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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

As a commentator, he was a master. Measured. Well-paced. Gifted with dramatic inflection and a lilting accent that brought credibility to his narration. As a dramatist, he was a rare thespian of the microphone. He paced his voice, volume and inflection to build a crescendo that hammered on the edge of control. And perhaps most importantly, as a person, he humanized and dignified a sport that is rife with indignity and subterfuge.

Paul Sherwen died last week at the age of 62. Far too soon. His untimely passing is gutting to the world of cycling, not just for fans who loved him, but for the complex synergy of broadcasting the Tour de France and all of professional cycling in the English language.

You can read of Sherwen’s impressive professional cycling career in any of the many eulogies published around the world for him over the last 72 hours. But Sherwen rose to greatest prominence as a broadcaster, commentator and even moderator of cycling’s most turbulent era.

Sherwen began broadcasting with Phil Liggett in 1989. That is when he went from great cyclist to mega-star. The combination of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen was not just good, it was magical synergy. The sum was greater than the total of its parts. By themselves, Sherwen and Liggett were excellent commentators. Together they became the institution of cycling in the English language.

It would not be an embellishment to suggest the team of Sherwen and Liggett saved cycling.

The damage inflicted by the Armstrong era cast a dark cloud over professional bike racing and the Tour de France. Its creditability as a legitimate sport was shattered in the post-Armstrong era and didn’t recover even after the brash Texan doper and extortionist was forced into exile. The doping scandals and accusations continued. For any informed observer, cycling had a titanic image problem. It was dirty.

Enter Paul Sherwen and Phil Liggett. Commentating next to the thousand-pound doping elephant in the room the duo would chat during slow stages as the group rode together at a pedestrian pace. Cycling coverage had changed from a 45-minute recorded and scripted highlight reel to a rolling commentary of the entire stage. It became an endurance event for live announcers. Try describing anything non-stop for six hours. If your voice holds, you quickly find out you run out of things to say. Not Sherwen.

During the Tour de France, Sherwen and Liggett were served snippets about the areas the riders were passing through from race organizers. They were dry historical facts about castles, bridges, rivers and factories. It was the stuff you slept through in school. But Sherwen would grab this stuff off the feed and, as though you were sitting next to him in a touring sedan on a leisurely drive across rural France, weave a lilting tale from the popcorn-dry feed. When Sherwen talked about the milk production of the cows of Provence region, it sounded quaint and charming and… damn near interesting.

When the action started, Sherwen’s voice moved to his gut. He became more baritone. More Serious. More urgent. His pace picked up just a tick. Tension boiled under his narration. It felt as if the other shoe would drop at any moment, and we all slid to the edge of seats. His colloquialisms were Shakespearean. Who had ever heard what it was like to, “Throw a cat among the pigeons” or, “Reach deep into the suitcase of courage” before Paul Sherwen? Sherwin brought rare dramatic eloquence to a sport of blue collar schoolboys.

Paul Sherwen dignified cycling, amplified the drama, downplayed the scandal.

It is difficult to imagine a post-Sherwen cycling era. At 75 years old, Phil Liggett may decide to pack up his microphone and move on to a well-earned retirement. Something Paul Sherwen never got. Sherwen played the key role to Liggett’s performance, shoring him up when he made the errors in remembering a cyclist’s name that any 75-year old would make. They did so seamlessly, and it only added to the show. But without Sherwen as his muse and protector, Liggett may not want to continue. If that is the case, it is not too much of a stretch to say that when we lost Paul Sherwen, we lost all of cycling. Or at least any semblance of dignity, drama and decency it had left.


 

Tom Demerly has been a cycling commentator and journalist for over 30 years. He has written for Outside, Velo-News, Inside Triathlon, Triathlon Today, Triathlete, Bicycling, Bicycle Guide, USA Cycling, USA Triathlon and many others.

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

He earned a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering, did triathlons in his spare time and flew the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter along with nearly every other fighter aircraft in U.S. inventory. And he died in an accident in September 2017 so secret its circumstances remain classified to this day. His name is Lt. Col. Eric “Doc” Schultz.

Capt Eric “DOC” Schultz, F-35 ITF Edwards AFB; Ca.; 15 September 2011

She leads an entire Air Force Wing of advanced F-35A Lightning II squadrons. She holds a Master’s degree and has flown the most secretive special operations combat aircraft in U.S. inventory. Her name is Col. Regina Sabric.

He got so bored on shipboard deployment he first started playing PlayStation, then lifting weights, then training for a triathlon onboard a Navy assault ship and finally earning a college degree online during his off time. He is a young Marine Corporal I met in San Diego, California.

She was terrifying. Ultimate lord of everything within her domain, she was a Sergeant who oversaw supply at a U.S. Army basic training facility at Ft. Benning, Georgia. I don’t remember her name, but I was terrified of her when I went through basic training and advanced individual training.

He shared a foxhole with me in the rain at Ft. Benning Georgia while we tried to figure out how to tune a tactical radio into a news station during the middle of the night at Advanced Individual Training (AIT). He went on to participate in the invasion of Panama, Operation Just Cause, and many other active duty operations with the Army’s elite 82nd Airborne Division. His name is Mo Fregia.

Mo Fregia and I practice clearing landmines at Ft. Benning, Georgia.

She does yoga in her off hours, has traveled the world in the U.S. Air Force and on the day I met her she was in charge of getting me and my equipment on board an Air Force tanker so we could rendezvous with F-15C Eagles and F-35A Lightning IIs over the Atlantic for midair refueling. Her name is Lt. Col. Kim Lalley.

He is a member of an elite Naval Special Warfare team who took time out from his day to sit on a log in the obstacle course in Coronado, California for an interview about how to overcome any obstacle and never give up. He should know. After three tries he graduated top of his class, “Honor Man”, of his Basic Underwater Demolition School (BUDS). His name is SEAL Operator First Class David Goggins.

He is a retired Commanding Officer who took the time out to meet with me in person years after he was my commander in an Army National Guard Long Range Surveillance Unit. When he was my C.O. he was a Captain. He later retired as Colonel. I may have learned more from his leadership than almost any other man in my life. His name is Robert “Bob” Wangen.

Standing on the right, with the bona-fide special-operations mustache, is one of the finest soldiers I have ever known, SSgt. Chris Surmacz. He was my team leader.

He is a combat veteran F-16 pilot, instructor and now commander of a Remotely Piloted Aircraft unit. In his spare time, whatever that is when you are an Air Force Colonel, he coaches triathlons and runs a triathlon retail store in Tucson, Arizona. His name is Col. Brian Grasky.

Every year the list of remarkable people I meet working with the U.S. military grows longer. Every year I am more impressed with their competence, devotion, tireless work ethic and patriotism. In the civilian sector people go weeks and months without ever thinking about the small percentage of our population who serves in the U.S. military. Only about 1.3% of our country’s population is serving or has served in the military. Current active duty military accounts for only 0.4% of the U.S. population. Think about that. Less than half a percent of our population shoulders the burden for the safety and security of the remaining 99.5%. That is a lot of weight to rest on very few shoulders. But I can assure you those are strong and capable shoulders. We remain free and secure in the precious bubble of liberty maintained by that 0.4%. Today we celebrate their selfless devotion and the often-grinding drudgery of their difficult jobs done 365 days a year, around the clock all over the globe almost entirely without thanks.

We don’t need you to thank us for our service, although that’s nice of you, or buy a special T-shirt or put a bumper sticker on your car saying you support the troops. That’s kind of you, but we don’t need all that. We do like it when you fly our flag, bright and backlit by a brilliant sun shining down on the land we love. We want you to take that flag down at night when it gets dark or shine a light on it around the clock. And we’d prefer if you never let it touch the ground because one day, the day after our last day, we’ll lie under the flag when you commit us to memory and hopefully another veteran takes our place.

 

 

 

 

Photo by Dustin Davis, story by Tom Demerly of tomdemerly.com.

It is an image of fierce defiance frozen in a terrifying moment. A powerful vision of what many people see as the American condition. As I type this, over 15,000 people have shared it from my Facebook page across social media that I can track. As of Monday night, another person shares it every 15 seconds. While I despise the colloquialism “going viral”, there is no doubt something about this image has resonated again and again with the current collective American consciousness.

It is the Taylor Creek Fire “Don’t Tread On Me” photo.

Dustin Davis, 32, of College Place, Washington, shot the photo of a rattlesnake frozen in its fiery death throes on Wednesday, August 8th, 2018 at 12:55 PM local time during the early stages of the Taylor Creek fire in Oregon. Davis was fighting the fire as a member of the 3rd Battalion, 116th Cavalry Regiment of the Oregon National Guard.

Davis told me Monday night in an interview on Facebook Messenger that, “On a mop-up mission my buddy Miles and I stumbled upon that little guy. I knelt down and took the picture with my iPhone. I was very intrigued by the way it had died and was really moved by it.”

 

 “On a mop-up mission my buddy Miles and I stumbled upon that little guy. I knelt down and took the picture with my iPhone. I was very intrigued by the way it had died and really moved by it.”

 

I saw the photo on Dustin’s Instagram page at dndavis0ne and copied it to my Facebook page. I added the observation that Dustin Davis’ remarkable photo of the charred snake looked like the snake depicted on the famous Gadsden Flag with the moniker, “Don’t Tread On Me”. For that reason, the image seemed iconic and metaphoric of our country that feels increasingly divided, increasingly fractured, and trapped in some kind of modern “trial by fire”. Judging by how the image has resonated across social media, I wasn’t the only one who recognized the symbolism of Dustin Davis’ now famous photo and the Gadsden Flag.

Firefighter and photographer Dustin Davis.

Almost as soon as I shared it to my Facebook page, initially without Dustin Davis’ permission, the image started to go viral. When it started to trend, I tried to find the original source I copied it from when Dustin Davis contacted me on Facebook. Given that I had initially taken his photo from Instagram with a screen capture and without asking, Davis was incredibly gracious about letting me continue to use it after I replied to him. He even agreed to this interview late Monday.

The massive Taylor Creek fire, burning now since early August, was started by lightning according to the official information from the U.S. Forest Service in the region. It has burned over 52,000 acres and, as of Monday, August 20, is nearly “79 percent contained” according to the Forest Service. A nearby fire, also started by lightning, the Klondike Fire, covers a staggering 72,074 acres (113 square miles of area) and is now only 28 percent contained. The wildfires burning in the American west now are reported to be the worst in history, a reality that has raised an increasingly divisive debate about everything from forestry and water management to global climate change as the fires continue to burn out west.

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Be careful with Stefano Sollima and Taylor Sheridan’s latest blockbuster, “Sicario: Day of the Soldato”.

It’s sinister, seductive relevance carries a sobering slap-in-the-face wake-up call or toxic political venom. It’s your choice. But either way you lean with the theme, the relevance and mastery of this knock-out sequel make it a rare case of a follow-on achieving everything its predecessor did, and maybe even more.

Chalk it up to timing and headlines, but “Sicario, Day of the Soldato” is laser-guided relevant with weighty themes of Mexican immigration and political subversion. The real-world significance cause the movie to do something few films do now: you actually care about the story.

“Sicario: Day of the Soldato” follows the original 2015 “Sicario” with much of the same cast. Gone are character Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) and Icelandic composer and Oscar winner Jóhann Jóhannsson.

Director Stefano Sollima.

New to “Soldato” are Isabela Reyes (16-year old actress Isabela Moner) and the ominous, throbbing soundtrack strains of Hildur Guðnadóttir (say “GWON-A-doh-ter). Also from Iceland, Guðnadóttir was previously a classical cellist who is relatively new to bigtime soundtracks. This is her break-out moment. The two opening notes from her main theme to the movie are resonant and foreboding. It’s the “Jaws” theme for the Mexican border.

Character Isabela Reyes, a youthful character forced into the story, replaces the role of Kate Mercer from the previous film. In the original “Sicario”, Kate Mercer was symbolic of all of America struggling to understand the drug cartels, immigration issues and complex injustices surrounding the U.S./Mexico border. In “Soldato”, the juvenile Isabella Reyes performs a similar function but from a different perspective. She never had youthful innocence, is resigned to a violent life and is calloused and durable. While Kate Mercer represented the U.S. relationship to the border issues, Isabella Reyes serves as a character metaphor for all of Mexico trying to understand the border crisis, and also falling victim to it.

Young actress Isabela Moner’s masterful portrayal of character Isabela Reyes is the dramatic delivery tool to “Soldato”.

There is a complex lineage to the plot of “Sicario: Day of the Soldato”. The genetics of the story can be traced back directly to master story mechanic Tom Clancy. Clancy’s 2011 book Against All Enemies followed the path of Middle Eastern terrorism to central America and up to the United States across the Mexican border. That theme was also woven into the 2012 film “Act of Valor”. While this theme could have been structural to “Soldato”, it is, in reality, the only accessory to the main plot. The idea of terrorism entering the U.S. through illegal Mexican immigration is presented, and then seemingly abandoned in the film. If “Soldato” has a singular shortcoming, that is it. But this relevant footnote interlocks on the plot fairly smoothly.

An integral part of both “Sicario” and “Sicario: Day of the Soldato” are their remarkable thematic economy. There is no fluff. It’s all meat. As a result of this tight plot and orderly story you can never look away. Every scene matters, every detail engages. While the writing and organization of the theme facilitate this thematic economy, what delivers it is flawless visual production.

The visual experience of “Soldato” is beautifully textured with a subtle hint of well-done graphic novels. Composition of shots provides a true feel for the barren Sonora desert and the southern border region. It conveys something many people in the United States don’t get about the Mexican border issue: this is a different world from the rest of the United States. This writer lived near the Mexico-United States border for nearly three years, crossed the badlands between Arizona and Mexico numerous times and has stood across the wall from Juarez, Mexico. I’ve also lived in the Middle East and travel across North Africa. The border region has more in common with the Middle East and North Africa than it does with anywhere else in the U.S. As a result, most Americans have a tough time putting the border crisis into perspective. “Soldato” provides a visual insight that dramatizes the reality of the Mexico/U.S. border.

There is another brutally relevant gut-punch in “Soldato”. One that is as accurate as it is politically inflammatory. “Sicario: Day of the Soldato” acknowledges the weaponization of illegal immigrants. Whether they are Libyan and Syrian immigrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Malta or Greece, or Mexican immigrants trying to gain entry to the U.S., the exodus of distressed populations has been subversively used by nations to impose discord and hardship on neighboring countries. As the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico has degraded over the border debate, the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S. has, by nearly all accounts, accelerated to a point where the question of what to do with the increasing number of people who cross into the U.S. has become deeply divisive. “Soldato” pulls no punches in editorializing that illegal immigration is being used as a tool by drug cartels and a corrupt government to destabilize the U.S. After the last two weeks of illegal immigration headlines in the U.S. and a couple hours in the theater with “Soldato” this light bulb goes on over your head pretty brightly.

Given all the relevance, economy, visual luxury and masterful execution of “Sicario: Day of the Soldato”, this film gets a spot on the very top shelf of the best dramatic thrillers as sharp as a paper cut from today’s headlines. “Soldato” is a rare sequel masterwork, durable and abundant with visual and thematic relevance.


 

Tom Demerly writes for TheAviationist.com and appears in Business Insider. His articles and editorials are read by millions around the world.

 

 

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com.

There’s no politically correct way to express this, but, yeah… ahhh. I feel a little out of place.

I’m a 56-year old conspicuously Caucasian guy in the crowd-packed center of the massive Mexicantown Cinco de Mayo street celebration late on a hot May afternoon in Detroit.

There’s heavy ganja haze in the air. It’s thick enough for a contact buzz. I’m carrying a huge U.S. flag in my hand, and feeling like I’m not particularly understood or appreciated here. Other than the double file line of about 50 quasi-military, tacticool, mostly white guys and girls with a distinctly law-enforcement look that are behind me, I feel pretty isolated. And pretty conspicuous with my flag and backpack as we navigate the tightly packed downtown party crowd of tens of thousands. There is almost no room on sidewalks, the streets are bumper to bumper and packed with crowds. And smoke.

We’re doing GORUCK Light Detroit 2018.

In the evolution of participation sports GORUCK events have emerged. With approximately 500 events scheduled in 2018, GORUCK challenges are huge now. Today I’m in my first one. I’m wondering if it’s coming slightly off the rails.

GORUCK Light is a team endurance event that includes military style calisthenics, running and a lot of walking or “rucking” between 8 and 12 miles in group formation while you wear a weighted backpack. Think basic military training, then add your new constant companion, a 10- 40-pound weighted backpack that makes everything that would have been easy for a reasonably fit person, a good bit tougher.

GORUCK events are inspired by contingency training for military special operations units.

Jason McCarthy, a fit, chiseled, dark- haired guy with that bolt upright posture that screams former military, founded the GORUCK brand in 2008. There are a lot of remarkable things about GORUCK, but the single most remarkable thing is its growth. In only ten years GORUCK has become huge.

McCarthy founded GORUCK while still in U.S. Army Special Forces and deployed in the Middle East during the Global War on Terror (GWOT). He made an emergency survival and evacuation “Go Bag” backpack for his wife who served in the Foreign Service. If there was a coup d’état, an IED attack, or any other threat in one of the most dangerous places on earth, Jason’s wife Emily could grab her “Go-Ruck” and evacuate with the essentials of food, water, additional clothing and rudimentary survival gear.

GORUCK founder Jason McCarthy (center), a former member of U.S. Army Special Forces.

Without knowing it, McCarthy had conglomerated an idea that had been around for a long time into a saleable brand, then began to parlay that brand into an image, an event and even a lifestyle.

GORUCK could have become just another military backpack brand, and in the wake of the 9/11, there are a lot of them. But Jason McCarthy also built something else along with his simple, sturdy, square, tech-free backpacks. He built a vibe.

The GORUCK vibe is a learned responsibility. It’s isn’t politically yawed, it’s not a “movement”. It’s an insight and acceptance of the real world in accelerated change. A change that in the post-9/11, Arab Spring and polarized U.S. political world can just as easily come off the rails as it can evolve into a new unified world. Either way it goes, the GORUCK ethos is adaptable. And capable.

Most participant endurance sports are compensation. Compensation for a sterile life lived too easily, too slowly, too conveniently. Our culture has become overweight and underprepared. If most Americans got a flat tire in a rural setting and had to walk six miles in hot weather to find a tow truck they would be in deep trouble, especially if their smart phone battery died. GORUCK Light acknowledges that. So, you train for the “real world” and gain some functional fitness and endurance while meeting friends and re-connecting with how to cooperate on a team. GORUCK events are no different in terms of compensating. They offer a “synthetic” or contrived set of discretionary challenges. But much of what you learn and practice at GORUCK is practical, and it may come in handy if you are ever have to walk your way to safety, or even make a connecting flight across the airport after the shuttle has left.

GORUCK Light Detroit on Saturday, May 5, 2018 in Hart Plaza.

In December, 2016 CNN reported that, “Karen Klein, 46, was headed to the Grand Canyon National Park with her husband Eric and their 10-year-old son. State Road 67, which leads to the canyon’s north rim, is closed for the winter and their car’s GPS detoured them through forest service roads.” Klein was stranded in her car and forced to endure a brutal, freezing 26-mile solo hike for 30 hours. CNN reported she, “Subsisted on twigs and drinking her own urine, to get help.”

In December, 2006 Daryl Blake Jane was stranded in snow in his Jeep Cherokee on a remote U.S. Forest Service road west of Mount Adams, Washington. He was forced to survive in his vehicle, in the depth of winter, for nearly two weeks.

In between these instances there have been many more when people had to rely on basic fitness and skills to survive. This isn’t the fringe “prepper” or “survivalist” mindset. This is basic responsibility for your own life and the people around you. GORUCK teaches and tests that responsibility.

Different from the vibe of Ironman triathlons with their finisher photos and individual stories, GORUCK is about the group. It’s about cooperation, teamwork, unity and acceptance. It is about admitting your shortcomings and about doing more than your share while not expecting an extra pat on the back. It’s about carrying someone else’s ruck when the going gets tough, and having them carry yours. Everyone has a bad moment in GORUCK. There are no solo finisher photos in front a branded banner, no medal around your neck. You get a Velcro patch for making it as a team for the hook and loop section of your GORUCK. Every tribe has its icons.

GORUCK events include a community service component where participants have to plan and execute a project that benefits the community. Every participant is required to play a role in the community service project. Our event participants collected food and clothing for homeless people in Detroit and raised cash donations for shelters.

GORUCK events vary in intensity from the GORUCK Light, the easiest and shortest introductory event, to the difficult long distance, non-stop GORUCK events like GORUCK Tough and GORUCK Heavy. GORUCK also provides practical skill training events.

The GORUCK events mesh well with the Crossfit, veteran, law enforcement, emergency services crowd but don’t have an exclusive mindset. This is about teamwork, integration, doing more than your share and accepting help when you inevitably have a weak moment. And everyone has a weak moment sooner or later. But the sum of the parts is greater than the whole, and that is one of the lessons of GORUCK. Two is one, one is none, and synergy gets everyone to the finish as a group. In GORUCK, you are never more than an arm’s length from a teammate. Stray too far, and you are doing another combination of push-ups, bear crawls or eight-count body builders. You don’t even go the bathroom in a GORUCK event by yourself.

We’re through Mexicantown now in full Cinco de Mayo swing. Now we’re making our way at a fast trot along Vernor Highway, underneath the iconic Detroit ruins of the Michigan Central Train Depot. We hump our packs up from underneath the train tracks and through Roosevelt Park where we pose for a group photo. From there it is double-time east on Michigan Ave. as we enter the final miles of the event at a fast clip.

Our team carries a simulated casualty on an improvised litter in the final miles of the event.

But one man goes down from heat, dehydration and the workload of moving fast with a heavy pack. Our “cadre”, the instructor/administrators of a GORUCK event, show us how to rig an expedient casualty litter from an eight-foot section of 1” tubular nylon climbing webbing. In only minutes, we have the “casualty’s” ruck off, I wear it on my chest with my ruck on my back, and we continue east at combat speed on Michigan Ave. You never know the distance or course in GORUCK. We may have another three miles to go, or another five. We may have to climb four parking structures, or one. We may have to cross open waterways (the GORUCK Light event earlier in the day in Detroit was in the Detroit River four times). Not knowing the course or distance is a component of the event.

Finally, we reach Washington Blvd. and take a right, still moving fast, still carrying our “casualty”, a roughly 230-pound lad who is finding out that riding in a field-expedient improvised litter isn’t much more comfortable than humping a 40-pound ruck. Everyone is out of water. There are no aid stations in GORUCK. No support. No mile markers. No course map before the event. Like selection for the most elite special forces units you never know when the instructors will stop the “class”, circle you around, and declare “ENDEX” or “end of exercise”.

The GORUCK baby elephant walk.

One of our scouts veers off into a parking structure two blocks from the Detroit River. It’s dark now and I wasn’t looking forward to figuring out how to move our “casualty”, our rucks and ourselves through the dark water of the Detroit River as the air cools way off. So, I’m glad when our team hits the stairs and begins to run up eight flights to the roof of the parking garage. I’m glad until I realize I am at the front of the group running up flights of stairs wearing two 35 pound rucks. By the fifth floor I am destroyed. Three to go.

At the top of the parking garage our instructors “Wild Will” and “DS”, one a former U.S. Air Force Special Operations Combat Controller, the other a former U.S. Marine Corps Special Operations member, both with combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, circle us around. What now? When does this thing end?

Wild Will unzips one of the team weights we have been carrying over the last 8 or nine miles, a massive and awkward cordura duffel, and produces a can of Dos Equis. We’ve learned a lot today at GORUCK Light Detroit, and perhaps the best lesson is that, whether it is in a big party crowd in Mexicantown on Cinco de Mayo or carrying your new buddy in an improvised litter down Michigan Ave in Detroit, GORUCK Light brings people together. Then we hear those magic words:

“ENDEX! You made it.”

GORUCK Light Detroit 2018 ENDEX, “End of Exercise.

 

 

Author Tom Demerly is a former member of a U.S. Army National Guard Long Range Surveillance Team (LRS) and Company Honor Graduate from the U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia. He has raced endurance events on all seven continents including Antarctica and completed over 200 triathlons including the Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Kona. Hawaii. His articles have been published in Outside, Business Insider,Velo-News, Bicycle Guide, Bicycling, Inside Triathlon, Triathlete, Triathlon Today!, USA Triathlon Magazine and many other publications around the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com (originally published in 2004)

The weather report said the sun would go down today at 7:49 pm. And it did.

Now it is dark.

In the street there is a sporadic, somber procession. It is a black and white picture. There is no color, no pageantry, and no grandeur. The grace is gone and now and it is down to gritty reality.

It is the time of The Strugglers. 11:18 pm, Taupo, New Zealand- the 20th, 2004 Anniversary Bonita Banana Ironman Triathlon.

The Pros are asleep. Their stomachs are full, their muscles are massaged. Their performances are a matter of record now. They are done. Have been for quite some time. They finished in the sunlight in the front of cameras and microphones racing for paychecks and trophies.

It’s easy to understand why they race. They should race. They look like they should. Lithe and toned and buff and tan and serious, the Pros and the other talented athletes reap the generous gift of genetic athletic abundance, meticulous preparation and clear-cut motivation. They are here to kick ass. It doesn’t take a psychologist to decode their motives. They’re athletes, and this is the big show. It’s what they do.

The pros’ time is over. Now it is time for The Strugglers.

There are no levels of performance for The Strugglers. You either are or you aren’t one. If you haven’t finished by now and you’re still out under the lights you are a member of this vaunted fraternity, The Strugglers. Just as the stark street lights leave either harsh illumination or black despair for The Strugglers this is a matter of finish or not finish, victory or defeat, do or die, pride or humiliation, success or failure. It is all the chips on one square, all the cards face up on the table, and all the aces have already been dealt today. The Strugglers play high stakes with a bad hand.

It may never have been pretty for The Strugglers. Most of them may not be athletes in the sense that they spend hours and hours every week training, but they line up nonetheless to do this race. The downtrodden, the meek, the ones with something to prove or something to defeat. Whatever it is they bring it here and beat it into ugly submission over 140.6 miles, each one a full 5,280 feet. The Strugglers earn every inch of every foot of every mile.

In a day so daunting and fearful they line up on the beach as if bravely facing the gallows. A cannon sounds the beginning of their trial and there is little known at the onset about how matters will be resolved, except to say it will be hard and uncomfortable and then downright painful. That may be the most frightening part: The not knowing. Some will find absolution, some will teeter and wobble and fall. There will be polite acknowledgement of their ambition, but ultimately, for The Strugglers the only thing that matters is Finishing. It’s what they’re here for.

So for The Strugglers, this is a huge gamble. Hero or failure. No in between.

And struggle they might, against awful odds and distance and poor conditioning and genetic poverty, but in bravery they are absolutely peerless. Without equal.

The Strugglers know it will not be pretty. They know it is not a sure thing. They do not have the luxury of prediction or past performances or experience. This is not their aptitude. But this is their choice and their bold dream.

Imagine being sent to do something, something beastly difficult. You know in your heart of hearts you are not prepared, maybe not even suited for this. You know the stares of others less brave and more envious fall heavily on your effort. They want The Strugglers to fail. For every Struggler who crosses the finish line it is a failure for those who never dared try. For every Struggler who sadly and reluctantly succumbs to the distance before the finish line and is carried off the course it is a victory for those who never started. They take sick pleasure in that. Shame on them.

Those who never had the courage to try have no right to cast judgment on The Strugglers.

The Pros are comfortable and resting. But the Strugglers have not left their sacred vigil. They soldier on, unswerving in their oath to finish, No Matter What. People marvel at the Pros performance, but I say The Strugglers are the real athletes. Explorers on the terrible frontier of self-doubt, fear and potential embarrassment on a grand scale. They bring less to the start line and they do more. Longer, harder, more painful: It is a different race for The Strugglers.

It is a parade really. A parade of people so brave and tough and fearless that they don’t care if it might not work. They bank on the fact that it could. They don’t back away from the possibility of failure. Imagine their performance as set against the backdrop of the very best in the world and they are not self-conscious about their version of the very same dance. Ask yourself, would you take the stage at the Kennedy Center after Barishnikov or Pavoratti? Are you that brave?

The Strugglers are.

Their performance is tedious and grinding. It is utterly relentless in its duration. The distance, the time, the struggle cannot be compromised. The Strugglers know this, they accept it- embrace it even. And they never succumb. Under the street lights, through the cool air, in filthy clothes streaked with their own discharge of minerals and fluids and sometimes even tears and blood.

The Strugglers do a different kind of race. A harder one. And they are Elite. It takes longer. It is less practiced. It seems to never end, and it does more damage.

Decode their motives if you will. But I decode yours as trying to explain more why you didn’t try than why they are. Instead, I respectfully suggest, salute them. Unless you have walked with The Strugglers until midnight on the Ironman course they stand above you in the athletic arena. Struggle as they may, they mustered the courage to try.

 

 

Tom Demerly has been doing triathlons since 1984, still does them (but slower and fatter now) and just completed the Detroit, Michigan GORUCK Light event. He worked in the triathlon industry since it began, and the bicycle industry from the age of 15, over 40 years. Today he is a correspondent for TheAviationist.com in Rome, Italy.

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

In nature, Winter is death. It arrives with enormity and silently blankets all that is living and vibrant. Entombed under inches of bleak snow, blown by frozen air in stinging particles of diamond ice, it becomes dense silence. All that lives clings to desperate and painful survival.

In winter the contrast of living and dead is greater in a human suburb than anywhere on earth. Mere inches of insulated wall separate comfort from the torturous unrelenting cold and endless strife for survival outside. For the animals that live outside in suburbia, only the distant spring offers respite.

The contrast between feral cats and domestic cats is never greater than in winter. Our domestic cats have heated beds and warm blankets and electronic games and battery powered toys. They live in an artificial climate that rarely varies more than five degrees in temperature and never rains or snows. A feral cat dodges lethal street traffic, avoids dangerous dogs and raccoons and scavenges for varmints and garbage. It sneaks into garages for shelter and never enjoys a warm night living outside in winter. It walks on wet ground and has dense, black fur adapted for outdoor winters that is covered in snow flecks.

Mr. Blackie had disappeared without a trace. No information from neighbors after flyers were passed out. No one at the animal shelter told me he showed up there, unlikely anyway since a feral cat would never wind up in an animal shelter unless trapped. I posted on community message boards, followed up on leads and tips. Nothing. He just vanished. One tip reported an animal body by the side of the road at Ford Road and Telegraph Road. We grimly hurried there, only to find a dead raccoon. No Mr. Blackie.

November, December, January, mid-way through February. Not a trace.

I missed him. That was my mistake. I had gotten emotionally involved and that is always a mistake in dealing with wild things. Mr. Blackie would never be a domestic cat, but I entertained the notion that he and I could sit together on the back porch during the summer, me drinking coffee in the morning before starting work and him lazing on the warm concrete in the sun. Then we would part company and go about our business to repeat our ritual again tomorrow. Unfortunately for me, Mr. Blackie apparently did not share my quant vision. Animals’ priority is survival, and Mr. Blackie’s motives were clear. He was all business.

Mr. Blackie, you may recall, is a member of a feral cat clan that can be traced back forty years in this neighborhood. It is the reason we have no problem with rats here, and the population of squirrels and chipmunks and birds is healthy and held in check. There is a natural food chain, and the North Levagood Feral Clan sits firmly atop that food chain.

Darth Vader’s right ear is permanently bent inward.

Mr. Blackie’s older brother is Darth Vader. He is easy to spot. Darth Vader’s right ear is permanently bent inward at the tip, the result of some kind of altercation with another cat, a raccoon or something else.

While the two are brothers, they are vastly different in personality. While Mr. Blackie is aloof and guarded and entirely wild, Darth Vader is talkative and has a soft side. I have talked to him, he has meowed back in extended conversations. He has sniffed me, I have petted him. The exchanges in physical contact are brief, but the message is clear. Darth Vader knows me, I know him, we are friends and neighbors and we chat over the back fence whenever possible or necessary.

On Friday, February 16, 2018 I was returning from a run. Darth Vader was waiting for me, seated on the next-door neighbor’s front window sill outside. I went inside to get my camera to shoot some portraits of him, having not seen him weeks.

A massive series of snow storms had torn through Dearborn, dumping nearly a foot of total snowfall. Feral cats know to shelter in place during these weather events. It is too difficult and dangerous to travel and there is little food available anyway.

But the sun was out and the snow was well on its way to melting. Darth Vader took this first opportunity to visit the cat village behind our house, check in with our indoor cats through the windows and see if there was a trace of his younger brother, Mr. Blackie.

The two brothers of the northern clan. The missing Mr. Blackie on the left, the more civil Darth Vader on the right.

I asked Darth Vader about Mr. Blackie and his response was as clear and articulate as if he were a human sharing the same language. Darth Vader had not seen Mr. Blackie since fall. He came looking for him, and he was worried about him. While the two cats are not social, they are, in fact, competitive, Darth Vader does maintain his older brother role of at least checking in on Mr. Blackie.

Darth Vader and I chatted for some time. He had not seen Mr. Blackie, was surprised he was gone, knew nothing about his whereabouts, and was concerned. He was pleased to see me, sniffed me and let me pet him. Then, our reunion and business affairs complete, he hopped down from the window sill and sauntered across the street to another one of the houses he frequents on his patrols. While Mr. Blackie is entirely feral in behavior, Darth Vader appears to have mellowed in his age, now acting about… 50% feral. He lets me pet his coarse black fur with flecks of gray. He purrs, he meows. Mr. Blackie never uttered a word to me. Even on that last day. He only communicated with behavior and facial expressions. Never verbally. Darth Vader is significantly more articulate and conversant.

I maintain the feral cat village. Clearing snow, shoveling walkways. Now that the snow is thawing I keep the house dry and check the pressure activated heater. The straw is fresh, the houses are clean. But the village is empty. It is, I will admit, at least disappointing, somedays heartbreaking.

I worry about Mr. Blackie. Every single day I worry about him. I hold out hope that since there is no tangible evidence of demise that he may return. Maybe one early spring day I will look out the window and he will be sitting there, waiting for warm food and a fresh blanket. That our indoor cats will begin meowing and call me over to the window to see him patrolling the perimeter of the house for compliance with his territorial boundaries.

I still have hope.

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