Scratching out an existence

Earth View Three.jpgClimbing into a Boeing 737 Southwest Airlines jet in Chicago, I settled into the window seat next to my wife. Our flights to Florida and back were quite affordable, and we had family business to attend.

There was a layover in Nashville, Tennessee. We approached the airport descending over lumpy ground that surrounds the place country music calls home.

I’m no big fan of country music, but have long admired the country rock of folks like Jackson Browne, the Eagles and even Neil Young. Their songs have fueled me over many miles of training.

It is well-known the Beatles were big fans of country music. They drew inspiration and covered songs by country icons such as Carl Perkins. I love the Beatles, yet I’ve never completely warmed up to the workings of so-called “pure” country music.

Actually, I’m not sure such a thing exists anymore. The twang and accents of what passes for real country music today seems like so much affectation. So I find it repulsive. The cowboy hats tipped over the eyes.  The “country”  costumes all feel fake as hell to me.

Earth View Two.jpgWhen we landed in Nashville, we climbed out of the airplane and dined at a restaurant in the airport called Gibson’s. It is named after the famous line of guitars, which makes sense in such a music town. I’ve played songs on Gibson guitars, but I cannot make the claim that I am actually a guitarist. I can strum chords but can’t make it cry and sing. So I’m not really a musician.

It seems like even musicians aren’t musicians anymore. I’ve heard classic rockers such as Joe Walsh of the Eagles lament the relative state of recorded music these days. It’s all produced like a genetically modified digital crop. Everything engineered to tight specifications unless it flows through the Indie channel system where distribution is up to the creators, not record companies. Even that system of selling music has been undercut by free music applications such as Spotify and Pandora.

It’s like the entire world has been left to scratch out an existence on the thinnest of premises. It’s true with industries as organic and central to existence as farming, where “salt of the earth” people create food from the land.

Earth View Three.jpgEven though I spent considerable time on a farm as a kid, I was never really a farmer. I visited my uncle’s farm and did some chores when I was there. But that’s not the same as living on a farm year-round, or milking cows at 5:30 in the morning. But I did develop an appreciation for the work that goes into farming.

These days the sight of the massive grid of square fields below an airplane gives me an empty feeling inside.The whole enterprise of farming in America seems so shallow. From high above, it just looks like scratching out a living on little squares that mean so much to the owners, but what is the real dynamic?

Earth View FourSo many farmers rent their land or equipment now it’s all mortgaged and leveraged to the max. Everyone in the farming business paying bankers at some point, and delivering crops to the maw of the markets.

Even the seed that farmers purchase these days is manufactured by giant companies such as Monsanto. Farmers basically “rent” seed to plant, and aren’t allowed to keep any of their seed stock from year to year. Farming crops like corn or soybeans is thus as shallow as the thin layer of dirt on which they depend for life

 

Yet I also recognize that those of us who run and ride rent the space to do so from society as a whole. There’s no way that any of us can “own” the miles we traverse on country roads. Just like musicians or farmers or any other occupation on God’s green and brown earth, we’re scratching out an existence like so many ants below the airplanes flying through the blue space above. It’s all very humbling, and we barely deserve an inch of it. Yet here we go again while the earth turns, the sun appears to rise and the miles roll away beneath our feet and tires.

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Don’t pet the service doggies

service-dog.jpgWalking through Midway Airport on the way to Florida this morning, I noticed a sign that said “Service dogs allowed on leashes. All other animals must be in carriers.”

Not long after that, a woman walked by with a service dog wearing one of those little bibs with the words SERVICE DOG embroidered on its back.

Minutes later, a K-9 dog came by with its nose pointed toward all our backpacks. The dog stuck its sniffer into the edge of my Swiss Gear back and moved on. No drugs here.

The only drugs I carry are some mild anti-anxiety pills called Citalopram. Those are my concession to the fact that a bit of casing has worn off the wiring of my soul. In fact, it was probably never there, but life’s lessons have taught me that pre-emptive measures are far better than dealing with the effects of almost anything.

Along with the anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications, I’ve learned a ton of methods to catch anxious or worried thoughts well before they take over my frontal lobes. Recently I heard a story about a man that had been in a car accident in his early twenties. He never got treatment after his big concussion, but it turned out the frontal lobes of his brain had literally died and withered away over the years. That left him with little capacity for judgment. He was thus quite compulsive and did things that were bad for his diabetes on a regular basis.

But it wasn’t until later in life that someone actually did a brain scan and found out that his brain was 1/4 dead. His kids said to themselves, “That explains a lot.”

I know that I am not missing any lobes because I had a brain scan a few years ago and all the parts were there. Instead my method in life for dealing with compulsive instincts is to focus them on positive things like running or petting animals in public.

At fourteen I started serious running and have kept it up all my life. But it was years later that I realized a penchant for petting dogs in public. Dogs tend to like me for that. Some recognize my penchant for dog-petting and seem to gravitate for a head or butt scratch.

But that’s not allowed with service dogs. It is bad form to distract them from their duties.

So I mutter under my breath, “Hello, Service Doggy.” And leave it at that. It has to be left as a cosmic connection. And that’s good enough for me.

 

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The sculptors of our own lives

Bas relief 1.jpegThere was a time when the “end of the season” was emphatic by nature. As a cross country runner through high school and college, the season would end when the success ran out. That could be the district meet or sectionals, depending how well we ran.

Same thing happened in college. Yet our team made it out of regionals all the way to nationals several times. We even placed second in the nation at the NCAA Division III cross country championships. Moments like that stand like sculptures in our careers. We work hard to make them, and stand them on the shelves of our existence to be admired.

And then we begin again.

Because no matter what type of success comes along, there is always the day after. Then comes the letdown. The “Well, what comes next?” sensation of a season concluded.

Relief

Cudworth unsophisticatedOne felt relief in some respects that the competitive demands were over for a moment. Getting ready for meets twelve weeks in a row does a share of wear and tear on the mind and body.

In high school we actually participating in 18 meets during the season, racing Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday for weeks on end. It made us tough, but it also strained our bodies. Some runners would run out of gas before the season ended. Others never loved the sport after that, and left it behind.

For three out of four years in high school, I migrated to the basketball court after cross country season was over. Sophomore year was a joyous experience playing basketball with my buddies. But then I moved schools and it was like starting all over.

By senior year, reality hit me that there would not be much playing time. I had skipped the summer camps and all that for basketball, and the coaches had no interest in me. That’s the nature of the game.

Epic times

So a few of us cross country runners signed up to participate in a flag football tournament that fall. It was held over Thanksgiving weekend. The weather was dank and wet and wonderful. We played three or four games a day and got plum exhausted and a bit beat up. But we won the damn thing against much bigger players. And that felt great. Epic.

These days the end of one season and the beginning of another is seldom so emphatic, or epic. More frequently the season “ends” with something like a long cycling trip of 80 miles on a cold, windy day somewhere far out in the country. A couple years ago I was sick before we even started. That meant I spent the day clinging to my handlebars wishing the whole damned thing would just be over.  I rode grumpy and slow. Then I drove home feeling like crap and proceeded to drive my car into the garage with my Felt 4C still perched on the rooftop carrier. Whump.

I didn’t get on the bike again until a warm February day the following year. By then, I’d purchased a new Specialized Venge but was riding my Waterford in Computrainer and trying to pretend that I had some level of fitness going in.

A whole new season

2012_Leckie_Amy_Yoder-Begely_SculptureIn fact it was the start of a whole new season. We love and hate the process, don’t we? We love the rush of late season competition but welcome the relief when our big race is done. We love the idea of starting a new season but hate how much it hurts when we really start to push it again.

Yet it’s what we live for, and why we do it. The difficulties we encounter cut a shape of bas relief in our lives. We become the material of our own sculptures over and over. Let us never forget that the artist with a block of stone must chip away the detritus to carve a beautiful figure. And when that process is done, we start it all over again.

We are indeed the sculptors of our own lives.

Note: The bas relief sculpture in the last image is one of many inspiring works of art created by Michael Stuart Leckie. Give his website a look. Really great artist. I stumbled on his work while Googling bas relief. 

The female image at top is a bas relief detail from the work of Lori Kiplinger Pandy. 

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The results are in…

While cleaning the inside of our garage this past Saturday afternoon, I was happy to be seeing such progress when my wife walked out the house door and announced, “Well, you have a torn meniscus.”

I stood there with my mouth open. And more open. Such open.

Of course, it made sense. It had to be a chunk of meniscus that was protruding on the inside of the knee during times of lateral stress. What else could it be? She’s been texting with the orthopedic doc who is a triathlon friend of mine, and asked him to look at the results of my MRI from last week. He took one look and said, “Oh yeah. Torn meniscus.”

It was that clear.

I finally gulped a little, then said to my wife: “I think I know when it happened.”

“Really?” she replied.

IMG_9983“Sno Fun Run. The time I hurdled that orange cone like an idiot. Remember how much that hurt?”

It was a stupid move. Snowy day. Slushy, icy streets. During the race, I hurdled an orange traffic cone and the entire knee hyperextended. A runner with no ACL left in the left knee should never do such things. But I got excited that day. Was having fun. Acting young.

The knee hurt for weeks afterward. It was swollen and sore. After it healed up some I did strength work. It felt fine to run.

So run I did. Then the problems started about six months after that. The knee was susceptible to torque. When that happened, a bonelike protrusion would show on the inside of the knee. It hurt a little. But not alot.

You might ask: “How could you not know it was a torn meniscus?”

I might answer: “Because I’ve never had one before.”

I thought it was a funky medial collateral ligament. Something like that.

Plus it would come and go. Mostly it got worse during cycling season, but it didn’t hurt while I was on the bike. It would hurt later on the run. I got a bike fit to fix my knee alignment. But the overall stress of 80-90 mile rides was causing some sort of fatigue that led to the meniscus shifting.

faceSo now I know. My mouth is finally closed after the amusing shock of learning what it really was. That’s the way I react to such things. With an open mouth and then a cold dose of realization.

Over year years, there were some things I knew were coming and it was just the confirmation of truth that made it seem ultimately profound. Other things I never saw coming and it was astounding to think such a thing could ever happen to me.

The train track of life

I guess if you stand on the train track of life long enough you’re going to get hit from one direction or another. The shock can be an injury or illness. It can be financial, or getting slammed from behind in your favorite car. It can be relational, such as when a longtime friend confesses to an affair or that they’ve been loyal to a spouse that doesn’t give a rat’s ass about them. Somehow you never saw the signs. But when told the truth, you suddenly do.

It happens in politics and religion too. I’m sure there are millions of Catholics wondering how the hell they got such an open-minded Pope. This is the man who says that “All scripture that does not lead to the love of Christ is obsolete.” Talk about cleaning the slate. I’m sure there are people who hate Pope Francis for saying that. It goes against millennia of Catholic tradition in law and practice. But if you study the real ministry of Christ, you know it’s true. People never saw that coming either.

It comes down to this: Some people simply don’t deal well with change. They like things “the way they were.” Anyone who threatens that comfort zone is the enemy. That’s what got Jesus killed. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Kennedys. John Lennon. Someone even tried to kill President Ronald Reagan. Even after that, conservatives balk at changing gun laws to protect the innocent.

Granted, change isn’t always “good” in the sense that it guarantees a happy outcome for those affected by it. When the financial markets crash, trillions of dollars can be lost in an instant. Real assets vanish. It seems economists fall into two camps at such times. There’s the “I told you so” crowd and the “who saw that coming?” crowd. The rest of us fall somewhere between.

9941-anguished-faceIt was an even less forgiving story when Bernie Madoff made off millions of dollars and left the people victimized by his scams horribly deceived. Or did they deceive themselves into believing in someone who appeared to have all the answers? It was all too good to be true.

Comfortably numb

Such is the small-mindedness of human existence that we all too often trick ourselves into a falsely happy state. Comfortably numb, as as Pink Floyd put it. We live that way until the moment when we hear the news or get the call that, “The results are in.” It’s in those moments of life that we sometimes drop our jaws and wonder why we didn’t see that one coming.

Such are the musings of a man in a clean garage on a Saturday afternoon in November. Somehow I didn’t see that torn meniscus coming. But now that I do, it’s time to make year-end decisions before the new year of health insurance deductibles kicks in. Time for a talk with the doc. A meeting with the surgeon. And maybe a shard of meniscus to keep in a jar as a reminder that change often comes along in chunks, and there’s nothing you can do about it. But deal with it.

 

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A missive from the MRI machine

MonarchpupaMy Black Friday (if you insist on calling that) began in the comfort of an MRI bed at our local hospital network. That would be Northwestern Medicine, the conglomerate that now owns a variety of hospitals across Northern Illinois. They are a good operation as far as I can see. Given the interface between consumer and health care providers is so heavily brokered by insurance companies these days, one is mostly glad when there is permission given to walk in the front door.

That would be called a referral. I received one for an MRI on my left knee over two months ago. I missed the first appointment because I’d forgotten it was scheduled in an NW Medicine cancer center, not my local hospital. The second scheduled appointment was on Halloween Night, and I plum forgot about it.

But a nice lady from Northwestern called this week and said, (and I paraphrase) “Hey Dude. Still want that MRI?”

And I said yes, like the Big Lebowski says yes. And the Dude Abides. So I wound up lying on my back with my leg encased in something that looked like a piece of styrofoam computer packaging. It wrapped around my knee.  Then the tech lady gave me some sound-canceling headphones to put over my ears.

The MRI machine was a GE model. I lay there looking up at the swoopy GE logo thinking above me, pondering how big that company must be to make something like an MRI machine. It’s not something you can throw together in your basement with some magnets and junk from American Science and Surplus.

I looked up some facts on MRI machines. Here’s what the website Medicalnewstoday.com said about them:

“Here are some key points about MRI scanners. 

  • MRI scans are a non-invasive and painless procedure
  • Raymond Damadian created the first MRI full body scanner, which he nicknamed the “Indomitable”
  • The cost of an MRI scanner starts at $150,000
  • Japan has the most MRI scanners, with 46.5 per one million citizens.”

The article goes on to say:

“An MRI scan uses a large magnet, radio waves, and a computer to create a detailed cross-sectional image of the patient’s internal organs and structures.

The scanner itself typically resembles a large tube with a table in the middle, allowing the patient to slide into the tunnel.

An MRI scan differs from CT scans and X-rays because it does not use ionizing radiation that can be potentially harmful to a patient.”

I like that last sentence because I once had an MRI done on my brain. I’d had some optical migraines, the kind that wipe out part of your vision for a short period. The doctor wanted to rule out possibilities of a tumor. Fortunately, there were no signs of a tumor, but the pictures of the inside of my head were insanely interesting.

I even wrote a short story whose main character had an MRI done on his brain. The medical technician saw an image of Jesus in the scans and tipped off a radical Christian organization to which he belonged in hopes that they had found some sign of the Second Coming. The group kidnapped the terrorized the victim but when a second MRI did not produce the same results, they let him go.

That’s how shallow the whole world of religious zealotry can be. Small signs make people do and believe crazy things. The only thing it proves is that some people have a disease of the soul. But really, we’re mostly made up of water with some other shit thrown in for good measure. That’s what an MRI measures.

The human body is largely made of water molecules, which are comprised of hydrogen and oxygen atoms. At the center of each atom lies an even smaller particle called a proton, which serves as a magnet and is sensitive to any magnetic field.

Normally, the water molecules in our bodies are randomly arranged, but upon entering an MRI scanner, the first magnet causes the body’s water molecules to align in one direction, either north or south.

The second magnetic field is then turned on and off in a series of quick pulses, causing each hydrogen atom to alter its alignment and then quickly switch back to its original relaxed state when switched off. The magnetic field is created by passing electricity through gradient coils, which also cause the coils to vibrate, resulting in a knocking sound inside the scanner.

My real concern in getting this MRI is to determine what if anything can be done about a dodgy medial collateral ligament that has bugged me on and off for two years. I know that these things do not automatically get better on their own. So an ortho doc will be looking at my MRI to determine if there’s something that needs to be done to fix it.

I was mildly concerned about the experience of a closed MRI. That means you’re inserted into the tube of the machine where some people experience a sense of claustrophobia. I can get like that sometimes, so I’d begun to prep my brain by working through how to relax in a confined space. Already in life, I’ve overcome a fear of the dark that vexed my youth. There have been other fears that have vanished with time and perspective. I saw no reason why I should not learn to calm the mind in that circumstance too.

The development of the MRI scan represents a huge milestone for the medical world, as doctors, scientists, and researchers are now able to examine the inside of the human body accurately using a non-invasive tool.

Monarch chrysalisOnly there was no need. Only the lower half of my body was inserted into the MRI hole. The rest of me stuck out like an uncut carrot from a salad so there was no need to worry. Above me was a multi-dimensional photograph of a locust tree against a clear blue sky. I looked at that with amusement thinking I was probably one of the only patients who sits there thinking they might find a yellow-billed or black-billed cuckoo in that kind of tree on a summer day when tent caterpillars set up shop. Makes for good eating when you’re a cuckoo.

Okay, so I’m the one that’s a bit cuckoo. But then the machine started up and it sounded at times like those long monotonal instrumentals from a long series of Pink Floyd albums. “Welcome my son…Welcome….to…the Machinnnnne…”

Once in the MRI scanner, the MRI technician will speak via the intercom to ensure the patient is comfortable. They will not start the scan unless the patient is ready.

It was somehow calming to hear all that hum and drone. It was like a White Noise app on steroids. I got all funny relaxed and stuff. My mind wandered. I nearly nodded off. The technician spoke through the sound system in the MRI lab and with noise-canceling earphones all I heard were mumbles and vibrations inside my head. It was the most comforting feeling knowing my knee was being analyzed while the inside of my head was numb with random noise and humble mutterings. “Why not enjoy it?” I told myself.

During the scan, it is imperative to stay still. Any movement will disrupt the images created, much like a camera trying to take a picture of a moving object. Loud noises will come from the scanner, which is perfectly normal. If the patient feels uncomfortable during the procedure, they can speak to the MRI technician via the intercom and request the scan be stopped.

All that was left after half an hour was to mutter Namaste to myself and use my abs to sit up. Or perhaps I crawled out like a monarch emerging from its chrysalis.

That proved difficult after a race yesterday. My body was a bit tired. I walked outside the hospital into a quiet dawn. Checking my phone, I saw that Sue had just then invited me to join her for swimming at the Vaughn Center. I haven’t been in the water in two months at least, since August. So I said yes, and we went. And swimming felt good. Even my dodgy medial collateral ligament went along for the ride.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging. It’s quite a trip.

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Taking pride in a quiet effort

grinchThe annual Fox and the Turkey run in Batavia draws more than 2,000 runners. The vibe is wonderful. Dozens of families run the race together. Today was the 21st annual race put on the by Fox River Trail Runners, the largest running organization the burbs west of Chicago.

The race starts up a 200-meter hill with a 10% grade that makes for an honest start, no matter who you are. When you have not been doing hill work or much speed work, that run up the Houston Street hill raises the heart rate precipitously.

Then you run another ninth-tenths of a mile to find out how much the hill cost you against your hoped-for pace. I was planning to run 7:00 miles, but it was obvious that was not going to happen. I rolled through the first mile in 7:23 feeling okay, not under stress, but not feeling like things would get a whole lot faster either.

Stomping grounds

The race rolls on streets in my old neighborhood. The course circles around a bit, and the morning sun this time of year throws long shadows from every house. November light has a bittersweet quality however you look at it. The sun tries very hard to be bright and cheery, but there are limitations when the earth itself is leaning away from you.

That’s how it is with an aging runner as well. All the instincts to go faster are still there, but the shadows of time lean away from you. Last spring I ran a 5K at 6:50 pace and was pretty happy with that. But today I noticed guys in my age group passing me or staying well ahead during the race this morning. At that point, you realize that it’s best to take what you can get from the day, and run smart.

Decades

It’s that I don’t have much concern about whether I get beat or not these days. I’ve ramped this body into racing shape in every decade of my life after the age of 10. My best racing was during my 20s of course, the physical peak period for runners. During my 30s I gave it a good go a few times, but never returned to prime contention for the overall. In my forties, there were age group victories now and then. Then during my early 50s I pretty much didn’t race while taking care of my late wife with cancer

Now I’m in my 60s, and still racing now and then. It’s a happy enough feeling to be dialing it now and then to whatever Red Zone applies at the moment. There’s a quiet pride in even being out there.

No crime at 8:00 pace

So this morning I settled into 8:00 pace and turned my racing instincts down to a mark of 5 on a scale of 10. Instead, I concentrated on “running well,” keeping form and breathing in the rhythm that provides optimal performance without stripping the gears.

Once I did this, my footfalls fell silent in comparison to the many other runners around me. At times I wanted to run up next to some of them and say “You know, there is a better way…” as I listened to their feet slapping the ground. I can’t help it. Noisy runners still bug me. That’s why I’m going to be coaching soon. I know how to help with that.

I’m not suggesting that I was any better than any of the runners I passed or that were passing me because I ran more efficiently. That’s not the point at all. But I maintain there is a worthwhile pride in running well no matter how fast you’re actually going. There really is an art to running if you pay attention to it.

Paying attention

Even back when I was running my fastest times I paid attention to this sense of running well. After one of his New York Marathon wins, the peripatetic marathoner Bill Rodgers talked about how he paid attention to every detail of his motion during the race, even to how he carried his hands.

I’ve always loved that aspect of running. At times it deceived spectators into thinking I was feeling better than I actually. I fooled even my friends and family. I could be feeling like hell but my form would seldom give it away. Here’s the point: Even a Survival Shuffle should be conducted with a degree of dignity.

It’s not about not trying hard enough. I’ve run races where I do fall apart from the raw desire to draw speed out of my body. That’s an art unto itself when you’re fit and throwing it all on the line. Yet there remains a grade of intelligence in carrying yourself the most efficient way possible over the ground. This is especially true the slower you become.

Attention to efficiency shows in the silence of your feet on the ground. So I ran along making so little noise the rest of the world seemed to fall away. As the last 400 meters approached I looked up and saw the hats of runners ahead disappearing back down the Houston Street hill. “That will come soon enough,” a little voice in my head confirmed. Then I kept along in my quiet way.

Keeping it together

There were other rewards as well. The knee strap that holds my twitchy medial collateral ligament in place had done its job. I’d dressed perfectly and it was cool and comfortable coming home those last 200 meters. We all ran together down the west side of the Fox River Valley toward the finish chute.

At the finish line, there were people with turkey hats and turkey costumes. Folks dressed in Fox outfits and full Star Wars Storm Trooper getups. I’d finish anonymously again, no shot at an age group award because the old friggers who are in better shape than me were far already ahead. Good on them. May their paths be quiet and smooth as well. And if not, I don’t want to be around them anyway. There is such a thing as graceless striving.

This much I did know: none of them were having any more fun than me. Of that I was sure. All these decades of running have taught me that while I once had my day in the sun winning races like these, that history leans into time like the sun turns into November light. Those moments of realization are when you instead concentrate on soaking up the Vitamin D in late autumn, taking pleasure in the fact that you’re healthy and alive. 8:00 pace is no crime after all, and the sound of feet quietly striking the street is all the reward you ever really needed in the first place.

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Don’t get your shorts in a knot (like me)

9941-anguished-face

Every pair of running shorts I own has a knot in the drawstrings. No matter how hard I try to keep that from happening, the drawstrings wind up in a little knot so tight it just about requires a needle to pull the thing apart. Short of a black hole in outer space, nothing compresses matter so tightly as a knot in the drawstrings of a pair of running shorts.

It takes time to get the knots apart, so I typically don’t do it. That means the shorts are limited to whatever waist measurement I last drew them into. That width can thus be hard to get over your hips. So I tug and pull until the shorts finally come up and slide into place around my waist. But then they feel looser than I like. And that puts my mental shorts in a knot.

The problem thus rests with the fact that the shorts and drawstring actually constrict a when going through the dryer. That tiny bit of shrinkage is enough to make it tough to get them back on again.

face.png

Occasionally I will sit down and pick at the drawstring knots until I get them loose again. That’s where the phrase “Don’t get your shorts in a knot” comes to mind. The Idiom Dictionary online describes the phrase this way:

To become overly upset or emotional over something, especially that which is trivial or unimportant. Primarily heard in US, South Africa

When I sit down to untie the knots in my running shorts, it can take a half hour to finally get a grip on some tendril of drawstring. When you feel that knot loosening, it’s like the whole universe is opening up. Often the drawstrings wind up in double knots, so you actually have to untie one before trying to extricate the other. It’s all very annoying and absorbing at the same time. So for both literal and abstract reasons, there is no triumph on earth quite like getting a stubborn knot undone.

Both literally and figuratively, I’ve been known to get my shorts in a knot on more than one occasion. The origin of the phrase must have a wide spectrum. Perhaps the “shorts in a knot” phrase applies to that feeling when your package is all wrapped up in material and you have to make some adjustments or go crazy. Or perhaps the phrase applies to that famous condition known as a ‘wedgie.’ That’s when the underwear gets pulled up the ass crack and by proxy, up the genital zone as well. Both are annoying conditions. The tension one feels is quite like the emotional state one reaches as a particularly annoying or stressful situation occurs. Call it Crotch Anxiety.

Knots in your saddle

women-s-new-classic-padded-bike-shorts-88Cycling shorts can certainly feel like they’re in a knot after spending hours in the saddle. For men, the testicles can feel constricted and the head of the penis can get raw from the merest misalignment of a seam on a chamois.

For women, pressure on the vagina can turn into pain, an abrasion or worse. It all adds up to what feels like a knot in the shorts. Ugh.

That feeling leads to wanting to get off the bike as soon as possible. At Ironman Louisville I heard one competitor say as they dismounted, “Bike for sale!” Riding can get that bad sometimes.

Getting unknotted

Hippoth.jpg

Of course there is a side of riding that is liberating as well.

I have a friend whose Ph.D wife is a psychology professional. She works with veterans dealing with PTSD. She gets them together with horses in a treatment called hippotherapy.

Here’s how it is described by the American Hippotherapy Association:

The term hippotherapy refers to how occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech-language pathology professionals use evidence-based practice and clinical reasoning in the purposeful manipulation of equine movement to engage sensory, neuromotor, and cognitive systems to achieve functional outcomes. In conjunction with the affordances of the equine environment and other treatment strategies, hippotherapy is part of a patient’s integrated plan of care.

It’s all about un-knotting the brain, and by doing that, unbundling the knots in our shorts. The fact that hanging out with a horse can help you un-knot your brain might be a hint why so many of us like to swim, run and ride. It’s all about getting outside ourselves and engaging with the world in a different way.

That seems like a simple enough explanation for why we swim, run and ride. To get the knots out of our shorts.

 

 

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Down by the river

River in Batavia.jpgI’ve always lived fairly close to water, especially rivers. It is fun to run along river trails because there is always something to see. This is especially true as my avocation is birding, or birdwatching. Rivers attract birds because of food resources ranging from bugs that fly over the water to the berries that grow in riparian zones.

In our area we’re blessed with trails that run 40 miles along the Fox River. The Fox is a decent sized river, usually 250 to 400 feet across. In many places it is funneled through cities such as St. Charles, Geneva, Batavia and North Aurora, the town where I now live.

One of our favorite running routes starts next to the bridge in North Aurora, travels 3.5 miles up to Batavia and comes back down the east side. The west side is flat, occupying a former railroad bed converted to a bike path. The east side is hilly because the trail leaves the river edge and loops up and through a climax forest of oaks, maples and hickories. Red Oak Nature Center and other forest preserves occupy about two miles of this stretch of river.

Mallards.jpgThere is plenty to see in all seasons. Even in winter there are ducks such as mergansers, goldeneyes and huge flocks of Canada Geese. The mergansers fish in the open water and are easily spied as their sides are bright white.

I can’t count the number of miles run on these trails, but they were constructed in 1981 and that’s 36 years ago. It’s no stretch to say that in all those years I’ve covered at least 250 miles per year on those river trails. That’s 9,000 miles of running along the river.

Only in the last 15 years have I cycled so much, but that probably constitutes another 10,000-20,000 miles of “river time” along the Fox River Trail.

They hold a really great marathon here on the river trails. It’s largely a flat race, yet really scenic. It’s pretty hard to find that combination, and the September date has largely avoided high heat. Often it’s been quite cool.

But I’m not a marathoner, so the races I’ve run on the trails include mostly 5Ks and 10Ks. That includes perhaps the best race I’ve ever run, a 10K held in the first few years the trails were even open. With a superior competitor on my heels the whole last 5K, I managed to win the race in a record 31:52 that lasted for a couple decades before they shut the race down after 25 years.

I’m not that fast anymore but still managed a 20:50 5K last spring in a little 5K race held on the popular loop up from Batavia to Fabyan Forest Preserve and back. It crosses the river on a girder bridge with wooden slates, swings on a one lane road across an island and comes back down the west side where boat houses and duck blinds once lined the river.

IMG_2837.jpgOver the years I watched those old structures decay and fall into the river. The gray wood cracked and bent in places, then tumbled into the water. Come spring a big flood would wash away the weakened structures bit by bit.

But some things never change. The light on the river is always beautiful in every season. So is the mist and the sky above it. There are gulls that snatch fish where they can, and large flocks of swallows made up of six different species at once.

So I’m grateful to live here, and thankful to have such a beautiful place to run and ride. But I’ll leave the river swimming to someone else like the turtles, the fish and the geese that now dominate the river.

City Photos River North View.jpg

Turtle Wing It.png

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Time to pull out the mountain bike

Rockhopper

I own a Specialized Rockhopper mountain bike. That’s not my bike in the photo above. But it could be. Bought mine back in the early 2000s for probably $600. It’s a solid bike. The frame is still in perfect condition. Silver and shiny. From all the photos I found by Googling it, the bike must be something of a classic.

There aren’t that many miles on my mountain bike because most of my annual riding is done on the roads. Mountain biking in Illinois is just not that thrilling unless one takes a trip over to a set of single tracks in Palos Heights. But I bang around on the mountain bike in my ‘neck of the woods’ in all sorts of weather. If the snow isn’t more than 3″ deep, it can be fun to ride in the winter. I’ve learned that deeper snow with a regular mountain bike is just a bunch of spinning around. One needs a true Fat Tire bike for that.

If I had half a conscience I’d ride the Rockhopper to work. I only live four miles away from my workplace. It’s supposed to be a tolerable winter here in Illinois. We’ll see. I rode to work a bunch when I lived seven miles away from a former job. One morning I spun out on a moss-covered bridge and got all green and slimy. That took my commuting appetite away for a while.

Early in the history of that bike I had the front all jacked up with a raised stem that sat me upright. I finally pulled all that off and got back to basics. Now I can ride in what amounts to mountain biking aero if I choose. Hunker down and pedal. Fuck the wind.

The only challenge in riding that bike is keeping my feet warm in really cold weather. The bike as SPD pedals and my shoes have metal cleats in the sole. The cold comes into the sole even when I wear the Pearl Izumi booties that cover the entire foot.

So an hour to 90 minutes is all I usually ride. That gives me 15-18 miles usually. Work up a sweat. Avoid the big winds. Enjoy making tire tracks in mud or snow.

Hello, mountain bike. Goodbye, Cabin Fever.

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What’s that about a hangover?

 

hang·o·ver ˈhaNGˌōvər/ noun
  1. a severe headache or other after effects caused by drinking an excess of alcohol.
    • a thing that has survived from the past.
      Beers.jpg

Last night I joined a friend for a couple beers. I had not seen her in forty years. We ran in the same track circles in high school. Later in the company of the man she’d marry, she migrated to the same college I attended in Iowa.

A couple beers at The Forge in Sycamore, Illinois. Kind of a nice way to celebrate a longtime association, share some memories and compare lives.

On the way home I felt fine. Two beers consumed slowly with food (a Margherita Pizza, mind you…) was not something to put me in an impaired state.

Yet I woke up at 3:30 in the morning with a bit of a headache. Some of that was likely the forced air heat in our home. That’s always dried out my sinuses, often driving headaches.

But this was a beer headache too. Certain beers give me headaches. I’m sure there’s a science to all this, but lacking either the resources to conduct such studies on my own, I’ll offer what suffices for expertise these days. This bit of insight from the website Hangoverschool.com serves up a set of beer-drinking warning signs about hangovers.

But I’m drinking less beer lately. So it’s not just beer that I worry about. Then again, I joined my wife for a cocktail party next door at our neighbor’s house. They have a long, beautiful granite bar and a real laminated menu of drink options that is twelve pages long.

It was a Friday and Sue was late getting back from Denver on a delayed flight, so I sat there and drank with some neighbors. The drink names were funny, which always makes me drink a little more. By the time she got there I was three cocktails ahead and having fun.

The night ended and we walked next door to go to bed. The next morning we got up to run a five-miler and frankly, I was dreading it a little. I was a bit hungover, you see.

By the time the first mile was over, I was feeling fantastic. How strange, I thought. How very strange. We ran the next four miles and I felt like I was floating along. Like I was twenty years younger. Forty years even.

Now you cannot count on that type of sensation every time you drink. I seriously wondered if I was somehow still a little drunk. My senses were clear. My legs felt great. So it wasn’t being drunk that made me feel so good.

glass-vs-crystal-wine-glasses.jpgAt the most I have more than one drink once or twice a week. Typically it’s wine with dinner, and a bit after. The beer purchases have gone down because the stuff makes me fat. Right. Around. The Middle.

My fave drinks are Long Island Iced Teas. Simple and clean. Have a kick. Very few hangovers.

This is not to say that I have not overdone it anytime in the past. During my freshman year in college I likely nearly died from alcohol poisoning. My liver could have failed the night of our annual cross country party. It was insane to drink so hard, but a naive nature will sometimes take you where you should not go.

One other time I feared for my health from drinking. That was during a weekend junket with a college girlfriend. We drank so much I fell down in a Lacrosse, Wisconsin McDonalds and almost could not get up.

Drinking is dangerous. It can also be addictive. Fortunately I was largely more addicted to running in my 20s than to alcohol or other substances. Not all my running buddies were so lucky. One or two succumbed to alcoholism over the years. The party habits that were a joke back in the day became too real over time.

These days I seldom come close to getting drunk. Yet it only takes a glass of wine or the wrong glass of beer sometimes to get a wicked hangover. Then it’s a slog through the morning hours.

I still find jokes about “day drinking” funny for some reason. It’s all about self-medicating in the end. Human beings deal with all sorts of stresses in life, and drinking is just one of potentially not-so-healthy-all-the-time coping mechanisms.

It’s also a little sad that a hangover is nothing more than the echo of dead brain cells rattling around in your noggin. The blood-brain barrier is supposed to keep bad things out, but the brain needs blood of some kind to keep functioning, and alcohol goes along for the ride. That’s what makes us drunk. Naked. And stupid. Or all of the above.

I’ve ridden and run off a few hangovers in my days on this earth. It can start out so bad and then by the end, you’re kind of laughing that compared to how shitty you felt when you started, life looks pretty good. Call it the flushing effect. Alcohol is the lactid acid of the brain.

sex hangover.jpegSo what’s that about a hangover? You can have a hangover from too much sex, or even a little sex if you suffer from sexual headaches. There is such a thing. Some come on fast, to coin a term, and go away just as quickly. But some people get sex hangovers, with a headache that can last hours or even days. And fuck, along with a four-hour erection, that’s a real bummer.

You might not have noticed a mention of something in the hangover definition shared at the beginning of this blog, an alternate definition of the term “hangover.” It also means this: a thing that has survived from the past. 

We all have headaches from our past, it seems. Relationships that didn’t work out. Painful breakups. Work crashes. The list goes on.

One could make the argument that if you think about it long enough, life itself is one long hangover from the last bad thing that happened to you, like a breed of nihilism in that nothing in the world has a real existence. Is it really all just one long headache? A long hangover until you shrivel up and die.

Not if you get out there and run and ride and swim. Honestly these are the types of things that can knock a hangover for a loop. So don’t lie around wondering what comes next. Life doesn’t have to be one long hangover.

It’s much better to drink of the sensations you gain from getting out there and doing what you love best. Moving. We run and ride and swim for a reason. No hangover should last forever.

 

 

 

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