Far from washed up as a runner

Glacier.jpgI well remember the first time I thought I was washed up as a runner. During vacation I was running slowly down a long incline at Glacier National Park. My left hip felt sore. It really hurt. I was in my early 40s at the time and deep into the business of fatherhood and coaching kids in soccer. But I still ran 3-4 times a week and things had begun for the first time to feel like I was getting old.

By “things” I mean those connective tissues that hold together the ankles, knees and hips. But let’s be real: Aches and pains are always part of running. If you go far or long enough (and those are not the same issue…) things do start to tweak and throb.

So I finished up my run in that beautiful park and stood there looking at the mountains in every direction. I turned slowly like one of those camera scenes in the movies where the cinematographer is trying to depict a person figuring out where they are in life. And that was pretty accurate.

That aching in my hip felt like old age. But that was only partly true. The real source of that ache was due to a general weakness of the surrounding muscle. I was, in a word, deteriorating. But age alone was not to blame.

Key learnings

It was a lack of strength that was the problem. That became evident once I tore my ACL playing soccer a year or two later. That led to physical therapy that revealed where all the weak points were hiding.

From that point on, I adopted a strength routine that was simple yet very effective. It involved standing knee dips and lunges. I’d do these with 50 lbs of weights in my hands to accentuate the amount of weight necessary to build defenses for the knees and hips. And as long as I do those things daily, knee and hip problems generally stay away.

I’ve added weight work on machines now, doing a routine in which I start with 190 lbs on the leg press and work up to 350, with 20 reps at 20-pound increments all the way up. At that point, I honestly worry that my feet can’t take much more! But I am experimenting…

How it works

Yesterday morning we did a two-hour run at Morton Arboretum. The route was rife with hills and for 1:45 I felt good. During those last 15 minutes, my hips did tighten from fatigue and it was wise to pull over. Sue finished her last two miles for the 13 he coach had prescribed. She’s doing a hilly half marathon on March 19 and her training has added up to much more assurance on the hills we’re running at the Arb.

I was not disappointed that I “only” ran eleven miles. Thinking back to those days before the physical therapy learned from the ACL repair, I was only running four miles at most and aching a bit in the hips for that. So I’m far from washed up as a runner.

Closest thing to the Fountain of Youth

Glacier-National-Park-Montana.jpgWeight work is not truly a Fountain of Youth. But it’s the closest thing you’re going to find. Now understand, I don’t have aspirations to run the marathon distance or do an Ironman. I didn’t even race marathons when I was at my physical racing peak in my early to mid-20s. Back then, I wanted to race 10K or 5K as fast as I could go. I have those same relative goals to this day. The Sprint Distance Triathlon involves a 5K at the end. The Olympic Distance is a 10K finish. My goal is to run sub-7:00s in the 5K and 7:30 or under for the 10K.

So to run eleven miles as aerobic base training is sufficient for me. The run yesterday felt tremendous even as the stiff, cold winds of a late February day did their best to make us feel like popsicles in lycra. By the time the sun rose far enough to warm us in the open fields between the forested hills, we were almost done with the run.

Then I stood alone in the parking lot and did that little turn like I was in the movies. It was a good time and place to take stock of my surroundings and current station in life. Granted, there were no mountains to be seen this time. But the feeling of being far from washed up as a runner was something I could really enjoy.

Are you doing weight training to complement your swimming, cycling and running? Share you story if you’d like. Email cudworthfix@gmail.com

 

Posted in 10K, 13.1, 5K, aging, Christopher Cudworth, half marathon, healthy aging, healthy senior, it never gets easier you just go faster, riding, swimming, training for a marathon, triathlete, triathlon, triathlons | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Training partners or laundry mates?

Laundry.jpgI’ve always done my own laundry for the most part. Ironing too. I’m no pro mind you. Sometimes I forget to separate the darks and lights. Things like that.

But I have learned to separate the performance running, cycling and swimming gear from the everyday laundry. Some of those fabrics don’t do well in a hot dryer. And of course I’d never throw a wetsuit in the laundry. Everyone knows you can only dry clean a wetsuit.

I’m just kidding about that. 

Right now our house is shared with some of Sue’s 20-something young adults. And that means competition for the laundry space. We purchased a new washer and dryer when we moved bought this house. Each has capacity to do a lot of laundry. So we jam it in the washer and yank it out when it’s done. Then repeat the process in the dryer. In and out.

Finally, the loads make it into some sort of bin that can be hauled upstairs and spread out on the bed. For the most part, Sue and I keep our laundry separate from the kids for the reasons mentioned above.

But now they’ve all begun working out more to get fit for the weekend of May 6, 2017 when Sue and I have planned our wedding.

So now the girls have borrowed some of Sue’s athletic gear on occasion. She found a treasure-trove of sports bras in the kids’ laundry the other day. And socks. Let’s not talk about tracking down socks. Nigh impossible.

Oldies but goodies

I have a few pieces of running gear that I’ve owned for more than twenty years. That might sound gross, but they are still in very good condition. Back when I received them as gifts for Christmas in the 1990s, I was a bit disappointed that there were from LL Bean and not from Patagonia. But I must admit they have lasted this long in fine style. The gray base layer has a white ring of worn fabric around the collar, but the garment still works. I know what I’m getting every time I put that thing on. Same goes for the purple midweight garment. Those two items of clothing have probably been washed 200 times each. And that’s a conservative estimate. Because that’s what conservatives love to do. Make estimates. Most of my other cycling and running gear is much newer. I’ve lear

Most of my other cycling and running gear is much newer. I’ve learned the hard way that cycling shorts have a shelf life of about two years, max. After that, they tend to show through in key spots. No one wants to see that. So I pitch them. Cycling shorts aren’t very good for shining shoes, and you can’t wear them casually to the grocery store as you might with an old pair of running shoes. Like I said: No one wants to see that.

BRIGHT STUFF

When I haul up a full load of laundry that includes gear from Sue and I, it can be relaxing to go through the laundry sorting out her stuff from mine. I will confess to the small thrill of tossing her fine little panties in their own pile. Yet that makes me laugh because the other day she rifled through her panty drawer while saying, “You know, I have all these panties and there’s only one pair that I really like for running.”

I lovingly mentioned this story to other women in our triathlon group and they all nodded and laughed. “I get that,” said our new friend Heather. “Totally,” said another woman named Emily.

Panties I’ve learned are a winsome object. They are given away as loss leaders at stores such as Victoria’s Secret. They know if you arrive with that offer to get two free panties you will not leave otherwise empty-handed. The store where I shop for Sue also employs a saucy British gal who flirts with male customers and gets them to buy all sorts of extra stuff for their wives or girlfriends. She is, in a word, the most powerful sales tool that a store of that nature could every employ. Who can say no to the offer of buying seven panties for the price of five when there is a winking British woman holding up the hip-huggers and going, “These are every gal’s fayyy-vorite.”

Helpless. But willingly so. Cause it’s fun for everyone to buy panties. They are the candy of the clothing world.

But let’s get back to laundry. Because then there comes the pile for sports bras. I’ve learned to buy them for her as well. Know her size and preference. For Christmas last year, I’d hunted down and purchased her a nice running bra from Victoria’s Secret. A few days before Christmas Eve, we were getting ready for a run and she could not find a sports bra in any of her clothes drawers. “I think it’s my daughterzzz…” she said wryly. But she was clearly frustrated. So I reached under the bed and opened a package and pulled out the warm gray sports bra with the raspberry lining and handed it to her. “Here,” I said. “Merry Christmas.”

Some of my laundry duties are far more practical. I’ve learned to keep an eye out for those frothy little bits of nylon she sometimes wears for work. You know those, right? They’re clingy little buggers that can stick to other clothing if you don’t pay attention. Then they get separated. And if that happens, they are essentially lost forever. There is apparently some law in the universe that says matching bits of nylon must be kept together or their nylon ions turn into opposite forces, like anti-matter.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that I feel a bit of love when doing our laundry together. It makes me think of all the things she does. The running. The riding. Even the swimming. Her suit always hangs by the towels in the bathroom. She loves to swim, and that’s her second skin.

When I got home today from an appointment she’d salted all her things away in the proper drawers. Sue likes things organized and that’s why it makes me feel good to help in some small way, however I can. Life is busy and training is tough, which is why doing the laundry is one of the things I like to do, but never enough.

 

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Taking on challenges

Challenge river.jpgIn Batavia, Illinois where I lived for 20 years, there is a set of old buildings that were constructed from river bluff limestone more than 150 years ago. Granted, that’s not long time ago in terms of world history. London has pubs that are far older than that. But in this Midwest river town, those old buildings represent the foundations of

But in this Midwest river town, those old buildings represent the foundations of local history. They were built to manufacture the types of large wooden and iron windmills that were shipped across the country and around the world.

Challenge.jpgOn the north end of town by the dam stands a long structure called the Challenge building. It was built in 1846, which is 171 years ago. Back then the riverbanks were still wild, but small industrial communities were forming up and down the Fox River. To the south was Aurora, which is now one of the largest cities in the state. Fifteen miles north the City of Elgin was growing.

In between sat three other towns that center along the river. Batavia was the southernmost. Geneva came next, and once hosted an agricultural feed mill on its banks. St. Charles had a giant piano factory that was later turned into Howell Furniture. When the Howell company went out of business, developers put an outlet mall into the building. When that failed yet again, the city let another developer knock it down to build upscale condominiums. Such is the process and pace of change.

Trains to trails

For many years leading up to the 1970s, there were still trains that ran along the banks of the Fox River. A trolley system once traveled some of these rails as well. As late as the 1980s, there were still trolley rails embedded in the asphalt of Anderson Boulevard where I lived for eleven years.

A single train track now pokes into Batavia on the East Side. By law the engines have to honk their horns every time they cross a road. During the night when many of the trains come and go, they honk and blare like a deranged goose let loose in the suburbs.

That lone train line serves the industrial parks and remains a valued asset for certain businesses. The rest of the railroad beds have been converted to bike and running trails. This occurred with some controversy back in the 1980s. A County Board and Forest Preserve Chairman named Phil Elfstrom, a Batavia resident, was an advocate and early leader in the ‘rails to trails’ movement. Politically, he was a bit of a blunderbuss. But he got things done and there is now a system of trails that runs along the Fox River 40 miles long from Aurora to Crystal Lake. In terms of supporting fitness and public recreation, his legacy remains one of the most important political choices in the last 100 years.

Transitions

Ultimately he ran afoul of some wealthier residents along the west bank of the Fox River that did not want bike trails running through their backyards by the river. A political movement was formed against the taking of private land for public purposes and Phil Elfstrom was deposed almost solely on that issue. He’d also made some interesting suppositions about buying up properties in a downcast residential area named Valley View. That did not win him any support either.

The admirable aspect of Phil Elfstrom is that he was visionary in his ideas and not afraid to take on challenges. It’s always one thing to talk about ideas like trading rails for trails. It’s entirely another to get them done. During his tenure, I sat in his office one day and advised him that the County could really use a public relations person. He said he’d think about it. But by the time he did, the election was lost and it was too late.

Trails today

These days there are thousands of people who use the river trails to ride their bikes and go for runs or walks. The popular Fox Valley Marathon is conducted on the Fox River Trails, making it one of the most scenic races in the Midwest.

 

IMG_3120

Runners compete in the Fox Valley Marathon on the Fox River Trail. 

At mile 18 or so, the marathon passes by the Challenge building with its tall chimney. The building is a bit of a brooding structure these days. There are companies that use part of its remodeled spaces, but the giant water structure that perches on its roof is slowly rusting through.

 

It is safe to say that the people who worked in those windmill factories could scarcely imagine how Batavia would look someday. The old dam is crumbling, falling into the river chunk by chunk. It holds back the river and deepens it above the dam for nearly two miles. Someday that dam might break, and water will go rushing through and the river will sink into its natural limestone channel. It would be quite an experience to be present if that were to happen somehow, and suddenly.

Every time I run or ride on the river trails that pass by those old buildings, I am grateful for that opportunity. It honestly all came to pass because one man was willing to take on the challenge of making it happen. You can argue all you want that there is no “i” in “team,” and sound like the best corporate soul that ever existed. But I still admire the initiative of a person with a vision and the will to make it happen. Without that, nothing ever gets done.

 

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These Texas mornings in Illinois

foggy-runIn the early 2000s, I was invited to create artwork for a race called Brazosport Run for the Arts in Lake Jackson, Texas. Every year I’d create some artwork that was turned into posters for the event. One year we earned the Cream of the Crop Award from Runner’s World Magazine.

My focus in attending the race each year was to sign posters and help raise money for the Arts Center. The hospitality of the people in Lake Jackson was always great. It also felt great each year to get a break from the Illinois winter weather.

It was never super warm in Texas that time of year because the race was held in January. Typically it was in the 50s of 60s with a breeze coming off the Gulf. Some years there was a moist feel to the entire event, with morning mist darkening the roads before the race.

I had not been racing much in those days. Mostly I played basketball all winter and ran a few days a week. So the idea of racing all-out in the 5K event never took hold in a big way. Plus the guy that organized the race was in my age group and I’d have felt awful beating him out of an award if I’d had a good day.

The feel of waking up to a Texas morning in the middle of winter was worth the trip. Those big great-tailed grackles that live along the coast would be squawking and tooting their calls from the live oaks. Somewhere a mockingbird would dish out a medley of bird songs from a telephone pole. Texas is very birdy in the winter months. Due to its location, the Brazosport region hosts millions of birds that head south as far as they can without having to cross the Gulf to the Yucatan or some other point of migration.

I was a snowbird of sort for a few precious years as well. The chance to get the smell of the earth in your nose during winter was so uncommon just twenty years ago. Between the southern bird songs, the communal feeling of warmer weather, and the earthy smell of dry fields licked by salt air fog, the Texas experience each year was so distinctive.

run-fogThis morning felt just like one of those Texas mornings here in Illinois. The temps have been in the sixties for days. The day broke with fog, and I trotted out into the dark with a light affixed to my arm to keep the cars whizzing past from ignoring me. I ran a couple miles south and turned east. The wind was at my back and the sidewalk was clear. So I picked up the pace a couple miles.

Along the way, my hat brushed the overhanging branch of a Scotch pine tree. The mist gathered on the needles collapsed over the brim of my hat and washed over my face. That water felt so soft and fresh I laughed out loud. I even licked my beard clean and the hydration actually felt good.

It made me think of another one of those mornings in Texas after the race. I’d stayed an extra day to do some birdwatching along the coast. An ocean mist rolled in and the birds were obscured for a couple hours. But I’d met up with a kindly older birder who escorted me to the estuaries where we found wading birds by the dozens. Then a peregrine falcon flew past us, and I called out the identification. The field marks were clear. The dark mustache on the face. The barred belly. My field partner was a bit taken aback by my quick ID. But then the bird veered toward us again and he could see that my call was correct.

“Huh,” he admitted. “It was a peregrine.”

Another year the weather the day following the race turned cold. My walk along the morning beach turned up one frozen-looking Golden plover and a forlorn-looking bunch of Laughing gulls in drab winter plumage. Depressing.

Yet I drove the coast to Aransas and stood on the bow of a boat looking for that prize Texas winter bird, the Whooping crane. I was essentially frozen in place on the bow of that small ship. The temps were in the 20s and my running gloves were not thick enough to keep my hands warm as we plowed into the cold breeze. I clutched my binoculars those first few hundred yards hoping like hell that my twenty bucks and time on the boat would not go to waste.

Whooping cranesThen we pulled around a corner and there were several Whooping cranes in sight.  We saw more every mile or so during the boat ride. I was the only nutcase willing to stand out on that bow and suffer the cold. It helped that I hailed from Illinois where the cold winter wind was nothing new.

One doesn’t quite realize in those cold moments how unique an experience like that might turn out to be. I gave thanks that my artwork had afforded me the opportunity to go south, meet those great people and see so rare a species of bird. It no longer mattered that I was cold. I’ve been to Texas several times over the years. Found a painted bunting in a park south of San Antonio. Studied roseate spoonbills and red egrets in the bays of Galveston. Listened to bands of heat-addled grackles calling from the light poles of the Houson Astrodome parking lot. Texas is a unique place. A big-assed place.

And I still want to get to Brownsville. Austin. A few other places too.

The real holdover memories center on that mild Texas weather when the rest of the world seemed so cold. This morning as I ran, those feelings came rushing back. I arrived back home happy that I carry those memories around in my head. They are evidence that running can carry us places even when we’re not far from home.

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Leaving negative self-image behind

img_5583Athletes can be frail beasts when it comes to the inner workings of the mind. All it takes for some people to suffer long-term effects to self-image is one difficult race. That race might have been bad or good. Some people have fear of failure. Others have fear of success.

The tricky aspect of managing a healthy self-image is to allow yourself the freedom to put that difficult race, event or period difficulty in perspective. Some of us labor unnecessarily with a drama we create in our heads. It’s as if we write a play that our brains act out every time we approach a situation similar to events from the past.

The worst circumstance is when a (seemingly) negative event occurs that echoes the beliefs of an already fragile self-esteem. I once got massively sick after running a steeplechase in summer heat at nationals. For several years I believed that I was not a good heat runner and had to be super cautious. A few years later, I ran a tremendous race in hot conditions during a 10-mile road race against superior runners. During training the following week, I thought back to that steeplechase in the heat a few years earlier. Then I recalled how we’d gone out to dinner after the race. Suddenly I realized: “It wasn’t heat stroke that made me sick.It was that pizza I ate. I had food poisoning.”

Here I’d been believing for years that I wasn’t a good runner in the heat. That belief was completely false. I’d built up a negative self-image that was based on an untruth.

It doesn’t even take such an odd event to develop persistently negative thoughts about ourselves. Multisport athletes often find themselves in performance plateaus. It can happen in any, or all three disciplines. You hear their words: “I’m no good at the swim,” one laments. “I just can’t make progress in the bike,” another insists. “I’m not a good runner,” is another common refrain.

These are all negative self-esteem issues writ large. And they can hold you back from enjoying the sport(s) you love.

But recognize: statements like these are all products of negative self-image. Leaving them behind can be difficult. But there are a few practical methods to help you make that happen.

mountain-bikingThe process begins by breaking down the structure and source of such beliefs. Most typically they are what we might call “comparative” memes that we create in our minds. If you have a negative self-image about any of the three disciples, swimming, cycling or riding, consider the source and ask, “I’m not good compared to what?”

If you’re engaging in false comparison as a measure of your own self-esteem, the problem of negative self-image will perpetuate itself forever. That commonly happens when you measure your self-worth and ability by worshipping some other athlete(s) as “better than you.”

Do this little exercise, and say it out loud: “So, (name athlete(s) is better than me. So what?

This is the first step to recovering a positive self-image of yourself as an athlete. Dispensing with comparative thinking is crucial. That does not mean you need to cease being competitive toward anyone. The heart of improvement is wanting to compete against yourself and others. That’s healthy. The unhealthy part is when you internalize the belief that you cannot compete for any reason.”

Think about it. If you go out and do your best by trying to keep up with someone faster than you, and it pulls you to a better performance, you have gained, not lost. And that’s what you grasp for your self-image. “I worked hard. I competed the best I could today. I have no regrets. I can still improve in (this area) or (that area.) But now I know that.”

riding-pumpkinheadThis is the Net Gain approach to building self-image. Engage in it frequently and you’ll find yourself leaving negative self-image issues behind. They simply have no function in your forward progress. Even if you don’t improve by leaps and bounds, the liberation you’ll feel by leaving negativity behind is a progress unto itself.

After all, we compete in sports like triathlon for the purpose of improving our mental and physical health. There is a valid transfer of excellence that comes from learning how to engage our brains in affirmative behaviors. Then you can step to the line or engage in training with confidence that what you’re doing is truly good for your body and mind.

Start today. And say it out loud before you slide into the pool, hop on the bike or lace up your running shoes: “I’m working to be the best athlete I can be.”

That’s a great bit of self-image foundation right there. A great place to start. And a wonderful way to finish.

 

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Cause and effect

Here in Chicago, the sports pages have begun to fill with stories of spring training. Cubs fans are still misty with flush from the baseball orgasm delivered late last fall by their favorite team. Meanwhile, Sox fans lurk in hopes their team can rise from its lowly status of black and white ashes.

It’s all part of the seasonal cycles people love to follow. And speaking of cycles, that’s exactly what we did in 69-degree temperatures yesterday. It was fun. But it was also freaky.

As a nearly lifelong resident of Illinois, I’ve seen my share of ups and downs when it comes to weather. But for most of my life, the month of February meant freezing your ass off. We ran cold, hard intervals around Kaneland High School during weather so raw the backs of your hands would be scalded from the cold even when you wore gloves.

Crocus in Spring LightThat was forty years ago. In recent years we’ve had several February warm spells that popped the crocus and snowdrops right out of the soil. For most of my life, that typically did not happen until well into March, or even early April.

In terms of running weather, I specifically recall a bitterly cold Shamrock Shuffle held in Chicago when the March temps were fifteen degrees. Racing that last mile into a stiff wind off Lake Michigan was some of the colder conditions in which I’ve ever raced. My thin Nike tights barely kept my thighs from frostbite, and my lips were blue at the finish.

March is still a dicey month no matter what year you choose. But February was almost always a lock for big snows and freezing cold. Things are changing in our climate. And it’s having effects.

Last week while doing research for a book I’m writing, I downloaded an Audubon Society whitepaper that models the anticipated changes in bird habitat due to climate change over the next eighty years. It also outlines the known changes due to climate warming that have already occurred in bird migration, winter and summer breeding ranges.

That information has been gathered over the last fifty years by birders conducting annual surveys in spring and winter. It also chronicles millions of bits of data from breeding atlas surveys conducted by citizen scientists. I know about these census efforts and bird studies because I’ve done them. The Audubon Society has gathered information of this sort for more than eighty years actually.

Cardinal.jpgSo we know actually know with great accuracy what’s happening to bird populations. That’s how science works. You study the patterns of cause and effect.

Every athlete should know how this works as well. You put in training in order to stress your body in positive ways. This produces a relative state of fitness, which you put to the test in races. Cause. And Effect.

But we all know how things can go wrong. A sudden cold or injury brought on by too much training can turn your workouts into a struggle. That’s a product of cause and effect too. Poor diet or other factors such as cold or hot weather can affect your results. The athlete that does not learn how to adapt to changing conditions will suffer poor performance as a result.

And if you don’t choose a coach wisely, all this madness can become the status quo. More than one coach has burned out athletes by trying to squeeze the maximum out of their protege in the short-term. All living things have limits.

That’s true of living systems, too. If you’re not making the connection here, here’s some help. The very earth on which we live is much like an athlete. It lives. It breathes. It chills. It overheats. All these factors amount to cause and effect.

And right now the whole earth is effectively suffering the effects of overtraining. Industrialization has turned out to be a stress on the climate. The planet can’t breathe fast enough to process all the CO2 being released by human activity, and we’re heating up as a result. It’s like the earth is being asked to run a mile while holding its breath, or encased in one of those plastic weight-loss jackets on an increasingly hot day. We know this for a fact.

February warmth is a symptom of climactic changes. But so are heavy snows in other regions of the country. The warming of the oceans is occurring with rapidity, leading to chemical changes that are killing off some coral reefs. This is the lactic acid buildup in our environment.

Some argue that human activity could never be the “cause” that produces these “effects.” They even pay for studies in an attempt to disprove the science that has shown climate change to be a real phenomenon.

Personally, I’ve watched the effects of climate change, and it is quite profound. The arrival time of spring songbirds has crept up by nearly a month in my own lifetime. This is based on empiric data, not some ideological perception. There are real and present changes happening all around us. Thousands of robins that once migrated south during winter no longer do so.

Cowbird.jpgThis is how evolution works, by the way. All living things are subject to the cause and effect of environmental and climatic conditions. If the weather gets too harsh or food supplies dwindle, populations either adapt or die off. We see that same phenomenon in winters when snowy owls populations fly south from Canada into the United States. If lemmings (their main food supply) suffer some disturbance that leads to a population crash, the owls are forced to find food elsewhere or they perish.

The same thing happens with human populations during times of drought or famine. Major migrations have occurred throughout human history. The potato famine sent many Irish across the sea to the United States. All it takes in some source of cause and effect to eclipse the status quo and human populations can be thrown into chaos.

If you’ve ever been in a race where there is not enough water at the aid stations, the cause and effect of such situations is dire indeed. A few years ago the weather for the Chicago Marathon turned out hot and stifling. Thousands of runners suffered heat stress and many could not get enough water to continue. Race organizers had to stop the race or risk having people die in the intense heat.

That race essentially served as a case study for the planet as a whole. Granted, race organizers could not control the temps that day. But when it comes to manmade climate change and the effects it is causing around the globe, we do have some degree of control how excessive that cause and effect cycle needs to get.

The changes are relatively simple. The solutions are progressing fast. Solar and wind power are turning out to be viable sources of energy. The conversion of vehicles from gasoline to electric can proceed apace as these energy sources grow in practicality.

Just a few years ago LED lightbulbs were far too expensive for most households to purchase. Yet the technology has advanced to the point where LED bulbs are now competitively priced. The market is embracing these bulbs as a result. They use less energy and last far longer than traditional light bulbs.

Yet technologies such as these are typically mocked by people who hate change. And yes, there are failures along the path to invention and conversion. That’s the nature of the free market. It is sometimes a case of failing faster in order to bring about true innovation.

beef-jerky-tooSomehow we’ve come to a point where the opportunity to moderate human influence on the planet is being arrogantly opposed by people opposed to change. They happen to be the same group that mocks efforts to improve the American diet, and refuses to recognize the fact that the beef industry consumes 50% of the water used in America to produce a product known to cause health problems. The same goes for the sugar industry and cigarette manufacturers. Oil and coal producers as well. All these products have known negative health effects on human beings that can be mitigated through simple lifestyle changes.

Cause and effect often runs into stubborn belief systems. We’ve all known athletes who refuse to listen to coaches or trainers who warn that their habits might be harming them. Pride is the vicious enemy of purpose in many circumstances. But so is ignorance and the strange brand of confidence that comes with it. The priests who gathered up Jesus Christ and threw him to the Romans thought they were doing the righteous thing. On the surface, their cause seemed just.

That’s the exact same position we find ourselves in today. The cause of short-term economic preservation favored by today’s conservatives seems just. But the long-term effects of this are far more costly than this faction of society dares admit.

 

And those are the people currently in control of the political narrative. They’re concerned only with the short-term cause of wringing profit from the populace and the earth that supports it. That is their cause.

Some of us have been carefully watching the effects build up for years. We see it in the empiric changes in the birds and living things around us. We know that too many people are ignorant of the significance of these changes. Because blinded by their religion or their ideology or their politics or their economics, they are disconnected from these realities.

But cause and effect is an unforgiving reality. And the race we’re running is not a healthy proposition for any of us.

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The just cause for being a head case

head-caseThere are plenty of points in my life where I was proud of some aspect of performance or character. Taking care of my wife during cancer and my father during his stroke come to mind. That took a lot of focus and dedication.

There are other aspects of life where my head was not truly in the game. Coaches would sometimes yell that at me or other athletes. “Get your head in the game!” they’d say.

Pro athletes who can’t seem to focus despite considerable physical talents are sometimes branded “head cases.” I looked up the definition of “head case” on Urban Dictionary and found this little gem: head case Someone who hogs the ball in basketball.Yo man you are a true head case.

I played basketball through high school and admittedly was alternately a star player and sometimes a head case. Having modeled my playing style after Pistol Pete Maravich, there were times when I did unnecessary behind-the-back passes or between the legs dribbles. Coaches would bark “Make the simple play.” Largely I’d listen. But the game was a lot more fun with a bit of flair to it.

At the same time, I competed in track and cross country. And again, at times I was a star and at others, a head case. With a mild case of ADD going on, I missed a couple turns in some races. That cost me a major dual meet win against a key rival.

Yet for all the excessive creativity and spacey disengagement, there were many times when my leadership was critical to team achievement.

Through the first three years of college cross country, I ran in 5th to 7th man position. But there were some ugly moments tossed into those years, including a junior year when I was clearly, but for the first time, aware of my propensity for depression. Mixed in were the financial challenges my family was facing with a father out of work. Then I’d worked a summer job in a paint factory. The work was at times brutal and the social environment so critical and abusive I emerged from six weeks on the job with a variety of concussive self- esteem issues.

These cropped up a few times during that season. Had someone pulled me aside and asked, “What’s wrong?” I’m not sure I could have told them. The inner spaces of my head just seemed dark. I’d run well a couple races and then go soft or slow. At the conference meet however, the darkness of anxiety and depression essentially took over my head. I was not ready to run in any sense of the world. Where I’d been completing five-mile races in 26:00 or so, I staggered home in 28:30. Those last two miles were some of the most difficult steps of my life.

Yet I recovered well enough and ran nationals respectably enough. I had survived the first real bout of depression in my adult life.

cyclingFollowing college, I kept training and racing to the point where my roommate at the time saw it as self-indulgent. Again life had tossed me a situation or two that I handled by blasting through with my head down and eyes focused only on the road ahead. Running was both a symptom and a cure for everything going on in my head.

Perhaps you know the feeling too. It’s not a cliche to state that running is cheaper than therapy. But the truth of the matter is that we’re all head cases of one kind or another. Even people that seem to have their entire lives sewn together with fine stitchery tend to have a few loose ends. They hide them well, or much better than others.

A few get so good at hiding their flaws they come to believe they are perfect. Or, they excel at convincing others of their exceptionalism that no one dares question their appearance or convictions. That was the case in the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. It took a child to proclaim the truth that the Emperor, who was a royal head case if there ever was one, in fact, was walking naked down the street.

It is thus important to realize that really important and often wealthy people are sometimes the worst head cases of all. Those of us who labor in relative obscurity, or who don’t have 10,000 Twitter followers, might tend to think that our relative (or personal) failures in mental health and acuity are more damaging than those of the rich and powerful.

But I recall a specific instance where a certain feeling of release and relief came to mind through running. I was training with a group of runners at the University of Illinois-Chicago track each week. For some reason, the darkness in my head at the time convinced me that keeping quiet was the best way to focus during those sessions.

It was actually a bit of passive-aggressive behavior. But I didn’t know what that was at the time. In case you’ve never actually understood that term either, this simple definition helps: In psychology, passive-aggressive behavior is characterized by a habitual pattern of passive resistance to expected work requirements, opposition, stubbornness, and negative attitudes in response to requirements for normal performance levels expected of others.

In other words, being passive-aggressive is a tendency to try to control the situation by a false or calculated passivity. And I ran with the group for several weeks while talking very little between intervals. It could be said that in those moments, I was acting like a true head case.

runners-togetherBut one day we all lined up for a mile interval, and I’d been opening up a little as I’d gotten to know the other runners. There were one or two guys faster than me, but not by much. So we took off for the mile and ran a 4:30, in practice.

Then coach Tom Brunick was a bit upset with us. “You’re going to leave your race on the track doing that,” he warned. But as we jogged around the backstretch the five or six guys that had finished together all started laughing. “That was fucking great,” one of them chortled. “A 4:30! In practice!”

We came around for the next interval and ran the prescribed 4:45 mile. And the group moved in concert. Something in me relaxed during those laps. We were well within ourselves now. The 4:45 felt easy. We joked and talked in athletic whispers during those laps.

It felt wonderful to be a part of that workout. There were many like that over the years. So many that I can’t summarize them here. That is the predominant impression of all those years of running. Joyfulness and engagement.

Yet it is important to recognize one’s propensity for depression or anxiety in order to address it as life goes along. Over the years I’ve come to understand my own head a lot better. Early in my 30s I approached some of those feelings with therapists, but didn’t have much luck finding one that understood my relative needs. “You seem really well adjusted,” one of them told me.

And that was true. I’d learned to adjust. The deep and intense mood swing of youth were under control. But the habit of letting anger flare lay rooted in my conscience. There were wrongs that held on in from my upbringing that had not been solved. They vexed me in those school years, manifested in a deep desire for approval from anyone. And lacking that, the cycle was prone to repeating itself.

These are difficult admissions to make in life. Yet they are important to personal growth and actualization. Good mental health is serious business. It takes effort to understand your own mind, and where its weaknesses or propensities lie. You can’t expect everyone around you to just adapt to whatever potentially fucked up notions or behaviors vex you. That’s not fair to them, or to yourself.

hills-full-driveWe’re all head cases in some respect. But that doesn’t mean you need to go through life letting mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety or anger rule your existence. In my case, it has taken a combination of personal forgiveness, self-examination, recognition of mental health patterns, changing thought processes and practical engagement in faith to find a better path to quell the head case issues that once dogged me in life.

I’m proud of that work. And while there is always more work to do, it has also provided me the ability to better enjoy my running, riding and swimming as well. It means a lot to arrive at a point where depression triggers don’t drag me backwards or down. And it helps to be able to cure anxiety where it doesn’t need to exist.

I still have a passion for social justice that gets carried away sometimes. I’ve studied religion and politics for so long, and come to understand some of the lies that are told on behalf of God, and why they happen. So I can’t claim to be completely free of being a progressive head case. But at least I admit that. My passions run high because it makes me crazy to see people being mistreated. That may hearken to a single instance in my life, a violent moment that disturbed my sense of safety and reason to the point where all reactions to such abuse, be it verbal, religious or political, are focused into protest and action.

But that’s where I’m a bit proud of being a head case. Because it is head cases who have the guts to speak out sometimes. The Founding Fathers of America were in many ways profound head cases, driven by injustice to create a nation based on merit and equality, not royalty and Emperors with no clothes on.

Here’s to the head cases of this world. May you find both understanding and peace in your own way. And may you work to make the world a more just and rational place.

And barring that, may you hit your interval splits with panache.

 

 

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The republican qualities of cycling

NBike OutEveryone that has ever served on a committee knows the frustrations of trying to establish a legitimate, healthy compromise to the most difficult items on an agenda. People typically weigh in with all sorts of opinions. In the end, the committee members vote and something gets decided. But it can be a painful process.

Cycling by committee

Some cycling rides are just like a committee. They start out with what seems like a clear idea, but the group is undermined with hidden agendas.

Riders express their opinions through their pedals. Other riders answer back, giving their opinions as well. Sometimes there are a couple “committee leaders” who stay up front for long pulls. Other riders linger in back trying to hang on. Others save themselves for late committee heroics. Almost everyone hates those people.

Peloton politics

Even the peloton in large professional races has its committees. Typically a rider or a group of riders will press their agenda that day by going “off the front” to see if they can “stay away” the entire stage. Rarely does this work, but people still try it because the benefits of riding ahead or in a small group include exposure for the team sponsor.

peter-sagan-2013-no-hands-wheelie-resized.jpgA very few riders might ride for the right to say “I led a stage of the Tour de France for 110 km.” There is always some room for individualism in cycling. That’s why people have long loved the likes of Jens Voigt, and why people root for Peter Sagan to freelance his way to winning sprints by jumping on the trains of other teams. It takes amazing cycling talent and fantastic bike handling to do what he does. Sagan is like a middle finger shoved in the face of the peloton. “Fuck you!” he seems to say.

Committee killer

And who else on this earth can say that? There are committees within the committees of every race. Each team in a stage race has its strategy. They each protect their General Category rider or work to position their sprinter for a win in the last 3Km. The bickering and competition between teams can get quite intense out there on the roads. There is only so much room on the road in major races.

In recent years Tour de France riders have complained the pressure and craziness is so great that it’s not safe to ride certain stages at all. There are moments in every Tour or Giro or Vuelta where it is a matter of survival to simply hold your place on the road. The mere structure of the race in these cases is a committee killer. Tour architects seem to like it that way. But sometimes individual cyclists suffer, get knocked out of contention or even risk their lives as a result. There is a fine balance between sanity and insanity.

The Dictator

A few years back I rode out with a group of cyclists led by a triathlete known for his 26mph average on the bike. Sure enough, he got down in an aero tuck position and blasted away. The rest of us on the “ride committee” that day looked around rather desperately for a wheel to grab. But the lead rider swung to the right of the road even when the wind was coming hard from the left front of the pack.

He was, in other words, “guttering” the bunch of us. Only first one or two riders could manage any sort of draft. The ugliness that followed was like throwing a bunch of Lutherans into a Catholic Mass. No one knew where to hide. The pack shed riders off the back one by one. Devil take the hindmost. It was a cold and lonesome ride home that day.

State your case

That’s all fair if you know that going. There are “drop rides” and “no drop” rides. But nothing was announced before that particular ride. I suppose if you show up and nothing is said, the assumption you can make is that no one is going to wait up for you. Every ride is a drop ride until someone says it’s not.

For these reasons, riding is democratic only in the sense that everyone has essentially the same chance to excel. Beyond that, anything goes. Cycling is an egalitarian yet often merciless sport. Only in club rides where communication is held before the ride do committees of riders have any sway. A really good ride operates more like a republic than a raw democracy or the mob rule of populism. Take a look at the definition of republic and you’ll see what we mean:

re·pub·lic [rəˈpəblik] NOUN
a state in which supreme power is held by the people and their elected representatives, and which has an elected or nominated president rather than a monarch.
A cycling group ride can still be a great thing even when it is run by committee or conducted in the fashion of a republic. If riders agree on a goal pace and allow other riders within the group to take pulls and share in the work, everyone knows the expectations and can contribute in their fashion.
Certainly no one expects every cyclist on a ride to be equal in talent or fitness. Some riders will be stronger and do more than their “fair share” of pulls. Most frankly love to do this work. It can give great satisfaction to be fit and “rule the roost” for long stretches with other cyclists in your tow.
But consider the actions of that “dictator” who loved to gutter the group just to prove how strong he was. That has nothing to do with the real qualities of leadership. He satisfied his own ego, for sure. But he sure didn’t build genuine respect from all those he lured into his draft and then punished for trying to stay close.
There are tons of lessons for the rest of life in that example.

 

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It’s AFFECT versus EFFECT in the pool

The water in the pool at 5:30 in the morning can seem like a shock to the skin. Three lanes down one of my fellow swimmers sat at pool’s edge taking deep breaths. She was trying to work up the gumption for that first plunge. “I didn’t used to mind that part,” she told me with a wan smile.

Such are the differences between being a gumptious teenager and a 20-something getting herself in shape for a late-summer Ironman Triathlon. Yet she aptly illustrates the early morning plight of so many different people in the pool. It’s often cold getting in, but once you’re in, the effect of the cool water on your skin is hardly noticable.

Better late than never

About 15 minutes into our workout, another gal swimmer walked with her swim bag slung over her shoulder. She stood by pool’s edge and announced, “It takes soooo  long to get here.” She lives on the same block where I used to live, so I get that loud and clear. It was hard cutting through town to reach the pool. If there is frost on your window in the morning the going goes even slower the first mile or so until the defrost kicks in.

But every workout counts, so it’s better late than never.

So late or not, you hop in the pool. But then your goggles fog up if you left the swim gear in the car overnight because they’re still freezing cold. That’s the other effect of morning temperature changes.

The contradiction of the Blue Glove

Blue Glove.jpg

I recently read an interesting article on the proper way to hold one’s hands during the swim stroke. It recommended not holding the fingers tightly together. This seems counterintuitive. Yet so many things about swimming are like that. Who would think the best way to effect progress would be to rotate your body in the water?

While swimming this morning I felt a few moments where the sensation of moving my hands through the water indeed felt magical. Then between intervals, I waved my hand through the water just letting the feel of the liquid flowing around my fingers. I imagined the result looked like the blue swirls behind the Dreadful Blue Glove in the movie Yellow Submarine. We all know the Blue Glove started out as an evil tool of the Blue Meanies. But by the end of the movie, the glove learned the value of LOVE.

All you need is love. And to breathe. 

So while I’m still not quite at the point where I can claim that I love to swim, it’s getting there. I can’t yet let my thoughts roam. I still have to concentrate on the entry angle of my hands into the water. Then comes the catch and pull and that roll of the body with each stroke.

My breathing technique has also improved immensely. It seems so simple. Breathe Co2 out the nose. Breathe oxygen back in the mouth. Let it happen. Don’t force it. Once in the while I still catch a mouthful of water. It happens.

Sore subjects

This morning the ridges of muscles along the side of my body were sore from weightlifting two days ago. I’d isolated the ‘lats” with pulley pull-downs and could feel the lats and core straining to hoist 90 lbs. for 10 repeats each, times four. “I’ll be sore in a couple days,” I told Sue during the ride home after the workout.

No sport is more incremental by nature than swimming. Every tiny angle of the hands or arms or body either effects or affects forward motion. To effect forward motion means using your arms, legs and body to create propulsion and flow. These things help you swim more efficiently. Hopefully faster.

 

Affect versus Effect.jpg

A quick illustration of how poor swim form can AFFECT swimming efficiency and how good form can EFFECT better progress through the water.

 

To affect forward motion means allowing any part of your body to create drag. This occurs when hips and legs drop or the head is raised out of the water. These things cause a swimmer’s progress through the water to slow.

Truth and time

Swimming involves such simple physics and yet is so goddamned complicated it is like trying to sort truth from a Sean Spicer press conference. Getting to know the feel of an efficient swim stroke requires time in the pool. It’s the same thing with riding the bike. Efficient cycling only comes from TITS. Time In The Saddle.

Thirty years ago I read a book by John Jerome called A Sweet Spot in Time.  The book posited that it is possible for athletes to find a “sweet spot” in performance through a combination of practice and mental rehearsal that leads to a place where engagement is effortless.

What a sweet dream that would be in the pool! A few of my fellow swimmers have obviously learned how to swim with enough efficiency to casually enjoy their time in the pool. They can swim well enough to let the mind wander. That means one can ‘let it happen’ rather than constantly focusing on the next thing necessary to keep forward progress going.

Let it roll

That’s the goal for anyone that swims. To effect progress through the pool rather than letting the water affect how you move. Learning to effect a good stroke is critical because sooner or later, those of us in triathlon find ourselves in open water with no walls to reach or places to stop in order to catch our breath.

Yet last summer I walked down to the water at Pleasant Prairie and started a 750 meter swim in a large lake. Right away, a new kind of freedom in the water came to me. My arms cramped a little at 400 meters, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the swim. I walked out of the water elated to have some so far in a year’s time.

This morning the speed portion of the workout called for ten 75-yard intervals on the 1:40. I did all ten in 1:26 show me, and that means progress is occurring.

It has taken a long time to reach the point where I can effect a good workout rather than letting the workout affect me. That’s called a turning point. Hope you’re finding your way to those moments in all you do. Run. Ride. Swim.

If you have any challenges in your progress, send me a note at cudworthfix@gmail.com. I’ll either try to answer them myself or find out the answers from the other experts in my life.

 

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Jamie Block Mayer a dynamo you should know

Mayer smiling.jpgJamie Block Mayer is not much more than five feet tall. Her legs are thus in perpetual motion as she speeds along at just over 6:00 pace in a 5k. Those legs keep her going for much longer than that as well. Last fall she won the women’s division of the Fox Valley Marathon in St. Charles, Illinois in a time of 3:19.

“I was running along and after about ten miles people started shouting that I was third woman,” she recalls. “And they said I wasn’t far behind second. So I decided I’d try to catch her. Then I was going through fifteen or so and people kept telling me I wasn’t far behind the first girl. So I thought, ‘I’ll try to catch her too.’ But then I was in first, and it wasn’t as fun trying to hold the lead as it was to catch people.”

mayer-fox-valley-finishYet she did hold the lead, and the joy on her face coming across the finish line expresses the relief and thrill of accomplishing a win in a marathon with more than 1000 competitors. “I try not to make things too complicated,” she says of her training leading up to the race. “It’s pretty much 40 miles a week with a tempo run and some intervals every week. A friend named Mike Behr told me how to train a few years back and I’ve tried to follow the same program. Maybe I’ll go online and find something that sort of matches. Then I just do it.”

Some tease her about the regimen she uses in training. Her Strava feed shows a series of out and back or loop courses leading from her home. They don’t vary much. “I have my 5K, 10K, 10-mile and 12-mile runs,” she relates. “Even when I run with other people like Mike, he’ll say, ‘Let’s turn here’ and I’ll go, ‘No, that’s not on my loop.”

mayer-famllyHer schedule and obligations demand that kind of focus. She is a professor at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois. She has her Ph.D. in Communications Disorders and Neuroscience and instructs her students in Speech Pathology. Her husband Steve, an orthopedic physician with Northwestern Medicine, threw her a nice little party when she received tenure a few years back.

And while Steve is also an endurance athlete and an Ironman triathlete, the two seldom (if ever) train together. Their paces and priorities typically don’t match up given her penchant for speed and his focus on longer races.

mayer-finish“I won a 5K a few years ago,” Jamie notes. “I was just over 6:00 pace. And I’m pretty competitive in every race I enter. A couple years back at the Sycamore Pumpkinfest 10K I was standing next to this 20-something girl at the starting line and she was going on about how she was up late partying and didn’t feel that great. But then she beat me. And I was pissed,” she laughs.

Thus it isn’t age that defines Jamie Block Mayer, but the purity of effort and the joy of participation. She encourages the same love of sports in her children Tara, age 12, Max, age 9 and Ellie, age 6. The eldest is involved in gymnastics. The middle child has earned national championships in the sports of tumbling and trampoline. Her youngest seems headed for considerable achievements in gymnastics as well.

That schedule of getting kids to practices is shared by the couple, and that’s another reason why Jamie and Steve don’t often train together. “We have to get the kids where they need to go,” she observes.

With a running career that began in her early 20s, Jamie has achieved some notable accomplishments herself, qualifying for Boston a few years back. She ran the race in 2013 when the bombings hit near the finish line. “I heard a noise but I was down by the buses getting my gear,” she recalls. “Then Steve called me and said “Run!” and I answered, “I just got done running! Then he said, ‘Something really bad just happened. Get somewhere safe.”

Thus her experience in one of the world’s most famous marathons was colored by terror and tragedy. Thankfully such events have been rare in the world of road racing.

mayersPerhaps that contrast was more in evidence as she raced the bike trails in the Fox Valley Marathon last fall. The race follows the Fox River south to Aurora and back to St. Charles. Typically the weather has been fair and clear for the race, with leaves starting to change and the river surface reflecting the glory of the valley. The predominant noise is often the honking of geese and the cheers of happy fans staged along the course.

It’s almost hard to imagine those short Jamie Mayer legs carrying her the entire marathon distance. But anyone that has seen her run dispenses with those concerns immediately. And as she rounded the final corner into the finish of the Fox Valley Marathon with that huge smile on her face, the crowd cheered her every step. Jamie Block Mayer was very much in her element because while she may be small in stature, she believes in doing big things.

 

 

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