How much can one hat say about you?

Last winter a friend advocating for gay rights through our church offered me a rainbow cap. It turned out the thing was comfortable, not cheaply made, and I wear it quite a few places. It keeps my head warm. But it also warms my heart.

The rainbow has come to symbolize LGBTQ rights in this world, and I fully support gay rights on every front. My son is gay and so are many of my friends and associates, and their children two. There is a gay female couple that lives at the front of our cul de sac, which fits the general diversity of our neighborhood with families that are black, Latino, Asian and white.

Recently while making calls for our Luther College class reunion, I touched base with a classmate that I knew was gay back in the day. But that period in history did not welcome people coming out of the closet. We talked at length about his experience during college and beyond. We compared notes about relationships and I was pleased to meet his partner at the class reunion.

It’s interesting to meet gay partners because it helps you realize that it is differences that make relationships work. My former neighbor was a gay man I’ll call Bill partner could not have been more different in personality from his boyfriend. While Bill was studious and religious in demeanor, his partner Derrick was rambunctious and irreverent. He loved to tease Bill’s mother Beth Ann, who adored the attention. Even Bill’s somewhat crusty, seemingly grumpy father Jack loved the celebratory nature of Derrick, who knew how to throw a party, among other things. And good old Jack loved a good party.

Those two gay men looked after Bill’s parent’s as age-related health faded for both of them. The other siblings helped some, but not much. They knew they could rely on Bill who took care of everything from the lawn work to gardening to their health care as needed. Jack almost died one year after contracting West Nile virus from a mosquito bite. Bill tended to Beth Ann in his father’s absence. It was not easy work. The complaint’s of elders can wear you down.

I shave my legs for cycling. Some people consider that effeminate. Tough luck.

Bill and I had many long conversations about life and religion. He was deeply Catholic, loved to go to church and recommended many religious authors to me. Bill’s reverence for life was obvious, especially expressed through respect and love for his parents. He never pretended to be perfect and addressed his own notions of sin with honesty and pragmatic. But I certainly never considered him what some would consider a “sinful” man. He was quite the opposite.

Bill is one of many such men and women that I have met over six decades of life. While my attitudes about gay or queer men and women were originally shaped by cultural prejudice and fear, those outlooks changed quickly once I got to know people who actually were gay, transexual or gender neutral.

I’m fairly sure that one of my cross country teammates, if not several over the years, were homosexual. One once tweaked by butt in the showers after a workout. I jumped and told him not to do that again, but that’s as far as it went. I’m pretty sure he was conflicted about his feelings and found it difficult to come out in that era. But he had a nervous habit of pulling hair from the top of his head that I think was a redirected aggression from denying his true sexuality.

When I lived in Lincoln Park in the early 1980s, I attracted from gay men in the city. One followed me on and off the bus several times before I told him to stop with the pursuit. Frankly I was a bit flattered but also disconcerted. My sexual leanings simply don’t go that directions.

Yet a friend and I once attended an intentionally wild party on the north side of the city and we wound up drunk and dancing in a dark nightclub. My friend hit the floor quickly but I stood back a bit looking for someone to invite when I turned to a friendly face next to me and asked for a dance. The young man turned to me and said, “I’d love to.”

Running has always been my way of coping with changes in life.

I was so shook that I took off out the door and ran home. The fear of “being gay” was still rife with me at that time. A long line of friends in sports had imposed their trepidation at “being queer” and in that moment, all those projected fears came together in a single instance. But what if I had stayed to dance that night? Would it have ended my world?

Likely not. It may have awakened me earlier to the notion that gay people are simply that. They’re gay. And they’re people. Their sexuality doesn’t necessarily determine who or what they are. Not in totality.

Which is why, by the time my own son came out to our family, I was fully reconciled to the normalcy of sexual orientation of many types. When my late wife asked my daughter, “What do you think of this,” Emily replied. “I think it means we both like good-looking guys.”

And that’s why I’m proud to wear the rainbow cap when I’m out and about. I’m pretty sure it raises some eyebrows among people who fear what they consider “gay culture” or the so-called “gay lifestyle.” There are many who claim that society is being taken over by people with a “gay agenda.”

If there is such a thing, it only means that gay people want the same rights as everyone else. Yet there are still court cases being tried on grounds that employers should have the right to discriminate against gay people and even fire them for their sexual orientation. Our own military is conflicted about gay rights, and the treatment of transgender people by the current administration is absurd.

Early in life, trying to figure out what type of person I was, or wanted to be. Friends could influence self esteem and machismo with a single comment.

It’s all the product of ignorance and for the most part, a product of religious prejudice and fears dating back four-thousand years or more. Select passages of the Bible indict gays as sinful people worthy of death. And some religious jerks still selectively emphasize those anachronism while dismissing other religious laws as irrelevant in the modern age. This is hypocrisy at its most hateful level.

The opposite is much more life-affirming. During a stop at our local Home Depot the other day, a young woman listened to me talking with a water heater supplier on the phone and realized that I might just be a nice person. Plus I was wearing my rainbow hat. Upon hanging up the landline phone at the desk, I smiled at her. She said, “I like your hat.”

I explained that my son is gay and she said, “I came out to my parents too. I’m really blessed that it’s no big deal to them.”

That’s how the world should be about the issue of gay rights. The ugly truth is that there are still people so selfish about their fears they feel the need to impose those illogical prejudices on others through cultural pressure and through law.

I’m going to wear my rainbow hat to challenge those perceptions in every way I can. People should not have to fear being gay any more than folks should fear being black, or an immigrant, or an artist, or whatever their orientation and pursuits may be. Life is far too short for that prejudicial bullshit.

So to hell with Trump and all this divisive dog-whistle bullshit that half the nation seems to admire. It’s all part of the same selfish, hate-based package. It’s a prejudicial, “I’ve got mine” mentality that feeds on notions of cultural entitlement and ugly tradition. I’ve run against that grain all my life, and I’m sure as hell not stopping now.

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History in the making

Josh Methner and Craig Virgin. Photo capture from Daily Herald Website. Link in story at right.

The day after the 2019 Illinois state cross country championship, I turned to the website of my former employer, the Daily Herald, to find a story by Michael Eaken of the record-setting run by a Hersey high school senior Josh Methner:

“Hersey senior Josh Methner ran to his second consecutive Class 3A title, running a time of 13:49.86 over 3 miles to set an IHSA state record at Detweiller Park in Peoria.

I was present the day in 1972 when Craig Virgin ran the course record that would last 47 years. As a high school sophomore standing on the sidelines with my Kaneland High School teammates, it was daunting to witness the soon-to-be-world class Virgin tear through the Detweiler Park course in Peoria, Illinois. How could anyone run that fast? My best times at fifteen years old were in the low 16:00 range.

It was not easy for a small school such as Kaneland to advance downstate in those days. I entered the cross country program at Kaneland as a freshman runner under coach Rich Born and assistant Larry Eddington in 1971. I ran varsity all season but dropped down to help win the sophomore conference title that year. The following year I was second man on the varsity squad that won the first-ever Little Seven conference title for the school. We ran in districts but did not advance.

That winter my father moved our family ten miles east to St. Charles. I led the team that next year to a district title and engaged in heady competition against runners in great programs from Elgin and Dekalb and Naperville in the Upstate Eight conference. Again our team did not advance through sectionals because we traveled east to compete in one of the toughest sectionals in the entire state.

Districts 1974, fourth place and advance to sections (378, second from left)

Those were great experiences in both programs. In a result perhaps unique to my own running history, this year both Kaneland High School and St. Charles East won state titles in cross country. So I can share in the joy of those victories, having contributed leadership in the formative years of those programs.

I never got downstate in cross country but witness that record-setting victory by Craig Virgin was a formative experience all its own. A few years back, I reached out to Virgin to inquire whether he had ever considered doing a biography of his life and career. Indeed he was already working on a book about his life with a sportswriter named Randy Sharer, whose diligent research and documentary writing style provided a vivid portrait in the book Virgin Territory. It is a compelling read, a chronicle of the obstacles Virgin overcame in his career, and an honest one at that.

It was interesting in the wake of that contact to get to know Craig Virgin as a person outside his career as a runner. We had lunch together at a Panera in the northwest suburbs of Chicago to talk about running, public relations and life in general. I’d only met Virgin once or twice before, initially through acquaintance with a sports podiatrist, Dr. John Durkin. I also watched Craig run intervals on the indoor track at the East Bank Club in Chicago. Like a shark among goldfish, he was.

That was in 1983 or so. Craig was already a legend in Illinois running by then. As it turned out, his running career would wind down after the 1984 Olympics. He remains the only American to have won the world cross country championships. And he did it twice.

Craig was present downstate yesterday to witness the somewhat unexpected breaking of his course record in Peoria. It must have been wistful and perhaps shocking for him to watch. No one really anticipated that result.

Yet it must also be gratifying for Craig to know that something he’d done literally stood the test of time for so long. The runners who nearly broke his record or followed in his historic wake were the best Illinois had to offer. Many went on to become Olympians on their own. That was a status Craig Virgin achieved three times. Yet he was robbed of his best chance to medal in the 1980 Olympics for reasons that sound beyond ironic in the contest of recent history…”In 1980, the United States led a boycott of the Summer Olympic Games in Moscow to protest the late 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In total, 65 nations refused to participate in the games, whereas 80 countries sent athletes to compete.”

Of course the United States has now been meddling in the politics of Afghanistan for seventeen years. It is America’s longest war and largely the product of an unwitting devotion to ideology over basic awareness of the danger in this world.

It all demonstrates the hypocrisy of politics and the insanity of war. But through it all, some efforts stand pure and real. Craig Virgin’s race that day in 1972 was one of those events in life that I was grateful to have witnessed. There was nothing false or ironic about it. Just the reality of a well-trained athlete soaring across an autumn landscape dotted with fallen leaves. When he crossed the finish line, we not only cheered, some of us cried.

It was something to witness. It surely was.

But time marches on and this young man who set the new record is the product of a new generation of runners. It must have been something to watch. That should give us hope in a world where so much falseness and hypocrisy persists, and even presidents claim valor for things they did not do.

Here for posterity and a testament to things that are real is a listing of the top times in Illinois cross country history:

13:49.86, Josh Methner, Hersey, 2019 13:50.6, Craig Virgin, Lebanon, 1972 13:52, Chris Derrick, Naperville (Neuqua Valley), 2007-3A 13:54, Lukas Verzbicas, Orland Park (Sandburg), 2010 13:56.6, Tom Graves (Sr.), Orland Park (Sandburg), 1977 13:57.7, Dave Walters, New Lenox (Lincoln-Way), 1973 13:59.3, Craig Virgin, Lebanon, 1971 14:00.0, Jim Spivey, Bensenville (Fenton), 1977AA 14:00, Jorge Torres, Wheeling, 1998AA 14:00, Jon Davis, Fithian (Oakwood) [Coop], 2015-1A 14:02, Soren Knudsen, Minooka, 2016-3A 14:03, Donald Sage, Elmhurst (York), 1999AA 14:05, Jack Keelan, Chicago (St. Ignatius College Prep), 2012-3A 14:06.0, Bill Fritz, Glen Ellyn (Glenbard West), 1973 14:07, Evan Jager, Algonquin (Jacobs), 2006AA 14:07, Lukas Verzbicas, Orland Park (Sandburg), 2009-3A 14:08.0, Len Sitko, Niles (Notre Dame), 1986AA 14:08, Danny Kilrea, LaGrange (Lyons), 2016-3A

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The year of no racing

At least I got to lead a group ride in Tucson for a while.

It hasn’t been by choice that I did not race a triathlon in 2019. The year started out strong with a training camp in Tucson. But perhaps there was an omen in that experience. While climbing Mt. Lemmon the temps dropped and the jackets we wore began to feel insufficient. On the way down the mountain we froze into locked positions on the bike and the neck problems I’d experienced over four days of camp turned serious.

On the way down a fear of crashing took hold. I pulled over to recover some feeling in my arms and my wife followed suit. We stood there a bit panicked at the prospect of riding more in that cold. When a gap in traffic appeared we eased onto the road and braked our way down the slope. The cyclometer still showed 26 mph.

At that moment a wasp flew at my face and stuck in the chin strap of my helmet. I felt a slight buzz and then a sharp sting as the insect tried to wrest itself free in the high wind. Two days later after arriving home from the camp my chin swelled up and my throat felt thick. Some ice took the swelling down but the incident scared me. You never know how your body is going to react to a bee sting from some place you’ve never been.

We kept training through April and chose to run a 10K in at the Morton Arboretum to prepare for the upcoming tri-season. The race finished in driving snow. That was the last time this year I’d make it to the starting line of a competition.

Crash course

The weird luck on the bike picked up again in May when I was riding on an incline approaching I-88 west of our home. Two cars were parked flush on the side of the white line next to the road. Some guy was trying to get roadside assistance for his broken-down GTO and stepped out from behind his wife’s tall white SUV right in my path when I was approaching. The front tire of my Specialized Venge struck him flush in the back. The force of the collision popped the tube and bent the bike wheel. I wound up lying on the road with what felt like a broken wrist.

A few weeks later after the wrist had recovered some, but not much, I was playing Sherpa for my wife’s half-Ironman in Madison and went for a trot during her bike segment. I ran on the dirt path toward downtown. On the way back my toe caught on a root while rounding a tree and I fell face-side-first in the dirt. My body also landed on my sore wrist. The hand was bloody as was my face, and covered with dirt to boot.

Toothy issues

Three weeks later a new problem cropped up with a sore tooth in my mouth. The root canal work took four separate tries with a real pro but the swelling in my face kept getting worse. And was it ever painful. I was exhausted for weeks from the stress of it all. The oral surgeon finally sat me down in the chair and said, without a hint of humor, “This tooth needs to come out or you could die.”

Such are the vagaries of second-rate dentistry…a few years back when I was self-insured or something I visited a dentist that did some bad work and it damn near killed me.

The clouds to the north on the morning of what would have been Race Day.

That scenario with the bad tooth took about seven weeks to take place. I wound up on heavy antibiotics and pain meds. Still, I was scheduled to race an Olympic triathlon in Lake Zurich and went to pick up my packet the day before. I stood at the Finish Line to take a pre-race photo because I hoped to make it there. But that afternoon the dentist called to tell me to be careful during treatment with anti-biotics. I couldn’t afford to stress my body much more.

It would all be for naught anyway. A storm blew in overnight and the entire race was canceled due to lightning and heavy rain. I turned my sights to September but logistically, those races were washed out as a cold month turned rainy as well. So here I sit in November without having done a triathlon all year. Even my plan to get certified as a triathlon coach got nixed when the organization holding the training lost my digital application. They called the week before and said “Hey, you’re in…” but it was too late. We’d made other plans.

The entire year was sort of a bust. I was signed up or in the queue to do no less than four different races. None of them happened. But oh well.

There’s a Turkey Trot in four weeks and a half-marathon after that. I’m not going to plan anything or hold my breath given the weird year of 2019. That said, I did some of the strongest cycling I’ve done in years using my newly converted Felt tri-bike. A cycling buddy warned me not to fix the thing up because he insists it could fall apart like a piece of old birch wood. But that’s the only thing that held together in terms of planning this year.

That’s one of the tarsnakes of life. You can never predict what kind of year you’ll have until you have it. Then all you can do is look back at the tracks of where you’ve been and try to make sense of it all.

Posted in bike accidents, bike crash, blood on the highway, Christopher Cudworth, training, tri-bikes, triathlete, triathlon, triathlons | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A quick run across the frozen face of Greenland

Mountains peek and peak up through the snow covered surface of Greenland.

Billions of years ago, a massive single land mass contained all the continents we know today. Through force of internal pressures such as volcanism, the shove and pull of plate tectonics and the mechanism of sea floor spreading, all the continents we in the world were distributed around the globe.

One of those chunks of land wound up sitting in the northern hemisphere far above the more habitable climates of the earth. That giant spit of land is still mostly covered in ice. But somewhere along the way the human race titled it Greenland in a strange little word game that seems ironic to many.

Thanks to the impact of human-induced global warming through climate change, that sub-continent northeast of North America may one day become the most habitable place on earth. Greenland may one day live up to its literal name while desertification takes over the much hotter beltline of the planet.

Glaciers collide somewhere in central Greenland.

Scientists warn that when the icepack currently covering Greenland someday melts, the seas will rise by feet, not inches. That will inundate entire nations and submerge valuable coastline property under less-than-forgiving saltwater. The profiles of our supposedly immutable continental outlines will be radically changed.

It is hard to imagine such events until you actually fly over the land mass of Greenland and see how covered in ice it truly is. This past Sunday our flight back from Munich, Germany took us straight across the snowy guts of Greenland. We were chasing the sunset for six to eight hours, so there was ample time to study the peaks of mountains jutting up from the surface of Greenland. We could see glaciers too, rivers of ice with terminal walls where sediments were dumped.

This is how the Great Lakes were formed in North America. Billions of tons of water was left in the wake of glaciers that once stood a mile high and scoured the earth flat where there had once been hills.

I grew up running on the flatlands of Illinois. But I also attended college in northeast Iowa, a geography known as the Driftless Region. The glaciers left that part of southwest Wisconsin and Iowa alone.

The haunting landscape of Greenland in what seemed like eternal twilight.

So I have an intimate sense for what ice can do to the surface of the earth. I’ve run thousands of miles across flat Illinois topography and have climbed hills and cross country skied in the Kettle Moraine where terminal glaciers dumped gravel and emptied water down the gullet of the earth. These are evidence of how massive the force of the earth and nature can be.

And human beings tend to forget all that. It is far more convenient and often necessary to live entirely in the present. But that outlook has a price.

We all have a carbon footprint of one kind or another. Yet as I stared down at the surface of Greenland covered in ice and snow, it was hard to imagine it looking like anything else. Yet below that skim of ice and snow are fossils locked in stone that can be traced far back into earth’s history, long before the human race ever existed. That is the Greenland we need to imagine in order to understand the brevity of the human predicament in terms of consumption and sustainability.

The world we live on is both a patient son-of-a-bitch and a chronicle of the discipline dished out by Mother Nature over the ages. Whatever we know of God is a combination of these two things. We had better respect that. Both science and religion tell us that life on this earth is frail.

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The peril of a 14km cloud

I took a break from blogging the last couple weeks due to a combination of trips, including one abroad to Spain, France and Italy.

The eastern walls of Pompeii, Italy

We docked near the former city of Pompeii, the Roman settlement buried by volcanic ash from Mount Vesuvius in the early part of the first century. As we walked into the large park where old stone walls have long since been excavated to reveal the borders of the city, my mind turned back to those images published in National Geographic fifty or sixty years ago.

A woman figure identified as likely a slave due to the garment she wore on her waist

As a child I stared at those images and wondered that someone could be frozen in time, solidified in a tomb of their own shape and size. Having heard the biblical term “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” as part of an upbringing in the Christian church, I wondered back then what it meant to be turned into a twisted relic of one’s self. What did that mean?

We climbed the steps up to the City of Pompeii and were met with a network of old Roman streets. There were ruts in the stone made by chariot wheels. Suddenly all of time shrank to an aural recollection of how that must have sounded to hear horse hooves and chariots clattering down those streets.

The streets of Pompeii

You certainly could not have run very far on them. Every step required a full attention span. The space between inlaid boulders was in some places three to four inches across.

Yet those roads have lasted forever. These days cyclists negotiate the former Roman roads made of rough pave in the north of France. They bounce along trying to avoid flats in the Paris-Roubaix spring classic. A modern competition on the roads of antiquity.

The sport of choice in Pompeii was something far more earthy. The sexual imagery discovered during excavation of the city was scandalizing to many who viewed it. Even the most casual demarcations above doorways were depictions of erect phalluses, a sign of good luck and fertility.

The local brothel did a brisk business with the seaman and merchants that arriving in port eager for food, drink and a romp with one of the enslaved whores in a district of town. Men were guided by to the whorehouses by pale white stones embedded in streets. These helped led them to their pleasures even in the dark of night, and when moonlight shone, their eyes must have glinted with the promise of sex soon to be had.

Not to leave anything to chance, the sex workers howled at night like wolves to attract their many customers. Talk about having difficult neighbors…

It is reported that following the burial of Pompeii under volcanic ash, even Rome’s leadership was not inclined to exhume it. Some believed the place was so cursed by its lusts that it was a condemnation of fate similar to the famed story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Judeo-Christian scripture. Could the allegorical reference be more similar?

Tourists stand outside the doorway that once led to the brothel.

Pompeii had things pretty well figured out on a number of fronts, but modesty and chastity were not one of them. Even the sanitation of the town was more pragmatic than considerate. The streets themselves were gutters down which flows of water and human excrement could wash to the low ground. The city could not have smelled good at all on hot days.

Yet the people who lived there also knew how to celebrate life in fine ways as well. The frescos on walls depict lively hunts in realistic fashion. The layout in many houses allowed people to recline on their beds while gazing upon large paintings such as these, often featuring gardens and wild creatures. Virtual reality is not a new concept to humanity.

A stray pup lies in the back alley dirt with the volcano Vesuvius in the background.

The entire experience of visiting Pompeii made time disappear. As we rounded a corner I looked up to see Mount Vesuvius against a blue sky in the distance. I could easily imagine the 14km pillar of ash and gas billowing up in the sky. Then its weight grew so great it tipped and collapsed upon the city with great force and peril for all who lived there.

As we now know, the entire population was dramatically covered and entombed while going about their daily business. All of life within the city came to a sudden stop. Men and women and children were turned to hot ash in an instant. Streets and houses were consumed. Perhaps a few small pups like the dog in the photo were lying in the dust when the pumice and gas fixed them forever in time.

There were many styles of residences and businesses in Pompeii.

It’s not that hard to imagine. It’s certainly not hard to believe. Not with all this evidence of history still standing in testament to what life was like back then. We all like to assume that we’re immune to peril in our daily lives, that nature would never attack us, or our culture.

Yet we’re always wrong. But we keep on running ahead in hopes of avoiding the next towering plume of fate or the next round of dangerous gases sent by God or bad luck to whatever end awaits us.

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Dawn of the Amish Zombie Rumspringa

I decided to take the back roads on the return trip from my college reunion in Decorah, Iowa. A simple tap of Directions on Google Maps set up a route through Lancaster and Platteville in southwest Wisconsin.

My childhood was actually spent in the city and county of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Those were delightfully formative years. I even attended school with children from Mennonite and Amish families. They’d sometimes come to school smelling like cow manure or some other earthy odor, but we didn’t mind. Well, we said we didn’t anyway.

The Amish children all seemed to disappear from school by the time they hit the seventh grade. Perhaps they stopped going to public schools and got the rest of their education at home.

In a tradition called Rumspringa, the Amish send their teenagers out into the world for a year or so to live it up before making a choice about whether they want to stay in the tradition. Trusty old Wikipedia describes it this way. “Rumspringa normally begins around the ages of 14–16 and ends when a youth either chooses to be baptized within the Amish church or to leave the community. For Wenger Mennonites, Rumspringa occurs between ages of 17 and 21.”


The Amish call it Rumspringa. The secular world calls it a college, or a Gap Year. Whatever the case, it is an acknowledgement that not everyone is ready to begin adulting at the same prescribed time.

I was thinking about all that growing up stuff while driving through southwest Wisconsin. I’ve been driving through the region for forty-plus years since I started at Luther College as a freshman. Along the way I’ve had my share of Rumspringas. Those college years of running 100 miles a week and drinking until I felt like a zombie were an intense way to experience the world.

As I drove through southwest Wisconsin where a number of Amish families now settled, I observed that the Driftless Region looks quite a bit like the land around Lancaster County, Pennsylvania where I grew up. As I crested a hill just after dawn I spied an Amish buggy on the road ahead. It’s a courtesy to slow down when passing the Amish, so I slowed my Subaru to a crawl in the dawn’s early light and waited for an opportunity to pass.

Into the murky gloom

But I got a creepy sensation as I wheeled up behind the gray Amish cart. The spot on the back of the buggy where there’s normally an orange triangle to indicate a slow-moving vehicle was missing. That made me slow down even more. I waited to clear the hill and began to pull my Subaru around the buggy to move past. Rolling along at only ten miles an hour in the murky gloom of early day, I blinked at what appeared to be a foggy wall in the steep little valley below.

I’m quite used to the fogs and mists of southwestern Wisconsin in early autumn. But this fog was something else. It seemed to be composed of an impenetrably thick substance beyond the range of any fog I’d seen. I pressed my foot on the brakes and fell even in pace with the buggy as I passed. Then I looked over at the family and realized they were a band of living dead Amish.

Not a fan of zombies

Not being a fan of zombie shows, as I find them insufferable and fake, it seemed at first that the carriage full of zombie Amish was some elaborate Halloween prank being played by some Wisconsin locals. I laughed aloud as the fog around my car grew thicker and the windshield misted over. “Did I just see that?” I asked.

The road was hardly visible ahead. I had not even made it back into the lane of traffic for fear of cutting off the Amish buggy behind me. Then I heard a whip crack the back of my car. The massive black horse reared up and smashed the side windows with its hooves. At that moment I jerked the car to a halt and lurched out of the vehicle to protest that the prank had just gone too far.

Carried away

The moment I got out of the vehicle a group of bony hands grabbed me on all parts of my body. I was lifted in the air and carried through a thick cornfield with the sharp edges of unharvested shocks tearing away shreds of my clothing. I let out a scream of sorts but my voice clung near to my face in the thickening fog. The noise of my captors stumbling through the fields was deafening, haunting and surreal.

Finally I got a glimpse at the creatures carrying me. I could see the flapping chins of two zombie Amish. Shards of thin beard were flapping about. They chattered away in a broken German tongue that was slivered by time itself. One of them glanced up at me and gave a sharp flex of its stinking hand into my shoulder. That forced a wince of pain. From then on I resigned myself to wherever they were carrying me, hoping to escape and outrun them if I could.

Soon we burst into an open field where they tossed me on the ground. I popped my head up to find an entire congregation of Amish zombies standing stolid and severe in the dew-covered grass. An area of pale light opened above us on the field. I could see a flock of crows that had risen from the trees. They were flapping silently overhead. It made me sad to think how many times I’d seen crows in the sky and taken them for granted. I wondered if these were the last crows I’d ever see alive.

Unceremonious ceremony

The next moment a circle of Amish zombies was closing in on me. “Well, if this is how it ends,” I told myself. “I’m going to go down fighting.”

Then the Amish zombies stopped. One of them raised a ragged hand above his head. The entire mass of haggard souls began muttering one word… “Rumspringa,” they howled in wild German unison. They repeated it again. “Rumspringa!” Then louder, more insistently. “Rumspringa!!”

It all held a demanding tone. I reasoned I should do or say something. So I answered them in English. The words came out in a strange yet familiar tongue. I was speaking the same broken German I’d learned along with other kids in that little elementary school south of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Taken aback

That made the Amish zombies all jump back and begin talking to one another in soe form of the same broken language I had just used. The only difference was that their language was an equally broken version of English that they’d likely learned at the same age.

It appeared to be an Amish zombie standoff. Then one of them quietly stepped forward and extended a terribly mangled hand. With a questioning voice it repeated the same word again. “Rumspringa?”

Familiar face. Sort of.

Something in me recognized the tone and nature of that voice. I’d made one actual Amish friend in all my childhood days. He’d actually invited me out to play at their farm south of Lancaster one sunny Sunday afternoon. He was a bright kid, filled with curiosity and with such bright blue eyes it made me uncomfortable at times even to look at him.

The dim glow of those bright blue eyes was now shaded in cloudy grey tones that looked like cataracts had covered them over. He chuckled a low, throaty growl and said in a mocking tone, “Rum-springa.”

Was this a choice to become one of the living dead?

I stood up tall and tried to look very much alive. Then I chuckled back. “This… is Rumspringa? To you?”

“To you…,” the Amish zombie muttered back. “Kehre jetzt zurück… oder nicht…

Which meant, “Now return, or not…”

“I’m sorry,” I told my long lost mostly dead zombie Amish friend. “I’ve actually got places to go. A life to live,” I shrugged. “Plus I’m entered in a half-ironman triathlon next spring and I’ve already paid the $600 entry fee.”

Zombies are not stupid. Even Amish ones.

“That sounds steep,” one of the zombies responded in broken German-English. “
Was ist triathlon??”

“It’s this sport where you swim and then you bike and then…” I heard myself saying those words and realized how amazingly stupid they must have sounded to a band of half-dead Luddites stuck between worlds. “It’s an English thing, you know. We do a lot of stupid stuff.”

At those words all the zombies nodded their heads in approval. “Yes,” one of the bearded old zombies retorted. “Sie Englisch tun…” one of the elder zombies intoned. You English do.” one of them translated.

Off they go

And in that moment the zombie Amish tribe dispersed into the cornfields. A harsh silence fell. Then a hissing noise accompanied the rising of the fog from the bottomlands. I was standing in a completely normal lawn with a fence leading back toward the barn. An Amish family was boarding its buggy wearing clothes and in a manner that looked like they were headed for Sunday services. One of the little boys looked up and waved, but the mother ushered him quickly into the carriage.

I walked back toward a road that looked like it headed in a direction that might lead me to my car. My senses were right. I’d found my Subaru with one wheel slightly down in the ditch. But the windows were intact. Everything else seemed fine.

Climbing into my car, I found the iPhone asleep on the seat. Taking it in my hands, I tapped the screen and entered the code to access Google Maps. Instead I heard the voice of Siri blurting out a question I did not want to hear.

“Do you want to go to Rumspringa?”

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When the Ironman meets strong women

I think we’ll order this one…

My wife set a PR in the Ironman Louisville race. It wasn’t a perfect or “complete” race given cancellation of the swim due to toxic algae. But she’s a strong swimmer that has raced well in that component of triathlons all summer. So it’s possible to add on the logical time for a 2.4 mile swim and know that she still busted her PR by more than half an hour.

That means quite a bit, because her running is what improved the most over the last two years since she last competed at Louisville. She’s worked diligently to improve her form, strength and overall stability in terms of consistency and pace. I’ve watched that transformation first hand.

Yet she had a setback six weeks out from her Louisville effort. Her running shoes got a little too worn and when she traded them in for new ones a stress fracture popped up in her right foot. The orthopedist confirmed the problem and she was forced to abandon all the run buildup that she and her coach had planned.

Rested and ready

That may actually have helped her in the long run. She did a few Half Ironman races this summer with a PR at that distance as well. There’s always a risk of overtraining for the longer distance. The stress fracture actually forced her to back off and rely on the biking and swimming to keep fitness up.

At the 33 mile mark in the hills east of Louisville, Kentucky.

To her credit she got out there on the bike on the worst of days and did multiple century rides in the wind and rain, heat and vagaries of late summer. Nothing fazed my strong woman. “I feel good,” she kept telling me. “I feel strong.”

To that I can also testify. I’d ride 40-60 miles with her and be happy to tail off after having averaged 19-20 mph on our rides. She’d go on another 30-40 miles with regular stops at the Casey’s in Maple Park. Our trusty food station.

Slightly off tracked

She even dealt with a double flat up in the hills west of Madison pretty well. She was 75 miles into a planned 100-miler when some railroad tracks waylaid her on the Ironman Madison course. A kind couple that was up scouting the course for his Ironman drove her back to Rocket Bicycle Studio and got a download from Sue on the course topography. That’s about a fair trade, I’d say.

The happy face of an Ironman finisher

It’s so seldom that anyone’s Ironman training goes perfectly smooth. Yet in recalling her prep for the first Ironman in Madison several years ago, there was an incident with an Escalade SUV that the driver literally parked in the middle of the lane on a country road as Sue and others were coming off a long descent on Campton Hills Road. She had to ditch the bike and it cracked the frame. We had to buy a new bike, get that fitted and off she went, but it was stressful to say the least.

So we’re grateful for the great day in Louisville with temps that were cool but manageable. The wind was not something about which Sue was worried. “I’m good in the wind,” she told me. To that I can testify as well. I’ve spent many miles trying to keep up in headwinds, crosswinds, cross-crosswinds and tricky tailwinds that feel like headwinds. We live in Illinois. It’s often windy here.

“You’re an Ironman!”

Watching her head into the chute after her steady marathon effort was rewarding for me too. As a partner to an Ironman racer there’s always a bit of anxiety going on. At one point her tracking icon disappeared off the Ironman app. I panicked for a few minutes and then realized she may have just been riding through some forested areas.

At the long day’s end I’d had two tall drinks of Buffalo Trace and Coke at Whisky Dry on Fourth Street in Louisville. I sat there watching her icon slipping along the course map on my phone and looked up at her daughter Sara and grinned. “She’s doing great,” I smiled. A little tipsy I’ll admit.

She even made it past Siren and Bullhorn Man in his bulging Speedo.

There will be other races, God willing. But it always pays to be thankful for the one just completed. Our puppy Lucy was a pretty good girl all day with everyone taking turns holding the leash. It was a great day to be in Louisville, for sure.

What I keep taking away from these races is the pageantry combined with the transcendent humility of doing something that requires perseverance to complete. But I particularly notice the strong women in these events, who defy the formerly stifling limitations of male expectations and sweat with the best of them. You gotta love it when Ironman meets strong women. And my wife is one of those.

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Reeling in the years

“You been tellin’ me you’re a genius
Since you were seventeen
In all the time I’ve known you
I still don’t know what you mean
The weekend at the college
Didn’t turn out like you planned
The things that pass for knowledge
I can’t understand…”

Steely Dan–Reeling in the Years

A pastel of a section of road on which we used to train during our time at Luther College.

There’s nothing like a high school or college reunion to set off a round of self-examination. But as the years have gone by, these occasions have become less of a Come to Jesus moment for me and more of a God Loves You Anyway assessment of conscience and consciousness.

I drove up to Decorah, Iowa to visit Luther College for the third time this year. The first occasion was a reunion of track and field athletes from the years 1966-1986. It was fun to meet legacy athletes and hear stories about how their achievements took place.

Every reunion is a crossroads of sorts. From the show Road Trip: Passage Through Collective Memory.

Then in September I hauled my artwork up to Luther and installed a show called Road Trip: Passage Through Collective Memory. But then I turned right around again and came back home the next day. I took the backroads to get more material for future paintings.

This past weekend marked our official 40th-year class reunion. I so well recall watching our aged alumni trod quietly through campus when I was 18 years old and just a freshman at Luther. We were so caught up in cross country that fall it was hard to imagine events in the weeks to come, much less forty years down the road.

A painting done for a friend about equine treatments for PTSD

Eventually I’d study the concept of the ‘irreversibility of time’ in the Philosophy of Existentialism class I took from Professor Richard Ylvisaker. That harsh notion informed both the state of a distance runner on the roads and all of life to come. You can’t turn back.

But you can reminisce, and that’s what reunions are all about. That, and discovering new friends among classmates with whom you shared a time period.

My art show was all about the fact that we have many experiences in life that reside in our minds as a collective. We may not dwell on them specifically, yet those places we pass when we’re going somewhere important in our lives build up and actually become part of our mental processes. The same thing happens with groups of people whom you “pass” along the way in life.

Those four years of college are considered formative years. We give them high significance and we give money to the colleges we attended because we feel loyalty to those places for giving us those opportunities. The faces we see at reunions are like icons for the era. So are the conversations about events past and present.

The painting I did years ago for our coach Kent Finanger.

And for those of us that ran so many miles together, there is a unique level of shared experience wrought from both the pain and pleasure of trying to achieve things that are not easy. For those experiences we share hugs, say thanks and laugh at all the stupid thoughts and funny conversations that occupied our minds all those years ago.

Yes, sometimes the things that pass for knowledge we never truly understand. And I’m more than okay with that. That’s the most common experience we all share.

Team captains and Class of ’79 members Dani Fjelstad, Steve Corson, Paul Mullen, Keith Ellingson and Christopher Cudworth. 2nd place NCAA Division III nationals 1978.

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Commuting through time

Waiting between cars to disembark.

I first accepted a job in the City of Chicago when I was twenty-one years old. I’d already worked a year as an admissions counselor traveling all over the state of Illinois, and that was rough.

So when a man named Robert Van Kampen offered me to join his newly formed investment banking firm with offices at 208 S. LaSalle Street, it was both hard to resist and an adventure in the making.

I’d hardly spent any time in the really big city growing up. The town of Lancaster, Pennsylvania where I lived from age five through twelve was not tiny, but it was no Chicago. When we moved to Illinois our family lived in a far-flung rural community named Elburn. It was surrounded by cornfields and a train line ran right through town. But back then the commuter line ended in the City of Geneva twelve miles east.

The view from the rail bridge over the Fox River heading west toward Geneva

So I was a rookie that first day taking the train downtown to Chicago. I don’t know why it felt so new to me to be spending time in the city. After all, I’d worked the previous year visiting urban schools recruiting students. Nothing bad ever happened to me then.

But just in case, I tucked my wallet in the front of my pants and walked the three blocks from the train station to the office. That would be the first of many morning commutes to follow.

The part of me that loved to run and also hated the idea of having to spend two hours a day on a train. But the part of me that loved to read and write made good use of all those mornings and evenings riding the West line in and out of the city.

I worked on a book titled Admissions, a work of fiction that predicted a ton of things correctly about the world. It sagely predicted the rise of Right-wing media on AM Radio. I predicted the rise of a Right Wing political movement that I called The Mandate. It later came true in the work of Newt Gingrich, the Contract for America and the Tea Party. Years later I’m going to finally publish that book. It anticipated everything going on in America today.

That book was written longhand on yellow legal pads. I’d write entire chapters that way, and rewrite them to make edits. It would be another three years before I owned my own IBM Selectric Typewriter. But writing that book longhand taught me to be economic in my writing. That’s a lesson I haven’t always abided.

These days I’m commuting again. I’ve ridden in and out of the city so many times over the years the landmarks are part of my sub-conscious mind. So are the names of the cities announced along the way. And the dulcet tone: “Caution, the doors are about to close.”

Only once here in Illinois have I missed a stop and gone too far. But when that happened on my early commuting experience out of the City of Philadelphia, the conductor would not let me get off at the nearest stop north of the city. “You won’t come back,” he warned me.

These days I can write using my laptop and even plug it into the wall socket if I’m lucky enough to board a newer car. I still haven’t learned to recognize them from outside the train. I’m not sure anyone can.

But I kind of like it that way. If there are no sockets available in an older Metra car, I use my cell phone as a personal hotspot and write away just like I did all those years ago on legal pads. That means the commute is put to good use. It’s still a rat race some days trying to make the train going into the city. And coming back out there is always the tension of which train to catch. Many’s the time I’ve trotted across the loop at eight-minute-per-mile pace or faster trying to make the 5:27 or the 6:10. It’s all relative in the end.

Oak Park, where I won the Frank Lloyd Wright 10K two years in a row.

I once covered the miles between the Hancock Center and Ogilvie Transportation Center in a heavy rain storm. There were also a few late nights walking from the bars to the train. Only once did I worry about being mugged. Some guy followed me all the way down Wacker, scoping me out to see if I was a legitimate target.

Obviously I kept an eye on him. Even with a few drinks in me I was ready to run as fast as I could if he approached too closely. Perhaps a few people in this world would have preferred to have a gun on them at the time. I’ve always been happy to have my feet and legs as a weapon of escape.

This building is featured in a painting I did from photos taken while commuting. (see below)

Taking the train in and out of the city is to be involved in a core sample of the present and past. All that urgent energy of youth and desiring to be anyplace else but on a train was perhaps not the most constructive outlook. At least with time I can appreciate the fact that not every opportunity in life means freedom.

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A long ago “Oh Boy” on the Boy Scouts of America

I was in Cub Scouts as a kid. Made it all the way to Webelos earning badges along the way. But then I got shamed out of the pack for protesting too loudly when one of the pack members cheated in a game of kickball organized by the den mother. The kid moved to second base after one of his own players struck out at the plate. Stealing bases was not allowed in kickball.

So I pointed out that fact, and the kid who stole second refused to admit it. So I raised a fuss and refused to pitch the kickball to the next player. The den mother yanked me out of the game and told me to go home. I never went back.

Sense of social justice

Even at a young age, I had well-developed sense of social justice. One of the values I learned early on was that playing fairly was important. Cheating was something I refused to tolerate. The other personal quality you learn from those values is how to establish those parameters with everyone you meet. And how to lead.

So getting kicked out of Cub Scouts for “fighting” (as the den mother branded it) was a cogent lesson in the fact not all adults could or should be trusted to uphold moral values. But it also provided motivation to prevent dishonesty from ruling the day.

I recognized these things early in life but am also not a perfect human being. Through many years of athletic competition I was largely honorable in my conduct. But anger sometimes entered the picture, especially when losing––the other thing I deeply hated in life. Occasionally I lost my cool or resorted to ugly gamesmanship. But that’s still different than outright cheating. But perhaps not much more honorable.

Not a perfect person

So I’ll never claim to be the perfect sportsman, much less a perfect person. But the sport of distance running that I chose as a primary pursuit through college was not a discipline at which it was easy to cheat. You either ran faster than the other competitors, or you didn’t. Oh sure, some real scoundrels have found ways to cheat, and still do. They take shortcuts. Use drugs. Catch a train or bus to the finish line.

I never really wanted to actually cheat to win. I too much enjoyed the world of distance running precisely because it was “hard, clean and severe”––to quote writer Kenny Moore. Along the way I was blessed to win my share of races. And by the time I was in my mid-twenties had earned a reputation as a good journeyman distance runner on the local road race circuit. But by 1985 I was feeling like it was time to hang up the racing flats, get married and start a family.

Rush job

That summer, on the advice from some friends, I accepted a job as a District Executive with a local council of the Boy Scouts of America. “You’ll love it,” they told me. “The winter months are pretty busy but the summer’s are relaxed.”

That sounded like a good deal. So I signed on and was sent to a three-week intensive training program called NEI (National Executives’ Institute) down in Irving, Texas. There they talked plenty about the importance of virtue, values and hard work.

But when I got back to the local council and studied the membership records for the council and district, I noticed there was something amiss in the fact that some of the packs and troops essentially consisted of “ghost” memberships. That meant entry fees had been paid for kids who weren’t truly enrolled in the program. In other words, some District Executives were cheating.

Hush job

I raised that issue with the Field Director and was immediately told never to mention it again. Not long after that I learned that funding from the local United Way was dependent on serving a certain number of youth. If numbers dropped, that funding would go away.

So I was told that the numbers in my district definitely had to be met or there would be consequences to pay. I raised that issue with some fellow DEs that I thought were friends and no one was willing to discuss the subject. It was all hush-hush.

In other words, the council was cheating in many respects and everyone was playing along. But rather than cheat and falsify membership numbers, I took the initiative to start an Explorer troop and get high school kids signed up. I found a friend in the district to help and even attended their activities. It took tons more time on top of the school visits, evening meetings and weekend events I was already required to attend, but I was determined not to start out my work life by cheating.

Shush job

It ultimately didn’t matter. My inquiries with the field director and staff had made me a target of suspicion about being too honest. They didn’t want me to blow the lid off the scam. So they conspired to trump up some volunteer complaints about me and then threatened punishment. After two years of trying to make things work in an honest fashion, I finally left the Boy Scouts when I land a job in newspaper advertising sales.

But the realization that an organization that was supposed to be a pillar of conservative values and tradition could be so corrupt truly sickened me. Yet I’ve seen the pattern repeat itself time and again over the decades. People present a righteous front while scheming and scamming behind the scenes to get money or power or position in life.

Honest efforts

It’s all so different than the raw honesty of running. But through those experiences, you really do develop an ability to spot the phonies and liars from miles away. Perhaps it’s a matter of participating in the cut-and-dried reality of distance running. It’s a perspective you develop through uncompromising effort and making no excuses for the outcomes.

In any case, the distaste for cheaters lives on. You can imagine right now how I feel about so much that is going on in this world. How do you feel about it?

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