of mind. When it was done, she’d had an emotional breakdown.

The next day, I called a nurse friend to come by. “She’s had a nervous breakdown,”‘ she told me. “here entire affect is gone. “You’re going to need a psychiatrist’s help, possibly some medication to help her through this.” She’d retreated into a shell of herself.

I still needed to go to work, so her parent took turns coming out to the house to take care of her. I spent hours on the cell phone consulting with medical experts between work sessions and lunch breaks trying to help my wife through a horrible time. After the “gold standard” chemo she’d endured, she felt betrayed in some respects. She was silent most of the time, and physically convulsed, especially when we had to go out in public to doctor’s appointments and such. I protected her.

One day at the office I was feeling beaten down by it all when the owner looked up at me and said, “I like you a lot better when you’re smiling.” He was right. I was having a rough time putting on a good face. After another week of that, he called me into his office and said, “We’re gonna have to let you go. You can turn in your computer this afternoon.”

I said “No, it’s mine. I earned that,” with such force he realized I wasn’t messing around. I drove home that day as angry as I’d ever been. The same guy had failed to protect me when I was laid off during a downsizing at the agency where he’d been my boss before. Now he was cutting me loose during one of the most stressful times of my life.

More bad news followed. COBRA premiums for insurance were going to run $2000 a month. Another really round landing. My “parachute” plan had turned into a lead weight. But I was determined to make good of everything no matter what else happened.

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A new way of racing through life

As the cancer treatments from 2006 did their work on my wife, she eventually moved into a period of remission. But it wasn’t an easy path. After eight rounds of harsh chemo, they told her that she’d done the ‘Gold Standard’ using intravenous fluids. It was hard. They’d pumped it through a vein in her arm for eight treatments that eventually laid her so low it was hard to function in her job as a preschool teacher. Hair fell out and her feet got numb, but she endured near-killing doses for months on end. I read the Lance Armstrong book “It’s Not About the Bike” and was sobered by the moment when Lance told the doctor, “Give me all you got. You can’t kill me.” To which the doctor replied, “Oh, yes I can.”

Right before the last treatment, the gynecological oncologist told us they wanted to try another series of treatments to really go after cancer cells that had spread around her abdomen. The local gynecologist that did the exploratory surgery that found the ovarian tumor had actually broken the cyst, releasing cancer cells throughout the abdominal cavity. When the surgical gynecologist originally opened her up to feel around inside the abdominal wall and surgically removed any cancer nodes, he said that he’d found what felt like sandpaper lining the smooth surfaces. He’d nicked away all that he could, but it was impossible to know if he’d excised all of it. Given the fact that chemotherapy works through the system to kill the most active cells in the body, it was not certain whether even eight rounds of Cisplatin and some other toxic “drug” would reach all the way into the abdominal wall.

More chemicals

It wasn’t good news to be sure. But we buckled in for three more rounds of chemo after a port was planted in the right side of her stomach.

Think about the strange logic of that for a moment. If you outright drank the chemo substance you’d die within minutes. But dumping it right into the abdominal cavity somehow works at killing cancer.

Or at least, that was the plan. But one Easter Sunday after her second intraperitoneal injection, a leak developed at the port and fluid drained down the front of her stomach. That left a vicious white burn on her skin, a chemo stain that when inspected by the presiding medical oncologist made his eyes go wide. I think he was preparing himself for a potential lawsuit. But we liked the guy and told him to just fix it. That’s all we cared about. When it was all done she was so wiped out it took months for her to recover, grow back some hair and get back to the gardening she most loved.

The Felt

The Felt 4C and Felt riding kit.

During all of that, I’d kept up my running to keep sane, but was feeling like it might be time to add another activity as an alternate fitness option. So I finally bought a new road bike to start serious cycling. I’d ridden a beater Trek 400 for several years, but couldn’t keep up with my two best buddies and their roadie friends don’t 60-80 milers on weekends.

Along with my wife’s needs, I’d also been caregiving for my father after my mom passed away in 2005. My brothers offered verbal support and I wasn’t taking any payment for the extra work, so they voted that I could take a bit of my dad’s money to buy a new bike. I visited Spokes, a bike shop in Wheaton, and they sold me on the purchase of a 2006 Felt 4C, a model named “Bike of the Year” by Bicycling Magazine. It had a carbon-fiber frame and Dura-Ace derailleur and brakes. High quality stuff.

The first ride on that bike was like a dose of heaven. It was hard to make the Trek go faster than 17 mph most days. On the Felt, I flew along at 18-20 and was about three miles from home that first day when I struck something with the wheel and heard the awful ‘PHFFFFSHHHHH’ of a flat tire. That meant I had to stop and change it. I’d hit a piece of metal on the shoulder. It left a mark in the rim that remained there the entire time I rode those wheels until the spokes broke, and I bought a new set.

It was good that I had to stop and change that flat. I’m not the most mechanical guy on earth and having to deal with the vagaries of flats is one of the aspects of cycling I needed to learn. I rode tough old tires on the Trek and hardly ever flatted. That new racehorse of a bike was something different.

Gaining speed

Adding cycling to my life was a point of sanity that complemented the running. I joined the Athletes By Design racing team and rode with the group every Wednesday. There were also Saturday morning rides with twenty guys motoring out of St. Charles. Talk about a testosterone test! I did my best. Usually, I’d hang the bunch through sixty miles at a 20-22 mph average and get dropped when they really started ripping. Most of those riders had 10-20 years of cycling experience in their legs. I was the newbie, even showing up that first day with the reflectors still pinned in the spokes and a “brim” on my helmet that no serious roadie keeps.

On top of those rides, I started bike racing in criteriums. Adding all that in the face of the caregiving and work I was already doing sounds insane, but once my wife was in remission, it was my goal to get back in touch with some of my own interests. Bike racing was an education all its own. The first race I entered was a madcap course in Elgin, Illinois where the first turn when steeply downhill and turned again. A guy when skipping past me sideways when trying to brake and slammed into the hay bales keeping riders out of the lake. I stuck with the pack a few laps and then a bunch of riders in front of me imploded. I was left with a ten yard gap between my bike and the bunch rolling away. Rather than ride on like I should have, I figured to catch back on gradually. Big mistake. I got dropped.

But the race that seemed to symbolize life at the time was a criterium in Elk Grove. At one end of the crit loop there was a hairpin turn right after the starting line. For ten laps or so I worked to stay up front because the lag behind guys turning was so huge. Lap after lap I kept the gas on, even leading into one of the last go-rounds. Excited to be so close to the front when the final lap bell rang, I turned the corner once more and tried going with the lead pack. At that moment, it felt like that scene in the Star Wars movie where the Millennium Falcon tries to go into hyperspace and instead virtually shuts down. I had nothing left in the legs and got dropped immediately. The racers tore on ahead and I tailed along as they disappeared around the block.

That moment symbolized the “one step forward, two steps back” challenges of life’s competitive needs at the time. I was trying to hold down the job, take care of dad with a stroke, a wife with cancer and kids in high school and middle school. Obviously I could not do it all, but kept on trying the best that I could. As my former coach said upon hearing that my wife had cancer, “Your whole life is a preparation for this.” Truer words could not be said.

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360 Degrees of Suck

The thing I’ve always both loved and hated about running is its empiricism. Either you run fast enough to win or place or you don’t. At times, when I was running well, that harsh reality was a blessing. During periods of lost fitness or mental regression, empiricism was an unforgiving judge. Yet I embraced both extremes because at least I/you knew where you stood.

Things weren’t so cut and dried out in the real world. By the time I was thirty years old, I’d already experienced the vagaries of working in different types of organizations and industries. There were revelations along the way. While working at the Kane County Chronicle, the company had us take a personality test. I was surprised at its accuracy and felt a bit exposed. Yet the test also noted, “Christopher does not reveal certain aspects of his personality.”

Looking back, I’m guessing that a hidden part of my personality was a resistance to authority, especially the false kind. Something in my nature fights whatever I consider injustice, and a portion of what drove me to run so much and “prove” myself after college was a response to some of the unjust ways that people treated me over time, including my own parents. I don’t think I’m alone in that reactive motivation among runners. Plenty of us seemed to “run made” to keep from going mad at the fucked up nature of the world and its occupants.

That defiance toward the “regular world” included those that did not understand or refused to accept the “hard, clean, severe” nature of honest reality earned through running. All the nasty calculations, backstabbing and selfish behavior in the work world disgusted me. The incidents of bad behavior were surprisingly frequent. In particular, I remember a co-worker sandbagging during an advertising sales contest to turn in just enough results to win. While it wasn’t “cheating” per se, it also wasn’t an entirely honest way to win the contest. I believed in being a leader and actually posting what I’d sold. That came from my running background.

I learned that kind of leadership isn’t always respected or appreciated in the work world. Nor was speaking your mind honestly on a number of subjects, especially the vagaries and weaknesses of upper management. I once questioned the judgment of a Vice President in how they were making an employee work overtime without pay and was told by the HR department, “You don’t have a right to question them. They’re an officer of the company.”

In defiance, I turned in her hours anyway. Because that was the legal and right thing to do. Acting that way has caused a number of problems. Perhaps a small shred of Howard Roark from The Fountainhead resided in my head after reading that book in my early twenties. The book is described this way: “The novel’s hero, a brilliant architect of absolute integrity. Roark has friends and colleagues, but relies on himself alone.”

Again, that radical independence is a distance runner “thing” for sure. Self-reliance is not beaten into us from all those miles of training and racing. More accurately, it is absorbed direct from the earth and sky, dust and rain, facing snow, sunburn, and sweat equally, with little complaint. You either get the miles done or you don’t. Either suffer to gain fitness or not. Improvement and a sense of self-confidence and righteous belief in hard effort go together. There are days when it call comes together and others when it all falls apart.

Sadly, those pure principles don’t necessarily apply in a world where people seek convenient compromises or easier paths to whatever someone wants to call an achievement. The finish line even moves at times, leaving hardened, honest souls to fight on as if trapped in a gauntlet of perpetual annoyance and emasculating pokes. Women branded as witches have in the past been hung and burnt in public for less than some people do in the corporate sector. Yet the VP sign on the door works as a talisman against all forms of perceived evil, but mostly against the truth that might contradict the accepted (or desired) beliefs.

In this maelstrom, a person like me that was accustomed to putting one foot in front of the other as fast as possible is quite likely to get tripped up. Some call for “emotional intelligence” to navigate through the morass of conflicted employment. Inner doubts are the enemy there just like they are at the starting line of any race. Fear is the ultimate crucifix of false hopes. Either you’re ready to meet the challenges of the day, or you are not.

Some of us learn the difference between association and disassociation early. I recall the day I spent reading an inspiring book titled The Peregrine while sitting on a high school football stadium steps. My mind was lifted clear of all other considerations, and I ran to first place that day leading our team to victory over a team that had not lost a dual meet in sixty straight competitions. Perhaps it is the most successful people that can recreate that level of transcendence in all of their existence.

But some things can’t be transcended no matter how hard you try. And in 2005-2006, while immersed in stressful caregiving first for my dying mother and then for my wife sick with cancer and father compromised by stroke, the company where I worked put me through what they called a “360 Degree Review.” My boss sent out surveys throughout the company asking associates to provide feedback on my performance. Much of it came back critical, and the manner in which the supposed facts of my shortcomings were delivered sucked the life right out of me. After being named Administrative Associate of the Year in 2003 and taking on additional responsibilities in Community Relations to help out the company during a tight set of economic years, I was being stripped naked for faults a bit beyond my capacity to handle everything coming my way in personal and work life.

That was 360 Degrees of Suck, and I felt betrayed by many people that I’d helped in many ways those first five years of employment. I wondered, “If things were supposedly so bad, why didn’t people ask me about them?” Indeed, upon hearing the complaints, there were some legitimate concerns, but they were mostly that: concerns over communications and such, not lost revenue or bad public relations. It wasn’t failure, in other words. It was being overwhelmed.

That all felt much like the feedback one gets after a less-than-stellar race. “Listen, you seem to have lost focus somewhere,” a coach might say.

I felt like that would have been a constructive discussion to have at that point rather than conducting 360 Degrees of Suck. Find out, perhaps, if Chris is having issues outside of work that might be impacting overall performance? The associates I managed were all immensely helpful and supportive. But my boss had his own set of fears and resentments in that period, and those came through loud and clear in his assessments of me. Overall, that 360 Review felt like being loudly “booed” by a crowd. I didn’t know how to handle it. My emotions were already all over the place.

So I did the one thing I knew how to do in the face of strange realities. I kept on running to sort out the suck from the “fuck yous” and start thinking about what should come next in life. There were signs that the company itself was suffering in many ways. The Internet had sucked literally millions of dollars out of the newspaper industry and our company. While I loved it there and wanted to stay, I also recognized that belt-tightening was likely on the horizon on many fronts. The economy was getting shaky under George W. Bush and the insane wars abroad in the wake of 9/11 made the entire country feel like living with a crazy uncle possessed by an alcohol problem.

Perhaps the only thing to do, I decided, was to get a little crazy myself.

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50 Years of Running: Cataclysmic convergence

Oil and Water, Acrylic painting by Christopher Cudworth

My competitive instincts had not abated much in my early forties, but one quickly learns as a caregiver that being competitive is not the answer to every problem. In fact, it constitutes an answer to few problems. It doesn’t help to be competitive while sitting in a waiting room while your wife is getting treatment and consultation for ovarian cancer. That demands patience, not competitive fire. The same holds true in caregiving for a father beset by the effects of a stroke, who can’t talk or communicate other than with “Yeahhh” or “Nooohhh” for answers. That takes patience too.

Nor was it helpful to be competitive in guiding my mother through her fears over her own health, which in 2005 was taking turns toward more difficulty than she imagined. Her lymphoma was manifesting in mouth sores and other signs of increasing impact. Knowing that things were changing in her life, she asked me to meet her at the bank to sign on as the executor for all their financial matters.

But at work, I still needed to be competitive in order to handle the demands of a job in marketing and community relations covering five separate counties and ninety different communities large and small. I traveled from office to office seeking to leverage the small budgets accorded to each regional manager the biggest results we could find. Every area had different demands and opportunities. In Lake County, we partnered with a radio station to provide news in exchange for daily mentions of our product. In DuPage County, our goals were spread over a series of major events, festivals, and the like, and also partnering with high schools for editorial exposure tied to theater programs. In the Tri-Cities, we worked through area Chambers and partnerships. In the Elgin market, we sponsored large-scale bike races and a collaborative relationship with the Hemmens Auditorium. All these disparate aims required attention, and I did my best to keep all the balls juggling at once. Truth be told, I was just beginning to realize that my brain lacked some critical aspects of corporate performance, particularly executive functions. I sometimes joked that I had what I called Creative ADD. What I’ve realized later in life is that I have full-blown ADHD.

Occasionally, sometimes more than that, a ball would drop. But I apologized to fellow managers and worked back around to pick it up again. On top of all that the Big Ticket Reading Project was growing by 20% every year, reaching more than 100,000 families. Then I launched the West Suburban Theater Connection and our editorial coverage deepened in that important segment.

Running commentary

I’d go for daily runs or rides thinking all this through, all while trying to balance my wife’s concerns as we waited for surgery that would remove as much cancer as possible from her abdominal cavity. The gynecologist that did the original laparoscopic surgery broke the tumor, which released cancer cells into the body, and when the gynecological oncologist finally got in to examine and extract cancerous indications, he described its impact on the body walls as feeling “like sandpaper.” That was not good news. Still, he was such a pro that he felt like the prognosis was good after her operation.

Then came chemotherapy a month later. She recuperated from surgery well even though the impact on her body was profound. But we had hurdles to jump with health insurance because the HMO demanded that we do chemo at a different hospital than the Advocate General location where our GO was based.

That meant traveling to a Rush Medical Center location in Aurora where we met a new doctor and scheduled a series of chemotherapy treatments. There would be eight total with Cisplatin and Taxotere, both toxic drug mixes that enter the body intravenously and kill the “most active” cancer cells, which are the fastest-growing cells in the body. Basically, chemotherapy kills the body slowly, and when the world-class cyclist Lance Armstrong challenged his doctor during treatment for testicular cancer to “give me all you got, you can’t kill me,” the doctor replied, “Oh, yes I can.

At first, the chemo didn’t hit her that hard. Her cheeks grew flush and her hands tingled. But as the treatments accumulated with pursuant fatigue and nausea, the risk of infection increased and her mental state deteriorated. Still, she kept on teaching at the preschool where she worked. Her fellow teachers were immensely supportive, especially her close friend and the school’s director, a woman named Linda who promised us that we would be there for her all along. She’d called to tell me, “Listen, we know this is going to be hard. So we’re going to let you in the Girl’s Club. But the Girl’s Club has One Rule. You have to tell us everything that’s going on. Otherwise, you’re out of the Girl’s Club. Can you work with that?”

I told her, “Absolutely. I’m in.” And from that point on there was hardly a moment where I feared not having support. For that, I am eternally grateful and mean that in the most profound sense of the word. Vulnerability is the greatest tool for cancer survival.

But some types of vulnerability are also devastating. After my wife endured eight rounds of traditional chemo, we received a recommendation to partake in a renewed practice calling for the introduction of chemo drugs straight into the abdomen. Intraperitoneal chemotherapy, it was called. So they installed a port in her belly and dumped the chemo straight inside her body. The unstated goal was to kill off cancer cells lining her belly walls. It all went well until it didn’t. Somehow the nurses let chemo leak out the port and it burned the skin all down the outside of her belly. We wound up calling the hospital on a holiday to drive her there for emergency treatment. The medical oncologist showed up and it was clear that he feared there was potential litigation afoot. The situation had medical malpractice written all over it. But we liked the doctor and told him, “Listen. We know this is bad, but we’re not here to cause trouble or sue. Let’s fix this and move ahead.”

The stress of that day was awful. The nurses felt awful about it because we had a good rapport with them all. We knew it wasn’t carelessness that led to the problem. They were diligent in everything they did otherwise. Sometimes bad things just happen.

360 Degree Review

All that medical stuff might all have been enough for me to handle were it not for the fact that my immediate boss at the Daily Herald decided that year to send out surveys to conduct a 360 Degree Review on my performance at the newspaper. Word came back that I was dropping a few more balls. Some of the reviews were harsh. I felt betrayed. Yet clearly, I couldn’t handle things the way that I’d done up to that point in time. After being named the 2003 Administrative Associate of the Year, I was falling behind in my job on some fronts. With so many cataclysmic events taking place, I was a bit overwhelmed.

In many ways, all I was trying to do was be honest about the possibilities defined by the changing world of the newspaper industry. The Daily Herald had cut ties with its advertising agency for budgetary reasons, so there were no billboards or radio investments to promote the company. The Allstate Arena still displayed the logo prominently along I-90, one of the busiest corridors in the Chicago area. But one day in a collective management meeting, the Publisher of the newspaper stated, “I don’t really believe in marketing…” and I sat there stunned, realizing that support was certainly not going to come from the top down at that point.

After the results of the 360 Review came back, I was depressed. The criticism hurt, and there was little I could do to defend my performance. “You just have to accept this feedback and change,” my boss told me. I found that ironic. My boss was not a well-regarded manager in his own position. I’d learned that his entire department had resigned or quit before I was asked to come on board in marketing. People pulled me aside and asked, “How can you work for that guy?” On some front, I empathized. He was a former sportswriter whose main interest was working out partnership deals with the pro teams and landing tickets to the best shows at Allstate Arena. He never really liked all the risk and reward stuff of hardline marketing. When I came on board and pushed the envelope on so many fronts, it pissed him off more than anything.

So the 360 Degree Review was an opportunity to foist some frustration on an employee that had shown him up a little. I couldn’t entirely blame him. That’s the nature of corporate competition. It’s quite typically an alternating cycle of pats on the back and backstabbing paybacks. I’d challenged him on many fronts about his managerial style, and this was his turn to shift the narrativve. He had every right to initiate the review, but the timing could not have been worse.

That summer my wife’s health was going downhill due to chemotherapy, as was my mother’s condition. My father was still highly compromised by his stroke. I bounced from caregiving for one person to the other. Then, come September, my mother found she had an underlying case of pancreatic cancer. Not good news. Her physicians recommended a round of chemotherapy but her age worked against her. At eighty years old, her body was slammed by the strength of that toxic treatment. While working at the Tri-Cities office one morning, just two miles away from my parent’s house, I heard the police scanner in the photo room announce that EMTs had just arrived at my parent’s address. I rushed out the door, climbed in my car and drove straight to my folks’ house. There I saw my mother on a gurney being loaded into an ambulance. She looked up at me and said, “I can’t walk. The medicine’s too strong.” They drove her away with the lights flashing.

I tended to my father that day. His in-home Polish caregiver Ivana asked me what happens next. I told her, “I don’t know yet.” I appreciated Ivana, whose patience with my often exasperating father was legendary. Still, she admitted that it got to her sometimes. She once told me, “I have date tonight with Johnny and Jack.”

“Who’s that?” I asked.

Johnny Walker and Jack Daniels,” and she laughed.

That weekend, my mother did not improve much. On Sunday morning, I received a call from a doctor at the hospital brusquely informing me that my mother needed to go home. They offered to send an ambulance to make that happen. She couldn’t walk or even sit upright much to get into a wheelchair. I showed up at the hospital to preside over her departure and watched them walk her out the door.

The presiding physician thanked me for coming, then quickly departed, clearly not wanting to talk over the situation much. On my way out the door, I met a physician from the family practice my mom and dad had long trusted. We stood in an open space far from anyone else’s earshot. “Listen,” he kindly told me. “They don’t want your mother to die here, and there’s little else they can do for her. It’s time for hospice. The pancreatic cancer is too far along and she can’t handle any more chemotherapy. She’s better off at home.”

He was right. Many of her friends came by to visit, essentially saying goodbyes. One of her closest buddies was an intelligent Black woman named Phyllis whose company she treasured on many fronts. The racial reference is relevant given the relatively white-bread composition of the community in which my parents lived. That woman was one of the most well-respected community leaders despite the racial composition of St. Charles. My mom always appreciated her proactive ideology and faith in humanity. It meant the world that this woman came to visit her.

By Sunday afternoon my mother seemed relaxed, even happy at having welcomed her friends and grandchildren including my daughter Emily, who played my mother’s violin for her. That instrument was built by her own father in the 1930s. That evening, my mother gave me a big smile as she rested. But overnight, she suffered a stroke that took away her ability to speak or swallow. From that point forward, it was hospice for sure.

Hospice conclusion

My father and mother were in attendance at the Geneva Community Classic in 1984 when I won the race in 31:52 on a long course. The record stood for more than 20 years. She wrote my name on the photograph.

She died on the evening of November 7, 2005, with my father by her side sitting in his wheelchair and holding her hand. That afternoon much of the family had come by, but she seemed to wait until my daughter Emily could make a visit. An hour later she passed away.

It had been an up-and-down year. During her hospice period, I was wracked by guilt the first night when she gestured for water and food, but we could not give it to her. I went home crying and leaned over the kitchen table praying about what to do. My wife was sick in bed from chemo and I felt all alone. At that moment my brothers were driving out to Illinois from back east and called me on the phone. “We were driving through Indiana and saw how clear the stars looked,” they told me. “We thought it would be good to call.”

I confessed my guilt at not being able to help Mom in any way. “There’s no choice in her condition,” they assured me. “We’re all doing the right thing.”

On the evening she died I drove home through a large woods on Route 25. A giant buck deer burst from the forest and ran in front of me through the headlights. Granted, that’s a natural coincidence. But it felt like her spirit was sending me a message that she was going somewhere else. She loved nature in all its forms.

I felt calm upon arriving home that evening. She was at peace now, no more pain or fear or frustration. No more worrying about by dad. That was up to me now, I knew. I also knew I could handle it. I might fail on some fronts, but I was going to see it all through, whatever the cost. In some respects, that was my competitive nature showing through. But there were different kinds of “wins” from crossing the finish line first in a race, or helping a team win a game. This was about winning in life and competing with the challenges it presented. On that front, I knew that I could be a winner no matter what it took.

Posted in 10K, aging, aging is not for the weak of heart, Christopher Cudworth, competition, fear, foregiveness, life and death, running, we run and ride | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

50 Years of Running: coming to grief through soccer

The typical indoor soccer field with boards all around.

In the five years leading up to my late wife’s diagnosis of ovarian cancer, I experienced a period of grief related to my own physical and mental health.

During one of the last years my daughter played soccer, her coach invited me to join an indoor team he organized each winter. That first year we traveled from Batavia to Darien, a forty-five-minute drive in post-rush hour traffic. Games generally started after 7:00 p.m., so we’d leave just after dark once the time changed in October. On the way we’d pick up another player or two, each of them typically saying goodbye to a wife and kids, because most of us were in our late 30s or early 40s.

The Darien field had boards around it, and indoor soccer under those conditions is fast-paced and often rough. Our squad usually had ten to fifteen players minimum so that guys could “sub out” after two minute stints on the field. Even though I still ran quite a bit to keep in shape, and played a fair amount of basketball as well, that first time playing indoor soccer was a harsh experience. All that sprinting caused my heart rate to shoot up, and the first time I came off the field the other guys on the team saw the expression on my face and started laughing. “Kind of intense, huh?”

The other difficult part of indoor soccer was the pressure to improve on foot skills. During all those years of coaching (ten in total) I’d kicked the ball around plenty with kids and juggled the ball for fun, but that’s quite different than reacting to an opposing player trying to steal the ball from you or even knocking you against the boards to make sure it happened.

I adapted quickly enough and found out that I was a better defender than an attacking forward. My foot skills just weren’t quick enough to swerve through defenders on a small field, so I prided myself on making it harder for opponents to get near our goal. I got good at soccer defending just as I’d gotten better at defense in basketball during my twenties and thirties.

My other “skill” was making sweet bending passes to our own forwards. All the years of kicking soccer balls with my older brothers when I was kid paid off as an adult. It felt great to get assists and my teammates began to realize that I played a good role on the team.

Broken ribs

But one day I was caught at the midline with a tall and talented player from the other team. The ball popped out from their goal and his teammate advanced it with a quick touch. I saw the ball but not what was coming next. That big guy slammed me in the ribs with an elbow and I bent over as he raced ahead for an easy goal. It looked like I’d given up, but in truth, my ribs were in hot pain. I’d spend the next three weeks recovering from the two broken ribs he gave me.

As it happened, we were playing the same team when I returned from rib rehab. For most of the game I steered clear of his elbows, but with about five minutes to go I saw him pin a ball against the boards and I came in for a spot of revenge. Spinning around as I heeled the ball free, I gave him a shot to the kidneys with my bony elbow and he turned and hollered at me. “What was that for?”

I replied. “You’ve got a short memory. I’ve been out three weeks thanks to you breaking my ribs.”

New league

Playing without boards was a more organic form of indoor soccer

We switched leagues the following year to a facility without sideboards on the field. The game felt better there, more real without the rebounds and enclosed spaces of the board. Plus, Just For Kicks was closer to home. We played teams from all sorts of nationalities; Greek, Polish, Mexican, and more.

One night our opponent was a tremendously talented team whose members were mostly from England. In warmups, one of their guys launched a shot at the goal while I was standing nearby. The ball sailed so close to my ear that it created a vacuum. I quickly moved away from the goal to avoid getting blasted. That player could launch shots with speed using just one step. I thought to myself, “No way that we beat these guys.”

But we played above our heads all night. Even the Team Hothead stayed cool. He was a great footskills guy just past age thirty but was prone to getting mad during games and frequently “lost it.” But not that night. He played well, scoring two goals to keep us in the game along with a third goal from my friend Dave, who fielded and one-touched a curling lead pass I made from the backfield to tie the game at 3-3 with just a couple minutes to go.

Everything seemed to go into fast-motion in the last two minutes of the game. Even without boards, the ball never left the field and there was no time for substitutions as a result. Both teams tore around the field until suddenly the ball popped out to me on the wing where I was open. Taking a look upfield, I saw no one and took off at full tilt, dribbling madly to keep the ball near my feet. An opposing player swept up beside me but I kept my focus on the field ahead. Nearing the left side of the other team’s box, I swerved out two steps and launched a shot at the near upper corner of the goal. It slipped past the outreaching hands of the goalie and I’d scored with just thirty seconds left to play in the game.

Walking back toward the center of the field, I was greeted by the English team’s coach. He was a stocky, short guy with a big mustache and a thick accent. “Noice styroike on the ball!” he chortled, shaking my head. “Youew wont’ be sleepin’ tonight!”

He was right. I lay awake in bed after getting home to take a shower at 10:30 p.m. My heart was still beating hard from all the running, and I settled under the blankets next to my wife who rolled over and asked, “How’d the game go?”

I smiled in the dark and said, “We won. And I scored to win the game.”

“Mmmm, that’s nice…” she responded. Then rolled back over in bed.

I lay there replaying that shot again and again in my head. The best part about it was not thinking too much. For once, unlike so many other nights on the soccer pitch, I didn’t overthink the moment. Like a kid again, the motion just came from within. It was glorious. I was so grateful to experience something like that given my relatively late return in life to playing soccer.


Sportsplex had glass walls allowing spectators to see all the actin.

Then we joined another league at Sportsplex in St. Charles, and given the number of age groups from youth to adult using those two fields, sometimes our games wound up being played really late at night. Arriving at 10:30 p.m. to start a soccer game at 11 p.m. is not the most inspiring situation. Even worse was the fact that only six of our guys showed up. We had no subs.

By halftime, I was completely gassed. Even as a defender, I would up running steady for all twenty minutes of the first half. And then, just as the last minutes of the first half was winding down, I found myself at the top of the box wide open for a shot because we’d pressed up field and our best forward had the ball on the wing. He sent a direct rolling pass my way and my reaction time was even slow. The ball rolled right past me because my legs were too tired to get into position to shoot. He was livid, throwing his hands up in the air. I’d just fulfilled every doubt our team ever had about my ability. At that point, I did not care. All I wanted to do was sit down for five or ten minutes and gather some energy for the second half.

During the winter soccer season I also played basketball in open gym. But at the age of forty-five years old in 2002, I’d begun to experience new kinds of pulls and tears playing that sport. My basketball game was always a slashing, attacking kind of approach, driving to the rim for acrobatic layups. Then during a Sunday pickup game, I jumped from one side of the lane to land with a twisting hop and something popped under my pelvis. Instantly I was out of action.

Physical therapy

Our medical plan was with an HMO at the time, and I was just getting to know our family doctor. Showing up at his office, I explained the injury and how it happened. “Maybe I need some physical therapy,” I suggested.

“Oh, that stuff’s a bunch of fluff,” he replied. I sat there aghast. “But if you want to go, I can write you a referral.”

The only physical therapy practice in our plan was a thirty-minute drive away. The offices were plenty nice, and I was optimistic that I’d get some good advice. But the physician poked around a bit and said “There’s nothing we can really do unless you want to consider surgery.”

I left that appointment angry as hell. Going under the knife for what was likely a pulled tendon was a ridiculous recommendation.

It took a month or two for the pull to heal up, but it only hurt when I jumped and landed. That meant I could largely manage to play soccer, but then I pulled a groin muscle warming up because my pelvis was all out of whack.

Trek 400

That series of injuries convinced me that it might be time to add alternative sports to my training regimen. If basketball was going to be out of the picture someday, I wanted to find other pursuits. For a decade or so I’d been interested in getting into cycling, and my brother-in-law gifted me an old Trek 400 road bike he was no longer using. I’d already purchased a Specialized Rockhopper mountain bike for banging around forest preserves, so the instinct to get on a bike felt natural at that point.

My Trek 400 was red.

The Trek had shifters on the down tube, which took some practice to use. I owned some mountain biking shoes and put clip pedals on the Trek to start riding the roads. At one point I even entered the Four Bridges bike race criterium that I’d sponsored as Marketing Manager for the Daily Herald. That experience was a rude shock. What looked so easy from the sidelines with bike racers whirring past was humbling when I got dropped immediately. Watching the pack roll away on the first hill made me both angry and sad. I vowed to get better at it somehow. But I wondered what it might take? I’d shaved my legs like an actual cyclist, experiencing razor burn for the first time in my life. How does one get better at cycling, I wondered? That answer would be years in the making.

Triathlon and transitions

At the same time, I got thinking about the sport of triathlon, so I signed up for swim lessons at the Norris Recreation Center. The instructor was a relaxed woman who taught me some stroke basics. But during that first lesson, I popped a contact out while removing my goggles and couldn’t make the next session, so it all fell away. It would be years before I sought the triathlon thing again.

Playing pickup soccer at the Sportsplex was still possible, and I’d gotten healthy enough to regain all my speed. One night a guy turned to me in the bench area and asked, “How old are you again?”

“I’m in my forties,” I replied.

“Well, you don’t run like it,” he said as a compliment. “You’re one of the fastest guys out there.” That made me feel good. But a couple weeks later, that relative speed would cost me dearly.

Toward the end of an evening of soccer, I was playing midfield because I’d gained confidence in my foot skills. When the ball came out of the backfield and I sprinted over to collect it. A guy tumbled in front of me and I jumped over him, planted my foot on the artificial turf, and went to turn. My left knee couldn’t handle the torque. I felt it disassemble from within. Rolling to a heap on the field, I grabbed my knee with both hands and rolled around on the ground. Guys gathered around to see what was up and one of them muttered, “Torn ACL, I’ll bet.”

Hobbling to the bench, I took off the soccer cleats I’d been wearing that night. They were “hand-me-ups” from my son’s soccer-playing days, a set of Red Nike cleats with reflective swooshes on the side. They used to flash in the sun when he was playing outdoor.

I set the shoes in the bag and limped out of the gym that night dreading the reality of what I’d just experienced. During all my years of sports from early baseball and sliding practice to thousands of hours of basketball on all kinds of surfaces, and even running steeplechase in college, I’d never hurt much of anything but a couple ankle ligaments.

Arriving home, I told my wife, “Well, I really did it this time.”

“You’ll be fine,” she tried to console me.

“No. This is a bad one.”

Surgery and rehab

Sure enough, once the swelling went down after a week I met with an orthopedic surgeon, as our medical plan at work had changed by then, and we scheduled surgery. “You have two options,” he told me. “We can take a bit of your patellar tendon or we can use a cadaver part. The first option takes longer to heal,” he warned. “But it’s a bit more likely to hold.”

For some reason, mostly vanity I now believe, I chose the cadaver part. I wanted so much to get back in action that I chose the less desirable option. My decision was affected by a sense of grief, a realization that the carefree physicality of youth was disappearing. Fearing some weird loss that was hard to express, all I wanted to do was get the knee fixed and prove that I could come back.

The doctors actually told me that people often get stronger overall thanks to physical therapy after surgery. That made me think back to our HMO doctor and his claim that PT was “fluff.” Now I’d have the opportunity to find out what actual physical therapy could do.

Lying on the bed waiting for surgery, I wasn’t nervous, but when a nurse walked in to check on me, I had to laugh. There I was, naked from the waist down, and the nurse attending the surgery prep was the mother of one of the youth soccer players I’d coached. “Oh, hello,” I managed to say. She chuckled and said, “Let’s get you ready.”

Rehab from surgery was painful and hard. The knee was thick and swollen. They gave me a machine that slowly bent the leg back and forth. I took a week off from work to recover, then wore a tall brace and used crutches. My daughter was still playing soccer with a different coach, so I attended one of her tourneys and walked all over the place on crutches, gaining raw armpits and a sore Achilles tendon on the opposite foot in the process.

Eventually, the PT helped. I loved the creepy-crawly sensation of the electro-stimulation they used on my quads. However, one of the therapists dialed it up too high one morning and my leg started jumping around like a science experiment. “Heyyy,,,, Heyyyy,,,,,,” I called out. They turned it down.

The wounds were weepy at first, draining down the compression socks I wore to work. My foot also stung from swelling, and I’d elevate the thing after driving thirty miles to work at the Daily Herald Arlington Heights office.


Then came the long road from walking with the brace to going without it. That took a month or so. Running was still not possible, so I walked the three-mile loop around the Fox River Trail and back. I could ride the bikes but had to be careful getting on and off, for fear of tearing the repaired ACL. I called it “Jake” after the guy that donated his “organs” and such after death.

For six months I patiently engaged in rehab and strength work. One benefit of the treatments was ridding myself of chondromalacia, a condition in which the patellar tendon rubs on the knee bones as a result of muscle imbalance and misalignment. PT cure that, and I was glad. After a few months, I dared a few steps running. I’d walk a ways then jog a little. It was all coming back together again.

A friend that I’d met through soccer gave me a sweet deal to join a chain of physical therapy facilities. That enabled me to work consistently. He prescribed even more exercises, and I did them. The company had a working agreement with the Chicago Fire soccer team, and I met the World Cup player Chris Armas and trained in the presence of others as well. One day a Fire player left a set of his uniform shorts in the locker room. I considered keeping them but decided that was a bit creepy, so I turned them over to my friend that ran the gym.

Returning to the pitch

After a year of rehab, and wearing a brace to stabilize my knee, I returned to playing soccer again. At first, I took it easy, but as time wore on my confidence in the knee grew. Our team was still functioning and I was invited to join the outdoor crew for the summer season.

But first, they asked me to help them out in a basketball league. I’d gone back to playing some pickup ball on weekends, so I accepted. However, their team was terrible. Most of them were decent soccer players, but they sucked at basketball. We had one decent other guy, our goalie in soccer, who was 6’5″. We lost every game all season by margins of 10-20 points. By the last game of the season, I’d had enough. I was determined to win at least one game. I told the team, “I know we normally sub on rotation. But I’m going to be honest, I need to stay in the game to keep it close at all.” They agreed.

For most of the first half, I kept us close, racking up points on jumpers and layups. Then the other team started to key on me and I got exhausted. We were down one point with two minutes to go in the first half when I subbed out and sat down. We went down seven points in the next minute, and were down twelve by halftime. At that point, I didn’t give up. But I was furious at the other team for mocking me when I got back in the game.

My competitive sense always treasured fairness. When teams acted like that in any circumstance, it made me crazy. Yet there’s only so much you can do. I was glad that basketball season was over.

Outdoor soccer

Then came the outdoor soccer season, where I quickly found that my running ability was a massive advantage in an over-30 league. Most guys were fit enough to cover the field with any consistency. But I was. So I started at forward, a new sensation for me. In the first game of the season, I broke free on the wing and was heading toward the net when the goalie came out. I tried dribbling around him but he got a hand on the ball. A teammate came over to instruct me on the right thing to do. “When that happens, just chip it over him.” My apprenticeship as a scoring forward was just beginning.

Had our family not moved to Illinois when I was heading into eighth grade, I’d likely never joined cross country in high school. My brothers both played soccer and it’s more than likely that I’d have followed in their path. As a speedy kid with great endurance and a scrappy demeanor, I might have been a decent player. My best friend from age 5-12 back at Lampeter-Strasburg HS played all four years, and I was a better athlete than him. So that’s my only measure of what “might have been.” Out at Kaneland in Illinois, the had neither baseball or soccer teams at the high school level. So I wound up in cross country and track. Such is life.

So the mid-life romance with soccer was a deferred and somewhat guilty pleasure. Getting to play outdoor was especially nice, because I could use my speed on the open pitch. Our next match was held on a smooth field in Schaumburg, but rain had fallen the night before and the turf was slippery. The footing was lmost greasy with underlying mud. Only eight guys showed up on our side and we were down 8-0 by half as a result. The other team was having a field day at our expense, laughing when they scored and playing rude games of keepaway. My anger grew by the minute. Right before half, I stole the ball at the top of the box and set my left foot on the turf and was about to strike the ball at the open net when a big old guy from the other team plowed into my leg and I felt a profound “Click!” inside the knee. Instantly I knew what had happened.

The joint felt loose as I walked off the field. I tried jogging on the sideline, but it was a no-go. I gathered up my gear and told the guys, “I’m sorry. I’m injured and can’t play anymore.”

Climbing into my car, I bent over and cried in the front seat. After two years of recovery, and a full return to playing sports, I knew that I’d torn the ACL all over again. I parked my car at a park on the way back home and sat there thinking. “Well, that’s that,” I said out loud. “I’m not fixing it again.”

I understood then, at the age of perhaps forty-seven years old, that the days of playing ballistic sports were over. I wasn’t alone in that. Guys my age were dropping out of ballistic sports right and left. Our Sunday night basketball groups fizzled out. Even our soccer teams dissolved. It was time to move on in life.

A deep grief caught up to me during that drive home. “Jake” had died all over again.

Posted in aging, aging is not for the weak of heart, Christopher Cudworth, coaching, competition, cross country, cycling | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

50 Years of Running: Going Big Time

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After the 9/11 tragedy rocked just about everything in American life, people looked for normalcy just about any way they could find it. At the same time, the newspaper industry in which I worked was getting slammed right and left by revenue shifts thanks to the advent of the Internet. First the Recruitment/Jobs advertising dollars migrated online. That cost the company millions of dollars in revenue. Then came the Real Estate market, followed by Auto ads and finally, retail advertising money. Millions of dollars of revenue started disappearing from newspaper pages and the newshole shrank as a result.

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The Daily Herald was forced to look at its business model, and one of the ways that life changed dramatically in my position as marketing manager was the use of “trade advertising” to work out relationships and partnerships. A new director was brought in to run the advertising department after years of phenomenal success under the prior guy, but when business takes a hit, someone has to take the fall. The advertising staff was shocked to see their leader ushered out because he was well-liked and did a good job. Then a “numbers guy” took over, and things changed fast.

We ran fewer “house ads” in the paper as well. These were ads run as ‘section balancers’ when the page counts were off. Newsprint was shooting up in price and it was expensive to throw paper at the issue. The Daily Herald had invested something like $50M in a new printing facility during its high times but when the Internet shock came along the margins to pay for that literal brick and mortar and the giant press it contained suddenly looked far less inviting.


While I’d predicted some of these problems to my marketing boss in the earliest meetings we held, I certainly didn’t view the newspaper’s money problems as mistakes caused by management. Quite the opposite. The measures we took to compensate for revenue losses were intelligent and well-advised. There was no precedent for the economic changes taking place in the early 2000s.

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Amid this environment, I wanted to find ways to promote the newspaper that didn’t cost money. In a previous job at the Kane County Chronicle, I’d organized a literacy program in collaboration with local libraries and the local minor league baseball team, the Kane County Cougars. The Rountripper Reading Program attracted sponsorship that I recruited with Everfresh, the juice company, as well as partners Pheasant Run Resort and others. It was a huge success with thousands of participants.

Big Ticket Reading Project

But the Daily Herald was a regional newspaper, not just a local one. So I decided to replicate and expand the concept of the summer reading program, calling it the Big Ticket Reading Project. First I reached out to ten area librarians and held a meeting with them to share the concept and explain that it was going to provide three levels of incentives for summer reading program participants. Once they approved the idea, I reached out to Panera Bread and landed a primo first-level sponsor. They agreed to provide a free Kid’s Lunch to every child that completed reading ten books. I targeted Panera as a sponsor because their food was legitimate. Real food, as opposed to fast food. Sure, the kids still got cookies with the meal, but treats are good too, right? The libraries tracked and distributed these prizes, so everything was well-documented.

The next level in reading twenty books was a Culver’s Ice Cream Cone, a great mid-summer treat.The final incentive was a booklet filled with free admission tickets to the Chicago area’s leading museums, cultural attractions, and entertainment complexes. The original list of fifteen sponsorsincluded the Art Institute of Chicago, Brookfield Zoo, Shedd Aquarium, Chicago Children’s Museum, and many others.

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The program started with 35 public libraries enrolled and 50,000 kids/families registered. Completion rates shot up to 75% at many of those libraries. That made the children’s librarians look good with well-documented metrics proving their effectiveness.

In 2003 the Publisher at the Daily Herald followed up on the program and called me. “I hear you built a reading program with 5,000 kids in it,” he said. “50,000,” I replied. “There are 50,000 kids in the program.”

“Well that’s great,” he responded. “What’s it cost?”

“Nothing, other than some time,” I told him. “The printing costs are all covered by Jiffy Lube and everyone in the program receives a subscription offer. “Toward the end of the year, I was notified that I’d be the recipient of the Administrator of the Year Award. Going Big Time had its rewards.

Growth and value

Over the next couple years we kept growing the program, adding libraries in every town the Daily Herald served. That was 90 communities, and we started receiving requests to participate from libraries outside our service area. Knowing that the Daily Herald grew by expansions, we added cities on our market borders including Aurora, one of Illinois’ largest cities, and other strategically targeted communities. Our booklet containing admission passes as rewards to those completing the program grew to 27 organizations with an average ticket value of $10. That meant every kid completing the program earned $270 worth of admission passes. With more than 100,000 kids then enrolled in the program, that amounted to a total value of $27M in incentives.

There were some near hiccups along the way. Some moms decided it would be cute to gather groups of kids together to take them to Panera all at once. That flew in the face of the program’s potential value to that sponsor. They legitimately got behind the program to promote “family time” at their many restaurants, and the offer of a Free Kids Meal was generous and a powerful incentive. When moms started showing up with bunches of kids in two, we had to send out word that the practice was frowned up. Sure, they had the legal right to do whatever they wanted, but we stood by our sponsor in principle.

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We also collaborated one year with Krispy Kreme, the “new kid in town” whose donut restaurants caused a massive rave across the Chicago area when the company entered the market. Given the buzz and popularity of Krispy Kreme, our circulation department was eager to meet with them to put together some subscription offers. I held an internal meeting with one of our circulation managers and made it clear to him that there was one rule we had to follow. “No discounting their products,” I told him. “That’s against their entire company policy.”

We were scheduled to meet with the public relations agency representing Krispy Kreme in Chicago and I asked our circulation guy if he needed any help putting the presentation together. “No,” he told me. “This is my specialty. I’ve got this.”

We drove into the city together and rode the elevator up to the PR agency offices. I will admit that I did not like that circulation guy one bit. The first day we’d met in a joint marketing/circulation meeting he’d reached across the table with his ugly chain bracelet rattling on the wood desk surface. He wore thin white short-sleeved dress through which you could see his wife-beater tee shirts and his ties were always a little too short. He wore a combover haircut and some aviator-style glasses with an annoying tint to them. Did I mention that I didn’t like the guy? He was a bossy little asshole who boldly told me that first day, “You job is to serve me!”

Exiting the elevator I noticed a fine sheen of sweat on his forehead. “Oh boy,” I though to myself. “What’s he got up his short sleeve?”

That moment made me recall the day I’d presented a value-added sponsorship program in the company of an advertising rep in the Tri-Cities office. During the presentation he started sweating so badly I was concerned for his health. It dripped off his balding head and his armpits bore dark stains.

I worried that the circulation guy was going to melt down in a similar fashion. We sat down and an account executive from the famous PR firm entered the room and said, “Thanks for coming down today. What have you got to show us?”

Then the circulation guy flipped open his computer and proceeded to show her three different programs discounting their product to help sell our newspaper. She stood up, stepped back from her chair and said, “I gave you specific instructions that our product was not to be discounted. This meeting’s over.” Then she walked out of the room.

I was furious (and embarrassed) but said nothing. He’d fucked up so badly there was nothing else to say. Every suspicion I’d had about his character was confirmed at that moment. He was a small-time thinker whose selfish instincts cost us dearly. Now I’d have to find a way to make up with Krispy Kreme and try to win them back as a partner.

The next day, I moved into damage control, apologizing to the PR rep for his mistakes. After apologizing, I laid out the benefits of working with us on the Big Ticket Reading Project and she liked the program. We’d landed a new, exciting sponsor. As a result, the circulation department also eventually got a deal from them. I demanded to see the final product before it went out. I didn’t trust them, to be honest.

Goals and changes

The original point of the Big Ticket Reading Project was to help our circulation department reach potential new subscribers. As I grew to understand the problems of circulation over a few years of working at the Daily Herald, it was “churn” among existing subscribers that presented a massive challenge. The job at hand was replacing somewhere between 30-40% of dropped subscribers on an annual basis. As it stood in the early to mid-2000s, the paper cited a circulation of nearly 140,000. that made it the third-largest newspaper in Illinois behind the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times. But the truth was something different. Like many newspapers, that circulation mark was essentially a mask worn to project total readership to advertisers and attract revenue.

To cover those churn numbers, the most effective form of circulation sales was person-to-person. Our marketing department booked more than 200 annual events at which the circulation department worked our booths and sold subscriptions. The contractors earned about $35 per sale so it was the incentive to earn hard cash and the ability to recruit subscribers that served as the lifeblood of the newspaper. They also traveled door-to-door selling subscriptions, targeting neighborhoods with special offers, usually discounts as low as $.99 per week versus the $4.99 many longtime subscribers paid. I found it a bit disturbing that our most loyal subscribers paid so much while new and often flighty households got the cheaper price, but the circulation department hated the idea of creating a “flat rate” for everyone. Many newspapers played that sort of game in those days, protecting baseline revenue while covering churn with special offers.

We also partnered with non-profit organizations offering to make a contribution from a paid circulation to a given group. I was responsible for many of those relationships, managing their respective trade advertising packages in exchange for using the names of those non-profits to sell subscriptions. One of the “best sellers” was Special Olympics, with whom we worked as partners at many levels. I attended Winter and Summer State Games, got to know their PR and management teams, and visited their big fundraising events of many kinds.

So our circulation people had the right to sell using the Special Olympics name. Then one day I received a call from the Director of Illinois Special Olympics with a complaint. “One of your people stopped by my house and told me they’re from Special Olympics and invited me to make a contribution and get a free subscription to the Daily Herald. What’s up with that?”

“Well, that’s clearly wrong,” I quickly admitted, then hung up and contacted our circulation department to receive a grudging admission that “some of our people might have done that.” So we put a quick stop to it. I’d worked hard to build trust with the Special Olympics people. I also understood the pressure to sell subscriptions, but doing so by deceiving the public was not acceptable. Few other methods worked as well as direct sales, so it was vital to keep the circulation sales dynamics working.

Tough sell

On the Big Ticket Reading Project front, we integrated a newspaper industry program called Newspapers In Education by bringing sponsors in to pay for copies distributed to libraries to provide “samples” of our product that counted as paid circulation. But the ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulation) was at that time cracking down on third-party circulation schemes because so many newspapers were playing games to cover circulation losses, and the ABC was responsible for readership integrity. So that ended.

And yet, the Big Ticker Reading program continued growth every year. By 2005 it passed the 100,000 participants mark. That’s when I lobbied to build a free-standing website. The regular Daily Herald website was deemed out of bounds for a promotional program because the newspaper so concerned with grabbing readership on the site and maintaining editorial integrity that there was no essentially “no room at the inn” for a program that wasn’t a mainstream product.

So I took a small budget of $5K to produce a Big Ticket website. Admittedly, I had little experience with website development at that point, so the initial site was basic at best. Working with a third party, we launched a website providing program information, sponsor listing and participating libraries.

What I really wanted to build was something far bigger than a mere portal or hub. The dream I had in mind with the Big Ticket Reading Project was to create a “community” all of its own, a “literacy hub” offering content focused on reading for everyone from kids up to adults. Back in the Roundtripper Reading Program days, I’d worked with an author named James Lehman conducting events at which he read his children’s book and families flocked to hear him. I saw the Big Ticket site as a potential revenue-producing entity all its own with content centered around reading but also drawn from the DH site as backlinks to the main website. I was frankly way ahead of the curve on that, and because the Daily Herald was so absorbed in its own website challenges, it was a struggle to get management to look beyond immediate matters and think bigger about what online “communities” might look like in the future.

Life interrupts

Into this mix of purposes, a hard shock of reality came into my life. During the winter of 2005, my wife Linda began experiencing severe menstruation problems. Her family wasn’t keen on rushing to the doctor, believing most problems resolved themselves in time, so she wasn’t eager to visit a doctor about all that. Besides, we were working with an HMO through the Daily Herald health plan which meant dumping the longtime family physician that had delivered both our children. Our new doctor through the HMO was a somewhat gruff former military doctor.

Despite these changes, I researched and found a female gynecologist and made an appointment for Linda. A scan showed some potential issues with Linda’s ovaries. That made me think back to when she’d had large ovarian cysts removed during the first few months I knew her. After that operation in 1981, I visited her in the hospital where proceeded to yank up the gown to show me the Bikini cut scar and I thought to myself, “Well, I guess we’re serious.”

So I knew that when the gynecologist recommended a laparoscopic surgery I should be there for Linda after surgery. I took a day off from work and sat in the ambulatory surgery center during the operation. After an hour, the gynecologist came out carrying several photo sheets and took me to a private room. “There were cysts on her ovaries,” she told me, handing me photos of what looked liked like a busted up meatball. “I did my best to remove them but they broke.”

I sat there for a moment trying to grasp what that might mean. Then she intoned: “We’re sending these off for tests because we’re concerned they might be cancerous. I’m sorry.”

Linda came out of anesthesia and I had no idea what to say to her. By the year 2005 we’d been married for twenty years. Our two kids were in high school and middle school. I was pragmatic in talking with her that day because we didn’t know what to expect. “Maybe they’re benign?” she offered at first.

Several days later the test results came back. “Your wife has ovarian cancer,” they told me. “It is Stage IIc, but it’s an aggressive form of cancer.”

I was on my way to work that morning, driving on the 30-mile commute from Batavia to Arlington Heights that I typically covered five times a week as well as drives to satellite offices in Dupage, Lake, and Kane Counties. I was constantly on the move in that job running events like golf outings, awards banquets, bowling tournaments, editorial symposiums, and collaborations with pro sports teams and non-profits such as the American Cancer Society…

Suddenly, in the midst of all that hubbub, I was the husband of a wife with cancer and the father of two children to whom I’d need to explain, if at all possible, what it all might mean. At the end of that first week, my former track and cross country coach Trent Richards got news of our situation and called me up. “Your whole life has been a preparation for this,” he told me. His words resounded in my brain. He was right. All the pressures and preparation I’d done in running, the competition and training, and conquering fear in the face of the unknown contributed to a sense of self-control in many situations.

But that wasn’t the last bit of bad news that spring. In May, we received the news that my mother was diagnosed with a form of lymphoma. She chose to be treated with oral medication rather than doing chemotherapy because she was the main caregiver for my father, a stroke victim living with partial paralysis on his left side as well as apraxia and aphasia, the inability to form words or speak.

Carry on

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is big-ticket-website.jpg

The emotional duress was considerable, but we launched the Big Ticket Reading Project in June 2005 despite the fact that one of my assistants miscounted the 75,000 Krispy Kreme free donut vouchers we’d been granted and sent bulks of them to just a few libraries and suddenly “ran out.” I had to let the KK people know the problem and they threatened to charge us for all 75,000 if they were somehow “lost” but fortunately we’d built a great partnership with our libraries and they counted them up and resolved the issue within a couple days.

That was payment for being as forthright as possible during the entire formative years of the program. I held annual program critiques with a panel of librarians that volunteered from within their ranks to troubleshoot each year. They knew that we were committed to doing things right. If mistakes happened, as they sometimes do, we communicated and solved them as quickly as possible.

Then the newspaper assigned a woman to “oversee” the program. Her title at the newspaper was Quality Control but basically, her job was hunting around to find things to stick her nose into so that she could justify her own salary. She pushed her way into our meetings with an insistence that the job at hand was making the program sell more newspapers and generate its own source of revenue. I explained that both of those things were possible with actual support from the organization, but she was determined to prove that she was the one that knew how to make things work going ahead. I will admit that I despised her intrusion, especially in the company of a Circulation Department Vice President whose people had behaved so badly on so many fronts. I told her, “We have enormous potential here. This could be its own source of revenue if we keep building it the right way, in collaboration with our partners.”

She was having none of that. “We want to see some revenue from this or we’ll kill it,” she told me.

A Facebook Moment

My goal all along was to create something “new” for the newspaper, an opportunity to capitalize upon “down the road.” I’m not saying that I’m Mark Zuckerberg, or that there was necessarily FACEBOOK potential to the Big Ticket Reading Project. But as Zuckerberg was shown speculating in the movie The Social Network “We don’t even know what this is yet,” I had a feeling that the program had potential beyond the traditional concept of newspaper business models. I was trying to go Big Time and the smaller thinkers and bean counters were having their way. Look at this video at about 1:40:

Unfortunately, I would struggle from that point on to control anything in my life, but especially corporate expectations. Life was hitting me from all sides in 2005. The only thing I knew how to do in some ways, given my long competitive history, was hit back. That’s not always the best strategy.

Posted in adhd, aging, Christopher Cudworth, coaching, competition, cross country, running | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

50 Years of Running: When the shit really did hit the fan

Back in college days, I became a big Warren Zevon fan. I dug into his albums because I liked the twisted lyrics and sad, crazy, needy, nutso characters he created. Zevon later became friends with Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, one of my favorite writers. They used to shoot and blow away shit in Hunter’s backyard in Owl Creek, Colorado.

I particularly liked Thompson because from the 70s on he tore into the increasingly deadly brand of conservatism he saw emerging from the Reagan years and on into the George. H.W. Bush era. Somewhere around this house of mine there is a Thompson book called Generation of Swine that tears apart the falsehood of Reaganism and the sinister evil behind the whole Bush family cabal.

Reading any Hunter S. Thompson essay is a satisfying venture. Short of Henry Miller’s description of sex scenes in books like Tropic of Cancer and Sexus, or the poems of Charles Bukowski, there are few writers as capable of literary catharsis as Hunter S. Thompson. I even loved when he ripped on the whole marathon running craze in his book The Curse of Lono. Because why not? I was a dedicated competitive runner when Thompson wrote that book but I always thought that running marathons was unnecessary to prove yourself.

Even the preeminent marathoner Bill Rodgers described the efforts of slow marathon runners as “graceless striving.” That was a cruel take on the marathon trend at the time, but it was true. When I accompanied Rodgers during a race appearance, a girthy guy shoved his head in the Volkswagen where Bill and I sat together and asked, “Bill, do you have any advice for a four-hour marathoner?”

Rodgers raised his famous eyebrows and replied, “You can run for four hours?”

The mythos of marathon running in its early days spoke often about the dangers of “hitting the wall.” One doesn’t really hear the term much these days. That’s because most marathoners treat the race as a running smorgasbord, gorging themselves on enough sugary fuel and water to propel a small truck if all those calories were converted to ethanol. Runners these days go chugging along for mile after mile, slugging gels and pouring energy drinks down their gullet, then throw their arms in the air after 26.2 miles and slap a sticker on their bumper matching their achievement(s.)

That’s all fine and good. The sport has changed from when I competed. We often raced 20+ times a year, with perhaps a half-marathon or two mixed in for interest. But multiple marathons? Or just two races a year? Bogus.

Now, I’m not one to complain that the shoes we wear these days are now “juiced” compared to the footwear from thirty-plus years ago. And I greatly admire the elite marathoners of today, and have grown to appreciate the marathon lust for what it’s worth. I’m slower now, and respect that trundling along at 9:00 pace does take work and dedication.

But we were guinea pigs in many ways back then. For the most part, the elites and sub-elites in our sport ran their guts out at shorter distances, frequently pushing the pace until, as Warren Zevon sang in Lawyers, Guns and Moneythe shit has hit the fan. Most of the time we could see or feel it coming. That “shit has hit the fan feeling” is also known as “the bear jumped on your back.”

It takes courage to run right into that zone where reality shifts and you sense that things are going to slow down in real-time. Life becomes a mini-nightmare in those moments. Legs become uncooperative. In fact, nothing seems to work the way you think it should. But many times, as a distance runner, you find a way to persevere nonetheless. It’s called having guts.

Then there are those people that are too stubborn or stupid to see it coming. Their training doesn’t prepare them properly and they either blunder or will their way into situations beyond their scope of ability. Perhaps you’ve seen this face before.

The look on the face of George W. Bush that day he was reading a children’s book in a schoolroom and the Secret Service came in to tell him that a plane just crashed into the World Trade Center was a definite “shit has hit the fan” moment for the then-President of the United States. His face went into a mask, you might say. The blood clearly drained from his brain, for a second, or at least the realization that his life just changed somehow altered the blood chemistry up there. Lord knows he understood something bad just happened, and he might be at fault.

Plenty of people say that George W. Bush could never have prevented the 9/11 attack. Well, that’s an opinion, for sure. He and Cheney were handed clear warnings about such attacks by the outgoing administration of Clinton/Gore. Then a key security advisor Richard Clarke reminded the Terror Twins that they might be advised to look out for bad guys trying to crash planes into buildings.

The Brookings Institution in 2004 outlined the facts this way:

“This, by any measure, was Richard Clarke’s week. The former counterterrorism czar roiled Washington and the nation with his accusation that U.S. President George W. Bush had failed to understand the threat al-Qaeda posed to the United States before Sept. 11, and bungled the U.S. response afterward. It was a stinging indictment of the Bush presidency, delivered with stiletto precision. And the impassioned response from White House showed that it hurt.

Mr. Clarke categorically denounced Mr. Bush’s handling of the terrorist threat. He blamed the President for “continuing to work on Cold War issues” even as the al-Qaeda danger mounted. He says that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice ignored his memo in January, 2001, “asking for, urgently—underlined urgently—a cabinet-level meeting to deal with the impending al-Qaeda attack.”

But Bush and Cheney were so giddy at having basically stolen the 2000 election thanks to his brother’s voter suppression efforts in Florida and the compliant resolve of the conservative members of the United States Supreme Court that they were rolling along like a pair of kids racing ahead of the pack giddy from the dopamine and endorphins of highly oxygenated politics until they ran the wrong way on the course and the truck of 9/11 ran their stupid asses over.

This is why millions of Americans and billions of people around the world sat staring at their TV sets the morning of September 11, 2001. Working in the newspaper business at the time, I knew that this was one of those times when time ceases to exist. Journalists do not sleep when the shit hits the fan. They refuse to close their eyes for any reason. One never knows when some bit of information or gem of truth might fall from the screen or come looping over the wires.

While I no longer worked in the editorial department––having migrated over to marketing the year before––I figured that anything was possible at that moment. I might be called back into action if extra staffing or editorial support was needed. That didn’t happen. Our staffing was prodigious at the time. We had the highest circulation-to-editorial ratio in the country. Our newspaper zeroed in on local angles and tracked down families or friends whose loved ones died in all that 9/11 carnage. One thing was always certain about the Daily Herald newspaper: with a very few exceptions (as with any organization) the editorial people were top-notch and dedicated. I keep in contact with many of them to this day because they are also honest, caring people with an objectively liberal sense of right and wrong, and I care about that.

The morning of 9/11, I watched on TV as the buildings tumbled straight to the ground. To my eyes, it looked as if they were denonated from the inside. A building next door went down that way as well. To this day I get a creepy feeling looking at that footage and thinking about the look on the face of George W. Bush that day. As a regular practice, I refuse to buy into conspiracy theories, but I also tend to trust what I see with my own eyes. The same sick feeling grabs me when looking at footage from the January 6th insurrection. If it wasn’t a pre-calculated event, then was it permitted, condoned, or somehow allowed from within to achieve some sinister agenda? That type of information, along with the Kennedy Assassination, is never fully revealed in the United States. We’re a country long dependent on obscuring its darkest secrets to make the claim of American Exceptionalism.

To say that I don’t trust Dick Cheney or George W. Bush is an understatement. I never trusted them long before 9/11 happened. Then their actions in the wake of that tragedy only proved the specious nature of their dogmatic determination to impose and execute their calculated neoconservative agenda on the world. Whether it was a grand plot or a grand excuse is hard to tell. The unbudgeted $7 trillion in American tax dollars that we spent in Iraq while cutting taxes on the wealthiest Americans is the type of corrupt dichotomy and hypocrisy the likes of Hunter S. Thompson never trusted, but often revealed.

It’s no wonder the economy eventually collapsed under the weight of such deception and lies. The same thing happened under Trump when lying about the Covid pandemic. Economics are highly susceptible to the poisons of untruth.

Trump caricature by Christopher Cudworth

It’s only gotten worse during the Trumpian age. Like that daft demagogue Ronald Reagan, Trump thinks his own shit doesn’t stink. And now, the ugly loop of Christo-fascism dawned during the Ronnie Days is closing tightly around the neck of actual democracy. Trump keeps tugging on it, hoping to choke the life out of any resistance he can see or sense. His ignorant henchmen and that toxic cabal of Bowling League Organizers like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz, Jim Jordan, and the rest have hold of it too.

They screech and cry that death to democracy means liberation for America. Meanwhile, Trump’s cult of Make America Great Again sycophants actually believes that less oxygen for democracy means more breathing room for them. We are in the age of Vindictive Vultures, the kind that both scavenge and kill for a living. They certainly can’t distinguish between people that “know their shit” and those that literally shit their pants, as Trump does, whose power Depends on others to ignore his lies, hold their noses and vow absolute fealty to a hero with a bad combover, fake tan and a Diet Coke demeanor that Warren and Hunter would both have blown away if were perched on a fence in a Colorado back yard.

Posted in Christopher Cudworth, competition, marathon, marathon training, race pace, running, running shoes, training, training for a marathon | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

50 Years of Running: Transition times

As a triathlete, I’ve gotten used to the term “transition times” to indicate how long it takes to go from swim-to-bike to bike-to-swim.

The first time I did a duathlon, before I took to swimming along with running and cycling, I ran the first two-mile section in just over 12:00, jumped on the bike and road as hard as I could, then moved through transition back from cycling clothes to running gear. As I emerged from the bike zone, my legs felt like liquid cement. I’d never really done a bike-to-run transition before. For all the running I’d done in life, including the most difficult distance race in track and field, the steeplechase, my legs had never felt that specific kind of “dead” before.

My wife stood outside the transition zone waiting for me. When she saw me trundling along with legs barely lifting and a sagging look on my face, she called out, “Keep going, honey!”

After the race, I laughed pretty hard about that moment. She was trying to be kind and encouraging, but there was also a bit of “I told you so!” in those words. I’d not done any “brick” workouts to practice the feeling of running after cycling as hard as you could. Lesson learned.

There are other kinds of transitions in life as well. Moving from one job to another can be a big of a drag. One day you’re engaged in familiar routines and the next you’re learning all-new tasks. The “new job” feeling can rob you of self-confidence quite quickly. It’s best to do some prep going into any new situation so that the shock isn’t too bad.

Transition to marketing

That said, I’d been with the Daily Herald for most of a year when the directive to transition to marketing came along. That meant an hour-long commute from my home in Batavia to Arlington Heights, a big suburb where the office sat facing I-90. The building looked like a ziggurat, with stairstep architecture from the lower stories to the top floors. Competitors in the region called the DH office the Death Star, named for the habit of consuming territory and growing circulation by reaching into towns across the Chicago suburbs. They weren’t wrong about the tactics. In many cases the strategy worked, but only to a degree. Circulation in new territories often hovered at 10% among households, whereas local papers; weeklies in particular, might reach 20-25%.

But the news coverage was exceptional, with the highest circulation-to-editorial relationship of any newspaper in the country. The brand tagline was “Big Picture.Local Focus.” That’s why I was promoted to market the company. The reach was big but the penetration, not so much.

I met with my new boss, a former Sports Editor who was bumped into marketing a few years before I arrived. He had a skydiving photo of himself on the wall. Ultimately I learned that he was extremely risk-averse. The photo was a weak attempt at showing what a venturesome guy he was. Most of the time he was reticent to try anything new. He didn’t like sticking his neck out in any fashion within the organization. I was the opposite, and felt I had a mandate of sorts to shake things up. When the President said, “We need new ideas in marketing,” I took him seriously.

So the dynamics were a bit awkward as we moved into the rhythms of working together. I was hired to cover all the regional offices, and there were several of them spread across the suburbs in Lake County, DuPage County, Elgin, and the newest Tri-Cities office where I’d been hired to work as an editorial writer.

Regional coverage

We had monthly meetings with the Advertising and Editorial managers at each of the offices. Each had a tiny little budget of a few thousand dollars to last them the whole year. A year into the new job, I’d hear the same President that hired me stated in a full-staff meeting, “I don’t really believe in marketing.”

What they did believe in was high-profile branding. That wasn’t a terrible strategy. The regional and main offices were all located on major Interstates or on high-traffic roads where the blue Daily Herald logo could be seen by thousands of commuters a day. The paper also served as the media sponsor for the Allstate Arena, a big-time venue situated on I-90 east of our main office. Our company had an entertainment box overlooking the main stage for concerts and shows and there were ice hockey and basketball games held there as well.

That’s the stuff my boss liked to do, hang out a high-profile sporting events and concerts. He also negotiated all the pro sports contracts with the Cubs and Sox and Bulls and Bears and Blackhawks. There were all sorts of deals made, mostly trading tickets for some levels of ads.

But the Allstate Arena deal was the biggest promotional expense our company had. The specific advertising agency with whom we had a promotional contract kept asking why we didn’t budget any dollars to do media or billboards. But that’s not where the company put its money, and that contract eventually dried up entirely.

What we had left was a marketing agency tied together with the Allstate Arena deal. It was staffed by a pair of women that showed up once a month to schmooze with my boss, and I wasn’t allowed into those meetings at all. I often wondered what happened in there, because that company and those women were supposed to bring us promotional partners. But that never seemed to happen.

Then my boss went on a trip to Vegas, which is where he liked to go on vacation for some gambling and drinking. Those trips were the only other time I saw him willing to take any sorts of risk.

Unfortunately, he came down with a bad case of thrombosis in his legs on the way back, resulting in a blood clot that could be life-threatening. I felt bad for him because it seemed like he at least came back from Vegas a bit relaxed. But not this time.

That meant I was suddenly tasked with managing his contract activities on top of mine. And since I’d just taken on the specific role of Community Relations Manager (with a $10,000 pay raise, so I was playing the game right for once…) the activity around the office picked up quite a bit for me.

So it was transition time. While I’d been kind of marshaled around behind the scenes with my boss in place, now I was an open-faced sandwich ready for inspection by everyone in the organization. But again, I was prepared. I’d studied what the organization was doing with its money and where its revenue strengths and weaknesses were. In one of the first meetings held with my boss and our staff, I remarked, “You know, we’ve got an 8% profit margin, which is fine as long as we don’t lose any advertising categories.”

But life was changing fast in the media world. The revenue from job listings was quickly moving over to the Internet. The company had to institute a cutback in revenue, and did so with a staff-wide requirement to take one unpaid day per month. Frankly, everyone loved the change, and when the policy ended, people were sad to lose that “benefit” even though it was nothing more than a cost-cutting measure.

But speaking of cost-cutting, I quickly realized upon first meeting with our marketing partner that the investment we were making on a monthly basis was not delivering the ROI anyone expected. The outlay was thousands of dollars per month, and I realized that the only thing that money was doing was paying the salaries of the two women that showed up once a month with their blouses unbuttoned so that their bra and boobs showed. At least, that’s what happened the first meeting I had with them when my boss was out of action.

So I made up a cost-analysis sheet and handed it to the Advertising Department head and within a few weeks the marketing agreement was over with that firm. I felt bad cutting the women out of their sweet deal, but given the company’s overall narrow cost-benefit margins, I felt it was my responsibility.

From that point forward, the Advertising Department took over negotiations with potential promotional partners at the Allstate Arena. I felt I’d done my job helping the company transition to a better option. We’d save more than $100,000 a year going forward.

World in transition

But things in the world at large were going to get strange. Because on September 11, 2001, while I was home waiting to head to the Tri-Cities office meeting near my house, I turned on the television to see smoke billowing from one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City. By then my boss was back and work and I called to tell him, “I’m driving up to the office today. We need to see how this is going to play out.”

A bit later that morning, I stepped outside my house to skies gone silent. All air traffic was halted in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. My wife came home from her preschool and we wondered whether we should pull our kids out of school. Yes, life changed that day. The whole world knew it was going through some kind of transition.

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50 Years of Running: Great joys and hard lessons

Before taking the job as an editorial writer for the Daily Herald, I wrote letters to the editor at the Chicago Tribune and other media outlets.

The day-to-day joy of writing full-time for a living was not lost on me. I truly loved writing columns and found it fascinating to edit national columnists’ work from all sorts of political perspectives. As editorial writers, our job was to take the bulk column writing from the nationally syndicated writers and pare it down slightly to fit the column-inch space our newspaper provided on the daily opinion page. Our newspaper published perspectives from Cal Thomas, Ann Coulter, George Will, Molly Ivins and several other political or social scions trying to get their point across about the American scene. We didn’t have to edit much, but taking out even 100 words from a column is tortuous work because it is important not to diminish the meaning or leave out some critical thought during the process.

It was easier to edit a rational conservative such as George Will than it was to condense the extreme screeds of Ann Coulter. Will often used baseball or other analogies to explain his positions, while Coulter just bellowed at whatever she did not like, and that was everything. Cal Thomas was as predictable as could be. He always took the stance that things were better in the old days and America was going to hell because of godless liberals. Then there was Molly Ivins, the liberal columnist from Texas whose jibes were lively and typically filled with colorful imagery.

I’d spend time reading each column through and tried to genuinely respect the intention of the writer. That’s hard when you disagree with nearly every word written down. Then it was sent over to a copy editor for grammatical checks and into the newspaper it went. As a kid, I always hated when my mother served us fried liver and lima beans. That’s what those conservative columns tasted like in my mind. The Bush II debacle was just beginning in America, and despite that rather obvious theft of power in the state of Florida, there was considerable tribal crowing going on from the Right about the mandate they’d received in the Bush election. That triumphal call to arms empowered conservative columnists to blame every wrong on “the libs,” and swallowing that brand of content while trying to do a fair and equitable job was not always fun. Plus, back then I did not fully realize that I have ADHD. But sometimes it caught up with me.

The real hard lesson came the day that I dashed off an editorial written in the voice of the newspaper that I had not thought out all that well. Later that day, I received a call from my boss, one of the greatest managers I’ve ever known, a guy named Dave Beery. He was one of the most rational, considerate, and intelligent men I’d met thus far in my career. I took his advice seriously.

“Hey,” he told me in a calm yet serious tone. “You’re getting an inter-office envelope today. I want you to look it through, and if you have any questions, let me know. I think it’s best if I don’t coddle this for you. Just read through what the Publisher had to say about that column you wrote and take it to heart.”

I opened the envelope to find a column I’d written (and published) marked up in red. Hardly a word in the 200-word column was left untouched. For a moment, I was crestfallen. It’s hard to see your work chopped up like that. Dave was right, however. A real journalistic pro needs to take every word seriously, and I had not done that. It went out as the voice of the newspaper, and I had to be accountable for that.

Hard lessons learned

I learned a hard lesson that day.

It reminded me of those running races where I wasn’t quite mentally prepared for competition. All it takes is a slip in concentration or even a second’s loss of will and boom! You’re out of the mix. So I slowed things down a bit and took into account that it was easy to slack off if you’re all hopped up on writing and start thinking you can do no wrong. That was the farthest thing from the truth.

I’m pretty sure some of the other full-time journalists wondered what I was about and why I’d been installed in the position, not having come up through the ranks as most editorial writers did. Our weekly meetings in which the other editorial writers convened by phone to discuss assignments taught me even more lessons about respecting points of view. My naturally competitive personality was not always appreciated, I’m sure. I also felt that the reporters on staff in our local office took a much drier view of what newspaper columns should be rather than some of my lighter attempts at entertainment. Such is the life of every writer. One has to learn their limits.

Change afoot

It was all going to change quite quickly anyway. Just six months after starting the job, the President of the company called me up one day with a proposition. “Listen,” he told me. “We’ve known each other a number of years, and you did some great marketing work for us back when you were a contractor. We need some new ideas in marketing. We want you to come to the Arlington Office as the community relations manager.”

“Does it come with a raise?” I was immediately bold enough to ask.

“We’ll see where it falls on the grading scale. But probably yes.”

That was that. After my short stint as an editorial writer in the eventful period when history passed the year 2000 mark (remember Y2K?), I was heading back to the marketing side of the business. Indeed, I received a $10,000 raise and my wife was ecstatic about that. For once after many years of flailing around in the corporate landscape, I’d played my cards somewhat right and was being welcomed into a business world where perhaps my talents were needed and appreciated.

10 That Do It Right

That was a heady time. The Daily Herald had just been awarded a prestigious recognition as One of Ten That Do It Right by Editor&Publisher Magazine. The publication reached 90 communities with a paid circulation of nearly 140,000. At the time, it was the third-largest newspaper in Illinois behind the juggernaut Chicago Tribune and its weird little tabloid-size blue-collar newspaper the Sun-Times. Everything in the business was about competition for revenue and circulation. Little did anyone know that the entire media business––and all other realms––were on the verge of being transformed by a new information channel that would take over the world. The Internet.

The surprise and shock of dealing with online competition reminded me of the time that our Luther College track team was faced with the spectacle of a runner that the previous year had been nothing special but arrived during our senior year in a form so quick that no one knew what to make of him. A guy that the previous season wasn’t breaking 4:10 in the 1500 meters turned into a sub-3:55 runner who was also capable all the way up to 5000 meters and down to 800 meters. Talk about changing the nature of competition! That’s how it felt to newspapers all over the nation when the Internet came to town. What is this fast animal we’re encountering?

The question was the same for everyone in the news game: How do we compete with that?

Posted in adhd, anxiety, Christopher Cudworth, college, competition, mental health, running | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

50 Years of Running: Moving meditation

When I landed the job as an editorial writer for the Daily Herald, nothing excited me more than producing weekly columns for publication in the newspaper. I’d first done a column back in 1980 when I was just out of college. It was titled Field Day, a weekly set of 500 words published in the Chronicle Newspapers along with my illustrations. I always wished I could have done that for a living somehow.

Having a weekly byline was therefore a dream come true. So I decided to double the fun and write two.

It wasn’t hard for me to come up with topics. Some journalists and columnists seem to lament the “burden” of having to come up with ideas for columns. I viewed the process differently. It was fun to write, and subject matter was everywhere. All I had to do was read the Daily Herald and there were controversies, political actions and news features all waiting to be written about.

I learned quickly that clarity is critical to being fully understood. When a restaurant owner sought approval to build a hotel on the empty lot next to his business, local residents burst into action with protests. But looking at the law and rights of ownership, I learned that the owner had the right to build what he wanted on the property because it was zoned for commercial.

Knowing that the neighbors were not in favor of the development didn’t sway my perspective. Yet I tried to write a column taking their concerns into consideration while still stating that the property owner had a right to use the space for a hotel as long as the city approved it. Well, both sides of the issue saw my column as favoring their position. My attempt at providing a “balanced” view only confused people.

Home school zealots

From that point forward, I stated my case in much clearer terms on the issues I wrote about. Some local homeschoolers were pushing the idea that they should get to play high school sports because the families paid taxes, and I pointed out that being home-schooled was a significant advantage in sports. It allowed students to practice at will without the constrictions of regular class schedules, and also provided unfair opportunities to rest or even sleep off early morning workouts. My argument was simple: “If you don’t attend public schools, you shouldn’t get to participate in public school sports.”

My column hit a giant homeschooler nerve. It spread across homeschool networks and the letters came from everywhere. “Who are you to decide what my kids can and cannot do?” was the basic refrain. I pointed out that my position was based on real-life experience as a competitive athlete. As a distance runner from middle school through college sports, I knew the demands of endurance sports first hand. But that didn’t assuage the homeschool rants. People and their money don’t like to listen to rational arguments about actual sports training and competitive advantages. Those folks only cared about their kids having it both ways.

I still think my position is correct to this day. It turns out the Illinois High School Athletic Association feels pretty much the same way. As stated on a homeschool website, here’s how it works:

The public school in question may be amenable to homeschooler participation, but they are held by IHSA rules which specify that all members of the teams that represent it, actually attend that school. The reasons for this are easy to understand. A school should not be able to use “ringers” or superior athletes who do not even attend their school to attain an unfair advantage over other schools in their league.

So if a public school wishes to offer this opportunity to a homeschooler in the area, how can it be done? IHSA 2003-2004 rules state that a homeschooled student may participate if the student is “enrolled at the member high school, …taking a minimum of 20 credit hours of work at the member school or in a program approved by the member school, and the student must be granted credit for the work taken either at the member school or in a program it approved.” (quoted from “Illustrations for Section 30.10 of the By-Laws”; also see “Illustrations for Section 4.010 of the By-laws”)

Despite the clarity of the law, the letters from homeschoolers poured in protesting the supposed injustice of my position on the matter, and those letters were pursuantly published in the newspaper. That seems like a bad thing from the perspective of getting bashed, but it was actually my job as an editorial to generate interaction with the paper. It is sometimes said of celebrities that “there is no such thing as bad publicity.” For editorial writers it is a bit different. It never pays to be dead wrong or to slander someone, as a columnist for another newspaper did. They got sued for $7M by the Illinois Supreme Court Justice and former Bears kicker Bob Thomas.

Gun scare

I did have one scare as an editorial writer. Every week we received letters from a guy that wrote basically the same gun rights letter week after week. He’d move some words around but it was basically the identical rant week after week about total gun freedom. We printed one of his letters a month, but he got mad when our paper wouldn’t publish his reiterations. Finally, he demanded that we talk it out. He showed up at our office in a green Army coat with his hands stuffed in the pockets. That made me nervous so I met with him in the outside lobby rather than bring him into the office space.

Fortunately, he wasn’t there to kill me. Instead, I calmly explained that our policies apply to all people and that our letter policies are clearly defined in our editorial page masthead where they were regularly published. He’d never seen them, and after that his pressure relented. I gave him some helpful hints about how to make his points in different ways, and he thanked me upon leaving.

Idea Generator

So I never lacked ideas but did think up many of the columns I wrote while out running. That’s always been my Idea Generator. That’s still true to this day. Some of my ideas for articles, columns, poems, or even whole books arrive as if thrown from outer space. I’ll be running along thinking about one thing and my mind races through a series of thoughts and suddenly something comes to me. I love that about running. It’s true with walking sometimes, and I now record TikTok content (@genesisfix) about my book Honest-To-Goodness: Why Christianity Needs A Reality Check and How to Make It Happen while out walking my dogs.

Moving Meditation

The other benefit of running is that it’s always been a form of moving meditation for me. The deep breathing involved in running enervates yet also calms my body and mind––together. I’ve done yoga and like it, especially once the racing thoughts have fallen out of my head and that space comes along in which I’m released from anxiety or the influence of ADHD. Vinyasa too.

But that sense of clarity and calm has always happened with running. It’s a cleansing act. Even worries dissipate or disappear during runs. I’m also better able to focus on executive functions after running or cycling or swimming. That’s why some schools are giving kids exercise as an antidote to ADHD. It wicks off excess energy and oxygenates the brain.

Slow to go

Sadly, it takes a bit longer to get warmed up and going well these days. One of the drawbacks of aging is the longer warmup time required to be fully efficient. Slogging through the first ten minutes of a run or a swim takes patience that sometimes lack. Now I try to be more forgiving with myself about slower average times overall, knowing that the first 2-3 miles are going to be in the 10:00-11:00 mile range. I still close under 9:00 and even under 8:00 per mile. My runs often result in negative splits. That’s okay. I’m still running.

I’ve always needed moving meditation to help my brain be creative and deal with the vicissitudes of life. In many ways, it has been the pen that writes my stories for me, wherever they appear.

Posted in aging, Christopher Cudworth, Depression, foregiveness, healthy senior, mental health, running | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment