Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Marathon Plan

Mile 2 - Practicing our Synchronized Running Form

Over the last ten years I have competed in fifty triathlons and a variety of 5k, 10K and half-marathons, but never a marathon. This year I decided to give it a shot and signed up for the  PNC Milwaukee Running Festival, which was held Sunday, November 1, 2015. 

My coach, Heather Collins  set up my training program and ran some training runs with me.

The Challenge:

·         Design a program that would have me marathon-ready in November, while continuing to train for the USAT Nationals Olympic distance triathlon in early August.


·         From years of triathlon training I have developed a good cardio-base so I didn’t need to build a lot of cardio endurance, but the minor hamstring and calf strains I had experienced over the last few years could become more serious problems at the longer distance.

The Program:

The program Heather set up was designed to help me:

1.      Improve running biomechanics  (proper foot placement, stride, cadence)

2.      Increase strength and firing of the muscles used for long-distance running

3.      Improve flexibility

4.      Address hotspots before they become problems


·         Precision Multisport Facility

I had two one hour sessions a week (usually Tuesday and Thursday mornings) at Precision Multisport under Heather’s guidance.

·         Chiropractic care, massage and stretching

Instead of seeking help after an injury we implemented a plan of preventive maintenance with routine visits to The Wellness Revolution for chiropractic care and massage therapy. Dr. Tony Breitbach and his colleague Dr. Nick Scanio  took care of the chiropractic care while Laura Price and Sheila Tan provided massage torture every two to three weeks. Both women told me the massages would be less painful if I stretched more.  And for the first time in my life, I did become serious about stretching and foam rolling. It helped but the massages were still torture.

·         Weight & Nutrition

When I trained and completed the Ironman at Coeur d’Alene in 2012 I weighed about 188.  Over the next two years I brought my weight down to 178 and for the marathon my plan was to run at 173.  I developed a weight loss plan that works every time.  You can eat anything you want, including beer and pizza and wine and cheese, but you have to eat less of everything. Also it helps to record everything you eat (at least for a few weeks). I used MyFitnessPal to log my meals – as it has the calorie and nutrition information for most all foods I wanted to eat.  The benefit of logging your meals and snacks is that it educates you.  Do I want this 100 calorie Double-stuffed Oreo or would I prefer to use those calories for something more nutritious – like a beer?   

My basic diet was a 300 - 400 calorie breakfast (cereal, banana, orange juice) a 400 - 500 calorie lunch (half sandwich, apple and yogurt), an 800 calorie wine and cheese course, and an 800 - 900 calorie dinner.   I averaged about 2500 calories a day and on race day I weighed 173. 

·         Run Workouts 

Heather set up three runs a week:  a speed workout at the track on Sunday afternoon, a tempo workout along the lakefront on Wednesday mornings, and a long run along Lake Michigan on Friday afternoon.

Here is a recap of the running workouts:

Training period:  June 1 to October 30

#of Workouts:  49    (16 speed, 17, tempo, 16 long)

Total Miles Run:  337  

Longest run:  20

·         Psychological Preparation

Almost nothing in life goes according to plan. The plan is a critical roadmap for getting you to your destination but you have to be prepared for the unexpected. On June 25th I managed to fall off my bike and crack the 5th rib in my back.  While it was a painful, annoying injury, I healed quickly. I couldn’t run for about ten days, but we substituted computraining and I was able to resume regular training runs by mid-July.

Then one week before the race I managed to twinge my pack unloading the washing machine. I got immediate chiropractic and massage help from The Wellness Revolution and by race day I was feeling great.

There are a lot more opportunities for things to go wrong during a triathlon. And over the years I have made all the classic mistakes (making a wrong turn on the run, swimming off course, mechanical problems with the bike).

Those screw-ups helped prepare me for problems that can arise before and during a competition.   

The Race

We had perfect weather for the race: sunny and 50 degrees. The course was hillier than I had expected, but not severe hills. Just a lot of rolling ups and downs.

 Heather’s race strategy was for me to start the race at a 9 minute pace (or slower) and gradually increase to 8:45.  Try to hold that pace through mile 20. If I felt strong, I could increase the pace to 8:35 or faster.

She knew that the most common mistake newbie marathoners make is to go out too fast. It is hard not to get caught up in the excitement at the start. I did go out faster than 9 minutes but not so fast that I burned out.

I ran the first 13.1 miles at a pace of 8:54, slowed slightly over the next six miles, but finished the last six miles at 8:54. My time for the race was 3 hours 55 minutes and 7 seconds. I had hoped to be under 3:55, but this was close enough. I felt strong throughout the race.

I think the marathon more than any race I’ve run, is all about the training. I came into that race rested and well-prepared. Issues that I’ve had in the past on longer distances, like foot pain or hamstring tightness didn’t develop. Since I’m not getting any younger, I have to attribute that to good coaching. And maybe my wine and cheese focused diet. 

My time qualified me to race in the Boston Marathon in 2017.  I am considering it.
Mile 14 - The bridges are starting to annoy me

Mile 22 - Thinking about that chocolate milk


At the Finish Line - I just passed the guy behind me because I thought he might be in my age group. But he was wasn't.








Monday, August 24, 2015

Racing Weekend: Great Lakes Plunge & North Shore Triathlon

It was a great weekend for racing.  On Saturday at Clark Street Beach in Evanston, we had the first annual Great Lake Plunge.  While the water was a little cold it was a great event.  Those swimmers are crazy.  Most of the folks who signed up were planning to swim without wetsuits (not me).  But because the water temp was only 53 degrees the race officials decreed that wetsuits were mandatory.

I signed up for the 1.2 mile distance. There were also 5 mile and 2.4 mile options, but because of the cold temps, the distance options were reduced to 1500 and 750 meters and I jumped on that 750 meter option.  About 25 meters into the swim I was wishing my wetsuit had sleeves, but by 100 meters my brain was too cold to wish anymore and the rest of the swim was okay. 

On Sunday we had the 3rd annual North Shore Triathlon at Gillson Beach in Wilmette. The North Shore Triathlon is the creation of Craig Strong and J. P. Bordeleau of Precision Multisport where I train.  Craig and J.P. and a host of PM volunteers did a great job organizing the event. 

Two years ago at the first North Shore Tri I entered the race as a relay team with my daughters. I swam, Christie biked and Nicole ran. It rained for the entire race and whenever I have asked them if they wanted to try it again, they just give me a look. Not a good look. 

Last year the race was a month after my surgery and I couldn't bike so I had my friend Zeev Saffir do the bike segment and I swam and biked.  Unfortunately last year the temp on race morning was 42 degrees. 

This year the weather was perfect. I did all three segments.  And despite swimming slightly off-course (which is hard to do on a straight line course) I had a great race.  Averaged 20 mph on the bike and ran the 5K at a 7:33 pace. Took 1st in my age group. 

This was my last triathlon of the year. Next race is the Lakefront Marathon in Milwaukee which I will be running with my coach Heather Collins.  Our to make it to the starting line.

Check In for The Great Lake Plunge

Waiting for the water to warm up (it didn't)
Beat the crowd to Transition

A half hour later
Cold water

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

What Time is it Anyway?

I started this blog in July 2009 with the stated purpose of chronicling:
  •  My writing endeavors; I was working on a novel which I was confident would be published to huge acclaim in no more than a year.
  •  And my triathlon training; my goal was to finish in the top 10 of my age group at the USAT National Championships in 2011 when I would be the youngest in the 60 to 64 age group.

It is hard to say which goal was more unrealistic. I think it might be a tie. Which shows that at least I am consistent.

The novel took six years and I’m still waiting for it to be discovered by Oprah or maybe HBO.

And I have now competed in five national championships without finishing in the top 50% to say nothing about the top 10.

But I have improved my tri performance each year. One of the problems is that the old guys I’m competing against keep improving too. 

I wouldn’t have been able to improve at all if I hadn’t had great coaching – first with Craig Strong from Precision Multisport and these last three years with Heather Collins who works out of Precision also.

The 2015 USAT Nationals were held in Milwaukee last Saturday. It’s a great venue. I wish the USAT would keep the race there permanently – even though there are way too many guys walking around there with Packer jerseys.

I finished 52nd out of 85 in the 60 to 64 age group. 
BUT... year I compete with the REALLY old guys (65 to 69)  and my new more realistic goal is to finish in the top 25 (but my secret goal is top 20).

I also plan to publish another novel next year.  Please let Oprah know.  
And here are more photos of me.  They look very similar to the race photos from the last twenty races, except I keep looking a little older.



Monday, July 13, 2015

The Shoehorn Made the Difference

A shoehorn cost me third place (for my age group) in the Lake Zurich Triathlon yesterday.

On June 25th, in a freak accident, which I am not going to blame on my coach even though it happened because I was waiting for her to catch up to me, I fell off my bike and cracked a back rib.

The injury, while minor, made it difficult to maintain a normal training program.  It hurt to run and I couldn’t swim because I couldn’t raise my arm over my head, but ironically, I could still bike without difficulty. However to be prudent and avoid the possibility of another freak accident I trained on the computrainer (pretty hard to fall off a stationary bike).  J.P. Bordeleau of Precision Multisport set me up on a series of rides called “Sufferlandia”.  Those training rides hurt more than falling off the bike.

So I was able to maintain a fitness level, but it was still doubtful I would be ready to race on July 12. 

A week ago, I went back to the pool to see if I could swim.  I could dog paddle, but it would have taken me an hour to finish the course.  I also tried to run, and I was fine for the first ten yards, then not so fine. 

But as they say, time heals all wounds.  Last week I was feeling much improved. I still couldn’t roll over, but I could tie my shoes and feed the cat and do other important household chores. Wednesday I went for a slow jog and it didn’t hurt.  So the Saturday before the race I went to Lake Michigan with my wetsuit – which is like wearing a life raft on your body. Lots of buoyancy which I figured might make it easier to swim. My theory was correct and once I took a few strokes my back loosened up and I could extend my arm so that my stroke was almost normal. It was a little hard to lift my head to spot for buoys but I thought I could manage it and decided to go ahead with the race.  By the way – Lake Michigan is still really cold.

It was perfect weather for the race: cloudy and cool. And Lake Zurich was 75 degrees – wetsuit legal, but comfortable.  This is a small race (about 500 competitors) and the waves were only about 60 swimmers at a time so I wasn’t too worried about getting kicked or mauled during the swim.  I didn’t quite have my normal stroke – but I just took it easy and completed the swim without incident in about 35 minutes.  In my last race I covered that distance in 32 minutes.

I had an easy transition. I had decided not to wear socks so I didn’t have to bend over and struggle to put them on. I had no problem on the bike, although as a concession to the injury I didn’t ride in aero position– as I promised my wife I would be careful. I also slowed down a lot on the corners.  Even with all the caution I averaged over 20 mph (it’s a pretty flat course). I had a good ride and it was way easier than the computrainer rides.

It was on the transition to the run that the shoehorn did me in.  I had a two part plan for managing the transitions with my limited mobility and that was to 1) skip the socks (which worked fine except that I ended up with blisters on the tops of my toes); and 2) use a long shoehorn to get my quick-tied running shoes on.  

It almost worked great.
The problem was that my sweaty sockless feet stuck to the tongue of the shoe and when I pried it on with the shoehorn – the tongue got all wrinkled. I couldn’t fix it so I had to take the shoe off and put it on the way I always do.  That escapade with the shoehorn, cost me at least twenty seconds.

Full disclosure requires that I point out that my coach (the one who IS NOT IN ANYWAY RESPONSIBLE FOR THE ACCIDENT EVEN THOUGH IT HAPPENED WHILE I WAS WAITING FOR HER) has always suggested I not try anything during a race that I have not practiced beforehand (like using a shoehorn).  I almost always follow her suggestions because
1) she tends to be right MOST of the time and
2) her suggestions don’t really sound like suggestions;

I had a great run. Maybe because my legs were fresh from not running at all for two weeks.  I did the 10K at a 8:10 pace which is better than my other two races this year.

I finished in 2:45 and thought I had really good chance to make it to the podium. But I finished fourth – just .93 of a second out of 3rd place. 

I blame the shoehorn. 

Next race:  The USAT Age Group Championships  August 8, 2015 – Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Elkhart Lake Triathlon - June 13, 2015

After the race with Dan Coots

On Saturday I competed in my third Elkhart Lake Triathlon.  It is a great venue for an Olympic Tri. It is located at the Osthoff Resort on Elkhart Lake in Wisconsin.  It's spectator friendly, the lake, at least the last three years, has been smooth and reasonably warm and the bike and run courses are scenic and offer some nice hill challenges, which we don't always get in Illinois. 

My favorite part of the race is that it gives me a chance to visit my friend Dan Coots and (Nancy) who have graciously provided my wife and me with pre-race lodging at their home in Appleton.  Dan and I are proud members of the Canandaigua Academy Class of 1969. 

I finished third this year in my age group, 37 seconds behind the second place finisher and one tenth of a second ahead of the fourth place finisher. 

Here are the results for the last three years (the bike course is 28 miles instead of the standard 25 miles:
6/13/15 2:58:30 33:05 2:01 3:41 1:27:58  19.1  2:30 51:10 8:14
6/7/14 3:09:33 31:49 1:56 3:01 1:33:21  18.0  3:42 57:40 9:17
6/8/13 2:56:51 31:37 1:55 4:14 1:26:44  19.3  2:52 51:24 8:16

Race Schedule:  

Ricky Byrdsong Race Against Hate - June 21, 2015
Lake Zurich, IL Olympic Triathlon - July 12, 2015
USAT Nationals - Milwaukee - August  8, 2015

Another nice feature of this race is that they provide complimentary digital photos.




Friday, May 15, 2015

Mary Bryan Cake

My daughter Christie is making me a Mary Bryan cake for my birthday today.

In the spring of 1961 our family took a car trip to Florida. We stopped in North Carolina to visit one of my dad's Army Air Force buddies.  Mr. Hurst had a daughter, Mary Bryan (the blonde on the tractor) who baked for us a double-fudge chocolate cake.  She gave the recipe to our mom and from then on for every birthday, holiday or family gathering Mom baked what we all called a Mary Bryan cake, but I'm told others know as Texas sheet cake. I like our name better.

When we were visiting Mom in the hospital last month for her 99th birthday my sisters and I started reminiscing about the Mary Bryan cake (it's featured in most of the birthday photos my dad took). We contacted my sister Carol in Arizona and she sent us the recipe, which she had rescued when we cleaned out Mom's house.

So today when Christie asked me what kind of cake I wanted for my birthday, I told her about the Mary Bryan cake and gave her the recipe.  I'm sure it will be delicious.

A few years ago, just after my dad died, my mom made her last Mary Bryan cake (we were moving her to Assisted Living). I asked her what happened to Mary Bryan and she told me that Mary Bryan had died in a car accident several years ago.

She had had a hard life, Mom said.  Bad luck with men. Drug problems. An earlier automobile accident she never really recovered from.  I'm not sure of all the details and now it's too late to check with mom to make sure my memory is correct.

I guess it doesn't really matter. For all of us, Mary Bryan will always be that sweet little girl on the tractor. 

A couple years ago I wrote a story inspired by Mary Bryan cake that was published in the Foundling Review. Here is the link to that story (it's only 500 words):

Mary Bryan Cake

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Life Time Tri Marquee - Tempe, AZ - April 12, 2015

I opened my 2015 Tri season in my favorite location:  Phoenix.  I've never competed in a Lifetime Tri before and I was very impressed.  This was a well run race with lots of support - they even provided wetsuit strippers which is rare for an Olympic distance race. 

This was my first time riding outside since October, my first open water swim since September and my first warm weather run since Halloween so I was pleased with the results. That's probably enough excuses. It was a great day - not too hot - and there weren't any annoying hills like I had in California for my first race of the year. 

I was passed by a 61 year old (my age group) in the last 1/4 mile.  I cleverly decided to just stay a few feet behind him and save myself for the finish when I would burst passed him. Unfortunately he had sort of a similar plan and his burst was better than mine. I finished 4th in my age group but all the guys ahead of me were from Arizona so I think they had a home court advantage. 

Another really neat thing about this race is that they make all their race photos available for free. And while all my race photos look alike usually, these guys came up with some interesting new angles:

While this looks like the END it's really the beginning

Checking my watch after they stripped off wetsuit

Smiling for the cameraman

Not smiling so much at the finish


Monday, March 16, 2015

March Madness Half Marathon - Sunday March 15, 2015 - Cary, Illinois

The race season has begun.  I was instructed by my coach, (Heather Collins, modeling the sweatshirt above) to treat this as a training run, not a race.  Since I ran the race with her I sort of had to follow her instructions. 

It was a good thing I did as the last half of this course has a number of hills (not something we have a lot of in Illinois) and by taking it easy for the first six miles, I was able to run the hills without difficulty.

Actually the downhill was more challenging than the uphill. We’ve been running hills on the treadmill so I was prepared for the incline, but we never really practice downhill which uses a lot of different muscles. 

This is a really nice course – and it was perfect weather – sunny and in the 40s.  There were over a thousand runners this year and it is strong field.  I finished 18th in my age-group with a time of 1 hour 52 minutes. 

Looking forward to trying it again next year. 

Next race:  Lifetime Tri – Tempe Arizona – April 12, 2015

Monday, January 26, 2015

Neilly Lecture - January 21, 2015 - University of Rochester

Last week I was invited to kick off the University of Rochester's Neilly Lecture Series.  It was fun to return to my alma mater and I am very grateful to the University for giving me the opportunity. 

Below is the text of my talk:

How to Write a Novel…

Thank you very much, Curt. I’m thrilled to be here today. I very much appreciate the opportunity to be a part of the Neilly Lecture Series.  Thank you all for coming tonight.

In the summer of 1974 I moved from Rochester to a small apartment on the south side of Chicago. The first home appliance I bought was a $150 black and white television from Wieboldts.  That first summer on my own I spent many of my evenings watching Happy Days, reruns of the Untouchables, and a lot of Cubs games. Every game the Cubs played was broadcast on WGN. I became one of those diehard fans pulling for the Cubs to finally breakthrough and make it to the World Series. Forty years later, I’m still waiting, but I think this year it’s going to happen.


This is a photo of the center field wall of Wrigley Field. The sign says: “Wrigley Field Home of Chicago Cubs. 

The Cubs have a tradition of inviting celebrities to lead the singing of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” before the 7th inning stretch. It’s not my favorite tradition. They have had a lot of awful conductors. Mike Ditka comes to mind.

A while back the Chicago Tribune conducted one of those reader surveys to rate the worst performers over the last decade.  The runaway “winner” of that contest was NASCAR driver, Jeff Gordon.

Gordon’s remembered unfondly by Cubs fans because when they introduced him, he leaned out of the booth and with that center field sign right in front of him he told the crowd how pleased he was to be in Wrigley Stadium. 

After that opening, it didn’t matter how he performed.

Openings are important. Especially for writers. If we compose a bad opening, it is very likely the reader will not turn the page.

And that’s the number one goal of a writer – to get the reader to keep turning the page.


I collect books on the craft of writing. This book by Sandra Scofield called “The Scene Book” is one of the most helpful books I’ve read for providing concrete advice on what I consider the basic building block of a story.

Scofield writes,  “The scene is the most vivid and immediate part of the story; It is in the scene that a writer captures the heart and imagination of the reader. It is the scene that leaves the reader with images and a memory of the action.”

Okay. Here’s a scene:

A boy walks across the university quadrangle on the first nice day of spring after a long brutal winter. The date is May 4, 1970.  He is a freshman. There are a bunch of students tossing a Frisbee. One of them is an Asia n girl with long flowing hair and a beautiful smile. He knows her name because he knows the names of all the pretty freshmen girls.

She hurls the Frisbee in his direction and calls out his name. “Catch it!” she yells. 

He’s surprised she knows his name. He joins the group.  The girl asks him if he is going to the  dance tomorrow.

She tells him that Ferguson, Davis & Jones, who have a Top 40 single, are playing in the Hill Lounge.

The boy does not like to dance.  He has never heard of Ferguson Davis & Jones. He is not aware of the dance.

“Of course I’m going to the dance,” he says. “Do you want to go with me?”

She grins, like she knows something.  “Sure,” she says. “I’m in Lovejoy 114.  Pick me up at 8?”

Okay. That’s the classic clueless boy meets girl opening scene. I think it has a memorable image. That Frisbee gliding across the quad as a cute girl call calls out a boy’s name.

Why did the writer provide the date? Does anyone know what happened on May 4, 1970?

Kent State. 

There were campus protests over the revelation of the secret bombing of Viet Cong safe havens in Cambodia. At Kent State the governor called out the Ohio National Guard. 

In an inexplicable tragedy, four students were shot and killed by the soldiers.

Young people protesting the war, shot by young people who were probably in the National Guard to avoid to being drafted and sent to Viet Nam.

The news reverberated across campuses.  At the boy’s school classes, are cancelled and a student rally is called for the next day.

Here is the next scene in this story:

A poker game is underway in Gilbert – the Freshmen dorm. There are five players seated at the table. The boy, who is a regular in the game, is watching.

One of the players pats the empty chair next to him. “Sit down. We need six.”

The boy tells them he can’t play. He is going to the dance with the girl he met yesterday.

Conversation at the table halts immediately. They know the girl. She is cute.  And popular. They know the boy has not had a date all year. Neither have any of them. Except George. 

“Are you crazy?” George asks. “No one will be at that dance. Everyone will be at the rally. It will be a dating disaster.”

The boy senses that George is right. He imagines an empty dance floor with no other couples around to hide his lack of dance skill.

“Just tell her you can’t go tonight. She’ll give you another chance.”

The boy senses that George is wrong. He’s pretty certain if he doesn’t show up at Lovejoy 114 in ten minutes the girl will not give him another chance.

The boy turns and heads toward the door. “Have a good game, guys. I’m going to the dance.”

            The memorable image here is the poker table with an empty chair and five poker players who have suddenly stopped talking.

            How does this story end?

They go to the dance.

Turns out George is right.

There are only three couples there and they are all great dancers. The girl says, “Let’s go to the rally.”

They stroll over to the Student Union where the rally is underway. After the speeches,  they walk from the Union to the Hill to the Towers on to Phase and then over to the library. Finally, hours later, they head back to the dorms. The girl is funny and smart and easy to talk to. She is interested in him and what he thinks and does.

When they arrive at the door of her dorm room, the girl smiles and tells him she had a very good time. He kisses her. It is a really good kiss.

Three years, seven months and twenty-four days later  they are married.

They raise three children – two girls and a boy.  Forty-one years later they are still married.

I’ll return to that boy later.



How does someone start a novel?

Some writers have  a story they want to share. Maybe it’s semi-true – based on something that happened to them or someone they know.

Other writers might start with just a fragment

An overheard conversation. An intriguing character they encountered.

My novel started with an image.

I was driving east on Interstate 80, heading home from the Iowa Writer’s Festival. It was my first weeklong writer workshop and my brain was exploding with writerly stuff: 

Point of view, story arc, dialogue punctuation rules.

About an hour into the drive, I spot, on the other side of the highway a phalanx of emergency vehicles and police cars.  There has been an accident and both westbound lanes are blocked.  Traffic is backed up for miles.  Cars are stopped people are out of their cars, angry, upset, trying to figure out why the traffic is halted.

A mile beyond the snarl  the westbound cars are still racing down the highway unaware of what lies ahead.

A man and his wife  cruise by in a  blue Plymouth Belvedere.  I only see them for an instant but the image stays with me. The man is smiling, talking to his wife, not a care in the world.

He doesn’t know his  day is about to get a whole lot less good.


Soon after I returned home from that workshop, my niece wrote and asked me if I would write a story to be read at her wedding in September.

I was honored, but I knew that trying to read a story at a wedding reception was a very bad idea.

I finally convinced her of that, but not before I had written a thousand word story called “The Toast.”

“The Toast” begins with a man driving his family down the highway. 

I kept working on it  and a couple years later, to my surprise,  I had written a novel.

Call that American Past Time 1.0. 

I had no idea where I was going with that image when I started.  I didn’t know I was writing a novel. It seems like a crazy way to create something.  But there are some pluses to not knowing exactly where your story is headed.

You have the opportunity to be surprised.

Robert Boswell in his book, “The Half-Known World,” argues for not knowing  everything about your characters or what’s going to happen next:

“To make something fully known is to make it unreal,” Boswell writes.  “Think of Disneyland, think of the speeches of politicians, think of McDonalds. The fast food goal is not to give you great food, but to give you exactly what you expect.”

Nothing from my original story “The Toast” survived except for the image of the man driving his family on the highway.  Here is how American Past Time opens:

September 5, 1953

      Dancer Stonemason drove through Maple Springs headed for Rolla. His left hand rested gentle on the steering wheel, and in his pitching hand he held a baseball – loose and easy – like he was shooting craps. The ball took the edge off the queasy feeling he got on game days. His son, Clayton, sat beside him and made sputtering en­gine noises as he gripped an imaginary steering wheel, while Dede, Dancer’s wife, stared out the window with other things on her mind.


            Christopher Vogler in “The Writer’s Journey” talks about the hero’s “call to adventure.”   

            “…some event is necessary to get a story rolling, once the main character is introduced. The Call to Adventure may come in the form of a message or a messenger.”

 Okay. My  opening introduces the main character and his wife and young son. What happens next?

Dancer is the star pitcher for the minor league AAA team, the Rolla Rebels.  It’s the weekend before Labor Day and Dancer hopes he will soon be promoted to the majors to pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals. That has been his dream since he was seven years old and his father took him to St. Louis to watch Dizzy Dean pitch.

When he arrives at the park, his manager, Doc Evans (the MESSENGER), tells him they need to talk:

“I had a call from Mr. Stanky this morning.”  Doc pulled out a cigar and sniffed it up and down. He acted as if the Cardinals manager called him every day. “Haddix has a sore arm. They’re thinking about shutting him down. Cards ain’t going nowhere.” 

Doc bit off th e end of the cigar. Dancer crept to the edge of his chair. Doc could spend ten minutes farting around with his goddamn cigars. 

“So?” Dancer asked, his voice breaking.

“So they might need you for the Labor Day doubleheader Monday.”

Dancer jumped up. “ The Cardinals!” His spikes al­most slipped out from under him, and he had to grab Doc’s desk to keep from falling.

 “Try not to kill yourself before you get there, son.”

Dancer sat back in his seat. “But I’m still pitching today, right? My boy’s out there. He’s counting on me.”

Doc cocked his head to one side. “I can’t send you up to St. Louis with your arm dragging around your ankles.” He puffed harder on the cigar. “Tell you what. You can go three innings. That’ll keep you fresh enough so you can still pitch in two days.”


Again from Vogler’s “The Writer’s Journey”:

“Heroes come to decision points where their very souls are at stake, where they must decide “Do I go on living my life as I always have, or will I risk everything in the effort to grow and change?”


This is one of those days when everything seems to fall into place. Dancer is about to realize his life’s ambition to play for the Cardinals, his son is in the crowd cheering him on, and his pitching is magical.

Dancer cruised through the second and third innings without a ball hit out of the infield. He was in a groove – his fastball overpowering, his curveball buckling the batters’ knees. As he jogged toward the dugout at the end of the third inning, he spotted Clayton jumping up and down on his seat waving his cap. Dancer had thrown only forty pitches. A couple more innings wouldn’t tire him out.

Doc greeted him as he returned to the dugout. “Nice work, son. Bullpen can take it from here.”

“Don’t take me out. I haven’t even broke a sweat. I got plenty left.”

Doc sighed. “What do you think, Billy?”

Billy was taking off his shin guards. Dancer sat down next to him. “Can’t stop with a perfect game going. That’s not respecting the game.”

Billy shrugged and glanced over at Doc. “Not my call, Skip. That’s why you get the captain’s pay.” He went back to unhitching his shin guards.

Doc stood up and pointed his finger at Dancer. “As soon as they get a hit, I’m pulling you out.”


Dancer stays in the game and that decision changes the arc of his life. That impulsive decision is what launches the novel.


Let’s return to the boy. 

Here’s a flashback to his early days. 

The boy grows up in a red ranch house across the street from the high school football field of the Canandaigua Academy Braves. He has three sisters. They are nice, but not much fun to play with. He spends hours in his basement bouncing a red rubber ball against the wall. Many, many, many hours. He develops great hands.

When he plays sandlot football with his friends it is understood that he is the receiver. He can catch any ball thrown to him.  He dreams of the day when he will play for the Braves. He imagines catching long passes and running clear for a touchdown.

When he is a sophomore  he’s brought up from the JV team to back up the Varsity wide receiver. Late in the 4th quarter, the coach finally puts him in the game.

His father is in the stands with his brand new Super 8 movie camera, waiting for this moment.



It is the play he has dreamed about for years, except he was supposed to score.  When he is tackled on the 13 yard line he is the most surprised person in the stadium.  Still, it is a cool way to start his high school career and like Charles Dickens’ Pip, the boy believes he has Great Expectations – at least as far as football is concerned.

But it turns out that catch is the high water mark of his high school football career. Maybe if he had scored on that play life would have turned out differently. He might have been discovered and gone to a school with a serious football program. But instead he goes to an academic institution with a bee for a mascot and meets the girl with the Frisbee.

Okay, enough about the boy.


Let’s talk about Theme.

            When I set out to write American Past Time, I didn’t have a theme in mind. I’m wary of themes.

But I did have a certain notion – I  don’t know what else to call it – that interested me.

            When we watch the Olympics or the World Series or the Super Bowl we see all these young folks celebrated for their accomplishments. But for everyone on the podium there are hundreds, maybe thousands who had the same dream but because of bad luck or because they just weren’t quite good enough, they don’t realize their dream.

What happens to the hometown hero after the cheering stops?

In American Past Time the main character, Dancer, is struggling with his career. He knows in his gut that he is never going to make it to the majors, but it is hard for him to let go. 

Three years. It seemed like a lifetime. The whole world had been out there waiting for him back then. Some folks believed that if he’d walked off that mound after three innings, he’d have gotten his chance, and he’d be in high cotton now. But he couldn’t have done that. A ballplayer doesn’t walk away from a perfect game.

Dancer rubbed his arm. The soreness was never going away. He loved baseball. Some days he couldn’t hardly believe he was getting paid to do something he loved so much. If it had been possible, he’d have played for free. But he had a family to support. He could hang on, try to scratch out a living for a few more years, but that would just make things worse for Dede and the boys.

 It was time to let it go.

He pounded the ball into his glove and glanced at each of the runners. He dug his nails into the seams and went into his windup.  The ball floated toward the batter waist high, begging to be slammed. Dancer could see Shepherd’s eyes get wide and the muscles in his forearm tighten as he stepped into the pitch.

But just as Shepherd was about to make contact, the ball dropped sharply clipping the front of the plate and bouncing into the catcher’s glove. Shepherd corkscrewed himself into the ground striking out to end the game.

As Dancer headed for the locker room, the crowd was on its feet cheering. He stopped at home plate and looked up  as the cheers blanketed him. He doffed his cap, not boastfully, but to show respect for the game. His heart ached.



I had the opportunity last summer to attend a book club discussion of  American Past Time. It was fun to hear people discussing my characters and arguing about what they might do or not do.  One of the younger readers asked me if it was more difficult to write historical fiction because of all the research involved.

My first reaction was:  What are you talking about? This isn’t historical fiction – I grew up in the 50s and 60s. I’m not historical.

But, I have come to realize that for a large share of the reading population even the Viet Nam war is distant history.

It was clearly a tumultuous time to grow up. 

The civil rights movement – the boycotts, the Freedom riders, the march on Washington – those were all vivid memories from my youth.

The assassinations.  President Kennedy in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965  and then in the spring  of 1968, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy killed in a two month span.

And throughout the sixties and early 70s there was the war in Viet Nam. 

I was number 343 in the second draft lottery. It’s the only lottery I’ve ever won.

The era wasn’t all protest and violence. We had the space program.

Alan Shepherd, Gus Grissom and John Glenn were names that didn’t require any identifying labels. 

Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, July 29, 1969 – seven weeks after I graduated from high school. The whole nation was watching.  

I used that event in the novel for a scene with Dede and her son Jimmy, who was captivated by the  space program.

Suddenly the scene on the TV screen switched from the control room to a grainy black and white image of a man in a spacesuit descending slowly from a ladder.

“How did they get the camera up there?” Dede asked.

Jimmy slipped off the couch and scooted up close to the television. “The camera was attached to an equipment pallet on the side of the Lunar Module. It unfolded when Neil Armstrong stepped down the ladder. This is so cool!”

The astronaut, a white blob with a backpack, stood on the bottom rung of the ladder and put his foot down several times, like a man testing the water temperature in the pool. Finally, he slow-motion jumped off the ladder.  “That’s one small step for man…one giant leap for mankind.”  

Jimmy stood up and clapped his hands. “They did it!”

Dede jumped up from the couch and clapped too. She took hold of Jimmy’s hand and squeezed it hard. Tears were running down her cheeks.

 “Do you think you’ll fly to the moon someday, Mom?”

Dede smiled. “I think you’ll have to go for me.”


So that was my history and while obviously I was not a part of any of those events, they clearly shaped my life.



This is probably a good time to mention one of my less positive memories from my days at Rochester. 

I had two secret goals when I left home. One was to play professional football (I saw myself as the next Fred Biletnikoff) and the other was to become a world famous author.

Fred Biletnikoff

My football dream didn’t last long. Despite those marvelous hands,  I was put on the kickoff team. My job was to run down the field and hurl my body at the wedge of blockers. I was a skinny kid and the coaches didn’t expect me to knock anyone down, they just hoped I would distract the blockers so the guys who knew how to tackle could swoop in unimpeded and grab the ball carrier.

I wasn’t very good at it.

By my junior year I was in the stands cheering for the Yellowjackets.

My other dream didn’t survive either. I chose to be an English major my first year as that seemed the appropriate launching pad to become a world famous author.

But in the second semester of my first year, a few weeks before I encountered that Frisbee, I received an excoriating critique from my early American Literature professor on my term paper. 

I was devastated.  I decided I wasn’t destined to write the great American novel and I changed my major to Economics.

After graduation, and a decade in the corporate world I went into business for myself. For fifteen years I owned and operated an engine remanufacturing company. I commuted between Chicago and Phoenix, logging over a million air miles. On those long flights I would read literary magazines and novels and sometimes I would write poems and short stories about people I encountered.

In the fall of 2003 I wound the business down.

I realized if I wanted to become a writer I needed to stop wishing it would happen and do something about it. So I began taking writing courses at the University of Chicago’s Graham School and attending summer writer workshops. Over the next several years I participated in workshops at Iowa, Tin House, Squaw Valley, Skidmore, Norman Mailer, Sewanee and Bread Loaf.

Workshops, at least for me, were a valuable tool in my development.

I think my years in business dealing with the  unvarnished opinions of customers and employees helped me to learn how to deal with literary criticism. 

Even myopic, ignorant, snarky comments can have some benefit.  You just have to have a good filter.

Take what’s useful, discard the rest.

Don’t try to satisfy everyone. 

Ignore prescriptions.

 But try to understand what is causing the reader to suggest a solution.

What I often encountered in my early drafts, was a desire by readers to understand what Dancer is thinking. 

Why doesn’t he share his feelings more? They would ask.

And while all of these characters are absolutely one hundred percent fictional, I can say I empathized with Dancer’s unwillingness to “share.”

But I couldn’t ignore an issue that was brought up so frequently.

In later drafts I let Dancer share more of his thoughts,  but mostly I tried to convey his feelings through his actions.

For example, here is where Dancer has a confrontation with Brandon Thacker who has been trying unsuccessfully to get Dancer to join the Klan.

It was nearly four when Dancer finally finished his pour and made it back to the locker room. The room smelled of Lysol, sulfur, sweat and piss. In the middle of the floor was a large circular steel sink with a foot pedal to turn on the water.

Brandon Thacker huddled in front of the sink talking with a couple of his Klan buddies. Dancer stepped around them, leaned into the sink, and stuck his head under the ring of water.

“Ah, Stonemason, don’t wash it off. You look just like one of those bug-eyed nigra children down there in Alabam.”

Dancer shook the water out of his eyes. He was tired. Tired of the job. Tired of all the Klan bullshit. Tired of Brandon Thacker. With rattlesnake-quickness he grabbed Brandon by the throat and pulled his face under the ring of water. Brandon sputtered and flailed, but Dancer had a steel grip. The men laughed at first, but when he didn’t let him go, the laughter faded. The locker room became silent, except for Thacker’s frantic gasps. No one made a move to stop him.

Dancer felt strong. He was in charge again. He tightened his grip on Thacker’s throat. It would be so easy with just a little more pressure to crush his windpipe. Thacker’s face turned purple as he ineffectually clawed at Dancer’s hands.

Kelly came up next to Dancer and squeezed his shoulder. “Boss-man ain’t going to like you drowning his boy.”

“He doesn’t like me anyway,” Dancer said. He stared down at Thacker and  jerked him out of the sink and set him back on his feet. Brandon wobbled, but stayed upright.

            I think Dancer’s feeling are clear there.


For years I was a recreational runner. About the same time I started taking those writing classes I began training at a local triathlon club.

The two activities – writing and triathlon training – complement each other.

They both require discipline.  A willingness to stay the course.

And both, at least for most people, require professional training. You don’t know what you don’t know.

I always believed that to become a better runner I needed to run more. Run every day. Run longer.  Push my body. 

But when I started training with professionals, I learned to run smarter. Have structured workouts, days off to let the body recover.

The same approach applies for writing.

Just sitting in a chair pounding on the laptop isn’t necessarily productive. Sometimes when I’m working out, I find myself thinking about the novel and seeing things differently. More clearly.

A long run can be a great opportunity to try out new dialogue. (Although sometimes people look at you funny.)

Here’s what Verlyn Klinkenborg who was the rural life writer for The New York Times for years says about writers in his book, “Several Short Sentences about Writing,” 

“Most aspiring writers write too soon.

Everything they know about writing – all those images of writers writing --

Hastens them to their desk,

Where they sit perched over the keyboard,

Caught in an anticipatory gesture,

Eyes intent on the possibility of the screen,

Poised at the brink of thought, but not actually thinking.

As though by leaning forward a sentence will tip out of their heads

And onto the page.”


Let’s talk about getting published.

The story my niece had commissioned in 2005, evolved, over the next two years,  into a fifty year, 300 page epic novel which I was convinced was “ready” for huge commercial success. 

In 2007, I started searching for an agent.

I followed the rules and sent out the perfect query letter, targeting the literary agents who would have the most interest in a multi-generational story of baseball, small town life, civil rights and the space program. That covered a lot of agents, but apparently none of them saw it the way I did. I can’t say for certain because there was no response.

I hired an author/editor to read it.

She said: good characters, interesting story, but you skip all the tough scenes.

I rewrote it again, with more guts. 

In June 2009 I read the prologue of this new version at an open mic in Chicago. 

The crowd was… polite.

I started over.

Chapter by chapter. 

Finally in 2011 I got my big break. A woman I met at the Iowa Writers Festival happened to be related to the editor of Grove-Atlantic and she convinced them to read the manuscript.

 Grove-Atlantic – the publishers of the Viet Nam war bestseller “Materhorn.”  Karl Marlantes, the author of Materhorn had struggled for thirty years with his novel before being discovered by Grove. 

They were my dream publisher.

Meanwhile on my triathlon quest I was making progress.  In 2011 I qualified for the Nationals at the Olympic distance. My coach persuaded me to try the Ironman at Coeur d’Alene, Idaho that was held in June 2012.

The Ironman is a 2.5 mile swim, 112 miles on the bike and a 26 mile run. 

We trained intensely for six months.

At 6 a.m. on June 6, 2012, I waded into the frigid waters of Lake Coeur d’Alene with 2,500 other triathletes.

It took me 92 minutes to complete the swim. That was a good time for me.

But on the bike course, I struggled with the last, long uphill climb. The wind shifted into my face and my “speed” slipped from 8 to 7 to 6 to 5 mph.

Most people can walk faster than that.

Then, with sweat dripping in my eyes and my leg muscles burning, I remembered the final words of the inspirational video they showed us the night before:

“The only thing you can control is your attitude.”

It sounds hokey, but it worked.

I stopped cursing the mountain, and ordered myself to enjoy the ride.  I was up and over that final hill before I realized it.

And even though I had never attempted a marathon, I ran – very very slowly – the entire 26 miles.  As I entered the homestretch, which even at the 15th hour was still lined with cheering spectators, I heard the announcer say my name and then do a double take.

“Wow, sixty-one years old! His first Ironman!  Len Joy! You. Are. An. Ironman!”

I sprinted the last ten yards.

Soon after the Ironman race, Grove-Atlantic gave me their answer.

It wasn’t what I wanted to hear.

Good story, but too many characters covering too many years. I was discouraged, but by now I had spent over six years on this novel.

I couldn’t stop now. 

I rewrote it again, cutting out thirty years and half the characters. Now I only had a mini-epic.

Despite years of rejection, I confidently sent my query to the top tier agents. 

And then to the agents who had indicated an interest in this kind of novel;

And finally to anyone who was accepting queries.

No response.

In the previous round of queries I had moved up the food chain of agent rejections to the “Not right for us, Thanks for submitting” email. Now I was back to  the, “Let’s not respond and hope he stops bothering us,” level.

I reluctantly posted a notice on my blog in September 2012 that I had given up on the novel.

 A week later, three months after I had completed that Ironman  competition, I was contacted by the editor of Hark! New Era Publishing.

A new company.

They said they would be interested in publishing “American Past Time,” if I were willing to make some structural changes. They were not minor changes.

I looked at what they wanted and I had a feeling very similar to what I had felt three months earlier on that bike trail at Coeur d’Alene.

I think it’s called despair. 

My first reaction was that what they wanted was impossible, but I decided to try it anyway. I had to completely restructure the novel and rewrite most of the chapters.

But this time I had someone working with me, invested in the outcome. It took another year, but with their help I wrote a much better book.

Finally, in April, eight years, nine months and three days after my niece asked me to write that story,  American Past Time was published.

And if life were a novel, that would be the end.

But life goes on.

I am excited to be published and even more excited that people have read the book and some have honestly loved it. I have had some really great reviews, and not all of them have been from friends and family.

But it is difficult for an unknown writer with an unknown publisher to get noticed. So I am extremely grateful to the folks at the University for giving me this chance to talk to you all. And I am officially forgiving that English professor who ripped, deservedly so, my paper on Thoreau.

Thank you very much.