By Christopher Cudworth
A familiar figure ahead on the road. Strong calves. Vee-shaped back. A quick pedal turnover on his black hybrid bike. I recognized my old friend Pete, a high school cross country teammate, pedaling out of town headed who knows where.
It was 5:00 on a Sunday. Light was getting dim due to a flat overcast sky. No threat of rain. Just lack of light getting through. So Pete looked almost like a black and white photograph on his bike. Some friends are like that anyways.
A little history
Pete was a tiny kid in high school, standing only 4’11 as a freshman. Yet no one could wear him out. His endurance and commitment to running was admirable. With a running style that was more churn than burn, his short torso seemed carried along as if he was the Roadrunner from cartoon fame. But again, long distance, not speed was his forte.
Sometimes we’d come in from a run and Pete would show up later only to tell us, “I went a little longer.” That was his thing. If he couldn’t be first, he’d do more than anyone else.
You can see it in his eyes
All those thoughts came through my mind as I drove past. Wanted to pull over, park my car and stop and talk but Pete seemed focused on his effort. Actually, that hardly describes it. The expression on his face, that I could see in the rear view mirror, was ‘eyes ahead and don’t slow down.’
Last I saw Pete was a year ago. He was on a walk on the river trail in the company of his mom, who turned 80 recently, and she really looked fit. She hadn’t seen me in nearly 40 years, not since I was a 16 year old kid, yet her eyes brightened right away. Runner Moms never forget a former teammate either. That special bond that comes from watching kids torture themselves to exhaustion through the woods and rain and cold and heat burns a face into your memory. Runner Moms are the best that way.
As I pulled into the forest preserve today where I’d driven to walk the dog and check out spring flowers, I wasn’t expecting to see Pete again. yet minutes after I’d pulled in and entered the woods to walk the drive looping 7/10ths of a mile around and over a prairie kame–along came Pete on his black hybrid bike. He must have been hauling ass to get out to the preserve that quickly. I’d seen him more than 5 miles back! Yet here he was. Some people amaze you that way.
Pete came rolling around a curve on the woods drive and I smiled and called out “Pete!” at which a flash of recognition came over his face and he came to a rolling halt. Smiled that big smile. He’s compact now, not small. His marine arms and shoulders bulged under a tee-shirt with the word Performance on the front. He wasn’t breathing hard despite what must have been 8 hard miles of cycling. Not a whit was he breathing hard, in fact.
Instead, the first words out of his mouth were, “I’m so sorry.”
He was speaking about the death of my wife March 26. “Was it sudden?” he asked.
I explained that it was not sudden. That she’d not given in despite 8 years of very tough existence with chemotherapy and surgeries and side effects that would have brought anyone else to their literal knees.
Told him that I was proud of the time she’d given to all of us, and that many blessings were fulfilled as a result. That is how I really feel.
There was no need to feign vain or superstitious ideas about her courage. As a runner and now power-cyclist he’d know what I meant. Living with suffering is a way of life, not a choice for most runners. Yet it still gives you an insight into things other people don’t understand. Like persevering. Dealing with inconvenience and even panic.
Thinking on that, in many ways my wife was more of an athlete than I will ever be. Sometimes I would compare her struggles through cancer to competing in a marathon, or training for one at least.
Effort and Recovery
“Honey,” I’d tell her. “You have to think of these days after chemo like you’d just run a marathon. It takes time to recover.”
She’d grunt and go outside to work as long as she could by the garden. Yet sometimes I’d find her plopped in an Adirondak chair exhausted and sweating, flush in the cheeks and pissed as hell. Outright pissed. “This sucks,” she’d say. But she wasn’t speaking about the cancer. She was speaking about the limitations it put on her. I don’t think I ever heard her complain directly that she had cancer. Not in a resigned sense or in some whining way. Not her style. What really pissed her off, right to the roots of who she was, is that she could not sometimes do the things she enjoyed. That made her mad. Disgusted. Frustrated. Disappointed mostly. But not always. In fact not most of the time. She wanted to live, and keep on living. She lived that philosophy to the end. That is not to lionize her in some romantic way. I admired her courage and grew frustrated with her stubbornness. But you can’t necessarily have one without the other. Ask Winston Churchill. FDR. Martin Luther. Martin Luther King, Jr. Muhammad Ali. Joe Frazier. Jon Stewart. Steven Colbert. She liked those two guys. Stubborn and funny. Justice and humor.
That’s one of the tarsnakes in life. You sometimes can’t separate the good from the bad.
Meaning of life. Meaning in life.
Life is all about overcoming limitations. Dealing with failure. Accepting success with grace rather than Lording it over others.
And my old friend and running partner Pete understood all that in a heartbeat. I could see it in his eyes.
We walked along as I pointed out flowers along the path. Dutchman’s breeches. Bloodroot, which almost always blooms in the weeks following Easter. A perfect Sunday flower. When you break off the plant, red sap flows from the stem. Hence the name.
Linda and I would journey to that hill in all seasons. Sometimes to walk the dog. Also just to “be” somewhere.
It was a test of cancer fitness if she could walk the hill. And she did it many times. Strava recently told me there is a 9% grade in the middle of that hill called Johnson’s Mound outside Elburn, Illinois. There is a Strava segment on that hill and I’m amazed at how fast some cyclists can top it. I ranked somewhere around 100 when I rode the loop the other day. Not thinking about the Strava segment. Only wanting to incorporate it as part of my 40-miler. But I will return. And ride it harder. I have to now.
An old school measure of fitness
I also knew I was very fit back in competitive running days when I could cover the portion of the loop from the woods-opening to the top of the hill in 3:00. You had to be in 31:00 10K shape to go that fast. I know from experience, because that was how it worked for me. The flats had to be covered at 5:00 mile pace or under. The hill had to be traversed without pause. It was both training and a measure of character. It was back in 1971 when I first ran it as a high school freshman. And it still is. Hills don’t change. But how we view them sometimes. That can change.
Reading a book of passage
Pete and I walked slowly up the steep sections of the hill with him pushing his bike and me pulling my dog away from the pee trees. Lots of people walk their dogs in those woods. There are lots of pee trees as a result. Probably Chuck was reading a book about other dogs.
Pete and I were reading aloud from a book about the present and the past. He asked about various running teammates we knew and I filled him in. His curiosity was both genuine and not too possessive. Pete is one of those people who doesn’t cut too deep a groove in the air through which he passes, if he can help it. Sometimes it pays to act small in that respect. You maintain a better sense of self that way. But it doesn’t mean you don’t think of the important stuff.
We talked of sons and daughters and I realized that Pete and everyone else on earth faces the same sort of wind resistance no matter how fast or slow we’re going, or how big or small we are. It’s all relative. Our pleasure and pain is offered by the universe in the same way that sunshine hits us evenly, or rain. You can’t outride the sun or run between the raindrops. Yet we sort out who we are by how hard we try.
How hard we try.