In early 1973, right in the middle of my sophomore year in high school, our family moved 10 miles east from Elburn, Illinois to St. Charles. The rest of that school year I made a daily commute to finish the year at Kaneland, the high school where I’d just helped lead the cross country team to its first-ever conference championship.
I wasn’t a great runner, just a good one. Yet there was speculation upon our move that I somehow wanted to switch schools to run for Trent Richards, a Kaneland grad that had coached me on the Elburn baseball team from the age of 13 to 15.
To this day I’m pretty sure that our family moved because my father had lost his job and blown some money on a network marketing business. Yet when I asked him 25 years later why we moved, he replied, “I didn’t want your younger brother to play basketball in that slowdown offense at Kaneland.”
I actually don’t doubt that response at all. And my younger brother went on to earn a full-ride college scholarship at a Division I school. So whatever the reason for our move, it worked out pretty well for my parents and my brother.
Yet when my father told me the reason why we moved, I asked him: “But what about me? I was Class President and the top runner on the cross country team.”
And my dad replied. “Well, you were a social kid. I knew you’d survive.”
That’s true. It all worked out over time. After all, we’d moved from Pennsylvania to Illinois when I was only twelve. And that worked out just fine. I made friends through sports and school just as I’d done back east in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. For a few years I tried to keep up contacts but they inevitably faded in the age of letters, long-distance phone calls and rare trips “back home.” Those former allegiances were real, but they inevitably take a back seat to the present reality.
The same thing happened when I moved from Kaneland to St. Charles. The pressure of finding and keeping friends as the “new kid” at school occupied all my time. Despite my love for the former school and friends, it was impossible not to move on.
The awkward aspect of that sophomore year transfer was having to compete against my former Kaneland cross country and track teammates that next fall and spring. I loved the orange shirts with the black and white shoulders of those Kaneland CC uniforms. My new St. Charles team had the same black and orange colors. But the team uniforms were made from a fabric called Sand Knit, so I wore a sleek shirt beneath the sleeveless jersey to make it more comfortable.
I wasn’t alone in transferring schools during those years. A top-flight runner from the northwest Chicago suburbs moved from Hersey HS to Batavia and took over the local running scene. At one point a local paper called me a “junior sensation” just before we met in the Tri-Cities meet. At the starting line, the ever-cynical Tom Burridge, who went on to compete at University of Kentucky and hold the American Half-Marathon record, turned to me and muttered, “Junior Sensation, my ass…” He trounced me good over the three-mile course.
So while I tried to compete with the best, I simply wasn’t one of them. That said, I still feel a sense of pride for those competitive years. This past weekend I was cleaning out our basement and found the photo (above) of me running against a former Kaneland teammate. It was taken at their own invitational during my junior year in high school. I finished fourth overall and our St. Charles team won the meet. It all brought mixed emotions on my part. To go from allegiance to rivalry was one of the first big lessons in life. Even firm expectations can change. It’s how you adapt to those changes that makes all the difference in life.
Running always helped me do that. It continued in college when encountering former rivals from high school who ran for opposing college teams. It was interesting to transfer those rivalries to an entirely new context. Yet something in me also wanted those high school competitors to do well at the college level. Rivalries are also a form of allegiance, in many respects.
Finally those rivalries spread out across the roads and I even wound up running with former rivals on club teams and other competitive opportunities.
To this day I still run into old rivals socially. What we continue to share is the experience of having done something hard and to the best of our abilities. That’s how we find allegiances all over again.
While I believe the narrative of any wedding couple is their property to hold or share, I can testify that having the opportunity to be the officiant in a wedding was a unique and profound experience.
My roots with the family involved reach way back to high school, as the older brother of the bride was a runner five years behind me in the cross country and track program. As a result, we ran together some, shared the same coach and built a few memories that have lasted all these years.
His younger sister got to know me through that connection. We also collaborated when she was looking to promote an athlete clothing line a few years back. I helped her open doors to some running and cycling stores in the Chicago region.
We connected on social media after that and have shared some laughs. I always tease that I want her dog for my own. She has a beautiful border collie pup with eyes that steal your heart.
Yet from all my writing about theology and God, she wondered if I was an ordained pastor. “Not yet,” I replied. “But I can get that done.” So I applied through the Universal Life Church website where my son Evan was also ordained, and we were ready to go.
About five years ago a handsome man started showing up in her feed and they built a relationship that blossomed into love. Both of them love the outdoors and that’s why she asked me to serve as the officiant for their wedding. She’s read my blog and even hired me to write a nature-based piece for the magazine where she used to work. He’s also a cyclist and we traded a few training and racing stories along the way.
The wedding was held in a beautifully spare old church west of Elgin, Illinois. Her family built the one-room building back in 1843 in remembrance of their roots back in Scotland. The building has no heat, so we could see our breath the entire ceremony. The greens decorating the church had a spare and lovely quality about them. The plain benches were cold, yet welcoming in that honest fashion that harkens all the ages and people that have sat there before you.
Outside the church were many graves, several with the namesake of her grandfather, the sportswriter that covered my running career back in high school.
Weeks before the wedding, I interviewed the couple by phone and sent them questions around which the wedding talk was built. Some relevant scriptural perspectives were added, but the main message was that creation itself is the connection they both shared in having been raised by people with a strong love of nature.
That outlook is right up my alley in terms of life philosophies. It was a pleasure and an honor to invite the people in attendance to share in those ideas. I led them in vows, then an exchange of rings. But when it came time to declare them “husband and wife” it struck me how profound a moment that truly was. All I could think of to say after the bride and groom leaned forward to kiss was a simple, “Bless you both.”
Two weeks ago I was mowed down by a 100-lb yellow lab at the dog park. The large pup nailed the outside of my left knee, possibly the worst place I could have been struck. That knee went through an ACL tear back in the early 2000s, then surgery to repair it, followed by another ACL tear two years later. That was depressing, for sure.
Then I did a stupid thing five years ago and hurdled a traffic cone on a snowy street during the Sno-Fun Run in Lake Geneva. The knee swelled badly but then sort of stabilized. Two years later a torn meniscus on the inside front of the left knee began to protrude and I had to have it surgically clipped.
Now this poor knee is going through pain on a low scale as it recovers from the bashing by the fat lab. The inside front of my left knee has a dull ache when I run. I can’t yet tell if it is an ‘outside’ injury with a ligament problem or coming from inside the knee where the meniscus may have suffered another insult. I’ll have to wait and see. I’ve been for four or five runs since the dog incident and things are improving. But this low ache has me worried.
A lefty problem
That side of my body has been through hell in life. My left clavicle is also surgically repaired. An accident due to bike wobble in September of 2012 snapped the collar bone in three places. The x-ray of the bone looked like a cirrus cloud. The surgeon fused it back together with a long metal plate and six screws. It sometimes aches on cold, wet days, or if I sleep on my left side too long.
I’m not alone in this household with injuries. My wife had her shoulder repaired after a bike accident in 2013. The ortho surgeon who fixed her shoulder was the same guy that did my collarbone. He also fixed my meniscus. So both humans have had their share of orthopedic challenges. But there’s more…
There are two more members of the family that have had limbs surgically repaired. Our cat Bennie is a rescue with a back leg fixed by our veterinarian and triathlon friend Jeff Palmer, whose office put the kitty up for adoption.
When my wife Sue saw Bennie, she leapt at the chance to take him in. The vet’s office nicknamed him Bernie because he was a stray that got burned and had a broken leg after climbing up into a warm car engine. Following the surgery, we were told to keep him calm and not let him get too excited. But that indomitable kitty was having none of that. He started jumping up and down from the bed as soon as we brought him home. The surgery left him a tiny bit crooked in that back leg and he has a funny lilt to his walk that we no longer really notice. When there were four cats in our household with Sue’s daughter living with us a few years back, Bennie and his two other buddies tore around the house on a regular basis. Our other cat Wanda passed away last year at the age of sixteen. She was a lovely creature.
Now Bennie contends with our new dog Lucy. At first the chasing was furious but Bennie is resourceful and quick. Lucy really can’t catch him, and she’s no slowpoke. I’ve seen her run down speedy, long-legged pointers at the dog park. She turns into a white bullet with her back hair up and legs reaching out like a greyhound.
And yet she’s got a repaired back leg too. She was picked up from the side of the road in Tennessee and brought up to Illinois for adoption. The vets fixed her leg. The surgery left a colorful spot where the fur doesn’t show.
She fostered with another triathlon friend just south of our neighborhood. We visited Lucy a couple times at their home and met her beagle buddies. Now she’s part of our lives. I took her back over to visit her foster family last week. She nuzzled the beagles and tucked her head into the lap of the man who frankly admitted, “I didn’t want to give her up.” It was a sweet reunion.
Broken and healed
It’s funny how these sometimes seemingly broken pets can fix the lives of human beings. While I’m no militant advocate for animal rights, it does disturb me that people can be so cruel to dogs and cats and other animals. The Michael Vick controversy is bubbling up anew and while I think everyone deserves a second chance, the cruelty behind that story is hard to process. Yet as a competitive person, I admit to feeling a fast and furious reaction when a dog on the trails at our local park tried to attack Lucy this weekend. I know she’s no pushover, because I’ve seen her fend off and also dole out aggression at the park. But those are instincts dog owners are tasked with eliminating through training, not turning it into a sport.
The fact of the matter is that the world is in a constant state of injury and in need of healing. The world’s religions try to funnel that through Jesus or Allah or Buddha, but in the end, it is our choice to learn how to heal. Big problems required a little introspection on all of our parts.
I’m frustrated to be dealing with a possible problem with my knee, but hoping it levels out over time. If not, then something else will need to be done. It’s been a year of injury for me all around. The strange bike crash back in May. The dangerous tooth infection and extraction in August. Then the knee injury two weeks ago. I’ll admit to being frustrated and bit depressed with how the year played out. My plans were radically different.
So there are days when it just feels good to pet the dog and take solace in the moment. One of my good friends always counsels me that we’re never totally in control in this world. It’s best sometimes not to “fight it” when things don’t turn out like you’d planned. Again, some toss that submission into the realm of trusting God, while others find a path to walk down, and wait to see what comes along. And then we ask, what fur?
The term “good energy” has been recruited to serve a number of purposes and connotations in this world. It substitutes for “clean energy” in the growing field of alternative fuels, and “good energy” means moral power in the realm of human emotion.
As we age, energy becomes a concern as we sometimes feel less of it coursing through our bodies. As young people, we tend to be driven by an alternating fuel of hormones and raging metabolism. Some of that comes through as sexual energy, which can turn out to be relatively good thing or something not so good, depending on how we use it.
Too good to function
I well recall being so horny at times it was nearly impossible to function. My daily morning ritual of jerking off in the basement shower before high school classes began barely stemmed the tide of young lust. Athletic coaches, especially boxing trainers it seems, moralized that channeling sexual energy was better than releasing it during preparation for competition. The thought was that putting all that “good energy” to use would keep a man from getting weak. And if it made the athlete a little angry inside, all the better.
That was not my experience as the world of actual sex opened up to me. I ran personal best times within hours of getting laid. The feeling of being loved and wanted was far more powerful than any energy sap it supposedly caused.
And when it came to creative output and work production, the other realm of competition in this world, it helped to wick off sexual energy in order to concentrate on the task at hand, no pun intended.
Over the last twenty years, formerly repressive ideas about sex and especially masturbation have changed plenty. The fact that both women and men pleasure themselves for self-love, sexual release and emotional gratification is now well-documented and out in the open. There is good energy in no longer blaming people for their sexual urges. The old biblical maxims about masturbation being a sin against God have been debunked. We now know that so-called “Onanism” was a repressive attempt to selectively use a passage from scripture to rail against “spilling seed.”
And what about lust? We all know the Bible says some things about that. Specifically Jesus is often quoted that even looking at a person with lust is equivalent to adultery. Never mind that Jesus often spoke in strong hyperbole and even outright symbolism to get a point across. He once stated that He could tear down the temple and rebuild it in three days. The religious authorities laughed at Him because they took him literally.
But literalism is not always how truth works. The same is true with the good energies of lust. The major reason Jesus warns against lust is that it leads to covetous behavior, wanting something that is not by rights all at ours to possess. That is one of the 10 Commandments, “Thou shall not covet thy neighbors wife…”
And so on. But here’s the funny thing about releasing lust from our bodies. It often lowers the sense of taboo and desire for something about which we fantasize, and that’s actually a good use of energy. Not when it’s obsessive or addictive, of course. Because sexual addiction and chronic masturbation really don’t lead to good things. But a good healthy orgasm whether in company with another or on your own is a damned good bit of energy and in some cases, a matter of good health.
That’s what my doctor once told me during a time in my early thirties when I was experiencing some enlargement of the prostate. He fortunately identified the cause, which was caffeine consumption. Once I cut that out of my diet, my prostate no longer seized up. But for good health, he suggested, it was always good for the prostate to have frequent sex. “Can I get a prescription for that?” I joked at the time. He laughed and actually wrote it out on a piece of paper. “You’ll have to negotiate that with your wife,” he wryly replied.
It actually is good sexual health for a man to ejaculate even when copulation or other options aren’t readily available. Letting seminal fluid sit around in the prostate increases the risk of an enlarged prostate. And perhaps the stuff even gets stale.
It can be tricky to discern what’s actually going on with certain types of health issues. And when the subject is masturbation, ancient taboos tend to color the instincts of judgment. WebMD carried findings from an interesting study on the subject of masturbation in men. The study produced some convoluted findings, as shared here:
“For men in their 20s, “frequent masturbation” was two to seven times per week. Compared to same-age men who reported masturbating less than once per month, 20-something frequent masturbators had a 79% higher risk of prostate cancer by age 60.
For men in their 50s, “frequent masturbation” was one or more times per week. Compared to same-age men who reported never masturbating, 50-something frequent masturbators had a 70% lower risk of prostate cancer.
What’s going on? The study wasn’t designed to answer that question. But Dimitropoulou and colleagues have some theories.
They suggest that young men genetically predisposed to have hormone-sensitive prostate cancer will be at higher risk if their bodies naturally produce high levels of male hormones — the same hormones that give them an intense sex drive.
So it’s not masturbation itself that’s increasing prostate cancer risk in young men. More masturbation may just mean more sex drive — and more androgens bathing prostate tissues.”
For women, masturbation touches on issues of emotional health as well as physical well-being. “Masturbating increases blood flow throughout your body and releases feel-good brain chemicals called endorphins. “That may explain why there’s a clear mood benefit, even if you don’t orgasm,” says Prause, a sexuality researcher at UCLA. And while men are more likely to talk about blowing off steam by masturbating, research suggests it’s a stress-reliever for both sexes. “It takes your mind [off your worries] while activating areas of the brain associated with pleasure,” Prause says.”
That’s all good energy. And my doctor also once told me that quitting caffeine can be good for women too. He said that much like my prostate years ago, the lining of a woman’s vagina has soft tissue that can be greatly affected by ingestion of stimulants. That can lead to yeast infections and other internal problems.
That said, we’re all prone to go a little insane with something that feels so good. That’s when good energy tends to slip into the realm of bad instincts. Just like activities such as running and riding and swimming, there is a possibility of partaking in too much of a good thing.
I recall a Sunday afternoon out in Paoli, Pennsylvania when I was living alone after a job transfer and had little else to do with my free time but run. During the morning I covered twenty miles in a club team workout and felt great. That afternoon I obsessively drove to Valley Forge to go for a six-mile run. Before heading out I noticed a small dog and walked over to pet it. The owner was a lovely woman named Karen. We hit it off right away. When I told her that I was about to go out for a run, she looked me in the eye and asked, “Do you have to?”
I should have ditched that run in the moment and sat down to talk with that woman. As it was, I did get her number and go out on a couple dates. But my God, why was running so blasted important that I had to do twenty-six miles of it in one damned day?
As the wrestling coach character in the John Irving book Hotel New Hampshire once said, “You’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed.” That I was at the time. With running. That is one of the tarsnakes of existence. It takes experience to learn what’s good and bad for you.
And I’ll confess that I once yanked it five times in a single day. Which brought to mind the phrase our college cross country coach used to holler out the car window at the young men covering miles under his watch. “Ah boys!” he’d chortle. “You can’t beat fun!”
To which we’d mutter under our breath. “Yeah, like a sore dick.”
And that, my friends, is the moral of good energy and bad. That which makes you too sore to function is probably more than enough for the day, the week, or your entire life. So I hope you find that good energy now and in the future. But not too much.
Most of us have favorite routes to run and ride. We even have favorite places to swim, be they indoor pools or lakes where open water swimming feels fun and safe.
I like to watch the seasons change on my favorite routes. On the run and the bike, I switch from roads to trails to paths. Variety is good.
But so is familiarity. Knowing how long a route generally takes to complete is predictable and practical. We can plan for that. There are days when it’s fun to explore and there are days when not having to think is beneficial.
Today I was pondering my daily fitness life while scrolling through the menu on Direct TV. I stopped on the movie Erin Brockovich and watched the last 1/3 with the same appreciation and anticipation that I always do. Real or not, the depiction of the main character is both humorous and satisfying. We feel her struggles and root for her efforts to find justice for people beset by the negligence and corruption of a big corporation trying to escape responsibility for the pain and suffering it has caused some everyday people. And when Erin invites her biker boyfriend to witness a visit to a woman whose family members were afflicted with illness, there is real triumph and joy in the moment when it is revealed the household will receive $5M in compensation for exposure to poisonous hexavalent chromium, the substance the polluted the groundwater of an entire city.
I’ve watched that movie far more than ten times. The night before I watched a long section of Moneyball, the baseball movie in which Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill play a pair of risk-takers trying to make the Oakland A’s a contender by choosing underrated players based on statistics to form a winning team.
That got me thinking about the Top 10+ movies I’ve watched more than ten times. Here’s my list, not in any particular order.
Dances With Wolves, Kevin Costner
Gladiator, Russell Crowe
Erin Brockovich, Julie Roberts
Moneyball, Brad Pitt/Jonah Hill
The Social Network, Jesse Eisenberg
Bad Teacher, Cameron Diaz
Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Kristen Bell
Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon
Bourne Trilogy (all probably ten times)
Lord of the Rings (all probably ten times)
The Fugitive, Harrison Ford
The Parent Trap, Lindsay Lohan (guilty pleasure, sweet)
Superbad, Jonah Hill/Michael Cera
This is the End, Seth Rogan and crew
Midnight In Paris, Owen Wilson
Amelie, (many, many times…)
Open Range, Kevin Costner/Robert Duvall
Kill Bill 1 and 2, Uma Thurman
Moonrise Kingdom (and other Wes Anderson stuff, Fantastic Mr. Fox, etc)
The Hairdresser’s Husband (French film, amazing)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (fun and mystical)
National Lampoon’s Vacation, Chevy Chase/Bill Murray
The Meaning of Life, Monty Python
The Holy Grail, Monty Python
The goddamn Princess Bride (not so proud of this one)
Honorable mention: Star Wars
Favorite routes. Favorite movies. I guess we need them all.
The Arcada Theater on the east end of downtown St. Charles, Illinois is run by Ron Onesti and Onesti Entertainment. That organization is the portal to every aging rock band in the universe. Last night a group assembled by the rock legend Todd Rundgren came to town and played nearly every song on The Beatles White Album.
It’s been fifty years since that classic came out. I well recall sneaking into the living room when my brothers were out of the house to put the record on my father’s prized turntable. In 1968 it had been Sgt. Pepper that dominated our lives. In 1969 it was the peripatetic White Album that took over our consciousness.
Beatle George Harrison denounced the White Album for its excessiveness. He believed that album could have used an editor, someone to tell them “yes and no” about which songs should be kept, and which discarded. Yet The White Album (which is actually titled simply, “The Beatles”) with all its ups and downs is a time capsule of sorts from the year 1969.
At least it was for me. I was twelve years old and discovering all kinds of things about the world. My schoolyard friends had just passed word around about the joys of masturbation, and the mysteries of sex began to open for all of us. That made the Beatles song “Why don’t we do it in the road?” all the more mysterious. We knew what “it” meant. But we sure didn’t realize how to accomplish that between the white lines, or anywhere else.
What I had discovered by the age of twelve is a love of running that would soon turn into a lifetime avocation. I’d always led the running drills for our baseball team, Local 285. But there was a single moment of discovery that made me realize I had a degree of talent for running. During a seventh grade gym class our PE teacher had us run a twelve minute time trial as part of a fitness test. I led the class by covering 8 1/4 laps. I’d broken twelve minutes in the two mile wearing plain old tennis shoes on a cinder track.
Years later I’d pass through that same distance in 9:15, the fastest I ever ran two miles. That wasn’t world or even national class pace. But I’d come a long way in training to do that race, and finished a 5K that night in 14:47. It felt good to see the results after working so hard.
In the years since growing up with The Beatles I’ve watched and listened to many recordings of their rehearsals, heard alternate versions of their songs and been amazed at how their music traveled from raw demo cuts to what feels like perfection no matter how you play them. Recently when asked by Steven Colbert how he writes his songs, Beatle Paul McCartney calmly shared the process of writing down lyrics or working out a piece of music on piano. Then he added, “And I’m a genius.”
That last insight was quite important in the development of The Beatles. Each member of the group offered genius that grew into something individually and collectively great. They took musical risks that changed how the world saw music.
They also faced the rhetorical music for sharing insights about using drugs and commenting on their popularity, which John Lennon once compared to Jesus. That got them in trouble with the arch-right Christian factions in America. They burned Beatles records and made a show of their supposed righteousness after Lennon offended their sensibilities. “Christianity will go,” he had said. “It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I know I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now. I don’t know which will go first – rock & roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”
John Lennon was correct about how Christianity twisted the message of Jesus into the gospel of power, money and prosperity. The Christian religion stole these obsessions straight from the religious authorities who conspired to get Jesus crucified, then turned around and blamed “the Jews” for killing Jesus. That inner conflict is a truth Christianity desperately wants to avoid. Hence the overreaction when the truth is pointed out.
A cynical eye
That degree of insight is what originally appealed to me about The Beatles. The White Album tore back the fabric of society to reveal the flaws behind the self-righteous drama of people trying to pretend they are perfect when everyone can see they are not.
Perhaps I absorbed a little too much of that Beatle cynicism along the way. Being honest about work and life and religion is not appreciated in many circles. It cost me some over the years. My liberal leanings emanate from Beatle insights on many fronts. John Lennon wrote the song Happiness is a Warm Gun to mock the world’s obsession with guns. The name of that song echoed a popular book by Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz titled Happiness is a Warm Puppy. I owned a copy of that book, which made the lyrics to Lennon’s song about the corrupting power of guns all the more potent:
When I hold you in my arms (ooh, oh, yeah) And I feel my finger on your trigger (ooh, oh, yeah) I know nobody can do me no harm (ooh, oh, yeah) Because…Happiness is a warm gun, yes it is (bang, bang, shoot, shoot)
The bitter irony is that John Lennon was shot in the head by a man jealous and disturbed by Lennon’s fame. That act of violence took place on December 8, 1980. I remember sitting at a stoplight that night in my gold Plymouth Arrow when the news came on the radio. I sat there pounding the dashboard screaming “NO! NO! NOOOOO!” Lennon was right all along. Guns have the power to corrupt the human mind.
I understood when The White Album came out that The Beatles were trying to tell us the world is never what it seems on the surface. There were songs on that album that celebrated love, such as “I Will,” an uplifting piece penned by Paul McCartney. Yet the song Blackbird was a metaphorical testament to the civil rights struggles of the 60s:
Blackbird singing in the dead of night Take these broken wings and learn to fly All your life You were only waiting for this moment to arise
I’ve run a ton of miles singing songs like that in my head. Dear Prudence. Glass Onion. Birthday. Piggies. I’ve even learned and played a few Beatles on the guitar over the years. Julia. I’m So Tired. Obla Di Obla Da. Those efforts make me appreciate the genius of The Beatles even more. I’m not a great singer, but it sure feels great to sing. I guess that’s a gift the Beatles gave to all of us in some way.
As a young runner living in the City of Chicago during the early 1980s, I met a woman through track workouts at the downtown Northwestern University cinder track next to Lake Shore Drive. After scoping her out the entire workout, I admittedly fibbed that I had no car parked nearby in order to beg a ride home with her to my apartment on Clark Street next to Lincoln Park. We started dating and training together, a relationship that lasted nearly a year.
She ran 10K in about 36:00, a time that to this day would win many women’s road races. When our track workouts moved to the University of Illinois campus in the southwest Loop, we joined a couple dozen other runners every Tuesday with coach Tom Brunick from the Athlete’s Foot running the group.
She was running 50-60 miles a week. During our wild little romance she confessed to me that her period had ceased. “I have amenorrhoea,” she mentioned one day. “It’s been going on for a few months.”
A few weeks after that admission, she told me that the front of her leg just below her knee was hurting. I guided her to a podiatrist that I knew. He diagnosed a likely stress fracture. At that point, my girlfriend and I had a talk. I suggested it might be a good time for her to take a break. She had one brown eye and one blue eye, and I sometimes wondered whether there were two of her inside that head of hers. She looked me straight in the eyes and said, “No, not yet.”
She was an intense young woman who worked as programmer for a big publishing company. Her salary was $90,000 a year. In early 1980s money, that was big bucks. So she was smart and driven and all the things that a young man like me found intimidating at times. But I still tried to counsel her that continuing to run when her period had stopped and her knee was showing signs of bone stress was a bad idea.
And then it happened. I was jogging back to start another interval at the weekly track workout when her group came charging through the finish line and I heard the bone in her leg snap. I’d heard that sound before when a college teammate broke his leg in several places toward the end of a 400 IM hurdles race. He’d trained all spring in the pool because his shin had so many sore spots that the coaches did not dare put impact on his legs. But when the conference meet came along and he needed to earn a qualifying time for nationals, he entered the race and was leading his heat when his leg collapsed underneath him with an loud crack. He went sprawling on the track.
It was a horrific thing to witness, but the worst part of that moment were the cheers that our conference rivals made upon seeing him skid along the track. Never had I witnessed such lack of sportsmanship and such cruel desire. Fights almost broke out around the track.
I thought about that tragedy as I watched her limp off the track. She looked lean and fit and frankly had a terrific body. But at that moment, all I could think about was her health. I’d tried my best to get her to downshift a little, but she was having none of that.
Not long after that, an incident occurred that forced me to break up with her. My downtown romance was in fact a deception. For two years prior to our meeting, I’d been dating the woman that would later become my wife. She lived out in the suburbs, and I was enjoying city life and wasn’t yet convinced it was time to settle down. But after a night in which my downtown girlfriend and I went out dancing, my actual girlfriend rode the train to the city on a Saturday morning. I’d told her that I was spending the night out with a mutual friend named Larry. When I met her at the train station to pick her up she asked, “How was your night out with Larry?”
I launched into some story about what we’d done and she interrupted by saying, “That’s funny. I rode the train in with Larry this morning.”
Busted. A week later I broke off the relationship with my downtown girlfriend and never cheated again. She punched me in the arm and said, “I knew it.” Two weeks later she slept with a friend of mine in act of revenge. Okay, I deserved that.
I share that story because so many moments in life serve as forks in the road. But when I read these stories about young girls in today’s world of running missing their periods due to intense training and getting injured time and again, I think back to the young woman I dated for a while and realize how strength and determination sometimes overcomes common sense. It’s a far more difficult path to sustain high levels of training for women than men. While I got down to 3% body fat at one point in my running career and suffered colds, illness and even migraines from overtraining and burning the candle of life at both ends, I still didn’t have a menstrual cycle to worry about.
Much later in life, about twenty years into the marriage with my wife, she began to experience heavy menstrual flows that were nearly debilitating. Sometimes she dealt with symptoms about three weeks out of four. So I suggested she get a checkup, but she worried that the diagnosis would be an automatic hysterectomy and in her words, “I don’t want to go to some butcher.”
We were in an HMO at the time and finding good health care took diligence. So I empathized, but ultimately took the initiative to find a female gynecologist and urged my wife to set up an appointment. During the examinations a smallish cyst was discovered on one of her ovaries. That led to exploratory arthroscopic surgery, a process that actually never should have happened. The gynecologist broke apart the cyst, an act that allowed the cancer cells to burst forth and spread throughout her abdomen. So in that respect, my wife’s suspicions were well-justified.
Months later after we’d worked through the HMO to find a reputable gynecological oncologist, he performed hysterectomy on my wife and told me he could feel the cancer nodules on the inside of her abdomen “like heavy grit sandpaper.” That doctor was a master in his trade and kept her alive for another eight years. It took a tremendous amount of effort on his part, and on hers. She was one tough lady.
I kind of knew that going in. Within weeks of having first met her, when she was just 22 years old, she had two large cysts removed from her ovaries. I visited her in the hospital following her surgery and she dropped her panties down to show me the surgery scar. “It’s a bikini cut!” she grinned. “Well, I guess this relationship is serious,” I muttered to myself on the way out of the hospital.
The Right Kind of Pride
As it was, we made it through those eight years of treatment for ovarian cancer by working together through cycles of chemotherapy and surgeries and periods of remission. I wrote a book about that survivorship journey titled The Right Kind of Pride; Character, Caregiving and Community. It talks about the power of vulnerability in making life decisions and getting practical and spiritual help through openness and honesty.
But all those experiences come back to some of the basics of what women go through just to function in life. Menstruation is something men never have to go through with their own bodies. But men who ignore the impact of that blood cycle in the lives of the women they know are fools. It may not be a topic men like to think about, yet menstruation is the literal heartbeat of this world, if you think about it.
And you should. Think about it. And give thanks that women have the strength to deal with it, and many other things as well. Bless you all.
Definition; a stroke of luck: something good that happens to you by chance
I headed to the swimming pool today because a rain storm threatened to swamp our region by mid afternoon. Part of me was considering a mountain bike ride, but with temps hanging out in the mid-40s and a massive green creature of evil weather arriving soon, the idea of getting caught in a cold rain was not that appetizing.
Of course that is ironic considering my alternate plan was to dive into the water for 1000 meters of swimming. So many of our choices in this world are odd. We don’t want to get wet in one way so we get soaked in another.
As I started in swimming it felt good to be moving along in the water. I use a pool buoy to warm up after stretching my shoulders for five minutes on the pool deck.
That is just not some tactic to avoid getting into the pool. It is a strategy to prevent muscle pulls. The sudden shock of cool water can cause muscles to seize and cramp. Later during my swim session a friend showed up on the pool deck over the lane next to me. He dipped his toe in the water and looked my way. “It’s cold today,” he lamented. “Last week I dove right in and my back seized up.”
I have had my share of back tension during the last week. On one of those cold mornings where frost covers everything outside, I put our dog Lucy on the leash and started walking her up the block. She got excited by the shimmer of the frost and leapt at the end of the leash. That yank must have torqued the middle of my spine, because the first thing that I noticed was a queasy feeling in my gut. Then the muscles attached to the spinal column started to tighten. That is a warning sign to take things easy. So I called to Lucy and told her in no uncertain terms, “Heel!” We walked together for a half mile but the back was fairly tight when we got home.
So I don’t take back problems lightly. While no sufferer of constant back pain, a few times over the years a back spasm at the base of the trapezoids has caused pain so sharp it takes the breath away.
That’s why I don’t just flop into the pool without stretching some. Plus I like to warm up my shoulders to increase range of motion and prevent injury.
I’m now heading to the pool at least three times a week now to build endurance back up after a layoff period during fall. With swimming, I don’t try to accomplish things all at once by piling on yardage too soon. As a relatively novice swimmer, the risk of overuse injury increases as I tire or lose form. It’s best to build up yardage by increments. Plus it takes a while to adapt mentally to spending more time in the pool.
Creating your own brand of preparation is what adds up to a stroke of good luck in the pool. Mostly that means not hurting yourself until building up enough endurance to actually improve pace and times. Right now I’m at 2:00 per hundred meters. I’m not very fast. On that front, I’ve learned to be patient. Just put one good stroke in front of the other. Then repeat. With a stroke of luck, I’ll get better over time.
The annual rite of running the Turkey Trot in my former hometown of Batavia is going by the wayside this year. For one thing, my knee is slightly swollen from the hit it took by a yellow lab at the dog park on Saturday. But for another thing, my longtime relationship with the town where the race is held needs some breathing room.
I’ve lived in the Fox Valley west of Chicago for most of my lifetime, including formative years in St. Charles, where I graduated from high school. I also lived in Geneva as a young bachelor and later for eleven years with my wife and kids in a little bungalow near the high school. Finally, we moved to Batavia when our children were in fifth and first grade.
A working relationship
By that time in the late 1990s, I had a long working relationship with Batavia. I liked the fact that it was a bit more integrated than the other two cities along the Fox River. The school system had a good reputation, and I’d already served as President of both the Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club.
Those two positions came about as a result of my employment with the newspaper that covered all three of the Tri-cities. Initially I was in advertising sales covering the cities of Batavia and Aurora. Back then the retail world was different. There was a Coast-to-Coast Hardware and a True Value Hardware within a block of each other. There were no businesses out on Randall Road, the county thruway that would fill with big box retailers by the late 1990s.
Service to community
In the late 1980s, I called on mom-and-pop businesses in downtown Batavia and helped some of them launch their first-ever advertising programs. One of those businesses, East China Inn, ultimately grew to four or five locations. The family that runs those businesses has employed their own children and many others, putting kids through college by providing the same high-quality food year after year.
After a couple years in ad sales, I moved into promotions for the newspaper and signed up to serve on the Chamber of Commerce board. When a spot opened up for President, I was nominated and was serving as President-Elect when the acting President had a stroke and had to take a medical leave. So I launched into service and quickly realized there was a problem with how the Chamber was being run. None of the events or activity committees had a budget. They just ran things and turned in the bills. The first thing I did was the require a budget for everything the Chamber did.
In some ways that was ironic, because my financial acumen was not that great at that time in life. But I understood one thing well enough: those minus signs at the end of the spreadsheet meant we were losing money.
The next thing I proposed was a reduction in the size of the Chamber Board. There were twenty members at the time I became President and meetings were a mess with people sitting so far apart in the City Council Chambers and too many voices at work to make good decisions. So we shrank the Board to nine members plus one representative from the schools, parks and city. We finished in the black for the first time in many years.
The night of the actual installment as President, the executive director met my wife in the ladies room and told her, “Well, you won’t be seeing much of your husband this year.” To which my wife replied, “Then you don’t know my husband.”
We ran the chamber with efficiency, keeping board meetings to one hour rather than the two-to-three hour marathons that had preceded my tenure. While that put pressure on the board and committees, it did free people to get back to their working lives. We still managed to put out all new marketing collateral for the Chamber that year, and installed a benefits guarantee for chamber members, that resulted in growth and retention year-to-year.
Despite that fiscal and management responsibility, there were rumors within town that I was just a “carpetbagger” looking out for the interests of the newspaper where I worked. I know who started those rumors, yet it was one of those learning experiences about community life that has to be learned time and again. There are always back channel discussions and small betrayals going on for selfish reasons at all times. The lip service people give to good intentions and their actions often stand in opposition.
I was no carpetbagger. That assessment was a prejudice of sorts, and also a fear of being held accountable that served as a wedge in case of actual confrontation. It is far easier for some people to snark their fears than address them. And that lie about me neglected the fact that we’d actually lived in the City of Batavia as newlyweds. We rented a small house on the less-wealthy east side of town.
I’ve always contended that being a runner or cyclist in a community gives you a unique insight on the rhythms of the place Getting out before dawn to run or ride through town, one finds out who rises early and who lays in bed. The barking dogs usher you down the block, and you wave at the garbage men or public works employees cleaning streets or taking care of some emergency around town.
It also gives you a bit of a critical eye about the place where you live. The potholes and cracks in the sidewalk all become well known. The places where people leave dog shit and don’t pick it up… The graffiti that took place overnight at the park. All these things are absorbed through community osmosis. That includes the arguments and hot engines of residents not getting along. The code violations and crazy displays of people obsessed with Christmas or Halloween, the NRA or some NIMBY topic. And there were many over the years.
Normally only the police encounter the ugly guts of the community, or the fire department. But I’ve stopped to help aged people to their feet after they’ve fallen in some public place. I once ran headlong home to get my car when I found a neighbor all sweaty and leaning on a lamp post in need of help. His heart was failing him and neither of us had a cell phone with us. He later credited me with saving his life.
For twenty years our family lived in a simple ranch home near Memorial Park, the open field with baseball diamonds that once served as a giant practice field for the brick-built high school six blocks away. The cinders from the former track prevented grass from growing in a stripe across center field on the main diamond. I’d walk our dog around that park every day, stopping to chat with wives of weekend warrior softball players and parents of little boys and girls learning the game of baseball. Over twenty years I picked up a lot of forgotten baseballs, some in good condition, others ragged with age. Moss and rust never sleep.
The same was true for so much else in that community. When called upon to serve on a committee to assess the needs of the school district, I wound up writing the Facilities Commission Report that led to passage of a $75M referendum to upgrade buildings in much need of expansion and repair. That included a new indoor track that I’d later help open up for early morning runners during the winter months.
Harsh words from an expert
The City of Batavia wasn’t always open to large-scale change such as that. Back in 1992, the Chamber hired a consultant named Bert Stitt to come into town and assess the community from all angles. His report was scathing in many respects, criticizing the overall lack of vision about the downtown and almost making fun of some aspects of town that showed utter confusion about its identity. The community was largely appalled by Stitt’s harsh truths, but many citizens did take action on one account: building a riverwalk on the isthmus that juts into the Fox River.
That was nice, but it was still a bit like putting lipstick on a pig. There was no new bridge to improve traffic flow through town. No plan to upgrade or enhance the ragged riverbanks or address the jumbled south entrance to town where random zoning left a hodgepodge of buildings that the consultant mocked. Many of these issues are still unresolved thirty years later.
The more admirable aspects of Batavia are its commitment to intellectual pursuits and culture. The Water Street Studios arts center was made from an abandoned factory building. The community committed to building a new library, but then refused to fund its operations. There are writer’s groups and a Pechakucha movement. The music and drama and athletic endeavors of its students are inspiring.
Such is life in almost every small and large town in America. I never thought myself better than the place where I lived and worked. If anything, I watched my own face and body age in the mirror and felt kinship with the little world where I lived, such as it was. During those years I lost a wife to cancer, a mother to cancer, a father to stroke. When they were all gone, I spent time alone in that house in Batavia figuring it all out.
Moving on and out
I moved out of that house in Batavia with the woman I married four years after the passing of my late wife. We live now in North Aurora with a house that backs up to a wetland where a path managed by the Batavia Park District passes by the soggy swampland. That path is flooded ten months out of the year but I love it that way. When I leave to go out on runs there are often several species of ducks, a band of sandhill cranes or crayfish sucking around in the mud near the water. I like that nature cannot be contained by man or anything else in this world. We now walk our dog Lucy on that path.
We’ve yet to see wild turkeys in our backyard, but we have seen pheasant and coyotes, plus plenty of rabbits and squirrels. On Thanksgiving morning I’ll likely get up early and go for a quiet Turkey Trot of my own or with Sue. I like to run out the path and over to Dick Young Forest Preserve where I’ve been birding and hiking for more than thirty years as well.
That means I’ll leave the hubbub of the Turkey Trot in Batavia to others. The course passes right in front of my old house, and every time I run past my mind is flooded with memories of all those years and how I even eventually came to work for the City of Batavia, but that didn’t work out either. I think I knew the place too well, with all its flaws and history, and mine as well, for that to have lasted for long.
So it will be a Thanksgiving morning with the clouds and cool air for company. And that’s good enough for me.
2019 has been a doggone tough year for me in terms of strange little injuries. But yesterday an incident took place that was a doggone fluke.
Our dog Lucy loves to run and play at a large local dog park Our weekly visits are a mixed bag of joy and possible confrontation. Most weeks she plays well with other dogs and things go fine. But there are always couple dogs that get touchy or Lucy pushes a bit too much and that sets off a snarlfest. So I typically keep close watch on her.
But that wasn’t what caused a problem for me yesterday. Lucy was busy wrestling with a pointer named Apple ten yards away when a big yellow lab broke from the thin woods forty yards away and came running toward me. I’d given that dog a big butt scratch earlier and a happy rub on the ears too boot. So I wasn’t initially concerned there was a problem, but he was coming fast. I stood there wondering when he’d veer to one side or the other to avoid hitting me in the knees. He never veered.
That ninety-pound yellow labrador retriever ran right through my legs without a pause and kept on running. The impact knocked me off my feet. I lay there on my side, stunned by what had just happened. The owner of the dog Lucy was wrestling stood nearby and witnessed the event. He inquired, “Are you okay?”
I muttered, quite honestly, “No, I’m not.” I was scared that I’d been really hurt.
Then he asked, not knowing what else to say, “What was up with that?”
“I have no idea,” I replied, climbing back up to my feet. By that time the lab had run back toward its owner. There was no barking or malicious behavior on the dog’s part. I’ll never know what went through that dog’s mind as it took out my legs at probably fifteen miles an hour. It’s a happy pup that I’ve seen a few times at the park. It was just a doggone fluke. The price of random activity at the dog park.
I likely should have moved before the dog struck me. When dogs in a group are chasing and playing, they often lose their bearings and crash into each other or the people standing around watching the action. Dogs love physical contact just as much as people do. I used to love playing basketball at open gym because it gave me a chance bang into other people and let out aggressions. Did I get injured? Not that often. I was a good player and athletic enough to handle myself.
So I blame myself for getting splatted like a frog on the road. I should have known that the dog might well have seen that speed strike as a form of play. That’s the best explanation I can offer.
The dog’s owner wandered over to check on me after a minute, and I didn’t have much to say. Certainly I didn’t blame him for his dog’s actions. Shit happens at the dog park. I mean that literally and figuratively.
A few minutes after the lab took me out the play between Lucy and Apple turned aggressive. There was snarling and teeth and I stepped in to break it up.
We left after that. I know dog trainers aren’t big fans of open dog parks like the one we visit. It’s hard to predict what will go on because the behavior of dogs is so unpredictable and the level of training and control on the part of the owners is so randomly uneven. A few weeks back there were dogs that bit each other and that’s never good. It the same on the human playing field as well. The lyrics from the Pink Floyd Song “Dogs” reminds us of that:
You got to be crazy, you gotta have a real need You gotta sleep on your toes and when you’re on the street You got to be able to pick out the easy meat with your eyes closed And then moving in silently, down wind and out of sight You got to strike when the moment is right without thinking
The knee grew a little sore by evening. I lay on the couch watching the movie Free Solo, which was hardly a relaxing endeavor. But it took my mind off concerns that the outside ligament might be damaged or that the meniscus inside my knee might be torn. I’m a year-and-a-half out from surgery to fix a previous tear and happy to be running pain free.
The good news is that I managed to run a hilly five miles this morning with Sue at the Morton Arboretum. The first two miles were a bit sketchy and ginger as the joint loosened up. The knee band that I’d used to hold the torn meniscus a couple years ago came in handy this morning as it provided a little back up stability.
It’s a doggone shame to pick up an injury anytime it happens. But the sight of that dog charging at me taught an important lesson. Never take the random actions of nature for granted. They can knock you to the doggone ground.