I signed up for the Wauconda Olympic Triathlon and was excited to have an opportunity to swim a mile in open water for the first time. My time trial in the pool last week saw me finish 1600 yards in 31:00 or so. That’s a pace of 1:55 per 100, which is good for me. My cycling test went just as well, with a 19.6 average for 26 miles, about 80% effort according to my Garmin data. And my running has always been solid. That meant all signs were go to get to the Finish Line.
So I drove the hour up to Wauconda on Saturday for packet pickup and posed at the literal FINISH line with the wind whipping the banner above my head. It was hotter than hell outside for the third day in a row. But the weather called for an overnight cooling breeze and rain. So all signs were go.
But there was a disturbing factor affecting my hopes for Sunday. While my training has gone reasonably well, I have been dealing with the Tooth From Hell the last month. Visits to the endodontist have helped in some ways, but the soreness and pain are acute enough at times that I’ve lost sleep several nights. It all results from some poor dental work done about six years ago during a transitional insurance period, and that has spelled doom for the molar on the back left side of my mouth. I can’t wait to get to the Finish Line of that treatment, whatever it may be.
But thinking positively, I went to bed Saturday night and set the alarm for 3:30 to rise for the race in Wauconda. Transition would open at 4:30 to park the bike and set up. It would close at 6:00 a.m and the race was scheduled to begin at 6:30 a.m.. Great summer planning. But overnight, a series of storms blew into the Chicago area and the morning radar showed a band of thick clouds passing directly over the region of the race.
And my tooth hurt pretty badly all night.
I considered my options at that point, and there were several factors to consider. I’d read that the water temperature in Bang’s Lake for the swim was 86 degrees.That is the last temperature point at which which wearing wetsuits is even allowed, much less legal relative to race regulations.
And I’ll confess that I wasn’t excited about doing my first mile swim in open water unassisted by a wetsuit. I’m simply not that strong a swimmer yet and lack the confidence to go “naked” into the water for more than a mile, which it surely would have been with my somewhat wavering ability to sight properly.
All these factors converged in my mind at 3:30 in the morning when the alarm sounded. The weather. The tooth. The concerns about open water. So I gave it some hard thought, rolled over and told my wife that I wasn’t going to race. “There are too many uncertainties,” I told her.
She understood. Yet there was one problem still to confront. I had picked up the race packet and timing chip for my sister-in-law Julie. She was staying with a friend thirty miles north in Lake-in-the-Hills. So I got dressed, jumped in the car and drove north to give her the race numbers and chip. That was a finish line of a sort.
It started to rain in Elgin fifteen miles north of my home. The rain came straight down, hard as heck. The streets shone with running water. Arriving at my morning destination, I handed over the packet, gave a short explanation of my departure from the race and started driving home.
By then I was hungry and stopped at a nice-looking gas station mini-mart to get a can of tea and a Honey Bun, the world’s worst junk food according to every stadard known to human nutrition. But damn those things taste good at 4:15 in the morning when you’re all alone and seeking texture and sweetness in one frosted item. And to some degree, I felt I’d earned it.
Walking into the well-lit gas station mart I was surprised to hear what sounded like video games blaring at full volume. There were people seated at each one eight video slots machines inside the station. I thought to myself, “It’s four o’clock in the morning! Don’t you have a home?”
The participants were fixated on the slots. I asked one of them, “Is there supposed to be someone working the counter?” She pulled her eyes away from the machine momentarily and stared back at me. “There usually is,” she flatly stated.
I found the guy in his little uniform cleaning the iced beverage machine. He didn’t say a word as he followed me back to the counter to check out my items. I thanked him and walked back out into the poring rain with the hood of my golden raincoat pulled up over my head.
I tried to process what I’d just seen. We’re not supposed to judge others for their vices. Who is to say that I’m not the worse person that morning for planning to get up at 3:30 and participate in an athletically self-indulgent event only to chicken out at the last minute? Where is the supposed character in that?
But I let the moment wash away behind me realizing that slot machines are the Honey Buns of American Hope. Junk food for the cash-hungry. Symptom of the disenfranchised and desperate belief in Get Rich Quick. The naked ambition of the gambler reduced to the blaringly false hope of digitized odds. The Fake News of the American economy. The syntax of sin tax. Video slot machines. There’s an oxymoron in there someplace.
It stopped raining by the time I was halfway home. I could see lightning still flashing behind me in the rear view mirror. The sun was just hinting at the eastern skyline as I pulled back into our driveway. Our new puppy dog gave a little whimper of acknowledgement as I came in the front door and walked back upstairs. I stripped naked and slipped under the sheets. My wife laid her hand on mine and whispered quietly, “My sister just texted. They cancelled the race.”
A long sigh fell out of my sore face. I’d taken one more 800 mg Ibuprofen pill and hoped to a little more sleep before rising for the rest of the day. I pulled the handle on my mental slot machine and my brain came to rest on a bed of sevens, the pillow beneath my head. Sleep at last. Thank God Almighty, I was asleep at last.
And not the least bit guilty about it. It always pays to reach a finish line before you start a new day.
I’m not a super fan of people climbing Everest. Lately there have been too many stories of climbers logjammed up there near 29,000 feet. The mountain has grown crowded and dead people and frozen poop reportedly litter the landscape. It’s as if people are determined to pollute every last inch of the earth’s surface with our shitty existence.
But this video at least shows how difficult the climb actually can be. The views from up there are daunting. Those snow drifts and raw rocky ledges are nothing to mess with if you’re not experienced.
Which is the other sad reason Everest is suffering such an insulting fate. People who don’t really belong up there are paying tens of thousands of dollars and the money speaks louder than common sense.
As we all know, the love of money is the root of all evil. But the demonstration of the fact that one has money and the access it provides to those who possess it is the root of corruption. Are the people flying first class on commercial airlines truly better than the rest of us? And are people climbing Everest because they can afford to do so any more soul-conscious than your typical weekend triathlete?
I don’t think so. Not any more. Thirty-plus years ago I wrote an article about an optometrist training for alpine adventures including a shot at Everest. But things have changed over the decades. The idea of conquest has evolved into something other than a sense of triumph or achievement. It is now a consumerist concept. It diminishes the world to approach human endeavors from such an acquisitive advantage. I’m simply not impressed.
Nor am I impressed with the manner in which people who want to own the narrative of this world seek so hard to control it because they diminish the world in other ways, especially with their instincts toward scripture and the insistence on serpents that literally talked and 24-hour days of creation.
.Such is the case with religious creationism, which flatly states that the tip of Mt. Everest was once submerged under a global flood more than seven miles deep. That claim is based on a literal interpretation of a piece of scripture that began as an oral tradition likely based on an actual event, but one of necessarily limited scope.
People simple didn’t know how big the world really was when that oral tradition was formulated. No one did. For that matter, religion did not even understand that the world was spherical, or that the earth revolves around the sun until a mere 500 or so years ago.
So to claim with some brand of arrogantly anachronistic authority that Mt. Everest and every other land structure on earth was once submerged under a global flood is such a disturbingly vicious brand of lie it is astounding that anyone believes it.
Yet Gallup polls show that more than 30% of Americans buy into that narrative and embrace it wholeheartedly.
But I suggest the way to prove them wrong is to send them up the face of Everest with an oxygen tank on their back and see if they can reach the top and get back down again. See if they still believe that a global flood could cover that much height just six thousand or so years ago (according to young-earth creationists) and leave hardly a trace except for a scratch of earth where the Grand Canyon seeps through the plains of Northern Arizona.
The only thing taller than Mt. Everest in this world is the amount of bullshit some human beings are willing to believe because their imaginations are confined to a few words on a page. The same goes for Flat Earth theorists and people who don’t believe the human race has placed astronauts on the moon. These levels of ignorant cynicism are the death of consciousness and conscience because they defy reality at its core. That is the greatest sin of all in this world.
There is no rest for Everest when it is reduced by the limited imagination of those who consume its reputation with no respect for its actual size.
With an Olympic Triathlon planned for this Sunday, I set out on a “road test” in aero this morning to practice position and ride strategies. As you’ll see below, even Strava recognized this ride was a bit quicker than my usual effort.
The test went well. I averaged 19.6 mph for thirty-plus miles and hit 26 miles, the target length for the bike leg in this weekend’s triathlon, at 1:19:20.
That means come race day I will target 20 mph on a relatively hilly course (I imagine) up in Wauconda.
It is interesting to do these tests in mid-summer when fitness is strong. During the spring training period I struggle to average 17 mph on those windy days. Today was windy too, but I slid down into aero and concentrated on full, clean revolutions on the pedals and was able to ride much of the way at 20+ miles per hour.
Garmin feedback is slightly different than Strava, which estimates my Power Output at a measly 175W. I don’t have a meter for that, it just uses a mathematical equation to come to that bit of data.
But Garmin does measure my heart rate, which reached 152 bpm at its peak today. That means I’m likely riding at 80%. So there’s more in the tank come race day.
There were some relatively long yet mld climbs thrown in, and a full-on 10 mph crosswind from the northeast on the way back. I’d sworn there would be a tailwind after cutting across a wind all the way out. But we deceive ourselves with false hopes on the bike. The wind itself seldom complies with our hopes of speed.
Anyway, it feels good to be riding well. The heat is supposed to be fierce this weekend. The water temps are also likely high so I doubt the race will be wetsuit legal. that means I’ll probably not count in the standings because I’m not swimming my first mile-length open water swim without the wetsuit.
This past weekend was spent at Luther College in the company of more than 100 alumni from a track and field program that won Iowa conference track championship titles 26 out of 30 years. The event was illuminating on many fronts.
It was right to celebrate the legacy of Luther Track and Field, especially to highlight the accomplishments of those athletes in the 1960s who earned a second place at Nationals when Division II and III were still combined.
But college athletics have changed immensely over the last fifty years. Even the formerly sacrosanct world of Division III athletics is not immune to the pressure on athletes to specialize rather than participate in college athletics.
In the face of such dire news, I’ve been watching my own alma mater Luther College meet the challenges of enrollment, endowment and alumni giving. There have been a number of major victories in these categories, and alumni tend to be loyal to Luther College, an indicator that also helps attract major donors.
Giving and receiving
I’m no major giver myself, but I do give annually. My donation level is not in response to satisfaction with the college. I’m just a man of normal means and give what I can. Several of my classmates and teammates are quite well-to-do, and I know they give quite a bit to Luther. Everyone counts.
But what I think the world receives from schools like Luther in return for investment in liberal arts education is something much more than how much money people make. Graduates of the college run organizations like Sodexo and even Marriott International, where Arne Sorenson is President and CEO.
Liberal arts graduates learn critical thinking, first and foremost. And I think there is plenty of evidence in this country right now that liberal arts educations are more important than ever. Critical thinking is a rapidly diminishing factor in the American context. The unhappy outcome is complicity with people and ideas that favor ugly thinking and simplistic slogans. We are rapidly becoming a nation that can’t tell morals from propaganda, and the evangelical community keen on legalistic religious rules and lean on actual conscience is all on board with this agenda. That’s a dangerous, sick sign that real education is being devalued and undermined by fascist groupthink.
Connecting the dots
You might ask, what does all this have to do with running or riding? Well I can tell you that those activities give you plenty of time to do critical thinking. I specifically recall the challenges met in taking a course titled Philosophy of Existentialism taught by Professor Richard Ylvisaker. That man did not accept the easy path to thought by any measure. If you had an idea, you had better also know how to logically defend it. That was challenging stuff when it came to concepts such as the ‘irreversibility of time’ and how we’re all locked into this race to death whether we like it or not. I’d be out there running ten or twelve miles and say aloud, “Irreversibility of time indeed…” There is nothing like being so present in a concept to learn what it really means.
So the question that brand of thinking begs is this: How are we supposed to live?
To its eternal credit, Luther College has the courage to press its students on those questions. But it also grandly supports other ways of learning. The institution is world-renowned for its music, the sciences, the arts and many other endeavors. I remain as proud to have emerged from that environment as my running career. Luther encourages all of us to become a thinking person who cares how morality is applied in this world rather shove a student through a program with only money-making on their mind.
Sure, liberal arts gets maligned as “impractical education.” Cynical people that hate liberalism as a concept––though they do not fully understand it, for America was founded on it––make fun of liberal arts majors for not turning their academic path into a career. But that is a specious claim. Nothing in this world is wasted if you truly believe in the value of education. But it is increasingly evident that too many people do not believe in the value of true education versus groupthink and raw ideology. A day spent on any social media outlet will prove that point to you. Even Linkedin, where you might think things would be better, is full of the jingoistic, banal claims of those seeking confirmation of their beliefs. That is not critical thinking in the least, and to question it is to invite a dogpile of cynicism.
So I’ve written books about experiences in religion, politics and business. One of these examined the vortex of the Conservative-Liberal divide.
What I do know is that I’ve solved problems, conceived ideas and figured out ways to implement them as a result of my liberal arts education. These include a summer reading program that increased completion rates at many libraries by more than 50%. Several even re-wrote their policies in order to participate.
I also organized an integrated marketing program designed to get regional theater companies to collaborate in marketing themselves. Every one of them originally feared giving way their contacts to the competition. Yet it all worked out to everyone’s benefit with more ticket sales and profits for the sponsoring institutions.
Coming up with solutions can require a lot of think time. I get that out on the road, on the bike, or even in the pool. So can you.
An uneven path
Even in grade school I’ve been told I was always asking questions and philosophizing. Yet as a high school student I struggled with subjects such as algebra. It made no sense to me. But English did, and biology to a degree. But that was not to be. I was a writer but not an English instructor. A nature lover but not a scientist. That’s also why you go to college. To figure out what you’re not.
Thus I struggled to make my choice of what college to attend, and Luther College came along rather late in the process. My first choice had been Augustana College in Rock Island, an option made real by invitation of coach Paul Olson (a Luther graduate). I visited the Augie campus in April of 1975 and ran a college level track workout with the team. That sold me initially.
But then the institution sent me a note that stated my high school grade average (High Cs) would mean that I would be on academic probation the first term I attended. That turned me off. So my father suggested we visit Luther College after I received a note from Coach Kent Finanger through a friend that was already signed up. Off we went to visit Decorah, Iowa together, father and son. It was rare type of trip for us in those days, but the July of 1975 proved warm and sunny, and my father warmly advised me after seeing the wild spaces around the college, “You would like it here. You can bird watch out the dorm windows.” That’s when I made my final college decision.
The college wrote me a note that said, “We see that you’ve done a lot of good things outside the academic arena. We think you’ll do fine in studies.” And that came true.
I doubt that such equivocation and late decision-making happens much these days. College choices are made at the earliest possible times, from entirely different perspectives and with much more preparation. For example, my 24 ACT was nothing to brag about even back then. But it did match the average ACT for Luther at the time, if I recall. I did not even think about what the test meant until I walked in that room to fill out the ovals in a Number 2 pencil. Not exactly the way to prepare for such an important academic mark. These days, it’s almost a scientific course unto itself to study for the ACT. I never even took the SAT.
Thus it is not a cliche to state that college-related things were much simpler then. The total cost of attending Luther that first year was $3400. By the time we graduated it was $4300. My senior year the college handed me an extra $500 because I’d achieved a B average for academic performance. I wasn’t a lost cause after all.
Cycles of time
All this ran through my mind as I watched Augie Coach Paul Olson address the 100 or so alumni in the upstairs of the Luther College union overlooking the Oneota Valley. He is an English professor who quoted poetry and told interesting stories to convey his message of inspiration about his days at Luther and the value of liberal arts education and sports. His words and obvious love of language made me realize that I could have been very happy with an Augie experience as well, and would have loved his influence as a coach and a teacher. But we only have one life to live.
He also spoke of creating an atmosphere of love within a program, and that was evidenced by the gathering of men and women from Luther College track and field and cross country in that room. I glanced over at my college cross country coach Kent Finanger, a man that had tremendous influence on so many generations and literally started the women’s program in cross country. What a visionary. That program now has national champions and countless cross country and track standouts to its credit. All because he believed in the importance of opportunities for women. It started with two gals, both brave souls, and Kenton Finanger’s encouragement. One of those gals and her spouse recently created an endowment for the cross country program. Thus are foundations for the future built.
New eraat Luther College
There were also new coaches to be introduced, including the young new track and field coach, Stephen Fleagle, a North Central College graduate who is bringing his wife Kristin, a successful coach from Benedictine University, into the Luther fold. They inherit world-class facilities including a 200-meter indoor track, full weight rooms and the beautiful blue oval beneath the college union that adorns the base of the Oneota Valley. Things have come a long way in forty years since I attended, and now they have a new beginning.
Those are incredible opportunities for the college. They hold promise to continue Luther’s traditions on the conference and national circuit. There have been many successes under retired coach Jeffrey Wettach, a classmate of mine from Luther, but the aforementioned challenges related to college recruiting in general are the real hurdles to success facing small colleges these days.
For me, I’ll admit those years held almost too much significance for too long. By that I mean that I perhaps romanticized the place a bit too much. Yet I’ve always been proud of my Luther experience and even served as an Admissions counselor for a year. But back then the college was in a recruiting transition process and I was required to drive 1500 miles a week during the fall and spring seasons to cover the five hours from Luther to Chicago on Sunday, hit the the city and downstate Illinois for the week and then return on a Friday. I made my student recruiting quota, but it was admittedly hell on wheels, especially for a young man 21 years of age. The very next year they returned to allowing the Illinois rep to live in the market and avoid such a draining travel routine.
Round and round
As for the Augustana College connection, our Luther team competed on Arsenal Island in Rock Island for the NCAA Division III national cross country meet in 1978 and placed second. I also wound up racing many times on the Augustana track during my college career, and got to now Paul Olson relatively well. He and Coach Kent Finanger and North Central’s Al Carius are three of the greatest college coaches of this century.
Ultimately my own daughter visited both Luther and Augie. She chose Augustana for their Communications degree. The closest she came to sports during that era was covering athletic events for the school newspaper and yearbook (she’s a great photographer) . She also bravely handled live coverage of the John Deere Classic golf tournament for KVIK, the public radio station associated with Augustana. And rocked it. More proof that a liberal arts education gives you courage to try new things.
Keep on keeping on
So we all engage with this education and sports thing in our own ways. But it was the urgent and inspiring words of my former track coach Bob Naslund that moved me quite a bit last Friday night. He believes strongly in the virtues of enabling athletes to compete in multiple sports such as football or basketball and track. He spoke passionately about the dangers of specialization at Division III colleges, where scholarships are not allowed. He lamented the trend in which the creepy jealousy of youth sports programs has crept even into the world of small college sports, where athletes are now chained to one activity these days. That’s a shame.
But Luther College is self-aware, and there are other colleges at a similar level experiencing success in track and other sports, so it remains for my alma mater to figure out how to maximize its appeal like any other business or organization. The Go Norse chant engaged by the Reunion of Champions attendees was both furious and quaint in its urgency, but we’ll see if the echoes of the past can resonate into the future.
The last day I was in town, I was reminded that things tend to carry on despite our collective worries about the future as I finished up a bike ride the last morning I was in Decorah. A group of runners was approaching me along the same road I’ve run so, so many times. I could hear their voices and laughter as they trotted along. I thought of all the times I’d run with buddies and teammates on that same road. It is those connections that form the bonds of a lifetime and makes it all a true Reunion of Champions when they all get together.
A few weeks ago we attended a Yes concert and much to my pleasure and surprise, the band performed a song from its Close to the Edge album titled Siberian Khatru that I first absorbed in my high school years.
The lyrics to that song might seem impossibly abstract to some people. But to me they have an almost spooky relationship with my own life, especially my running career at Luther College, where I just spent the weekend enjoying a track reunion with more than 100 other athletes.
The experience of going back to any reunion is famously challenging. We all have those thoughts of compromised self-esteem and the tendency to compare ourselves to others or whatever expectations we never met in ourselves. We all have our relative angsts. And then it’s easy to project all kinds of success onto others and to denigrate ourselves over any failings in life.
As I drove up to Luther following the casually precise directions of Google Maps, I thought about the many times I’ve come back to that campus and how I’d felt about it over the years. That fueled the instinct to let the flow of life pass through me. I use to romanticize those trips to Decorah and Luther so heavily that I honestly thought of the Driftless Region (such a metaphorical title) as a “better place” than wherever else I was living. But I now realize that the best place in this world is always where you are at any moment. Many moons may pass, but that is eternally true.
That brings me to the lyrics of Siberian Khatru, and how they seem to create a pastiche of time and place. I can’t explain why, but they also oddly reflect so many passages of my life right down to specific places I’ve been and things I’ve done. I’ll explain the bold words in a moment:
River running right on over then over my head (Outboard, river) Blue tail, tail fly, Luther, in time Sun tower, asking, cover, lover
June cast, moon fast as one changes Heart gold leaver, soul mark mover Christian changer,called out savior Moon gate climber, turn round glider
I highlighted the “river running” because I’ve done that all my life, from the Fox River back home in Illinois to my time at Luther College, where the Upper Iowa River, a National Scenic waterway runs right through the campus. Many of my running routes followed these rivers. Even the hills that lined the Upper Iowa seem to flow above it. River running right on over my head…
Luther was also where I truly fell in love for the first time. Through that love I learned to transcend that part of myself that was a stumbling block to success. It helped me lead a cross country team to second place in the national meet.
I didn’t marry that gal, and hence the lyrics “Heart gold leaver,” describe the eventual pain of that breakup. Yet life goes on, and being forced to find yourself after a lost love calls up the deeper aspects of self. In the wake of that lost love I dove into reading to find myself. The books included everything from John Irving to John Updike, Tom Robbins to Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac and Ayn Rand. That all started in 1981 even as I started writing a novel myself, titled “Admissions,” based on my first job out of college as an admissions counselor. The underlying theme is that sometimes it pays to be dumb enough to accept what’s actually good for you.
That reading and writing turned me into a “soul mark mover” who found himself embedded in a twenty-five year personal and spiritual search within a conservative Lutheran denomination whose congregants were generally kind, yet whose theology embraced a dark vein of fundamentalist Christian fear and willing ignorance. It illustrated that what I’d learn in college was true. “The unexamined faith is not worth having.”
So it had to be abandoned. And I moved on. There is too much good in scripture to anchor oneself to the confined view that God lives where literalism reigns. In that context everything about faith becomes a defense of human rules about how and what God does things and what God wants from us in terms of ritual and display of devotion. That is the definition of bad theology. I decided to do something about it.
So I wrote my first book on theology titled The Genesis Fix: A Repair Manual for Faith in the Modern Age. That book engendered an encouraging response from a Luther College professor emeritus named Dr. Richard Simon Hanson, who mailed me a typewritten copy of one of his manuscripts titled “Religion From Earth.” It had a handwritten note inside, “This is yours to use however you might like.”
I’m now completing that collaborative project, a book titled Truly Sustainable Faith. The book addresses sustainability in terms of what keeps faith progressively in line with the full Word of God. It is not the ritualistic hypocrisy of legalism and or the literal interpretations of scripture favored by tradition or the bad theology of creationism. The research for this book is the cumulation of experience earned both on the road and between the pages of the Bible soaking up metaphorical depth like a walk through an old growth forest.
There are many kinds of forests in this world. And as I walked among the slightly bulging trunks of men who shared a track and field legacy, I pondered the meaning of our mutual presence; to celebrate the years but also to celebrate those moments when, in youthful competitive fervor and belief in a common goal, we all tried to do our best for Luther, in time.
Last evening I received a call from Paul Mullen, a college roommate and teammate from both cross country and track. He works in Development for my alma mater Luther College. He wanted to reach out because he is super excited about the upcoming Reunion of Champions event being held this weekend in Decorah, Iowa. The event has attracted more than 130 former track and field athletes from 30 years in which Luther won the IIAC Conference Track Championship 26 times.
Things have changed quite a bit on that campus since the era when we competed for Luther. A beautiful bright blue all-weather track now forms the oval around the equally blue artificial turf of the Luther football field. There is an indoor track facility as well.
Back when we trained for track and cross country the surface was made from crushed red gravel and clay provided by a local quarry and mining company. On rainy days the lanes would flood with long puddles of water and the grass approach to the steeplechase pit would grow soggy. But we loved it all just the same.
We ran around that oval for four years and put in some pretty fast times in both cross country and track.
My roommate Paul Mullen was a multiple time conference champion in track and once tied for the conference title in cross country. He also placed seventh in the steeplechase at nationals.
My freshman year teammate and roommate Keith Ellingson was conference champion in cross country and ran track before pursuing a college career in golf, at which he also greatly excelled.
My senior year roommate Dani Fjelstad is considered one of the all-time greatest performers in Luther track and field with multiple conference championships. His abilities ranged from 800 meters up to 5000 meters and his mile times was near 4:10.
The other member of our Gang of Five ’79 CC captains was Steve Corson, a speedy half miler and miler who missed out on All-American status by one place while leading our cross country team to a second place in the NCAA Division III championships in 1978.
We had many great times together along with all our other teammates from different classes, backgrounds, abilities and interests. That is why we’re gathering to celebrate the legacy of our era and more than 30 other years of track and field champions through the ages. I treasure these connections and these friends, and expect to make a few more.
The eternal cycle of classic rock bands touring the world will eventually run out of steam. Aging rockers can’t keep it up forever. That’s a literal and rhetorical reference to why rock stars go on tour in the first place. They live to play music and love to get laid.
But when you’re seventy-plus years old and still love to play music… but feel the voice range start to shrink and the nimbleness of the fingers start to stiffen, it takes a ton of fortitude to endure life on the road.
Because life on the road gets old as well. Age-old partnerships aren’t always easy to sustain. The qualities you’ll endure in a person as a 20-something making stupid money and reaping the rewards of fame grow tiresome as the years wear on.
And that’s true of the audience as well. Now the crowd at YES concerts is mostly happy to get out of its lawn chairs without hurting something.
But the appetite for classic rock endures. That means there is still stupid money to be made by big-name rock bands, even those long past their prime. Which is how a pastiche of big-name rockers came to our local outdoor venue, the RiverEdge concert stage in Aurora, Illinois.
There was John Lodge of the Moody Blues. Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake and Palmer (ELP) and even some keyboard guy from the Boggles, the group whose song “Video Killed the Radio Star” launched the MTV era in the early 1980s.
The headline act was one of my favorite bands from the 70s, the Progressive Rock group YES. It’s always interesting to see what elements of a band are left when a big name rock group comes to town. I’m not some YES groupie who knows all the history and variations of the lineup, but I do know that Steve Howe is the brilliant guitarist whose work drove much of the lyricism. He was there along with a singer that has been playing the Jon Anderson role for eight years. Missing were Chris Squire (deceased) and Rick Wakeman (someone alluded to his drinking…) but the music was so familiar it seemed like everyone was there.
We now pause to give credit to the obvious creative brilliance of these classic rockers. There is no doubt YES was one of the best groups of their era. I’m not saying that no good music has emerged since then. In fact, I love a whole host of today’s Indie and alternative artists. But the core content of YES was indeed inspired, original and musically sophisticated.
That is why I was pleasantly surprised when the band launched into the eclectically challenging piece titled Siberian Kahtru from the Close to the Edge album. My wife turned to me and said, “This is really hard to play.” I agreed. The song had its loose moments but it still drove the bus in the right direction.
I was a junior in high school when I purchased the Fragile album by YES. Then I came into possession of Close to the Edge as well. Later I bought the LP Tormato which originally disappointed, but later in life I realized how great that music truly was.
All those tunes are woven into the fabric of my being because I’d listen to them before going out for long runs. We all seemed to believe that music drove us to better performances. It seemed that way in many respects. We sang those songs in the showers after workouts and blasted them on car radios, sometimes even in stereo when they played on FM.
I recall the August 1974 season when my friend came to stay at our house for a week to begin cross country practice when his family went north to Wisconsin for vacation. I’d wake him up with pretty loud round of YES Roundabout and we’re gather up our stuff and go run in the heat for an hour and come back home. Then we’d head back to practice eight hours later for another hour run and stop at 7-11 to buy Cokes and pack our veins with whatever fuel we could afford.
And the music played on. And on.
But YES reached into my soul in another way as well. As a high school artist I admired the album artwork of Roger Dean, famous for his fantastical landscapes that seemed to go so well with the lyrical style of YES, whose verses often floated into ethereal netherlands. Dean’s perpetually clean yet imaginative style set the standard for great album art the way that the work of Ralph Steadman perfectly fit the Gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson.
These days Dean actually tours with the band and sells prints of his work. Adoring fans line up for his autograph. I took a photo because I’m an admirer of his work and perhaps should have purchased a print or something. Yet I’ve grown averse to raw acquisitiveness and don’t need one more poster to put in the basement.
See, that’s the problem with holding on too strongly to the past. It doesn’t migrate cleanly into the present. Our lives are always changing, if we let them. Forcing them to stop or regress into earlier decades is not a healthy trend. As Steve Howe announced from the stage when he witnessed all the cellphone lights pointing in his direction, “Try to be in the moment for once.”
There was an approving murmur from the audience at the concert. It was still truly amazing to hear music played like that. Were there a few flaws, and did Howe look a little ghostly on stage in his dotage? For sure? But when he lit up the acoustic guitar in a solo piece the audience sat in wonder. This was life in notes. This was time erased by wonder.
After an evening of wading through a bunch of bungled bodies sporting YES tee shirts I was ready to be done with memory lane. But I invite you to click through and watch this video of YES performing the song Wondrous Stories live. It is truly timeless in all the right ways. I predict that you’ll carry the music with you wherever you go. This is a good one to sing in your head while out running or riding.
I didn’t take up serious road cycling until the 2007. Before that, I’d ridden mountain bikes and an old Trek 400 road bike for four years that got me around, but not very fast.
So it wasn’t until I bought the Felt 4C carbon frame bike that I could motor fast enough to truly enjoy road cycling. Now I ride a Specialized Venge road bike with an aero frame and handlebars to match. It’s all good.
Today we rode 23 miles out in the rural country of the county where we live. It’s mostly flat terrain, but the roads are pleasant because there is so little traffic. My wife is coming off her last Half Ironman a week ago and her legs were a bit tired, but she still gets down in aero and motors along. So my buddy and I let her roll ahead as he’s just rolling into riding shape this year.
Fifty years on
My friendship with him goes way back to my junior year in high school. We met in cross country and ran together even through college. Then we lived together after we graduated and attended each other’s weddings. In fact he served as Best Man in the wedding to my late wife way back in 1985.
Our lives converged and diverged as lives often do. We’ve each raised kids and paid household bills with the best of them. But here we are fifty years later still riding together on a summer morning.
When I started dating after my late wife passed, I met a woman through eHarmony that joined me for a backyard party at the house of my friend. He was lead singer that day for the band he’d formed with some other dudes. They were actually really good. But my date that day was freaked out by the fact that I kept up friendships with guys that I’d known in high school. We parted ways after only a couple dates.
The woman I married not only “gets” our friendship, she has ridden with us so many times we’ve happily lost count. She has her own relationship with them. And that’s the mark of a trusted spouse.
But my friend is not one for social media exposure. So we’ll not be sharing a full photo of us together here. He’s one of the smartest people I know in many respects and knows quite a bit about the vagaries of online privacy, so I respect that.
But I’d be wrong not to credit him for encouraging me to take up cycling. He and another close friend from high school (another cross country teammate) were cyclists together for decades before I finally joined them in my forties. I was strictly a runner all those years.
So here’s to big skies, open roads and long-term friendships. All are good for the soul.
There is nothing at once so tantalizing and tortuous as unfulfilled potential. That is particularly true in the sport of triathlon where athletes hope to excel in three sports in a single day.
Things can go wrong, and often do. There are physical problems to counter. Logistics to manage. Even the best preparation can get waylaid by a bad weather day.
That means determination may be the most important aspect of doing triathlons. Determination is what bridges the gap between unfulfilled potential and success.
That’s why I’m really proud of what my wife did in the Steelhead Triathlon this past weekend. We traveled there last year for the race and the winds were so strong the lake rhetorically chopped up swimmers right and left. She finished the swim and bike, but by then was cooked. The deep red bruise on her face from getting kicked in the water was symbolic of the day.
The experience was bitter for her because he training had been going so well up to that point. In fact she’d had a run of tough luck on several races. But in between, she kept up the training. Rising at 5:00 a.m. for swim, bike and run workouts. She has been disciplined and determined through it all.
Thus when she crossed the finish line and set a PR (all 5s!) it felt like a major vindication for all the work she’s put in. Her coach Steve Brandes has been a wise and patient guide. Saturday morning he sent her a .gif with a funny image of some robot-like character running and running and running. She got the hint. Keep it rolling when you get to the run phase.
And she did. Even on a day that grew hot with a sun beating down on the competitors, she kept her cool and got it done. A determined girl whose finish placed her in the top 25% of her age group. I’m so proud of her for the determination she’s shown.
There is nothing like the feeling of competing up to your potential. On the way home she was formulating new goals and feeling the surge of achievement rise within her. The bike short tan she picked up along the way was a small price to pay for the stamp of determination she placed upon her own heart.
And that is the tale of one determined girl and the triathlon.
Last weekend I began to notice a sore area around my #18 molar. That’s the tooth on the far back left side of the mouth. It would flare up and recede in relation to cold or sweets and I knew, this is not good.
By Tuesday it was genuinely sore and getting worse. That afternoon it was on the verge of constant pain and I called my dentist. They said I could come in the next morning for a look-see.
At that point going out to run or ride was the last thing on my mind. But I did get in the pool for a 1200 yard workout and it actually felt good. The flow of water across my relaxed me, and by proxy the tooth seemed to hurt less.
But by Wednesday morning all I wanted was to get relief. I knew something was wrong deeply with the tooth because I’d actually gotten a second (preview) opinion with my wife’s dentist Tuesday afternoon. She loves his work and he agreed to see me. Of course he wanted to know as much as he could about my mouth and I was as forthright as I could be.
In so many ways our dental history is a record of who we are as a person. Archaeologists and paleontologists can tell quite a bit about the lifestyle of people by examining their teeth. I well recall hearing about the problems experienced by the Anasazi Native Americans who ground their corn on stone bowls and wore down their teeth as a result of grinding both stone and grain as they ate their meals.
My teeth have been through a gauntlet of treatments. They came in crooked as hell as a pre-teen. The two front teeth pointed in at each other. That led to a prescription for braces.
But the summer before I was supposed to get braces installed on my wayward toofers I was practicing at third during baseball practice when twilight fell and got I struck in the mouth by a line drive that was supposed to be a grounder. The baseball hit me straight in the mouth and knocked out my right front tooth. I didnt know it at the time, but the tooth was hanging there by the nerve like the shaking corpse of a condemned and dying man.
My father drove me to the dentist stat. He anchored the tooth back in with a metal stake and it held. But then the tooth died, turned gray and lasted well into my late twenties before having it replaced with a fake tooth that I also had replaced at some point along the line.
So some of this dental history was not my own fault. And those braces that I ultimately did get? They straightened by teeth but required the wildest combination of metal and rubber bands you’ve ever seen. The orthodontist even glued a black dot of adhesive to an incisor and strapped three rubber bands across my choppers to yank the right side of my mouth into place.
I was a strange combination of persistently withering personal esteem and determined self-awareness at that stage of life. Thus I told my orthodontist when he asked me how I felt when getting braces, “I’ll just have to change my self-image.”
The day that my braces finally came off was a relief and a joy. I recall that I girl I like told me how nice I looked. In the end, that’s what it’s all about to a kid in his teens.
Beyond those early years when my teeth seemed indestructible and cavities were rare, visits to the dentist were largely positive affairs. But the ins and outs of life in my twenties left me with a raft of problems that turned into decay. Ultimately those led to the breakdown of a tooth or two including one that fractured on a chomp of ice and required emergency repair.
There are aspects of my dental care that I certainly wish had gone differently in life. During those years when my late wife was so sick, all our money and attention went into helping her get well. The resources we had were focused on that. I brushed and flossed (most days) but the regimen was not idea. Gingivitis caught up with me, and pain at times too.
Somehow I came into possession of a handheld dental mirror and used to look around inside my mouth. But you can’t much tell what’s going on in there if you’re not trained in dentistry. Our teeth are hard, multilayered structures with sensitive roots down the middle, the exoskeletons of our inner existence.
And when infection sets into a tooth, it can affect your entire health pattern. I’ve experienced that. When a sore tooth was repaired my longtime dentist years back said, “You’re going to feel better after this is fixed.”
I’ve experienced other types of infections that took over my life temporarily. One was the result of a sliver that pushed some nasty bug into the middle of my left middle finger. The other was the result of our cat nipped me on the hand that led to cellulitis. Both are proof that infections are just opportunists waiting to attack the human body for their own propagation. That’s the strange balance of health and evolution in action. We need bacteria to balance our guts and yet, during that cat nip episode, the antibiotics I took to treat the cellulitis in my had killed off my good gut bacteria. I contracted c.Diff and it was beyond awful. These are the tarsnakes of life. What heals you can also kill you.
There is no real excuse for not taking care of our teeth. Nor is this a complaint that life has somehow treated me unfairly. Just like training on a running track, we sometimes travel the same circles hoping for a different result. Do we brush our teeth well enough? Are we flossing out the food that sits there and creates bacteria pockets and eats away the enamel. Dentists preach and preach but there we go with the same old half-assed habits that lead to decay and destruction of our teeth. And in some ways, our whole health.
Like so many things about myself, my teeth are neither perfect, nor perfectly healthy. With age the orthodontic treatments from years ago have given in to the shifting forces of time. Like the advent of crepey skin and facial wrinkles, there are some things that are inevitable in this world. I’ve held off some of those as long as I can, but it’s also why I’m keeping this photo of my smooth and fit legs forever.
But I’m grateful that yesterday a real pro got hold of my mouth and fixed the rotten root issues in my aging mouth. He was confident and competent and did not mess around. “I do three thousands of these a year,” the amazing endodontist told me as he numbed me up and cleaned out the offending roots, thereby saving the tooth for the foreseeable future.
When reality bites, it pays to call in the experts. At the least they’ll introduce you to the facts about your situation. And at best they’ll cure what ails you. We really can’t ask for much more than that.