A Captain at sea and on land

Mike Czarnik (right) retires after 30+ years of service in the Naval Reserves.

As a Captain the Naval Reserves, Mike Czarnik spent many months at sea over the last thirty years. In an event held at Great Lakes Naval Center in North Chicago, Illinois on January 12, 2019, he completed the second phase of a retirement ceremony that began at the naval base in Norfolk, Virginia. 

The Navy’s retirement traditions focus on sending a shipmate ashore one last time. Thus attired in fully formal Navy dress uniform with a bristle of medals clinking on his chest, Captain Czarnik was celebrated for his many missions and service to country. That included 38 years of total Navy dedication including the training that began in high school and extended through four years at Marquette University in Milwaukee. 

On a day where winds were blowing snow against the east windows of Whitehat training center on the Great Lakes campus, one could hear the roll of waves against the Lake Michigan shore 400 meters east. That roar of surf reflected the significance of life at sea. At one point during his speech about his career, Czarnik related how it felt to be casting off on a naval ship headed for destinations around the world. “Every ship has its own distinct hum,” he shared. “You learn to sleep with the noise, and when you stand on deck and feel the breeze, there is nothing else like it.” 

Czarnik (third from left) is joined by longtime shipmates and peers.

Thus a Navy man explains the lure of the sea and why so many feel drawn to the life of a sailor and shipmate. Sitting still in the face of that pull of the sea is simply not an option. Certainly, those who embrace a sailor on land sense the unique character of Navy life. There’s a sacrifice inherent to the journey. Those that serve know there is no call for apology in that venture. The nobility of the Navy is tied precisely to the fact that one cannot turn around and come back at a minute’s notice. Yet woe to any man or woman unfortunate enough to fall off the back of a ship. The point is this, the risks of life at sea are real. 

In the retirement speech covering his years in the Navy, Czarnik related the character but not necessarily the details of Navy missions around the world. These included missions to danger zones such as Somalia during times of regional crisis. Czarnik also saw many changes in the nature of engagement over the years, for while civil unrest raged on shore, the Marines who departed from his Navy vessel were met with the flash of cameras as journalists covering the story awaited their arrival. In some respects that presumptive presence seemed more unsettling than the nerve-wracking call of duty beyond the shoreline. 

Captain on land

Czarnik’s “other life” beyond the Navy reserves is managing global teams for the telecommunications giant AT&T. As he gave his speech about Navy retirement, he glanced around the audience to compliment his voyageurs in that realm of his life’s journey as well. 

But perhaps there is no more symbolically relevant occupation that Czarnik enjoys more than doing triathlons. The migration from sea to shore is literal and physical, and his multiple full Ironman distance races are testimony to his love of the sport.

Czarnik is a multiple full Ironman distance finisher.

Thus during his speech he also thanked his triathlon friends for their companionship as well. Czarnik’s constitution seems to be that of the Energizer Bunny as he has indeed drummed his way from Navy duties to AT&T to athletic pursuits. Sometimes he seems indomitable, such as the day he completed back-to-back running races at the Gasparilla distance event in Tampa during February 2018. First, he raced the Half Marathon distance in just under 1:45, then turned right around and ran the five-mile race with his partner Julie Dunn. 

Mike Czarnik and his partner and fellow triathlete Julie Dunn.

All the while, Czarnik keeps a running commentary going. The man loves a good joke and even a few bad jokes just to keep things interesting. He admitted that keeping life interesting is part of his persona, relating how he and his shipmates shared life as they traveled from port to port. “And what happens on shore, stays on shore,” he laughed. So did many of shipmates. 

He also related how American Navy policies differ a bit from other naval forces around the world. It seems that the vagaries of life at sea demand tradition not just for the respect and order it accords, but to affirm the knowledge necessary to prepare and protect those who serve.

Naval tradition is rich in significance and ceremony.

The Navy holds to these traditions because they work. Sitting in the chairs below the Whitehat training ship one can study the many ropes, pulleys and implements that Navy trainees must learn before heading out to sea. Knowing your stuff in the Navy, like many other military occupations, is indeed a life or death knowledge base. The tension on a massive rope holding a giant ship at port is dangerous indeed. That’s why Navy personnel train and train again.

Those who rise in the ranks are responsible for helping others put that training to use. In fine Navy tradition, the entire force is considered to be ‘standing watch’ both in literal and rhetorical fashion. Thus when a Captain retires, it is confirmed that those trained by that leader are there to relieve them from duty. 

That is a tremendous statement about the nature of military service. There is a direct commitment to duty that must be fulfilled. Then it must replaced by those who follow.

Those who lose their lives in the process of standing watch are revered for their sacrifice and appreciated for their service. In the Port O Call building where the reception following the retirement ceremony was held, a table sits with a red rose to recall those who lost a loved one. On a plate sits a slice of lemon for the bitterness of death. A black napkin mourns those who are gone. The chair is tipped to indicate those who will not return.

Nearby, a beautiful brass bell sits ready to chime the passage of time and how the lives of sailors and officers ring on. 

As Czarnik saluted his shipmates one last time a solemn sailor piped his passage out of the room. Tears flowed from strong men and there were lumps in the throat of many in attendance.

In a world where so many seem to avoid solemnity at any cost, the Navy knows its importance and celebrates the sound of the wind and the shrug of waves carrying ships on the sea. It is both a solemn and salutary profession. 

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Why I’m equivocal about legalized pot

Wisdom comes from strange places sometimes.

For quite a few years I’ve been a believer in legalizing pot. Not because I want to smoke it these days. Frankly it was fun to smoke a bit in my twenties, but I just don’t want or need it now.

Part of me is Libertarian on the issue. It seems to be hypocritical to sell so much alcohol in America and yet ban some other kind of drug that is no worse and possibly less damaging in some respects. The volumes of booze we consume in this country is daunting. Have you been to a Binnies or any liquor store and actually looked at those shelves? Human beings actually drink all that. Just stare at the whiskey aisle sometime. It will blow your mind.

Lots of booze

All that drinking is a rather daunting practice if you really think about it. I still like to drink for social reasons. I’ve learned to enjoy different types of whiskey, but I’m not expert on the subject. I like varieties of wines as well, particularly the oakier and dry types. But I’m not educated on them by any means. As for the whole craft beer revolution, it’s interesting, but I’m sick of absorbing all those calories. Every 300 calories craft beer I drink is a workout down the drain. And I’m fatter than I’d like as a result.

My go-to wedding drink is Jack and Coke. I know my pacing with that mixed drink and can avoid getting plastered just by having familiarity with it. Plus it’s a nice balance of booze and caffeine. Again the extra calories are never fun, but that’s drinking. It comes with a price in many ways.

Habituation

One of those prices is, of course, the risk of habituation to alcohol. I use that term with judiciousness. I’ve got many friends whose alcohol habits became problematic. I’ve also had friends that developed addictions. Most eventually emerged knowing their limits and tolerance. It takes discipline for sure.

Then there were a couple friends and former teammates who were not so lucky. One of them was a college teammate whose alcohol consumption was out of control and we all knew it. So was his use of pot. It was a wicked combination. I’ve written about these types of challenges before, so no need for details here. I also watched another teammate go from top runner on the varsity to not even making the team, largely due to pot use. But even at that young age, I recognized the thin line between love and hate when it comes to drugs.

And that one friend and teammate? He died from his addictions.

Delving into pot

After college I got high with pot now and then. I even dated a much older woman who loved the stuff. She knew how to get the strongest mix of pot available. Back then, you’d sometimes get pot that didn’t even get you high. Not her. These days the strains are reportedly much stronger and more refined.

I never tried running while high or doing much of anything else except being young and idiotic just for kicks. That’s exactly why I got high. So I didn’t have to do anything hard.

That’s the problem I see with pot use in general, and why I feel equivocal about legalization of pot here in Illinois and other states. What I saw in close friends who did a lot of the stuff was that it seemed to steal the motivation right out of them. Getting high was an escape for sure.

Sometimes, it seems, it becomes so much of an habituated escape it becomes difficult to return.

Still should be legal

There’s no question there are risks associated with any type of recreational drug use. I still feel it’s better to legalize pot than keep it criminalized. Too many people have been arrested and jailed for the “crime” of possessing a joint or selling pot. It’s hypocritical of our society to pretend one drug is better than the other.

We all eventually have to make choices about what we choose to abide, or not. And as The Stranger in The Big Lebowski says, “The Dude abides. I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in that, knowin’ he’s out there. The Dude. Takin’ ‘er easy for all us sinners.”  – The Stranger

The thing none of us want to see happen is the collapse of any individual to the control of the drug they enjoy, or need. Certainly the opiates “crisis” is an indication that it’s not the source of the drug that matters, it’s the potency and availability.

That’s the battle each and every one of us faces when it comes to drugs. How much can we safely take? For those of you curious about the yin and yang of this issue as it relates to world class athletes, may I suggest the book Duel In the Sun about Dick Beardsley and Alberto Salazar. Compelling stuff.

Proviso

So I embrace the legalization of pot, but with a proviso. It’s also time to put some common sense advice about use and management of pot out there for public consumption. Getting advice from your high buddy in the back seat of a Chevy Impala used to constitute some sort of conventional wisdom. But we know better now, especially those of us that train our bodies on a daily basis, and want to know what’s going into them.

I propose that the word “EQUIVOCAL” should be printed right on the label of every pot item made once it is legalized. Getting people to stop and think about what they’re doing is always good. Making them wonder what the fuck you mean is even better.

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It’s a Flat Earth and Fast Food world so go for it, you’re going to die anyway

A Los Angeles Times story recorded that the Clemson football team will be served fast food during their ceremonial visit to the White House.

“Clemson’s national championship football team went to the White House to be honored for winning the title, and President Trump had an elaborate feast ready for them:

“The Clemson national championship team will be coming tonight. It will be exciting,” Trump said. “Very great team. An unbelievable team. I think we’re going to serve McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger Kings with some pizza. I really mean it. It will be interesting. I would think that’s their favorite food.”

The President reportedly paid for the food out of his own pocket. The reason this was necessary has something to do with a government shutdown, which the President denies was any of his doing. As reported on Vox,

“A week ago, President Donald Trump said he’d be responsible if the government shut down. Now that a shutdown is imminent, he’s trying to blame it on Democrats.

On Friday morning, with a government shutdown looming as Trump and Congress struggle to agree to a budget deal, Trump tweeted, “The Democrats now own the shutdown!”

Way to Go Coach

One wonders how it work if the Clemson football coach operated by the same standards. “Okay boys, I’m the coach. I’ll call all the plays and you execute them! If we don’t succeed, I’ll own this!”

The team goes out on the field, runs the four plays sent on the field by the coach, and none of them work. They offense runs off the field and the coach berates them. “What are you doing! Why in the hell did you run those plays?”

“You called the plays yourself coach. We did just what you said. It seemed like the other team knew what was coming!”

“Well this isn’t my fault, I can tell you that! Now go eat some junk food and drink a bunch of soda before you got back out for the next set of downs.”

Trump and Triathlon

Or what if the President was a triathlon coach. Every week he’d order you to eat junk food from Wendy’s, McDonalds and Pizza Hut. Then he’d send workouts with instructions such as these: “Now, don’t exert yourself too much. You’ll die sooner if you use up the finite amount of energy in your bodies.”

Yes, truth is stranger than fiction these days when lies and denials and backwards beliefs rule the day. I’d blame it all on the Christian nihilists that are again predicting the End of the World in 2019, which they seem to do every year, but if we all die this year it will more likely be from an asteroid semi-predicted to strike the earth on February 1st. That’s just a day before Groundhog, the morning when Trump makes a statement on whether shadows truly exist or not. “Fake News!” he likely proclaim.

Flat Earth mentality

And the world’s still turning, unless you’re a Flat Earther, in which case you believe that you could literally swim, ride and run until you hit a giant ice wall at the edge of the world.

But that’s still not as strange as the fact that an orange blob who loves fast food and believes that people shouldn’t exercise because it’s killing them is President of the United States.

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Embracing my inner sloth

While watching an Animal Planet program about the impact of island ecology and evolution, we learned about a colony of pygmy sloths that lives on an island no larger than Central Park in New York. Somehow the population of sloths that reside there has managed to survive because the vegetation suits their need for food and shelter

There’s just one problem. The island habitat actually consists of a series of islands. That means when it comes time to find a mate and breed, male pygmy sloths must migrate between mini-islands formed by mangrove trees. Which means they have to swim.

As we all know, sloths are known to take life pretty slow. They move about the trees so little that moss literally grows on their back. This actually helps camouflage them in the jungle, and that’s probably a mark of beauty among sloths.

When a male sloth desires the company of a female on another island, they must crawl down the trees and clamber over mangrove limbs to dunk themselves in the water and swim through ocean waters to another island. It’s all about breeding, you see.

Highly motivated to go below

That is called motivation, you see. There are actually all kinds and types of motivations in this world, but the urge to mate is one of the strongest of all. Thus despite the fact that sloths are built to climb trees with long hooked claws at the end of their toes, they can also use them to swim. That’s what happens when hormones take over and the males venture into the water to cross the gap between islands and find themselves some lady sloth. Because in the end, that’s what life’s about.

So for several reasons I feel a strange kinship with the sloth in this video. It will swim for its life to have sex and it also does a pretty good imitation of the way I probably looked when I first took to the pool for the first few weeks. My arms went far too deep in the water to generate much speed. And until I learned better how to breathe, I kept popping my head out of the water while sucking air. I swam like a sloth.

Swim analysis

Over the period of a couple years, I have grown less slothlike in my approach to swimming. This Thursday I’m going to have a video swim analysis done, and I hope like hell it does not much resemble this video of the sloth paddling its way toward sloth Nirvana and a chance to mate with a lady sloth.

We can only imagine what the mating ritual and conjugal act between two sloths must involve. Seems like that all probably happens in slow motion as well. And having a really mossy back is likely considered hot stuff in the sloth world. The slower you go, the more you know, they always say.

In any case, I admire the sloth in the video for getting its swim on. Nothing like having to engage in a new activity to generate personal growth. And more’s the better if it helps you grow a little more moss on your back.

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The long train ride home

While writing an email to my two children this morning I mentioned how weird it feels to be sixty-one years old. The best analogy I could create was that being sixty-plus is like being a on a long train that is still moving. You can walk back the line of cars to encounter the experiences, memories and friends you’ve made in life, but all the while, you need to remember that the train is still moving.

Some people seem to think it’s possible or wise to park themselves in one car of the train and stay there the rest of their life’s journey. They might fix themselves in 80s music, or some other era, and never change their tastes again.

That’s not how I like to live. While I appreciate how creative and great the artists from Classic Rock truly were, I think it’s inane to turn off the brain to any other kind of music. I try to listen to new stuff all the time, but then Sirius XM stole their best channel for new music, The Loft, and I’ve been reduced to mining the occasional new tune from The Spectrum.

Yet the Classic Rock and Deep Tracks and Classic Rewind stations are all pumping along unquestioned. They must have solid audiences while The Loft, for all its creative energy and eclectic playlist, has been rendered to the dustbin, replaced by single-artist dedication playlists and hosts such as Billy Joel, the Eagles and the like.

It all strikes me as ironic and inevitable at the same time, like the lyrics of Jackson Browne who wrote,

“Make room for my 45s alongside your 78, nothing survives but the way we live our lives…”

Of course, as I write this, the song Good Vibrations in playing over the sound system at the diner called Daddio’s that I frequent one a week or so for lunch. The place is decorated with genuine nostalgia articles from the 60s -80s mostly, with a few chunks of the 50s as well.

Now the song God Only Knows is being sung by Carl Wilson, that Beach Boy with the amazingly clear voice. David Bowie later covered that song in credible fashion, but nothing can touch the Carl version for purity and inspiration.

These songs all fit somewhere in the train of my life. They also often remind me of the things I was doing all those years. If I park myself in the train of the 1970s it brings up a filmstrip of those early years of running cross country and track. Between the running and the music and the girls and birds with whom I was alternately obsessed, there was very little room for absorbing things such as algebra. So I didn’t. And nearly failed the class.

Now that I look back at my life from the ripe age of 61 years old, I’m actually rather proud of that failure in math class. I’m also proud of the stubborn unwillingness to participate in the reading competition where our paper boats moved around the perimeter of the room for every book we read in the SRA program. For some reason at the tender age of seven years old I decided “fuck that” and stopped reading.

That was likely my first DNF in a competition of any sort, but when my mother showed up to consult with the teacher about my lack of progress they both asked why I’d stopped reading. I pointed to the boats of my classmates on the opposite side of the room and told my teacher and mom, “I’m waiting for them to come around to me, then I’ll start again.” What a smart little fucker I could be in a pinch.

I also recall the day that a junior high gym teacher tried to punish me for not wanting to play badminton. “Okay, you can run the whole hour instead,” he threatened. “Good. I’ll do that,” I spit back. And thus, for two weeks straight, I showed up for gym class and ran the whole damned hour. And loved it. The freedom to think and to hurt felt good.

Perhaps these were not signs of a well-adjusted child. Surely there were some attention deficit issues going on, but also some defiance of authority.

As I’ve learned over the years, I was not alone in my inattention to standard classroom fare. Many’s the artist and free thinker that was bored out of their minds by schooling. Certainly, John Lennon ditched a few classes and in some ways, I was as angrily distracted in my life.

Yet by the time he reached forty years old, Lennon was wising up and changing as a person. Then some nutcase jealous of his fame shot him in the head. To me, that’s proof that the supposedly sane world is crazier than any angst I could throw at it. To some, having the right and tools to kill at will is far more important than a well-regulated society. Nutso.

Probably if I’d been thrown in the military in the late 1970s all that obstinant attitude would have been beaten out of me. But then again, I think not. Watch the movie The Thin Red Line. I think I’d have been a lot more like the central character in that movie. Keep your consideration until the enemy surrounds you. Shoot when you must. Then go down in a hail of bullets because your trying to help someone else survive. And what’s the real loss?

Instead of the military, I chose to keep on running, and took that on as disciplined as a goddamn grunt on the war front. That’s how I fought my way through the rolling train and foxholes of my own naivete. We all fight our wars in different ways, and the long train of life keeps on rolling.

Now I stand near the front of life’s long train and think back to all those moments and laugh a little. It is indeed a long train home when you think about it.

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On becoming a grown-ass athlete

Learning to choose your own goals and stick to them is key to becoming a grown-ass athlete.

In one of those social waves that seem to wash over culture now and then, I’ve been hearing the term “grown-ass” thrown around quite a bit lately. Radio talk show hosts are using the term ‘grown-ass’ to describe all sorts of activities where people are either coming of age, or are expected to.

Some of this grown-ass talk is the product of the general frustration with modern life. Thus the term grown-ass seems to mean several things. A person is said to be ‘grown-ass’ in having gone through a few things in life–– and learned from them. It is also ‘grown-ass’ in some respects to be impatient with those who don’t understand what it actually means to become a grown-ass person and deal with some of the crap life throws at you.

Thus the term grown-ass can be used as either a compliment or an insult. It all depends on context.

This teaches us that the process of becoming a grown-ass athlete typically involves both compliments and insults. Once upon a time as a college distance runner, I’d taken to complaining during our winter base training because the pace was way too fast most days. Finally, my roommate turned to me one day in our dorm room and said, without apology, “You know what you need to do, Cud? You need to shut up and run.”

To some degree, he was right about that. My complaining wasn’t really doing much to help the situation improve. So I sucked it up that winter and that spring set all my PRs from 1500 meters to 5000 with the steeplechase in between. I’d gotten my grown-ass attitude in shape.

Yet the very next year my next roommate anticipated the likely madness of winter training. He pulled me aside and said, “We’re not gonna do that. We’ll do base training the way it should be done.” So we trained steady and slow most days, carefully and concertedly building up our base. That winter and spring we both set PRs at all those distances and more. That was some grown-ass decision-making on both our part. Because while I wasn’t grown-ass in the way I complained about the previous year’s egregiously fast training, it was ultimately a grown-ass decision to go it on our own and do it the right way the next time around.

Being a grow-ass athlete means knowing your goals in every situation. Not always easy

That brand of self-confidence proves the value of building grown-ass behavior from mistakes. What you must (most) understand is that many people actually hate the voice and perspectives of people behaving in grown-ass ways. We all know how the subtle politics of group rides or runs can turn into childish one-upsmanship. Some of that is the nature of competition, and people are morbidly afraid of admitting they don’t want to compete every second of their lives. Thus it can take honest and open group discussion to fix what’s broken in terms of communications and the accepted objectives of a group. But if some jerk is one-wheeling or one-stepping the group every week, it pays to speak up. Don’t let one asshole ruin the benefits for everyone.

Instead, a grown-ass leader will find ways to initiate conversations about goals rather than blasting away without engaging the brain week after week. But remember this as well: getting dropped now and then is not necessarily a sign of weakness but of the courage to try. Riding, running and swimming with people better than you is the grown-ass way to improve. And you will eventually get dropped. Dial in and do your best the rest of the way home. Don’t go Dead Frog on yourself. There are still things to be gained while riding on your own.

Also, getting dropped now and then is part of the grown-ass deal of hard training.

To whit: Because athletes can lose perspective so easily, it’s the grown-ass job of every coach to monitor their athlete’s behavior as well as their training.

Everyone wants to be their best and getting there is a great reward and a genuine ego boost. But if ego gets in the way of those achievements, and if an athlete can’t accept the grown ass direction to avoid injury, getting sick or worse, blowing off training day after day and then bitching about why they aren’t improving, then the coach has to kick some grown-ass butt.

Competition brings out the best in all of us. Being out of competition due to injury can bring out the worst in us. Working out a grown-ass plan for return is key to recovery.

Words of wisdom: If indeed you do get injured, it is the grown-ass athlete who learns how to come back from that injury. This must be done under the guidance of good advice. Some of that advice will be medical and some of it must be practical. Trying to come back too fast can result in relapse or re-injury. That definitely is not a grown-ass way to go about things.

In fact, you’re probably not capable of becoming a grown-ass athlete UNTIL you’ve been injured, overtrained to the point of getting sick or failed in some big event. Those are some grown-ass experiences right there. Embrace them. Learn from them. It’s the grown-ass thing to do.

And to be clear, every athlete has the responsibility to respond to the directions of a coach in a grown-ass way. That’s not always easy when life gets in the way. But rather than hide a missed workout or two, hoping the coach doesn’t notice, it is a far more grown-ass approach to own life’s vagaries and admit, “I just couldn’t help it.” No sane coach will blame you for that. Instead, athlete and coach work together to find fitness that works.

Overtraining is perhaps the world’s greatest teacher, if not the best way to learn.

Because frankly, most serious endurance athletes walk around this world a little overtrained and a bit overwrought anyway. Many’s the elite athlete that looks back at their early career and admits, “I could have used a little more rest.”

That’s a grown-ass admission that only comes about through experience. So now that you’ve got some grown-ass perspective you can go out there and do some grown-ass training and racing. You’re certainly wise enough to know the difference if you let motivation and common sense be your balance. You just have to listen to that grown-ass voice in your head more often. And get to it.

Runners complete triathlon

Posted in Christopher Cudworth, competition, cycling, IRONMAN, swimming, track and field, triathlete, triathlon, triathlons, we run and ride, werunandride | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

To Chicago and back

The first time I was a full-on commuter to the City of Chicago I was just twenty-one years old. I was also naive and a bit frightened to be working downtown. Our family had not made many journeys from the far suburbs to the City of Chicago during my teen years. Just some trips in the company of family to the Museum of Science and Industry, the Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium.

So commuting was different. I was on my own. Traveling on the Metra east to Chicago took us through increasingly urban areas. It was like rolling through a core sample of compressed life. The closer one got to the city, the rougher it tended to look. I seriously tucked my wallet down the front of my pants the first time I rode in on the train. It was uncomfortable, but I didn’t know if I’d get robbed.

I should have known better really. After all, I’d traveled in and out of Chicago, even to the inner city housing projects in my prior job as an admissions counselor for my alma mater, Luther College. We recruited young people from all over the city. Some had never been out to Iowa before. It scared them to think of making that change. That goes to show that what we fear is truly relative to our existence.

Which made today’s Metra train ride that much more interesting for me today. The early 1980s are now a long time ago. I clearly recall how bummed out (back then) I felt that commuting took so much time out of my day. There were times when I lamented my entire existence because there did not seem to be enough time to get my daily run done.

I had my own place by then, renting a coach house where my party friends liked to come drink. Some went out to smoke pot out in the alley. We’d stay out too late and I’d get up too early to run the next morning and be so tired riding the train into the city that I’d fall asleep on my own coat.

That was the plan in those days. Burn the damned candle at both ends until it couldn’t burn anymore. Then we’d get sick, spend two weeks recovering from a cold (or worse) and start the whole cycle over again. We were stupid, horny kids with too much energy and not enough time.

I commuted full time again in the late 1990s working for an interim staffing firm that had promised me they’d train me for two weeks at the office in the Hancock building and then I’d be able to work out of my home and only visit the office once a week to enter my calls and such. But those promises never came true and I wound up having to commute almost every day to the office. It took two hours one way, in and out by car and train. The company never did get its external email and database system set up and that meant I had to leave by 5:45 in the morning and didn’t get home until 6:30-7:30 at night. I toughed it out until the company saw the foolishness of its own ways and the whole thing fell through.

I was miserable up until the moment they let me go. I recall sitting out on the short cement walls facing north toward Oak Street Beach on Michigan Avenue. I was just crying my eyes out, wondering why the break I’d so eagerly hoped for had fallen through. It had all sounded so good at the start. If it had worked out like they promised, I would have been making calls in the suburbs and could have gotten up each day to run before work. That always set my head straight and helped me overcome my anxious nature, especially in the face of sales pressures.

Before it all ended I got a stress headache so bad the vision in my one eye shut down. Optical migraine, the doctor told me. Stress induced. I sat there thinking that my world had come to an end.

Of course it hadn’t. Not long after leaving that job I landed a better position with a newspaper and loved my work. I commuted by car those seven years and didn’t really miss the City of Chicago all that much. I’d come to appreciate that the world actually doesn’t revolve around those people in the city. And while they liked to pretend they knew more than the rest of us, I’d seen behind the scenes enough to know that wasn’t true. To some degree, everyone in this goddamned world is faking it one way or another.

I suppose as we age our worlds tend to close in a little on us. Some people get fearful (again) of things like trips to the “big city.” Today’s commute downtown to a real estate conference and back mostly made me realize how many naive notions and bad self-perceptions I’ve (had to) overcome through the years. One important thing still remains the same. I still like to get home and run or ride or swim.

So I visited the pool after work and plunged into the water with images of the City of Chicago still rattling through my brain. It’s funny what we carry around inside these noggins sometimes, and for how long.

For how long.

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Running in good company

Running friends can make every journey better.

For our Sunday morning run, we traveled over to a facility called The Labs where a bunch of our friends meets each week to train. Some of them are former teammates from triathlon clubs to which we no longer belong. Others we knew from Master’s Swim and cycling rides. But those weren’t the reason why we joined the Sunday morning six-miler. We simply wanted to run with others.

The six-mile out and back loop was all on sidewalks and trails. The pack sorted itself out into pace groups of one form or another. The leader of the group, Mike Behr, ran back and forth between pods of people checking to make sure everyone was doing just fine.

Along the way, Sue and I partnered up with a runner named Penoi, a mechanical engineer whose mission is to run marathons in all fifty states. He’s only got ten to go, he informed us. As we ran, he related that he does most of his training alone. We compared and shared locations where he might like to train, especially the trails along the Fox River where we often run. “Are there water fountains?” he wanted to know. We assured him there are.

“This is my first time running with a group,” he told us. That made me snap to attention. It’s hard for me to imagine a running career without ever having run with others. How does that even happen?

I thought back to all those miles run with teammates through high school and college. I even joined and trained with teams well after college. Sure, I did plenty of training on my own as well. But the benefit of running in the company of others I always took for granted. It was part of the gig.

Penoi seemed glad for the company in any case. We talked and joked about the vagaries of running. He related that he has trouble keeping his hands from getting too cold while training in the winter. He hails from India where the weather was typically hot, yet here in the Midwest he trains with no hat and was not wearing running pants or tights on the thirty-one degree morning on which we ran together. But he was wearing gloves.

I suggested that rather than wear gloves, he should get himself a set of running mittens. “That way you can curl your hands up inside, like this,” I showed him by pulling my hand out of a glove to make a fist. “It can really help to warm your fingers.”

A few years a go after surgery on my middle finger, that digit had poor circulation and would turn ghostly white during cold runs. I had to do a ton of maintenance to keep the finger warm enough for safe travels. I also related to Penoi that back in college a teammate once had to run with his hand stuffed down the front of his pants to keep his crotch warm because he’d worn cotton shorts underneath cotton sweats on a day where the temps dropped below zero.

We chuckled =about that, and cruised along just under 10:00 pace. That’s what Sue and I typically run together, and I’m happy with that. On harder days I’ll drop down to seven or eight-minute pace for speed. And if I’m really gassing it on the indoor track, I run intervals in the six-minute range.

While out with a running gang I don’t really think about any of that these days. I’m content to run with whoever fits the pace of the day. My era of leading the pack is long gone.

After the run we all laid around stretching and rolling out the kinks back. The guy next to me was groaning and grimacing as the black foam roller did its nasty work on a tight hip. The gals leaned into the same task, often lying on top of the foam rollers face-to-face with each other. They looked like they were flying over the floor as they talked about what the world has to offer.

I walked over to lie down with Bailey, the dog of a friend who ran the six miles with us. He was at the end of his leash the whole run, a short-legged wonder with big soft ears and a sweet heart to boot. We were running in good company all around. Even the dog knew it.

Sue and I will be going back every couple weeks. There is something good about running in the company of others. The loneliness of the long-distance runner has its purpose, but the good company of others sustains us through many thoughts and journeys.

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What you can actually learn from a world-class steeplechaser

Watching running videos on YouTube can be a great source of inspiration and motivation. It can also be quite instructive.

Recently I watched a video celebrating a world-class steeplechaser named Conseslus Kipruto. Like many African distance running athletes, he seems to run without fear of limits.

As I was watching this video, I noticed that his form over both the regular hurdles and steeple pit. The barriers on the track each stand 42″ high. So does the steeplechase pit, which starts at a depth of 2.5 feet below the hurdle to a zero depth one foot before the end of the inclined “pit” which is actually a big triangle filled with water.

Conseslus doesn’t really hurdle the barriers. He jumps over them with both legs lifted to one side. Absolutely no one jumped barriers like this forty years ago. We all hurdled in “traditional” fashion with a lead leg followed by a trail leg. Only once in my four years of doing steeple did I drag that leg enough to strike the 4″ X 4″ wooden barrier. Let me tell you, that is something you remember not to do again. It hurts.

I had what most considered fairly elegant form coming over the steeple pit. One of our college track coaches said that I did the water jump better than anyone he’d ever seen. Some of that came from my experience in playing other sports. I had excellent coordination and balance, and I’d even practiced fast-paced hurdling by racing the 400 meter intermediate hurdles. That’s a very tough race to do, running all out for 400 meters and jumping 13 hurdles along the way. Talk about anaerobic debt!

So I studied how other hurdlers did their work, and sometime during college a guy named Randy Johnson (I think) from Wisconsin started hurdling the water barrier rather than stepping on it and jumping off like the rest of us.

It didn’t catch on back then. We all figured you had to be world-class to pull off a stunt like that. Plus what were the benefits of getting even wetter by landing deeper in the pit? With my triple-jumping ability (I went 40’4″ in high school) I could often jump completely over the water and keep both feet dry. Over 7 3/4 laps, that could really help not being soaked on one or both feet.

And yet, among the African distance runners I’ve watched now, many of them side-swing their legs over the hurdles and flat-out hurdle the water barrier. They’re the fastest athletes in the world with the exception of individuals such as Evan Jagr, the American steeplechaser. So who’s to argue with their technique?

What this tells us, and what it can inform you in all your pursuits, is that conventional methods are not always right. I well recall the revolution that occurred when high jumper Dick Fosbury invented the method called the Flop, and everyone in the world now uses that technique for high jumping, whose record now stands over eight feet.

Which means that some of the things you might be doing “right” these days in swimming, cycling or running might not be as efficient or smart as you think. Certainly swimming strokes have evolved over the last forty years. Cycling techniques have as well, with high cadence cyclists such as Lance Armstrong and Chris Froome winning major tours against “power” cyclists who might be faster in some respects, but whose endurance ultimately wears out.

As for running form, the basic biomechanics of the mid-foot or forefoot strike are preached as vital to greater speed for many in the distance world. And yet watch a major marathon and there are African runners clearly heel-striking while tearing along at sub 4:40 pace for 26 miles.

That’s what you can learn from people who don’t let convention confine them to a certain way of doing things. It pays to experiment and to challenge your perceptions by watching a wide spectrum of athletes in all the disciplines. Many personalize their approach in order to maximize their performance. That’s the lesson we can all afford to learn.

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What book would you use to be sworn in as a Triathlete?

My wife turned to me this morning and said, “The new Muslim Congresswoman is being sworn in with a Quran.”

Makes total sense of course. We all want to abide in our respective faith traditions.

Yet we also know that the presence of the Quran in an official swearing-in ceremony probably makes some politicians crazy with religious fervor knowing someone isn’t vowing loyalty using the book of their god. But you know, three of the most common faiths in this world actually share quite a bit of history, at least in terms of the archetypal characters they admire, such as Abraham and Moses.

This means we all need to consider the commonalities between our respective belief systems rather than using selected passages from one scripture over another to declare absolute providence.

But what if, in order to compete in triathlon, you had to actually be sworn in to get your USAT license? You could certainly choose a Bible or a Quran to do the deed.

But you could also be a lot more creative. So here’s a few suggestions and reasons why these books might work quite well as texts on which to swear your fidelity to the sport and the cause:

  1. No Exit, by Jean Paul Sartre. This novel addresses themes of existentialism. The plot centers around a room with three people inside, and for all of eternity, in alternative fashion, two of the people in the room do not get along with the third. This often holds true for the three disciplines included in our sport as well. Why can’t they all just get along? No Exit maintains: Hell is other people. Triathlon maintains: Hell is at least one of the three sports.
  2. On the Road, by Jack Kerouac. This classic Beat Generation book chronicles the travels and travails of a road wanderer searching for meaning in life, but also some fun. That sounds enough like triathlon, does it not?
  3. The Teachings of Don Juan, by Carlos Castaneda. For those who like a little transcendental mysticism in their pursuits, the entire series of books by Castaneda challenges every perception of reality you’ve ever had. Reading the books in order dissolves what you consider “normal” about life and makes you wonder if you can actually fly…If you put your mind to it. Perfect for those who want to live outside the pain and reach another level of performance.
  4. The Peregrine, by J.A. Baker. This book is written in a first-person narrative in which a solo naturalist follows and studies the lives of peregrine falcons on the far reaches of England’s loneliest coastlines. The descriptions of raptors taking their prey in thrilling stoops will make your heart pound. Yet there are quiet moments of consideration as the peregrine dines on its feathered meals. Perfect reading while lying on the couch in recovery.
  5. The Curse of Lono, by Hunter S. Thompson. This book came out during the height of the big running boom in the early 1980s. Thompson was sent by Rolling Stone magazine to cover the Honolulu Marathon. He discovered a culture more obsessive and manic than the worlds of drug users, Hell’s Angels and politics he covered in his Gonzo Journalism personas. No matter how crazed you think you are about your sport, this book will make you feel positively normal. We all need that from time to time.
Hunter S. Thompson’s manic classic starts with the Honolulu Marathon

And there you have it. A Starter’s Guide for books on which to place your hand and make your oath to succeed in the sport of triathlon.

You’ll notice there aren’t actually any books about triathletes, or triathlons, in this mix. That’s because I don’t believe in literalism for inspiration. Those gripping life stories about triathletes who went from being low-paid dishwashers to winning Kona may seem inspirational, but they’re actually depressing. Who wants to compare themselves with that?

Thus it’s far better to disassociate through crazed books of fiction than associate and grow weary reading non-fiction accounts of people so much better than you are. Because if you’re going to swear you existence to anything, don’t let it be someone else’s life. They’re way more weird and obsessive than you could ever imagine.

Posted in triathlete, triathlon, triathlons, we run and ride, We Run and Ride Every Day | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment