A life in the world of table tennis

A player at the Aurora Cup in mid-serve

As a child growing up with three brothers in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I learned to compete in multiple sports. When we weren’t out throwing baseballs or shooting baskets, tossing a football around or kicking soccer balls, we headed down to a dusty basement to play ping-pong, officially known as table tennis.

There are plenty of sports in which concentration is key, but none more than table tennis. While I could barely keep my eyes open in math class, the angles and geometry of table tennis was riveting. Every shot or block was an instant calculation. One learned by losing as much as by winning points.

Our table was built by my father, who somehow figured out a way to building a folding ping-pong table, paint it a proper if slightly lighter shade of slightly shiny green, and line the edges and center with tape as well. It was a fine table, made of wood thick enough to make the ball respond appropriately when so many ping-pong table tops in that era were built with thin composite materials on which the ball did not bounce truly.

A mushy ping-pong table is an affront to the game. So are players who wittingly or unwittingly play the game outside the domain of the rules. But we learned the rules and lived by them. Each of my brothers had success in playing the game across the spectrum of occasions afforded us. My next eldest brother Gary proved to be the most exceptional of all with his superb reflexes and hand-eye coordination that for years he also employed in the sport of fencing.

One of the top young players in the nation in full match concentration

I certainly did not beat my older brothers much in the game of table tennis. But we’d play in that basement despite the pipes jutting out from the wall. Laughingly, we named these difficulties the “Water Meter Shot” and other such attributions to impediments to play.

When we moved to a giant house in Elburn, Illinois, the ping-pong table was hauled up several flights of stairs to the massive A-Frame attic. There were played matches without interruption of any kind. Our patented “loop” shots could tower feet above the table and coming singing off the surface with a jump of spin. Our only infrastructure challenge was a six inch gap along the entire perimeter between the floor and the wall. If table tennis balls went down the gap they were mostly gone forever.

That was another aspect of the game we treasured and understood in terms of playability and performance. Some ping-pong balls were light and feathery. They turned the game into a pitty-pat that was insulting to the senses after playing games with a heavier ball at high speeds.

Friends had often challenged us during our years in Pennsylvania. We’d head over to the Arnold’s house where their commercially-produced table was a pleasure to play upon. But the ceilings were lower and certain aspects of our collective games were eliminated. That meant fighting it out in table-blocking matches that were intense, but not nearly so athletic or thrilling as open space table tennis where agility comes into play, not just stubborn racket practice.

A young Russian-American women’s player faced off against the legendary American Danny Seemiller

Over the years of playing and in so many basements, one learned how to adapt in all kinds of playing conditions. From footing on carpet or slippery tile, or carpet on slippery tile, to bad lighting and cramped quarters, it was often a question of how to adjust to the limitations of the playing quarters in order to figure out how to win.

When I was fourteen years old, our next-door neighbor in Elburn was a pastor of the Congregational Church where I was confirmed. Hearing that I liked to play table tennis, he openly challenged me to a match, so I invited him to play a few games upstairs in the attic. During the warmup I measured his style and reasoned that while he was a steady player, there was no real threat in his game. So I played defensively in the early stages of the match until my hand-eye confidence felt strong enough. Then I started smashing point after point when his return service came floating back from my volleys.

At one point the ball struck him smack in the gut, and he blurted out an audible, “Shit!” I almost laughed, but was shocked as well. He didn’t apologize, but tossed the ball back to me to continue the game. And I won.

Players of every age and type of physique excel at the game of table tennis.

That was the only match we ever played. But it taught me a lesson in theology that I never forget. It made me realize that the holiest of men is still a human being. That made me respect him even more in some ways. I knew then he was making an honest effort, and I thanked him for playing me.

Sooner or later we all branched out to play in park district, high school and other tournaments. I won a few of these age-group competitions, and was not afraid to take on anyone that came my way. I’d still get trounced sometimes back at home, but with age the matches became closer and perhaps I even won a few games against my brothers.

My brother Gary won the title at Kaneland high school and we were four years apart in age, so I never had to play him there. But I followed in his shoes and made a bit of a splash as a sophomore beating older players. The same held true in my running career at that school, making the varsity team as a freshman and leading the cross country team to its first-ever conference meet victory.

Former National Champion Danny Seemiller continues to compete at a high level at the age of 62. My age.

Those were big deal accomplishments to me during high school, and then our family moved ten miles east to another town and it was akin to starting over. The ping-pong table occupied space in the basement of a split-level house that barely contained the four grown boys in our family.

And after that, we brothers hardly got to play table tennis any more. But when I moved off to college I found a playing partner in a classmate named Jim Nielsen, who loved the game as much as I did. We also happened to be teammates in cross country where the competition level was fierce all the time in practice and meets. But Jim and I would still beat on each other in the Ylvisaker hall freshman dorm table tennis room, playing match after match even when our legs were tired from long running workouts.

Jim and I made it all the way to the doubles finals as he once recalled in an online conversation. We lost to a pair of Laotian players as I recall. I made it to the singles finals against the Luther College tennis ace named Jeff Renken. Though I held my own against the senior, he beat me for the title.

Every serve is a work of art in top-flight table tennis.

For some reason I never entered the Luther College table tennis tournament again after my freshman year. And following college, the main occasions to play were against my brother-in-laws in the 1950s basement of my wife’s grandparents.

Those were competitive matches in a different sense than the tournaments. Usually they’d come in the wake or a big meal, and it was everything one could do to muster concentration after chowing tons of turkey or ham and desserts along with a few beers. But we fought it out and had some laughs all those years. But I still hated losing, especially to my wife’s sister’s husband, a player whose game involved crowding the table. I was somewhat defenseless against that strategy without room above the table to send soaring loop shots his way to back him up. So he erased my advantages and I’m suspecting I lost more than won most of those games.

There is no fiercer brand of concentrated sport than table tennis.

Then one Christmas my wife’s brother invited me to join him to play some matches over at a longtime friend’s house. I wound up playing match after match against the family aces until the dad finally stood across from me at the table. He was clearly there to defend the family pride and protect the name of his household. Part of me felt mercy for the gentleman, but he wasn’t a terrible player, so I felt it fair to play him full out.

I played all those years with a foam rubber paddle with a smooth face to it. It has one blue side and one red side. The science of paddle rubber and the art of using it had begun to evolve in the 1970s and I hated using those hard pebbled paddles without any foam in them. Much worse were the sandpaper paddles found in so many rank basements. Yet many’s the time I’d pick up even those dull instruments and wipe the table with the player opposite. Faced with such rude tools, one has to turn to the basics of cut backspin and angled shots. It’s a mental game as much as physical at that point. But table tennis always is.

I defeated the Old Man that day but it was an epic battle of sorts. One of the challenges of basement ping-pong is always lighting. On top of dealing with shitty paddles, the other object to overcome was glare from basement windows or low light in general. Both can turn a table tennis match into a squintfest.

Dozens of tables provide the backdrop of every match. The only one that matters is the one you’re playing.

Which is why the set up at the Vaughn Center this weekend for the Aurora Open was so impressive in terms of its detail. The organizers even hoisted sheets of black plastic up to the roofline to block out southern window exposure. It would not do to have nearly world-class players trying to see through glare on the tables. There was plenty of room around every table for players to retrieve or set up shots. The new style of table tennis balls is plastic, I was told, not comprised of the same flammable material from which they were once constructed. I’ll admit to burning a few table tennis balls for the fun of it back in the day. The chemical flames had a liquid lick to them, perfect foil for a childlike pyromaniac.

But my brother informed me, “The plants where they made the tennis balls kept blowing up.” I agreed that is never good.

Watching the matches was an instruction on how far the game has come and perhaps on how far I’ve been left behind. My paddle grip is tradition with two fingers flat on the backhand side. Most good players now use a pen-like grip and the result is backhands that are as devastating as forehands. The serves are now a ceremony of body position and paddle angle.

The rules are largely the same. The ball cannot bounce twice on the opponent’s side to count as a legal serve. That’s a big difference from how basement table tennis is played. They must also leave the table within the end of the opponent’s side and between the two white lines marking the table edge. Again, that is never enforced in basement table tennis.

Nor is the requirement to toss the ball into the air on each serve. Many’s the time when players I met sort of smacked the ball right out of their hand, a tactic that makes serving much easier and can result in really deceptive play. But having principles and enforcing the rules when playing pickup table tennis or any other sport is an unpopular ideal and even frowned upon as lacking a sporting instinct in situations where Bro competitiveness is one the line. “Deal with it!” I heard one asswipe yell at me for calling a serve illegal when it bounced two times before leaving the table.

Table tennis rules stipulate the ball must be thrown at least half a foot above the hand. Most do much more.

Watching the high level of play and witnessing the focus of the young players on the floor made me realize my table tennis days are fairly much over. Probably ten years ago I joined my brother at his table tennis night and barely won a match against the worst player in the large group of forty-some players. I realized that climbing the ladder and earning some sort of ranking, especially with a torn ACL as I had in those days, would take more doing than I wanted to do.

What I most admired in watching the tournament was the diversity of people in terms of age, race, gender and more. Young kids played old aces. Women played men. Heavy dudes with guts faced off with lean prodigies and you know what? The matches were all closely contested. There is something to greatly love in that kind of sporting even. While soccer may be the world’s game, I’m willing to say that table tennis comes close in terms of its national diversity. Who knows, I could well find myself playing the game again. One should never be afraid of trying something new, even when it’s an old hobby.

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What kind of engine do you have?

My wife’s coach recently made her chuckle while discussing her training. “You’ve got a diesel engine,” he told her. “We want to spread your speed and energy out over the whole race.”

That got me thinking about what kind of engine I have.

My top end as a runner was about 56 seconds for 400 meters. That explains why I never ran a 4:00 mile. Running four consecutive quarters at four seconds above your fastest pace is fairly hard. The only way to overcome that narrow gap between top end speed and sustainable pace is to repeat the ever living shit out of the sixty second pace and hope to build a sub-four out of that.

These days I’m slower but still like to test the top end

I once went through three-quarters of a mile in 3:09, which is sixty-three seconds per lap. Then I slowed the last lap, tightened up and finished in 4:19. I wasn’t quite there in terms of speed training for the full mile because my primary race was the steeplechase, a competition that required more strength than raw speed.

So my engine was like a four-cylinder running at top-end rather than a six or eight cylinder cruising along at speed.

It used to be believed that really fast engines like four-minute milers could not step up to run the 5000 or 10,000 meter distances with success, much less the marathon. But today’s world-class runners often can run a sub-four-minute mile and yet cash in that speed by running sub-13:00 for the 5k or even sub 27:00 for the 10k. Their speed enables them to run more efficiently at faster paces.

While training with a running club out in the Philly area, we did 800 repeats on the track and were nailing them in sub-2:15. That next summer I trained with a group at University of Illinois-Chicago and ran a sub 4:30 mile in practice. Those drills build confidence and callous the body to faster tempos and all-out speed.

Competing in the Twin Cities Marathon 1985

Post-collegiately I ran only one or two competitive miles. One of them was a pickup meet where I literally coasted to the win at 4:22. That same season I raced a 5K and set my PR at 14:45. My PR in college for three miles was 14:45. So I’d improved by some thirty seconds at that distance.

So I wish that I’d raced a hard mile that summer because there was clearly a 4:12-4:15 in my legs and body. Alas that is a lament for the past.

But it showed that my four-cylinder engine had improved in running at the top end. My PR 10K that year was 31:10, a five mile at 24:47 and a four mile at 19:49. It was a fun year because whenever I raced there was a feeling of being able to push the gas pedal and the engine would roar into action.

That September I ran a 25K on a whim after training days of fifteen miles on Thursday, ten miles on Friday and another ten miles on Saturday. Obviously I was not planning to race that Sunday morning, but circumstances opened up and I jumped in the race and took third in 1:25, feeling relatively relaxed the entire way. That is the weekend I wished I’d raced a competitive marathon, without the 35 miles of training in advance. I’m pretty sure sub 2:25 was possible.

I once owned a stick-shift Subaru four-door Sedan with four cylinders. That car once got 450 miles to a tank of gas, and I think there were twelve gallons or so in a fillup. That always made me feel great, getting the most out of that car. I kind of feel the same way about my running body. And I’ll admit to shifting my stick knob a few times along the way.

Posted in 10K, 13.1, 400 meter intervals, 400 workouts, 5K, aging, aging is not for the weak of heart, marathon, marathon training, running | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

We're all like geese and coyotes and Cooper's hawks

A Canada goose in full flight (Photo by Christopher Cudworth)

One of the species that wildlife biologists and hunters sought to protect in the early 1970s was the Canada goose. This familiar species is now so common as to qualify as a pest, but that was not the case five decades ago. The species known as Canada goose is actually several ‘races’ ranging in size from the duck-sized Cackling goose to the Greater Canada goose, the largest of its kind. These all evolved in their own distinct range, but human influence changed all that.

Goosing the population

One of the efforts to give the Greater Canada geese a leg up in population size was an introduction program in Rochester, Minnesota where water remained open all year round thanks to some sort of industrial activity. Flocks of Canada geese quickly adapted to the year-round availability of food and fresh water. Their numbers escalated.

The same thing happened at Fermilab, the scientific research center west of Chicago in the suburb of Batavia. Cooling ponds from the national accelerator research facilities offered inviting habitat to geese. A few began to hang out year-round and over the last few decades a massive population of non-migratory geese fanned out across the suburbs to breed in local marshes and take over golf courses and corporate campuses where short green grass mimics the growth typical of tundra landscapes where Canada geese once migrated for breeding.

A Canada goose pair at twilight (photo by Christopher Cudworth)

As a lifelong birder it has been interesting to watch this evolutionary phenomenon in real time. Back when I started birding, it was a real treat to see a flock of migrating Canada geese each spring. Their honking in the distance heralded the arrival of spring. That was good news to this young man after training in cold weather through Januray and February. Long skeins of geese were a sign of better things to come.

Common companions

These days there is hardly a run or a ride in which I don’t hear or see Canada geese along the way. We live next to a wetland and all winter the flocks of Canada geese have ebbed and flowed, sometimes covering the entire march with their brown, black and white bodies. While feeding, they tip their bodies up and expose the white undersides of their tail.

The large flocks of Canada geese in Illinois also attract other species including white-fronted geese, snow geese and its race variant the Blue goose. Walking our dog in the morning, I walk past the large retention pond above the marsh and scan the resting flocks of Canada geese for the odd field mark that indicates another species.

A Blue goose among Canada geese

A few weeks ago there were so many geese resting on the water overnight their voices could be heard through the walls of our house. At first I thought they were the sound of a TV or radio left on by my stepson in the bedroom next to ours. I got up to check but it wasn’t the source. Heading downstairs, I poked my head out the back door and listened to the chuckling sound of thousands of geese keeping each other company through the dark night.

Coyote meal

I find their feathers on our lawn after they waddle up to gorge themselves at our feeders.

A day or two later the remains of a Canada goose were scattered along the shore above the retention pond. We have coyotes that frequent the wild places behind our home and wander the bike paths looking for rabbits and other prey. A year ago they took a small dog behind a house five doors away from us. The neighbors all freak out when they hear that coyotes are about. They’re always with us. That much I know from the tracks they leave in the mud and the snow, depending on the season. We can hear the pack howling some nights across the wetland.

I’ve met up with coyotes in the forest preserves while running and riding, or spotted them crossing the road in front of me. Some people hate these wild canids, but I find them fascinating.

Fast food for hawks

A Cooper’s hawk surveying its territory

There’s a third species of wildlife that has made a comeback in our area as well. That is the Cooper’s hawk, an accipiter species adept at snatching birds in mid-air, and willing to pursue them by foot to chase prey out of a bush or thicket. These beautiful birds are dreaded by some folks that lose feeder birds to the clutches of such an able hunter. But I welcome them and enjoy seeing them flap and sail along the wood edges scaring up prey to live another day.

We humans not so different from any of these species of wildlife. We’re as populous as geese, as stealthy as coyotes on the prowl and ruthlessly opportunistic as hawks on the hunt. All are part of the evolutionary process. It’s only when people mess with it that things get out of whack. Then nature sort of whacks back.

There’s a lesson in that for all of us. We’re not so different from these wild creatures as some might like to lead us to believe. Plus I find inspiration in the flight-sharing duties of Canada geese in an echelon, the loping running style of a coyote and the burst of speed coming from the breast muscles of a Cooper’s hawk in pursuit. It’s all wild.

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Those moments when you realize you're alive

This morning while walking the dog before dawn, I had one of those moments where the mind suddenly snaps to attention in a way that makes you realize you’re still alive.

So much of life is getting through the moments of our existence. Processing things the best way we know how. Using experience to weigh the significance, or lack thereof, in every waking moment.

But the mind works in fits and starts. I stood there for a moment looking at the veil of trees silhouetted against the sky lit by distant towns. It gave me a snap of awareness. Made me think of how many times I’ve been doing something like running or riding or even swimming in a pool only to ask, as if I just woke up, “What am I doing here?”

What are any of us doing here? Or anywhere? A few minutes later during our walk, our dog stopped and stared into the darkness. I bent down to look into the murk from her perspective, but could see nothing. She let loose a low growl. Could it be a coyote?

She’s a cautious pup, rescued from who knows what sort of existence under a year ago. Now she views the world through eyes that have likely seen things we don’t want to imagine.

Awareness is a strange thing. I recall a long bike ride several years ago in which I covered fifty miles on country roads. The route was familiar and the conditions tolerable, so it didn’t take much thought to cover ground. On a shallow descent toward home my mind caught up with the effort. It frightened me that I could not recall anything about the miles I’d just covered. Could not remember if I’d paused at stop signs or crossed through many intersections. It wasn’t even a blur. It was…nothing.

I vowed not to let that happen again. Yet it does now and then. And worse. One morning while riding a bike trail at a brisk pace I looked up to find a fallen tree across the path. All I could do is react in some way. Turning the front wheel at the last possible second, my body slammed into the tree and my face grazed a thick limb sticking up from the trunk. Seconds later I lay on the ground bruised and bleeding from the face. Nothing makes you feel alive like seeing blood pouring from your own face and dripping on your clothes.

This past spring a similar thing happened when a man stepped out from between two cars and before I could react, I hit him square in the ass. There was no time to react and no way to have seen him before he popped out from between those two vehicles.

Even without such shocks to make us wonder when life might end, or what it means, there are moments when reality shifts and the world stands still before you. Or a tarsnake catches your wheel. Like that.

A friend of mine from high school keeps reminding me, “We have more life behind us than ahead of us these days.” He’s always been a sage of sorts, in colloquial fashion. His point is that awareness is a precious commodity. So is a sense of wonder. And conscious existence. So make the most of it. Love your friends. Keep in touch. Live.

Sometimes it takes a dog growling in the dark to help us realize there are things we need to consider in this world whether we like to or not. All we can really do is growl back in whatever fashion we choose, and keep moving.

Posted in aging, aging is not for the weak of heart, bike accidents, bike crash, blood on the highway, Christopher Cudworth, cycling, cycling the midwest, cycling threats, running, Share the Road, swimming | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

In praise of Little Women and fierce faces

This morning’s Chicago Tribune contained a short editorial by Monica Hesse of the Washington Post. She was writing to encourage men who to see the movie “Little Women.”

My wife and I attended the movie that past weekend. I loved it. But then again, I also like The Parent Trap film starring little Lindsay Lohan, in which she plays twins separated when her parents divorce and electe to keep the existence of the other twin a “secret” from the world.

That’s a pretty fucked up decision if you think deeply about it. But the premise of the movie is that the two young girls eventually meet at a summer camp and plot to bring their parents back together again. Lo and behold, it works. In Fantasyland. But it’s a sentimental film and cute in places. Little Lindsay Lohan innocently portrays both twins with amazing credibility.

I also like the movie Mean Girls starring Lindsay Lohan for completely different reasons. For one thing, it’s really funny. But it also seeks to confront the awful ways that girls treat each other from middle school through high school. The lead character goes from an innocent home-schooled plain-babe to a calculatingly plastic bitch who schemes to destroy her enemies.

The movie version of Lohan presaged the real-life Lohan who went a little nuts on the journey from child star to young woman to adult. At one point Lohan had a glow about her that was difficult to match. But drug abuse and parental torment transformed the woman into a caricature that was difficult to watch. Now she’s a poster girl for the dangers of excess and lost promise in this world.

Of course she’s not alone in that journey. The world has long been filled with hot messes and dangerous dudes trying to take advantage of them. The biblical tale of Adam and Eve presages them all, with Eve flirting with a Serpent using the Word of God to lure her under its control. Meanwhile Adam slides into the picture and then pretty much blames Eve for the whole mess. The rest of Judeo-Christian history is pretty much a tale of men gaining revenge toward women for the control they exert over them.

The article about the movie Little Women documents the way that men objectify the whole process of temptation and turn to violent outcomes. “Even before the new movie came out, fans and critics were fretting about men and “Little Women.” How they didn’t get it. How men would sit through eleventy billion plotlines in which an aging Liam Neeson head-butts terrorists, but not a single plotline exploring whether Aunt March was correct to take Amy to Europe instead of Jo.”

Now that last line only makes sense to people that have seen or read Little Women. But any description of a story that contains the words “Aunt March” is guaranteed to send some men screaming for the exits.

That brand of prejudice reminds me of the way some men malign certain women’s sports. Hatred for women’s basketball at any level is one such example. The women’s game is far too lateral for some men to tolerate. No dunks? Spare the pain of watching the game.

The same goes for women’s soccer despite the stellar performances of the US Women’s National Team in winning Olympic and World titles. Some men refuse the premise that the women’s game is anywhere near deserving the respect reserved for men. When the USWNT World Cup title game matched up with a USMNT tournament game, large segments of the soccer fan base still chose the men’s game, which largely meant nothing other than salvaging a tiny bit of ego for a team that underperforms on a regular basis.

In some ways, the sport of women’s running and triathlon have done better when it comes to earning the attention and respect of the sporting world at large. The “little women” who now run marathons at a 2:15 pace and the triathlete women who break nine hours are forces of nature on their own. Their talents and effort are not hidden by bulky uniforms or spread across the field in subtle moves lost on a sporting public that craves points, not mastery of the game. We see their fierce faces stroke after stroke, stride after stride. And we go along for the ride.

I watch the “Little Women” of the endurance world putting on a show and marvel at the dedication in training and focus it takes to put up with pain, to sweat with ferocity and to finish with determination. And I say to myself, “That’s how women have to do everything in this world.”

The movie review for Little Women continues: “Expand society’s narrow ideas about what constitutes a fulfilling emotional experience for men, one ticket at a time…Little Women Men, you need to go. You can do it, guys. You can politely glom onto your wives’ wine club viewing, or you can go alone, or, better yet, you can casually suggest that you and your crew grab a few beers, and then go watch the March family darn some socks in their sitting room.”

But actually, I watched the incredibly expressive Little Women actresses reciting lines that challenged the world to think differently about their gender, or any gender. The cameras panned their dynamic relationships. Meanwhile the men in the film strained to be heard even as they strained at times to listen. It’s all an act, you realize, in which the parts we’re playing are so often prescribed and not nearly enough indulged to help us make sense of it all.

Break out of the mold. Little Women and all.

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A run through the legal weed patch

My wife and I do training runs on the Fox River Trail, a strip of asphalt on a former railroad bed that runs the length of the valley from Aurora all the way up to McHenry, Illinois. As such, it sits at the base of the river valley below a long line of businesses, factories and industrial plants in various states of use.

One of these old buildings was converted to a pot dispensary in anticipation of marijuana being legalized in Illinois. That pot store is the only one in our area of the county, and the first day of legal pot sales in Illinois was January 1st. The line of people to buy pot was a mile long and strung down Illinois 31 on a section of highway with no sidewalks.

Getting in a workout

Yesterday morning we stopped to do hill repeats near the pot dispensary and noticed right away that our normally deserted street with an incline was jammed with cars. So was the parking lot of the tumbling facility that housed a mattress company I once called upon during my career in newspaper advertising sales.

It’s all proof that times have changed, and continue to do so. Thirty years ago progressives largely believed making pot legal would spare a lot of heartache and bogus criminal records. The ACLU produced a report on the racial bias behind so many marijuana arrests. “The aggressive enforcement of marijuana possession laws needlessly ensnares hundreds of thousands of people into the criminal justice system and wastes billions of taxpayers’ dollars. What’s more, it is carried out with staggering racial bias. Despite being a priority for police departments nationwide, the War on Marijuana has failed to reduce marijuana use and availability and diverted resources that could be better invested in our communities.”

Walking for weed

As we finished up our run there were people parking half a mile north of the pot dispensary to walk down the trail and purchase their stock. I stopped to talk to one young couple holding hands as they started down the icy path. “Walking for weed?” I smiled. “Yes,” they replied. “We figured, why not?”

Later that day while walking our dog at a forest preserve west of town, a pair of young women emerged from their car. One of them was carrying a classic marijuana pipe with multiple stems. They were headed out to the fields to puff pot and get high. All I could think to say was, “Congratulations!” The one young woman raised her pipe in triumph. They both laughed.

Pot smoking

I smoked pot now and then with friends in the 70s and early 80s. Then it vanished from my life as I was never a buyer, only a casual smoker. I have never really trusted drugs or myself when it comes to drugs. There were a couple scary incidents of overindulgence during college from which I could have died. Some of those incidents were from drinking too much and others from driving while drinking. Both resulted from the false courage alcohol pours into your veins and brains.

By contrast, I only got stoned and drove once or twice. Usually we parked somewhere to smoke or just hung out in someone’s apartment. But having driven a couple times while high, I don’t think driving under the influence of pot is any safer than driving while drinking. The same basic flaw is at work in either case. Getting high or drunk impairs your immediate logic and responses.

I also think chronic pot use impairs motivation. I’ve seen that happen with so many pot smokers it is more than anecdotal evidence that pot has effects on baseline emotional states. Of course, I’ve also known plenty of people who smoke pot to relax in the face of a competitive world. So it works both ways. Pot itself is neither good or bad. It is how you use it that determines the outcomes. That’s why it should be legal.

Good or bad choices

People deserve to make their own good or bad choices when it comes to drugs. Pot has long been available to those who use it. The ratio of those it harms is based on both objective and subjective evidence. The booze companies often campaign to “Drink responsibly” and such will likely be the case with pot in all its forms as well.

Laws about using pot during work hours or even outside of work are not liable to change much, at least not right away. Yesterday at a New Year’s Day cookout our conversation turned to drug laws and the workplace. Everyone agreed that the risk of getting fired for having pot in your system is likely just as high as ever. I suggested the best way to monitor employee behavior would be to stock the entire vending machine with six-packs of Oreo cookies. You could measure tell how high someone was by how many packs of Oreos they bought.

But the issue of having people high while on the job is a serious one, and full of really awful potential, especially in jobs where people work with machinery, drive for a living, or talk with customers about proprietary subjects. We all need good judgment for our own safety. Truth is, we’re all making a run through the legal weed patch right now.

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The glory days are not always what you think they are

I got my gripe session about the travails of 2019 out of the way yesterday. Now it’s time to look ahead to 2020. Let’s spare each other the obvious cliches about “vision” and “seeing clearly.” I’m sure we’ll find plenty of that on Linkedin feeds by clickbaiters eager to prove their business acumen.

In the meantime, I made some comment on a Twitter brag about Trump and this is what the Tweeter named The Modern Marilyn (@glamgabber) wrote back. “Aren’t you late for your meeting of runners who sit around and talk about the glory days of high school cross country? Donald J. Trump has accomplished more than you could ever dream. And you feel righteous in dragging him down? Yap on jealous running blogger.”

Of course I should now better than to troll another troll. But at least she was curious enough to visit my profile to learn that I’m a runner. And that’s what she chooses to mock?

I’ll admit that I haven’t enjoyed the same success as Donald J. Trump. I’m not a wealthy man. My running blog isn’t even a profit-maker, per se. It has been helpful in getting content work from people that read my blog and like the writing. So it’s not a total loss.

It is also a form of writing practice, an important tool of the craft. That’s a good thing for writers to do, practice. It is also a form of therapy, and that is also good. I’ve had the opportunity to interview dozens of interesting people about their lives past and present, and pushed their stories out to other publications and media outlets where they’ve gotten even more recognition. I don’t think that’s a failure in purpose, do you?

Taking an interest

Because taking an interest in other people and writing about your own life can in some small ways change the world. At times, it can have even greater effect.

As for the accusation that runners “sit around and talk about the glory days of high school cross country,” of that I am at least partially guilty. But so are about five hundred other former runners on the Facebook group Glenn’s, a closed group consisting of many of Illinois’ best runners, many of whom went on to success in college and beyond. We all raced each other on the roads. Some are still winning national championships or running and riding for health and fitness well into our fifties, sixties and seventies.

There is no doubt that many of us still likely think about our racing days when we were much faster than we are today. Yet running at the rate we can now still feels much like it did forty years ago. That’s not living in the past. That’s dealing with the present. And if it keeps us mobile, vital and healthy to the best of our ability, then the glory days live on within us. That’s called motivation.

Growing bolder

Many Americans are approaching their senior years with a more active countenance. Contrast that with the lifestyle of President Donald J. Trump, who claims exercise will shorten your life. He also drives a golf cart on the course no matter what, even pulling his wheeled chariot onto the greens in order to avoid having to walk anywhere, even to make a putt. By many accounts, he also cheats at golf.

Donald Trump cheating a weather map to make it say what he wants it to say.

Most of us don’t have the money or the fame or own country clubs like Donald Trump. So Modern Marilyn is right about that. And it is also true that no one in the world holds the political status of the American President. But our modest successes are still worth noting. When called upon to care for others, we do our best. When pressed to act with conscience, we try to make the right choices. When faced with decisions about whether to be honest or not, we seek to tell the truth.

I believe those character traits evolve from having done something really hard in life. running as fast as you can for as far as you can cleans out the spirit. That brand of pursuit forces one to be honest. It’s true with cycling and swimming as well. There is no faking it in any of those worlds.

Granted, there are people who cheat to win, but none of us really admires them. That steals genuine honor from those who deserve it.

Do cheaters prosper?

None of us trusts a cheater. That is why suspicions about the actions of Donald Trump are so profound in this world. When he pardons a Navy Seal whose peers characterize their fellow soldier as “freaking evil” and lacking conscience, Trump undermines codes of the military that govern how war should be conducted. When our President rewards a cheater like that, the cheating feels like the right thing to do.

That’s also how our military in Iraq came to believe that torture was an acceptable practice. It was “okay to cheat” on the rules of conduct according to the Bush-Cheney administration because any method that extracted information from so-called “enemy combatants” was claimed to be justified in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. So our nation conducted torture in the same facilities where Saddam Hussein once tortured and murdered his own people. In those moments, we became one with the despotism of a deeply conflicted nation.

Who can be sure that we’ve ever fully recovered from that compromise in principles? Our country became so deeply entrenched in Iraq and Afghanistan we have still not vacated those nations. Even Obama’s withdrawal of thousands of troops did not eradicate the American stain on the region. We’re still mucking about in the Afghan debacle. All because our nation’s leaders tried to cheat reality by invading a country that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. Cheaters never really do prosper in the long term.

More cheating afoot

That sense of suspicion about cheating is what made millions more Americans vote against Trump than for him. Yet his supporters feverishly welcomed the torrent of rash insults, misogynistic threats, racist taunts, insensitive mocking, praise for white supremacists and bigotry and outright lies used by Trump to win favor while inviting “Wikileaks, I love wikileaks…” to release potentially damaging information about his political rivals. On many fronts, Trump cheated the American political process and claimed that he was “winning.” But America as a whole was all the time losing something important that it once owned. Integrity.

Breaking the pattern

There is clear evidence that Trump actually received help from Russian in getting elected in 2016. Trump is loathe to admit that fact. He cannot stand the idea that he is in any way an illegitimate POTUS or a legitimate POS. That all contributes to why the House of Representatives impeached the man, and new evidence keeps turning up that Trump was trying to cheat to win the presidency a second time around.

I have running and triathlon friends that are conservatives. Some support Donald Trump and some do not. As this blog has consistently indicated, I am not afraid to call the man a cheater and a liar because it’s true. His fraudulent university, shady dealings with his own foundation, refusal to pay contractors and even stiffing the cities that host his rallies all point to a man so self-serving and dishonest he lets nothing stop his greed or his vicious desire for dominance over others. It is the opinion of many experts that Donald Trump exhibits all the traits associated with being a sociopath.

The Trigger Game

So the lady on Twitter who thinks Trump is a success, and who muses that people like me are failures that live in the past, surely know how to pay the trigger game pretty well. Still, I wished her condolences on the loss of her dog. That sucks for anyone to go through. Which makes me wonder how someone can love a dog so much yet gladly suffer the inhumanity of a mean-spirited man like Donald Trump? There must be something else going on.

The man has cheated on multiple wive and openly lusted for his own daughter.

It appears the leap in faith required to worship a man like Trump has nothing to do with present reality and genuine human suffering. It is instead the need to embrace and promote the perception of winning in the face of life’s challenges that motivates so many to worship Donald Trump. It is also a need to claim persecution and seek vindication that motivates so many to support his vengeful nature. That’s the explanation for the evangelical support for a man with so many un-Christian attitudes and actions. They view him as a portal to the aims of their religion, a “necessary evil” to accomplish God’s work. So there’s a huge segment of the Christian community that believes it is fine to cheat in a thousand ways if one can claim that it achieves God’s work in the end.

I don’t buy that argument, and never will. Nor do others. We’re supposed to learn from the flaws of those servants of God, not emulate them while perpetually expecting forgiveness without any sign of repentance or contrition. Then demanding political favors while we go about the business of abusing others for power. Those things are wrong. And as a result, some are beginning to question that undying support for Trump will lead to ultimate triumph of the spirit.

I’ll take the “glory days” attitude that celebrating the accomplishments it took hard and honest work to achieve, be those moments past or present, as the right values for America. We should all choose those best examples of human spirit, and not giving up, over the sick notion that God chooses corrupt people on purpose to prove some strange point that all of us are flawed. I maintain that small and honest victories, no matter how insignificant they may seem, are the real accomplishments worth celebrating in any age. I believe Jesus would tell us the same thing, and scripture bears that out in manifold ways.

The glory days are still here if you want them to be.

The glory days, which are so often maligned as evidence of lost hopes and fallen dreams, are actually quite beneficial in recalling how to do things well. It is also true that those who forget the past are often condemned to repeat it. And you would be surprised how often our group of “glory days” runners share experiences that are far from glorious, but instead share the challenges of trying hard, and sometimes failing due to ego or other causes. That turns the notions of “glory days” on its head, but it’s true. We also laugh at our mistakes, openly lament or ridicule our crushing collapses from exhaustion or mental mistakes and confess: “I wasn’t perfect. But I tried my hardest.”

And those are virtues of both soul and mind.

Those glory days are proactive in a sense that they are always ours to experience and promulgate in positive ways if we embrace those values and hold ourselves accountable to legitimate standards in the present. There’s a lack of that virtue in America right now, and it’s all encapsulated in the profane choice to glorify a man that has cheated to win his whole life.

Posted in aging, aging is not for the weak of heart, Christopher Cudworth, competition, cycling, healthy aging, IRONMAN, swimming, Tarsnakes, track and field, triathlete, triathlon, triathlons, trolls | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

I sentence 2019 to the past

With the year 2020 now approaching fast, I sentence 2019 to the forever past.

The year 2019 started off well enough with a triathlon training trip to the mountains of Tucson. But my neck kept tightening up during the rides and nearly locked up completely on the descent down Mt. Lemmon when the temperatures dropped and our nylon windbreakers really weren’t enough to keep us warm. I pulled over before crashing due to shivering, only to get a bee stuck in my chinstrap where it stung me on the throat.

I should have seen that as an omen for the year to come.

Because in May I got tangled up in a strange bike accident where some inattentive soul stepped out from between two cars along a rural highway. I was looking back to check on traffic in order to pass the two cars parked right on the white line. When I looked up there was no time to stop and I struck the dude smack in the ass with my front wheel. It bent the rim and flattened the tire. He then filed a police report trying to blame me for the crash but the officer called me to say, “I’d like to hear your side of the story.”

A month later I got a call from the guy trying to collect money from me for his medical bills. I told him, “That’s not going to happen.” He threatened me with a lawyer and I said, “You go right ahead.” Because I’d already talked to one of the leading bike law lawyers in Illinois and knew that this guy was completely in the wrong.

I could well have pursued that guy to collect for the painful hand and wrist injury caused by the accident. But it was my fault that the injuries were made worse when I tripped over a tree root during a run in Madison and fell on the same wrist that was injured in the bike accident.

So 2019 was already a thriller of a year by mid-summer, because I’d also left a job in a Mutual Separation Agreement about which I cannot say a word other than to say that sometimes you suffer strange circumstances for trying to do the right thing.

Thus I was hoping the rest of the summer would settle down when a horrendous tooth problem flared up that forced me to head to the dentist. The pain was caused by some bad dental work I’d had done in the past, and that led to an infected molar. My regular dentist opened it up, took one look and said, “This is out of my league.” But the endodontist to which he normally refers patients was out of town for the 4th of July, or something like that. But I was in serious pain. So I went through other channels and found the Michael Jordan of endodontists, who was in and out of that tooth in fifteen minutes because he does 3000 of those things a year.

But the tooth was not to be saved. We tried a couple times more to seal off the roots but finally I was sent to an oral surgeon who said, “This tooth needs to come out or you could die.” My face was swollen and the pain required several doses of 800 mg NSAIDs per day to stay sane. And when the surgeon saw my condition he literally punched a hole in my lower jaw lining to drain the swelling and said, “You come back tomorrow, and call me anytime if you notice this getting worse.”

And I did. And even after the tooth was yanked it took two weeks of antibiotics and repeat visits to get the condition under control. And it was only August by then.

But I’d accompanied Sue to a Half Ironman or two along the way, including Steelhead in Michigan. And while I was riding my bike into town to pick up some cash to buy lunch, some guy with a chip on his shoulder started yelling at me for riding my bike on the sidewalk. Dozens of other people had been doing it all day, especially the out-of-towners trying to get from the race staging area near the beach back to the hotels, but this guy wanted to give me a piece of his mind. I kept riding only to have him come around the corner at the ATM and challenge me to a fight. And I thought, “That’s all I need. Get arrested and sued for beating up some idiotic sociopath.”

So it took all my self control to walk away from that bit of potential ugliness. But it’s a sign of the times that self-righteous assholes rave at people just trying to get along and enjoy life. We’ve got a president who does it daily. And his followers love to claim persecution while dishing it out in droves.

It just wasn’t my summer. That’s all I can say.

Because I skipped the two Olympic triathlons in which I’d hoped to compete. I was all ready to drive to Wauconda at 4:00 in the morning the day of the race in July when massive thunderstorms rolled over the Chicago area pouring rain and lightning down from the sky. So that race was not to be. I got up anyway to drive the race number I’d collected for my sister-in-law the day before and plied my Subaru through rivers flowing across the main highways. Then I drove back home wondering if I was a latter day version of the biblical character Job from the Old Testament. The race was cancelled anyway.

The tooth and face actually took forever to heal, but my cycling and riding weren’t completely lost during the process. My resting heart rate was still in the low forties and I rode fifty miles wity my wife on the weekends as she prepped for the Louisville Ironman.

Still we wanted to take a summer break in late August and joined a couple friends on their boat on the Rock River. Against my own best instincts, and forgetting what a curse the year 2019 had already been, I overcame my best instincts and promises to myself and agreed to try getting up on waterskis. I’ve done it many times before, but this was 2019. On the first try I felt a painful tug along the inside of my left leg. I’d pulled the long tendon of my left hamstring. Humbled and disgusted, I climbed back in to the boat and sipped a warm Pepsi, thinking to myself, “How stupid can you be?”

That reduced me to walking slowly for a couple weeks. But there was plenty of need for that too. We’d adopted a dog named Lucy, a 50% pit mix with border collie, boxer and beagle mixed in. High energy and nippy as a puppy, she gave me caregiving PTSD at the start.

So I vowed to live vicariously for the rest of the year, and keep things simple by training with Sue and not worrying about when I could or could not again. Because it plainly was not meant to be.

In October Sue rocked her full Ironman, minus the swim, which was cancelled due to high toxic algae levels in the Ohio River. And I thought to myself, “Well that’s par for the course this year.” And we had a scare the day before the race when Sue’s front bike tire popped and she bumped her knee on the pavement. Coming off the bike in Louisville, she told me her knee was stiff. I was sorely disappointed at the thought she might not finish. But she did.

And a week later we flew off to the Mediterranean for a Norwegian Cruise Line tour from Barcelona to Naples to Florence to Cannes and down to Majorca before coming back home.

As we flew home over the giant expanse of ice covering Greenland, I looked down and thought about climate change and how the world is changing in ways that some people refuse to recognize and others feel panicked at the rate in which it is occurring.

Such is the condition of life in general.

A couple weeks later while standing stock still at the dog park watching our dog Lucy play with her friends, a big, fat yellow labrador retriever mowed me down with a hard strike to my left knee. I landed on my ass and lay there in the grass for a moment thinking about all that had happened in 2019. And I said out loud, “What the actual fuck?”

The knee has been loose and greasy feeling for weeks, and I can’t yet tell whether the damage and slight pain is permanent or just the echo of the impact. A week ago I took our pup back to the dog park for some play and met up with some young guys running their collie-Shephard mix around. Our dogs played together and then I ran after Lucy at a decent clip to race her to a ball. Upon my return one of the young men asked, “How old did you say you are again? You don’t run like an old man.”

That felt good to hear. Trying to keep age at bay is a full time job.

But 2019 was not done messing with me yet. Three days ago I took Lucy to the dog park again and within five minutes a big Lab-Shepard mix snapped at Lucy, pinned her down and bit a hole above her eye. It required stitches to fix and a $250 vet bill to boot.

So yes, I’m hoping 2020 looks better than 2019 for me. Between all of this and living with the smell fascism in the air, it has been a year of struggle and infamy.

Posted in aging, aging is not for the weak of heart, anxiety, bike accidents, bike crash, blood on the highway, Christopher Cudworth, cycling, cycling the midwest, running | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Catch you on the rebound

It’s funny what one decent speed workout can do to help you rebound from the malaise of low training or injury. It’s not all that fun to hit the track without much fitness in the tank, and it hurts like hell. Those first couple laps at training pace feel awkward and slow. The middle intervals feel better but the last few test the lungs to the point of wheezy pain.

But within a week of doing speed the legs seem to perk up a bit. The old joke about burning out the carbon has some literal truth to it. After weeks of plodding along at 10:00 pace if I was lucky, I dialed it up a few times over the past week and found myself in the low 9s for a few four-milers.

As you can see by my 10:46 mile warmup, the first mile these days is a sluggish ordeal. That’s the price of being a runner in my sixties. It’s not easy for anyone to warm up, I know. But the body has something new to say each time a sexagenarian hits the road. And you heard that right. I am a ripely minted sexagenarian with two years under my belt. But I have forty-plus years of running behind me. And a knee that has been rocked and rolled more ways than I like to count.

Pushing it

Yet today on the trails at Herrick Lake Forest Preserve I pushed the pace and dipped below an eight-minute mile for a good chunk of the run. I even ran near 8:00 pace on the largely uphill fourth mile. That made me feel good even when I thought back to the fact that just three or four years ago I raced 7:00 pace for 10k.

I have no idea if that pace is possible again. My inspiration comes from the fact that many other sixty-year-olds I know are running that fast. My only concern comes with the greasy feeling in my knee resulting from that concussive strike from a hundred pound dog a few weeks ago. I’m hoping the knee heals well, and completely.

So it seems like I’m on the rebound. Finally running a little better and escaped the holidays with my weigh in the low-to-mid 180s. When that goes below 180 the rebound will be even faster. And so will I.

See you out there, and catch me on the rebound.

Posted in 10K, 400 meter intervals, 400 workouts, aging, aging is not for the weak of heart, Christopher Cudworth, competition, running | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

From allegiance to rivalry

Running even with former Kaneland teammate Bill Sanders in fall of 1973.

In early 1973, right in the middle of my sophomore year in high school, our family moved 10 miles east from Elburn, Illinois to St. Charles. The rest of that school year I made a daily commute to finish the year at Kaneland, the high school where I’d just helped lead the cross country team to its first-ever conference championship.

I wasn’t a great runner, just a good one. Yet there was speculation upon our move that I somehow wanted to switch schools to run for Trent Richards, a Kaneland grad that had coached me on the Elburn baseball team from the age of 13 to 15.

To this day I’m pretty sure that our family moved because my father had lost his job and blown some money on a network marketing business. Yet when I asked him 25 years later why we moved, he replied, “I didn’t want your younger brother to play basketball in that slowdown offense at Kaneland.”

I actually don’t doubt that response at all. And my younger brother went on to earn a full-ride college scholarship at a Division I school. So whatever the reason for our move, it worked out pretty well for my parents and my brother.

Yet when my father told me the reason why we moved, I asked him: “But what about me? I was Class President and the top runner on the cross country team.”

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

That’s true. It all worked out over time. After all, we’d moved from Pennsylvania to Illinois when I was only twelve. And that worked out just fine. I made friends through sports and school just as I’d done back east in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. For a few years I tried to keep up contacts but they inevitably faded in the age of letters, long-distance phone calls and rare trips “back home.” Those former allegiances were real, but they inevitably take a back seat to the present reality.

Finishing sixth in the Upstate Eight Conference meet as a senior for St. Charles in fall 1974

The same thing happened when I moved from Kaneland to St. Charles. The pressure of finding and keeping friends as the “new kid” at school occupied all my time. Despite my love for the former school and friends, it was impossible not to move on.

The awkward aspect of that sophomore year transfer was having to compete against my former Kaneland cross country and track teammates that next fall and spring. I loved the orange shirts with the black and white shoulders of those Kaneland CC uniforms. My new St. Charles team had the same black and orange colors. But the team uniforms were made from a fabric called Sand Knit, so I wore a sleek shirt beneath the sleeveless jersey to make it more comfortable.

I wasn’t alone in transferring schools during those years. A top-flight runner from the northwest Chicago suburbs moved from Hersey HS to Batavia and took over the local running scene. At one point a local paper called me a “junior sensation” just before we met in the Tri-Cities meet. At the starting line, the ever-cynical Tom Burridge, who went on to compete at University of Kentucky and hold the American Half-Marathon record, turned to me and muttered, “Junior Sensation, my ass…” He trounced me good over the three-mile course.

So while I tried to compete with the best, I simply wasn’t one of them. That said, I still feel a sense of pride for those competitive years. This past weekend I was cleaning out our basement and found the photo (above) of me running against a former Kaneland teammate. It was taken at their own invitational during my junior year in high school. I finished fourth overall and our St. Charles team won the meet. It all brought mixed emotions on my part. To go from allegiance to rivalry was one of the first big lessons in life. Even firm expectations can change. It’s how you adapt to those changes that makes all the difference in life.

Competing with teammates Paul Mullen (front) and Dani Fjelstad at Luther College, circa 1976.

Running always helped me do that. It continued in college when encountering former rivals from high school who ran for opposing college teams. It was interesting to transfer those rivalries to an entirely new context. Yet something in me also wanted those high school competitors to do well at the college level. Rivalries are also a form of allegiance, in many respects.

Finally those rivalries spread out across the roads and I even wound up running with former rivals on club teams and other competitive opportunities.

To this day I still run into old rivals socially. What we continue to share is the experience of having done something hard and to the best of our abilities. That’s how we find allegiances all over again.

Posted in 10K, aging, Christopher Cudworth, cross country, healthy aging, running | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment