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Oct. 30, 2006

Ellen has often said that there's nothing wrong with me that $200 in clothes and a proper haircut couldn't fix, a diagnosis that reveals either her charity or her lack of imagination.

A few visits to Banana Republic have addressed the first problem, but the hair ... the hair ...

In the 25 years since I last hopped onto the kitchen stool for a haircut from Mom, I've patronized white man's barbershops exclusively, independent joints with baseball on the radio, ashtrays by the coffee pot and porn under the Newsweeks. I've been seeing the same guy for six years. He isn't interesting or funny or even very good, but he is as close as he is cheap, and the end result is always adequate for me. I don't have to look at it, after all.

But Ellen does, and in six months she has earned the right to veto certain grooming and lifestyle decisions. (See also "beard, off-season" and "whities, tighty.") Thus when I returned from the barber a few months ago with a speck of blood behind my ear -- it was just a nick; didn't even notice it myself -- she promptly vetoed any further visits to my guy, barbers' proud heritage of bloodletting notwithstanding.

Last week, then, I made my first appointment to a salon. Ellen's hairdresser recommended a spot near the Belmont El, a trendy place where one can also get tattoos, dyes and whatever it is that the goth kids inflict upon themselves. It sounded intimidating. (It's true: I'm 31 and am still frightened of the cool kids. Zombies? Mummies? Amway reps? Pish. It's student-body presidents and punk rockers that keep me up at night.)

I was nervous from the first step up the narrow stairway to the second floor. Given a choice, I'd climb the gallows with greater mirth. Entering the salon, it was clear that, as is often the case, I was the square in the room. I fidgeted in the waiting area, as if I were waiting for a dentist or a first date. As I was escorted to my stylist's station, I bumped into someone I knew -- someone who has always had very good hair, it should be noted -- but I was too jittery to make conversation. "Hey! Good to see you! Gotta go!"

My new stylist had a shaved head himself and looked like the type who ate live bats for lunch, but he was jolly enough. He asked what I wanted.

"Short and low maintenance. And my girlfriend says what I need is 'texture.' I assume she's talking about my hair."

"Don't worry," he said, patting my shoulders. "I'll take care of you."

"What kind of product do you usually use?" he asked a few minutes later.

"'Product?' None." I didn't volunteer that I usually shampoo with Suave, don't own a hairdryer and use conditioner only when I am the guest of someone who owns some.

"Don't worry," he repeated. "I'll take care of you."

And so he did. After a while he commented on how quiet I was. "My girlfriend says that, too." But I wasn't sure what commonalities we had to discuss. I could only presume he didn't care to hear about my cycling, and I wasn't all that curious in what he used to wax his eyebrows.

The rest was fine. He even washed my hair, something I like but that my guy doesn't do. All in all the experience wasn't that different from any other haircut. The main difference was that it cost twice as much as my guy. He certainly didn't take twice as long, nor did he cut it twice as short. Is it better? Sure. Probably. Maybe. (I'm not a very good judge of new haircuts.) But is it twice as good?

At least he didn't make me bleed. Now, however, there are ominous rumblings about something called "product." Sounds high maintenance to me.

Photo taken: Oct. 25, 2006


Oct. 26, 2006

A Durango, Colo., coffee roaster recently inquired about one of my Downers Grove photos. He's marketing a line of coffee for Tom Danielson, Discovery's climbing prodigy and the top American finisher at the 2006 Vuelta, and wanted a generic cycling photo for a piece of marketing. As a fan of both locally roasted coffee and locally grown climbing specialists, I was happy to oblige, especially since he was polite enough to ask. All I requested in return was some coffee and, if Tom happened to be around the shop, a signed sock or something.

A few days later, 6 pounds of coffee and an autographed T-shirt arrived. Not a bad haul for 1/500 seconds of work.

Photo taken: Oct. 24, 2006


Oct. 25, 2006

Photo taken: Sept. 21, 2006


Oct. 23, 2006

I ran a marathon this weekend. Which is to say, I ran in a marathon.

Levi was running the Indianapolis Marathon, and since Ellen was due to visit family nearby, we drove down early Saturday to watch.

It's been almost a year and a half since my last serious run -- a happy, regret-free year and a half, I should note -- but I've always wanted to be someone's rabbit, and I was pleased when Levi accepted my offer to jump in around the 21st mile. I told him I couldn't promise to last very long, but I'd help him keep his 8-minute pace as long as I could.

I would be sore the next two days, but it turned out that the running muscles haven't atrophied as much as I had expected. I stayed with him the balance of the course, peeling off with 385 yards to go and cutting across a park in order to cheer him at the finish line as he set a personal record.

The highlight of the morning came at the beginning of the run. We'd just rendezvoused but I desperately had to pee. (The coffee required to leave Chicago at 6 a.m. is great.) So I told him to keep going, popped into a Porta-Potty and then sprinted to catch up.

This sprint created the illusion of a marathoner having an improbable gale-force second wind. "Good job!" spectators yelled as I bounded past bonked runners. "You're looking great!"

And of course I looked great: I'd only been running for 30 seconds.

Chicago's marathon was this weekend too. Walking down Michigan Avenue this morning, I saw tell-tale green ribbons around necks. Full-page newspaper ads congratulated runners. At the office, someone wanted to surprise a colleague with a standing ovation. I rolled my eyes.

In the past 15 or so years, the marathon-industrial complex has elevated the race from fringe stunt to Oprah-approved rite of passage, if not outright act of heroism. Enough is enough. It's time to stop lionizing marathon runners -- and not just because cyclists train so much harder.

Marathoners deserve congratulations and support -- just as all loved ones deserve congratulations and support for following their bliss, whether their bliss is running 26.2 miles or darning socks or performing the banjo -- but they are not heroes, and I'm tired of Nike ads that allege that they are.

Runners neither cure cancer nor survive it. I should know: I ran seven marathons. The world isn't any better for any of them. The world may even be worse for my narcissism. Those seven marathons required thousands of hours of training that could have been spent doing something useful, like learning a trade or teaching people to read or baking cookies.

Is running hard? Sure. So is parenting. So is teaching. So is driving a CTA bus. As the Dread Pirate Roberts said to Buttercup, "Life is pain, Highness."

Levi knows I'm not talking about him. He's the type who races in order to train, not the other way around. He would be mortally embarrassed by a standing ovation, the first person ever to be clapped to death, and I don't expect he wore his medal to work today. In fact, he rightly allowed that if the weather had been any worse Saturday, he would have bagged the race and felt not one pang of regret.

And just as cycling requires a greater devotion to training, so is it an even bigger waste of time and an even bigger act of narcissism. The difference is that we don't expect to hear the "Beaches" soundtrack when we cross the finish line. We don't expect mortals to pour oil on our feet the day after a race. And we only give medals to winners.

The co-worker? She didn't get her applause. She called in sick with sore legs.

Photo taken: Oct. 21, 2006


Oct. 10, 2006

The cycling season wrapped up this weekend.

(It occurs to me that I've been saying that for months: first after the last of the road races in July, then after the criteriums of August. But this time I mean it. We are out of races.)

As I rode home on the lakefront last night, a tailwind freshened my legs and made me mournful for the sudden competitive void. "If only," I thought to myself, "there were someone up the road to chase." As I glided up and around the 18th Street bridge, I thought, "If only this were Snake Alley."

The past two weekends comprised the Fall Fling: one time trial, two crits, a road race. I was most excited about the road race, which happened to fall on my birthday. It was a 40-mile race over rolling terrain that I knew would include exposure to heavy winds.

One particular team has been a bane to me all summer. Their etiquette is questionable but their sprinting is not. My hope in the road race, then, was to make sure it was a race of attrition and did not come down to a field scrum.

I was successful, sort of. I attacked several times and rode tempo in the crosswind, hugging either the gutter or the yellow line to maximize the effect. (One time I attacked because one rider from this team was being a jackass near the front. I wasted precious energy but got 45 seconds of peace and quiet.)

The field gradually shattered. At one point we were down to 13 riders, but I was too cooked to look back and realize it. My obliviousness allowed a chase group to catch back on.

Unfortunately, my efforts did not drop any of my targets. Instead, I found on each lap more of my teammates cheering from the sideline in street clothes. Oops. Sorry, fellas.

I ended up 10th. I might have done better had I not had to swerve into the gutter to avoid a crash during the downhill sprint. My criteriums were even more mediocre, 20th and 21st, and I ended up in 10th overall, two spots out of the money.

All weekend I've been replaying the races' finishes. If I'd only chosen a different gear, or taken a different line, or taken one less flier... The next race won't be until March, so I'll have five more months of these reruns.

Ellen is helping me put together an off-season training plan. I'm supposed to ride 300 miles this week, then rest a bit before attacking the weight room. She seems to think I need to develop enough upper-body strength so that I no longer need to press the handicapped button to open heavy doors.

This morning I did two things with 2007 in mind: I applied for an upgrade to Category 3, and I resumed my NetFlix subscription, so as to pass the dozens of trainer hours ahead. As I write this I am noticing the radiators clang and gurgle for the first time. It may snow Thursday.

This will be fun.

Photo taken by E. Wight: Oct. 7, 2006