Getting unstuck from the schoolboy summer

Chris In White ShortsThe 4th of July used to be such a depressing landmark in the schoolboy days of summer. After the liberation June and relief from school obligations during elementary or middle or high school or college, it was a shock to realize what July 4th actually meant. Summer was more than half over.

For athletes, summer seemed to shrink the further one got along in a career. Cross country practice might start up the second week of August. Granted it was fun to rejoin teammates for long runs on August mornings. We’d be all tanned and blonde-haired from the summer sun. Tales of summer romance and drunken nights and parental fights.

Hot precursor to fall

But that meant August was commodified. It became something other than summer. More like a hot precursor to fall. Gone were the swimming pools and girls and sights of summer skin showing goose bumps from the cool water on bare skin. I’ve always loved goose bumps on girls and erect nipples under thin swimsuits. Smuggling raisins, we called it.

There is actually more room for all that now that life is not confined to a school year. August doesn’t have to be eclipsed. Instead,  there are actual races to do. Racing in the summer heat is a perverse treat. You’re so loose and yet so soaked with sweat the body feels like it has been turned inside. But goddamnit, you’re alive.

Late to summer

A few summers ago, before I was swimming for triathlon purposes and spent time in pools and lakes, I neglected to visit the Quarry pool before it was almost too late in the season. In fact, I arrived late in the day on the final afternoon the pool was open.Everything from the sand to the beach toys looked tired. The tanned lifeguards looked worn out. Yet they would soon be departing for college with those perfect tan lines ready to reveal on that first autumn hookup. Or if chaste, those tans would just fade on their own time. But that seems a waste. It really does.

Perverse fascination

Schoolboy summers from the earliest age held a bit of perverse fascination like that. Summer does strange and fun things to your body. That white skin next to dark skin is such a tantalizing taboo. The moles on my skin would turn dark as chocolate. There were no words of fear or knowledge of cancer back then. You tanned and you faded with the season. Skin peeled after a sun burn, or got wryly wrinkled from long days in the chlorine and wetness.

Surely all those miles I ran in tiny shorts during the late 70s have had their cost on the skin of my legs and arms. Aging is the process of sagging, as if the world has been holding us together all along, and is just now relaxing its grip. I used to play a game with my children where I’d put my arms around their bodies and then slowly release them from a bear hug. If they giggled at any point along the way, I’d hug them tight all over again. Fits of laughter ensued. That is life itself, it seems. It is full of laughs in that middle zone where the happy tension lies. It is only when we’re either too tense or too free that life seems unhinged. Thus the secret to loving life until the end is learning to hug the world back as you laugh at the notion of letting go too soon.

Sweet arms of summer

I’m looking for the sweet arms of summer to hug me now, and embrace these summer miles that somehow suddenly feel so good. The running is smoother. The cycling is strong. Even my swimming is coming around. Pulling it all together for a race in mid-July. Because summer doesn’t end on the 4th of July. In fact, it’s just beginning.

The Tour de France will be broadcast with all its strange and glorious conflict and controversy. I’ve come to believe those boys are no different than high-schoolers playing with drugs under the summer sun. Who’s to say that it’s not normal to pump yourself up with substances while riding 2,000 miles in the heat and mountains? They’re defying death just like the rest of us.

Now you’ll excuse me while I go looking for a few goose bumps to admire. I love them on the skin of my wife, and the look of her in that sleek swimsuit, and her beautiful curly hair when it dries, and her flashing eyes. I want to steal her into a tent and make love on an air mattress in that light where the sun through the tent canvas looks so romantic it makes you want to cry. This is no longer some schoolboy summer. This is life. And I love it. And her. And the whole goddamned world, faults and all.

 

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Just rewards in a Swedish wind

Bar TapeLike the 100+ year festival with which it is associated, the Swedish Days bike ride has a tradition that also goes back 50 years. Cyclists know the ride will be well-staffed and tended. The route offers plenty of options for riders ranging from basic pedals to full-on time-trialers working to break five hours for 100 miles.

Two years ago when we did the full hundred miler, it was hot in that way that makes even water taste bad. At the rest stops, I gorged on pickles trying to make up the salt difference. It barely worked. The climb up the last hill to the finish took a full five minutes. And that was giving it everything I had. Left.

This year, the weather was cool in that way that reminds you to appreciate summer while it lasts. While it wasn’t quite ‘hint of fall’ cool, it was a base-layer day.

Perhaps that helped the energy level I felt the entire ride. It was windy as a ride along the ocean when a tropical storm hangs out in the Gulf, but fortunately, the course featured enough jigs and jags we could team up and make the trip sane.

My friend Jack joined me for the roadie circuit of 65 miles. Sue and the triathlon crew cycled off the front like a band of muons looking for some matter to penetrate. And while what they found mostly was fast-moving air, it happened that we joined up at forty miles and rode in together. Fast.

Because the last 20 miles or so coursed north through a crosswind that was manageable. Then we turned east with ten miles to go, and the road surface was all brand new. If the first fifty-five miles were a Swedish smorgasbord, the last ten were a disgustingly sweet dessert. We raced along at 28 mph for much of the way with the wind at our backs.

And when we reached the climb to Central High School atop a massive pile of dirt and gravel the glaciers left 10,000 years ago, I pedaled up in just over three minutes. Not a problem.

In fact, my legs felt that way all day long. The weekday rides are adding up to some fitness. And if these keeps I’m sure some Tour de France team will want me for their squad.

Not.

I’m just grateful to be feeling smooth and strong on the bike. No world beater am I. But if the Swedish wind didn’t kick my ass, there’s no reason to be unhappy. All is good.

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When triathletes go senile

My mother’s main wish in life was to never lose her mental faculties. She dreaded the idea of losing her memory or getting, as she called it, senile. That’s a rather outdated term in the post-modern era. With Baby Boomers approaching old age, the medical terms for “memory loss” have leaned toward a more politically correct rendition. We know more about Alzheimer’s and dementia, so we speak more specifically about them. But it doesn’t change the reality that a certain percentage of the population will eventually go senile.

Swim MarmionSenile: (of a person) having or showing the weaknesses or diseases of old age, especially a loss of mental faculties.

Senile is a cruel word in a cruel world. Yet the jokes about going senile are pretty funny. Because one of the advantages of getting Alzheimer’s is that you can hide your own Easter eggs.

Well, maybe it’s not that funny. My mom died of cancer before she grew senile. And we watched my grandfather-in-law disappear as the effects of Alzheimer’s kicked in over time. He wound up at the end of a dead-end road with his pants around his ankles.

Bookends

But we had guys on our freshman college dorm floor that had incidents like that. One of them got up in the middle of the night, did two turns in place, then stood by his bed and turned around to take a piss on his roommate’s face. Apparently, in his drunken or sleepy stupor, it felt like he’d made it all the way to the bathroom. He felt justified in whipping it out to take a whizz. He was only twenty years old at the time.

So you see, life has its bookends. It seems that we become like children the older we get.

Those of us who compete in sports try to fill the shelves with wonderful memories of how young and fit and eternally ripped we feel. Our goal is to keep running and cycling and swimming right through the elder years. With luck, we’ll finish a sixty-mile bike ride, go for a brick of two miles, finish it off with a sweet swim and then die happy in our sleep.

Scenes from the rest home

But if we do lose our noggins, the scene at the rest home might be pretty interesting. In that case, here’s a few scenes from the rest home when aging triathletes hang out in the Common Room raving about their needs and living in the past:

“Where’s my razor? I’ve got to shave my legs! Don’t you know it’s May!”

“I lost my goggles somewhere. (Holding Coke bottle caps up to eyes) Ah, here they are!”

“That walk to the restroom was too far! I’m on taper!”

“Does anyone know where I can find some bubble wrap! I’m doing Ironman in two weeks!”

“I just shit my pants. But you know, sometimes you gotta pay the price to keep the pace!”

“This isn’t Scratch! It’s Gatorade! That makes my stomach queasy!”

“Holy hell, you look good in those lycra shorts, Martha (She’s actually wearing black pajamas) Wanna go for a ride?”

This damn mashed potato is not on my nutrition list. Too many carbs!”

“Do these diapers prevent saddle sores? I’m kinda hurting down there!”

“I don’t know how long I can hang around this training camp. They’re expecting me back home. But sure, I’ll go ride eighty in the heat with you.”

“Has anyone seen my wetsuit?”

Well, it will be interesting if it all comes to that. Because all that sugar and caffeine, aluminum and phosphates in our diet is rotting many a mind. The best we can hope for as aging triathletes at the point where we lose our minds is a quick transition to the other side. I guess some things never change.

 

 

 

 

Posted in IRONMAN, riding, running, swimming, track and field, tri-bikes, triathlete, triathlon, triathlons, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Itching to defend Blackhawks player Marian Hossa

chi_g_mhossats_1920x1080.jpgIt’s likely there are a few people that can’t imagine why Chicago Blackhawks hockey player Marian Hossa is being forced to take a year off. The official statement by Hossa says that he is experiencing a “progressive” skin condition caused by an allergic reaction to his hockey gear.

I’ve known a few hockey parents over the years. They tell me there was a separate room in which to store the hockey gear when it came home from practice. The stuff stinks. Pads and sweaters, shinguards and skates. Stinky. Smelly. And infectious to some.

In the Old Days, hockey players called skin infections “the gunk.” That about describes it I’m sure. Gunk is awful. So is smegma. Athlete’s foot. Crotch rot. The list of ailments athletes get is lengthy, itchy and smelly. All at once.

Those of us who run, ride and swim learn the hard way that dirty gear can lead to itchy genitals, saddle sores and other nasty infections. One of the first priorities after a long ride is to get the heck out of your cycling shorts. Nothing good comes from hanging out with all that sweat, moisture and bacteria roiling around inside your shorts.

A cycling friend or two has had to have saddle sores medically treated, even lanced. They are so painful and so difficult to cure because the next session of abrasion just opens them back up. More bacteria invades the space and things get nasty insane.

Pain in the ass

Even hemorrhoids can get so bad they force you off the bike or to stop running. It’s hard to keep that region clean enough to prevent inflammation of those soft tissues around the rectum. So they flare and flare. One friend with a really large hemorrhoid called me to ask my opinion about his proposed treatment. “I have these really sharp arrows,” he suggested. “I’m going to cut this thing off.”

“That’s a very bad idea,” I told him. “I know what the pain is like. But don’t do it. Do not cut a hemorrhoid off your ass with a razor sharp arrow. You will bleed out and die.”

That’s a true story. I did not make that up. But conditions like hemorrhoids or anal fissures can become so bad it is almost impossible to function. Driving in your car? Your ass hurts like hell. Sitting at your work desk? Hurts like hell. Walking through a grocery store while your ass burns like a blowtorch? Hurts. Like. Hell.

The gal stuff

And as a guy, I don’t even know the discomfort of vaginal yeast infections or other problems unique to feminine biology. I have heard women complain about the soreness generated by hours of pressing their crotch against an unforgiving bike seat. I’ve seen the way they walk. That’s enough to know. That stuff hurts.

So we can only imagine the level of discomfort a very tough man such as Marian Hossa must be going through as a result of an allergic reaction to his hockey equipment. Even when washed daily, the problem is exacerbated by the sensitivity of the skin itself when bacterial infections or fungus build up on the surface. The skin is a barrier against all kinds of microbes. But when it is scraped open, it becomes an active breeding ground and all bets are off.

Personal experience

HandI’ve been through two threatening cases of skin infection in the last four years.

The first was the product of a sliver penetrating the middle finger of my left hand. An infection started that required surgery to lay open the finger, douse it with antibiotics and sew it back up. Then came weeks of antibiotics to fight migration of the infection to other parts of my body. I won’t even show you the photos of the stitches after the surgery, or pix of the pick line they put in my arm to pour antibiotics into my system. It was a lesson well-learned. 

Because last summer our cat nipped my left hand, and that led to a case of cellulitis. This time around I noticed the redness and went straight to Urgent Care. They prescribed antibiotic treatment to combat that dangerous condition, but did not sufficiently warn that my gut bacteria might be thrown completely out of balance by the powerful medications designed to kill the cellulitis germs.

All the good stuff in my gut was dead, and the bad stuff know colloquially as C-Diff took over. I was sick for months with debilitating stomach cramps and chronic diarrhea. The only way to compete in races was to arm up with Immodium, drink more liquids than was humanly possible and hope I didn’t explode from the inside out.

And you know what one of the treatments for C-Diff can be? They someone else’s poop containing “good” bacteria and put it in your system to repropagate the intestines.

How delightful. We’re all walking time bombs when it comes to infectious diseases. The seriousness with which Marian Hossa is regarding his condition tells us that he has suffered in ways we cannot imagine. He’s literally going to have to give up his profession, at least temporarily, but likely forever, after 19 years as a professional hockey player. That reminds me of the lyrics from a Paul Simon song titled Allergies:

My hand can’t touch a guitar string
My fingers just burn and ache
My head intercedes with my bodily needs
And my body won’t give it a break

I think back to other bad skin days and feel fortunate that I was never one to have much acne. However a few cases of poison ivy over the years more than made up for that. One covered my entire left left leg and kept coming back until I figured out the oils were all over my boot laces. Duh.

But that pales in comparison to a college teammate named Cheryl who while training on a 20-miler with the men’s team stopped to urinate in a ditch, then wiped with the leaves of poison ivy. The oils moved up through her vagina to infect her whole body. She was forced to wear bandages on her hands and arms, the breakout was so bad. Even her scalp was infected.

Yet she kept training and placed third that fall in the Chicago Marathon. Among many tough women athletes that I have known, she is perhaps the toughest of them all.

So you might say I feel for Marian Hossa. The testimonials to his character and his abilities are rich and thorough in the newspapers and sports blogs today. The overall sense is that something is being stolen from the sports world if the perpetual greatness of Marian Hossa is cut down by skin infections. But it’s also the side effects of the medications he’s taking. And we don’t know much about that. All I can say is that side effects can sometimes be worse than the disease itself.

Allergies have laid low a great many over time. We try everything to combat them. But in the end its sometimes a matter of luck, time and resignation.

I go to a famous physician
I sleep in the local hotel
From what I can see of the people like me
We get better
But we never get well

 

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With the grass as a crowd and a spider web as the finish line

Solstice SunThis morning while running through a local forest preserve, I passed through a portion of path where the tall grass was leaning from either side due to the weight of dew on the seedheads. The grasses formed a passage like the crowds on a popular climb of the Tour de France. I ran through the narrow corridor where the grasses did not quite touch. If each seedhead had a voice, it certainly would have made for a noisy passage. But it was quiet. Yet joyful.

Solstice thread.jpgThen I came to a spot where the grasses had converged even deeper. That gave some spider the idea to connect the seedheads by a thin silk thread. In fact all sorts of spiders had worked their web magic overnight. I burst through these finish lines one after the other. It felt like I was winning every stride. And that was true.

Solstice web.jpgWhen I emerged from the preserve there was a full web draped with dew. This was my finishers medal for a morning run during the solstice. I was half-naked and fully alive. That’s how it should be on the first day of summer.

 

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The road to entitlement

Indigo Shoes.pngI had a great run this morning. Averaged 8:45 per mile over six miles, with a warmup mile of 9:25 and a closing mile of 8:49. Between those miles were an 8:22, and 8:25 and and an 8:47.

That 8:47 mile was run on the gravelly edge of a very busy road. It’s really not a good place to run. The road shoulder is narrow, and traffic has increased greatly since Nelson Lake Road was connected to Deerpath Road that leads to an expressway entrance. Now cars zoom along at 45-60 mph most mornings. Commuters in a rush. Who care only about getting where they’re going. Not much willing to budge.

But I’m a stubborn bastard sometimes, so I kept on running along Nelson Lake Road. Normally I only cover a quarter mile on that road shoulder before jumping back on a quieter street. But something in me today was determined to run where I wanted to run, and traffic be damned.

Blue bird demise

Indigo Bunting.jpgAs I traipsed along the one-foot-wide gravel shoulder, I glanced down to see the blue shape of an indigo bunting lying in the gravel. I stopped to snap a picture of that beautiful bird. It’s eyes were still intact, so it is likely that it only died that morning. The flies had not had time to find it.

That bird when alive has an elegantly simple yet structured song. You can hear it on this link: “Seebit seebit teww teew wheet wheet seebit seebit!” 

Indigo buntings are known to sing all day long during the summer. I hear them while running or cycling even at the height of a sunny, hot day. When most other birds sit silent or lurk in the shade because the heat is oppressive, indigo buntings find a perch in the canopy and sing their full-throated song. They are often accompanied only by the calls of the warbling vireo, which sings a rambling, structureless song, and the red-eyed vireo, which is the most persistent singer in all of birdland.

Persistent voices

One could accuse all these birds of being too vocal and too persistent. Why can’t they just shut up like the rest of birdland when the weather gets hot? Yet there they are, singing their guts out when they should be hunkered up on some shady branch with a full belly full of juicy bugs.

Bird should be entitled to some rest and relaxation, because being a bird is damned hard work. For one thing, they have to find their own food. They also have to build their own nests by gathering random bits of debris like sticks, grass and mud. And even when the nest building is done,  some birds such as the American Robin carry literal poop sacks away from the nest to keep things clean and avoid evidence around the nest.

Migration time

Cardinal for Paint NatureBut the difficulties of life as a bird do not end there. Because when spring and fall arrive, migrating species fly thousands of miles north in the spring and thousands of miles back again in the autumn. Other species have learned to hunker down and make it through the cold winters. All those migration patterns are based on ancient cycles of food availability and the evolutionary advantage of occupying niches where prime habitat is most evident.

Even large mammals such as caribou migrate to reach ideal grazing and calving grounds. Even primates migrate vertically through forests to forage, or move up and down mountain slopes to feed with the season. The risks of these movements are balanced by the rewards. Individuals die in the process, but the species as a whole survives. The paths of evolution can be unforgiving, yet some of the glories in life are found in the redemptive qualities of pair bonds, altruistic behavior and outright luck.

Adverse forces at work

Until, that is, adverse forces interrupt the balance and flow of generations. For birds, there are many new adverse forces at work in this world. Domestic cats kill millions of birds each year. Hundreds of species of birds are ill-adapted to survive the onslaught of millions of murderous cats let loose on the North American continent and beyond. For every dead bird we see along the road there are millions more dead birds we never see.

Some pet owners believe their cats are entitled to hunt. “They’re cats,” the saying goes. “And cats hunt things. You can’t change them.”

Well, that’s not true. You can also keep them inside. Because cats the size and capability of house cats did not evolve across much of the habitat they occupy. Birds are frankly defenseless in many cases against small felines in large numbers. Cats are as bad as rats when it comes to damages wrought by their feral existence. Yet people let their cats roam because they love their creatures and wouldn’t want to make them unhappy in any way. Yet that also means they don’t feel a responsibility toward birds or any other form of wildlife.

And it doesn’t end there. 

Symptoms of entitlement

cardinalAttitudes of entitlement grow from seemingly harmless habits. The person that doesn’t keep their cats in the house might also blanch at picking up after their dog. Or they allow their dog to pee on plants or lawns all the way down the block. Because that’s what dogs do. You really can’t change a dog. 

And when raising their children, they might raise them similarly untamed. Thus they fail to reign them in when behavior gets out of line. “They’re kids,” the thinking goes. “That’s just kids being kids.”

Those kids grow into unthinking adults, and the cycle goes round and round until society is full of people who don’t care about birds, or feral cats, pooping dogs or snot-nosed progeny. We’ve grown a society entitled to live the way they want because that’s America. And that’s how Americans act. 

Who’s to blame? 

Some claim the cause of all the loose morals and lack of discipline in society on liberalism as if it were a disease of the mind. But the definition belies such claims:

liberalism: a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy (see autonomy 2) of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties. 

Autonomy is far different than lack of responsibility. Because the quantifying factor in liberalism is the protection of political and civil liberties. If anything, liberals encourage people to house their cats, considerately pick up after their dogs and share the road with cyclists and runners. There is no lack of discipline there, only a call to consideration.

Or is it a confused interpretation of conservative self-reliance that turns people into citizens who refuse to house their cats and clean up after their dogs? Are people so focused on their personal independence they have forgotten what it means to be part of a civil society? Have the likes of Donald Trump inspired an entirely new form of entitlement that bucks social conventions to the point where people don’t think (or want) to care about others anymore?

The entitled driver

Because from what political worldview do people refuse to separate hazards to the point where their vehicle forces a group of runners or cyclists off the shoulder of a busy road? “I pay taxes,” the selfish driver thinks. “Why should I give up my right to drive wherever I want on a public road?”

These are the symptoms and trademarks of cultural entitlement. They start with seemingly benign things like letting cats out of the house and end up with people determined to own the road and carry concealed deadly weapons because they have selfish, often fearful definitions of what constitutes a civil society.

If you study its roots, the entitled worldview typically starts over frustrations with small limitations. “I can’t let my cat out” may seem like a small thing, but it feeds the same instincts as “Why do I have to share the road with cyclists” or “How come I can’t carry my gun out in the open.” The appetites for that brand of entitlement seem moral at their core because they relate to personal freedom. But they are often freedoms that impinge upon or threaten others. And to make matters worse, they cyclically feed upon themselves, as is the case with guns, wherein gun advocates now make the case the society itself is not “safe” without the right to carry a weapon. That is a self-fulfilling prophecy and a massive claim to entitlement all combined into one.

It is true that such actions of self-entitlement can add up to great levels of death and destruction. The temptation of Adam and Eve began with the simplest statement from the Serpent who both quoted and contradicted God in saying, “You will not surely die.” Then offered Eve and Adam a form of entitlement when he told them, and I paraphrase, “for you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

According to the Bible, that was the first-ever entitlement promise in history. And it is significant that it seemed to deliver a benefit that turned out to be a great loss in the long run. Let the cats out of the house, it can’t harm a thing. Don’t pick up after your dog, that shit will fade away eventually. Vote for this politician because he is a godly man.

All forms of entitlement. All lies of the spirit. And nothing at all to do with liberalism. So where does the road to entitlement begin?

The road to entitlement

Dead RabbitThe same people who seem to complain so bitterly about entitlement never seem to connect the dots that the ultimate ‘entitlement’ is the blind taking of life caused by so much selfishness, fear and greed.

These behavioral memes hold true in cultural frameworks where some people gladly accept cheap health insurance because they are employed by a big company while self-starting small business owners or the self-employed struggle to make monthly payments because they’re not part of a big enough “pool” where they can gain access to decent coverage. After four years of self-employment I recently married and now have coverage through my wife. Then I started a new job and there was health insurance available through that organization. Suddenly I had access to two full health insurance plans that in sum did not cost as much as the single health care policy I purchased on my own.

No fault insurance

That’s not the fault of Obamacare as some people might claim. I’ve paid COBRA rates before the Affordable Care Act was ever passed into law. We paid $2000 per month in premiums. My wife had a pre-existing condition with ovarian cancer. On top of premiums we covered costs that ranged into the thousand. But the game was clear. Medical providers threw costs of $47K at the insurance companies. By the time we saw the bill is was more like $4000. It’s all a shell game. A Ponzi scheme.

And the reason it remains that way is that politicians and the wealthy lobbies that own them are some of the most entitled people on earth. They simply don’t care that millions of Americans are going to be road kill on the road to entitlement. The American health care system is nothing more than a selfish highway of haves versus the have-nots. The haves gladly drive down the middle of the road well-insured and self-assured they have every right to act the way they do. “I’m responsible,” they tell themselves. “I do what responsible people do.” Just like the cats that eat birds. The dogs that poop on the neighbor’s lawn.

And the fact that they have to witness a few bloody stories about people dying from cancer due to poor coverage is just part of the commute on the way to another selfish day behind the wheel of entitlement. “I work hard,” they tell themselves and their equally entitled. “I shouldn’t have to worry about other people.”

Then they vote for politicians who talk and act like them. And those politicians hide behind closed doors or draft up legislation so fast no one has a chance to read it through. They are concerned more with the $800 million or billion tax break they’re going to give their entitled friends than they are about the 24 million people that will be road kill on the highway of entitlement. And they laugh when they sign the bills. They celebrate in public and crow that they did what they promised their base.

No small thing

Egret.jpegYou might think I exaggerate drawing a straight line from a dead bird on the side of the road to politicians drafting healthcare legislation in secret. But consider what the Bible says about the nature of relationship between the smallest creature and the human race.

Matthew 6:26 [Full Chapter]

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?

Think about that passage. Birds aren’t really entitled to anything. They have to earn it all for themselves.  They rely on the providence of nature (not even God) to find food, nesting material and the path through the night sky to fly south or north. They rely on the stars, and the earth’s magnetism, and combine the instincts earned through years of evolution to guide them through it all.

Yet the instant they fly a little too low, along comes a car and wham! they’re dead by the road. Life itself is a pre-existing condition, you see. There are no guarantees. But it is the blunt entitlement of that driver, their blind speed in the face of life and senses dulled by the appetite for so much casual death that makes carrying guns so benign and letting millions of Americans suffer without health care coverage acceptable. This is life on the road to entitlement.

People complain most about programs such as social security (actually an insurance policy against poverty in old age) and Medicare or Medicaid as “entitlements.” But what is corporate insurance if not an entitlement paid for by a third-party? And it is done to the massive exclusion of others, manipulating markets to its own purposes and shafting small businesses and the self-employed in the process.  The benefactors of corporatized insurance are actually the most entitled bastards of them all.

Canary in a coalmine

Stop and think for a moment.  The voice of each and every bird is a precious thing if you think about it. When I’m out running or riding past a deep green woods or a cottonwood grove and hear the calls of birds in the trees, I recognize the true preciousness of life. And when I see a cat slinking away with a bird in its entitled mouth, I get angry that people care so little about the balance of nature. Or human nature. Or caring about other human beings struggled to stay alert and alive along the road to entitlement. Where the cars drive fast, and the drivers keep their eyes on the road, and little else concerns them but their right to go wherever it is they want to go.

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride, a Chronicle of Character, Caregiving and Community. It is a memoir of guiding his late wife, family and friends through eight years of cancer treatment. 

 

 

 

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A bit of “On Your Left” is not too much to ask of cyclists

The advent of the modern day bicycle trail with its twelve-to-twenty foot width has created wonderful opportunities for runners and cyclists around the world to enjoy dedicated exercise space. But for the most part, these same trails constitute a “shared space” that requires a bit of communication to manage properly.

Glen Carbon IllinoisNot every bike trail is as clearly marked or spacious as the section of trail seen in the accompanying photo from the town of Glen Carbon, Illinois. That’s where one of my best friends from high school lives, and these trails loop right behind his house. From there, the trail connects with a bike trail system north of St. Louis that is just phenomenal. I’ve ridden 40 milesalmost without interruption in terms of cross traffic or crowded conditions.

Yet for all this infrastructure, safety on the bike path comes down to human consideration. The principle at work is simple: Cyclists generally move faster than runners or walkers. So the proper etiquette for cyclists when approaching runners or walkers from behind is to warn people ahead by calling out “On Your Left!”

This includes every kind of cyclist. Slow or fast, one must call out “On Your Left” whether traveling 10 or 25 mph.

Managing Expectations

Which brings us to the other facet of this subject. What should the expectations be for cyclists on a trail? How fast should you expect to go if the trail typically attracts a fair amount of foot traffic?

The etiquette for sensible speeds on a bike depends on several factors. Much is determined by the width of the trails in question and their context relative to urban, suburban or rural conditions.  The actual physical construction of the trail also counts for quite a bit too, especially whether it is paved, gravel or other surface.

Urban or busy areas

In urban conditions with busy two-way traffic, cyclists musts be prepared to communicate with pedestrians in clear instructions. Remember that not all trail users are accustomed to dealing with bike traffic. Some may not be aware that they should stay to the right and even proceed single file on a trail busy with runners and bike traffic. Calling out “On Your Left!” in that circumstance may cause people to startle, stop, or even go the opposite direction.

VL-Bike-Trail-1024x877That means cyclists must err on the side of caution in areas of busy foot traffic and other bicyclists. Accidents happen when people do not have enough time to react, misjudge the intentions or direction another person intends to go, or enters a situation going far too fast to adapt.

Don’t thread the needle

A skilled criterium cyclist might welcome such challenges as a test of skill. And while a good bike handler can ‘thread the needle’ in almost any circumstance, it does not mean it should be done. A bike moving at a fast speed is genuine threat to people on foot. Approaching too fast or buzzing too close is definitely an affront and can cause genuine fear or be an offensive distraction to other people using the trail. Expert cyclists should actually know better than to ride on through a trail section where foot traffic is common. Better to take that unbridled speed out on a lonely road. It’s not worth showing off your bike handling skills on the trail. All people will remember is that you were an asshole.

Pitfalls of suburbia

In suburban areas where running and walking traffic is less congested, it is acceptable for cyclists to dial it up a bit. But remember that suburbia is full of pitfalls for cyclists and runners. Blind corners due to shrubbery are common. Tearing across a side street on a bike trail is risky at best and flat-out dangerous. A regional bike trail here in Chicago covers 25 miles in a loop that crosses through six different towns. It rises up on former railroad beds and drops down to street level almost without warning. People pop out from side trails. The surface itself is often crushed gravel, which makes stopping or swerving a dangerous proposition. Road bikes can be a perilous ride on such surfaces.

Quiet spots

But it’s the quiet spots that offer the greatest startle factor when a hard-riding cyclist approaches a runner from behind on a mixed-use trail of that kind. Quite a few people run with headphones on, which can make it difficult for cyclists to warn runners when riding up from behind. In some cases it is wise to slow slightly, issue an initial warning and if space and approaching traffic is absent, swerve well into the other lane or side of the trail. Some runners jump to the side when startled.

It is particularly important to give women runners and walkers fair warning when approaching from behind. There are enough instances of threats, harassment or genuine attacks on women runners that the etiquette factor for anyone seeking to pass a woman runner or walker from behind must, out of courtesy at least, offer a clear and honest “On Your Left” from thirty feet back to avoid an unkind startle factor.

Worst offenders

Road cyclist.jpgSome of these guidelines seem so basic and full of common sense. Yet there are plenty of cyclists who ignore the basic rules of the trail when it comes to etiquette and respect. As noted, it is some of the fastest cyclists that are the worst offenders.

So back off on the speed on busy trails, and get a grip. Bike trails aren’t really meant to accommodate speedy road cyclists. Yes, the risks of riding out on the roads are greater. Many motorists seem to think that cyclists don’t have a right to the road. They think that all bike riding should be done on bike paths. But they are legally and conceptually wrong. That education process may take another 10-20 years here in America.

Face it, no matter where you ride with the exception of the most remote bike trails or country roads, there are human obstacles to consider. Even way out in the country, a group of cyclists should know it is best to warn fellow riders that there is a runner ahead on the theroad. It’s never desirable to bury a tire up someone’s butt crack because someone was to busy and selfish to call out “Runner up!”

It’s always good etiquette to give fair waning while riding on the bike trails.  IT should look like this. ;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;.

And remember, ’tis the season for tarsnakes. Stay level my friends.

 

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Don’t June know it’s summer?

Lily.jpgEvery flower needs certain basics things to reach full bloom. Good soil helps. Rain at times. Perhaps some tending. Lacking these things, the plant struggles to fulfill its destiny.

Likewise with endurance athletes. The ‘base’ of endurance training we all seek to build is the ‘good soil’ of our performance. Some build that base in the winter. Others turn to the summer months in hopes of blooming during the fall.

Such was the case during eight years of scholastic and collegiate distance running. The first summer following freshman year in high school, our excellent coach Rich Born encouraged the cross country team to put in some summer miles. “Build a base,” he encouraged us. He set up a program rewarding kids who ran 500 and 1000 miles. But I never did it. Never even ran 50 official training miles over the summer months. I didn’t have the gumption. Others did.

I thought of this because on my way into work this morning there was a ban of tanned and fit high school kids running together on one of the main streets. I glanced to see if my former neighbor kid was running with them, but didn’t have time to pick him out because traffic around me was heavy.

Training logistics

It would have been nice to have a band of teammates to run with like that when I was in high school. Logistically, however, it was impossible back in the day. The school I attended those first two years of high school was geographically the largest district in the state. The towns that fed Kaneland high school out in the cornfields included Elburn, where I lived, and Sugar Grove, Maple Park, Kaneville and Virgil. We still had less than 750 students in the entire high school.

Getting together to train with teammates was impossible. It was twelve miles to Sugar Grove. Thirteen miles out to Maple Park and Virgil. That meant it was impractical for many of us to get together and run. None of us had cars in those days. For that matter, I wasn’t old enough to drive.

So Coach Born laid it out clear and simple. “You’re going to have to do this on your own,” he told us. “And June is when you have to get started. July is the toughest though. You have to be disciplined to go out and train in the heat. That’s how you build a base.”

Laggard

I didn’t get off to a good start in June. In fact, I ran only once the first couple weeks. II had stopped running altogether right after spring track ended. It did not feel good to start up again. I ran and walked two miles, then went back home and had lemonade. It had taken me fourteen minutes to complete the two miles. I got a sideache.

Still, I got some sort of mileage in every day, mostly on my three-speed Huffy bike. My paper route was probably four to five miles long when it was all said and done. I’d get up at 5:30, pedal hard for the route and be done by 6:15 am. So I was getting some aerobic training every day, seven days a week. Then I’d shoot some baskets some day, or play a couple hours of pickup baseball with my brothers.

Baseball

In the afternoon, we’d have baseball practice. My coach during that summer of 1971 was a man named Trent Richards. He was in his early 20s at the time, a recent graduate of Illinois State University. Richards was also a track and cross country coach for a high school fifteen miles away in St. Charles. I did not know that at the time. But our paths would cross two years later in the world of cross country.

He’s see me at baseball practice and ask, “Did you run today?” Every day I’d answer the same way. “No.”

Then we’d get on with baseball practice. I was a pitcher, one of the most active and aerobic positions in the game. So there was plenty of exercise there.

July heat

Then July came. I figured I’d better try to get some sort of mileage going. Coach Born sent a little note of encouragement if I recall. There was no Internet of course. Even phone calls were expensive if they were deemed long distance. There was one area code in the Chicago area back then, but the phone company had lots of rules about what qualified as extra expense on calls. So it wasn’t practical for Coach to call all 30 kids on the team and check how our training was going.

It turned out to be a hot summer. Mornings would come and go. I’d avoid running every day, preferring to lay on the cool living room floor with my head between two giant stereo speakers listening to the All Things Must Pass album by George Harrison.

Turning point

But one cool July day I worked up the gumption to go running. I’d planned out a route that went south of Elburn, turned right toward the high school, turned right again up a country road and turned right back into Elburn again. I could only estimate that it was five miles.

The first two miles went well. I was actually clipping along thinking “This isn’t so bad…” when suddenly the bushes near a farm house erupted with the shapes of three dogs running right at me. Barking like crazy.

The road had turned to dirt at that point too. As the dogs tore after me on the road, they kicked up dust and barked like mad. I run as fast as I could, but the dogs got ahead of me and snarled and barked some more. I walked toward them with my hands out in case they charged. Not really knowing what else to do, I proceeded that way as the dogs backed away.

Then two more dogs came tearing out on the road. At that point, I was traumatized. The new dogs were even more fierce looking than the first three. One was black with bright white teeth. Some sort of German shepherd mix, possibly the spawn of Beezelbub.

The other was one of those low growling hounds that looked like it would do anything to anyone at the drop of the hat. I had not thought of that dog until the scene in the movie Django Unchained when the plantation owner unleashes dogs on a slave and tears him to pieces.

And true to form, the farm owner stood at the far end of his driveway watching me try to move through is pack of angry dogs. I yelled “Hey!” to get his attention and he did not move. Not a finger. It’s hard to tell what the man was thinking at the time. Or was he thinking at all? I’d take a step or two and the dogs would commence barking again. But not once did he call them in.

Great and not so great escapes

I moved to the far side of the road in hopes that move would quell the canine territoriality going on. It worked to some degree. I was able to move up the road a few yards at a time. One by one the dogs backed off and returned to the farmyard. Only the smallest dog kept on. I allowed myself a short laugh as the little critter barked and scuffed up dust.

Then I was free of that pack of farm dogs at last. My nerves were on edge the rest of the run. The next few farms had dogs but they barked from their own yards rather than running out on the road.

Dog bites

Finally I turned toward home and realized how stressed I was by the incident. Getting bitten would have been more traumatic. Later during my college running years one of our teammates would get attacked by a large farm dog. It chomped on his thigh, puncturing his leg in multiple places. Blood ran down his leg like a horror movie, yet he ran the entire way back to campus. That had happened because we’d left him behind during a group run.

And I thought all this as those high school kids ran by this morning. How good it is that they can train together. How good it is there are leash laws now in our cities and counties. And how good it is that the sport of running, for all its changes, is still a great joy in all the right ways.

So the inspiration I hoped to provide in a roundabout way is that it’s June, and it’s summer. Revel in the heat. Enjoy the company of your training buddies. Know that what you’re doing is building strength for July, August and beyond.

June know it’s worth it.

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Let yourself be happy

“Maybe the hardest thing I’ve ever done…was to walk away from you…leaving behind the life that we’d begun, I split myself in two…”   ––Jackson Browne

Nice red ballThere are many ways to be unhappy. A lost love. An anxious mind. The list goes on forever it seems.

Those of us born with anxious minds are additionally inventive in finding ways to make ourselves unhappy. Even happiness can make us unhappy. And success? Forget about it. We find ways to be guilty. Imagine something bad is going to ruin it. Or never give ourselves credit for getting there.

It’s hard for those who don’t suffer such questionable motives to appreciate how and why the minds of the anxious go where they go. But we go on making ourselves unhappy.

Some of us learn to identify the sources and patterns of unhappiness. And so it should be. After all, there are hundreds of thousands of words recorded in journals that we kept through so many anxious years. Fears and trepidations. Anxious ruminations. The records of our unhappiness.

The ruminative mind needs release from that cycle. That’s why running and riding and swimming are so good for people who wrestle with anxiety or depression. Happiness can be restored quite quickly, quite often, by running off the source of our stress or worry, real or imagined.

Vexing nature

That seeming ‘quick cure’ can make the condition of anxiety seem false or vapid to those whose minds aren’t wired that way. But everyone has something that vexes them. Fear of success. Fear of an opposing ideology. Fear of not having a gun on you at all times. Fear that someone something said about you is real, or true. Let it go.

The mind is easily distracted as well the vexing nature of current events. Both the anxious conservative and the anxious liberal seem to have so much to worry about these days. Yesterday on Facebook there was a meme about the fact that Trump has lifted bans on catching too many sea turtles. The world waits for our worries. It loves them.

It’s all there

Last night in yoga class it was easy to be distracted as well. The new studio is next to the aerobics room. The soundproofing hasn’t been installed yet. It was cool in there too. But the blankets were still blankets. The foam blocks were still foam blocks. The bolster and the straps. They all still worked the same. And for five minutes I lay there on the mat not letting anything distract me. Throughout the practice, there were plenty of opportunities to let things bug me. My feet stank. My left knee did not like a particular kneeling position. So I didn’t do it. I made a choice to be me, whatever form that took.

Aching for happiness

And this morning’s run through Nelson Lake Marsh forest preserve brought birds singing one after another. Yellowthroat. Willow flycatcher. Indigo bunting. Bobolink.

Then I emerged from the grassy trails onto a familiar road and picked up the pace. I’d taken my shirt off on a muggy morning and the air felt cool and nice. Rather than think of my legs as aching, I thought of them as ‘aching for happiness. And so, instead of thinking of that ache as a negative, I identified with how strong my legs really are. They’ve carried me a long way, and many miles. So the last half mile turned into a sprint.

Standards of engagement

The challenges of creating or finding happiness bump against wall of desire. All the obligations and wants. The standards of engagement. Our own expectations. Our dissatisfaction with the present. Our goddamn disappointment with the prospect for the future. What the fuck is that even about? 

I’m no Type A personality but there are times when I’m a B+ with a minus behind the ranking. The inner dialogue can go like this:

 “How’s the progress on your book? When are you going to do some more painting? You haven’t been out birding yet this month. Only one swim this week? What’s wrong with you?

So you see, it can take work to let yourself be happy. It can take discipline not to beat yourself up every moment of the day. Part of that comes from releasing the clawing forces of inner dialogue that too easily become a habit. This is the rumination that makes the days rush by. It kills the present and buries consideration.

When you’re never satisfied with how you’re doing, you cannot possibly be happy. It’s good to bo back and ask questions to learn from past experience. During all those years racing hard and achieving the fastest times in my life, did I let myself appreciate them? And the answer is: In many ways, I did.

The real problems came when I ceased imagining that the way of life, a freedom and intensity about the belief and the challenge, were possible to sustain. The truth is tantalizing: the soul is liberated by living through imagination.

So do it. Let yourself be happy. Imagine a better way. Be that person. Steal time to work on that book. Train your own way. Set your own schedule. Dream your own dreams. But also, share in the joy of other achievements. Revel in the wins and the losses.

You’ll be happier for it.

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Old schooling it

OldSchoolRunnerI did a sketch of what Old School runners looked like in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In fact I did a sketch of what I looked like in the late 1970s. And this was the look.

Long, often thick hair. 

Skinny arms.

Half-beard that grew in patches.

Maybe a little chest hair. But not much.

Thin legs and tanned thighs.

Short running shorts.

Either a BR or FS tank top. No sleeves.

Mix of different experimental type shorts.

Some with built-in briefs.

Some without.

Some kind of sports watch. Casio. Timex. Or cheap knockoff purchased at Venture.

Running shoes with big fat soles. Or heels that flared so much they bruised your calves.

Hardly any calves to bruise.

Serious face. People did not fuck around at the starting line.

No mercy asked. None granted.

Raced 24 times a year. Minimum.

Sometimes twice a weekend. In different cities. Three hours apart. In the rain.

Lots of spaghetti, frozen peas and frozen waffles. That’s the diet.

Beer. Plenty to go around. Coor’s a favorite. Hard to get.

Trained 80-100 miles per week. Usually at 6 – 7 minutes per mile.

Also raced on the track. Whenever a track race could be found.

That’s kicking it old school. That’s how we did it. Sub-elite and all.

And glad for the experience to this day.

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