The snowblower in my veins

The hard wall of snow at the end of the drive had to be whittled down 3″ at a time. 

I got out to shovel and use the snowblower just after 6:00 a.m. this morning  We received about seven inches of wet snow last night. To make matters more interesting, our driveway was clogged with four of the five cars we own in our household. I’d forgotten to pull my Subaru Outback into the garage. The rest are transports for the 20-somethings who live with us. 

There were drifts in front of the car bumpers. I skimmed past them with the snowblower that my daughter’s boyfriend had mercifully gotten to work by cleaning off the sparkplug head last night. It roared into action this morning after nudging the choke lever into position, giving two pumps of the fuel primer and one hard yank on the cord.

Man that thing is loud when it comes on. 

Wall of snow

A work in progress and an illustration of life itself? 

It was a vital instrument this morning given the wall of frozen snow blocking the end of our driveway. I had to carve away at the wall of snow by shaving off inches at a time. Finally I broke through after narrowing it down from three feet wide to a width where the snowblower could chaw through the chunks tossed there by the snowplow during the night.

It’s true: All of life involves problem-solving of one kind or another. Some of that is hard and some is easy. Clearing our way out of the snow would be a game of sorts if it wasn’t so damned hard in places. 

Sweating it out

Even using the snowblower, I worked up a sweat underneath the hooded sweatshirt I wore to keep out the wind. That layer of sweat on my body got me thinking about how grateful I am to have stayed in some kind of shape all these years. This was heart attack snow for sure; wet, heavy and re-frozen into thick drifts and impenetrable banks.

Truth be told, even the basic layer of snow was hard work to move. I’d shoveled enough on the walk and top of the driveway to realize this was not the type of snow one should wrestle with by hand. Hence the snowblower phase. 

Performance measures

The little red Toro that could. Nothing fancy. Just clears the snow. 

We can fuss and fret about our race performances all we want. Lament the loss of speed to age and the competitive fury to recognition that it is only age-group stuff that matters these days. 

What truly matters in the end is how this fitness stuff helps us function in day-to-day life. That also reminds me that I’ve too long ignored the recommendation of my doctor to take medication to control cholesterol and prevent blockages in my circulatory system. My mom and dad both had troubles with heart disease or stroke, so the family history outweighs my vanity and pride. 

If I need a snowblower to clear out my veins and arteries in the long run, so be it. Whatever works to keep things safe and navigable. 

HI EVERYONE. Hope you had a nice Thanksgiving. Is there anything on your Christmas Fitness List this year? Would love to hear about it. cudworthfix@gmail.com…Even your wish list might be fun to share…even if there’s no way in hell you’re getting that $10K Pinarello. 

Posted in aging, aging is not for the weak of heart, anxiety, Christopher Cudworth, competition, healthy aging, healthy senior | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Turkey Trot treatise

A Thanksgiving morning road race has become a tradition for millions of runners. Our local race is four miles, which is about the perfect racing distance for the masses. A little longer than the typical 5K, yet not as taxing as a 10K. 

There’s just one problem. Our race starts up the Houston Street Hill in downtown Batavia, Illinois. That stupid hill lasts about 200 meters and lasts long enough to put you into oxygen debt and suffer dreaded the dead leg syndrome before you even get to the half-mile mark. 

Distractions of all kinds

Fortunately the course quickly flattens out. But no matter how much I warm up, the initial fatigue is pretty damned distracting. I do run hills now and then. But more then than now. Which means the strategy was to shorten my stride, keep my head down and wait for the incline to disappear. 

That’s not exactly what happens of course. You look up to check your progress despite all your best intentions. I’m not saying that staring at your feet as you run up a hill is the best strategy at all. Not saying that. I’m just saying that I knew it was going to hurt and decided to pretend that the climb was shorter than I imagined. Instead, it was like one of those long and horrid runs on a treadmill where you’re on the machine for what seems like an eternity and look down to see the readout and it says. “.85 miles.” 

I swear to (and at) myself at that point. Can’t say I’m a huge fan of treadmill running. Not a super fan of indoor cycling either. But this year it appears we’ll have Zwift software to entertain us on both fronts. 

Lance back in the Yellow Jersey Discovery Daze

Because a few years back at the start of my serious cycling period, I recorded 7 DVDs of Tour de France coverage. The recordings were from the last year that Lance won the race. I reveled in the re-created drama while pedaling away in the large basement. Yet when it was all done after a week or so, there was no way that I was going to go back and watch it all over again. One can talk just so much Tour de France. 

Deja Vu and the Gumby Blues

Unfortunately, a little bit of that jaded sensation can creep into in my regular racing and training. Some experiences become so familiar it’s impossible for it not to feel a bit repetitive or even drift into the realm of deja vu at times. I’ve decided to embrace that fully. My days of winning races is long past, but the fatigue feels basically the same whether you’re up at the front of the race fighting for the lead or just struggling to keep the Juggling Gumby guy from beating you to the Finish Line.

In my case this Turkey Trot, the Gumby actually beat me, cracking jokes and talking to the crowd the whole way. He runs 7:00 pace wearing a big green suit that must add at least 20% in terms of wind resistance. Gumby may be green but he gave me a case of the Running Blues.   

So the annual Turkey Trot has its unique challenges. I also got beat by full-grown people wearing Turkey costumes and by little gobblers half my size. I told one of them “Way to go dude.” He returned the favor, “You too sir.”

Middle of the Pack

I’ll admit that I’ll never get completely used to being a Middle of the Packer. Ever.

But I have gotten used to running my own race pace no matter what my surroundings are. Using my best yoga breathing techniques, I find the groove that’s best and focus on “running well,” just as I counsel my wife when she’s frustrated by her running. After running the Turkey Trot five years in a row, I know the weather’s always going to be slightly cloudy, a bit windy and chilly. Still, I was hoping that racing a half-marathon a few weeks ago was going to make running a four-miler feel like a cinch. 

It doesn’t always work that way. That stupid hill at the start makes sure of that. My legs really felt great in warmups. I even stood just behind the second row of runners at the starting line. I was chatting with a pair of Bradley University women distance runners when lean and fit former neighbor trotted back to the start line and saw me. He looked at me a little incredulously and asked, “How are you running these days?” 

“Don’t worry,” I told him. “I’m just up front for old time’s sake.” 

Etiquette and pace

Annual Turkey Trot
Happy to click that watch and be done. No Gumby in sight. 

Understand this: I don’t like the old and slow folks who start up front and get run over any more than the next guy. But in my case, I know the rhythms of a race better than almost anyone on this planet. I was going to run fast enough not to hold anyone back. Plus the race announcer told us that anyone near 7:00 pace should stand up front. I was just following orders based on my own hopeful expectations. 

Unfortunately, I came through the first mile not at 7:00 pace, but 7:19. Then two miles at 14:55. The last two miles slowed a bit as well. As I trundled past my former home that stands at the three-mile mark on the Turkey Trot course, it struck me how many times I’ve run down that street dating back to 1996. The new owner keeps the place shade-shut and sullen. No remorse there. 

Keeping the faith

Despite the inevitable fatigue of racing half-fit, I held my own at 7:37 pace through the slog of nostalgia and other mental detritus. I even kicked home the last 400 meters and ran full bore down the damned hill we had to run up at the start. I stopped my watch at 30:37.

Grant you, I was hoping to break 30:00 this year but the universe clearly had something else for me in mind. Trotting across the finish line, I noted that it just felt good to run in my classic LLBean purple top and bright new multicolored cap. A friend gave me that hat in honor of gay rights.  I feel like it’s right to let the world know that it’s still a bright idea to love everyone. Jesus said so. The rest of that legalistic crap that people throw at the world is ridiculous, fearful and ignorant. 

Time with friends and family

On Saturday night we visited the Electric Holiday Parade in St. Charles, Ill. Cheesy, but fun. 

I petted some dogs while waiting for Sue to finish a few minutes behind me. She had a break scheduled in training the last two weeks and this was her break from the break.

We had fun running and rode back home with her sister Julie and beau Mike Czarnik, a stalwart dude who ran the exact 7:00 pace I was hoping to achieve. He’s racing a marathon in San Antonio next week. This was a snappy little tuneup for him. 

All that behind us, we checked the results and I’d finished third in my age group. Wasn’t concerned about picking up the award because the large crowd arriving for Thanksgiving celebrations was a reward enough for the day. 

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Is it Peter Frampton, or is it me?

Last year it occurred to me that my universe might be converging with a rather famous person. See, there is almost no facial difference between my delightfully senior mug and that of a certain rock star named Peter Frampton. 

You may recall the career of Frampton. His big rise to fame came during the 1970s with an album called Frampton Comes Alive. It was so popular on college campuses at that time one it was almost a requirement for graduation that you be able to recite the lyrics from one of its biggest hits, “Show me the way.” 

Classic 70s Rock on The Midnight Special

Now, my rock career never went very far. In fact, it pretty  much ended with a performance at a Key Club banquet in the spring of 1975. That’s when a friend of mine and I had the insane idea to play our guitars and sing in front of our peers at the annual awards event. Somewhere in the middle of playing Stairway To Heaven my friend Orland grew frustrated either with me or his own playing and launched into a massive solo bearing no real relationship to the music we had agreed to play. 

I lost concentration when he went off his rocker. My voice went faint, a reflection of the already fearsome lack of confidence I had in my singing voice to begin with.

The entire disaster wound down with some dissolving chords and a clank of the microphone at the end as I sat the thing down and left the stage. One of the pretty girls that had appeared on our Key Club calender stopped me after to the banquet to compliment my singing. But I know she was just trying to be nice. It helps people to commiserate when they’ve born witness to such public pain. 

My music career only started up again thirty years later with an invitation to play guitar in a church praise band. Eventually I even wound up near a microphone with the responsibility to sing. I chose a song that fit within my range and after it was said and done, a spouse of one of the regular singers told me, “You should sing more often. You did great.” 

And I replied, “Thank you. But I know my limits.” I only wish that I had said, “Yeah, but I’m no Peter Frampton.” 

Convergent mevolution

So I was certainly no Peter Frampton back in the 70s, nor would I ever be anything close to the musical talent of a Peter Frampton at any point in my life. Yet the fact that our looks have converged at this relatively late stage in life remains amusing to me. 

Me at the closest I’ll ever come to looking like a rock star. 
Peter Frampton actually being a rock star well into his 60s and 70s

I did sport relatively long hair in the 1970s, but nothing like Frampton’s. His hair was long, blonde, and feathery. That’s the stuff girls dream about running their fingers through as he croons to them. 

My hair was thick and tinged with blonde only in the high summer months. Otherwise it was dark and thick. Over time, some girls ran their fingers through my hair as well. But you can see that turned out to be limited engagement.

We can rightly imagine that Frampton in his rock prime must have gotten laid quite a few times. That’s what rock gods do. Yet in his interview with Howard Stern he admits that all he ever really wanted to do was play guitar.  He related that he had his fair share of time with the ladies, but in his own words, “I didn’t want to be a homewrecker.” 

Keeping it real

I had a chance to be a homewrecker with a sweet little red-headed runner that I met in my early 20s. She was bored in her marriage and making it obvious during our runs together that she was looking for excitement. We kissed one night but in the moment, I thought better of it. I couldn’t stop thinking about that guy at home, how jealous and hurt he’d be if he learned his wife was messing around. Granted, she made him out to be a heartless jerk, but that was not my call to make. I cut that relationship off at the bud. 

The closest I came to actual rock star adoration was a period of groupie-like attention from a high school cheerleader that made it her goal to have sex with the top runner on the team each season. That was me as a junior in high school, so we flirted about and had our share of trysts. She acted a bit like the Annie Savoy character played by Susan Sarandon in the movie Bull Durham, a seductress looking to pop the cherry of the lead athlete on the team each year.

Trouble was, at the naive age of seventeen, I was just as stupid about sex as the phenom pitcher Nuke Laloosh in Bull Durham. And much like the overeager Nuke, I fumbled through our dates before that cheerleader went off to find a Kevin Costner type to paint her toenails while wearing one of her loose-fitting nightgowns. More power to her. A girl deserves what she can get in this life. I wasn’t quite ready for all that. 

Secret words

Or perhaps I needed a few tricks up my sleeve like the suggestive talkbox lyrics Frampton used to preach about sex and seduction in his songs. He wound up seducing the entire world instead, as his Frampton Comes Alive album has sold more than 10,000,000 copies. Think about that.  

Yes, we’ve lived different lives, Peter Frampton and I. But I think he’s turned out to be quite handsome even without his flowing blonde hair, bare chest and open shirt.

As for me, I’ll take whatever Doppelganger I can get, because I know for a fact that I’ll still never be a rock star in real life. 

Only in my own mind. 

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Survival in a cat and mouse world

This morning while removing my wife’s bike carrier from the back of her Outlander, we pulled the metal insert out of the bumper mount and found, to our surprise, a stock of bird seed pouring out of the three-inch metal pipe. 

Mice had somehow carted all that seed up there for winter storage. We can only imagine the journey they’d taken and the fastidiousness with which they conducted their forays. Mice can store quite a bit of seed in their face pouches, so they must have ventured from the stored bird feed inside our garage (about four feet away) climbed up the tires and clambered along the axle to get there. It was all stored in there before I moved the bird seed sacks to an outside storage bin two weeks ago. My wife’s been traveling and not driving her vehicle all that much. The mice perhaps rightly assumed that the giant structure was going to sit there all winter. A perfect place to make a home. 

Well, if you’re planning winter stocks and don’t want to run out sometime in mid-January, then the work of storing up seed for food and stashing it inside a dark hiding place is wise and winsome work. It’s fair to say that mice are “smart” that way.  They’re not ‘smart’ in the the way that human beings think in terms of intellect, yet their instincts and highly evolved little bodies give them powerful tools for survival. 

Nesting instincts

As humans, we’re not always so smart either.

I well recall a day back in 1981 when I traveled to Hawaii with the father of a woman I was dating at the time. He was a travel agent who loved golfing and wanted a playing partner for the week on the island of Oahu. The entire journey would cost me about $300, so it was insane to turn it down. It remains the only time I ever visited that state. There were some real adventures about which I’ve never written here on WeRunandRide.com, but we’ll cover that another day. 

A golf bag became a death trap

What I want to relate in this context is something that happened the minute we pulled our golf bags out of the trunk in the parking lot of a rather posh golf club. My bag tipped over and out spilled the biggest mouse nest you’ve ever seen. It was made of large strands of yard, torn up baseball leather and just fuzz that came from who knows where. It also happened to hold the carcasses of the entire family of mousies, quite dead and emaciated.

Apparently I’d left the bag lying down for several months. That’s when the mice moved in. Then I must have tipped the bag up in the garage. Well, the entire interior of the bag was made of slick black plastic. The golf clubs themselves were not much help for the mice to climb out of there either. The golf club shafts were shiny slick aluminum. In what must have been a sad, somewhat sordid tale, the mice must climbed as high as the rubber grips would allow, then slid back down. The myth of Sisyphus is alive and well. 

I quickly kicked the mouse nest that had fallen out of my bag under the car, but not before my host had seen it. A quick flash of disgust crossed his face and he muttered, somewhat impatiently, “Come on, we’re late.” 

Native instincts

That was an embarrassing moment in part because the environment of a golf course is supposed reflect the refined nature of the human race, free from any traces of a hayseed our country existence. Many courses have strict rules for decorum and attire. These include proper footwear, no wearing of blue jean shorts or sporting sleeveless tee shirts. It’s all about maintaining the propriety of a generally wealthy appearance even if you’re poor as a skunk. Pretend, as it were, that you are sophisticated enough to go along with the culture of the game, and don’t act like a goddamned hillbilly.  Thus my mouse nest moment was a breach of every golf rule in the books. 

Life often imitates nature, and the other way around

But let’s recall why the mice incident with my bag happened. The mice had found a long dark cylinder in which to crawl inside and live. They built a cozy nest at the far end of the plastic log where it seemed safe to hang out. Those age-old native instincts seemed trustworthy enough. 

Then their plastic log got tipped up and their lives took a genuine and fatal turn for the worse. Game over. 

All revved up for survival

You likely know a few stories about mice building nests in the engines of cars as well. Squirrels and chipmunks will do the same if the vehicle sits there long enough. Small rodents also like making homes in the heating systems of cars. I had that happen once in a Subaru that I owned.  I’d let it sit in the garage a few days when I turned on the ignition only to have mice detritus fly out of the vents when the heat was turned on. 

You can’t blame wild critters for trying to make a go of it any way they can. Even cats are known to climb up into the warm engine of a car. Our pet feline Benny was burned and injured when he was a wild little kitty that crawled up into a car engine. He was brought to the office of a veterinarian friend who fixed his injuries and put him out there for adoption. We took him in and he’s the sweetest cat ever. 

Benny the cat survived a near fatal incident after he crawled up in a car engine to keep warm

But Benny’s also a pretty good mouse-catcher. We don’t have many mice that get into the basement but Benny finds them if they do. He snags them with his claws and brings them to the front hallway where he bats them around and generally shows off his prize. I take them off his “hands” at that point. 

Cat and mouse game of survival

We don’t necessarily like to think about our own ‘human survival’ in terms of a cat and mouse game . There are so many layers of sustenance and politics and economics between what happens in our daily lives and human survival that we’re largely insulated from the dynamics of raw survival.

My daughter Emily Cudworth and I joined a falconry group on a hunt several years ago

Hunters who kill animals and eat the meat know the reality of that connection much better than most of us, and I greatly respect their efforts. Humans have been killing and eating game for hundreds of thousands of years. We’re simply more efficient at it than ever before. These days most of us leave the killing of animals to others and prefer to buy our meat at the supermarket without getting blood all over our hands. No cat and mouse game is necessary there, unless you’re chasing down the last turkey for sale in the freezer. I’ve done that. But that’s also a story for another day. 

Artificial glory

We also run and ride and swim in artificial glory, often on manufactured landscapes such as roads or other manmade structures. We do so wearing fancy shoes, riding $5,000 bikes or swimming in pools filled with more chemicals, it seems, than water itself. 

Thus it might help to stop for a moment before you head into the Thanksgiving holiday season (here in America anyway) and give thanks for the fact that your life probably isn’t such a cat and mouse game of raw survival.

Or tell me what you’re grateful for by sending an email at cudworthfix@gmail.com. And if life isn’t so great for you, please write me as well. I care about you. So do many others.

The entire Thanksgiving tradition is based on the idea that early European settlers were graced by the food and hospitality of Native Americans who helped them survive. Starvation and death were much nearer to those trying to survive in strange lands. How ironic it was that once survival was assured, the payback for that original Native American hospitality was a nationalistic cat and mouse chase across the country until most of the mouse population was wiped from existence. That is the bitter flipside of Thanksgiving, if you think about it. 

Our precious stash

It all gives one a new perspective on that stash of bird seed spilled on the driveway. It’s hard to sustain a live-and-let-live worldview when some things are automatically characterized as “pests” or unwanted residents. The many generations, nationalities and races of immigrants that have come to America for centuries know what it’s like to be objects of persecution. But in essence every person on earth is an immigrant on this planet.

It’s also easy to forget that our lives are dependent on the sacrifices of so many others to make this world work for all of us. It’s so easy to cease being thankful for what we do have or to become embittered, defensive or covetous about what we don’t have. America is being torn asunder by that last sentence, all at the hands of someone that has much, is satisfied by nothing, and who loves to ridicule even those that have sacrificed all for the sake of others. It’s the ugliest form of cat and mouse ever invented by the human race. Politics.  

A white-eyed vireo on the hunt for food on a spring day

Rather than dwell on the ugliness, I recommend going for a walk or a very slow run through the wildest place you can find this week. Look around at the traces of wildlife you see and study the places where they live. Take stock of your own feet as they touch the ground. Realize that all of us are only on earth for a very short while to leave footprints and dole out hugs to our friends and family. Let Thanksgiving enter your hearts and minds in all the right ways. 

And be grateful. 

Posted in aging, aging is not for the weak of heart, anxiety, blood on the highway, Christopher Cudworth, cycling, PEAK EXPERIENCES, riding, running, swimming, triathlete, triathlon, triathlons | Leave a comment

Rocket Bicycle Studio offers a welcome twist on the bike shop experience

IMG_0663.JPGBack in June, 2015 I wrote about the remarkable team talent of Jessica Laufenberg and Peter Oyen, owners of Rocket Bicycle Studio in Verona, Wisconsin. Since that last article, they moved the company a couple blocks east into a wonderfully converted building with an interior that screams “go out and ride.”

At the same time, it screams “come on inside and ride,” because their indoor training facility is big and spacious. That means the “den of pain” you create for yourself while riding a computrainer never feels too confined.

Bike fittings

IMG_2016

Sarah Paige Photography

Upstairs the fitting system run by Laufenberg now has room to move as well. Having been fitted a couple times on different bikes on her machines, I can testify to the benefit of “dialing in” and making your bike feel like part of your body.

It all falls under the brand tagline of Putting a Twist On Your Bike Shop Experience. The couple knows both road cycling and triathlon inside and out. Peter’s wrenching abilities are well-known, and in combination with Jessica’s bike-fitting and their access to quality lines of bikes that they trust to perform well, RBS is a bike shop for everyone from beginners on up to pros.

Plus they’re fun people, always welcoming, and they’re still situated at the head of the Ironman Madison outer loop. That means summer days are rife with triathletes banging themselves silly in the heat and hills of south-central Wisconsin. There has always been nutrition to be purchased and advice to be doled out, but now Rocket Bicycle Studio has upped its game with a planned coffee bar and other beverages that endurance athletes love to consume pre or post workout.

IMG_0667.JPGThere’s even more fun waiting for athletes on the merchandise tables. Peter collaborated with a soap-maker who developed a signature line bearing his name. They smell awesome, and this rider brought home a bar for the home shower.

Peter and Jessica

Peter and Jessica

There are also belts and wallets made from bike parts and tires. There is nothing missing in the practical parts department either. If you live in the Midwest and want to have a great experience riding the incredibly scenic territory west of Madison, there’s no better place to park your bike than in the now-expansive lot of Rocket Bicycle Studio. You can get your bike tuned if you call ahead, or plan a fitting if you’re just not sure you’re optimizing your road or aero power ratios. During fitting, Jessica can literally show you power differentials between right and left legs, and demonstrate the difference a tweak or conversion can make in terms of watts and power output.

My wife and I have made several visits to RBS for fittings and ride visits during her training for Madison Ironman and Half Ironman races the last few years. But we also stop by just to socialize a bit. It’s nice to have these friendly points of contact and departure when you’re riding in any part of the country. Rocket Bicycle Studio is setting an interesting standard for how to go about serving cyclists and triathletes in a fitness market that keeps changing in terms of profit centers and sustainability.

The shop is sponsoring its own events as well, and you’ll never go wrong spending time in the active lifestyle market of Madison, which is surrounded with peppy little communities such as Verona, Middleton, Fitchburg and more. Each has its unique eateries and bars, and camping next to Lake Monona at the county park in Middleton is about the perfect way for triathletes to spend a training weekend. Hot showers, ready access to a clean lake for swimming, running on the Pheasant Branch Park trails and riding far out in the deep hills is about as good as it gets.

Can’t recommend it enough. And when you visit Rocket Bicycle Shop and get to know some of the locals, it’s nice to know there’s always support if you need it.

Posted in Christopher Cudworth, competition, cycling, cycling the midwest, swimming, trail running, tri-bikes, triathlete, triathlon, triathlons, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Sweet Season: Bringing it all home

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Volume one •  Volume two •  Volume three • Volume Four • Volume five 

Volume six   Volume seven

Going into the last meet of the 1978 season, we felt as if we were still capable of doing big things at nationals. Our highest team place in our four years at Luther had been eighth place. I don’t even recall where that particular meet was held. What I do recall is that our freshman year national meet was run through the mud in Boston, Massachusetts.

Then came a national meet held in the snow of Cleveland. Both were cold and miserable efforts. Running tights had not yet been invented, so we tried on nylon stockings and even pulled up long john underwear before realized that neither would work. So we took to the snowy golf course in Cleveland bare-legged with the rest of the frozen-thighed masses trudging through snow and mud at the NCAA D3 nationals.

I threw up after the race, and a bit of errant vomit landed on the snow-covered shoe of a competitor. He yelled and punched me in the head. I didn’t really blame him. 

Let it happen

So there wasn’t much glory to build upon going into nationals our senior year. We’d finished only fifth at regionals, yet the season behind us had been so successful that there was a quiet confidence among us still. Coach Finanger built upon this near-term history as our strength and hope. Our daily pre-workout meetings were rich with motivational talks and chalkboard documentation of our training up to that point. It all added up. We were ready to run great if we 1) made it happen and 2) let it happen. 

If that seems contrarian, then you don’t really understand distance running. It takes all sorts of force and work to become a better runner, but then you have to relax. And yes, it’s counterintuitive. But that’s how it works.

On the Friday before nationals we all piled into a fleet of cars to make the drive down to Augustana College in Rock Island. The trip took us about four hours. A bevy of fans and supporters would follow us, including faculty and those that had watched us perform well all year. Our parents would drive in from locations in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. Those states were the bedrock for Luther students.

Considering North Central

The best team in the nation, without a doubt, would be North Central College. Their coach Al Carius would later be named NCAA Coach of the Century for the many national championships his teams racked up in all his years coaching the Cardinals. Their jerseys were vertically striped red and white. You simply could not miss them. The trick was to keep up with them. That was the tough part.* (see notes at bottom

NOrth Central College 1978

The 1978 National championship North Central College CC team

Our Lutheran rival Augustana College was also hoping for a good performance on their home course. They’d beaten us in our own invitational. Their blue and gold jerseys were so familiar from racing them so many times over the years, we almost felt like we were part of the same team. Beyond those known factors, the national meet was a mystery in many ways. It was impossible to know for sure who we’d be up against for some kind of trophy. That was our goal: run our best and bring home some hardware. Somehow. 

Duke rules

The night before the meet, our team gathered at a pizza joint for dinner. Coach didn’t really watch us all that carefully as we dined. That allowed one of our runners, known better by his nickname “Duke,” to order a pitcher of beer.

That wasn’t all that uncommon a sight among most college cross country teams. But this pitcher of beer was intended for one person only: Himself. In fact he dipped his head straight down to the edge of the pitcher, grabbed the handle on one side and took a long swig with his eyes wide in delight. We all laughed. 

We knew from experience over four years of college that Duke knew how to handle his liquor. But we had also been joined at our table by a runner from Central College, the guy that had won our conference meet earlier in the year. Either his coach wasn’t around or he simply wanted company the night before the meet. In any case, we’d forgiven him the bitter speech he’d made in victory after conference. We all wanted him to run well to represent our Iowa schools. He was a generally conservative guy however, and as he watched Duke down that booze his eyes grew wide in wonderment. We all just chuckled under our breath. Luther guys had a reputation for being a bit crazy. This only proved it.  

We all headed back to the hotel. On the way, we wanted to stop and grab ice cream. Coach protested a bit thinking that ice cream might not be the best way to prep for a big meet like nationals, but he relented. 

Ups and downs

The weather had been up and down in temperatures going into mid-November. Snow and slush had struck the Quad-Cities the day before we drove down. We worried a bit that nationals might turn into a reprise of that awful snowy meet back in Cleveland. Instead, the weather warmed and cleared the day before. Any leftover precipitation dried up and the course on Rock Island Arsenal would prove dry and fast.

1978 NCAA SI

Dan Henderson can be seen just off the shoulder of Salazar (T345) in the blue shirt and orange hat of Wheaton College. Henry Rono (349) would fade to near last place.

In fact the course on Credit Island would turn out to be so fast that the runner who went on to win that year, Dan Henderson, took the first mile out in 4:23. That was Division 1 quality running. Sure enough, after easily winning the D3 meet, Henderson was allowed to enter the D1 race two days later.** He ran well enough to place 10th, earning All-American status at two distinct levels of running. Henderson’s time in the D3 8K race was 23:42, so clearly his presence at the D1 race was no fluke.

A D3 ripper

In the Division III race Henderson made the entire field tear through the first two miles. Our original lead runner that season might have enjoyed that early pace given his 4:08 mile speed.  His mid-season injury to his had slowed his training, yet he still ran strong enough at nationals to help lead our team.

The man who emerged to lead our team at nationals that day was good old Duke. Our lead beer drinker and party guy used his 1:54 800-meter speed to get out fast in the first couple miles.  Duke had a constitution as steely as his resolve to help us achieve our goals. He would only miss individual All-American status by a stride or two, and his 8K time in the high 24:00 range would turn out to be one of the best performances by any runner on our squad the entire season. Or any season, for that matter.

Our two freshman also ran superbly. At times I ran next to one or both of them, but with less than a half mile to go I was our fifth man, the last scoring place on our team.

Focus and determination

The course swerved around tall grassy areas alternating with long straightaways. Every runner on the course clung to those tangents trying to take the straightest line between them. A few even cut across the brush edges where the grass brushed their lower legs. I was one of them. 

With a mile to go, something in me dialed into an entirely different kind of focus. Time seemed to slow even as the pace picked up. I felt a tremendous surge of awareness manifesting itself in resolve that I could not allow even a single runner to pass. With 200 meters to go, I took a quick glance around me and sucked in a big breath before starting the kick that would bring me home. I knew that our 1-4 guys were already through the chute. It was up to me to close out the deal. 

My speed increased as I passed one or two guys heading toward the finish. My mind’s picture of those moments recalls the bright light of the November sun as it shone all around us. With five steps to go I watched my own shadow pass ahead of me through the finish line. The race was over. I’d run 25:16 for 8K and placed 62nd place overall. Now we’d all have to wait for the results.

Aftermath

IMG_9876.JPGThe relative quiet following a big running race is still punctuated by the voices of runners recalling their efforts. The shaking of hands with teammates and competitors commences. For all present, it is the inspiring sight of distance runners coursing through the trees and chasing each other back through the colorful chute that is one of the most inspiring visages in all of sports.

It all becomes richer when a national title is on the line. When the running’s over, and the athletes start pulling on sweats to gather near the announcer and hear results, the buzz of voices takes on a different tone. For all those races you’ve run that seemed important, there is only one that really matters in that moment. The one you just ran. 

We stood around as the judges did their work. It took a while, but finally the scores were tallied and checked. Then re-checked. Apparently the results were quite close. Then the announcer started calling out teams that had earned the top ten spots by order of their finish.

As each college was announced, we all became a bit anxious. By the time the sixth and fifth place teams were announced, our hands were clenched in wonder over whether we’d placed in the Top Ten at all. For a few moments, our hopes truly wavered. After all, we’d been fifth in our own regional. Why did we think we could leapfrog over teams that had beaten us just two weeks before in Pella, Iowa? It all felt surreal. 

Top tier

Finally the fourth Place was named at 159 points. Then came St. Thomas at 152 points. We’d beaten them earlier that season at the St. Olaf Invite. So we whispered, “They sure had a good day.” 

Then the announcer said over the loudspeaker, “And in Second Place, with 151 points….Luther College!”

We’d done it. Second place in the nation. By only one point. Second in the nation after placing only fifth in our regional meet. We erupted in cheers and admittedly behaved as if we’d won the whole damned thing. North Central College had finished with 60 points to win the national meet by more than 90 points. We didn’t care. They were in a league of their own. We’d done what we came to do. Take home some hardware. 

Satisfaction

IMG_9877.JPGAdmittedly, we were shocked. Yet we were also joyous that after three years of ups and downs, injuries and disappointments, we’d finally made good on our potential. In my case it came on the heels of the previous year’s cross country season when I’d been wracked by my first real encounter with depression. To come out of that dark period and help lead the team truly made it a sweet season.

Now grant you: what we accomplished didn’t really constitute a miracle. It surely didn’t mean much in context with the rest of the world’s problems, or even our own. Perhaps winning it all might have qualified as a miracle. And to that end, a Luther College team would win the national title in 1985. I was out in the work world by then and heard tales of how that group of guys had overcome heat and humidity down south to win Luther’s first-ever national cross country championship.

A co-worker at my office happened to visit Luther College that year with his daughter, and he kindly bought me a tee shirt with the national championship logo featured on the front. I hated my job at that time, and in some ways that vicarious “victory” provided both the inspiration and motivation to move on. 

A crazy ride into the sweet season

It had all been a somewhat a crazy ride, those four years at Luther. Twenty years later I visited campus for a college reunion and used our old cross country locker room to change before going out on a run. To my surprise, the athletic tape that was stuck above our lockers in 1978 was still there. It bore our names in black magic marker. Elly. Duke. Cud. Moon. Dani. A year or so later that locker room was remodeled and the names finally disappeared. But the magic marker legacy had held on for many years. Perhaps it actually all meant something. 

IMG_9855.JPGAll those miles. All those laughs. All the joking around about topics ranging from sex to beer and classes. All those cold runs in the rain and double workouts in the heat. It had all led to something in the end. But most importantly, it also meant that everyone counted. Every last guy who pushed in those workouts or had led us in previous seasons. They contributed in many ways. So did the guys who came before us and the guys and gals who would follow. Luther’s women’s program that had started during our freshman year blossomed and turned out national champions as well. We hadn’t done any of it conventionally or predictably. Some of it we even did wrong. But we did it. That’s the thing…

To mom

Following that nationals race I noticed my folks standing away from our group with the other parents. All were smiling of course. I walked over and hugged my little mother, who stood just 5’3”. She’d given birth to four tall, athletic boys and one girl who did not survive after childbirth. My mother attended so many baseball games, track meets, soccer matches, basketball games, cross country races and other sports activities there should have been a Hall of Fame display in her honor at our humble home. But what she got from me that day was a hug that told her thank you. That was mostly what she wanted from her boys. Hugs.

To dad

Then I turned to my father, who’d been the one that pushed me into cross country my freshman year in high school. That wasn’t my first plan. I’d won the local Punt, Pass and Kick competition in the little town of Elburn, Illinois and advanced to districts. I thought I was hot stuff and a football prospect, maybe even quarterback.

Yet with all of his boys, my dad didn’t like the prospect of what football could do to our bodies. His best friend from college was wracked with the effects of football injuries as he’d gotten older. Thus my dad took me to the high school and said, “You’re going out for cross country. And if you come back out of that locker room, I’ll break your neck.”

That is the way my running career actually began. When you take a look at the physique of my body in the photo below, you can see why football was probably a bad idea. But running was perfect. Plus it provided a release for the anxieties and depression that would someday vex my mind. 

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1972 at Kaneland High School.

I was a cross country runner from that point on. I made the Varsity as a freshman, led the team in the points category my sophomore year and then shuddered with disbelief in the middle of 10th grade when my dad moved our family twelve miles east from Kaneland High School to attend a bigger school in St. Charles.

Two decades later when I got around to asking my father why we moved, I inquired whether it was the gas shortage or an attempt to shorten my mother’s commute to her teaching job in St. Charles that were the reasons for our move. “No,” my dad replied. “I didn’t want your younger brother to play basketball in that slowdown offense out at Kaneland.”

“What about me?” I responded incredulously. “I was class president and the top runner in cross country!”

“I knew you were a social kid,” he stated in a matter-of-fact way. “I knew you’d survive.”

My brother went on to earn a full-ride basketball scholarship at a Division 1 school at Kent State University. So my dad made good decisions despite some of the pain it caused me.

Progress

IMG_9898.JPGIn St. Charles, I led that cross country team to a district title and began attracting attention from small college coaches. I received a recruitment letter from North Central’s now-famous coach Al Carius. But my interest in attending North Central was low because of a strange experience on their campus my junior year in high school. A district cross country meet was held on their campus, and I had to hit the bathroom before the race started. Thus I headed into the dusty old field house to find a single toilet perched in the middle of the floor. A long line of guys was waiting as another runner did his business in full view of the crowd. I thought to myself, “I am never going to college here.”

It wasn’t long after that when North Central began upgrading its facilities, which are now world-class. But I also knew little about their program, and the things that Carius was doing terms of pulling great performances out of kids with humble resumes from high school. Many were the distance guys who entered North Central with two mile times well over 10:00 who went on to run under 9:00 when trained by Al. So if there were an alternative universe, it would have been fun to race there as well. I came to know many of their runners while competing in the Chicago area following in college. I even set my 5K PR of 14:47 on the North Central track at midnight during an All-Comers meet in May of 1984. So many times we find out that our key rivals in life are the people we most need to advance. 

With all due respect

All that context was due to my dad making a good decision for me to send me out for cross country. He was also the one that ultimately encouraged me to attend Luther College. We drove up to campus in June or July the summer of 1975. I’d already applied and was accepted to Augustana College where I expected to run for their coach Paul Olson, another coaching legend in D3. He was a Luther grad and only recently retired after fifty years coaching track and cross country. But at that time, Augie was going to put me on academic probation because my grades were not that stellar in high school. My ACT scores were good but I was definitely a distracted underachiever as a student.

Luther brushed that all aside and looked at the overall perspective of my student activities as well as grades. They saw potential, and I wound up having a B average during college. But that summer as my dad and I drove six hours through Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa to arrive in Decorah. He told me, “Chris, this is the perfect place for your birding and painting. You should go here.”

And my dad was right again.

Becoming a Norseman, for better or worse

Luther College Me in Norse Shirt

Second from front left in that awful hat, and that hair.

So I asked for my application fee back from Augie, and for some reason they sent it. Then I committed to Luther only a few weeks before practice started in August. That was why I thanked my father with a big hug after that national meet. We’d had our many difference through my teen years, but I told him with all sincerity in that moment, “I love you dad.” He’d certainly been through some dark and weird phases of his own while bringing us up. He was not always a gentle man. But I really meant it when I told him that I loved him. Later in his life I’d become his principle caregiver, and that was difficult at times. But love got us through.

The Big Production

A week or two after the cross country triumph at nationals, my college girlfriend performed in the production of Godspell she’d been working with the drama team all fall. I wasn’t that big a fan of the tunes in that musical, but I’d gotten used to them as she sang now and then with her lovely voice. We’d started to hang around with her theater friends as well. Some were gay and one or two were flamboyantly so.

Sometimes my teammates would make jokes about those people as they passed through the Luther cafeteria. By then I knew them well enough to speak up in defense, making small comments such as “He’s smart,” or “He’s cool.” I took some flack for that, and recall bristling aloud one night when someone mumbled an insult about one of the theater guy’s masculinity. I actually knew him to be a strong person and one who helped guide the production at many levels.

Yes, those were certainly different times when it came to how people viewed homosexuality. As a Resident Assistant in the dorms there were several occasions when my job was to defend their rights on campus. It wasn’t always easy. My own impressions of what it meant to be gay, in modern nomenclature, were changing through contact with my girlfriend’s associates. And truth be told, I liked them all. 

My own progeny

When my own son came out during his freshman year in college, I could see the relief and joy in his embracing his real and honest identify. When my late wife asked my daughter what she thought about her brother’s sexual orientation, she immediately replied, “I think we both like good-looking guys.”

And to me, that insight is the true definition of godspell as it relates to our earthly existence. Acceptance, love and tolerance trumps all notions of law and especially interpretations of scripture that are used to discriminate, drive hate and produce cultural acrimony. It would still be a journey for me from the fears so often promulgated in the 1970s (and before) to the present day celebration of gay rights and identity, but it was a start.

And for that I credit that college girlfriend, for she was an astute observer of other people. She was also a religious person in a deeply curious way, a student of Judaism, a religion whose matter-of-fact worldview she admired. She and I went separate ways after two years of dating, but I’d recall her compassion several years after I married the woman to whom I be betrothed for 28 years before she died of cancer. My mother-in-law traveled to Israel and converted, for a while, to Judaism, attending synagogue rather than church. Eventually she came to believe so deeply in God the choice of her religion did not matter. She had transcended even the designations and denominations that rule so much of the world. My other mother was a Unitarian as well. These were smart women.

Early enlightenment 

My own faith was re-emerging during college, and to my surprise the lyrics of the songs in the Godspell production tore into the fabric of blind perception. They suddenly appealed to me, including this set of lines:

Man is a complex of patterns, of processes…
I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am.
I know that I am not a category
I am not a thing – a noun
I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process-
An integral function of the universe.
Those lyrics were drawn from the philosophy of Buckminster Fuller, the inventor whose
patent statement about life’s meaning would resonate with me even deeper when I read these words of his in an interview years later:

“You do not belong to you. You belong to the Universe.”

IMG_9881The Godspell play went well for my gal, and despite our ups and downs during that sweet season, we each pushed the other to do our best in our individual pursuits.

She sang and danced with passion with the ensemble that was well-rehearsed and talented. Unfortunately, one of the main singers got off to a bad start and wound up singing flat the entire show. It was evident even to those of us without musical training that something was “off” the whole performance. That was ironic, because Luther is quite famous for its musical talent. Thus I wondered how that person got so far through rehearsals without someone calling them out for off-tune singing.

My girlfriend defended them, remarking: “They were never flat before. I don’t know what happened. Maybe it was nerves.” She was miffed, but there was nothing anyone could do about it. The show was over. That challenge drew enormous empathy from me. I’d seen plenty of “flat” performances on my own and among other runners over the years. When you’re putting yourself out there, a bad day can come along at the worst time. There’s not much you can do about it but survive.

Let bygones be bygones

I often thought of those moments as a symbol for what would happen with our relationship as well. Her parents held a dim view of my future as a businessman and campaigned behind the scenes to cut me loose. In any case, she had met a guy up in Minneapolis where she was living while I was back in Chicago. Thus we decided to split with a romantic weekend together in Minneapolis. We sat by one of the lakes watching lightning play about in huge thunderheads as the fireworks burst into bright colors in the foreground. We both cried and made love one more time before I turned around and went home.

She would indeed marry and have four daughters. We both knew it was goodbye that July 4th in 1980. Yet years later the daughter of a close friend would come home from a Norwegian camp she attended in Minnesota each year to share a fact with her parents (also Luther grads) that surprised us all. It turned out that the gal with whom she’d been close friends in camp for four years was actually the daughter of the woman I’d dated in college. The subject of Luther College had come up, and my friend’s daughter exclaimed “Oh my God!” when she heard her friend tell her that her mother had dated some guy named Chris Cudworth in college.

I’ve always thought that was a remarkable circumstance. Our connections in this world never really cease to be.

We can all relate

That is the allegory for life that I drew from that sweet season. Performing your best isn’t just about running fast, or being perfect in some way. It’s about the connections you make, and realizing that not everything you do is going to be all sweetness and joy along the way. There will be heartaches, as I learned many times. And fears, as we all learned when injury struck us all in the middle of the season.

There are certainly greater triumphs than the accomplishment our little college cross country team was able to achieve. But that’s not really the point of any of this. Because it’s not how your triumphs compare to others, but how we all learn and grow to appreciate the triumphs of others. That is what makes all of life a sweet season.

 

Note: *The description below is taken from the website of North Central College. It describes the 1978 North Central College victory : 
The Cardinals of North Central College have captured their third NCAA Division III national title in the past four years.
Led by four individual All-Americans, North Central compiled a record -low 60 points over the flat, five-mile course on Credit Island in Davenport, Iowa. The team easily outdistanced runner-up Luther College of Decorah, Iowa, which compiled 151 points. The college of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minn., (152); Humboldt State University, Arcata, Calif., (158); and St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn., (209) rounded out the top five teams.
Two-time All American sophomore Jeff Milliman of Port Charlotte, Fla., led the Cardinals with a third-place finish in a time of 24:17. Junior captain Steve Jawor (8th) 24:25, junior Jim Nichols (15th) 24:33 and sophomore Dan Skarda (21st) 24:42 also gained individual All-American status.
Senior Rich Scott (50th) 25:10, sophomore Pete Ffitch (57th) 25:14 and sophomore Keith Zobrist (92nd) 25:32 were North Central’s other three runners in this fall’s national competition.
Since the NCAA adopted its present three-division format in 1973, the North Central squad, under Coach Al Carius, has never finished lower than third in the nationals.
**After our own national meet, our team drove to watch the D1 meet held at the course in Madison, Wisconsin. Anticipation was high that Henry Rono of Kenya, a world-record setter at multiple distances, would take the victory. He was one of many Africans who ran for Washington State University in that era. But more snow fell in the Upper Midwest that weekend and Rono looked cold and miserable. He ultimately jogged in nearly in last place in the race won by Alberto Salazar. It was all part of thrilling era to be a distance runner at the collegiate level. 
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A real gorilla in the pool

Gorilla-Banana-300x168.jpgLast week I speculated on what a swim lesson on Saturday would produce in terms of guidance and advice. Knowing how ineffectual my freestyle swim kick could be, I expected to be told to kick harder.

Well, it turned out I was wrong about that. One of the first things the swim instructor told me, illustrated by the video he shot on his phone, is that my swim kick was actually far worse than even I imagined. In fact, it was so badly executed that one of the first pieces of advice he doled out was dry and to the point.

Stop kicking,” he advised. “It’s throwing off your whole stroke.”

Then he added another challenge to my rapidly withering self-concept. “You’re basically swimming with one arm,” he pointed out. “That left arm is not doing much for you.”

Even without an underwater camera, I could see from the video that he was right. My right arm was pulling straight and true. My left arm was like a bass caught on a fishing line, jerking around like it had a hook in its mouth.

gorilla-eating-banana.jpgI wasn’t depressed by all this. I welcomed the advice even if it was…a bit depressing. The swim coach gave me some instructions and it all began with this: “Breathe every fourth stroke, not every stroke.”

 

Suddenly I was like a gorilla with a singular mission. But you’ll see what I mean in a minute.

See, I’ve actually been experimenting with breathing every few strokes. My form feels better when I do that. But here was the real revelation. With fewer head turns my stroke count dropped from 25 to 23. I was swimming ever so slightly more efficiently that way.

Head games

It makes total sense. It turns out you don’t need to breathe every stroke. My longheld impression was entirely the opposite. I was afraid to breathe less often because when I started out swimming a few years ago, I’d run out of breath even to the point of panicking in the middle of the pool.

Those sensations are gone now. I can swim half a mile and more continuously despite the flaws in my form. But I’m also working against myself in many respects. The swim coach was pointing out the key problems. I surely welcome that.

gorilla-carrots_676858n.jpgHe stuck a band around my ankles and a pool float between my legs. That forced me into engaging some upper body efficiency.

I tried keeping my left arm in better alignment rather than crossing it under my body like a broken stick. Then he had me ‘finger drag’ the tips of my digits across the water to keep me from swimming, and these were his very words, “like a gorilla.”

Oh man, that’s harsh. But I knew what he meant. I’d been studying world-class swimmers on TV and noticed how they swam with sort of a double-timed hitch their strokes. “That’s a gallop stroke,” he explained to me. “You are so far from that you should not even think about it.”

That’s some gorilla logic right there.

Getting the visuals

But my point was not that I was going to try to gallop stroke.  My sharing that observation was to point out that I got the ‘visual’ on what he was trying to help me do. Swim more ‘up front’ than leaving it all behind. Like a gorilla.

The problem with all the kicking on my part was also something more than physical. Swimming requires that you do a number of things all at one time. Like that gorilla trying to hold all those carrots in the photo above, overloading the mind leads to confusion. Eliminating one of those “things” allows you to simplify and concentrate on the rest of the stroke. That’s something I have been doing with a pool float to focus on the “front end” of my stroke. Truth be told, there are a few things that I’ve been doing better in the pool than I likely demonstrated in the swim lesson. So I feel like genuine progress is within reach.

That means the work ahead will be fruitful I’m sure. There’s nothing like a lesson to fix some flaws. There will be more to come, I’m sure. But until then I’m going to make sure I eat alternation hands while eating my bananas. To avoid the gorilla thing, you know.

 

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A half-marathon that was half and half

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The Wisconsin State Capitol building juts out of my head in the frosty wake of a half marathon

Let’s begin with what will seem to many people like a bit of a weird confession. The last time I raced a half-marathon was in 1985. Even that fact requires a bit of revisionist history because that half marathon was part of a full marathon that I attempted to run at the Twin-Cities Marathon in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The temps were in the low 30s and I only wore a tee shirt and racing singlet. The winds off the lake froze me until my tongue turned blue and I pulled out after sixteen miles suffering hypothermia.

IMG_3427Up to that point, I was running with a group that included Olympic fourth-place finisher Don Kardong and a gaggle of fellow sub-elite runners trying to average 5:20 pace for the entire distance. Kardong was cracking jokes along the way and the miles clicked past quite amiably.

Half PRs

The year before I’d run a half marathon in 1:10:58 as part of a yearlong competitive schedule that included a PR 31:10 10K in June and a PR 10-mile race of 53:30 in July. That fall, I was not planning to run a marathon or even a half-marathon because that’s not typically what we did with our fitness. As an athlete sponsored by a running store, it was my job to go out and race a bunch of 10Ks and 5Ks wearing the singlet and shorts of Running Unlimited.

I did, however, wind up racing an “accidental” 25K (15.5 miles) on a September weekend when I did not expect to be racing at all. That week in training I ran a 15 miler run hard on Thursday, a brisk 10 miler (62:00) on Friday and an easy 10-miler on Saturday. That Sunday I was scheduled to be the race escort for none other than Bill Rodgers, the era’s most-famous marathoner.

Jump right in

Long story short: Bill Rodgers decided not to run. He offered me his race number instead. I jumped into the race and ran a 1:25 25K, finishing third overall. That’s about 5:20 pace if my math is correct.  Thus I likely ran a 1:09 half marathon day, which would be my PR.

I’ll admit that I wish I’d have actually raced a marathon that weekend. Clearly, my distance fitness was primed for a good performance, having run fifty miles, much of it hard, in just four days. But there weren’t that many marathons available in those days. Even half-marathons were relatively rare. And 25k? What the hell was that about anyway?

A long time coming

IMG_0706So yes, it’s been a long, long time since I raced a half-marathon. Truth be told, I essentially ceased doing relatively long runs somewhere in the early 90s. The most I ever did was ten miles. There was no need. I wasn’t racing much and had essentially retired from competitive running to invest time as a dad.

Roundabout

That brings us to 2018. I started running a bit longer again when I met my wife Suzanne through FitnessSingles.com. However, my body’s not what it once was. All those miles in the early years of distance running do have a bit of wear and tear effect on the body. More than a few of my peers from those days don’t run at all. Either their knees or hips or Achilles no longer work or they’re frankly just sick of it. There are certainly noble exceptions, such as my former Luther College teammate Dan Johnson who just ran a Minnesota state record for 60+ runners at 1:26. That’s fast.

But for many of us, the body just won’t cooperate. Still, others can’t stand the idea of running so slowly compared to their peak efforts. That does bug me too. I was a running snob during my competitive years. If a runner beat me who didn’t look like they were capable for one reason or another, I was deeply offended. It drove me to train even harder. I don’t have the luxury of running away from anyone these days. It’s been good for the spirit to have to swallow some pride and just be a regular old runner. I’m a middle of the packer now.

Race results

I went out this weekend in 7:49 on a downhill first mile and then held 8:00 pace on average through five miles. Then we hit some hills and I dropped to an 8:30. All the way through nine miles I was doing quite well, not super fatigued or feeling pressed in any way. I’ve trained enough intervals at sub-8:00 pace to race for quite a while.

But I knew from our long runs together with Sue that somewhere after eight miles there would be problems with hip tightness. I was just hoping to run as long as I could before it hit. I’m apparently weak in the hips and when they fatigue it strikes like a slow-moving shot to the pelvis right where my butt cheeks converge on the outside of the pelvic bones. It hurts, and my stride has to shut down.

IMG_0709The front of my hips are weak too. All that sitting at work doesn’t help. So I’ve been using a stretchy band to fix the problem, and frankly, that’s why I think I was able to run through seven miles all the way to nine miles without the hips cramping up. So there’s progress, because typically I’m starting to tighten up even at six miles in races.

So by nine miles I was half hoping I’d get away with it this time. But… not so fast. On a flat section of road going past one of the lakes, I felt a twinge, then another, as my hips started to cramp. From then on, it was not the prettiest scene on earth.

By any other name

From then on it was a “race” only by name. I lamented watching the pace group for 1:50 pass me at just past 10 or 11 miles, because that was my goal. But that shows how much I slowed down the last few miles. Truly I just shambled home. Several times I stopped to stretch and even laid down to do so. My Strava showed 2:04 in total time, a stat confirmed by my watch. The revealing stat on Strava was the 2:01 “moving time.”  That was how fast I actually “ran” the distance.

Sixty+ and feeling it? 

So I technically “ran” a little faster than the final time showed. I was set to average between 8:00 and 8:20 for the whole distance and that’s alright for a sixty+ runner with tens of thousands of miles on his body.

In other words, I’ll take my half-and-half half-marathon effort and the finisher’s medal that came with it. I guess the two leaders finished within a second of each other in the low 1:08 category, so I’d have not won the race even if I was a young buck. There’s always someone faster than you on any given day and all that it means for me these days is that there are more of them, and more power to that. I share the road with all of humanity it seems these days, and that’s not half-bad.

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Kick you fool

Scuby toyThis weekend we’re heading up to Madison, Wisconsin to do the half-marathon. I’m simply hoping my tight old hips hold up all thirteen miles, but I’ll take what I can get.

On Saturday, both Sue and I are having swim stroke assessments done by her coach, Steve Brandes. I know there are plenty of things to improve in my technique. Those revelations won’t be a surprise. But I’m also betting he’ll have three words to say to me:

Kick, you fool!

My kick leaves so much to be desired it would take a quart of Viagra to overcome its impotence. When I use a kick board, I get about halfway across the pool and sort of stall, like a dying sunfish. You know that look, don’t you? It’s the look that says “I can’t go any further right now unless you push me.”

I should actually be much more inspired to kick after watching an entire hour of Olympic swimming the other night. The show featured clips from the 2012 Olympics. Michael Phelps and all his rivals tore through the pool like sharks attacking a freezer of Omaha Steaks dumped overboard by a yacht. And they kicked like crazy.

They kick so strong that when you see those swimmers from underwater they don’t even look like real human beings. I once owned a plastic wind-up diver toy much like the one in the photo at the top of this blog. He was a grey little object with legs that flipped up and down. That system propelled him along if you turned that little knob around enough to crank up his gears.

So I’m thinking of having a knob installed on my side so that before I go swimming, I can ask Sue to wind me up and set me in the water. kickkickkickkickkickkickkickkickkick

Life Brandes

Coach Brandes shows how it’s done as he walks through the water at the Steelhead Half Ironman

Perhaps Coach Brandes will have a better idea how to improve my lax kicking technique. I know that I tend to kick in intervals, as if the power in my body were shutting on and off. I’m like a hybrid vehicle at a stop sign. Power down. Power back up.

Part of me wonders if my brain simply can’t handle all the instructions it’s being asked to follow.  One of the challenges for people with certain types of hearing loss is to pick up conversations in a crowd. That’s how my brain feels when I tell my body to do all the things it takes to swim.  Rotate, breath in, do a clean catch, breathe out through the nose, complete a long pull, lift the elbows and then kick all at the same time. My brain just takes what it wants from all those instructions and jettisons the rest like unwanted cargo on a pirate ship being chased by a Spanish galleon. You can see an oil slick of unheeded thoughts on the surface of every lane I swim. vintage-1960-flippy-scuba-diver-toy_1_5ff30398662847288c5cb12ee3fbf0f2.jpg

But hey, I’ve improved. So I’ll give myself credit for persistence in the face of hydro-resistance.

So I’ll be interested to see what Coach Steve can do for me. Perhaps it’s nothing much. Perhaps it will be Steve just standing by the pool repeating those three words, “Kick, you fool,” while possibly using a cattle prod to electrify the water and give me the motivation to make things happen.

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Sweet season: A simple matter of focus and effort

This is the sixth in a series of articles about the Sweet Season of 1978, my college senior year when our Luther College team placed second in the nation in NCAA Division III cross country. To follow the chronological narrative in full, please begin in order by volume. 

Volume one •  Volume two •  Volume three • Volume Four • Volume five 

Volume six 

 

cudrunAfter the big invitational win at St. Olaf, where our team rose to victory despite the continuing injury that had slowed our top man, it was time to regather. Now our goals were pointed toward qualifying for nationals and then seeking a win in the IIAC conference meet. For years we’d been a relative lock to win the conference, but in the back of our minds was the knowledge that our key rival Central College was a much-improved team and was now possibly capable of challenging us.

But first, we had an important task to accomplish at the District V qualifying meet on Central’s course down in Pella, Iowa. Some on our team were feeling the wear and tear of the season, and on the first Monday after the St. Olaf meet, our coach heard one of our team members speculate that maybe we were “burnt out.”

Silent running

Nothing sets a coach on edge like overhearing negative thinking stated out loud. That was particularly with our coach Kent Finanger, And so, in practice that evening, he gave us instructions to run seven miles at 6:00 pace with no talking.

Not a peep, he warned us.

And so it was that we set out running an no one dared say a word the entire run. Not a whisper. All we did was run. Every footstep was audible as ran at a hard clip on the gravel roads that passed under tall limestone bluffs, a route we called Under Phelps-Ice Cave. Our movements echoed all around us, and the breathing of the entire team sounded like a rush of wind or the ghosts of Luther runners past. It gave us a strange sense of being watched the whole way. We arrived back on campus amazed at the effect it had on all of us. Everyone spoke with a certain reverence from then on.

Serious stuff

The next day, Coach Kent Finanger pulled us all into the pre-run meeting. As with every practice, he started with a pep talk. But this one was different. He had been so disturbed by someone’s mention of being “burned out” that he’d gotten on the phone the evening before to talk to some of the leading run coaches in the nation.

He called Ted Haydon at the University of Chicago. He called Dan McClimon, coach at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Badgers. This was serious stuff. We all knew the names of those coaches. They’d worked with some of the leading athletes in the world. 

Coach Finanger had written the names of those big name coaches on the blackboard. He’d quoted portions of their conversations and wrote them on the board as inspirational quotes in his distinctive writing. You’d have needed to be dead in your chair not to be inspired by the words he wrote and the way that he extrapolated inspiration from those conversations. 

He revealed each quote with a dramatic flair by slowly raising the projector screen that had been covering the blackboard.  Each new quote shared “news” about our potential and capabilities. Central to all these was the message that we were not  “burned out.” Instead, we on the brink of a major achievement in the history of Luther cross country.

I’d never seen our coach so fired up in all four years of competing for him.

Speed work

That night we did speed work and the focus of the team was incredible. When we showed up for the next night’s practice, coach handed us all inspirational tee shirts. He did the same thing with new shirts the next night, and the night after that as well. All that week there were urgent, inspiring motivational talks and tee shirts to affirm the themes he was communicating. If we had not felt like part of a team before those moments, we certainly did by the end of the week. It was time, he was telling us, to get serious about advancing to nationals and frankly, fulfilling our destiny as a program.

Because the truth of the matter is that at some point you only have one chance left. 

Wow! Fun! Wow!

LIke A September Day 1976.pngCoach Finanger was simply not allowing us to crumble into an attitude of defeat. Not after the success that we’d already accomplished that season. Certainly, we’d suffered injuries to some of our top guys that took them out of their rhythm, but Coach Kent was standing by the “Wow! Fun! Wow!” philosophy that he always embraced, without exception, on belief that it was joy in the process that drove the best efforts of everyone. Thus he emphasized positivity. This was true for running and as a holistic perspective in life.

Luther Women.jpg

Perhaps that phrase sounds trite and cliche to outsiders. But it was part of the culture that Coach Kent created and conducted with such commitment that we’d learned not to doubt its power. We’d seen the force of his vision come to fruition when he started the women’s cross country program our first year as freshmen at Luther. Within ten years the seeds of that vision would produce a national women’s champion in the likes of Tureena Johnson, a Honda All American athlete. All because Coach Kent believed in fitness for everyone. 

Thus we embraced his words and what we might call an attitude of ‘serious fun.’  He wanted his “horses” (as he called us) to understand something more as well. We were all part of something special going on.

Regional squeaker

The weekend that we raced in the regional meet were a bit deflating, as we finished in the last qualifying spot, fifth place. It was a squeaker for the Luther cross country team.  Still, we’d earned the right to advance to the national meet being held in Rock Island, Illinois in the fall of 1978. That was all that counted.

Luther Runners.jpg

A painting I did of the five Luther runners who led the program from 1975-1978

The meet was also bittersweet in another respect as well. One of our lead runners that had been conference champion the previous year was finally progressing from the limiting back injury that had kept him down all season. He lined up to run the race after two months of trying to return to form. His back problems had reduced both the volume and speed of his training during those 10 weeks of the cross country season. It was an enormously frustrating journey. Yet he kept on trying.

Team sentiment ran strong for him to rebound because he was a native of Decorah, the town in which Luther College is located. He’d literally grown up across the street from our coach. And when he was on form (see him leading five Luther runners in the black and white photo above and at left in the painting) he was a joy to watch. He seemed to fly across the ground. Thus we all quietly hoped he could run well enough to make the team for nationals. For all we knew, he might pull off some kind of miracle. Ultimately, he ran decently enough, and bravely to be sure. He simply did not have enough fitness stored up to crack our Top 7 for the national team.

Watching him go through the pain of that season our senior year in college was a sobering experience. It made me realize how tenuous it all was, every bit of it. Heading into the last few weeks of the season, I wrote in my running journal: “These next two weeks with take some thoughtful dedication. A long list of things will be done, and they should and will be done right. Be calm. Be proud. Be prepared. Be understanding. Be strong. Be yourself.”

Parallel lives

Chris and Linda Cycling.jpgLater in life, that lead distance runner and I would share a painful parallel. We had been roommates together our freshman year in college. I’d grown to love his sharp wit and often sardonic worldview. I’d also gotten to know his sweet girlfriend Kristi, the gal he’d dated since their sophomore year in high school.

They got married after college and his wife turned into a really good marathoner. She was both pretty and health conscious. Ultimately they had three children of their own, some of whom turned out to be runners as well. 

Then in a shocking diagnosis during her early 50s, Kristi learned she had ovarian cancer. That diagnosis occurred at the same time that my own wife was going through treatment for the same disease. While they were both going through treatment, our wives would meet at our college reunions and have quiet conversations about their respective struggles and the fear that cancer always engenders.

It was a strange thing that two college teammates should lose their wives to the same disease on the random fates that so frequently vex human existence. 

Relationships

But in 1978 I was still trying to figure out whether my relationship with that college girlfriend would turn into something long-term. We ran together some, but she also smoked cigarettes. A few times we’d out jogging and she’d get a sidestitch during the run. I always figured the smoking caused that.

But I can’t claim that the taste of menthol in our mouth was not a stimulant for me at times. We’d become so close that our entire existence seemed intertwined. It was limb to limb and lip to lip for us, and as the sweet season progressed she would be there for me on many fronts. It seemed she needed me as much as I needed her. In that season, that was all that I wanted or could comprehend. So I had that love relationship as well as a commitment to our team, the coach and the idea that we all had something yet to accomplish.

Ups and downs

IMG_9867The next hurdle would be a lumpy one, for our conference meet was being held on a monstrously hilly course set on the Mississippi River bluffs of Dubuque, Iowa. I knew the layout would not suit my strengths. I typically ran best by getting into a groove and holding or building on the pace. As a taller runner, I’d needed to learn better how to run hills. That took place in all the training we did on the hilly terrain around Decorah. So I didn’t fear hills, but the Dubuque course was almost an absurd exercise in that respect. It had almost no flat surfaces at all. During the course tour, we all discussed strategy. I solemnly determined that it would be best for me to distribute the fitness I had across the entire span of the race rather than try to prove anything too big in the early going.

Holding my own

I finished 8th overall in the conference, one place better than the position I’d earned as a freshman cross country runner. We had put all seven of our men in the top 10 places that first season. As a senior, I was happy to have held my own on such a tough layout. 

The Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference had improved over time. Our challengers from Central and Wartburg College had vastly improved their individual and team qualities. One of Wartburg’s runners had improved so fast that he would drop his1500 meter times into the low 3:50s, an All-American performer. The same held true for Central’s top runner. It would take more than confidence and wishful thinking to hold off that quality. 

We got the job done, but it felt strange because the times on that mountainous course were so much slower than a typical college cross country race over the five-mile distance. I ran just over 28:00 at the end of a season when most meets were finished in the high 25s even on relatively hilly courses. The Dubuque course was something entirely different, and just holding my own felt good. It was just good to put that race behind us. 

Bitter winner

As the team and individual awards were announced, we stood around as a team feeling more relief than triumph over what we’d accomplished. Then the moment came for the individual winner to be recognized, and the Central runner who won the individual title launched into an impassioned speech that contained criticism of our program. That display of bad sportsmanship greatly disturbed our coach. It was strange to all of us because we knew the guy was not a bad person, just really competitive. It made no sense because we all knew him as a rather Christian guy.

Life lessons

IMG_9909Sadly that was yet another example of a pattern that I’d already in my young life and would encounter many times more in the wider world. As a high school kid, I’d been accosted by a Campus Life counselor who warned me, “You’ll never be a Christian if you keep asking questions.”

I thought that was an odd and contrary response from someone claiming to be a Christian. It taught me early in life to be on my guard around the aggressively self-righteous. They could turn on you in a minute. 

It was all rather ironic given the fact that the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse guys all thought us Luther guys were probably religious types. A few years after college I got to meet a number of those guys at a truly wild post-race party following a half-marathon race in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. Half the room seemed to be naked, and the drinking was heavy and hard. I wound up sleeping on the floor under nothing more than a blanket on the living room. I woke up hungover the next morning and rolled over to see a woman wearing no pants stepping over me on the way to the bathroom. I lay there for a moment and said, “Well okay then.” Perhaps the LaCrosse boys were right: We Luther guys were probably choirboys by comparison.

Running commentary

But when it came to running, we’d barely lost to them in our dual meet that senior season. So there no loss of respect there, but they still considered their running program superior to ours. In the fall of 1978, that remained to be seen, because we competed in the same NCAA Division III national competition. 

Within our squad, we had freshmen who competed on our varsity squad that sweet season of 1978.  They were a critical component of our success while consistently running in the Top 5 guys week after week. The two freshmen filled in for the injured seniors that in 1975 had entered the program together with so much potential as part of a class that had six runners with sub-15:00 three-mile times in their high school careers. We’d finished as high as 8th place at nationals, but the general consensus remained that the potential of that group had never been fulfilled.

Hope and determination

Luther CC 1976

From sophomore year at Luther 1976

Thus we came of regionals and the conference meet with mixed emotions but also filled with hope and determination. That did not mean we weren’t feeling pressure to complete the supposed season of destiny we had never yet achieved. Certainly, our coach saw our 1978 season as THE opportunity to meet those longstanding expectations. We’d come a long way. There was no turning back now. 

Of course, he still had a few tricks up his sleeve on how to make that happen. The regionals and conference meets were behind us, and there was only one meet to complete that quest.

Thus we faced the specter of Division III Nationals with both anticipation and a degree of trepidation. Our fifth place at regionals was a notable thump in the chorus of success we’d had that fall.

But the course was clear. The national race would be held on the flat, fast Arsenal Island in Rock Island, Illinois that we’d raced on at the start of the season. We’d all raced well there in the heat of September. But there were many other teams scheduled to compete at nationals, including the all-powerful North Central College, perennial champions in Division III cross country. All that was left was to prep our minds and rest our legs for a  big performance at nationals.

It was a simple matter of focus and effort. That was all.

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