Thus far in this series on 50 Years of Running, I invited readers on a journey through my competitive career beginning with high school cross country and going through college and beyond. Then I went back and covered the formative years, those early experiences that added up to the drive––and sometimes anger––fueling that competitive career.
Thus we pick up this story in my late 20s, right after quitting (or being chased out…) of the Boy Scouts of America job that I endured for two years through corrupt leadership and lying volunteers. In late 1985 I made an attempt at running the Twin Cities Marathon, but the weather turned cold in early October and I pulled out after sixteen miles at 5:20 mile pace in the company of Runner’s World author Don Kardong and a phalanx of other sub-elites running together.
Essentially, that was my last serious race as a truly competitive runner. I’d still race now and then going forward, but never with the investment in miles or dedication of those years as a free-wheeling athlete. My son was born in October 1986. I took a look at myself and decided that it was time to take real life a bit more seriously.
Pounding the pavement
At the age of 27, I took a job as an ad salesperson with Chronicle Newspapers, a family-owned group of publications known for local news focus. From that point on, my running turned from a competitive focus to a tool for managing my brain for other purposes. I was pounding the pavement for new reasons now.
Once I stopped competing, it was like something cut loose inside me. I woke up one night pounding the pillows with my fist. Some kind of deep anger still resided in my soul. Then an incident from my childhood popped into my head. I lay there on the mattress next to my wife making a deep groan. I was recalling the day that my father lit into my brothers in front of me. That was a deep childhood emotional scar. Once I realized its impact on me, I started to work on what it all meant. How could I process why that moment affected me so much? Was it even wise to do so?
I knew that I had anger issues of some kind. They ran in direct proportion to my native anxiety. No one had ever described to me what anxiety was all about, or that it could be characterized as a condition people deal with all of their lives? Certainly, I’d been a nail-biter since birth. Often I was moody and even depressed. Through it all I’d found ways to survive, mostly through sports and by running. But I’d come to realize that for me, anxiety was one of the key tarsnakes of life.
Now that I was taking a more pragmatic approach to life, I decided to seek counseling. That wasn’t much help at first. “Your wife just wants you to be stronger,” a psychologist advised me. Looking back, I’m convinced she was projecting some of her own problems onto me. I came home even more frustrated.
The new job in ad sales didn’t help my anxiety. Having daily and weekly sales deadlines put perpetual pressure on my psyche. I was learning on the job and also from my mistakes. But I was getting better at it, and my training as a runner taught me persistence. The guy that preceded me in the position was a natural charmer with good looks and high confidence. He went on to sell spirits in the liquor industry.
I called on small businesses, banks, car dealers, furniture stores, hair salons and other clients in the towns of Batavia and Aurora. Finally, I built my book of business to a steady commission stream. Then the sales manager handed the real estate and car business over to a specific sales team, and I was left with 3/4 of my weekly billing. As a young husband and father, that was tough to take. “You’ll have time to find more business now,” the sales manager told me.
That’s the typical pitch so many sales managers rely upon to put pressure on their team. I’d sell most of the day, place the ads back at the paper and do it all over again the next. I was living the Jackson Browne Song titled The Pretender.
I’m going to rent myself a house In the shade of the freeway Gonna pack my lunch in the morning And go to work each day
And when the evening rolls around I’ll go on home and lay my body down And when the morning light comes streaming in I’ll get up and do it again, Amen Say it again, Amen
But we’d purchased a house with help from my wife’s parents. We lived in a nice neighborhood in Geneva, Illinois and I was finally making a living at a job that seemed like it had a future for me.
And that alone helped with the anxiety. A little. The anger was still an issue I needed to confront. Those opportunities would come along. I was stumbling into real life.
A longtime female friend told me a few years back that she recalls walking the streets of small-town Elburn with me as I philosophized about various issues. That’s no way to win the heart of a girl. Somehow I could not help myself. I’ve always cared about the deeper issues.
We were in eighth grade at the time. Our family was “new in town” because my father moved us from Pennsylvania to Illinois when I was thirteen. That meant establishing an entirely new friend set. That happened like most junior high social interactions. One connection at a time.
My next-door neighbor was the minister at the United Church of Christ church in downtown Elburn. A band of us somehow wound up attending confirmation class together at that church. Somewhere in my clippings file, there’s a photo of that group with about fifteen of us meeting each week to talk about God and Jesus.
That was not the church that my parents attended. They drove ten miles east to Geneva to the Fox Valley Presbyterian church. We’d attended the First Presbyterian Church back in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I loved that church, especially one of its deep blue stained-glass windows that cast an ethereal light each Sunday morning. I think that’s why I’ve also always loved blue Christmas lights for decoration. There was a house along the road to the junior high in Lampeter, Pa. that used only blue lights each year. It gave me a holy feeling inside to see those blue lights against the black night sky and the illuminated snow.
Confirmation class was its own kind of community for us eighth-graders. While there were a few more popular kids in the group, we left most of that social stuff behind in the context of those weekly sessions with Reverend Willhite. He was a caring man, serious and eager to challenge our minds in his conservative way. We held a discussion about the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, of which he was no real fan. It all seemed irreverent to him, but he also didn’t tell us not to listen to it.
I recall having an odd sense of nerdy pride in having chosen to be confirmed in a Christian church without my parents telling me what to do. In some sense it was an act of independence, an early recognition that I could think for myself, and did. One or two of those fellow classmates are still Friends on Facebook fifty years later. They are the people that are as open-minded in their thinking as I am today.
My brothers chose to have far less to do with religion than I. Their intellectual pursuits took them in different directions. But on that subject––despite my almost worshipful desire to earn acceptance from them–– somehow I didn’t care. That’s still kind of the case to this day. We all go our own ways.
Table tennis realities
So I kept up my interest in religion while rebelling against certain aspects of its proclamations. That came to be symbolized in the table tennis match I played against Reverend Willhite in the giant attic of our Elburn home. He loved playing table tennis and I’m half certain he expected to beat me in the game. What he did not count on was the fact that my brothers and I played relentlessly up in that attic, which was a perfect venue for the sport. Its high arched ceiling allowed for the “loop” shots we’d all learn to make using the smooth rubber paddles that provided a better grip. The Reverend played with a pebbled-rubber paddle without any foam between the rubber and wood. Those were better than the sandpaper paddles commonly used at home ping pong tables, but not by much.
The game was close in the early stages, but my aggressive loop shots pushed him back away from the table (a foldable construction built by my father out of plywood) and as the match grew lopsided I was amazed to hear the Reverend let loose a profane invective. “Shit!” he spat after going down about 11-4. We played games to 21 back then.
Part of me wanted to let him catch up. The other part of me saw the match as an opportunity to score theological points. I often argued with him about the more conservative aspects of the Christian religion. For me, the chance to drive ping-pong balls past him was as good as winning discussion points. As it turned out, I won the game.
That’s how I am about many things in life. Inseparably competitive. I like to win discussions and arguments as much as I like to win races or age group titles in running or triathlons. Now grant you, I’m far less competitive than I once was. I’ve learned to let some types of arguments go. But not all.
And recently, upon invitation from my brother Gary, I was invited to re-enter the table tennis world with a group that plays at a local recreation center. The first week back I was so unsure of my game that I backed off and didn’t continue. Yet the second week I arrived early, hit for a while with my brother, and won two out of five matches in a fun set against a good player.
Life is much like table tennis, you see. Every second of the day there are choices to be made. The accumulative effect of those choices constitutes who you are and what you do, or think. I care about the nuances of all that. I care about how people think, and how they arrive at their beliefs. I’ve always been that way, and always will be. If life is indeed a game of some sort, then the points and games and matches we engage in are what form our whole selves.
The writing game
That’s what I also love about writing. It is a challenge to pull thoughts together into a conscious whole. Over the last five years, I’ve worked on a pair of books that I care deeply about. One just published on Amazon. It is titled Honest-To-Goodness: Why Christianity Needs a Reality Check and How To Make It Happen.
The book is a collaborative work with Dr. Richard Simon Hanson, a Professor of Religion from my alma mater Luther College. His work and mine combine to propose solutions to the legalistic misdirection of the Christian religion over time and in real-time. The book is a consummation of my lifelong interest in ideas, the verity of theology, and the realities introduced to use by science.
Many ideas in the book have been worked out during my training runs, rides, and swims. That’s where solutions to theological or philosophical problems often occur to me. I’m grateful to have those activities to process events of the world and make sense of them so that other people can look them through and consider their own beliefs and ideas. In the case of this book, I’m not trying to win some game or beat someone in a competition. The opposite is true. I’m trying to get people to come along on a journey, like riding bikes or running together to share an experience and decide what really feels true.
A great read on religion and life
So I invite you, WeRunAndRide readers, to give my book a try. It’s an afternoon’s read, and available in softcover, hardcover, and Kindle editions. Here’s a link to purchase the book.
I’d love to hear your feedback here or please consider writing a review on Amazon.
The book is about giving Christianity a reality check because the religion is being used in so many historically corrupt ways. In some quarters, the Christian religion is even being turned on its head or reverse or inside out by people eager to have it serve their political, economic, cultural, or selfish ideals. That’s been the case since the inception of Christianity, as you’ll see in reading the book. But people also eagerly deny that, and when bad theology gets unleashed on the world the effects are often devastating. Holy Wars. Genocide. Torture. And theocratic attempts at controlling others. Christo-fascism. It’s a reality. What we’re notw facing is a “Christian” nationalism and political entity essentially seeking to take control of entire countries in both the United States and Russia. That’s how messed up religion can get when it stands on the opposite side of the original goals of the faith.
Here’s an excerpt from the book that describes the problem:
“Getting Christianity back on the right path today is a difficult task because many believers refuse to admit that the Christian religion has ever been wrong about anything. That is why it is so hard to help folks comprehend that religion is capable of causing real suffering in this world. The track record does not lie. Legalistic brands of Christianity have been used to support slavery, block civil rights,17 brand love between two people sinful,18 and denigrate useful science19 based on a biblically literal interpretation of scripture. And that’s just the start of the list.
None of that negative behavior serves God in any useful way. Yet, these seem to be some of the highest priorities among legalistic Christians determined to “win” what they term a Culture War.20 We must ask: What kind of worldview works so hard to deny obvious material truths and block equal rights to people deserving of them? The answer is that Christian legalism needs to aggressively protect its worldview because it does not necessarily stand for truth. That is why scriptural legalists defend their theology from any sort of objective analysis or criticism, lest many theological manipulations or contradictions be exposed.”
So you see, just like that kid walking the streets of Elburn in eighth grade, I’ve thought things through and brought them all together to make clear points so that readers like you can gauge where the truth really resides. We need honesty in this world more than ever. Please give this book a chance to show you how to get there. I promise it is an interesting, clear and satisfying read.
Despite my love of laughter and being considered funny if I could make that happen, my anxious nature also meant grappling with a conflicted mind. I loved making friends but worried about what they thought of me. I worked hard to earn favor with older kids but found their company overwhelming due to my lack of knowledge about things that seemed to come easily to others.
I never understood how or why so many people seemed to know things that I didn’t know much about. On the subject of sports, I could hold my own of course. But on the subject of sex, for example, I pretended to know far more than I did.
My lust for girls in our neighborhood included teasing games of tag where I could easily outrun most of them, but dared not touch for fear of getting caught invading some zone that was out of bounds. If perhaps the lone sister my mother delivered had not died at birth, I might have gained some valuable understanding of the female mind and body. My friends with sisters were far more comfortable around girls.
Navigating that world and trying to prove what you know while protecting the edges of your frail sensibilities is never easy. The tectonics of adolescence result in frequent crashes and clashes with reality over what you did and did not know.
To make matters worse, I always considered myself a serious person. Fifty years after I was in eighth grade, I had a short conversation with one of the women that I’d know when she was a girl. “Oh, you were always philosophizing,” she told me. “We’d walk around town and you’d be talking about all these serious subjects. A deep thinker, I think we called you.”
Well, that was nice to hear I suppose, But that’s definitely not (necessarily) the way to endear yourself to girls of the same age. The fact that I also liked birdwatching, wrote poetry, did artwork, and took nature hikes with binoculars painted me as at least a partial nerd. Even (most) smart girls don’t want to be bored to death listening to some guy try to figure out the meaning of life.
So my seriousness was in some respects my relational downfall. And worse, I took any of the insults directed my way just as seriously. Even insults not directed my way elicited a defensive response. My sense of social justice was a mile wide but tolerance for penetration of its surface was an inch deep.
And that’s why teasing always gutted me. And bringing it on myself? The worst. Making some attempt at a joke or other verbal blunder in mixed company almost killed me. When things got really bad, and someone reached me with a hard fact about my person or my appearance, I’d suffer a condition that my brothers and I called getting”bent.” Getting bent could happen in any number of ways, such as finding out that something said or done previously was regarded as stupid. Of if something made me feel a deep sense of guilt. I’d walk around bent for half the day.
It always amazed me that some people didn’t seem to suffer the same depth of concern or angst over the same things I did. In some cases that was a ruse, and later in life we learn that some people are just good at hiding what hurts them or makes them feel guilty. In other cases, people are genuinely immune to insult or fear because they lack the conscience, intellect, or sensitivity to care. These people I eventually learned to label assholes.
An author named Aaron James wrote a bestselling book titled “Assholes: A Theory.” James is a philosopher, which means he tries to sort out the reasons why some people think and act like they do. He documents many types of assholes in this world, and yes, there are many kinds. By the time I was approaching eighth grade, my ability to identify assholes was growing day by day. I was learning that while men were often assholes, women could quite frequently be assholes too. This was confusing to me at first because lacking any sisterly relations in which I could learn what asshole girls were like, I projected a certain form of perfection on all the girls and women I met. This grand mistake haunted me in many ways, cause as Aaron James documents in his book Assholes there is a particular form of female asshole called a bitch.
“A person counts as a bitch, we may say, when, and only when, she systematically takes special advantages in interpersonal relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that leaves her open to the voiced or expressed complaints of other people, but immunized against their motivational influence.”
Perhaps you’ve known a few assholes and bitches in your life. Eventually, we all have to develop some level of defense (or tolerance, take your pick… it’s basically the same thing) for such people. But when you’re just twelve or thirteen years old and prone to getting bent by your own social miscues, it seems like assholes and bitches know something that you don’t.
Assholes and bitches at large
It’s a fact that they sometimes do know something you don’t. Like knowing that using intimidation to get your way is a frequently advantageous personal trait. It’s also true that really smart and talented people can turn into the worst kinds of assholes or bitches.
The most extreme of these are sociopaths, people with no concern for how others feel at all. They couldn’t give a rat’s ass if your feelings are hurt or if you disagree with them for legitimate purposes.
About the age of thirteen years old, it starts to become evident that the world has many people that are either assholes, bitches, or sociopaths. You don’t know it yet, but some of them will someday be your boss at work or even the pastor at your church. Others will run for office, (even in high school) to get their way about everything they want. These are some of the purest assholes and bitches on earth. The most dangerous assholes are the control freaks working as judges or taking out their frustrations in law enforcement.
The list goes on and on, and the sick part of this formula is that so many people grow to admire and worship the biggest assholes and bitches in this world. This habit imbues them with some sort of satisfaction through associative or vicarious power.
Think about it: the movies and TV shows we watch are filled with archetypal assholes and bitches, especially those carrying guns as if that were a sign of intelligence, grace, or real power. We live in a world where people embrace an “ends justifies the means” philosophy if it appears to represent a chance to get on the “winning team.” You know the type. It’s grade-school-level stuff, but the “winner by force of association” dynamic becomes more deadly and serious as people cement their prejudices in this life
It’s almost too much, at the still-tender age of thirteen years old…to imagine that the world is filled with so many awful people. As an eighth-grader, I walked around philosophizing because I was trying to figure all that out. By that age, I’d learned to deal with bullies and such, and hoped naively, they’d someday go away when we all grow up. Too bad. So sad. That doesn’t happen.
The harsh truth is that things don’t change all that after you’ve reached eighth grade. That’s true whether you take life seriously…and engage however you can…or try to skate through life listening to Jimmy Buffet songs, smoking weed, and watching The Big Lebowski…as if that answers any of life’s most serious questions. The Dude Abides? By what reason? The assholes and bitches are still out there, of course. Even the Dude admits that. His best friend is a big asshole. But he loves him, for reasons not fully explained. So stop pretending they’re not out there. And understand that they’re eagerly awaiting the chance to collide with you. They even make up slogans to browbeat the world or cling to religious lies by tradition to justify their assholey instincts. ASSHOLES. BITCHES. They never change.
That is perhaps the reason why I so enjoyed the feeling of crossing the finish line in first place (or nearly so) and why it felt so goddamned good from such an early age. I’ll admit it: there was always a tinge of revenge and released anger behind all that energy. It felt like a form of justice to leave the assholes and bitches behind where they could marinate in the bitter sauce of their woulda-coulda-shouldas recipe for self-justification.
So it was for me on every competitive arena. But the distant running was the best. Nothing makes you feel better than running so hard and so fast that the worst people in this world can’t keep up. The fact that some great people get left behind isn’t a problem. I’ve also also gotten left behind or cast out of the race many times in life. It builds character. Unless you’re an asshole. Then it doesn’t.
These days I’ve mellowed and no longer feel the need to beat everyone at everything I do. Competition’s Son has grown wiser, and I choose where to compete and when. Because they’re still out there. The assholes and bitches, sociopaths and zealots. The only way to keep them from running over you is to keep moving, or turn around and face them with the facts. They always seem to run away from those.
The first thing I wanted to do upon arriving in Illinois as a twelve-year-old kid was to get signed up to play baseball that summer. My folks lined me up with a team in the 8-12 year old league, which was a similar age grouping to the Local 285 team back in Lancaster where I helped pitch the team to a Lancaster New Era Tournament championship two summers before, and led the team as its top pitcher the following year.
That league was immensely competitive. You had to try out to make a team, and the first year I tried that as a nine-year-old, I got cut. So I understood what it meant to earn a spot on a baseball team, and I was determined to make that happen again in Elburn.
The coaches saw me warming up at the park that day and offered to let me be the starting pitcher. I struck out the side in the first inning. And the second. And so on. Before all was said and done, I’d thrown a perfect game with no one on the other team reaching base either on a hit or a walk. I don’t recall anyone really touching the ball with a bat that day. Perhaps a foul tip, but that was about it.
Following that game, a group of parents gathered around to discuss what to do with me. They talked to my dad, and he pulled me aside and told me kindly, “They said you’re too good to play in this league. I think they want you to try out for the American Legion team.”
There apparently wasn’t a Pony League team for 13-15-year olds. The next step up for Elburn baseball was the American Legion squad, which started at age 16.
I showed up for practice and met the coach, a 22-year-old firebrand named Trent Richards. He was assisted by another young man named Jim Yagel, a well-known athlete from the region who would help out from time to time.
The top pitcher on the team was a guy named Dale Garmin. He was a quiet, studious guy with a decent set of pitches, and he led the squad. But I got to pitch quite a bit that summer, and while it was intimidating at first to face batters a few years older than me, I was used to pitching to my older brothers and their friends, so I got over those fears pretty quickly.
I was happy kicking around in the dust of that baseball field that summer. I turned thirteen on July 26 and the transition to being a teenager was nothing special. I was just as horny and naive about sex and girls as I was at twelve years old. But I felt like something of a man playing baseball with those older guys.
I hung out with some of Elburn’s best athletes, including a guy named Kevin Peterson who was also a good basketball player. Rumors went around town that I was a pretty good player. Some of that reputation caused jealousy and eventually ridicule by some of the more cynical guys in town. But Kevin always treated me well.
So I got pulled into the hoops arena as well. We played basketball all year around at the Morris Barn court just west of Elburn. It was nearly a full-length basketball court in what would have been a hay loft. The floorboards were worn smooth from all the years of basketball played there. A couple of those boards were “dead zones” where we learned not to dribble the ball. We’d play in the heat of summer and through the cold of winter, sometimes wearing full gloves on our hands as we worked up a sweat in the cold air streaming between the wooden slats of the barn.
But for all that acceptance and interaction I was still an anxious and sometimes depressed kid that summer. I had made new friends named Mark Strong and Eric Berry (Eeker, RIP) that were my age. We rode our bikes around Elburn trying to connect with the girls we liked. Twyla. Allison. Ellen. Mary Jo. Sometimes we’d sit on their porches and compete for attention. It felt like the world expanded in their presence. I lived for the ability to make them laugh, even a little. But no matter how hard I tried, they still seemed to know so much more about the world than I did.
We’d all be attending eighth grade together that fall. That meant a whole new wave of introductions was at hand. I was the New Kid In Town that year for months at a time. On one hand I loved the attention. On the other hand it meant I was always on trial with the new people I was meeting. As always when seeking a competitive social advantage, I turned to sports as my proving ground and social outlet. That’s all I knew how to do. Focus on making impressions and hope for the best. Thirteen years on this earth isn’t that long a time to know how the whole place works. But we do our best. That’s all anyone can do.
It’s a funny thing how we circle around each other trying to match priorities and make contact in this centrifugal world of inner existence. We spin and brush up against the events going on around us, and whatever rubs off on our being is what we wind up calling experience. It’s a thin veneer in some ways, this impression we make of ourselves. But it’s all we have to protect ourselves from the pressures the world places upon us.
As our family drove west through Ohio and Indiana toward our new home in Illinois, the land flattened out and the trees disappeared into distant blue clumps dotting the horizon. I’d been to Chicago once as a small child, but had no real memories of the trip. This time around, at the age of twelve years old, I struggled to process the change in landscape. It all looked so different.
The first thing I recall while pulling off Route 38 onto Route 47 at the north end of Elburn was the color of the soil. Back east in Pennsylvania the dirt was reddish brown. The Amish farmers grew tobacco on the reddish soils of Lancaster County. The smell of that crop drying in the factory just past the steel bridge over the Conestoga River south of town reminded me of the breakfast cereal Cheerios.
By contrast, the Illinois soil was dark and sullen. But as the corn and beans grew thick it disappeared beneath a layer of agricultural homogeny. We would not see the soil again until November when the farmers tilled under that season’s crop detritus. Come spring the soil might get turned yet again, revealing the shining faces of black chunks of near-perfect dirt.
Years later I’d learn that the soils in Illinois were created by the roots of prairie grasses. When settlers arrived, the farmers broke wooden plows trying to cut those roots. But when steel plows were invented the entire state fell victim to the ravenous desires of farm production. Today, less than 1/10th of one percent of the original Illinois prairie remains. I’ve visited small pieces of original prairie alongside railroad tracks and rural cemetaries. These feel like botanical graveyards, and yet prairie restoration projects are preserving the legacy of many amazing plants. I helped start such a project in 1973 under the tutelage of Bob Horlock, the high school biology teacher and birdwatching buddy of mine that passed away during a prairie burn in 1993. He was fifty-three years old.
Just fifty years after I first recall seeing those rich, black soils on our move to Illinois, farmers here are acknowledging that they’ve laid waste to some of the best soils on earth. Over the last 100 years, thanks to aggressive farming techniques that amounted to a rape of the land, much of the best soil on earth either blew away or washed downstream to the Gulf of Mexico. In some regions of the Midwest, more than six feet of rich, loamy topsoil is now missing in action.
These days, while running the paths of the restored prairie at Dick Young Forest Preserve, I cross a two-foot high rise in the earth where a fenceline once crossed the property. You can see the rise in the landscape because the plows didn’t cut close to the fenceline. The height difference between that rise in the earth and the land around it is a clearcut illustration of topsoil loss everywhere across the Midwest. Trillions of tons of topsoil is now gone. The pale brown caps of earth mounds once covered by rich prairie soils now remind us that sustainability is important.
The restored prairie where I run now goes about the slow business of rebuilding that soil. It will take thousands of years to raise the soil profile, but if left alone, that’s how it works. The prairie built great loamy soil after the glaciers ground stone into loess and left the land behind for grassland plants to own.
One of the first things my brothers and I did upon moving to Illinois was seek out natural places to engage in birdwatching. We’d taken up the avocation thanks to my eldest brother’s experience in a college ornithology class, and we were on fire to find new species. The closest forest preserve was just a mile west from our house in Elburn, and we spent many mornings searching for birds while walking the gravel road that looped through that preserve.
We found owls and flycatchers, several species of woodpeckers, dozens of warblers in spring, and a pair of resident red-tailed hawks that soared over the thick oak woodlands. That preserve became our “home away from home” because it most resembled the woods we’d left behind back east.
The Oregon Trail
At the front of the preserve, there was an odd “ditch” of sorts where the entrance road crested a small hill. One day I finally noticed a sign indicating that this drop in the land profile was a feeder route leading to the famous Oregon Trail. The “ditch” had been cut into the earth by the movement of covered wagons and other human migration through the area 150 years before. I stood there one day thinking about that trail and how it represented both a scar on the landscape and also the mark of so many dreams.
Two years later, as a freshman member of the Kaneland Cross Country team, I’d run races right past that deep cut in the earth. We’d start on the bottomland of the preserve, race up the broad glacial hill on the south end of the woods, tarry through the oak forest on a winding gravel road, and pop back out front next to the section of the Oregon Trail. Sadly, the county has allowed trees to grow in the groove in the landscape. That should never have been allowed. Much of the cross-country course is also “wooded over” and the large open grassy area that served as the starting point of the race has been allowed to revert to wetland. Those are all good things, mind you. I’m comfortable allowing my high school memories to dissolve into those natural areas. Nothing lasts forever if nature has its say.
Becoming a Midwestern Boy
I never knew when we moved to Illinois that there would be so much to learn about the land and its history. It might have been great to remain in Pennsylvania, but perhaps I was meant to expand and experience the many things the Midwest has to offer. I moved back to Philadelphia for a short period during my early 20s, but by then I felt out of place. The landscape back East felt crowded and intense compared to the open skies of Illinois. I’d also grown to love the diversity of birds and the open-faced nature of Midwestern people. While I’ll always think of that Pennsylvania house and yard as my original boyhood home, I grew to make the best of it here in Illinois. I’m a Midwestern Boy for sure.
I’ve always loved running where you could see ahead, and dream a bit on the way. And yet, as I ran at Luther College, I also loved winding between cedar-covered bluffs on dirt farm roads. The mystery of that I also loved. But it is uniquely Midwestern as well. The Driftless Region is one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Perhaps I wasn’t so different than those travelers on the Oregon Trail, each seeking their own version of a new frontier. Learning to call a new place home is a valuable part of life, indeed.
Standing in the sand at the beach next to Bang’s Lake in Wauconda, I felt one small tremor of nerves. Then I remembered that these days competition is more about the experience than the result. I swung my arms a few times to loosen them up before the mile swim I was about to do, and smiled.
I’d already warmed up in the lake yesterday morning. The water temps were cool enough to make the swim “wetsuit legal” so the queue of 500 competitors was largely cloaked in black, some with arm sleeves, others without. My Zoot kit sleeves poked out the holes of my sleeveless wetsuit and I felt ready to go.
Last Thursday I went to Vaughn pool to test swimming in the Zoot kit. The shirt crawled up my belly a bit even when I tucked it into the ROKA shorts. It’s important to test these things out in advance of any race. For a bunch of reasons, including a bout of Covid one month ago, I’d waited all spring and half the summer to race this year.
It felt good to splash into the lake and get swimming. Both of my pool workouts went well last week, with per-100 times in the 1:47 range. And as it turned out, my fastest 100 split in the Wauconda Olympic triathlon swim was exactly 1:47. It pays to practice these things.
Coming out of the water in 38 minutes was about my target time. There was some chop in the lake from a northeast wind on the way out. I dialed into a cleaner stroke on the way back and was pretty sure I’d gotten faster as I went. Much of that is a matter of warming up this soon-to-be 65-year-old body. My birthday is July 26, so I’ve shifted age groups this year.
Getting through transition is a matter of calming the brain after the freneticism of the swim. I stopped to let my friend Trudy pop open the back of my wetsuit. She smacked me on the back and away I went. Then it was time to stomp out of the getup and pull on the cycling shoes, shades, socks and helmet. These days I don’t bother with cycling gloves because they’re one more thing to pull on during transition.
It was cool riding at first with an entirely wet tri-kit. The north breeze made it hard to get rolling along with the group of inclines over the first four miles. My legs always feel tired on the bike right after the swim even though I barely kick. Something odd goes on there, and I haven’t quite figured that out. Once I get going, another issue crops up. My upper hamstrings often tighten up if I ride a gear too big for my britches at the start.
Up we went over a series of hills to the northernmost point of the bike course. I didn’t really study the facts of the race carefully enough to know that we were doing two loops of the same course. My vision was that we were riding one big 24-mile loop, but that was not the case. My lack of attention to detail sometimes gets me into trouble in circumstances like that. My sweet wife kept checking my gear list the morning of the race. “Helmet? Shoes? Running shoes…” but yes, I had it all with me. I’ve learned to focus on what’s needed to succeed. But I never bristle at a few reminders.
Heading down some back roads, I dug into the Clif Shots to chew a few down for nutrition’s sake. It wasn’t super hot so I wasn’t panicked about water, but six miles in the sweat did start dripping off me. I was ripping along at 24-25 miles per hour at some points on the course.
But the climbs were weak. I felt the stress in my upper hamstrings and that’s a sign that in truth, my bike geometry is not ideal for triathlon racing. The Felt 4C I ride is a faithful companion. It is the bike I raced in criteriums back when I had the nerve for such things. Now I fix aero bars to the front and ride in the best position I can. Which isn’t terrible. I averaged 18.5 mph for 24 miles on a course the race information calls “challenging.”
The men and women riding true tri-bikes came zooming past at times. The sound of their carbon wheelsets preceded their arrival. It sounds like rolling thunder in the background. Then they whoosh past at warp speed and I watch them go. Younger and stronger, and likely trained much more seriously than I, the age-group elites have all the time in the world ahead of them. I remember being the race leader on so many occasions at road races. Whipping past slower runners on the return trip of an out and back course, I accepted their cheers and often cheered back. “Way to go!”
I uttered that phrase to all kinds of participants in yesterday’s race. “Way to go!” is a gender-neutral, positive bit of encouragement that isn’t judgmental in any way. There’s nothing wrong with being respectful toward even the slowest riders out there. Some of them rode mountain bikes with sneakers flat on the pedals. Their age and race numbers were still scrawled in black marker on their calves. They’re after their own race experience.
A 60-year-old Zoot woman came ripping past me with four miles to go. I decided to ride in sync with her the rest of the way, and allowing six bike lengths to avoid any drafting penalties, I dialed in a faster cadence and rumpity-rumped through Wauconda on its bumpy streets and finished the bike with my wife cheering.
I’d had a bit of a mixup the first time around. The woman giving directions for Sprint and Olympic competitors got confused and stood right in the middle of the bike lane as I approached. “Olympic!” I called out while approaching the race split point. “Left!” she yelled back.
“Left?” I asked, and veered into the space outside the cones. Looking ahead, I saw competitors riding on in the Olympic distance. But as stated, I hadn’t studied the details much and perhaps I missed some sort of roundabout we all had to do before heading out on Loop 2. So I soft-pedaled over to the sidewalk and down about fifty yards before swinging back onto the race course proper. Catching back on with a younger rider, I told her, “They f’d me over back there,” I laughed. “This is the Olympic loop two, right?”
She smiled and said yes.
So I was glad to be done with the riding section of the race by the time we pulled back into transition. I love cycling but the slow inclines on that course ground me down a couple times. I need to work on that aspect of my riding.
I did do something on the bike yesterday that I’d never accomplished before. I peed while riding! Yanking down on the bike shorts in a section of the course where no one was near and there were no competitors in sight, I whipped out the nard and relieved myself while in motion with a helpful wind to blow the results away. I was so, so proud of myself for that move. Hey, you take the small victories where you can in this sport.
But I’d hydrated enough that I still had to pee coming out of transition to run. My wife Sue was waiting for me with her iPhone to take pictures as I ran past. Instead, I veered off to the Porta Potties for a ten-second pee. I hate running with that tingle of having to pee. It was worth it to get rid of that sensation when it was most convenient.
There was one more problem to solve coming out of T2. I’d tried to use the Triathlon setting with my Garmin watch but at some point pushed the wrong button and I didn’t know what to do next. Was it tracking transitions still, or just adding it all up. The face read 1:50 and I tried to save it but the watch decided it wanted to find Heart Rate data. “Nooooo!” I yelled at the watch, pushing all sorts of buttons at the same time. Finally, as I approached two minutes on the run I dumped and discarded the whole setup. I wanted to see split times on the run.
That first half mile is always a drag. The legs are dead from cycling and the human body needs to figure out what it has stored up for a six-mile run. I lumbered along for a half-mile and finally things started to come together. The first mile was relatively flat and I passed through the mile in 8:38. A good start.
Then things got interesting. I wasn’t trying to pick up the pace but I was running along at 8:00 per mile by then. “This is great!” I told myself. “Just don’t push it and let the body do what it does best. Run!”
Then we turned the corner near two miles and the hills came one after another. Much like on the bike, I could not climb for beans. My butt was tight and the legs were tired. Cresting that first hill, I looked ahead to see another. “Well damn,” I muttered out loud.
A half mile before the turnaround we turned right and spilled own a 300-meter hills. “You have to climb this coming back,” the volunteer at the turn told us. “Thanks,” I breathed.
We climbed yet another hill to reach the turnaround. I slowed to a near-walk and then the road flatted for a while. Turning back, I tried to remember how many hills we’d have to climb on the return trip. Plus that one big one. So yes, I slowed a bit through that middle mile, hitting a 10:03. That was all I had in me running up and down those hills. Midway through the 300 meter climb back to the highest point on the course, I walked for fifty meters. A woman in front of me was walking backward to deal with butt cramps. Coming off the top of the hill I commiserated. “My butt locked up too!” She huffed in that shared suffering triathletes love to endure.
We got to go downhill at last. I locked into 8:00 pace on the flat again, and reasoned that perhaps I could sustain that going back in. My stomach felt side-stitchey the first few miles, and now my throat felt a bit acidic after taking a sip of water that floated the gel I’d taken at the last minute on the bike. I’m no wizard when it comes to triathlon nutrition. Pretty much I try to take the minimum required to get through without gastrointestinal issues. After the race, our friend the race referee Maxine-Franck Palmer laughed and told me, “Well, if you almost barfed it means you did it the right way.”
Right at four miles I saw three cheering faces as my wife, my step-daughter Stephanie and her partner Yomi appeared on the course dancing and swaying their arms. That cheered me up and I was thankful that I was moving decently at that point. At least I didn’t look like hell.
Then a surge of reality kicked in. I’d not taken quite enough nutrition to last me the whole race. During the last two miles I stopped for a few five-second breathers and walked a couple times. I was still managing to move along at 9:30 per mile. “Just get this thing done,” I said out loud.
On a nice long decline I was joined by two young women running on either side of me. Both were encouraging after I told them, “Good job!”
“You too!” they said. Then I watched as their fit butts moved on ahead of me. I thought about the first two women that started the Luther College Cross Country program my freshman year in college. How far the sport has come in terms of equality! Gender really doesn’t matter out there on the course, does it? We’re all just people trucking along.
Blessedly, the last half mile was mostly downhill and then flattened out in the park to the finish. I glanced at my watch to see an 8:20 pace pop back up and was glad to run strong into the end of the race. My wife was there to capture the moments, and I was there to have fun and do my best. My splits on the run weren’t great, but they were respectable on that kind of hilly course. 8:32, 8:48, 9:13, 933, 10:11, 9:04 and a total time of 55:25.
Turns out that “aging up” has its advantages. I took first place in the 65-69 age group with a creditable PR of 2:59:49. Yay!
We made the long drive home from Wauconda to North Aurora and I actually did some yard work after a restless nap. My heart rate data from the race showed that I topped out at 179 bpm. That’s nice and high for a guy my age, and it shows that while I was trained enough to do decently in the race, there is still fitness to be gained, for sure.
My body was buzzing most of the day. I felt strong, almost liberated in some respect. Perhaps I’m one of those people that needs to push things to the limit now and then. This life we live too easily become mundane if you don’t raise the needle of effort now and then.
As the school year wore down in 1970, the time for our family to move to Illinois soon arrived. My father moved out to Illinois after taking a job with an electronics company in rural Geneva. He lived in an apartment in St. Charles for months. Looking back, the uncomfortable truth is that he likely valued the time away from the family––and perhaps even time away from my mother. He let loose in a bit of mid-life crisis. But when he crashed the greenish ’57 Chevy at an intersection one day, the crush of reality probably caught up with him quickly. Some omens arrive by way of metal. Others take the form of flesh. In either case, the collision with reality can be awkward, and often rough.
My mom worked hard to keep our family together back in Pennsylvania. She worked all day teaching school and ran her boys around to practice most evenings. On weekends she tutored students from my class with special learning needs at our home. She made sure I made no mention of their difficulties lest they be mocked at school. The social order was merciless back then.
To me, that spring was a strange holding pattern between normalcy and all the changes that I sensed were about to come. I was a self-conscious kid with crooked teeth who refused to fully smile when having my picture taken. It was hard enough maintaining some sort of social status among kids with whom I’d grown up from the age of five until seventh grade. Now I was going to have to reinvent myself in an entirely new state? It was best not to think about it day-to-day.
Then one day my father called long distance to relay that he’d found a house in a little town called Elburn. He sent us Polaroid photos of the house and driveway. I noted that the basketball backboard affixed to the barn had a nice orange square behind the basket. That was an all-new feature of basketball backboards in those days. It gave me the slimmest hope that life in Illinois could somehow turn out to be cool.
The news that I’d be moving out of town swept through our class at school. People wanted to know why I was leaving, and I didn’t have much of an answer except that my dad had gotten a job far away. Even relating that bit of foreign information made a difference in how some friends treated me. There are always people that don’t cope well with any change in a relationship, especially when it means you might be moving on in one way or another. Often to protect their own sense of security, they hide their true feelings and the person leaving winds up getting treated like dead meat. That’s how it worked with some, but not all classmates.
Over the years, I’d feel that same sensation in other situations as life went on. When things weren’t going well at work, or if you actually got laid off or fired, the ‘friendship’ dynamic changed in an instant. Whether for superstitious or practical reasons, people don’t want to associate with anyone anywhere near the chopping block. If someone is sick or worse yet, even dying, people have trouble knowing how to act. They don’t want to say the wrong thing, so they say nothing at all.
And if a lover cheats on you and other people find out about it but are afraid to tell you, the communication dynamics get awkwardly clipped and odd. In all these situations, people often choose to avoid or hide from the truth. Perhaps there is some evolutionary explanation for these types of human interactions. People see any form of weakness or signs of separation from the herd as a potential threat to themselves. It’s a dynamic as old as wildebeasts and lions, and it is one of the tarsnakes of human existence that even longtime friends will duck and run if they don’t feel they have the emotional energy to sustain you in a time of need.
But that was not the case with everyone in our class. Some of the junior high teachers sympathized with me about moving away. One in particular, a music teacher and the choir director, organized a Going Away party that my classmates attended. Someone took a collection and the group purchased me a an actual sweep-second-hand wristwatch, the first I’d ever owned. I was overwhelmed by the gift even though it probably wasn’t all that expensive. Others gave me 45 RPM records that were popular at the moment. That included the newly released Let It Be single, a 45 single that had the amazing parody number You Know My Name on the back. I loved that song because it captured the odd humor of my brothers and I. We all looked a life like a parody in so many ways.
But the record given to me that hurt the most was the single Get Back by the Beatles. Its refrain…”Get back to where you once belonged” was hauntingly real to me that last month in Lancaster.
After all that social attention, I did the one thing that comes natural to me when human relationships get too much to handle. I retreated to nature. I headed to the woods and walked trails along the small brown river called Mill Creek, and wandered over to the Conestoga River as well. Even as a young kid I loved spending time alone. On warm days I’d sometimes strip naked and walk through the deep woods feeling free and wild. To this day I love the feeling of being naked outdoors. Not everyone appreciates that sensation, but millions do. It would be better for the world if more people did, and if it were legal in the United States, the most uptight country on the planet.
Of course, a little kid, I was afraid of being caught while naked. But I was cautious as heck and that never happened. I was like a wild little animal carrying my clothes around or leaving them in some safe spot to run back and forth for twenty or thirty yards like the skinny little roadrunner that I was. These days, I’m not beyond finding some massively remote place to strip down and stand a few minutes in the sun. It is cathartic in many ways.
Finally I’d get anxious enough about getting caught naked to throw clothes back on and hike out of the woods and find something else to do.
Along with my human friends I’d made friends in those woods and streams with crayfish and salamanders, frogs and fish including bass, suckers, carp, catfish and bluegill. While fishing, I once watched a squirrel try to leap from one tree to another and fall into the stream, only to swim back out. In winter the ice from Mill Creek heaved up during an ice dam. It collected on the banks and made an astounding playground, but I was always careful not to fall and hurt myself. I never liked the idea of dying alone.
There was a massive aviary near the golf course and I loved visiting the fenced in area to stare at the peacocks strutting with their raised tails. You could hear them calling at all times of the day, and the guinea fowl would race around with their insane clucks and protestations if you got too near.
Time to move
Then came the day that the Mayflower moving van showed up with that classic mustard yellow and green pattern with red lettering. I can still feel the dull pain of seeing that truck in our driveway. The movers hauled all our furniture and belongings out to the giant truck. Then our home at 1725 Willow Street Pike sat empty, and I walked around the house with my footsteps echoing off the walls. I could not believe it was actually happening. We were leaving home, and for what? What awaited us?
I walked around the yard with its newly grown layers of green grass. I stood there and thought about the seven years we’d spent living there. I loved that home with all my heart. Because despite the pains of growing up, and the occasional whippings we’d get with a switch or a brush, or a hot pan of water thrown by my mother to settle our asses down, that house would forever be considered the place I called “home” no matter where else I lived. I knew every corner of that lawn. I’d learned to pitch a baseball, throw perfect spirals with a football, and kick a soccer ball with the side of my foot like you’re supposed to do. And I also ran my first timed race around the side yard that was the size of a tennis court, because that’s what it used to be.
Life in images and sound
I loved how the dogwood tree blossomed white in spring and how fun it was to climb the tall hemlock on the east side of the property. Looking out from the upstairs windows of my bedroom, I could always see what was going on in the yard. My mother used to send me to bed before dark in the summer months, and I’d be jealous of my older brothers and their friends running around outside playing Kick the Can or Capture the Flag. But eventually I grew up enough to join them, and racing around as the fireflies rose from the grass is the substance of my youth.
So many evenings we’d be out there playing in the yard or somewhere nearby in the neighborhood and my mother would come out calling our names for supper. She’d mix them up half the time, “Grary, Chrimmy, Jissy…” she’d call out in some kind of confused hurry. That was because she loved us all equally, and deeply. For all our fights and differences at times, in many ways were were inseparable.
My memories of that home include birthdays spent working on plastic models given to me as gifts. Sometimes I spent hours doing watercolor paintings or pastels with the art supplies that my mother purchased for me.
In the summer of ’69 I sat with my mother watching the moon landings together in the living room. And my dad once turned to his kids before a Muhammad Ali fight being broadcast from the other side of the world, and said, “Have you ever seen a miracle?” Then he explained how those pictures were being bounced off satellites in space. But we were all so excited about seeing Ali in action we hardly absorbed the lesson. Float like a butterfly. Sting like a bee. Rumble, young man Rumble.
We watched the television shows Laugh In and Batman together. On Sunday afternoons and evenings, we’d lock in for the sequence of American Sportsman with Curt Gowdy, Mutual Of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, then an episode of Daniel Boone or Davey Crocket, all capped by the Sunday Disney show that week. Of course, half the time I’d be watching those Sunday shows knowing that I’d not done my homework.
One fun summer we roared over the Marty Feldman comedy show as a family. The program began with the wild-eyed Feldman playing a hole of golf in which he putted into all kinds of crazy situations. On Saturday mornings, I’d watch Looney Toons with Bugs and Daffy, Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, Sylvester and Tweetie, and Roadrunner, my favorite. Then came the weird-ass live shows like the Banana Splits (whose them song Bob Marley copped for one of his songs) and HR Puffnstuff, with its tongue-in-cheek drug references. and the Monkees. Then we’d watch American Bandstand and go outside after that and play.
With all those memories and joys stored in my conscience, I was numb that day we packed up to leave. The day before I met with my best friend out on the drop hole of the golf course, where he asked, “Why does everything I love have to leave me.”
As for me, I felt raw emotions burrowing into my soul. But I tried to be brave and hide them. The night before we left Lancaster, I stayed next door at the neighbor’s house. The girl next door named Amy was a sweet and kind friend all those years. Her mother Van made a special meal for us. Her father Dick used to take me fishing down at the Susquehanna dam. His eldest son was too old for going fishing with dad by then, and his two daughter had no real interest in it. So he’d ask me to go along, and I loved plunking a heavy line and sinker with a worm on the hook into the swirling waters. He trusted that I would not fall in, and I never did. Some aspects of common sense in those days were assumed.
I knew that he worked at a meat-packing plant in Lancaster. On his wall at home was painting of a bullfighter and a bull done in cow’s blood. I didn’t think much about it back then, but it is amazing how the sensibilities of generations change with time.
The morning that we left, my family arrived back from the various houses where they’d stayed the night before. My friend David and I hugged liked we’d never hugged before. We both cried deeply, sobbing. And then he stopped suddenly. That was his nature. We were two twelve-year-old boys knowing that they were losing a longtime friendship, and there was nothing we could do about it. But David learned along the way how to put pain behind him. After his parents’ divorce, and so on, he processed what he could and moved on.
The Trip West
We climbed into the 1967 Buick Wildcat with my younger brother sitting between my parents in the front seat and my two older brothers parked on either side of me in the back seat. Normally they didn’t want me touching them in any way, but that morning my oldest brother leaned close to me and we sang the refrain from the backside medley of the Beatles Abbey Road album. “1 2 3 4 5 6 7…All good children go to heaven…” Somehow that was a solace to us both.
Down the driveway we rolled for the last time. Then we drove straight through Lancaster past the Armstrong baseball fields where we all learned the game. The Buick Wildcat with its .357 engine wound onto the Pennsylvania turnpike and we traveled west toward Illinois and an entirely new life. I wasn’t exactly happy about it. Nor were my brothers, or even my mother, I’m willing to bet. But my dad had made up his mind that his future lay with that new company out in Illinois, we were all along for the ride. We’d stop in St. Clair, Michigan that night to stay with his former Cornell University college buddy. I recall having an immediate attraction to the prettiest girl among the three. She was my age and know she was pretty, so she took to running me around all afternoon, exploiting my desire to please and earn favor from her. Such is one of the tragic flaws of my personality. It always comes out during times of great duress.
Then we drove the rest of the way through Ohio and Indiana to Illinois.
That period was all part of a horrifically awkward period of transition. My oldest brother was just enrolled in college back at Millersville next to Lancaster. My next oldest brother would be a senior in high school that year, and it was the worst possible timing to move to another state. I was only heading into eighth grade, and I’d soon enough make new friends and adapt to the new life in Illinois. My youngest brother was a mere nine years old, but growing like a big weed.
I was determined to hit the ground running once we arrived. Few things in life make you run faster in place than moving to an all-new town. Within a week or two, the word got out about my basketball skills, and I tried out for the local baseball team only to throw a perfect game against much less skilled players. So they moved me up to the American Legion ballclub that started at sixteen years old and there I was, a soon-to-be thirteen-year-old pitching against the older kids.
And Competition’s Son was suddenly in his element.
In the seventh grade at Martin Meylin Junior High in Lampeter, Pennsylvania, I lived for gym class. Sure, I loved industrial drawing, a class that taught me how to create perspective as well as paying attention to my craft. That teacher was a stickler for accuracy, and I loved it. That class also made me write in all capital letters and I quickly abandoned the carefully curated cursive I’d learned to begin writing in all caps.
I liked English well enough, too, because I liked writing. But I hated math, tolerated social studies and even learned some German at some point. I was a B student at best, but more often earned a C average to match my name. See, I also hated homework, and had some issues with ADHD. That made matters worse.
Beyond gym class and studies, there was a social network to cope with, and my only real goal in life beyond sports was getting girls to like me. Somehow I worked my way into the realm of the most popular kids and even got to attend some parties where we played Spin the Bottle. Every second of life was some sort of competition, it seemed.
In junior high, we got to go outside twice a day. Typically we’d play on the macadam area behind the school. There were several tetherball poles stuck into the asphalt, and there was a system to establish who got to play on what pole. Getting to play on the “A” pole was a sign that you were moving up in the world.
The eighth-grade kids typically dominated those A games. But as I honed my skills on the “lower courts” I developed a stinger of a serve that no one could return. I learned to drive the ball hard above the reach of the other player on the serve, then sent the ball even faster and higher with each strike of the tetherball on my side of the court. It was an unstoppable tactic as long as I hit that first serve correctly.
The A Game
Word got around that I couldn’t be beaten on the lower poles, so the invitation finally game to play the eighth-graders on the A court. Now, I’d built into one tough little kid from all those days playing tetherball in all sorts of conditions. If it rained, I loved it because I was unafraid to get wet and could absorb the sting with my hands. If it was hot outside, my endless endurance came in handy as most competitors would tire out.
That’s how it went from day-to-day and for a month or so. I kept on winning. I know that sounds like an exaggeration but that’s what really happened. I even ceased washing my hands to toughen them up. During that period my mother and father were so busy working they hardly had time to notice that their grittly little son was possessed of a working-man’s hands. The skin cracks were lined like sanskrit on a whale bone. My knuckles too. I could strike the tetherball hard and hardly felt it. I was, you might say, “all in” on tetherball.
If it happened that someone actually caught hold of my serve and sent it back in the other direction, my fighting spirit took over. I transferred the anger I’d previously directed toward punching others in fights into striking that tetherball. It was cathartic, wild, and I was obsessed with winning.
Having worked all the way through the eight-grade players that wanted to challenge me, a set of familiar faces began showing back up in the line. All were equally determined to claim that they’d beaten the upstart 7th-grader Chris Cudworth. Eventually, it got tiresome and stressful to keep up the win streak.
Are you not entertained?
One of my classmates joined me in the mission to prove we were the two toughest tetherballers in the school. He ceased washing his hands as well. On the way out to the playground, we’d compare knuckles as we walked out to the courts. We smiled in the knowing way fellow warriors do. If we went down fighting, that’s all we cared about. Perhaps that’s why I like movies like Gladiator with Russell Crowe. He starred as General who turned into a slave, a slave who turned into a gladiator, and a gladiator who challenged (and killed) an Emperor. To me, that plot is not about being an underdog. It’s about recognizing that you were never a sorry sort in the first place. You need to be determined espite how other people try to make you feel, or seek to control you. Then you go out there and do your best. And realize that often you’ll be quite misunderstood, about which Maximus screamed after slaying an entire arena of gladiators. “Are you not entertained?”
Tired of battle
Yet even eager warriors tire of battle. And as the weather started to warm in spring and the baseball season beckoned, I wanted to be rid of the tetherball streak. I’d had enough of the pressure of having to win every day. The other kids were mad at me anyway. They told me I was a “court hog.” That didn’t feel good at all.
One day I walked out with Ed and turned to him and said, “I might try to lose today.” He stopped for a second and said, “Are you sure?”
“Yeah,” I told him. “This has gone on long enough. I kind of proved myself. The grass is getting green and I want to play baseball now.”
The trick, I felt, was to lose to a player good enough to possibly beat me but not make it obvious I was trying to lose. Nor did I want to let some cocky jerk beat me with the possibility that he’d never let me live it down. So I looked down the line and chose a kid that I liked well enough to lose to. When he came up to play, I purposely didn’t look him in the eye, but gave the ball a lower arc when I struck it and sure enough, with a quick response he sent it back my way.
It happened far faster than I’d have liked, but after two volleys he got that ball going faster and high enough that I could not return it. When the ball wrapped around the top of the post a giant cheer went up on the playground.
“Cudworth lost at tetherball!” someone yelled.
I walked off pretending to be mad but secretly I was relieved beyond belief. Ed met me shortly after. He’d lost as well that day, but never told me if it was on purpose. We stood out at the edge of the playground where a few people came out to console us, but we both just smiled and said thanks.
The next day I brought my baseball mitt to school and ran out to play 500 with the rest of my baseball buddies. A few mentioned the whole tetherball thing, but I ignored them and smacked my hand in the mitt softened with Neatsfoot oil. Then I stood there smiling at the fact that I’d washed my hands the night before. They didn’t need to be so tough to catch and throw a baseball. I’d learned that the will to win at any cost really did have a price. But you can trade it in.
Death smiles at us all
I think about the quote that captured the spirit of Maximus in the movie Gladiator: “Death smiles at us all, but all a man can do is smile back.”
When we lose at something it can feel like a small death. But when we accept losing because it is part of life or even embrace losing as a means to move beyond our present circumstance, that is smiling back at death. It’s hard to admit, but that’s a lesson most of us have to learn time and again. It certainly was the case with my distance running career, where a win one week was no guarantee of a win the next. As the saying goes, you’re only as good as your last victory.
Yet it is also true that we are only as good as what we learned from the last loss. We live sometimes because we choose not having to win all the time. That’s an important moral lesson in the present age, and for all times.
By the time I reached sixth grade, I’d earned a reputation as one of the better athletes in the grade. I recall being invited to a basketball clinic at the high school where the coaches took a first look at the kids coming up through the ranks. Already I was a flashy ballplayer, dribbling between my legs and doing pump layups, spinning the ball on my finger and shooting from the shoulder. My skinny arms were not yet strong enough to shoot a jump shot from the forehead, but I’d get there eventually.
For all that prowess in basketball and baseball and even soccer for that matter, the chip on my shoulder was still pretty large. Perhaps it was the products of a father-son relationship that tipped back and forth between encouragement and exasperation. The teasing and competitive trysts with my brothers didn’t help my self-esteem either. Nor did native anxiety as a nail-biting kid afraid that someone might not like me.
It all came to a head in a sixth-grade class when a kid pointed the projector at my face and it hurt my eyes. I got angry first, then cried in frustration, at which point one of the prettier girls in class muttered to another, “He’s such a sissy.”
That was enough to drive me to prove her wrong. I started picking fights on the playground and my reputation for fighting drew until this tough kid named Davey found out about me. “Meet me in the deep end of the Meadia Heights pool,” he told me one October day. “We’ll see how tough you are.”
The pool was empty for the winter, so the scene of the fight was going to be rather epic. Frankly, it scared the hell out of me. Plus Davey was a bit creepy-looking with a big head of black hair, super pale complexion, and really red lips that made me uncomfortable just looking at him.
The day came for the fight and I was supposed to meet him at noon in the pool. At 11 a.m. I was bragging about the fight before playing basketball with friends and a neighbor kid who was a year or two older than me grabbed me by the shirt and said, “You’re not going to that fight.”
Now, as nervous as I was about fighting the tough kid Davey, I was even more scared of the friend that grabbed my shirt. He was a little nuts as I recall, playing basketball in his socks most of the time, for what reason we never really knew. In any case, I backed off and the neighbor kid went to the fight in my place.
He returned a half-hour later with blood all down the front of his white tee shirt. He walked over to me and said, “That’s the last time you agree to a fight,” he said, pointing at his shirt. “Davey pulled a knife on me, but I knocked it away and beat the piss out of him. This is the blood from his nose,” he said, jabbing himself in the chest.
And from that point on, I ceased the fighting.
That was a big relief because I no longer felt the need to prove how tough I was. I’d learned to assume that there were always going to be kids tougher than me and that I’d meet them eventually if I kept on fighting. In fact, I didn’t punch anyone else until my senior year in high school when a kid named Kevin got so rough during an intramural basketball league that he flipped me over his back at one point. I jumped up and jacked him flush in the eye. He took a swing back that I ducked. Then I ran out the gym door all the way home through twenty-degree weather in just my basketball shorts, a tee-shirt and Converse All-Stars.
That night, the guy I punched called me at home (it was easy to look us up in the phone book back then…) and told me that he and his friends would catch me at school the next day and beat me up. So I stayed home from school on some excuse and the whole thing blew over.
I’ve dug through my youth as you can appreciate, and understand the reasons why I got so full of myself with anger at that age. I didn’t know how to handle some of the challenges of being raised by a dad with a bit of anger within himself. My dad was a really great guy, but he was also a bit presumptive about his own interests at times, and when his kids refused to help out around the house it really got under his skin. That’s when things got dicey for us, and that day that I watched him whup my brothers in front of me stuck with me for many years. I was traumatized, and the manner in which I acted that out of myself was to engage in violence too.
It can be much, much worse than I ever had it. Some kids endured regular beatings back in those days. Ours were relatively rare, or at best occasional. Most of my youth was joyous, filled with fun and laughter with my family and friends. But depending on how you’re wired, the worst part of an upbringing can determine a whole bunch of your outlook. For this Competition’s Son, it took years to work through those issues and find a form of self-esteem that was sustainable.
And I thank God that my dad nudged me into running. I’m not sure he understood exactly how good it would be for my anxiety to have a sport that tired me out, let me think on the run and built lifelong friendships, but that’s indeed what took place. I guess there were hints prior to ninth grade when I actually went out for high school cross country. Even in youth baseball, the coaches couldn’t believe how fast I could run practice loops and leave the entire team behind. They made me do extra pushups to slow me down so the other kids had a chance.
In seventh grade, I ran a 12:00 time trial in gym class and covered 8 1/3 laps, a pace under 6:00 per mile run in flat gym shoes on a thick cinder track.
My skinny frame cried out for a career as a distance runner. I took crap from my brothers and everyone else for being so skinny all those years. But I turned that weakness into a relative superpower. Granted, I was never a state champion or an individual All-American in college, but I did wind up leading the Luther College cross country team to a second-place NCAA Division Three second-place finish, competed three times in the national track meet in steeplechase and went on to win plenty of road races after college. I had a fun and largely productive running career. Nothing to complain about.
But after that day that we placed second in the nation, after the race, I walked over to hug my father for all that he’d done for me. That’s when the healing began. It would take years to fully recognize the depth of my personal issues, and I did wake up pounding the pillow one night at the age of twenty-eight years old. That’s when I finally understood that there was some anger I needed to purge and relinquish from my soul.
We’re all effectively in a competition with ourselves to find ways to let any bad things go and embrace the good in this world. We all go about that process in the best way we can. I’m grateful to have had help in that endeavor along the way. I’m also glad to be the recipient of some honest advice about who I am. Nothing can replace the value of that type of insight f you can handle it. That’s our job as human beings, to absorb some of the criticism and turn it into positive action. The formative experiences of youth carry through our young adult and adult lives until we finally make sense to us.
I hope that makes sense to you. If it does, please share aspects of your own journey if you have a moment to jot them up in the comment section below.
Nothing mattered more to me in elementary school than the playground. After sitting inside the classroom for a couple hours, we’d be released to go outside the do the things we loved.
We played kickball on the macadam behind Willow Street Elementary school. The “bases” were not traditional in any sense of the word. In fact, the “field” was a rectangle, not a diamond or a square. That meant the run to first base was longer than the distance between first and second. The run the third was also long, and the run from third to home was short.
We accepted those aberrations as part of the deal. But the most interesting part of that field was the tall metal swingset in left-center field. Any ball kicked over the swingset was an automatic home run. We kept a careful and accurate tally of the home runs we kicked, and in third grade, I led the entire school in total home runs. Every day I’d race out there eager to kick another home run. I could sense the right kind of rolling pitch that allowed me to connect with ferocity and full might. The reddish kickball with its classic starburst patterns molded into the rubber launched from my foot in a satisfying arc.
Then I’d trot around the bases triumphantly and get back in line with the team “at bat” and hope for another shot.
We’d move out into the field to play defense and I was merciless in gathering up kicked balls and striking other players with the ball if they came within range trying to get another base. One day a heavier kid named Jimmy was trundling along between second and third base when I scooped up a grounder kicked by his teammate. I gathered the ball up and threw it hard right at his head. He wasn’t looking and the kickball hit him flush in the mouth. He stopped for a second, grabbed his mouth, and then blood started gushing through his fingers.
He’d bitten clean through his tongue. I stood there shocked and a bit disgusted that he wasn’t paying attention while running the basepaths. Because that’s how I judged the world. If it was tough on me, I reasoned, it was tough on others too.
Jimmy was taken to the nurse’s office that day. He returned a week or so later and was sitting in the cafeteria during lunch hour poking a pencil through the hole in his tongue to show the other kids the extent of his injury. He looked up at me and yelled, “You didth thith to me!” I didn’t think he was supposed to sticking pencils through his tongue according to medical directives, but there he was, sticking out his tongue jabbing the eraser end of the pencil up from the bottom of his tongue while the other kids laughed and gagged at the sight of it.
I never learned if Jimmy’s tongue healed properly or not. To my way of thinking, it wasn’t my problem if he wasn’t paying attention during kickball.
I wasn’t exactly immune to injury myself on the kickball field. Quite often I’d bong my head on that swingset while trying to run down a possible home run kicked by another player. I’d smack my head on the metal post and get a big goose egg on my forehead for the trouble. The first few times it happened the school nurse called my mother. After a while, my mom stopped worrying about me and told them to just stick ice on it. I’d go back to class with a big ice pack pressed to my head. The teacher would just shake her head at me.
The same sort of ferocity ruled my brain in the game of dodgeball as well. As a skinny, agile kid I was always one of the last to get hit during dodgeball. But I truly relished nailing other kids with the ball as I threw hard and accurately thanks to my almost perpetual practice of throwing some kind of ball.
By the time I was in sixth-grade my arm was so deadly that I almost felt bad the day I nailed some pale kid in the arm during our first game of the season against a team that was never any good in the Lancaster baseball league. A kid was crowing the plate and a hard pitch hit him in the back of the arm where the bare skin was exposed. The game stopped because he started crying, and I felt bad and walked in to check on him at home plate. The seams of the baseball left a bright red imprint on his arm. The umpire sent him to first base. I was mad that he’d gotten a walk so I kept an eye on him at first. The moment he stepped off the bag I spun on the mound and picked him off at first. It was a merciless move but to me it was the right thing to do. “Stay away from the plate,” I muttered to myself on the mound.
I kept hurting other kids wherever I played the game of baseball and other sports. But sometimes I got hurt myself. One afternoon in elementary school I was playing catcher when a kid popped up the softball in front of home plate. I jumped out of the crouch position and ran out to catch it. Our pitcher ran straight in from the mound and was looking up at the ball when his front teeth nailed me in the face. He happened to have buck teeth and they gouged me below the eye. Blood s started running down my face. Despite the collision, I’d caught the ball and stood up to yell, “You’re out!”
All that playground violence came to a horrible head when we were playing softball in a 6th-grade inter-class championship. Again I was playing catcher because it enabled me to control much of the action on the field. This time when a short popup came off the bat of an opponent, I caught beside home plate and turned to see the runner at first tag up and start running toward second. That was a smart move on his part, and I wound up and threw an ice-cold liner out to the second baseman.
He was a friend named John, and I reasoned he could handle the throw. But at the last second, he must have not known it was coming so fast and moved his glove aside to check. The softball struck him hard in the face and he went down in a heap. He was knocked clean out, but that was not the worst of it. The paramedics arrived and moved him onto a stretcher for a trip to the hospital.
My teacher Mrs. Cooper pulled me away from the field and took me inside Hans Herr Elementary. She asked me a question, “Why do you always throw at the head?” she wanted to know.
I’d never thought of that. But I did. I used people’s heads as a strong target point for every throw I made. All those days I spent throwing the ball into the pitch-and-catch net at home gave me deadly accuracy. I could kill birds with stones and even took out a rabbit or two by the age of ten years old. In fact, I had a disturbing desire to kill things at times. Years later I’d come to realize that all that fearsome accuracy was the product of a kid with some wounds deep inside him. The sometimes harsh treatment at home had a release point, and that was my right arm. With that right arm, I could control much of the world around me. And the right foot, too.
Sadly, I learned that the player I hit in the baseball with that softball that day suffered a detached retina. The accident required surgeries to fix, and that made me feel genuinely bad at having caused someone genuine harm. Perhaps as karma for that early incident, in my early twenties, I found out that I had a retinal detachment likely caused by rapid onset of astigmatism. What goes around, comes around.
Right arm to right at them
That same right arm shot thousands of baskets at the neighbor’s court. I could throw footballs long and straight, with that satisfyingly clean spiral that delivered it into the hands of a receiver. I won the local Punt, Pass and Kick contest and thought I’d become a quarterback someday. My father thought better of that and sent me out for cross country instead, where I made the varsity as a freshman. Father knows best.
By the time I finally gave up “ball sports” for running, that right arm was absorbed into my body like the tail of a tadpole sucked into the body of a frog. It fueled my competitive spirit for miles and miles.
And yet, my right arm wasn’t entirely done in my athletic career. During an intramural Superstars competition in college, one of the events was the softball throw. I lined up and tossed it more than the length of a football field, past three hundred feet. When the measurement was announced, the other competitors launched into complaints that the throw was mismeasured. That angered me fiercely. “Fine,” I told them all standing there. “I’ll throw again.”
I stood there for a moment shaking with anger. All my life I’d faced that kind of doubt and criticism. My father and brothers often teased and snarked about my athletic ability. In that moment with that softball in my hand, my whole body became the angry right arm of my being. I ran a few steps and heaved that goddamn softball even farther. It soared a few feet past my previous mark and the group around me went silent.
I know that story sounds fantastical. What 140-lb runner could throw a ball that far? Looking back, I wonder about that myself. But I also wonder how I could run 5:00 miles for miles at a time. The vigor of youth is a mystery as you age. All I know is that I won the Superstars competition that spring, and gladly collected a football jersey with the name CUDWORTH printed on the back.