Balance-not something you find…it is something you make.

This year represented my 4th opportunity to compete in a World Championship level event in Duathlon.  Since there is no Intergalactic Championship to take part in, this year’s race in British Columbia, Canada represented the end of the road for competitive Duathlon in 2017.  Nothing bigger than a World Championship…at least, not yet.

World Championships are always memorable.  The Parade of Nations makes you feel like an Olympian, albeit with only half the number of countries represented.  Putting on the National Team uniform and knowing you represent the USA for all to see is humbling yet empowering to the spirit of adventure that lives in all of us.  The overwhelming sense of funk that all athletes exude when their race is over and they socialize with other athletes is the source of great olfactory assault, yet mildly reaffirming that you just finished something that is difficult and special.

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Running with Mike and Rob

 

The best part of the 2017 World Championship was getting along with other TeamUSA athletes.  Run 1 turned into a fun run with my friends Mike and Rob. We ran side by side for the first 5k, averaging about a 6 ½ minute mile and we all reached the transition point within 10 seconds of one another.  We talked to each other, often, keeping each other encouraged.  Rob said that our banter was the only thing that kept him going during those first 40 minutes of tough running.  The bike was super-fast, as the terrain was flat.  Run 2 was more of run 1, and I hit the finish line, setting a personal best for that distance, despite a few cramps.

 

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3 athletes and the coach from Liberty University

I got to meet some great people and connect with some old friends.  I traded clothing with a Team South Africa athlete, and I got to meet the coach of Liberty University Triathlon and connect him with my youngest son.  Can’t tell you how proud it would make me feel to have both of my sons attend Liberty!  Rob and I attended an essential oils party with a couple of girls on TeamUSA, Melissa and Kerry.  We laughed so hard that it hurt!  Lastly, getting to experience the solar eclipse, minutes after crossing the finish line is an event I don’t ever see replicating.

Each year’s World Championship has had a unique focus in my memory.  Year one, the top of mind item was trying to reconcile my desire to compete with a lack of training due to injury.  Year two, I was overwhelmed by the distance and effort required to complete Powerman Zofingen and was grateful to finish the race.  Year three challenged me in that I was trying to become a better Ultra Marathoner while simultaneously getting stronger on the bike.  This year, I attempted to have a greater balance of training, life and work, with Spirit a part of every task.

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Kerry and Melissa-too much fun.

After all, balance isn’t something you find.  It is something you create.

This year started with a far-fetched goal of competing and finishing the Badwater Cape Fear Ultramarathon in early March.  I hyper-exceeded goals there, coming in near the top in the standings, both for age and for overall.  The end of the year includes 3 Ultra Marathons in a 7-week window, including one in Nepal to raise money for school building and another with our scout troop to help boys develop into men.  Although neither event has happened yet, I am sure that joy will come while running with Nepali natives and with our scout troop.  Both events shall be my “highs” of 2017 with regards to fitness.

After all, seeking fitness for fitness sake is selfish.  Using fitness to build the Temple of God while helping others hits at the core value of the human experience.

It is my heart’s desire that each of your reading this, regardless of where you are in your fitness journey take a few moments to answer the question, “how can I use my fitness achievements to help others?”  No matter how many medals I hang on my wall, none of them are worth as much to me as the smile I see when I help another athlete achieve something new.

That is the balance that I want all of us to create.  That is the selfish application of fitness that can make you happy.  Give it away, and you will have more wealth in your heart than you can imagine.

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Before the Start of the Badwater.  Seems so long ago!

My bike now sits in the basement, with only a day or so a week of riding happening between now and the winter.  My running shoes are now my weapon of choice, and the finish line now has images of people I am running for, not of places to see and things to accumulate.  Follow the story on http://thenepalproject.org for ongoing updates of the impact of the Annapurna100 on the people of Nepal.

Because She Can’t

Athletes often get special treatment, paid to do what they love and show off their successes in front of a crowd that they would not otherwise have access to.  Athletes get to embrace glory and keep ornaments from their events like the starry dome that they think surrounds them.  Even those athletes who demonstrate unsportsmanlike behavior get accolades and affirmation from the audience they are meant to inspire.

My father recently passed along a bronze medal he earned at an event during the 1930s down to my son, sharing his moment of glory when he was a young athlete, with vision and mission in his heart.  My son kept that medal in his drawer, along with some other mementos from his family that he treasures.  It has a meaning beyond the effort that happened on that day that contains an intangible effect from being a part of a special moment.  My father’s worth was tested that day, and he grew up that day.  And, yes, the outcome is important, as our current culture of participation trophies and “every kid gets equal playing time,” will be our doom.

I argue that our spirit needs more than fun times, medals and glory to justify all the training and nutrition needed to run and bike at threshold.  I need a sustainable and humility based answer.  I must perform during training and on race day with others in mind, if I am to make a difference.

In my heart and soul, I know that taking care of my body is Worship.  A vocalist who writes and performs music has to determine if the focus is the crowd or their Creator.  I, too, must be aware of why I am putting on my uniform when those special days arrive.  A long time ago, I determined that if my answer to “why am I doing this” included phrases like, “get a bigger trophy” and “get my name in the paper” I have missed the point of why I am on this Earth.

11 WaterfallOur time on this Earth is weaved in series of relationships, like a Escher painting.  Before I do a “world championship” level event, I pick an individual to race “with me” who won’t be standing next to me at the starting line.  Sometimes, I know who it is for when I sign up a year in advance; other times, like this time, I didn’t know who it I was for until a few weeks before the starting gun.

This race, I dedicated to Betty Gaetan, my mother in law.  She has always been one of my biggest supporters and has told stories of my athletic “glory” to people whom I will likely never meet.  She is a groupie who happens to really love me.  Since July, she has been experiencing medical problems, and she still has another surgery in her near future.  Not only could she not perform the events that take place in a 55km duathlon, she can’t even come see me, either.

When I called her to tell her that I was going to push at this year’s World Championship for her, she was happy.  What I have not yet told, or anyone for that matter, is how she was there with me, on race day.

When the gun sounded, three of us on TeamUSA ran together for the first 10k, all finishing a few seconds apart.  We all ran quickly and were proud of our numbers, but what made the moment special is that none of us could have ran at that pace, for that long, without each other.  Thanks to Mike and Rob, for helping keep the pace.  Special thanks to Betty, for being there in spirit.  My friends saw us as a group of three.  In reality, I carried Betty with me.

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Lake Okanagan

Most of the bike ride take place on the shore of Lake Okanagan in central British Columbia.  Turning around at the checkpoint to begin this last leg back to transition, I set a visual focus on a Danish competitor in front of me, and I decided to chase him down and pass him.  It was an exhilarating feeling to run my power up to 300 watts and leave it there, to make my pass.  Once I got by him, I powered down to a more human number and looked at the beauty of the lake and how majestic it is.  My heart rate was holding at 150 and my body was in sync with what I was asking it to do.  I was purring on the bike saddle, and I had Betty’s spirit with me.  A few minutes later, the Dane passed me, looked over, and nodded his head, acknowledging that we were “game on” and would be passing each other for the rest of the race.  He tucked in front of me and ran his effort levels up, trying to hold me back.  No joy for him!  For the next 15 minutes, we passed each other two more times before racking our bikes and putting on running shoes.  I raced and paced that Dane, because Betty couldn’t.

When there was only 500 meters left till the finish line, I was greeted by a TeamUSA representative who handed me a US flag and cheered me on.  I upped my pace to nearly a 5:30 mile and held it all the way to the finish line.  As I approached the finish, the announcer called my name, and I held the flag high, thinking about Betty, knowing she couldn’t do that.

I did that race with her, for her.  And, the next time I see her, I am giving her that flag as a token on that day.  It isn’t the flag that will weave us together, but it does give us a token of our event, just like my father’s bronze medal is a token that my son treasures.

Although I don’t know what that flag will mean to her, it will mean more to me, as I am the one who gets to give it away.

Because she can’t.

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Betty Gaetan and my son, Michael, after a football game in 2011

Windshield vs. rear view mirror

 

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After getting an inspired message at a men’s group meeting this week, I came home and measured the size of the windshield in a car.  I then compared it to the corresponding rear view mirror in the car.

The front window average 54” across and 36” top to bottom. That is a total surface area of 1944 square inches.  The rear-view mirror measured 9” by 3”, a total of 27 square inches of mirror.

To put into perspective, only 1.3% of the total area to stare at is for looking backwards.  The remaining 98.7% of space in front of me is meant to see forward.

The forward direction represents where we should be looking nearly all the time.  That is why it represents such a large portion of the field of view.

This applies to nutrition and fitness.

When we seek to change to healthier eating patterns, nearly all of our efforts should be focused on what is ahead of us-the next meal or snack, the next day, etc.  Too often we find ourselves consumed by thoughts about what certain foods from the past we are craving, instead of being focused on the task at hand.

Nats3With athletics, it is important to review efforts from the past.  But once we have reviewed those lessons, discussed and learned from them, we must move forward with the next workout/training cycle to get better at our craft.

This last weekend, and Duathlon Nationals, my bike broke on the 2nd climb up a mountain.  I was stuck in 15th gear for the entire climb….my cadence during that climb was 31 rpm.  That hurts!  Might as well have pushed a wheel barrow up that mountain.  Fortunately, when I crested at the top of the climb, I jumped off my bike and successfully fixed the issue before getting on my bike and descending back to transition.  My placement in the race dropped a couple of spaces since last year, but it was still a good day, and I earned a TeamUSA slot for 2018.

Nats7My son saw a young man in front of him fall.  His emotional response to the accident caused him to forget to take off his helmet.  He did run 2 wearing his helmet.  That cost him a few seconds, but he also did well enough to finish in the top 6 and get a TeamUSA slot for the Sprint distance.

The windshield for both of us is large now.  Alex begins Cross Country season, and will not see nor wear a cycling helmet until the fall, at our next race.  I have ITU Worlds in Penticton in 8 weeks, and my focus is on preparing for an even greater challenge than Nationals.

We have no time for the rear view mirror.

Rednecks and Cherries…they have a lot in common!

During my stint as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I lived in a remote village in the Kingdom of Nepal.  Sure, the scenery of the surrounding Himalaya was great, but it wasn’t nearly as memorable as the people whom I lived with for 2 years.  I remember how some villagers would put fresh manure in their wounds, claiming that it helped to stop the spread of pain.  Two weeks later, when they still had festering wounds and were confronted (by me!) about how stupid that cow-shit-on-a-cut idea really was, they said that it was part of the process called life.  It was a rite of passage to be able to live through the cut and the corresponding recovery.  Lastly, they just got used to it.

Sure, they didn’t know any differently, as science was not a mainstream idea used in decision making, as it is in the West.  That said, it pointed out some fundamental flaws that all of us have when it comes to enduring something that hurts us.  It is called Redneck Thinking (with Capital Letters).

  • We believe that the way we have been doing things is an effective way. It may or may not be the best way, but it is a safe way, because we survived it.
  • When confronted with better ways, we will occasionally change. Most of the time, though, we don’t.
  • When our ways cause us to suffer, we look to make sense of it all, saying that it is good for us…we say that it builds character and toughness.
  • Here is the real kicker. The older we get, the more we fall victim to the “old ways work, why change it?” sort of thinking.
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Redneck dogs even have fewer teeth that regular ones…

No place does this happen more that during conversations with people who are interesting and show leadership.  I can’t count the number of times someone has said, “this is a great recipe.  You ought to try it!”  I agree with them, both in heart and in mind.  The conversation ends, often with a recipe in my inbox, only to sit there until I delete the idea.  I redneck it.

I KNOW that if I had just cooked it and tried it, there is a good chance that the dish would have likely to make it to our dinner table repeatedly.  I KNOW that I would be better off for trying something new.  But, more often than not, I don’t.

Truth is, we are all rednecks.  We generally do what we did the last time, even if it wasn’t that great of an idea.  What really seals the deal with our hard-earned title of redneck is how we view our poor results as “part of life.”

As an athlete, this is measurably true!  Often, I reject good ideas backed with good science.  Yet, this last weekend, I went out on a limb and tried a new idea to address an anticipated pain from an upcoming event.

Last weekend’s event was a 103-mile bike ride up Mt. Mitchell, NC.  The ride is much like a day in the Pyrenees in France, with a bit more climbing.  Like most bike rides that include both more volume and more intensity that I am used to, the expectation was that I would be both tired before I was done and I would HURT the day (or two) following the event.

Science has a name for this hurt phenomena-Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS.  You know what it is-that feeling you get the first time you play basketball as the start of a new season that makes you think that in the two days afterwards it would have been more pleasant to have been hit by a truck.

Part of the dread of DOMS is knowing that it is coming.  Knowing that you will be hurting the next day.  It is not just a physical phenomenon; it is also mental.  Knowing that what you are about to do is going to hurt will prevent people from trying.

A few days before the Mt. Mitchell ride, I heard an episode of The People’s Pharmacy, a syndicated radio show where a married couple helps take complicated medical studies and learnings and simplifies the learnings so folks like me can understand them.

This episode currently on the radio as I drove down the road was titled “What is the science behind fabulous foods for health?”  The first segment of the show was about the effects of foods on either delaying or eliminating DOMS.   The researcher being interviewed took a very complicated question and simplified it. He had heard that cherries and cherry juice (but not cherries from concentrate, mind you), could reduce if not eliminate DOMS if eaten in correct volumes, over the right period.  The science sounded solid, and he had enough unanswered questions to convince me that he was still humble enough to do more good science.

cherriesWanting to tackle my Redneck crown and take it off, I decided to try out his idea.  Cherries and cherry juice, 2 days before the event. Cherry juice the day of and 2 days after.  I hit the grocery store and bought both fresh cherries and juice.

The big day came.  103 miles of riding later, no pain.  The next day, no pain.  The following day, 80 minutes of running and still no pain.  I am currently on Day 4 after the event, I haven’t had to miss a workout.  I never felt the slightest bit of pain (although I was tired after expending 8000 calories in about 7 ½ hours). Last year, after this same event, I was fighting to reach down far enough to tie my shoes.  This AM (day 4), I woke up early and did a 10K run as if the event had never happened.

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Climbing all day hurts!

Just this AM, I thought, “what other clever ideas have I rejected that have led to a pain that I just didn’t need to experience?”  What other cherry juice alternatives are out there that could give me power, speed, endurance, flexibility and strength that I have been missing?”

The only thing that has prevented me from learning them is my addiction to redneck thinking.  I suspect that I have already either read or heard many great ideas that could help me perform at higher levels, but I have rejected them in favor of the items that I perceive as my source of comfort.

Getting used to pain is often deemed a rite of passage for an athlete.  Push through the discomfort and you get better is the mantra.  So, so glad to learn that isn’t the truth.

And one day soon, I hope to get this redneck hat off of my head!

When called to serve…

When called up to serve, one should serve, especially, when no notice is given.  Today’s blog is about one such instance.

This year, I am competing in only 4 duathlons:  1 regional, 2 national championships and one world championship.  My training and racing is split between 6 running events, 10 cycling events, scouting, running a non-profit, parenting and being a husband-not in any order.

This first duathlon of the year was the Outerbanks Duathlon, in Corolla, NC.  The thin strip of land on the Eastern edge of NC that represented our cycling and running surfaces had ocean both to our left and to our right.  Unlike most days in the Outerbanks, race day was near windless, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  The temps at race start were in the 50s, meaning fast times for all competitors.

Before these sanctioned events, there is a time for announcements, the playing and singing of the National Anthem and a prayer for the athletes.  Despite the trend of a few citizens in this country, no one took a knee in protest of anything; showing that the nation is not, in fact, falling apart with anti-American sentiment as the media depicts.  Hands on hearts and mouths singing were everywhere as we anxiously awaited the starting gun.

flagImmediately after the National Anthem, the race director lifted the microphone and said, “and now, for a moment of prayer for the athletes, here is Jeff Gaura,” and he handed me the microphone.

I had no heads up.  It would have been tempting to hesitate or even lift the mic to my mouth and say, “really, dude? Do I look like Billy Graham today?”  I most likely could have made a moment of humor out of the circumstance, but we are talking about communication with the Eternal, in public, and that would be equally inappropriate as flag burning or the like.  This moment required my best.

Although I can’t tell you exactly what I said, here is how I remember it.

“Let us be reverent and remove our hats as we pray to the Lord.  Heavenly Father, thank you for the effort from all of those who made this event happen, especially from the sponsors and volunteers.  Without their effort, we would not be able to enjoy this day as we are about to.  I want to thank you for giving us the bodies and the discipline to prepare for and perform this act of running and cycling to our utmost, as most people not just in the United States but in the world, do not have the ability to undertake and finish what we are about to do.  Regardless of the outcome, thank you for our success in the effort.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

I completed and did well in the event, having the fastest overall 2nd run and winning my age group by several minutes.  Immediately after having a quick drink at the finish line, I approached the race director and asked him what made him think to have me lead everyone in prayer.  He said he remembered watching me pray at this event last year, and he knew that I was a praying man.

You just never know who is watching you, and what they will remember.  If I am found guilty of being a praying man, I accept the label and any consequences therein attached.

Badwater Cape Fear Race Report

The Badwater labels itself as the world’s toughest footrace-Death Valley to Whitney Portal, in the middle of summer.  It is 135 miles of tough running, and you have to finish it in 48 hours.  Do the math…that is more than 5 back to back marathons.

Until Friday afternoon, Badwater was nothing more than a “what’s next” race.  When I scheduled the East Coast version called Badwater Cape Fear, I did so as a response to winning the Weymouth Woods Ultra-marathon, and I picked this Badwater for the challenge of it.  Thought it was the next logical progression.  The Badwater Cape Fear edition starts with a “quick 12 mile warm-up” on the scenic roads of Bald Head Island before heading down to the beach to run 20 miles (or 40 miles) in the sand to Fort Fisher and back.  Running on roads vs. running in sand is like trying to find something in common between standing in an igloo with walking through a jungle.  The position is the same; the surrounding conditions are not.

It isn’t the statistics, but the people make that race unique.  At pre-race check-in, awkwardness associated with meeting new people migrated to “very cool” first impressions in a matter of a minute or two. Conversation with other runners about their path to the Badwater never generated the same answer twice.  Former triathletes, college track stars, marathon runners, women with two kids, etc, were all excited about lining up the next day.  For many, their spouses were there supporting their athlete.  I got to hear stories both from Badwater veterans and support staff who have been there as these extreme endurance athletes ran though the desert all night long, in the middle of summer.  I had dinner with a multi-time Badwater finisher who gave stories about the depths of despair that are a part of running in the desert for that long.

I asked one guy why he signed up for Badwater Cape Fear, and he said, “I was in a funk, and I knew that I needed to suffer to get out of it (the funk), so I signed up and now I am here.”  What the heck….

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First feelings after finishing.  

About 2 hours into the race, I stopped wondering what all the other athletes were thinking.  “What was I thinking?”  consumed my thoughts.  Heading down to the beach, seeing 10 miles of sand ahead me, knowing that once I started the 10 miles each way, there was no quitting.  Running on Cape Fear, with Frying Pan Shoals to my right and nothing but undeveloped dunes to my left put me in a funk that I had never been in.

Here is a sample of the comments that went through my mind:

 

  • Oh, that man just got attacked by a dog. OK, he got up and is still running….
  • That was a pretty fast puke!  That girl just kept on running.
  • That old man looks good in a tutu and pink high tops.  NOT!
  • Profanity isn’t helping, here.  But it does feel good…
  • Why don’t they have better choices at the aid station?  No chicken, beef or pork tacos?  I really want a taco right now.
  • I am never doing one of these races EVER again.  What was I thinking?
  • Who in the hell invented high tide? Stupid.
  • Who thought that running in high tide would be “loads of fun?”  Idiot.
  • I wonder when they are having the next Badwater?  This is kind of cool, and I might like to do another one.
  • How did I get sand up my butt? I have stayed away from that body part, most intentionally!
  • Profanity doesn’t feel good anymore, yet it keeps coming.
  • That guy is fast!
  • Was that a boy or a girl?
  • Why did that other girl get all those body parts pierced?
  • Can I ride with the beach patrol in their truck, just for 5 minutes?
  • How are the two of those women talking and laughing?
  • Why aren’t I talking and laughing?
  • I have a 3-hour drive home after I this race. That isn’t happening.  My hip flexors are somewhere out to sea.  WTF?
  • The people working these aids stations are great! I could not keep going without their help!
  • Profanity is working again.
  • I am sure that those who don’t believe that Jesus is their savior will have to run this thing.

At the finish line, I felt blessed that not only could I do this race but be successful at it.  Dave Krupski came up to me at the finish line and started some fun/casual chat.  He DNF the race, as he got hurt and never made it down to the beach.  He said that he had a couple of athletes that he coaches out on the run, and he was there only for them, now.  I had no idea who he was, until I started writing this blog piece.  He is a crazy successful Ultra Marathoner who personifies the ultra-running community well.  No concern for awards or accolades.  He had a focus on what races he had just done and what he has coming up…we could all learn from that sort of approach to living.

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The joy of completing my first Badwater!  Got a chance to wear my TeamUSA windbreaker, and I needed it today!

Will I do another Badwater Ultra?  Maybe.  Will I do the Badwater 135?  Not a chance.  At least, I got my steps in.

There is a Badwater 508 cycling event that has my attention, though…anyone want to do it with me?

 

 

 

Ecclesiastes and the Green Jersey

King Solomon is considered in the Bible to be the wisest man that has ever lived. He had more wealth and more leisure time than not only any man of his time, but our time as well.  Solomon used his time to rule a kingdom and write down words of wisdom.  He often wrote about what is meaningless and what is good. In the end of his lament, he concluded that undertaking great projects, building parks and reservoirs, amassing wealth, and any delight of a man’s heart proves to be meaningless.  Yet, he doesn’t stop there.  He gives guidance for all of us as to how to live our lives.  In Ecclesiastes 2:24 he states, “a person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their toil.”

Today while riding in the virtual world within the software program of Zwift, I earned the coveted green jersey. For those non-cyclists here, let me explain. In each of the worlds grand cycling tours (Giro D’Italia, Vuelta Espana, Tour de France, Tour of California, etc.) there are classifications for the top riders.  This is no different than how we in America claim which quarterback or which linebacker is the best, on any given Sunday, using statistics.   Using an example from the cycling world (Tour of France), the best overall rider wears a yellow jersey; the best mountain climber wears a polka dot jersey; and the best sprinter wears a green jersey. Normally each of these is a different rider with different skills.  I have never considered myself to be a strong sprinter.  Climber?  Yes!  Sprinter?  No way-there are too many young guns out there with fast twitch muscles that I just don’t have.

In front of signParticipating in this virtual training has some requirements.  You must attach your bicycle to a stationary trainer that creates resistance as if you were riding on the road.  You sit on it and pedal as if you were outdoors, riding on a brisk spring day.  Since you aren’t outside, we rely on electronics attached both to the bicycle that measures power and cadence, as well as a heart rate monitor to measure aerobic effort. Each persons’ efforts are run through an algorithm to determine the equivalent speed as if we were outdoors.  It isn’t exact, but the calculation is within a percent or two.  Today, during my ride, I passed under a banner that indicated my speed during a specific interval was being calculated and ran through this algorithm.  I have passed under those blow-up markers a hundred times, and nothing ever happened.  This time, though, my jersey changed to green and the icon representing me changed to green as well, indicating that I now had more Sprint points than any current rider. I had never seen this before and quickly glanced at the statistics screen on the right. It showed that there were currently 1042 riders all participating in the same event that I was.

Holy screaming pedals, Bat Man   Woo hoo!  My mind immediately shifted to Ecclesiastes 2:24. I had most certainly been toiling during the last 45 minutes as my heart rate was near threshold and I was pouring sweat, even with the doors open in the basement the ambient temperature in the room in the low 40s. Out loud I stated, “I shall now find satisfaction in my toil. Thank you, King Solomon, for your help today.”

It is commonplace for people who do not understand holy Scripture to ask simplistic questions such as does that stuff really apply today? Today I was reminded of the importance of enjoying my toils while I still could have them. There will be a day when I can no longer ride a bicycle. I do not know when that day is. However, if at 51 years old I can be the fastest sprinter in a group of 1000, I will take it and celebrate!

Time for some yogurt, blueberries, and granola, and maybe I will do it again soon!