Louisville Ironman awaits

Ironman Louiseville finish line.jpgIf the weather moderates as is predicted here in Louiseville, with only shreds of rain versus sheets of it, the day might be quite good for racing after all.

We arrived on Thursday evening and have had ample time to get Sue registered, change her team affiliation to the right organization, check in her gear and bike and organize all the Special Needs bags. In between,  we squeezed in an hour’s ride on part of the course.

She’s made it through work obligations leading up to this important week. Before that, she made it through four consecutive 100-mile+ weekend training rides and multiple long runs as well. Weekday mornings she’d rise at 4:00 am to do her prescribed training rides, swims and runs. She’s followed the instructions of her coach and learned a ton about the why as well as the how in the process of preparing for her second Ironman.

As we walked through the Ironman Village there were dozens more people like her. Fit women with shining thighs carved by miles of long training. There were hard-looking men as well, and also softer-looking versions of athletes whose journey to Ironman is likely tied to an interesting backstory.

Ironman Pageantry.jpgIt all plays out like an anime cartoon once the day begins at 7:30 in the morning. All those dark figures sleek and concentrated on the task ahead. Then the angular pros take their places at water’s edge and plunge feet first into the Ohio River, starting the day. Then all the competitors will swim upstream for 1300 meters and come swimming back under tall bridges with the current sliding past big yellow buoys. It’s all rather epic. I can see why Sue chose this race.

I’m aching a bit inside at the sight of all these prepared athletes. My left knee is still mightily sore from this past week’s likely cumulative MCL injury. Yesterday I scheduled an MRI two weeks from now. Then it will time to fix things and rehab.  When I hear someone say that a particular athlete is “fast” it sends my pituitary gland into overdrive. A shot of adrenaline gets unleashed, and perhaps a dose of testosterone as well. I’m past my competitive prime by 30 years or

In the interim, being an athlete from the sidelines is tantalizing. When I hear someone remark that a particular athlete is “fast” it sends my pituitary gland into overdrive. A shot of adrenaline gets unleashed, and perhaps a dose of testosterone as well. I’m past my competitive prime by 30 years or more, and admittedly feeling the effects of all those years of hard racing and training. But somehow motivation still courses through my arteries and veins. It goes out bright red and comes back blue and in need of oxygen. This is life, always dependent on the next breath.

So there’s a bit of vicarious desire flowing through me as I consider what the 2400 athletes must feel going into the race tomorrow. To my Sherpa credit, I’ve done some good training with Sue all summer. Shared in some of those hard, hot, windy days that vexed us on long weekend rides and runs. I’ve seen her sweat and smelled the truth of her efforts when she’s headed to the shower.

Sue before Ironman.jpgSo the Sherpa duty has been close and true. Now I look forward to cheering her on during what we hope will be a successful and fulfilling day. She’s done the training. Now it’s time to do the racing. When it’s all said and done, that’s all any of us can do.

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Virgin Territory a tale of determination

The book Virgin Territory is the new biography of American distance runner Craig Virgin. The book was authored by longtime sportswriter Randy Sharer and is available on Itascabooks.com , at Amazon.com or on Nook Book,

Virgin TerritoryA successful sports biography does several things. First, it gives the reader an honest assessment of the personality and performance of the person in question. Second, it compels the reader to consider the challenges that made the subject of the book unique. And third, it makes you want to turn the page and find out what happens next.

By all these criteria, the book Virgin Territory authored by Randy Sharer is a successful biography of the American distance runner Craig Virgin. The author spent more than six years researching the life of his subject. The two would spend hours on the phone discussing periods of the runner’s career and business venture.

A document of determination

If that seems a laborious way to create a book that covers 300 pages, then credit both Sharer and Virgin with the patience and determination to do it. And that happens to be the focus of the book as well. Sharer captures the source and path of Virgin’s determination, charting his life as a youthful farm kid in Lebanon, Illinois, where childhood struggles included malfunctioning kidneys, giant catheters shoved up his urethra and the ongoing pain and illness that plagued the boy

But these hardships never quelled his inner spirit. “Had I not gone through that experience in my youth with infections and having to learn to monitor my body,” Virgin said, “and then having to learn to disassociate from the pain of medical procedures or the pain when I got really infected, would I have acquired the skills to run through the pain that I did later on in my athletic career? I don’t know.”

Questions and insight of that nature fill the entire book. Virgin was a self-aware athlete from the beginning.  Even when kudos piled up for his exploits in high school and satisfaction with his accomplishments could have taken over, he set his eyes on achievements beyond what most Illinois farm kids could ever imagine.

Unknown territory

But that’s the point of Virgin Territory as well. While self-aware, Craig could not always prepare himself perfectly for the situations he faced as he raced past records set by America’s most famous prodigy, Steve Prefontaine.  Yet Virgin wasted no time in pursuit of running success across a spectrum of endeavors. He excelled in running disciplines including cross country, track, the roads and ultimately, the marathon. He placed second at Boston in a time just over 2:10. That still stands as one of the fastest marathon debuts among male American distance runners. 

Virgin freely admits that his sometimes scattershot approach might not have been the most efficient or effective path to an international running career. He freely admits in the book that he might have done some things differently. Yet he was an athlete trying to peer into the future in many areas. His experiments in converting successful running into business success were groundbreaking and opened doors for many athletes to follow. 

One lap at a time

But the painful truth of Virgin Territory is that the life of a distance runner must be lived one lap at a time. The last great race does not count for scratch the next time an athlete steps up to the starting line. “My major problem,” he admits in a section of the book that covers one of his peak periods of racing, “seems to be that I’m just not willing to compete when the going gets tough over the last 800 meters. No amount of training can help. I just have to be committed to racing over the last fourth of the race and not just the first three-fourths of the race. I just don’t compete hard. This is a problem that only I can face out and conquer. No coach, friend or family can do it for me.”

There is not a distance runner on this earth that has not confronted those thoughts. But the same sort of fears vex people in matters of business, faith and relationships. Can you carry it through to the finish. Get the job done. Ask forgiveness. Show love. And do it all with determination and commitment.


Virgin Territory covers the sweet yet often painful transformation of Craig Virgin from small-town superstar to a national and international champion. During a successful career at the University of Illinois, he won multiple Big Ten Championships and earned national titles in cross country and distance events while leading Illinois teams to greater success. 

This experience he quickly leveraged into a post-collegiate competitive career thick with racing at home and overseas. Virgin made progress in fits and starts, including training, sponsorship and coaching with semi-professional programs such as Athletics West, a Nike-funded project. Yet many of Virgin’s greatest accomplishments came while following his own training plans. 

This was where real determination came in. Virgin almost gave himself no opportunities to second-guess himself. Even during periods when he planned to take a rest, Craig frequently accepted invitations to race in everything from local 5-milers to sponsored races that helped pay the bills. As his professional commitments increased and he earned a management contract with a sports marketing agency, Virgin’s ‘down-time’ fell away. He flirted with burnout and suffered the classic signs of too much training and racing as he came down with colds or injuries related to stress and fatigue. This is a key lesson for any prospective or practicing athlete reading the book. Recovery is as important as hard effort. 

Virgin Territory shows how hard it was for Virgin to turn down an athletic challenge or promotional opportunity. The market for paid opportunities was not yet mature. Between sponsorship from adidas and racing for bucks at road races, Virgin’s revenue reached $120,000, a keen salary in the early 1980s.

But Virgin’s promotional bent had a relational cost as well. At some points in his career, his raw competitiveness perhaps rubbed his teammates or competitors the wrong way. But Craig Virgin was uncompromising in his ability to try his hardest at all costs.


Some of the world’s leading runners recognized the difficulty of what Virgin was achieving. Running legend Bill Rodgers noted that a World Cross County title “is worth Olympic gold medal status in my mind, but unfortunately, it’s not known in America.”

That simple statement almost captures the entire career of Craig Virgin. Consider that his greatest chance for an Olympic medal in the 10,000 meters was crushed by the 1980 boycott in which the United States stayed home in protest of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Thus it is no small irony that 37 years later, it is the United States entrenched in that same country.

That bitter truth proves that politicians, in general, have a poor appreciation of what athletes actually sacrifice for a chance to ply their skills and training. The end result is not about national politics at all. For proof, even the performance of Jesse Owens in the 1936 Germany Olympics did not dissuade Adolf Hitler from launching the Second World War. But had Owens been denied an opportunity to compete, the world would have been denied an inspiring example of determination and hope.

Olympic mettle

Even without an Olympic medal to his name, the story of Craig Virgin’s transcendence shows his Olympic mettle. Thus Virgin Territory is an inspiring read even for people that have never run a step. Author Randy Sharer painstakingly documents both the triumphs and failures, because one does not seem real without the other.  

But it was a long series phone calls between athlete and author over the years that brought the book to life. Virgin recalled: “We’d talk by cell phone as I was driving around the country, and Randy would read aloud sections of the book and we’d talk about parts of my career. Then I’d share what was going on in my head and my life at the time. I really give him credit for his dedication in all that.”

Stats and figures

The statistics of Virgin’s career don’t lie. The back of the book contains a spreadsheet showing a record of all the races the athlete ran in his career. “Probably I could have raced a little less,” Virgin shared in talking about his career. “But we all did that back then. We raced hard and trained hard. Probably that’s what cost me from the age of twenty-six through thirty when other runners had their best years. I faced a lot of injuries, or got sick from overtraining, and that held me back. By the end, there were still some good races in there, but my body just could not take it anymore.”

Virgin Territory documents some difficult events that came soon after Virgin’s athletic career was over. Some of it wasn’t pretty. But yet again, Craig Virgin fought through the challenge of a overcoming the effects of a life-threatening incident as if he were gutting it out in a long, hard race. 

Perhaps if that incident had resulted in his death as happened with Steve Prefontaine, Craig Virgin might be regarded in mythic terms as well. As it happens, his accomplishments have resulted in honor and kudos later in his life. Recently Virgin was installed at the University of Illinois Athletic Hall of Fame along with the likes of Red Grange.

Mythic figures

The height of that honor truly illustrates the regard that many have for this small-town athlete who went on to world-class performances in every running discipline. Significantly, Virgin’s record on the Detweiler Park Illinois State Cross Country course outside Peoria, Illinois, has yet to be broken nearly 50 years after it was set.

“If that record reaches fifty,” Virgin laughed in considering that notion. “I’m going to rent a party room and a big keg of beer. I never expected it to last that long, and it may go this year. If it does, I’ll be happy for whatever runner does it. Records are made to be broken.”

The book Virgin Territory was a labor of love for both the author Randy Sharer and its subject, Craig Virgin. It took tons of determination to bring the book to market in an age when getting a book published is akin to winning a national championship. But Sharer and Virgin teamed up and did a good job. And most significantly, they did it their way.

By Christopher Cudworth, We Run and Ride. 2017. 

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Assessing the damage

False SmileIn a long and athletic life so far, I’ve had my share of injuries and done some interesting damage to my body. The most recent is a dodgy knee that requires serious medical attention. That’s an injury I’ve been hoping to avoid, but some things are inevitable. With no ACL in that leg, it’s a tricky battle to keep things stable.

But I’ve had injuries that are acute as well as cumulative. So I ran through my memory banks to think of the some of the most profound injuries I’ve sustained or caused during participation in sports.

Busting heads

The first “sports” injury I can recall was being whacked smack in the head by a five-year-old friend swinging a golf club. It knocked me out cold.

But then in elementary school, I was always bruising my noggin’ playing competitive kickball. There was a swingset in left field and it was an automatic homer if the ball flew over the set and landed on the other side. My main mission in life was to prevent anyone else from getting homers because I led the playground with more than 100 over the swingset each school year. The price of my defensive struggle to prevent others from keeping up was ramming into the swingset and getting goose eggs on my forehead at least once a month. My mom got sick of the calls and told the school nurse: “Just put ice on it. He’ll be fine.”

I also got stabbed in the face by the buck teeth of a fellow softball player on the playground. It gave me a huge black eye, my first. But not the last.

And at some point during a pickup football game I was shoved into a concrete ditch by the older brother of a friend. That’s how I picked up a wicked concussion and had to cross a big road on the walk back home while seeing double. The gash required stitches and I got to stay home several days from school.

Organized sports

In middle school a teammate in eighth-grade basketball rammed his head into my knee while doing sprint drills. The knee swelled to triple its size and required treatment. The doctor stuck a six-inch needle inside the kneed to drain off a quart of black and bloody fluid.  I stared at that jar and looked at my father. He shrugged. But it was disgusting. True to form, however, I was back playing ball in a week.

Playing league baseball was always good for injuries. Spike wounds in the ankle never tickled. I also chipped a bone in my elbow trying to steal home one summer day. That put me out of action the entire summer. But it was a line drive to my front teeth at twilight that did permanent damage to my mouth. I have a fake front tooth as a result of that. Some injuries last forever.

Ankle time

My ankles were always strong and I was agile enough to avoid many sprains in high school hoops. In fact the basketball helped me avoid many common running injuries. It also helped make me into a decent steeplechaser.

Indigo ShoesBut eventually the mileage in track or cross country would add up to some sort of overuse problem. I’ve had IT band tightness, chondromalacia of the knee, hamstring pulls, multiple periods of Achilles tendon tightness and calf pulls over the years. There were also groin pulls and back pain from hard or long workouts. I’m slightly bowlegged, which increases the angle of torque on my lower legs. That reverberates back up the body in some ways. But I’ve made it work for a very long time.

Decades of use and abuse

None of those injuries ever stopped me cold. I held up very well through two decades of competition, running the mile in just under 4:20, the 5K in 14:45 and the 10K in 31:10. Not world class times, but respectable, especially this day and age, when 5Ks are typically won in 18:00 and 10Ks in 35:00. As the front cover of the Chicago Tribune section about the Chicago marathon said, “It’s about Community, not Competition.” Those were the headlines in an Advocate Health Care ad. They say as much about the culture of running these days as they do about how much it’s changed from forty years ago.

Being a dad

In my late 20s, along came fatherhood, and running took a back seat to being a dad, and making a living. When I emerged on the other side of 40 after coaching soccer for the kids all those years, I started playing indoor soccer myself. Then it was back to the joys of ankle sprains and groin pulls.

But I was also pulling things while playing basketball in pickup leagues. So I consulted the family doctor to see about getting physical therapy as preventative care, but he said, “Ah, that’s a bunch of fluff.”

And that same year, in keeping with my dire instincts that my body was in need of strength work, I tore my ACL playing indoor soccer. Six months later I had surgery and started the long rehab process. I was determined to return to playing soccer and basketball again. I accomplished that and made it another two years. But on a hot spring day on a wet field, I got tired and a player struck my leg with his knee and the cadaver ACL in my knee gave way.

Fake it to make it

So I’ve been faking it since probably 2013. I’ve been able to run and ride thousands of miles without an ACL. But now that my body is aging a bit, the cocky little rooster of prolonged competition has come home to roost. Cock-A-Fucking Doodle-Do. It’s time to wake up. 

I’ll be crowing if there’s some sort of quick fix, but not holding my breath. It’s likely this is a problem built over years of running without an ACL to stabilize the knee. The medial collateral ligament is just sick of it. And it hurts.

But I largely know how to handle injuries. I’ve had a great career so far and have come back multiple times from painful conditions. It’s harder as you age, but not impossible. Five years ago I went down on the bike in a violent crash caused by bike wobble. That required a surgery to fix, but weeks after it was fixed, I got back on the bike before winter came.

There is a good strategy to all of this. Be persistent to find good doctors. Press them for a plan that is concrete. Granted, no surgery is entirely predictable, nor every treatment a guarantee. That’s what makes this scene from Trainwreck so freaking hilarious. I’ve had a couple physician consultations that were about this weird. I was also prescribed a steroid painkiller by a college doctor that was equivalent to the amount normally given to HORSES. I wandered the campus dazed for three days before a doctor at the Mayo Clinic got a look at the prescription and when WHOA. I mean, WHOAAAA. 

So that ended that.

Without provocation

IMG_0124But I’ve also done some absolutely stupid things on the bike without cause or provocation. Like crashing into a downed tree. That accident resulted in a massive bruise on my lower back, a crushed iPhone and a bloody chin that required stitches. It took two full years for my massage therapist and a chiropractor to break down the scar tissue from that little joyride. It was all due to riding with my head down while thinking. Some call that inattention. I call it experience.

This is only Day Two on Injury Island, and I’ve been in touch with the ortho again and am scheduling an MRI. We’ll take a look at what this MCL is up to, and in my mind, make a decision on how to plan for the next ten years.

Because I don’t want to give up running. There’s really no need. It may require a brace and some PT to put me back on the road, but this guy isn’t done yet. I’m assessing the damage just like an insurance adjuster. Then I’ll claim my destiny back again.



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Becoming a Survivor on Injury Island

Desmond.jpegYesterday I walked right into a reality show. I was out shooting video for a documentary in our town when my knee gave a jolt and bam, I was transported to a place that I never like to go.

Injury Island.

You may be familiar with Injury Island. It’s that location in the universe where time stands still and it’s impossible to get off until you find a cure for what ails you.

I should have known it was coming. Yesterday morning while doing some male grooming I put my Harry’s razor behind my ear to make sure there were no secretly long hairs growing there that had escaped the clippers. This is based on a prior experience in which I discovered with a degree of horror that my habitual manner of buzzing my skull with electric clips somehow missed an entire grove of silvery hairs behind my ear.

This I found out while adjusting my sunglasses on the way home from a ride, and I went, “What the hell?” And the minute I walked in the door that morning I walked straight upstairs and mowed the Back 40. Because unkempt silver hair is not a good look on men. Ever.

Homicide_crime_sceneSo to make sure that I wasn’t walking around with a scene from Apocalypse Now from going on behind my ear, I put the razor back there and gave it a short swipe. And Lordy I cut myself good. The sting was immediate, and blood started to flow. I grabbed some toilet paper and jammed it behind my ear. It’s amazing how bright red blood looks when it is transferred to a bright white sheet of toilet paper. “That came out of me?”

After a dab of Neosporin to coat the wound, I somehow got a bandage on the back of my ear. It looked just like a hearing aid. Necessity demands all sorts of inconveniences in life, especially when you’re about to enter the alternate universe of Injury Island. After all, it wasn’t like I was dying exactly, or the victim of gun violence like the poor soul in the photo above.


Because later that morning while walking around doing the documentary, my knee gave an ugly little yank and the pain along the inside of the left knee was profound. This has been on the horizon some time now. Just two weeks ago I went to the ortho for a diagnosis. Then I visited with the PT specialist, and she basically told me to go home and do knee bends. Here we are in the 21st Century, playing Back to the Future with exercises from the past.

But doing knee bends won’t help me get off Injury Island anytime soon. Like the characters in the television miniseries Lost*, I want to escape and at the same time realize the present gives me an opportunity to fix past mistakes.

So I did a Messenger appointment with my ortho friend and said, “I want a PLAN. Not just suggestions.”


That means there’s an MRI in the near future. Because this knee actually hurts now. The medial collateral ligament has been popping on me for more than a year now, but this is reality. It’s time to figure out what’s really, really wrong.

The history is there. No ACL in the left knee. I’ve been getting away with it for fifteen years now. But instability adds up to bad things.

False Smile.jpgIn the meantime, I bought a brace that wraps just below the knee. $9.99 on Amazon. That’s allowed me to put a false smile on my face for a few days. Next comes the MRI. Then the Reality of what I’m really facing.

I may be on Injury Island for a while. Always hard to tell. In my long career as an endurance athlete, I’ve been through broken clavicles and plantar fasciitus, sore hamstrings, shin splints and blue balls, to name a few of the conditions one can face on Injury Island.

It’s not a fun place to be. But you have to play the game in order to get off. We all hope it doesn’t turn into Hotel California: “You can check out any time you like…but you can never leave…”

Racing isn’t looking like a probability at the end of October. Not when the knee is so unpredictable. Who wants to race when you can’t tell if your knee will turn into a test of reality?

It can hard to get off Injury Island. Only time will tell.

* From a description of the show Lost: “Moments later, Desmond met Jack Shephard, while training at the same stadium. During their short conversation, Desmond suggested that Jack is running the stadium stairs because of frustration having to do with a woman

Note: but actually, Jack was running off steam from the frustration of having lost a patient on the operating table. Thus life is never quite what it seems. Desmond was projecting his own worries onto another human being. It’s a quite common theme in this world. Or another. 

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Cryptically speaking, we’re all scarecrows of some sort

Cryptic guy.jpgYesterday morning I fully intended to go to church. I had the check for the offering in my shirt pocket and had worn my favorite pale gray stretch jeans. But the journey north to church included a stop to photograph sparrows at a park in Geneva called Prairie Green. The abundance of birds got in the way of my travels to church.

Sparrow Flight.jpgThis is peak bird migration season. And while sparrows may bore you in concept, in reality they are quite beautiful to see when you know how and where to look. There are fifteen or twenty species that come through our area. Some have plumage that is quite striking. Others are rich in russets, browns and streaks.

That also means they can be hard to see against dense brush. That’s the point. There’s this thing called cryptic coloration in nature, better known as camouflage, that birds and many other creatures have evolved over millions of years.

Plumage, fur and scales have diversified into all sorts of patterns and “kinds” of living things. These adapted traits contribute to their individual and collective survival. Evolution is a remarkably ingenious thing because it functionally prepares creatures to occupy niches not at will, but by design.

Buckeye.jpgThat is not to say that creation is the product of what religious folks like to call ‘intelligent design.’ The whole thing works just fine without any help from above.

I even say this as a person of faith. I view the Creator as the manifestation of love and wholly real to the spiritual side of human consciousness. I’ve seen evidence enough of that in this world to truly believe. But I don’t think we have to break apart the laws of nature and material reality like they were so many theological croutons to try to prove that God exists as some kind of control freak author of all creation.

Personally, I don’t think God cares all that much if we grant the Almighty that status. God certainly doesn’t care who wins a football game or even a footrace. When people point to the sky and say “Give God the Glory,” I want to ask, “Why would he favor you over all others?” It’s false humility. Case closed.

What God does care about deeply is how well you treat your fellow human beings. And that means win or lose. Wise people know this. That’s why Pope Francis recently said, “All scripture that does not lead to the love of Christ is obsolete.”  In case you don’t discern the cryptic meaning there, he’s speaking directly to the legalists and literalists among us who are such theological tight-asses they behave just like the religious authorities of Jesus’ day. And he called them hypocrites and a ‘brood of vipers’ for their manipulative law mongering and public praying.

And what about all those ‘go along to gain power’ evangelicals who voted for Trump? In the words of Colonel Slade in Scent of a Woman, “Fuck you too!”

They’re the same bunch who can’t conceive that evolution is capable of all this creativity. They also ignore the fact that Jesus taught using highly metaphorical parables based on organic sources drawn directly from nature. Get. A Fucking. Clue. In other words.

But yesterday I didn’t go to church because after birding, I spun around back home and got dressed for cycling. The wind was not strong and the day was so bright it absolutely demanded that I take the Venge for a spin. So I rode my favorite route of late and wound up circling past the cryptic little farm near my house where there are real flocks of guinea hens roaming around, fat hogs with bellies that touch the ground and even a chrome buffalo sculpture made from car bumpers.

BewareI paused to take a photo in front of a farm gate which is decorated with funny signs. The humor was hilariously dumb, but I thought, “Look at this, I fit right in!” It was like cryptic camouflage for this guy, the main perpetrator of Stupid Dad Jokes and Bad Puns.

Which meant I was very happy to pose by the signs that hid me from the real world for a few moments. It was shady, I felt good on the ride and I felt like I was in the company of kindred liberal spirits. God has a bad sense of humor, why shouldn’t I follow the lead?

Later that afternoon, I was planning to join my daughter and her boyfriend for a trip to a different farm named Kuipers, an apple orchard west of my old high school that sits on a glacial rise in the open fields of Kane County.

I ride by that farm many times over the cycling season. It goes from a cold spring property where the apple trees are bare and spare and a few bad apples, like sinners still hung from the cross, cling to the hard black branches of winter.

Then comes April when hopeful blossoms greet early pollinators, and bees for the most part venture out to gather nectar on warmer days.

Come June the leaves come in full and shroud the tiny apples budding from the blossom points. Then come the hot days of July and August when those fruits turn gold and red and yellow. There is no single tree that sits at the center of the orchard by then. They are all tempting.

Down on the Farm.jpgRiding past all this transition during the year marks the passage of summer days and pending fall.  Indeed, it even calls up memories of early childhood, which seem like past lives to me these days. I am a reincarnation of my younger self in so many ways. So this Polaroid taken yesterday by my daughter feels like it was snapped in 1962, but is so very 2017 at the same time.

It has been hot in Illinois these past few weeks, so nothing resembling a true October chill has come close to us. And no first frost. So I keep riding past the hill where the apple orchard crouches, and it still looks like summer. But now there are thousands of cars coming and going on weekends and pumpkins litter the grounds.

The cars headed to Kuipers roared past me on my way up a country road toward Kaneville. So when I stopped at the intersection in town I asked through an opened window, “Where is everybody going?”

The woman inside the car told me, “Well, we’re going to Kuipers.”

There was no hidden meaning in that.  Not on the surface, anyway. People were driving country roads to Kuiper’s because they were responding to some set of autumnal instincts that even they could probably not explain. Purchasing pumpkins, honey and apples, mostly. It’s what we humans do in October.

That is not all that different from the sparrows I watched in the fields feeding on weed seeds and crickets. That’s what birds do in October on their south.

Swamp Sparrow.jpgBut you know me, I always look for the deeper meaning in everything. So I looked up the word ‘cryptic’ just now, and here is how it is defined:


cryp·tic ˈkriptik/
adjective 1. having a meaning that is mysterious or obscure.
And as I walked through the Kuiper’s store and grounds, I began to think about the long tradition our family has in going there. Then I thought back to the other farms where I’d lived or grown up in my youth. I know what it means to try to get close to the land in some way…anyway possible.
Then I looked at all those people wandering the Kuiper’s farm, and realized the secret meaning of their presence. We are all searching for that present place where actual earthly connections can be found.
Yet we are all too often divided from this early realm by our own food chain, or divested by nature of our transportation, determined as persons by our wage earning power or outright discriminated against by our face, our race, our gender or our orientations.
For there are people who know too well how to exploit those traits, and will do everything possible to keep people from breaking through their cryptic existence to grasp reality.
Scarecrowpixels.jpgAnd should farmers think they are all separate or above the seeming confused eating habits of the civilized world, the hard truth remains that they are just as tied to the markets sucking grain out of their fields as the rest of us. And somehow they have been convinced over the years to often vote against their best interests by people who know how to mix a literal God with a mindless free market to create a Scarecrow America that they’re all supposed to worship.
It made me realize that we are all living some sort of cryptic life. Each set of our beliefs and the imaginations that drive us are effectively camouflage for the realities we all face in this world. Which helps explain why a lonesome scarecrow gives us the creeps. They are cryptic reminders of our own frail imaginations and the mortality from which they protect us.
And if you ever hear me calling out
And if you’ve been by paupers crowned
Between the worlds of men and
I can be found.
Lyrics from Scarecrow’s Dream by Dan Fogelberg
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On roots and transitions

Soil-1-1024x683.jpgThe transition of ownership and management in world of farming is one of the vexing challenges for families that have passed land down from one generation to the next. “The older generation struggles to let go of the reins,” says an article in the October issue of Harper’s Magazine. “To trust their kids to carry on a long and fragile tradition.”

Those of us who don’t make our living directly off the land have our transitions too. Just last year during the first two weeks of October, I was deeply involved in clearing out the home that our family had owned for twenty years. It was not easy work clearing out stuff that no one needed while separating and storing family keepsakes and mementos. It was all the more difficult with the memory of my late wife popping up at every turn of a page or opening of a box.

Uncomfortably numb

riding-twilight-zoneBut it got done the same way it got done when I cleaned out my father’s house earlier that same year. There were dumpsters full of stuff that we’d accumulated over decades of living in those homes.

The weight of all that assessment and the decisions that go with it can be hard to shake. Some days I’d be so tired from cleaning out the house…that a run or ride was the last thing I wanted to do. When the feet are numb and the legs ache, the notion of going out to run and additional five miles just doesn’t seem inviting.

Hitting the bricks

Some days I still did it. That was an unusual form of “brick,” to use the triathlon term that applies to engaging in one workout immediately after another. A typical brick is doing a run right after a bike ride. Just last weekend my wife rode 104 miles and then ran a four-miler when she was done. That brick was hard. But she did it.

During a true “transition” in triathlon we change clothes and gear as we shift from being one type of athlete to another. In fact, that’s the dictionary definition of the word transition: “the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another.”



Next week I happen to be enrolled in a seminar through work that will focus on the subject of transition. The director of the seminar, Dee Cascio, was seeking input from scheduled participants so that she could better gauge what people wanted from the experience. I accepted a request to be interviewed by phone about what we’d like to learn from the seminar.

We talked for half an hour by phone late yesterday. During our conversation we discussed some of the events of my life the past ten years. Going backwards, that included getting re-married and starting a new job this past year. There was also the move into our home last fall after clearing out of my former home during October. Before that there were all the financial decisions to make the whole home purchase work. That came after several years of dating Sue, which led to a marriage proposal in April of last year. But I got overexcited and forgot to give my kids a heads up that I was about to pop the question.

So it’s all been about transitions. Change.

Life has truly been like a triathlon for me. Going from one event to another.

Healthy change

Cypress Knees

Roots and transitions in a Virginia swamp

I’m fairly healthy about dealing with change. Yet once in a while the world seems to shudder to a stop. It’s almost like I get off for a moment, look around and wind up asking, “Where the hell am I?”

Perhaps you’ve had the same sort experience during a long bike ride or a run. We take for granted that we’re humming along and suddenly a weird reality kicks in as we’re passing some benign thing like a cornfield and the brain goes one step further: “Who the hell am I?”

Sometimes the evidence of transition comes from external sources. When my son stayed with us during a transition between his home in Cleveland and his new home in California, he was shocked to find out that Sue and I hire a woman to clean the house. “Who are we?” he asked.

Cleaning house

But with all the time we spend working all day and then working out in morning and evening hours, then buying groceries, paying the bills, keeping up with friends or church or other obligations, the time to clean the house gets scarce. Plus the gal we hire is almost like a relative to Sue.


The fact of the matter is that we all put down roots in different ways. They say the biggest organism in the world is an aspen grove, for it can cover miles with its underground root system. The pretty trees we see aboveground are only a fraction of its total being. It travels by roots.

Roots of a different kind

By contrast, farmers depend on sticking seeds in the ground and tearing the soil up again each year. Yet the bond they feel with the land is strong. They put down roots of a different kind, one might say. These are hard to give up when it comes time to step aside and let the next generation take over.

That is the ultimate transition in life. To recognize mortality, the grandeur and the value of life itself. People can sense the importance of that no matter how they put down roots. Even a rambling fool that has never held a job more than a year, who wanders around on foot or a motorcycle, a beat up old car or a sleek mobile camper with electric to run air conditioning at a national park still finds some sense of those roots somehow.

It’s all about roots and transitions. Everything we do.

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Through the land of corn and soy


A pair of sandhill cranes feeding on a recently harvested soybean field. Photo 2017 by Christopher Cudworth

Our home sits on the edge of civilization where suburban homes give way to agricultural land. The farm fields extend 120 miles west to the Mississippi River, broken only by towns with a farming history; Dekalb, Dixon and Rock Island.

Right out our back door, we can jump on the two-lane roads that section thousands of acres of corn and soybean fields to the west. Each spring as the winds blow from March into May, we wait for the planting to begin. And come fall, we watch the combines mow down the crops and suck grain into trailers that carry it to giant circular commercial silos. There it is weighed and then carted off to be turned into a host of products upon which the world depends.

We spout all the necessary cliches as the crops rise in height each summer. “Knee high by the 4th of July,” we sputter about the corn in June. But more typically, we welcome the cheerful blue faces of chicory that grows in the disturbed soil along the roadside. Our eyes are so focused on the wheel ahead there is not much time to raise our heads and truly look around.

Engineered landscape

And once you’ve seen one corn or bean field, you’ve truly seen them all. Crops these days (especially corn) are genetically engineered by height and planted with such precision they resemble waves of robot armies from the prequels in Star Wars. The actual corn appears in frighteningly consistent rows about waist-high to a six-foot-tall man. I know, because I’ve stopped to pee a few rows into a cornfield. The silence in there on a hot summer day can be haunting.

It can also make you feel pretty feeble and small while riding a bike or running past those fields once they are stripped bare. The landscape opens up and the Canada geese and cranes sweep in to gorge themselves on wastrel grain.

Corrective measures

Which brings hunters out in the fields with decoys to pop away at Canada geese. There are an estimated 60,000 Canada geese that reside in the Chicago area as permanent residents. That means the hunters are usually bagging their limit, and the golf courses wish they would shoot even more.

I’ve watched these rhythms emerge over the decades since moving to Illinois back in 1970. There were more alfalfa fields back then. That was an attempt to plug nitrogen back into the soil. But soybeans do a great job of that when alternated with corn. So the landscape has shifted to a cash crop that also repairs the rape of the prairie soil that started back in the mid-1800s.

From prairie to soy

That all seems distant now. There is only 1/10 of one percent of natural prairie left in Illinois. Prairie restoration is popular in parks and on some corporate campuses. But compared to the acres under corn and soybeans, there is no contest. That means corn gives way one year to the stubby growth of soy beans the next. It all dominates the landscape.

An article in this month’s Harper’s magazine chronicles the changing face of agriculture and how soybeans have taken over for other cash crops in the last 100 years. “In 1920, there were fewer than a million acres of soybeans planted in the entire United States. But soybean production boomed beginning in the 1930s––surpassing barley production by 1940, cotton in the 1950s, oats in the 1960s, and wheat and hay in the 1970s. This year, the number of acres planted to soybeans is expected to reach 90 million––and almost all of those acres are concentrated in the Midwest and on the Great Plains.”

It all got started when a guy named Henry Ford latched onto the idea of farm crops feeding the industrial complex. Automation lent itself greatly to farming efficiency. Unfortunately it also largely overwhelmed the concept of the family farm. Now technology drives the farming business. The family farmer wherever they exist is little more than a cog in a wheel. The rest is baldly orchestrated industrialized agriculture.

Just another cog in the wheel

IMG_6488One could say the same thing about every cyclist that pushes thin rubber tires down the road. We fancy ourselves independent of the forces that drive globalization. Who isn’t free when riding a bike? Yet we depend on the asphalt laid down by every township, and curse the cheapo districts that use that rough chip and seal stuff on roadways out in the country. So we stare ahead in hopes the road will smooth out again. In the meantime we bump along on the chip and seal that vibrates down to our very soul.


The ride is our planting. The smooth road and pace, our harvest.

We would have to be willfully blind to not notice the shifting face of fields here in Illinois. It isn’t much for scenery, but it is all we’ve got. So it pays to look around a little and make casual note of the shift from corn to beans as it happens.

There are the smaller treats as well. To revel in the glance at small streams coursing through channelized ditches. Then we follow the flight of a kestrel from pole to pole until it tires of the game and launches across the fields to the next fencerow.

Winter falls

Come winter the fields get brushed by snows if we have any at all. Last winter after an early snowfall there was nothing for more than 100 days. The dearth of snow was accompanied by relatively warm weather in January and February. Come March we got blasted with rain storms that swelled the wetlands behind our house. Soon we had wood ducks  waddling up to our bird feeder to dine on the corn we’d dumped by our bird feeder.

Thus the symbiotic yin and yang of wild creatures and human existence continues. And when I see the tall figures of sandhill cranes in the fields, or hear their lonesome calls that hearken back some 60 million years in evolutionary history, the road on which I run or ride does not seem like such a lonesome place.




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Does my knee need Viagra?

Knee medial.jpgThe medial collateral ligament in my left knee is a bit squishy of late. At some point in every hard run, it protrudes and the knee joint gets wishy-washy for a bit. This has been taking place on an off for a year or so. I went to the ortho that I know, and then a physical therapist to get advice on how to deal with it.

Fit Dots

Spot-on during a bike fit

Like I suspected, it’s the little stuff that counts. I need to hit the balance ball and do the “small ball” stuff that we runners and swimmers and cyclists and triathletes all tend to ignore. Small repetitive motions are needed to build up tensile strength around the knee. I knew this to be the case going into the consultation. I’ve long learned not to self-diagnose. It is too easy to deceive ourselves about the nature of the problem, or head off in some treatment direction that actually makes the problem worse.

Have you been there? Done that? Almost all of us have at some time in our careers. Either we don’t do enough, or we do too much. Thus far, I’ve been doing ‘leg work’ on the weight machine. But as my hard-nosed Russian PT gal pointed out, “It doesn’t do much good to add load if your knee is not stable already.”

There’s a Catch-22 to every imbalance injury. Do nothing and it gets worse. Do too much and the imbalance just magnifies the existing weakness. So I will be playing “small ball” with small, short exercise centered around knee balance the next four weeks.

KNee brace too

The knee needs support sometimes

I may also buy a support brace for the short-term. I’ve considered the fact that I’m sixty years old with more than 50,000 miles of running on my legs. The simple truth is that a few contraptions may be necessary to help me keep rolling.

But of course a brace is like Viagra for the knees. It might be okay to use it now and then when needed. But ultimately you want your knee to be able to sustain the hard-on ability to do the work.

Now that you’ve got that image in your brain, have fun looking at the next male runner going by. But if you see a guy sporting more than a four-hour knee brace, tell him to call the doctor.


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Even the losers get lucky sometimes

Thomas Earl Petty was born Oct. 20, 1950, in Gainesville, Fla., the first child of Earl and Katherine “Kitty” Petty. Petty had a difficult relationship with his father, and cited a particularly brutal beating he received at age 5 that stayed with him for life.


Sometimes there are parallels with people in life that do not become evident for years. As I read the LA Times obituary for Tom Petty the above paragraph featuring the words about a difficult relationship with his father jumped out from the page. The pathos that seeped through many of the songs written by Tom Petty had to come from somewhere. You can’t write and sing about pain if you haven’t experienced it. Without direct experience, the sorrow does not feel genuine.

So I can relate to the story of Tom Petty’s difficult relationship with his father. My own dad had an angry streak that could burst forth in sometimes violent ways. It happened most often when his four boys didn’t listen or caused him some sort of angst. Then the fury would come out. I’m not saying that my father’s anger was not sometimes deserved. But it still had its scarring effects.

When I was six years old, my father took a belt to both of my brothers in the kitchen of our Pennsylvania house. The experience of watching my brothers get beaten traumatized me. I now know the effects of that experience affected me for years to come, even decades later. In my late 20s I awoke pounding the pillow with my fist. Then I knew I had to get help and figure out a way to heal. And through faith and counseling and forgiveness, that did come about.

Forgiveness and insight

I learned to forgive my father. His demeanor eventually mellowed, but perhaps the pain never really disappeared in his own life. He’d lost his mother to the side effects from breast cancer surgery when he was only seven years old. That tragic event upended his life, sent him into the care of some spinster aunts and a rough old uncle and left my father with unhealed scars when his own dad was institutionalized for depression during the height of the Depression.

Chris at PlainfieldIt took years to figure all this out because information about my father’s upbringing only trickled in over time. Snatches of conversation with his sisters filled in some of the blanks. But we didn’t live close to my aunts, so our visits were often pinched and brief.

Sometimes the real picture of my father came out in unexpected ways.  I recall the year when my by-then-stroke-ridden father wanted to travel east to visit his sisters. He’d mapped it all out on a piece of paper that he handed to me. I did not know if he’d somehow had contact with them by mail or such, because he could still write a little bit, so I called them to confirm his intended dates of arrival.

“What?” my Aunt Helen replied. “We didn’t know a thing about this. But that’s just like your father. He never warned any of us when he was coming over or wanted to do something.”

Just showing up

Indeed, my dad was always one to show up unannounced at my house on Saturday mornings. He’d be drifting around going to garage sales (long before he had his stroke) and would pop in with a big “HELLO!” . That assumptive nature drove my late wife crazy. “Can’t he just call ahead?” she’d complain.

And, of course, there’s a certain amount of your father that you can’t help absorb, and that is me too. So I had a slight penchant to do the same, but learned quickly that people appreciate a little warning if you plan on dropping in for a visit.

Need for approval

So it was a hot and cold relationship with my own dad, and that powered a need for approval that was a mile wide and quite deep. I sought that approval from mentors and friends and strangers in life. And when I found running in my early teens that proved a source of approval as well.

When I ran well, I felt good about myself. That was true in the moment, and true in the outcomes. In those middle teen years I was the best runner in school, and did fairly well in college. That running persona became a critical part of who I literally was. “Hi, I’m Chris Cudworth. I’m a runner.”

Reality bites

Chris Running 1978Out of college the world at first didn’t seem to care so much that I ran. But then the big running boom came along and prolonged the validity of running as a way of life. So I ran full-time for a couple years trying to become something that I didn’t really have the talent to be, national class, but felt that there was one chance in life to find out how good you really could be. And I did earn the top runner category in the Chicago Area Running Association 20-24 age group, which was no small thing in those days. And over a three-year period, I won plenty of races including 12 out of 24 in a single year. I set all my running PRs and learned where my limits lie. That meant there would be nothing to prove as a runner when I was 40, or 50 or 60.

And when that timeframe was done, I’ll admit it all felt self-indulgent to a degree.

But my own mother disagreed. It was time for some reality bites. “I think you did the right thing,” she told me. “You burned brightly.”

Mom had also consoled me somewhat through the year that it had taken me to heal from a breakup with a college girlfriend that I’d really loved. When I finally told her, “Well, I think I’m finally over her, ” she turned to me and said, “Well, I’m glad you didn’t marry her. She was a bitch anyway.”

I was stunned to hear my mother use that language. “Why didn’t you tell me when I was dating her?”

“Well, you were in love,” she said. “I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.”

Damn something anyway

I’d listened to a lot of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in that year it took to get over that girl. The album Damn the Torpedoes had come out around that time and along with Bruce Springsteen’s The River, the alternately heartachey songs and joyfully raised musical middle fingers on those albums helped me learn to adapt to the rest of the world. Honestly, that’s what music is supposed to do.

But to this day, the lyrics to Petty’s song Even the Losers resonate so true.

Two cars parked on the overpass
Rocks hit the water like broken glass
Should have known right then it was too good to last
Life is such a drag when you’re living in the past

Baby even the losers
Get lucky sometimes
Even the losers
Keep a little bit of pride
They get lucky sometimes

It was true. I’ve won some races in life and lost some too. And through it all I kept a little bit of pride and got lucky sometimes.

Thank you, Tom Petty, for giving us all the gift of your insight on pain and love.

You made the world a better place. 

The following passage is an excerpt from the LA Times story on the passing of Tom Petty. Worth a read for its inspirational value. The quote comes from a few weeks ago. I’ve also been listening to Tom’s Sirius XM program for the last year as he plays tunes he particularly likes. His commentary was always so insightful, and real.  

“The thing about the Heartbreakers is: It’s still holy to me,” Petty said. “There’s a holiness there. If that were to go away, I don’t think I would be interested in it, and I don’t think they would be. We’re a real rock ’n’ roll band — always have been. And to us, in the era we came up in, it was a religion in a way. It was more than commerce — it wasn’t about that.

“It was about something much greater: It was about moving people, and changing the world, and I really believed in rock ’n’ roll. I still do. I believed in it in its purest sense, its purest form. And I watched it commit suicide; I watched it really kill itself over money. That was painful, and I saw that coming, a long time before it happened. I wasn’t surprised in the least. I could see what they were doing wrong.

“But I think we still feel we’re on a mission for good. I’m so touched by … this year has been a wonderful year for us,” he said, adding with a laugh, “This has been that big slap on the back we never got. And it’s really felt good.”

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Ironman Duty

Around the world there are people for whom Ironman training is a full-time occupation. Obviously they possess certain gifts of endurance and focus. As athletes we might be a tad envious of them. But truly, despite their triathlon prowess, they have to suffer like the rest of us.

Surely the lure of a glamorous Kona podium finish is supreme motivation. But we mustn’t forget that those who aren’t world class still have legitimate motivations. Even finishing an Ironman is, for some athletes, the height of an athletic career.

The cliche of all cliches about endurance sports goes like this; “Well if it was easy, everyone would do it.”

Crosswinds and headwinds

Which is how we found ourselves out on the open landscape fighting crosswinds all alone on a Sunday in October. Sue’s race is two weeks from and the welcome taper lurks. But there were still 100, then 80, then 60, then 40 and finally 20 last miles to cover. Then a brick to follow. She did it all despite conditions that were far from welcoming.

It all came on the heels of a great little 13-miler on Saturday in which she actually had to slow down to keep on race pace. “I see what he’s done,” she said of her coach’s advice.

That’s the principle behind all intense training. Do it hard enough and the racing will come as part of the progression, a product of having done the hard work before you ever get there.

Interstate training

90 miler

So she and I set out with the wind behind our backs in the Pumpkin Pie Ride, a sponsored cycling venture out in the fields around Ottawa, Illinois. The course crossed Interstate 80 so many times it became a joke. And for a while, we thought there were no hills in central Illinois until we dipped down into a river basin and back up again.

We’ve ridden that event four years or so, and each time the weather conditions have been different. That’s something you’d expect in early October, so it’s no shock. But at least yesterday turned about partly sunny if a little cool at the start.

Through forty miles we rode together, and I was in shock that I felt so good. Saturday had been an on-off pas de deux with the flu. My stepdaughter had it all week and a trace of it reached me in that way only the flu can accomplish. So it was touch and go as to whether I would ride on Sunday at all. You know the drill: a seemingly soggy gut with a slightly head-achey feeling all day.

Cursing the world

Two years prior I had a similar sensation the morning of the Pumpkin Pie Ride and it turned into a merciless slog. My legs were dead and all I wanted was to be done. I’d lost my temper out there a few times and was cursing the entire world. When we finally got home I dropped Sue at her house and drove home eager to get into bed. Then I pushed the button for the garage door opener and pulled into the garage with my Felt bike still on the rooftop carrier.

Not a good day. But I wasn’t thinking about that much, I was so relieved and happy to be feeling good. In fact I was entertaining the idea of riding the whole way with Sue rather than turn back for the 65 mile course.

Communication counts

Well, the way things worked out, I should have at least communicated more. Because I meant to go back but made the mistake of following the wrong set of colored markers. Thus I wound up riding a 25-mile loop on top of the 45-miles we’d already covered. Somewhere along the way I stopped and looked at the map on the phone and went, “Huh, I screwed up.”

But I was riding like a flying SOB catching people, and I wasn’t going to quit now. One group of three guys hung out there like the breakaway from the peloton. I could see them for several miles and deduced they must be going the same pace that I was. So I dialed it up and finally pulled even. Etiquette demands that you communicate at that point. So I had a short chat right before a road turn and then went off the front. I was a peloton of one.

Ironman Duty

Meanwhile Sue was likely doing the same route, only slightly behind me. I’d left before she did from the rest stop, and we were riding essentially the same pace the entire day. So I arrived back at the rest stop a bit miffed that I’d screwed up but proud, at the same time, that my own mental snafu now required that I ride the last 22 miles back to the YMCA in town.

It was a tough, tough ride going east. The winds were S/SE the entire day, and they were strong. My ears roared and the hard riding I’d done the last 25 miles caught up a little bit. Part of me regretted that I had not just stuck with Sue and maybe done the loop with her. But the fact of real Ironman training is that much of it needs to be done alone. Come race day, you’re all you’ve got. That much I do know.

Grub and ride

So she was out there working her own way through the wind for one more loop while I made the return trip to Ottawa thinking about the fact that I was suffering, to some degree, right along with her.  To make sure that I did not run out of energy, I was grubbing through my foodstocks like a raccoon in a dumpster. And it worked. In fact the last three miles reached some relative shelter and I hit the gas going down the super smooth, newly blacktopped road into town.

But back at the finished I looked at Strava and it said, 88.2. So I hit the RESUME button on Strava and rode back out a mile and back to make it an even 90. Longest ride of the summer. See, in my book, I get a 10% AARP discount for a Senior Century.

That ride was hard for me, but Sue was out completing Ironman Duty. She had another 13 miles to do, plus a four-mile brick at the finish. So I hung out with a coaching friend that had ridden Sunday as well. We grabbed a free beer at Tangled Roots, the Ottawa brewery that gave every entrant a couple coupons. Then Sue texted that she was done with the ride. She was feeling a bit testy after 104 miles in the roaring wind. Every Ironman Sherpa knows that there comes a time when a heavily trained Ironman athlete runs out of patience with the process. You simply can’t do all that swimming, riding and running without getting a bit cranky at some point.

“You okay? How’d it go?” I asked via text.

“Fan Fucking Tastic,” she chortled back. Then she headed out for her four mile run. We finished our beers and met her when she came trotting back. Both of us gave a loud cheer. She raised both arms and flipped us the bird with a big grin on her face.

Party on

Then Sue and I gathered up our stuff and drove northeast to Naperville to attend a send-off party for a triathlon friend that qualified for Kona. There were luau trappings and pizza with pepperoni and pineapple on it. One piece was enough for each of us, and I had one Lite beer as well. It was time to get home.

As we pulled into the driveway, Sue was feeling a bit flu-like. I knew the sensations. “You go on inside and get ready for bed,” I told her. “I’ll take care of the bikes and bring in the gear. ”

That the job of the Sherpa when the athlete is tired. Take care of the stuff the Ironman in training is too tired to do. See, Ironman Duty has a lot of different meanings. All of them count.


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