Testing your limits

TriathletesEndurance sports place a particular demand on the bodies and minds of participants. In fact, there’s a specific phrase that describes the process. “Testing the limits of endurance.”

What are limits? The answer is simple. Limits are the point at which our bodies cannot perform at the high rate we are asking. There are also mental limits, but we’ll get to that in a moment.


Our bodies depend on all sorts of contributing factors during a performance in endurance events. Every single step, pedal stroke or swimming motion requires energy. Our energy supplies are dependent on storage and fuel that our bodies burn as we engage in distance training and races.

Remarkably, this is not a static process. We can train our bodies to burn fuel more efficiently. We can also encourage our bodies to process fuel even in the heat of competition. That’s why we eat, drink and chow down during longer events that burn off the fuel we store in our bodies.


All this requires a lot of thought. So the brain is involved in all this sustained performance. We daily test the limits of our endurance and our minds recognize these supposed limits. The trick in all endurance sports is thus to train the mind not to accept limits, but to push beyond discomfort caused by symptoms of burnt-off fuel. That would be fatigue, pain or exhaustion.

This is the difficult part. Even the most talented athletes must learn to embrace and work through the pain. In a strange little twist of fate, our goals are often set just beyond the threshold of pain we train out bodies and minds to sustain.


At some point, there is a limit. We can will ourselves to remarkable things, but there are still chemical processes deep within our bodies that slow the train or bring it to a stop. Those old coal-burning train engines are an apt symbol for how the body works. Workers shoveled coal into the furnace of the engine and the train puffed smoke as it churned down the train. That’s a direct “cause and effect” method of propelling an engine.

But if the body runs out of coal at some point, or the engine runs too hot to be sustained, everything slows or grinds to a halt.


That’s where the brain also comes into play. When we test our limits, there is a negotiation that goes on within the mind. Calculations occur. The rehearsals we do in training teach us how the edge of our limits must feel. Then we do a sort of algorithm that gets us to the finish line.

On Saturday, I rode 48 miles in gathering heat with a pair of friends. We didn’t hammer the whole way, but the ride averaged 18.1 mph and I was tired at the end.

Weekend test

On Sunday, I joined the Experience Triathlon group ride my fiance Sue was leading. Only she did not get to lead. A fast pair of cyclists took off from the start and the early pace was quick, climbing the mile-long rise onto Campton Hills at a fast tempo. And then the next climb was quick as well, over one of the tallest points in Kane County.

Then we fell onto the artery of a road that leads out to Maple Park. The lead group tore off at 25 mph. There was a second group at 23 mph, all crouched down on their aero bars and hammering away. Finally a group of us club for a while and then fell off to 20-22 mph.

My legs were tired from the previous day’s ride. I’d reached my limits in some respects. So I pedaled in alone to the Casey’s station 13 miles to the west of St. Charles.

Return trip

The group waited but was basically ready to leave by the time I took a few bites of my Mixed Berry Blaster PowerBar and sipped my NUUN. So we jumped back on our bikes and headed east again.

The wind was from the south mainly, with just enough touch of easterly direction to press the need for an angled draft. So using my road-riding skills, I tucked to the side of the group determined to stick for the ten mile launch on Beith Road back toward town. And we zipped along. All the triathletes were down in aero. I alternated between my hoods and the drops, and found a rhythm. And I stuck.

But when we got back onto the hills going east, the effects of that hammer snuck up on me. So I dropped off again and let them roll. Probably without the 48-miler the day before I’d have stuck. And as it was, I averaged 18.4 for the day, much of it on my own on the way out, while my fiance’s group did 19.2.

I’d tested the limits of my endurance. It’s what we do. And it’s important to do it consistently. In cycling, running and swimming, workouts must be designed both qualitatively and quantitatively to test the limits of our endurance. And stretch them.

Yet there are effective limits to this training too. Injury is typically the direct product of too much stress on a specific part of the body. So is illness such as colds brought on by chronic fatigue. The overtrained, overtested athlete will reach a point of collapse. Then rest is required, and the rebuilding process must occur from scratch.

Because the goals are simple. On race day, you want to be able to call on the body and have it respond. To competition. To conditions. To motivation. To success.

That’s why we test the limits of our endurance. So that some days, we can exceed them. And that’s pure joy.

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Neither sweat or forget the small stuff

Run CheeriosGetting your training in during a tight schedule can be difficult. Feelings of guilt can build up if you miss a workout, or cut one short because you are pressed for time.

Some athletes work out unique solutions for time challenges relative to training. An avid cycling friend of mine took to bike commuting 60 miles round trip to his office and back. That foundation of nearly daily riding prepared him well for a planned trip to France, where along with a group of other talented riders, they tackled famous Tour climbs such as Alpe du Huez and Mont Vontoux.

You may not be able to commute by bike to work, but you should not neglect the value of a one hour ride when you can squeeze it in. That’s about the divide for endurance training on the bike. Lance Armstrong once stated that he did not go out on the bike for less than one hour. For all his negative press about doping, the man did know how to train.

There is also a strategy that suggests intensity is a great substitute for time. In other words, if you don’t have time for an hour ride, throw on your gear and ride hard for half an hour. I use the oversized block around a park to do mini-criteriums. With four turns and four long straightaways, the block crit is critical practice for actual bike racing. Riding half an hour at 20+ miles an hour is an excellent workout.

The same goes for running. So many runners pile up mileage that does not do them real good. On many occasions, it is far better to run four miles within a minute of race pace than it is to slog along for six or eight miles at whatever pace your body allows. When pinched for time, there’s really no gain in those three or four extra slow miles. They cost you time, and the returns are minimal.

The mental aspect of short training is critical as well. Getting some sort of workout in can still be a stress relieving bit of exercise. And while setting PRs come race day may be your goal, there is also the short-term benefit of mental health to consider. That’s why it pays not to sweat or forget the small stuff. It’s okay if you don’t hammer a big workout every day. Take what you can if life hands you time lemons.

There may even be times when it is best to punt. Yesterday with temperatures in the 90s and humidity over 90% as well, I just wasn’t feeling the urge to run once I stepped on the street and started jogging. The previous days had included three straight days of riding, a couple strong swims and a run to boot. My legs and body were tired, and my health is finally stabilizing after this anti-biotic-driven bout with C-Diff. So I turned around and got in the car, drove the mile to the health club and did some excellent lifting, which is much needed as well.

Now I grant you, Ironman training is a different animal indeed. That would be a different conversation entirely. Yet even Ironman athletes have to be sensitive to their limits, and sometimes take their luck as it’s handed to them.

Neither sweat or forget the small stuff. It pays to be flexible sometimes.






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Lap swimming at the public pool

Cleveland.WetsuitThere were many summers in recent years that for me did not involve much swimming at the public pool. And having grown up living at the pool during my youth, it felt bittersweet one mid-August day to show up at a pool that was almost deserted. All but the last guards had departed for college. The tanned moms and their rugrats were even thin in ranks. I paddled around for an hour or so wondering where the summer went.

But this year is different. Our local swimming pool is just a mile from my house and even closer to my art studio. It’s still hard to find time to swim, but my membership paid in full is enough incentive to get over there and do it. I’m training to swim a few events in open water, and need time in the pool to get ready.


Our local watering hole is known as Quarry Pool because that’s what the foundation is built upon, an old limestone quarry. The pool was built with government money back in the 30s when infrastructure investments put people to work. As a result, our nation got wonderful park facilities and roads through the mountains though public works projects. Those benefits remain to this day.

At the entrance to the pool, there’s even a long history of how and why the limestone quarried there was formed. The sign talks about the geological history of Illinois and how the limestone that built all kinds of structures in town was originally formed. Thus the history of our community in Batavia, Illinois, is inextricably tied to the land upon which it sits. The buildings that once housed windmill factories now still stand with proud faces made from the tint of the earth and rock below. That history keeps us grounded in many respects.

One could call the Quarry Pool quaint, for it is a throwback to times when public pools were not so sophisticated, or safe. Yet there are still zero depth sections of the pool where younger children can wander in. And there are very few public pools where large quantities of sand form the perimeter. It’s a rather honest place. Not too fancy. Just right.

Murky waters

The sand that forms the botrom of the pool does mean the water gets a bit murky by end of day. I you go swimming then, the water will not look crystal clear the way it does upstream at the Geneva or St. Charles public pools. But that makes it perfect to practice open water swimming for the lakes where I do triathlons.

Truth be told, the gritty side of the water is a reflection of the fact that Batavia’s always had a bit of working man’s flair to it. The pool is a reflection of that humble side. Significantly, it still has a very high diving platform. Generations of kids have faced the fear of jumping twenty feet down into the deep waters below. That rite of passage is not to be found any longer at public pools across the country. Too much risk and downside. That’s why diving boards and platforms across the land have been removed.

The high dive of youth

But in Batavia, you can still see an eight-year-old kid that has just passed the Swimming Test stand on top of that platform with trepidation and joy. From up there, the world looks small. The collection of moms across the pool lolling on beach chairs may not notice you, but with luck your own mother or father might be watching that first jump off the platform.

As the kids age, they form into bands of boys and girls reveling in their summer skin. The girls wear increasingly small swimsuits and the boys admire them. Yet among all that there are also likely boys that secretly admire the bodies of other boys, and girls who feel the same way about girls. Those summers in the middle school years can be confusing times for youth whose orientation is not heterosexual. Just imagine those who live with a transgender reality in their genes, and their jeans. The swimming pool is no easy place.


Yet at its most basic level, the public pool accepts them all. The water knows and demands no difference in who dives in. Yet society too often demands a baptism of choice against nature. You’re not normal if you take a dip in your own urgings.

The same goes for race, and Batavia’s public pool is at least an integrated place. We’re largely free from bans on skin color these days, and the population in the Fox Valley has diversified over the years. That means the shining brown bodies of black children and Latinos are an avid part of the population at Batavia’s pool. Yet there are noticeable absences. Where are the black girls and Latino girls? There are some young kids from that background but by the time middle school comes around, that segment of the population seems to disappear at the public pool.

Stay in your lanes

Into these waters one dives. The nation is wrestling with its own version of the public pool. Entire populations seeking justice are clamoring toward the deep ends of the Republican and Democratic conventions. Too often they are denied access by the lane ropes or even at the admission gate.

Indeed, all of us are swimming in rough waters, these days. But that’s exactly why I go to the public pool to swim laps. The waves created by dozens of kids jumping in and out of the lap lanes closely resemble the chaos at the start of a triathlon. In order to practice for those circumstances, you need a bit of disturbance in the water. It helps me practice sighting as I go, the better to avoid collisions and keep on course.


Baywatch guards

As the laps go by, a lifeguard stands watch over the pool. Like so many other lifeguards in so many other summers, she is lovely beyond description. Through my swim goggles she appears above the water like a summer statue, lithe and tan. Her legs look extra long from pool level. Her face is cast straight ahead.

To her I am invisible, an old guy swimmer who seems to know what he’s doing. Her job is to keep watch for those who don’t.

At a certain age, men should become invisible to girls her age. We are fathers, not people of their age to whom they should be attracted. It is, therefore, the job for Men of a Certain Age to essentially ignore the bodies of the young women at the beach or pool.

Yet we all know that’s impossible. Call it the Baywatch Syndrome. The red suits worn by female lifeguards are clarion calls for attention. The girls must know this is true. And as the guard walked away to the next post while I bobbed in the water between swim laps, I could not help noticing that her form was so classic one ait almost made me laugh.

And let’s be honest: it’s the same gig among mother’s admiring the strong young shoulders of the male lifeguards at the pool. The glances may be more discreet, but they are still real imaginings. And largely harmless. We’re human. Get over it.


A few years back, perhaps 25 or so, a friend called to warn me that the guards at our public pool that summer were particularly lovely. “Don’t do it,” he warned. “Don’t go there. You won’t survive.” We both laughed.

And he was absolutely right. The guards were stunning, all tanned and shaking blonde and brunette and red hair in the sun.

It’s an amusing fact that the public pool has its own perpetual brand of pornography on display. It doesn’t matter what the guards wear or do not wear. Human imagination is far more powerful than that. Lust ruled the beach and pool long before swimsuits shrank to nothing and buttocks were given the right to full public display. The sight of an ankle, then a calf, then a thigh was enough in the “old days” to send eyes reeling. What we see now is the progression of honesty, over time.


We have arrived at the point in social progress where it should not really matter what anyone wears to the beach or the pool. The rational thinkers among us have learned to acknowledge that the human body is what it is. Certainly, triathletes know this better than most. The act of swimming is a piece of in-your-face self-expression. Men swim with women and everyone is an equal in the water. The water cares not what type of body parts you have. The water swarms around you no matter what shape or size your body may be.

At an event called Madison Open Water Swim that equality is put on display like no other. There are extremely heavy swimmers whose bodies roll with fat. And guess what? That can actually be somewhat of an advantage in the water! buoyancy helps! It makes you realize Whale hipswhy some creatures in evolutionary history waded back into the water, and stayed. Indeed, dolphins and whales have traces of vestigial walking limbs and hips buried in their flesh. This is testimony to the fact that ancestral mammals living semi-aquatic lives found advantage spending more time in the water.

Perhaps there’s a lesson in that for all of us. When it comes to sink or swim in this world, we’re all the same. The water accepts us all. In that regard, the public pool seems a poignant reminder that for all the disturbance created by our seeming differences, at night the pool rests calm and reflects the night sky. It forgets the wrongs we place upon it. Forgives the thrashing breadth of our existence. Discerns there is no difference, in substance, between work and play. And accepts the human condition for what it is: so brief and temporary it is insane to think it otherwise.



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You can’t compete with that

We live in a competitive world. Nowhere is that competition more evident than on the Internet. That’s where people compete for attention in all kinds of ways. We compete for Followers. For Likes. For Views.

Compete 1There are some people who possess natural advantages when it comes to competing on the Internet. They are beautiful by nature, blessed with high cheek bones and a reasonably shaped ass. They have nice boobs or a set of magical eyes that they show off in daily images. And people follow them like goslings follow a mother goose. It’s a preternatural tendency, you see. We’re natively attracted to good biology. And you can’t compete with that.

Then there are photos of people who sculpt their biology. We follow them to admire their achievements in personal appearance. Their bodies are quite often strong or shiny. They wear little outfits, both men and women, to better display their prized appearance. And when we regard these people in all their glory, a little voice in the head says, “You can’t compete with that.”

Compete 2.pngThen along come the performers as well. Their Instagram or Twitter profiles document their amazing physical capacities. They do fast times and win races. They have sponsors and share products on their feed that they want you to buy. Because the more you buy, the more stuff they get to Share. It’s a rolling snowball of commercialism mixed with personal aggrandizement. And you know you can’t compete with that.

Nature’s way

It seems like we all aspire to some kind of adoration. It’s wired into our genetics. Even hummingbirds in the tropics know that looking awesome and showing off pays dividends. The more glimmery and flashy you can look, the more potential mates you might attract.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this really. It’s what we do with it that brings us harm, for it can lead to the risk of perpetual narcissism, which can lead to petty judgement and shallow assessment of self- Asses.pngworth. Each of these risks is genuine. Because the more you compare yourself to others, the more likely it is that you will be lumped in with all the other people competing for that kind of attention. And that’s where problems start.

Nice asses

So for example, if you want to be known for having a nice ass, and show it off to gain attention, you’re going to have to compete with all the others showing off their nice asses. Suddenly you wind up in a meme with dozens of other nice, nameless and faceless asses. Then the rhetorical assplay begins. Because you wind up compromising when confronted by another kind of ass, and wind up saying: “Well, he (or she) is kind of an ass. But they’re a nice kind of ass.”

Little schemes and big deceptions

The world falls for little schemes like this all the time. And big ones, too. What else explains the Eternal Ass of one Kim Kardashian? And when even her ass was not big enough for the world to admire, she had it photoshopped even bigger. And she “broke the Internet,” as it were, just by showing her big, naked ass. And tits. Those work too.

And so the tendencies we flaunt in ourselves with selfies and other imagined bits of beauty can be manifested on grand scales if we let them. It can be all too easy to admire those who behave like the biggest asses of all. After all, they excel at being asses. How could they not be better somehow than the rest of us? The media makes a ton of money holding up these people as examples of the paramount idea in society. And it is a mass deception.

It holds true that entire nations can be victimized by those willing to be the biggest asses of all. These are the people who turCompete 3n primping and priming into a trade, and then into positions of power. Hitler comes to mind. Or Stalin. Napolean. King Herod. The list is long. In each case, the scenario wrought by their egos becomes so twisted it is hard to recognize, appreciate or enjoy real values because we don’t know what they look like anymore.

Success is not fleeting

And don’t be fooled: that brand of success in this world is not so fleeting. People who gain power do not give it up easily. And those who lust for attention for power do not always have our best interests in mind.  Studies have shown that many CEOs show psychopathic or sociopathic tendencies. This is a problem, but society is not really equipped to address it. Our competitive system of commerce rewards those who generate profits. We admire the rich even when the Bible tells us that “the love of money is the root of all evil.”

And yet we find so-called Christian leaders lining up to advocate wealth and power-hungry politicians. It is proof that our so-called moral leaders are often the most frail and depraved creatures of all. Too often we find they are guarding vain secrets of a sexual nature. Their shame drives them to public zealousness, and society pays the price for their fears. It can be hard to compete with that when the wealthy make themselves out to be the guardians of God. Jesus warned us wisely that would always be the case. But the meek find it hard to find the strength to speak truth to power.

So we have to be careful to whom we ascribe our admiration. Consider this quote from the Forbes article link above, about one Al Dunlap, the business mogul whom America came to admire for his ability to turn a profit no matter what.

“There was his reputation that he was a man who seemed to enjoy firing people, not to mention the stories from his first marriage — telling his first wife he wanted to know what human flesh tastes like, not going to his parents’ funerals. Then you realize that because of this dysfunctional capitalistic society we live in those things were positives. He was hailed and given high-powered jobs, and the more ruthlessly his administration behaved, the more his share price shot up.”

Lance-Armstrong-bleeds-fr-003Lance Armstrong

Our admiration for these types of personalities might start with curiosity, but it quickly evolves into something else. We’re drawn like moths to light by their raw and obsessive behavior. This can be as true with pro athletes as with anyone else. The sordid tale of Lance Armstrong is one such example. While gifted with enormous physical talent and a work ethic to match, even these gifts were not enough to compete with the drug culture that had emerged in professional cycling. So Armstrong doubled down and became the best doper cycling had ever seen. He won the Tour de France seven times and leveraged these amazing feats into great wealth and power. But he had to lie and cheat to do it. He hurt people badly even as he made others filthy rich. It was his way or the highway. Cross Lance and you had to pay. And for a very long time, people in professional cycling could not compete with that.

Checking out

At times it seems the best thing you can do is check out from society and refuse to compete with the psychopaths. But even if you’re completely off the grid, disconnected from the painful world and all it throws at you, you’re still here. Just ask John the Baptist, who separated himself from the world by retreating to the wilderness. But upon re-entry his brand of wisdom was deemed a threat. His head wound up on a platter, lopped from his shoulder by demand of a pretty girl named Salome, who reputedly had a very nice ass and knew how to dance. And that, my friends, can turn out to be real power in this world.

So you can try to escape, but the competitive nature of the world always tracks you down.

Jackson Browne said it best in his song Boulevard:

Down on the boulevard they take it hard
They look at life with such disregard
They say it can’t be won
The way the game is run
But if you choose to stay
You end up playing anyway

So beware. Society shoves the power of self-image at you at every turn. At some point, you will be forced to choose the lesser of two evils. Then it’s time to look at the options and decide who is behaving like the bigger ass. Because those are the people who literally don’t care about you, or anyone else in the world. They are in it for themselves and the power it IMG_9676confers upon them. It is the tarsnake of existence that we sometimes grow to admire those least deserving of our admiration.

So here’s a warning worth minding. History has shown those are the most dangerous people of all. You can’t compete with them because they will die before they give in or accept the fact that their version of reality needs to change. It’s true in religion and it’s true in politics. What out for the vain and selfish among us. They are the real killers. And you can’t compete with that.

But you can stop it. Stop giving them the attention and power they crave. Stop turning your will over to the shallow promises and hard words of those who refuse to compromise or respect the rights of other human beings. In other words, stop being so vain and complicit yourself. It does not become you, nor does it make you smarter, more honest or a better citizen in this world. In fact, quite the opposite.


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Understanding 1 Corinthians 9:24 and what it means to “run the race and win the prize”


There have been many blessings in my life. Yet I’ve also had a share of being down on my knees praying to God for answers. And I can tell you in earnest: all those prayers have been answered in one way or another. Sometimes, they have been the exact result of what I (or more often we) were praying for. At other times, those prayers have been answered in ways that instruct, inspire, challenge, or serve as a catharsis of spirit. All those are rewards of some kind.

It’s the simple truth that not all prayers get answered in the manner we might like. Often there is hard news that comes along with answered prayers. And let us be clear:  I do not believe God is the author of all fate. For I cannot believe that our lives are the product of predestination. God is clearly not a control freak, as the group Modest Mouse once sang.


That’s also why I admire and accept the theory of evolution. There is great beauty in the fact that life has diversified and thrived on this planet, and that human beings of all creatures have the capacity to study and appreciate it. That is our dominion and perhaps even leads to a role of stewardship over all the earth. That bit of biblical prophecy has certainly come true.

Yet it does not mean we control every aspect of life on this earth. Every once in a while, nature comes along to kick our ass. Hurricanes. Volcanic eruptions. Earthquakes. Drought. Floods. Lightning. Fire. Snow and ice. Some religious folks attach spiritual meaning to these natural disasters, calling them signs that God is displeased with the human race in some way. These are desperate attempts at playing God in hopes of winning converts. That is not a race well run.

There are always big wheels turning. It was only 10-14,000 years ago that mile high glaciers spread across the Midwest flattening the landscape here in Illinois. Now, thanks to anthropocentric climate change, the heating of the climate is headed in a dangerous direction. I don’t know why so many religious believers don’t get the fact that human arrogance is so capable of massive flaws like that. Did everyone suddenly forget the tale of the Tower of Babel and a hundred other bible tales when God became angry at humans trying to act like gods? But when you deny science on basis of your anachronistic faith ideals, it appears even the lessons one should learn about human nature from the bible are easily forgotten.

Deep evidence and a chorus of crickets

Personally, I revel in the age of the earth and its workings. Consider that 100 miles to the northwest of where I live, there are rich valleys formed of limestone and sandstone. These were laid down millions and millions of years ago when massive oceans covered the central plateau of the American continent. There are deep beds of shelly limestone and fossils right beneath our feet. We know the processes that led to this geological phenomenon and can trace the very roots of evolution in the fossilized creatures we find as we go deeper and back in time. One could call all this the Fingerprint of God. Who is not a control freak.

I now ride bikes and run on these hills and its a treat. I’ve stood still in the woods of Governor Dodge State Park in Dodgeville listening to the crickets in August. As I stand there issuing salty sweat and pumping blood through my veins that is nearly the same consistency as ocean saltwater, the sense of time changes. I realize those crickets will be singing the same songs long after I’m gone from this earth. Forty years ago I heard crickets singing in that same place. They are not the same crickets, but their genes have been passed down through generations just as it happens with human beings. It is this temporal quality that makes life so precious.

That same ephemeral quality makes running and riding through those hills all the more precious. I’ve been doing that for more than 40 years now. It makes me appreciate being alive.

Grace appreciated

What I know of the grace of God comes through these experiences. In my book The Genesis Fix: A Repair Manual for Faith in the Modern Age, I wrote that the principle relationship we should aspire to with God is that of grace appreciated. That is, contemplate and be grateful for the blessings and challenges of life, for these are the tests of our character. It is also ours to share what we can of this grace by being a blessing to others when possible, and to help them through challenges as they face them. That is grace appreciated in the sense of growth.

Which is how this thing we call the Kingdom of God is supposed to work. In Genesis, we read the words “be fruitful, and multiply.” And some people have interpreted that to mean that we should breed our way to dominance over the earth. But we can read it in the sense that multiplying grace is a question of extending the gift we’ve been given in character and grace to others. That is grace appreciated as well.


And when we stand on the sidelines to cheer on our fellow athletes, however talented or not they may be, we are giving a dose of our grace to them. We are wishing them well. Offering them encouragement.

It also goes the same for us when we train and compete. An encouraging word is not the reason we are able to do what we do. But it can inspire. Knowing that we are loved in some way is the greatest source of affirmation in this world. We strive to find that love with each other. Yet some people view love as a much greater force in the universe than simple human relationships. Love is real, we say, for it bonds families and brings people of all types together. We also see manifestations of this force in loving what we do for work and play as well. All you need is love, John Lennon once sang.

God playing favorites

Yet it’s hard to imagine that a loving God would play favorites in any of these endeavors. Hard to imagine that God would even assist an athlete to win over another person in competition. It doesn’t make any sense. It certainly isn’t manifested in any other respects in this world. The very real phenomenon of evolution plays no favorites. There is random violence and chance survival at every turn. And whether we like to admit this or not, that is the factual foundation for free will. We are free to make choices in this world. Free to choose to believe in a God or not. Free to follow the provisions and guidance of faith if we so choose. Free to exercise our will upon others for good or evil. Free to accept the gift of grace and love that can fill our souls and abide with us through times difficult or joyous.

All these options, and all of them tracing back to love.

Violent inventions

But there is hate in the world as well. And we see that circling back upon itself in a thousand ways, these days. Our violent inventions can be used for sport and for terror. They can uphold the law, but they can also trash it. They can help people imagine they are far more powerful than they really are, and let them act on those notions.

There are violent inventions of spirit as well. These are people to want to dominate the world. This is a very different notion from accepting the role of dominion over the earth, which is a loving relationship that gives back rather than takes. Yet people mistake domination for dominion all the time. American politics is now a textbook case of this struggle to understand our roles in that classic play.  And yet people are drawn to violent leaders because their promises sound like dominion. Yet they deliver on something very different. It is a Faustian bargain.

The Olympics and God’s Chosen People

Soon we’ll be watching the Olympic Games. These were designed to celebrate the human spirit through physical and emotional achievement. We’ll see flags proudly raised and national anthems sung, for our tribal instincts have not changed in the 2000 years since God supposedly singled out his Chosen People. It seems as if we’re still selfishly fighting to determine that status for ourselves.

But what if the entire manner in which “God’s Chosen People” has been interpreted is wrong? Is it not true that the people God had chosen once demanded that he deliver them a king? God answered: “If you follow my rules, you will live peacefully and prosperously, and have no need of a king.” But the people insisted because people always do. And God gave them kings, the bible says. And all of them proved to be highly flawed and prone to all the things God warns us against, like pride, vanity, acquisitiveness, lust and more. God eventually even denied one of his eager servants, King David, the opportunity to build a temple in His honor. “You have too much blood on your hands,” he chastised the faulty fellow.

So it is not likely that God wants you to win the next race or to win your age group. And praying about such things is an exercise in vanity. Instead, your prayers should focus on gratitude for your health and ability, and be thankful you can compete, and do your best with a full heart knowing that you are loved either way.

And when you do that, it is likely you will find true gratitude for both your success and your failure rather than feeling bitter over small failings that in the spectrum of this world mean nothing.

1 Corinthians 9:24 says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.”

Notice that it does not say, “Run in that way and you will get the prize.” It implies instead that your striving is the reward along the way. But if you neglect that reward, life will not be so fulfilling. You will not have enjoyed the process. Nor will you have achieved your goal.


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The sweet smell of progress

Venge ExpertWhen I was researching a new bike this past winter, the weather was typically raw. In the middle of that cold season, it’s a bit hard to imagine what a new bike will feel like.

At the time we had joined a computrainer course at Mill Race Cyclery in Geneva. In those sessions, I was riding my Waterford, a classic steel frame bike with a big crank setup specifically designed for racing criteriums. That was the bike my brother-in-law, a former Cat 3 racer in the 1990s, had ridden to high places for many summers.

There were things to be discovered in that computrainer work last winter. My one-legged pedaling was weak. So was my wattage. Of course, that was the result of a significant layoff from November through January. I was out of shape.

Yet the pedaling issues and my form on the bike were concerns that resonated even after I purchased the Specialized Venge Expert. Even that process was aimed toward more efficiency. I paid for the bike in a series of cash installments because I’m sick of owing money to credit card companies. In fact, at this moment I am debt free in that respect. Paid them all off. That alone is a liberating feeling. Try it. Then use credit as a tool, not a crutch. It’s hard sometimes, but it works wonders.

After that last payment on the bike, when it became mine, I set it up on the computrainer and started to ride. But you can’t really tell what kind of bike you’ve purchased on a computrainer. There’s no road feel. No real response. That would come later, when the weather broke.

First came a bike fit with Rocket Bicycle Shop in Verona, Wisconsin. Jessica Laufenberg tested my pedaling motion and holy heck, the computer showed that the entire operation was not lopsided. All quads. No hammies. And stronger on one side than the other.

This spring and summer I’ve worked like mad to improve that technique. On every ride, I concentrate on full, even pedal stroke. The new fit also helps. Paying attention to the full pedal stroke helps the climbs so much. It also drives a more powerful flat speed. And when conditions are right, shifting into a big gear now produces more speed.

I’m consciously focused on balancing that newfound strength with a high cadence during most of the riding I do. It’s too easy to fall into a lazy, mid-level pedal stroke if you’re not vigilant. It’s like falling asleep on the bike.

But the concentration is paying off. Two weeks ago in a Sprint Triathlon, the course was rolling and there was a mid-level breeze. I came out of the swim into air that was cool and enervating. From point to point on a 15-mile circuit, I rode hard. And averaged 22 mph. Then got off and ran 7:13s for the 5K.

That’s the territory in which I want to operate. However, when I first looked up the results, they showed 18.7mph on the bike. I was crestfallen. To my relief, those initial result postings were somehow not accurate. That’s happened on several triathlons and duathlons. So I don’t look at the results for a day or two. They often change.

Because it made no sense to me at the time. No one had passed me in the bike stage. I passed dozens of riders. I know how fast I’m going even when I don’t use the bike computer. That’s how I’ve chosen to ride this summer. I don’t want to be chained to the computer and be thinking I’m going too fast or too slow. Just ride.

And the riding is better because of that. I do check the numbers when all is done. Strava is good for that. And so far, the sweet smell of progress has wafted my way. I’ll be truly happy the day I average 22+ for the Olympic distance, and know that I can do that.

For a variety of reasons having to do with bike frame size and standardized components, my aero bike has 44cm bars when I need 42, or even 40. But that’s a challenge for next winter when I’m not riding so much.

For now, the results are there. As I write this, I’m sitting in the three-season room of my house with the screened in porch windows open and the sounds of summer all around. From the TV in the other room I can hear the sound of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin describing progress in the Tour. This is the little sanctuary of July. The height and depth of summer. And it feels good to be in it.

Yet the real sound of summer is the whirr of bike tires on the tarmac. And when it sounds a little faster, that’s a sweet sound indeed.




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Summer running for what it’s worth



Coach Bill Bowerman mapped out individualized programs for each of his Oregon distances runners. These varied in mileage and intensity depending on their abililty to tolerate mileage

These days high school running programs encourage kids to train together during the summer months. This is valuable in terms of team confidence and building an aerobic base. Cross country coaches have long recognized the value of summer running programs.


Our coach at tiny Kaneland High School where I started running offered rewards for summer training. It was impossible to get the team together because the communities that fed the school were miles apart in different directions from the school campus. So Coach Rich Born created incentives instead. Earning a 500 mile or a 1000 mile summer running t-shirt was a true badge of honor. Coach always said, “If you can train through July, that’s the toughest month.” And he was right.

I never made it near that mark of 500 miles. Not even close. For one thing, the country roads near my house were patrolled by packs of angry farm dogs. There were no leash laws and the packs of barking hounds would emerge from farms with jaws snapping and howls yapping. I wanted nothing to do with that. Plus I was lazy.

Honestly, the shoes we had to train in were pathetically thin. Somehow several of my teammates would train all those miles in shoes fit for ballet, and little else. They would get their coveted tee shirts come fall. Yet I beat all of them in the season. The fact of the matter is that training is highly specific. Long slow running doesn’t always translate into racing success.

Summer fun

During the summer I’d train once a week if I was feeling good. But trucking around in that summer heat felt insane. Instead I played baseball, and kept in some sort of shape with that. And basketball too. I rode my bike everywhere I went in Elburn, and did a paper route at 5:30 in the morning that required about six miles of cycling, all told. So I got plenty of aerobic exercise. That might even be a better approach for many runners. Certainly the sport of triathlon has illustrated that cross training has some beneficial effects.

It also helped our cause in the “good old days” taht we walked a lot. Mostly to the houses where the cute girls lived. Infatuation is the best training motivator ever.

Time to run

In fall I’d show up and suffer through the first two weeks of practice. Coming into my freshman year, I had no idea what the training would be like. I had not “trained” a step all that summer between eighth grade and high school cross country. In fact, I was determined to go out for football because that previous fall I’d won the local Punt, Pass and Kick competition and moved on to regionals. I thought that was what football was all about. And of course, I was wrong. My father knew that I was a tough kid, but not cut out for football. I weighed 128 lbs., for one thing. Even when I graduated I weighed only 138.

Yet the real reason he did not want me going out for football was his distaste for the sport and its capacity for injury. He also disliked wrestling for its grunting methodology. None of my brothers either wrestled or played football as a result.

The flow sports

We played soccer, basketball and baseball instead. My older brothers excelled in those sports back East in Pennsylvania. But then we moved to Illinois for my father’s work, and there were no soccer or baseball teams at Kaneland High School. So my brother Gary ran cross country the fall of his senior year, and played basketball and ran track that spring. He had no choice. He’d been yanked up by the roots when he might have starred back in Lancaster, but out in Illinois he had to put down new roots.

I’ve always admired him for that. But it didn’t really register with me that he’d done cross country the year before. I was too busy with a new school to care. And he certainly did not do any summer training that year, in 1970. So he gutted it out and did a damn fine job.

Running instincts

My father knew that I was likely more the runner type. So he shoved me in the locker room with a stern warning; “You’re going out for cross country, and if you come back out of that locker room, I’ll break your neck.” And that was my introduction to the sport of cross country.

And you know what? I loved it. So thanks, dad. Because it produced a lifelong activity that I hope to continue for many more years.

But I didn’t love it quite enough to suffer much in summer between those years in high school. In college, I was much better. By the time my senior year rolled around, I was putting in weeks of 40-50 miles during the summer. Yet my roommate that year put in more than 1000 miles, and for the first five weeks of the season he was one of the top-ranked cross country runners in Division III. He won our major invitational and a few others as well, recording times in the high-19:00 range for four miles and below 25:00 for five on some tough courses.

By mid-season, however, he was feeling the effects of all that mileage. It got tough for him to train without injury. That went for all of us, to a degree. Yet we all managed to pull it together for nationals that year, and placed second in the nation, but not a week too soon.


It’s made me look back and question how much running is the right amount for scholastic and college runners during the summer months. The famous York High School distance running program created by Joe Newton has won numerous state titles over the years. Yet few of those athletes, who put in between 5000-1500 miles over the summer, has gone on to do much after high school. Perhaps they’d simply had enough of all that running stuff by the time they graduated?

My teammates at Luther College often commented that the Illinois runners who came to school there were often burned out. That might have been due more to the competitive schedules of Illinois high schools at the time. We had 18 meets during the fall season. Some weeks we’d race Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. In college we even had a competitive season of 13 meets. That’s a lot of racing actually.

Our training in high school typically reached 55-65 miles per week. In college that ratcheted up to 75-100 throughout the fall. That would sometimes be carried over through winter, and then honed to sharpness with winter and spring track. So training hard through the summer months was frankly insane. You simply can’t train that much all year round. The body needs a break.

Changing times

These days, competitive schedules are somewhat reduced. The generation of athletes that came through those competitively intense programs perhaps realized it was hurting kids in some ways. Yet it’s difficult to say. The times posted in state meets were often better in terms of overall quality in the first 25 runners.

Few athletes have approached the three-mile cross country mark set in Illinois by Craig Virgin back in 1972. So the record still stands.

Most high school cross country teams now have formalized summer programs in which entire teams train together. Perhaps with the increased mobility and access to cars, that is possible even at schools like Kaneland, one of the largest geographic school boundaries in the state of Illinois. The local kids here in Batavia are running six days a week all summer. That will certainly build a base for those kids come fall. It is symptomatic of all sports to conduct year-round training programs.

Better perhaps

Perhaps I’d have been a better runner with more summer mileage back then. It would have helped to train with a team, that’s for sure. Yet somehow each fall I’d rally to race against the best runners I faced, many who put in the summer miles, and managed to keep up. My times in high school cross country reached 14:49 for three miles in cross country. In college I ran a 14:40 three mile time on the track and a 9:19 steeplechase. My best 8000-meter time in cross country was 25:12. Not national class, but not bad either.

When it comes to summer running and fall competition, I always think of two runners from St. Olaf college in Minnesota. Their names were Matt Haugen and Mike Palmquist. If our team raced against them in early September, we’d wipe the course with them. But come November, they were both typically individual All Americans. They knew that the season was a crescendo, not a march. Perhaps they ran some over the summer, but not all that much.

Of course, they both had natural ability. And those who do not possess so much might have to rely on the big mileage summer months to help them compete. So there’s always the question: How good does summer running really make you, versus runners who are simply talented and will do their best once you get them running in the fall.




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“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Not.

Venge ExpertOne of the compelling images most people miss in the coverage of the Tour de France is how the bike mechanics basically take apart and re-assemble the steeds used by riders in the Tour. Where most of us expect our bikes to basically hold together day-to-day, praying there is not a mechanical along the way, Tour mechanics break the bikes apart and put them together again every night.

It’s a massive job, but necessary to keep nine Pro riders pedaling their best over 2000 miles in 20+ days. The pressures those pros put on their bikes may be greater than you and I, but the lesson of that pressure should not be lost on us.

The wear and tear of racing and training impacts all of us. And it can be tempting to avoid tinkering with our bikes or our bodies when we’re having what feels like success. Yet that instinct to protect your equilibrium can have the most devastating consequences.

Overuse injuries most often come about through repetitive training or undue stress on one particular part of the body. This can happen to your feet from running when you pound away at the same pace on cambered roads. That’s sometimes how stress fractures come about.

Or you can strain a hip flexor doing speedwork on a track if it’s cold outside. Doing proper warmups as well as preparatory strength work, stretching and rolling out sore muscles is just like doing mechanical work on a bike.

Swimmers can hurt their shoulders from bad form. Yet it’s tempting not to “fix” your stroke if it’s basically getting you through training and races. But when you have a “mechanical”breakdown that results in a sore shoulder, then you wish you’d done the right thing and fixed your stroke even if it wasn’t broke.

It’s helpful to look through the lens of a pro rider to assess your own training and racing. Certainly all of us could use a bit more attention to the mechanical workings of our bikes. The same principle holds true in all phases of our running and riding. Sometimes it pays to imagine something’s broke in order to prevent problems in the future. The pros do it. How about you?

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The height of summer


Media Heights Pool.jpg

The Meadia Heights Pool is nothing more than a green rectangle in the woods. But it was once the center of many a childhood summer. 

Mid-July has always been a special time of year for me. As a child growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, summer days meant hanging out all day at the swimming pool. Our family had some kind of Social membership at Meadia Heights Country Club south of Lancaster. That let us into the pool, but we could not play golf. That was for the “real” members of the golf club.


But it made no difference to us kids. We showed up when the pool opened at 9 or 10 a.m. It was a common point of summer to spend the entire day in the sunshine.

Some summer along the way a bunch of us were recruited to join the swim team. I recall those cold morning practices when the clouds hung low in the sky. It was always tough to get into the pool. We traveled around to other pools to race. That was the extent of my competitive swimming career.

Grassy expanse

Most days I’d grab my towel and run the half mile from my house at 1725 Willow Street Pike down to the pool. We lived right next to the practice range, a broad, open field of grass dotted with those tiny plants whose heads stuck between your bare toes when you ran. There was plenty of clover as well, so you had to be careful not to step on a bee and get stung along the way.

But it was green all around. The massive acreage of the golf course was so inviting that at times I’d go out in my bare feet to sprint across the fairways in late afternoon when the golfers had finished and the grass was cool. That sensation of running on closely mown summer grass has never been lost on me. Later in my college years, we ran plenty of races on golf courses, wearing medium spikes to get a grip but not tear up the turf too much. I don’t think that happens as much as it once did. And that’s a shame.

Green memories

These associations stick with you in some way. Even as adults, there are tiny impressions from youth and summer memories that slip through. The smell of the lily blossoms I clipped from the garden have filled the house with sweet smells. That richness in the air was rife in Pennsylvania, a humid, often rainy environment rich in gardens and farm country.

In fact, the rains are about to arrive here in Illinois this morning. I’ll go out to the three-season room to work on my writing projects and wait for the rains to come rushing in. So many mornings in Pennsylvania I’d be working on drawings or putting a model together when the thunder would gather and the rain came down in sheets.

After the rains, I’d sometimes go out in bare feet to stomp in puddles and wander the neighborhood. This was heaven to me. The cool water rushing over my feet. Worms crawling across the road.

Then came the sun again. Steam would rise off the black streets as the rains evaporated. We’d then pedal our bikes down to the pool for the rest of the day. The pool water would be slightly cooler from the rain at first. But the sun would do its job as the afternoon proceeded. Then it felt good to be deep in the blue water, hidden from the world in a way.

All these elements; the swimming, the riding bikes and the running. These have been constants in life for so long. Now they’re combined in the sport of triathlon, which feels much like play. I pray that I don’t have to give up on any of them. The height of summer is also the center of life.



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Share and share alike

One of the interesting aspects of endurance sports like swimming, cycling and running is that there is so much to share. Essentially, there are four ways to share.

  1. Share your experience. When you have knowledge to share, it can really help others.
  2. Share your experiences. When you train or compete, your experiences tell a story.
  3. Share your enthusiasm. Sharing love of the sport is a positive way to get feedback.
  4. Share your challenges. To overcome difficulties is part of the sport. Share it.

You’ll notice there is an inverse to the manner in which we all share. As a new participant in any of these activities, or all three when it comes to triathlon, the things we tend to share first are our challenges and enthusiasm. And understand, it is not uncommon for people to complain during this phase, or lament the results of their most recent workout or race. Still others will hit a plateau during training or races. These are forgiveable shares.



A group of training partners can be a valuable resource of friendship and shared experience.

That’s the hallmark of someone pushing themselves to do better. Progress is seldom a straight line proposition. So we verbalize those challenges as we get deeper into the respective sports.


The kid who lives behind me is a high school freshman. His middle school team won the state championship in cross country last year. He’s running six days a week now with the high school cross country team. Yet the first question I asked him was simple: “Are the other runners good guys?” And he answered, “Yes, most of them.”

Because that’s the most important thing in a training environment. How do the people around you respond to your challenges and your enthusiasm? Do they answer questions and share their experience? That’s the sign of a good environment.

Most of the time, this information-sharing occurs through people relating their experiences, not their experience. People usually don’t like to brag about what they know, or make themselves out to be know-it-alls. Instead, they share experiences or tell stories about their efforts in training or racing. These are meant to convey their experience.


Rupp and Meb

You may recall that Meb had some experience to share with Galen Rupp in the Olympic Trials marathon about how not to bump into other competitors.

Some of these shared stories can be funny. But often they relate a deeper truth. If someone throws up after a high school cross country race because they ate a donut just before the start, that’s a funny story. But it shares important facts about what not to eat when you’re about to compete.


So this sharing process plays an important role in all our development.

As a longtime distance runner, I’m learning that the most important thing I have to share is experience in how to train for races. People who pick up the sport of running or triathlon in their twenties, thirties, forties or beyond often do not have the baseline experience of running track or cross country in high school. As a result, they typically learn one way to train. Quite often that is doing their race pace in training, over and over again. Their methods may make them faster for a while, but ultimately they run into a wall of sorts. Progress ceases, and they wonder why.

The answer lies in aerobic thresholds and learning to train much faster than your desired race pace. It’s a simple rule: To get faster, you absolutely must run faster than race pace in training. Doing race pace over and over again may build endurance, but it has its limits in terms of building speed.

The trick, therefore, is to run paces that both physically and perceptually stretch your baseline race pace.

Of course, this is true in cycling as well. Yet most of us go out and barrel around at 18-20 mph on our own, thinking this will magically transform us into 22-24 mph cyclists. That isn’t going to happen. To ride much faster, you must do intervals at even faster speeds than your desired race pace. That would be 24-26 mph and better yet, even faster. If nothing else, one must get into a group that rides those faster paces and hang on for dear life. You may get dropped at first, but the goal is to stick a little longer every time.

That’s how the pros do it. And when they ride an easy day, they take it really easy. Their riding thus covers an entire range of speeds and aerobic needs. The really long slow rides build aerobic endurance while the speed training raises the heart rate.



Coaches often play an important role in picking us up when we’re down.


It is this knowledge and these methods that coaches are supposed to share with athletes. However, coaches can fall into a trap of prescribing the same types of workouts year after year because the formula works to produce certain types of results. A triathlon coach who gets people over the finish line in an Ironman is a valuable commodity. Yet that same coach might not be helpful to athletes seeking to refine a specific aspect of their triathlon performance.

That’s where event-specific coaching comes in. Or, you can opt to work with other athletes whose experience with ability and experience in those specific events. That type of shared experience is often free. Be prepared to ask when the opportunity presents itself, and most experienced athletes are quite willing to help. It’s an organic feature of endurance sports that your fellow athletes want to help other people in their sports.

This is tricky in a sport like swimming, where advice on proper swimming form can be conflicting on many levels. It is best to confine your form coaching to a set of specific, trusted resources. Ask other athletes who to trust, or hire a coach and stick to what they say. Nothing slows you down faster than trying too many things in your swim form. That’s asking for trouble, not help.

Be prepared to accept that there are some people who refuse to share their experience. But you typically don’t need them in your life. Sharing is something we’re supposed to learn and socialize in preschool. But the competitive nature of some people takes over. Even your close friends can become your worst enemies in training and competition. I advised my children when they reached late elementary school that it is often wise to realize your friends are prone to want to control you or leverage advantage in many facets of life. That’s not being paranoid. It’s a fact. Those same dynamics are played out in politics, religion, business and relationship. Human beings are competitive characters. And they aren’t always honest about their motives.



The heat of competition is no time to ask others to share advice.

Which sadly means that some advice is also best not taken without some consideration. People on the starting line of a race can be profound liars. I have been guilty of this manner of competitive lying. Yet I have also shared what I believe the truth to be in competitive experiences. While racing in a five-mile mid-summer race years ago, I knew that I was supremely fit and did not believe anyone in the field could beat me. A mile into that race, a competitor turned to me and asked, “What pace are you going to run today?”


I replied, “Faster than you,” and took off with a surge that left everyone in the dust. In that situation, I was not going to share an advantage of any sort. But why should I? There are some situations in life where winning or beating your rivals is the order of the day. There is nothing at all wrong with that. You can share stories and experiences after the racing’s done. Laugh or cry about the difficulties.

The one thing you are not obligated to share in 99% of most circumstances is your focus. yes, if someone is in need or you feel motivated to help another competitor out somehow, that is a great thing. That’s sharing yourself with someone in need. That is the greatest of all shares, if you think about it. And I’d say the first four types of sharing prepare you for that noble cause when it comes around.



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