By Christopher Cudworth
In 1975 I was a freshman at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. In stark contrast with admissions practices of today, I had not made my decision to attend Luther until July that summer. My application to Augustana College in Rock Island, IL. had been accepted but came with the proviso that I would start my collegiate career with academic probation. Even at a naive age I was aware that was a slap in the face.
By contrast Luther showed confidence in me, noting the high level of extracurricular activity in high school. They must have forgiven my C average, perhaps at the urging of my potential coach and mentor Kent Finanger.
It all happened so fast between July and August. Suddenly I was on campus early for the cross country season and what an indoctrination to distance running that turned out to be. The team had a full compliment of talented runners already. But the freshman class that year was exceptional. No less than six of us had run sub-15:00 for three miles in high school. Two were All-State runners from Minnesota. Another lived right there in Decorah.
We would all become friends for life. But not without a compelling share of trials, injuries, girlfriends and studies first.
Memories of those first runs at Luther include a six mile run up and over Palisades Park, a set of bluffs overlooking the Upper
Iowa River and downtown Decorah. The run raced along at 6:00 pace from the get-go. By the time we reached Palisades the group had separated into clumps of runners clinging to each other in hopes of sticking out the hills. Up we went. Then up again. The view of Decorah from 150 feet above the valley was stunning. I also recall being faintly dizzy from the exertion, and almost frantic to keep up.
The downhill included a spiral taken at sub-6:00 pace. Then we caught the dirt road heading back toward town and campus. The blue and white shirts everyone wore spoke Luther blue, and it struck me that here I was, a real college runner.
All that new sensation struck me in amazing ways, and in a set of letters back home I tried to process all that was going on. Here in full context is what I wrote that first week of September, 1975:
It’s absolutely beautiful here lately. The weather has not essentially changed (only cooled off) since the first day. There are slow, dew-laden sunrises around 7:00 that seem to start in the west. The sunlight falls on those hills before it gets over the mound in the East. It’s 8:00 Monday morning. Classes are getting on now, and as all these students pile into building they leave puffs of breath in the 45 degree air we have.
I’m feeling good because I’m all over my 2-day flu, the bug that kept me out of the intra-squad. My fever hit 101.0 and my head and glands throbbed–I thought I had Mono. It was agonizing to miss that meet. I’ve been in the Top 5 consistently. I’m going to train again tonight, however.
Classes have been alright. Nothing anywhere near above my head yet. I have read a lot thought, 2 or 3 chapters of several paperbacks. I read–cover to cover–“Louis Agassiz Fuerters, The Singular Beauty of Birds” at the library. Not as good as I would have expected, but nice nevertheless. I’m going to investigate paintings from some stuffed birds in the Bio lab–could be fun.”
Work was a bitch. Sunday I worked 10:30 -1:30, and 4:19 to 7:19. The brunch was easy–tending condiment tables. The night shift I was a dish unloader. Burnt my damn hands! Piles and piles of scalding plates. Mounds of trays. Blecchhh!!
Art class is OK. I sit with Kirsten sometimes, but mostly just any girl I like to watch draw. I’m always done before the others. My hand is freer.
Starlings whistling in the cottonwoods outside Main. I went birding Sunday morn. Palm warblers, goldfinch, chippies, House sparrow, killdeer, crow, water pipit, lark sparrow, ring billed gull, barn swallow, spotty, red head, downy, chestnut sided, nuthatch, grackle, starling, robin, house wren.
Hope you are well and doing fine.
PS: PJ came home last Friday and his roomie had a girl in HIS bed. Paul kicked ‘em out and went to bed. We are thinking of awarding him the Sterling Bedpan Award for Heroic Deeds in Dorms.
PPS: How’s Greg doing in CC? Also, any birds around there?
Have been thinking of making a way home on Thanksgiving. Will probably have a ride back with someone (back here too).
Anyone who has nothing to do, write!”
What a different world it was, away at college, no social media. Not even a long distance phone to use with any regularity. Calling collect was frowned upon. It was just me and my hopes and dreams running in a new land, as it were.
Things haven’t changed for college kids in one significant way. Kids are still trying to find their way in the world. College is still a new experience, full of opportunities, challenges and chances to make bad decisions, or good ones.
And young runners still try to cling to the pace on new roads far away from home.