Sweet Season: Bringing it all home


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Going into the last meet of the 1978 season, we felt as if we were still capable of doing big things at nationals. Our highest team place in our four years at Luther had been eighth place. I don’t even recall where that particular meet was held. What I do recall is that our freshman year national meet was run through the mud in Boston, Massachusetts.

Then came a national meet held in the snow of Cleveland. Both were cold and miserable efforts. Running tights had not yet been invented, so we tried on nylon stockings and even pulled up long john underwear before realized that neither would work. So we took to the snowy golf course in Cleveland bare-legged with the rest of the frozen-thighed masses trudging through snow and mud at the NCAA D3 nationals.

I threw up after the race, and a bit of errant vomit landed on the snow-covered shoe of a competitor. He yelled and punched me in the head. I didn’t really blame him. 

Let it happen

So there wasn’t much glory to build upon going into nationals our senior year. We’d finished only fifth at regionals, yet the season behind us had been so successful that there was a quiet confidence among us still. Coach Finanger built upon this near-term history as our strength and hope. Our daily pre-workout meetings were rich with motivational talks and chalkboard documentation of our training up to that point. It all added up. We were ready to run great if we 1) made it happen and 2) let it happen. 

If that seems contrarian, then you don’t really understand distance running. It takes all sorts of force and work to become a better runner, but then you have to relax. And yes, it’s counterintuitive. But that’s how it works.

On the Friday before nationals we all piled into a fleet of cars to make the drive down to Augustana College in Rock Island. The trip took us about four hours. A bevy of fans and supporters would follow us, including faculty and those that had watched us perform well all year. Our parents would drive in from locations in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. Those states were the bedrock for Luther students.

Considering North Central

The best team in the nation, without a doubt, would be North Central College. Their coach Al Carius would later be named NCAA Coach of the Century for the many national championships his teams racked up in all his years coaching the Cardinals. Their jerseys were vertically striped red and white. You simply could not miss them. The trick was to keep up with them. That was the tough part.* (see notes at bottom

NOrth Central College 1978

The 1978 National championship North Central College CC team

Our Lutheran rival Augustana College was also hoping for a good performance on their home course. They’d beaten us in our own invitational. Their blue and gold jerseys were so familiar from racing them so many times over the years, we almost felt like we were part of the same team. Beyond those known factors, the national meet was a mystery in many ways. It was impossible to know for sure who we’d be up against for some kind of trophy. That was our goal: run our best and bring home some hardware. Somehow. 

Duke rules

The night before the meet, our team gathered at a pizza joint for dinner. Coach didn’t really watch us all that carefully as we dined. That allowed one of our runners, known better by his nickname “Duke,” to order a pitcher of beer.

That wasn’t all that uncommon a sight among most college cross country teams. But this pitcher of beer was intended for one person only: Himself. In fact he dipped his head straight down to the edge of the pitcher, grabbed the handle on one side and took a long swig with his eyes wide in delight. We all laughed. 

We knew from experience over four years of college that Duke knew how to handle his liquor. But we had also been joined at our table by a runner from Central College, the guy that had won our conference meet earlier in the year. Either his coach wasn’t around or he simply wanted company the night before the meet. In any case, we’d forgiven him the bitter speech he’d made in victory after conference. We all wanted him to run well to represent our Iowa schools. He was a generally conservative guy however, and as he watched Duke down that booze his eyes grew wide in wonderment. We all just chuckled under our breath. Luther guys had a reputation for being a bit crazy. This only proved it.  

We all headed back to the hotel. On the way, we wanted to stop and grab ice cream. Coach protested a bit thinking that ice cream might not be the best way to prep for a big meet like nationals, but he relented. 

Ups and downs

The weather had been up and down in temperatures going into mid-November. Snow and slush had struck the Quad-Cities the day before we drove down. We worried a bit that nationals might turn into a reprise of that awful snowy meet back in Cleveland. Instead, the weather warmed and cleared the day before. Any leftover precipitation dried up and the course on Rock Island Arsenal would prove dry and fast.

1978 NCAA SI

Dan Henderson can be seen just off the shoulder of Salazar (T345) in the blue shirt and orange hat of Wheaton College. Henry Rono (349) would fade to near last place.

In fact the course on Credit Island would turn out to be so fast that the runner who went on to win that year, Dan Henderson, took the first mile out in 4:23. That was Division 1 quality running. Sure enough, after easily winning the D3 meet, Henderson was allowed to enter the D1 race two days later.** He ran well enough to place 10th, earning All-American status at two distinct levels of running. Henderson’s time in the D3 8K race was 23:42, so clearly his presence at the D1 race was no fluke.

A D3 ripper

In the Division III race Henderson made the entire field tear through the first two miles. Our original lead runner that season might have enjoyed that early pace given his 4:08 mile speed.  His mid-season injury to his had slowed his training, yet he still ran strong enough at nationals to help lead our team.

The man who emerged to lead our team at nationals that day was good old Duke. Our lead beer drinker and party guy used his 1:54 800-meter speed to get out fast in the first couple miles.  Duke had a constitution as steely as his resolve to help us achieve our goals. He would only miss individual All-American status by a stride or two, and his 8K time in the high 24:00 range would turn out to be one of the best performances by any runner on our squad the entire season. Or any season, for that matter.

Our two freshman also ran superbly. At times I ran next to one or both of them, but with less than a half mile to go I was our fifth man, the last scoring place on our team.

Focus and determination

The course swerved around tall grassy areas alternating with long straightaways. Every runner on the course clung to those tangents trying to take the straightest line between them. A few even cut across the brush edges where the grass brushed their lower legs. I was one of them. 

With a mile to go, something in me dialed into an entirely different kind of focus. Time seemed to slow even as the pace picked up. I felt a tremendous surge of awareness manifesting itself in resolve that I could not allow even a single runner to pass. With 200 meters to go, I took a quick glance around me and sucked in a big breath before starting the kick that would bring me home. I knew that our 1-4 guys were already through the chute. It was up to me to close out the deal. 

My speed increased as I passed one or two guys heading toward the finish. My mind’s picture of those moments recalls the bright light of the November sun as it shone all around us. With five steps to go I watched my own shadow pass ahead of me through the finish line. The race was over. I’d run 25:16 for 8K and placed 62nd place overall. Now we’d all have to wait for the results.


IMG_9876.JPGThe relative quiet following a big running race is still punctuated by the voices of runners recalling their efforts. The shaking of hands with teammates and competitors commences. For all present, it is the inspiring sight of distance runners coursing through the trees and chasing each other back through the colorful chute that is one of the most inspiring visages in all of sports.

It all becomes richer when a national title is on the line. When the running’s over, and the athletes start pulling on sweats to gather near the announcer and hear results, the buzz of voices takes on a different tone. For all those races you’ve run that seemed important, there is only one that really matters in that moment. The one you just ran. 

We stood around as the judges did their work. It took a while, but finally the scores were tallied and checked. Then re-checked. Apparently the results were quite close. Then the announcer started calling out teams that had earned the top ten spots by order of their finish.

As each college was announced, we all became a bit anxious. By the time the sixth and fifth place teams were announced, our hands were clenched in wonder over whether we’d placed in the Top Ten at all. For a few moments, our hopes truly wavered. After all, we’d been fifth in our own regional. Why did we think we could leapfrog over teams that had beaten us just two weeks before in Pella, Iowa? It all felt surreal. 

Top tier

Finally the fourth Place was named at 159 points. Then came St. Thomas at 152 points. We’d beaten them earlier that season at the St. Olaf Invite. So we whispered, “They sure had a good day.” 

Then the announcer said over the loudspeaker, “And in Second Place, with 151 points….Luther College!”

We’d done it. Second place in the nation. By only one point. Second in the nation after placing only fifth in our regional meet. We erupted in cheers and admittedly behaved as if we’d won the whole damned thing. North Central College had finished with 60 points to win the national meet by more than 90 points. We didn’t care. They were in a league of their own. We’d done what we came to do. Take home some hardware. 


IMG_9877.JPGAdmittedly, we were shocked. Yet we were also joyous that after three years of ups and downs, injuries and disappointments, we’d finally made good on our potential. In my case it came on the heels of the previous year’s cross country season when I’d been wracked by my first real encounter with depression. To come out of that dark period and help lead the team truly made it a sweet season.

Now grant you: what we accomplished didn’t really constitute a miracle. It surely didn’t mean much in context with the rest of the world’s problems, or even our own. Perhaps winning it all might have qualified as a miracle. And to that end, a Luther College team would win the national title in 1985. I was out in the work world by then and heard tales of how that group of guys had overcome heat and humidity down south to win Luther’s first-ever national cross country championship.

A co-worker at my office happened to visit Luther College that year with his daughter, and he kindly bought me a tee shirt with the national championship logo featured on the front. I hated my job at that time, and in some ways that vicarious “victory” provided both the inspiration and motivation to move on. 

A crazy ride into the sweet season

It had all been a somewhat a crazy ride, those four years at Luther. Twenty years later I visited campus for a college reunion and used our old cross country locker room to change before going out on a run. To my surprise, the athletic tape that was stuck above our lockers in 1978 was still there. It bore our names in black magic marker. Elly. Duke. Cud. Moon. Dani. A year or so later that locker room was remodeled and the names finally disappeared. But the magic marker legacy had held on for many years. Perhaps it actually all meant something. 

IMG_9855.JPGAll those miles. All those laughs. All the joking around about topics ranging from sex to beer and classes. All those cold runs in the rain and double workouts in the heat. It had all led to something in the end. But most importantly, it also meant that everyone counted. Every last guy who pushed in those workouts or had led us in previous seasons. They contributed in many ways. So did the guys who came before us and the guys and gals who would follow. Luther’s women’s program that had started during our freshman year blossomed and turned out national champions as well. We hadn’t done any of it conventionally or predictably. Some of it we even did wrong. But we did it. That’s the thing…

To mom

Following that nationals race I noticed my folks standing away from our group with the other parents. All were smiling of course. I walked over and hugged my little mother, who stood just 5’3”. She’d given birth to four tall, athletic boys and one girl who did not survive after childbirth. My mother attended so many baseball games, track meets, soccer matches, basketball games, cross country races and other sports activities there should have been a Hall of Fame display in her honor at our humble home. But what she got from me that day was a hug that told her thank you. That was mostly what she wanted from her boys. Hugs.

To dad

Then I turned to my father, who’d been the one that pushed me into cross country my freshman year in high school. That wasn’t my first plan. I’d won the local Punt, Pass and Kick competition in the little town of Elburn, Illinois and advanced to districts. I thought I was hot stuff and a football prospect, maybe even quarterback.

Yet with all of his boys, my dad didn’t like the prospect of what football could do to our bodies. His best friend from college was wracked with the effects of football injuries as he’d gotten older. Thus my dad took me to the high school and said, “You’re going out for cross country. And if you come back out of that locker room, I’ll break your neck.”

That is the way my running career actually began. When you take a look at the physique of my body in the photo below, you can see why football was probably a bad idea. But running was perfect. Plus it provided a release for the anxieties and depression that would someday vex my mind. 


1972 at Kaneland High School.

I was a cross country runner from that point on. I made the Varsity as a freshman, led the team in the points category my sophomore year and then shuddered with disbelief in the middle of 10th grade when my dad moved our family twelve miles east from Kaneland High School to attend a bigger school in St. Charles.

Two decades later when I got around to asking my father why we moved, I inquired whether it was the gas shortage or an attempt to shorten my mother’s commute to her teaching job in St. Charles that were the reasons for our move. “No,” my dad replied. “I didn’t want your younger brother to play basketball in that slowdown offense out at Kaneland.”

“What about me?” I responded incredulously. “I was class president and the top runner in cross country!”

“I knew you were a social kid,” he stated in a matter-of-fact way. “I knew you’d survive.”

My brother went on to earn a full-ride basketball scholarship at a Division 1 school at Kent State University. So my dad made good decisions despite some of the pain it caused me.


IMG_9898.JPGIn St. Charles, I led that cross country team to a district title and began attracting attention from small college coaches. I received a recruitment letter from North Central’s now-famous coach Al Carius. But my interest in attending North Central was low because of a strange experience on their campus my junior year in high school. A district cross country meet was held on their campus, and I had to hit the bathroom before the race started. Thus I headed into the dusty old field house to find a single toilet perched in the middle of the floor. A long line of guys was waiting as another runner did his business in full view of the crowd. I thought to myself, “I am never going to college here.”

It wasn’t long after that when North Central began upgrading its facilities, which are now world-class. But I also knew little about their program, and the things that Carius was doing terms of pulling great performances out of kids with humble resumes from high school. Many were the distance guys who entered North Central with two mile times well over 10:00 who went on to run under 9:00 when trained by Al. So if there were an alternative universe, it would have been fun to race there as well. I came to know many of their runners while competing in the Chicago area following in college. I even set my 5K PR of 14:47 on the North Central track at midnight during an All-Comers meet in May of 1984. So many times we find out that our key rivals in life are the people we most need to advance. 

With all due respect

All that context was due to my dad making a good decision for me to send me out for cross country. He was also the one that ultimately encouraged me to attend Luther College. We drove up to campus in June or July the summer of 1975. I’d already applied and was accepted to Augustana College where I expected to run for their coach Paul Olson, another coaching legend in D3. He was a Luther grad and only recently retired after fifty years coaching track and cross country. But at that time, Augie was going to put me on academic probation because my grades were not that stellar in high school. My ACT scores were good but I was definitely a distracted underachiever as a student.

Luther brushed that all aside and looked at the overall perspective of my student activities as well as grades. They saw potential, and I wound up having a B average during college. But that summer as my dad and I drove six hours through Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa to arrive in Decorah. He told me, “Chris, this is the perfect place for your birding and painting. You should go here.”

And my dad was right again.

Becoming a Norseman, for better or worse

Luther College Me in Norse Shirt

Second from front left in that awful hat, and that hair.

So I asked for my application fee back from Augie, and for some reason they sent it. Then I committed to Luther only a few weeks before practice started in August. That was why I thanked my father with a big hug after that national meet. We’d had our many difference through my teen years, but I told him with all sincerity in that moment, “I love you dad.” He’d certainly been through some dark and weird phases of his own while bringing us up. He was not always a gentle man. But I really meant it when I told him that I loved him. Later in his life I’d become his principle caregiver, and that was difficult at times. But love got us through.

The Big Production

A week or two after the cross country triumph at nationals, my college girlfriend performed in the production of Godspell she’d been working with the drama team all fall. I wasn’t that big a fan of the tunes in that musical, but I’d gotten used to them as she sang now and then with her lovely voice. We’d started to hang around with her theater friends as well. Some were gay and one or two were flamboyantly so.

Sometimes my teammates would make jokes about those people as they passed through the Luther cafeteria. By then I knew them well enough to speak up in defense, making small comments such as “He’s smart,” or “He’s cool.” I took some flack for that, and recall bristling aloud one night when someone mumbled an insult about one of the theater guy’s masculinity. I actually knew him to be a strong person and one who helped guide the production at many levels.

Yes, those were certainly different times when it came to how people viewed homosexuality. As a Resident Assistant in the dorms there were several occasions when my job was to defend their rights on campus. It wasn’t always easy. My own impressions of what it meant to be gay, in modern nomenclature, were changing through contact with my girlfriend’s associates. And truth be told, I liked them all. 

My own progeny

When my own son came out during his freshman year in college, I could see the relief and joy in his embracing his real and honest identify. When my late wife asked my daughter what she thought about her brother’s sexual orientation, she immediately replied, “I think we both like good-looking guys.”

And to me, that insight is the true definition of godspell as it relates to our earthly existence. Acceptance, love and tolerance trumps all notions of law and especially interpretations of scripture that are used to discriminate, drive hate and produce cultural acrimony. It would still be a journey for me from the fears so often promulgated in the 1970s (and before) to the present day celebration of gay rights and identity, but it was a start.

And for that I credit that college girlfriend, for she was an astute observer of other people. She was also a religious person in a deeply curious way, a student of Judaism, a religion whose matter-of-fact worldview she admired. She and I went separate ways after two years of dating, but I’d recall her compassion several years after I married the woman to whom I be betrothed for 28 years before she died of cancer. My mother-in-law traveled to Israel and converted, for a while, to Judaism, attending synagogue rather than church. Eventually she came to believe so deeply in God the choice of her religion did not matter. She had transcended even the designations and denominations that rule so much of the world. My other mother was a Unitarian as well. These were smart women.

Early enlightenment 

My own faith was re-emerging during college, and to my surprise the lyrics of the songs in the Godspell production tore into the fabric of blind perception. They suddenly appealed to me, including this set of lines:

Man is a complex of patterns, of processes…
I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am.
I know that I am not a category
I am not a thing – a noun
I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process-
An integral function of the universe.
Those lyrics were drawn from the philosophy of Buckminster Fuller, the inventor whose
patent statement about life’s meaning would resonate with me even deeper when I read these words of his in an interview years later:

“You do not belong to you. You belong to the Universe.”

IMG_9881The Godspell play went well for my gal, and despite our ups and downs during that sweet season, we each pushed the other to do our best in our individual pursuits.

She sang and danced with passion with the ensemble that was well-rehearsed and talented. Unfortunately, one of the main singers got off to a bad start and wound up singing flat the entire show. It was evident even to those of us without musical training that something was “off” the whole performance. That was ironic, because Luther is quite famous for its musical talent. Thus I wondered how that person got so far through rehearsals without someone calling them out for off-tune singing.

My girlfriend defended them, remarking: “They were never flat before. I don’t know what happened. Maybe it was nerves.” She was miffed, but there was nothing anyone could do about it. The show was over. That challenge drew enormous empathy from me. I’d seen plenty of “flat” performances on my own and among other runners over the years. When you’re putting yourself out there, a bad day can come along at the worst time. There’s not much you can do about it but survive.

Let bygones be bygones

I often thought of those moments as a symbol for what would happen with our relationship as well. Her parents held a dim view of my future as a businessman and campaigned behind the scenes to cut me loose. In any case, she had met a guy up in Minneapolis where she was living while I was back in Chicago. Thus we decided to split with a romantic weekend together in Minneapolis. We sat by one of the lakes watching lightning play about in huge thunderheads as the fireworks burst into bright colors in the foreground. We both cried and made love one more time before I turned around and went home.

She would indeed marry and have four daughters. We both knew it was goodbye that July 4th in 1980. Yet years later the daughter of a close friend would come home from a Norwegian camp she attended in Minnesota each year to share a fact with her parents (also Luther grads) that surprised us all. It turned out that the gal with whom she’d been close friends in camp for four years was actually the daughter of the woman I’d dated in college. The subject of Luther College had come up, and my friend’s daughter exclaimed “Oh my God!” when she heard her friend tell her that her mother had dated some guy named Chris Cudworth in college.

I’ve always thought that was a remarkable circumstance. Our connections in this world never really cease to be.

We can all relate

That is the allegory for life that I drew from that sweet season. Performing your best isn’t just about running fast, or being perfect in some way. It’s about the connections you make, and realizing that not everything you do is going to be all sweetness and joy along the way. There will be heartaches, as I learned many times. And fears, as we all learned when injury struck us all in the middle of the season.

There are certainly greater triumphs than the accomplishment our little college cross country team was able to achieve. But that’s not really the point of any of this. Because it’s not how your triumphs compare to others, but how we all learn and grow to appreciate the triumphs of others. That is what makes all of life a sweet season.


Note: *The description below is taken from the website of North Central College. It describes the 1978 North Central College victory : 
The Cardinals of North Central College have captured their third NCAA Division III national title in the past four years.
Led by four individual All-Americans, North Central compiled a record -low 60 points over the flat, five-mile course on Credit Island in Davenport, Iowa. The team easily outdistanced runner-up Luther College of Decorah, Iowa, which compiled 151 points. The college of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minn., (152); Humboldt State University, Arcata, Calif., (158); and St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn., (209) rounded out the top five teams.
Two-time All American sophomore Jeff Milliman of Port Charlotte, Fla., led the Cardinals with a third-place finish in a time of 24:17. Junior captain Steve Jawor (8th) 24:25, junior Jim Nichols (15th) 24:33 and sophomore Dan Skarda (21st) 24:42 also gained individual All-American status.
Senior Rich Scott (50th) 25:10, sophomore Pete Ffitch (57th) 25:14 and sophomore Keith Zobrist (92nd) 25:32 were North Central’s other three runners in this fall’s national competition.
Since the NCAA adopted its present three-division format in 1973, the North Central squad, under Coach Al Carius, has never finished lower than third in the nationals.
**After our own national meet, our team drove to watch the D1 meet held at the course in Madison, Wisconsin. Anticipation was high that Henry Rono of Kenya, a world-record setter at multiple distances, would take the victory. He was one of many Africans who ran for Washington State University in that era. But more snow fell in the Upper Midwest that weekend and Rono looked cold and miserable. He ultimately jogged in nearly in last place in the race won by Alberto Salazar. It was all part of thrilling era to be a distance runner at the collegiate level. 
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A real gorilla in the pool

Gorilla-Banana-300x168.jpgLast week I speculated on what a swim lesson on Saturday would produce in terms of guidance and advice. Knowing how ineffectual my freestyle swim kick could be, I expected to be told to kick harder.

Well, it turned out I was wrong about that. One of the first things the swim instructor told me, illustrated by the video he shot on his phone, is that my swim kick was actually far worse than even I imagined. In fact, it was so badly executed that one of the first pieces of advice he doled out was dry and to the point.

Stop kicking,” he advised. “It’s throwing off your whole stroke.”

Then he added another challenge to my rapidly withering self-concept. “You’re basically swimming with one arm,” he pointed out. “That left arm is not doing much for you.”

Even without an underwater camera, I could see from the video that he was right. My right arm was pulling straight and true. My left arm was like a bass caught on a fishing line, jerking around like it had a hook in its mouth.

gorilla-eating-banana.jpgI wasn’t depressed by all this. I welcomed the advice even if it was…a bit depressing. The swim coach gave me some instructions and it all began with this: “Breathe every fourth stroke, not every stroke.”


Suddenly I was like a gorilla with a singular mission. But you’ll see what I mean in a minute.

See, I’ve actually been experimenting with breathing every few strokes. My form feels better when I do that. But here was the real revelation. With fewer head turns my stroke count dropped from 25 to 23. I was swimming ever so slightly more efficiently that way.

Head games

It makes total sense. It turns out you don’t need to breathe every stroke. My longheld impression was entirely the opposite. I was afraid to breathe less often because when I started out swimming a few years ago, I’d run out of breath even to the point of panicking in the middle of the pool.

Those sensations are gone now. I can swim half a mile and more continuously despite the flaws in my form. But I’m also working against myself in many respects. The swim coach was pointing out the key problems. I surely welcome that.

gorilla-carrots_676858n.jpgHe stuck a band around my ankles and a pool float between my legs. That forced me into engaging some upper body efficiency.

I tried keeping my left arm in better alignment rather than crossing it under my body like a broken stick. Then he had me ‘finger drag’ the tips of my digits across the water to keep me from swimming, and these were his very words, “like a gorilla.”

Oh man, that’s harsh. But I knew what he meant. I’d been studying world-class swimmers on TV and noticed how they swam with sort of a double-timed hitch their strokes. “That’s a gallop stroke,” he explained to me. “You are so far from that you should not even think about it.”

That’s some gorilla logic right there.

Getting the visuals

But my point was not that I was going to try to gallop stroke.  My sharing that observation was to point out that I got the ‘visual’ on what he was trying to help me do. Swim more ‘up front’ than leaving it all behind. Like a gorilla.

The problem with all the kicking on my part was also something more than physical. Swimming requires that you do a number of things all at one time. Like that gorilla trying to hold all those carrots in the photo above, overloading the mind leads to confusion. Eliminating one of those “things” allows you to simplify and concentrate on the rest of the stroke. That’s something I have been doing with a pool float to focus on the “front end” of my stroke. Truth be told, there are a few things that I’ve been doing better in the pool than I likely demonstrated in the swim lesson. So I feel like genuine progress is within reach.

That means the work ahead will be fruitful I’m sure. There’s nothing like a lesson to fix some flaws. There will be more to come, I’m sure. But until then I’m going to make sure I eat alternation hands while eating my bananas. To avoid the gorilla thing, you know.


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A half-marathon that was half and half


The Wisconsin State Capitol building juts out of my head in the frosty wake of a half marathon

Let’s begin with what will seem to many people like a bit of a weird confession. The last time I raced a half-marathon was in 1985. Even that fact requires a bit of revisionist history because that half marathon was part of a full marathon that I attempted to run at the Twin-Cities Marathon in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The temps were in the low 30s and I only wore a tee shirt and racing singlet. The winds off the lake froze me until my tongue turned blue and I pulled out after sixteen miles suffering hypothermia.

IMG_3427Up to that point, I was running with a group that included Olympic fourth-place finisher Don Kardong and a gaggle of fellow sub-elite runners trying to average 5:20 pace for the entire distance. Kardong was cracking jokes along the way and the miles clicked past quite amiably.

Half PRs

The year before I’d run a half marathon in 1:10:58 as part of a yearlong competitive schedule that included a PR 31:10 10K in June and a PR 10-mile race of 53:30 in July. That fall, I was not planning to run a marathon or even a half-marathon because that’s not typically what we did with our fitness. As an athlete sponsored by a running store, it was my job to go out and race a bunch of 10Ks and 5Ks wearing the singlet and shorts of Running Unlimited.

I did, however, wind up racing an “accidental” 25K (15.5 miles) on a September weekend when I did not expect to be racing at all. That week in training I ran a 15 miler run hard on Thursday, a brisk 10 miler (62:00) on Friday and an easy 10-miler on Saturday. That Sunday I was scheduled to be the race escort for none other than Bill Rodgers, the era’s most-famous marathoner.

Jump right in

Long story short: Bill Rodgers decided not to run. He offered me his race number instead. I jumped into the race and ran a 1:25 25K, finishing third overall. That’s about 5:20 pace if my math is correct.  Thus I likely ran a 1:09 half marathon day, which would be my PR.

I’ll admit that I wish I’d have actually raced a marathon that weekend. Clearly, my distance fitness was primed for a good performance, having run fifty miles, much of it hard, in just four days. But there weren’t that many marathons available in those days. Even half-marathons were relatively rare. And 25k? What the hell was that about anyway?

A long time coming

IMG_0706So yes, it’s been a long, long time since I raced a half-marathon. Truth be told, I essentially ceased doing relatively long runs somewhere in the early 90s. The most I ever did was ten miles. There was no need. I wasn’t racing much and had essentially retired from competitive running to invest time as a dad.


That brings us to 2018. I started running a bit longer again when I met my wife Suzanne through FitnessSingles.com. However, my body’s not what it once was. All those miles in the early years of distance running do have a bit of wear and tear effect on the body. More than a few of my peers from those days don’t run at all. Either their knees or hips or Achilles no longer work or they’re frankly just sick of it. There are certainly noble exceptions, such as my former Luther College teammate Dan Johnson who just ran a Minnesota state record for 60+ runners at 1:26. That’s fast.

But for many of us, the body just won’t cooperate. Still, others can’t stand the idea of running so slowly compared to their peak efforts. That does bug me too. I was a running snob during my competitive years. If a runner beat me who didn’t look like they were capable for one reason or another, I was deeply offended. It drove me to train even harder. I don’t have the luxury of running away from anyone these days. It’s been good for the spirit to have to swallow some pride and just be a regular old runner. I’m a middle of the packer now.

Race results

I went out this weekend in 7:49 on a downhill first mile and then held 8:00 pace on average through five miles. Then we hit some hills and I dropped to an 8:30. All the way through nine miles I was doing quite well, not super fatigued or feeling pressed in any way. I’ve trained enough intervals at sub-8:00 pace to race for quite a while.

But I knew from our long runs together with Sue that somewhere after eight miles there would be problems with hip tightness. I was just hoping to run as long as I could before it hit. I’m apparently weak in the hips and when they fatigue it strikes like a slow-moving shot to the pelvis right where my butt cheeks converge on the outside of the pelvic bones. It hurts, and my stride has to shut down.

IMG_0709The front of my hips are weak too. All that sitting at work doesn’t help. So I’ve been using a stretchy band to fix the problem, and frankly, that’s why I think I was able to run through seven miles all the way to nine miles without the hips cramping up. So there’s progress, because typically I’m starting to tighten up even at six miles in races.

So by nine miles I was half hoping I’d get away with it this time. But… not so fast. On a flat section of road going past one of the lakes, I felt a twinge, then another, as my hips started to cramp. From then on, it was not the prettiest scene on earth.

By any other name

From then on it was a “race” only by name. I lamented watching the pace group for 1:50 pass me at just past 10 or 11 miles, because that was my goal. But that shows how much I slowed down the last few miles. Truly I just shambled home. Several times I stopped to stretch and even laid down to do so. My Strava showed 2:04 in total time, a stat confirmed by my watch. The revealing stat on Strava was the 2:01 “moving time.”  That was how fast I actually “ran” the distance.

Sixty+ and feeling it? 

So I technically “ran” a little faster than the final time showed. I was set to average between 8:00 and 8:20 for the whole distance and that’s alright for a sixty+ runner with tens of thousands of miles on his body.

In other words, I’ll take my half-and-half half-marathon effort and the finisher’s medal that came with it. I guess the two leaders finished within a second of each other in the low 1:08 category, so I’d have not won the race even if I was a young buck. There’s always someone faster than you on any given day and all that it means for me these days is that there are more of them, and more power to that. I share the road with all of humanity it seems these days, and that’s not half-bad.

Posted in 10K, 13.1, half marathon, marathon, marathon training, we run and ride, We Run and Ride Every Day | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kick you fool

Scuby toyThis weekend we’re heading up to Madison, Wisconsin to do the half-marathon. I’m simply hoping my tight old hips hold up all thirteen miles, but I’ll take what I can get.

On Saturday, both Sue and I are having swim stroke assessments done by her coach, Steve Brandes. I know there are plenty of things to improve in my technique. Those revelations won’t be a surprise. But I’m also betting he’ll have three words to say to me:

Kick, you fool!

My kick leaves so much to be desired it would take a quart of Viagra to overcome its impotence. When I use a kick board, I get about halfway across the pool and sort of stall, like a dying sunfish. You know that look, don’t you? It’s the look that says “I can’t go any further right now unless you push me.”

I should actually be much more inspired to kick after watching an entire hour of Olympic swimming the other night. The show featured clips from the 2012 Olympics. Michael Phelps and all his rivals tore through the pool like sharks attacking a freezer of Omaha Steaks dumped overboard by a yacht. And they kicked like crazy.

They kick so strong that when you see those swimmers from underwater they don’t even look like real human beings. I once owned a plastic wind-up diver toy much like the one in the photo at the top of this blog. He was a grey little object with legs that flipped up and down. That system propelled him along if you turned that little knob around enough to crank up his gears.

So I’m thinking of having a knob installed on my side so that before I go swimming, I can ask Sue to wind me up and set me in the water. kickkickkickkickkickkickkickkickkick

Life Brandes

Coach Brandes shows how it’s done as he walks through the water at the Steelhead Half Ironman

Perhaps Coach Brandes will have a better idea how to improve my lax kicking technique. I know that I tend to kick in intervals, as if the power in my body were shutting on and off. I’m like a hybrid vehicle at a stop sign. Power down. Power back up.

Part of me wonders if my brain simply can’t handle all the instructions it’s being asked to follow.  One of the challenges for people with certain types of hearing loss is to pick up conversations in a crowd. That’s how my brain feels when I tell my body to do all the things it takes to swim.  Rotate, breath in, do a clean catch, breathe out through the nose, complete a long pull, lift the elbows and then kick all at the same time. My brain just takes what it wants from all those instructions and jettisons the rest like unwanted cargo on a pirate ship being chased by a Spanish galleon. You can see an oil slick of unheeded thoughts on the surface of every lane I swim. vintage-1960-flippy-scuba-diver-toy_1_5ff30398662847288c5cb12ee3fbf0f2.jpg

But hey, I’ve improved. So I’ll give myself credit for persistence in the face of hydro-resistance.

So I’ll be interested to see what Coach Steve can do for me. Perhaps it’s nothing much. Perhaps it will be Steve just standing by the pool repeating those three words, “Kick, you fool,” while possibly using a cattle prod to electrify the water and give me the motivation to make things happen.

Posted in half marathon, running, swimming, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sweet season: A simple matter of focus and effort

This is the sixth in a series of articles about the Sweet Season of 1978, my college senior year when our Luther College team placed second in the nation in NCAA Division III cross country. To follow the chronological narrative in full, please begin in order by volume. 

Volume one •  Volume two •  Volume three • Volume Four • Volume five 

Volume six 


cudrunAfter the big invitational win at St. Olaf, where our team rose to victory despite the continuing injury that had slowed our top man, it was time to regather. Now our goals were pointed toward qualifying for nationals and then seeking a win in the IIAC conference meet. For years we’d been a relative lock to win the conference, but in the back of our minds was the knowledge that our key rival Central College was a much-improved team and was now possibly capable of challenging us.

But first, we had an important task to accomplish at the District V qualifying meet on Central’s course down in Pella, Iowa. Some on our team were feeling the wear and tear of the season, and on the first Monday after the St. Olaf meet, our coach heard one of our team members speculate that maybe we were “burnt out.”

Silent running

Nothing sets a coach on edge like overhearing negative thinking stated out loud. That was particularly with our coach Kent Finanger, And so, in practice that evening, he gave us instructions to run seven miles at 6:00 pace with no talking.

Not a peep, he warned us.

And so it was that we set out running an no one dared say a word the entire run. Not a whisper. All we did was run. Every footstep was audible as ran at a hard clip on the gravel roads that passed under tall limestone bluffs, a route we called Under Phelps-Ice Cave. Our movements echoed all around us, and the breathing of the entire team sounded like a rush of wind or the ghosts of Luther runners past. It gave us a strange sense of being watched the whole way. We arrived back on campus amazed at the effect it had on all of us. Everyone spoke with a certain reverence from then on.

Serious stuff

The next day, Coach Kent Finanger pulled us all into the pre-run meeting. As with every practice, he started with a pep talk. But this one was different. He had been so disturbed by someone’s mention of being “burned out” that he’d gotten on the phone the evening before to talk to some of the leading run coaches in the nation.

He called Ted Haydon at the University of Chicago. He called Dan McClimon, coach at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Badgers. This was serious stuff. We all knew the names of those coaches. They’d worked with some of the leading athletes in the world. 

Coach Finanger had written the names of those big name coaches on the blackboard. He’d quoted portions of their conversations and wrote them on the board as inspirational quotes in his distinctive writing. You’d have needed to be dead in your chair not to be inspired by the words he wrote and the way that he extrapolated inspiration from those conversations. 

He revealed each quote with a dramatic flair by slowly raising the projector screen that had been covering the blackboard.  Each new quote shared “news” about our potential and capabilities. Central to all these was the message that we were not  “burned out.” Instead, we on the brink of a major achievement in the history of Luther cross country.

I’d never seen our coach so fired up in all four years of competing for him.

Speed work

That night we did speed work and the focus of the team was incredible. When we showed up for the next night’s practice, coach handed us all inspirational tee shirts. He did the same thing with new shirts the next night, and the night after that as well. All that week there were urgent, inspiring motivational talks and tee shirts to affirm the themes he was communicating. If we had not felt like part of a team before those moments, we certainly did by the end of the week. It was time, he was telling us, to get serious about advancing to nationals and frankly, fulfilling our destiny as a program.

Because the truth of the matter is that at some point you only have one chance left. 

Wow! Fun! Wow!

LIke A September Day 1976.pngCoach Finanger was simply not allowing us to crumble into an attitude of defeat. Not after the success that we’d already accomplished that season. Certainly, we’d suffered injuries to some of our top guys that took them out of their rhythm, but Coach Kent was standing by the “Wow! Fun! Wow!” philosophy that he always embraced, without exception, on belief that it was joy in the process that drove the best efforts of everyone. Thus he emphasized positivity. This was true for running and as a holistic perspective in life.

Luther Women.jpg

Perhaps that phrase sounds trite and cliche to outsiders. But it was part of the culture that Coach Kent created and conducted with such commitment that we’d learned not to doubt its power. We’d seen the force of his vision come to fruition when he started the women’s cross country program our first year as freshmen at Luther. Within ten years the seeds of that vision would produce a national women’s champion in the likes of Tureena Johnson, a Honda All American athlete. All because Coach Kent believed in fitness for everyone. 

Thus we embraced his words and what we might call an attitude of ‘serious fun.’  He wanted his “horses” (as he called us) to understand something more as well. We were all part of something special going on.

Regional squeaker

The weekend that we raced in the regional meet were a bit deflating, as we finished in the last qualifying spot, fifth place. It was a squeaker for the Luther cross country team.  Still, we’d earned the right to advance to the national meet being held in Rock Island, Illinois in the fall of 1978. That was all that counted.

Luther Runners.jpg

A painting I did of the five Luther runners who led the program from 1975-1978

The meet was also bittersweet in another respect as well. One of our lead runners that had been conference champion the previous year was finally progressing from the limiting back injury that had kept him down all season. He lined up to run the race after two months of trying to return to form. His back problems had reduced both the volume and speed of his training during those 10 weeks of the cross country season. It was an enormously frustrating journey. Yet he kept on trying.

Team sentiment ran strong for him to rebound because he was a native of Decorah, the town in which Luther College is located. He’d literally grown up across the street from our coach. And when he was on form (see him leading five Luther runners in the black and white photo above and at left in the painting) he was a joy to watch. He seemed to fly across the ground. Thus we all quietly hoped he could run well enough to make the team for nationals. For all we knew, he might pull off some kind of miracle. Ultimately, he ran decently enough, and bravely to be sure. He simply did not have enough fitness stored up to crack our Top 7 for the national team.

Watching him go through the pain of that season our senior year in college was a sobering experience. It made me realize how tenuous it all was, every bit of it. Heading into the last few weeks of the season, I wrote in my running journal: “These next two weeks with take some thoughtful dedication. A long list of things will be done, and they should and will be done right. Be calm. Be proud. Be prepared. Be understanding. Be strong. Be yourself.”

Parallel lives

Chris and Linda Cycling.jpgLater in life, that lead distance runner and I would share a painful parallel. We had been roommates together our freshman year in college. I’d grown to love his sharp wit and often sardonic worldview. I’d also gotten to know his sweet girlfriend Kristi, the gal he’d dated since their sophomore year in high school.

They got married after college and his wife turned into a really good marathoner. She was both pretty and health conscious. Ultimately they had three children of their own, some of whom turned out to be runners as well. 

Then in a shocking diagnosis during her early 50s, Kristi learned she had ovarian cancer. That diagnosis occurred at the same time that my own wife was going through treatment for the same disease. While they were both going through treatment, our wives would meet at our college reunions and have quiet conversations about their respective struggles and the fear that cancer always engenders.

It was a strange thing that two college teammates should lose their wives to the same disease on the random fates that so frequently vex human existence. 


But in 1978 I was still trying to figure out whether my relationship with that college girlfriend would turn into something long-term. We ran together some, but she also smoked cigarettes. A few times we’d out jogging and she’d get a sidestitch during the run. I always figured the smoking caused that.

But I can’t claim that the taste of menthol in our mouth was not a stimulant for me at times. We’d become so close that our entire existence seemed intertwined. It was limb to limb and lip to lip for us, and as the sweet season progressed she would be there for me on many fronts. It seemed she needed me as much as I needed her. In that season, that was all that I wanted or could comprehend. So I had that love relationship as well as a commitment to our team, the coach and the idea that we all had something yet to accomplish.

Ups and downs

IMG_9867The next hurdle would be a lumpy one, for our conference meet was being held on a monstrously hilly course set on the Mississippi River bluffs of Dubuque, Iowa. I knew the layout would not suit my strengths. I typically ran best by getting into a groove and holding or building on the pace. As a taller runner, I’d needed to learn better how to run hills. That took place in all the training we did on the hilly terrain around Decorah. So I didn’t fear hills, but the Dubuque course was almost an absurd exercise in that respect. It had almost no flat surfaces at all. During the course tour, we all discussed strategy. I solemnly determined that it would be best for me to distribute the fitness I had across the entire span of the race rather than try to prove anything too big in the early going.

Holding my own

I finished 8th overall in the conference, one place better than the position I’d earned as a freshman cross country runner. We had put all seven of our men in the top 10 places that first season. As a senior, I was happy to have held my own on such a tough layout. 

The Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference had improved over time. Our challengers from Central and Wartburg College had vastly improved their individual and team qualities. One of Wartburg’s runners had improved so fast that he would drop his1500 meter times into the low 3:50s, an All-American performer. The same held true for Central’s top runner. It would take more than confidence and wishful thinking to hold off that quality. 

We got the job done, but it felt strange because the times on that mountainous course were so much slower than a typical college cross country race over the five-mile distance. I ran just over 28:00 at the end of a season when most meets were finished in the high 25s even on relatively hilly courses. The Dubuque course was something entirely different, and just holding my own felt good. It was just good to put that race behind us. 

Bitter winner

As the team and individual awards were announced, we stood around as a team feeling more relief than triumph over what we’d accomplished. Then the moment came for the individual winner to be recognized, and the Central runner who won the individual title launched into an impassioned speech that contained criticism of our program. That display of bad sportsmanship greatly disturbed our coach. It was strange to all of us because we knew the guy was not a bad person, just really competitive. It made no sense because we all knew him as a rather Christian guy.

Life lessons

IMG_9909Sadly that was yet another example of a pattern that I’d already in my young life and would encounter many times more in the wider world. As a high school kid, I’d been accosted by a Campus Life counselor who warned me, “You’ll never be a Christian if you keep asking questions.”

I thought that was an odd and contrary response from someone claiming to be a Christian. It taught me early in life to be on my guard around the aggressively self-righteous. They could turn on you in a minute. 

It was all rather ironic given the fact that the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse guys all thought us Luther guys were probably religious types. A few years after college I got to meet a number of those guys at a truly wild post-race party following a half-marathon race in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. Half the room seemed to be naked, and the drinking was heavy and hard. I wound up sleeping on the floor under nothing more than a blanket on the living room. I woke up hungover the next morning and rolled over to see a woman wearing no pants stepping over me on the way to the bathroom. I lay there for a moment and said, “Well okay then.” Perhaps the LaCrosse boys were right: We Luther guys were probably choirboys by comparison.

Running commentary

But when it came to running, we’d barely lost to them in our dual meet that senior season. So there no loss of respect there, but they still considered their running program superior to ours. In the fall of 1978, that remained to be seen, because we competed in the same NCAA Division III national competition. 

Within our squad, we had freshmen who competed on our varsity squad that sweet season of 1978.  They were a critical component of our success while consistently running in the Top 5 guys week after week. The two freshmen filled in for the injured seniors that in 1975 had entered the program together with so much potential as part of a class that had six runners with sub-15:00 three-mile times in their high school careers. We’d finished as high as 8th place at nationals, but the general consensus remained that the potential of that group had never been fulfilled.

Hope and determination

Luther CC 1976

From sophomore year at Luther 1976

Thus we came of regionals and the conference meet with mixed emotions but also filled with hope and determination. That did not mean we weren’t feeling pressure to complete the supposed season of destiny we had never yet achieved. Certainly, our coach saw our 1978 season as THE opportunity to meet those longstanding expectations. We’d come a long way. There was no turning back now. 

Of course, he still had a few tricks up his sleeve on how to make that happen. The regionals and conference meets were behind us, and there was only one meet to complete that quest.

Thus we faced the specter of Division III Nationals with both anticipation and a degree of trepidation. Our fifth place at regionals was a notable thump in the chorus of success we’d had that fall.

But the course was clear. The national race would be held on the flat, fast Arsenal Island in Rock Island, Illinois that we’d raced on at the start of the season. We’d all raced well there in the heat of September. But there were many other teams scheduled to compete at nationals, including the all-powerful North Central College, perennial champions in Division III cross country. All that was left was to prep our minds and rest our legs for a  big performance at nationals.

It was a simple matter of focus and effort. That was all.

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When darkness falls

IMG_9908.JPGWhen it comes to Daylight Savings Time, better known as the “time change” here in the United States, it really sucks for those of us who run and ride when the sun sets at 4:30 in the afternoon. It’s pretty hard to get out of work at 5:00 and find the skies dark and the roads, even darker.

The theory behind all this daylight stuff is thin on science and depends more on perception for its existence. Here’s how DST is described on Wikipedia:

Daylight saving time (DST), also daylight savings time (United States), also summer time (United Kingdom and others), is the practice of advancing clocks during summer months so that evening daylight lasts longer, while sacrificing normal sunrise times. Typically, regions that use daylight saving time adjust clocks forward one hour close to the start of spring and adjust them backward in the autumn to standard time.[1] In effect, DST causes a lost hour of sleep in the spring and an extra hour of sleep in the fall.[2]

Not everyone believes in this DST stuff. It all emerged from the mind of a guy named George Hudson back in 1895.  Some nations bought into it right away and continue the tradition.

Others, not so much. Such as Brazil…Asia and Africa…

DST is generally not observed near the equator, where sunrise times do not vary enough to justify it. Some countries observe it only in some regions; for example, southern Brazil observes it while equatorial Brazil does not.[4] Only a minority of the world’s population uses DST, because Asia and Africa generally do not observe it.

But it can be said that DST pretty much screws up everyone’s schedule. Dogs and cats used to being fed at a given time of day know they’re hungry, but their stupid owners tell them, “No, it’s not dinner time yet.”

Here’s what a pet advisory site says about all that;

Benny.pngWhen we suddenly shift feeding times and potty break schedules by an hour, it can be rough on our four-legged friends.  Many cats and dogs can adjust with little or no signs of stress, but for some, it could lead to accidents in the house or even an upset stomach.

To prevent a sudden change, take a few days to gradually change your pet’s feeding and walking schedule by 15 minutes a day rather than 1 hour all at once. During this transition, add several extra minutes to your dog’s daily walks to allow extra time for them to fully empty their bladder and bowels as they get used to a shift in their potty break schedule.

We all try to fool ourselves into thinking this whole “time shift” thing is a good idea.

DST clock shifts sometimes complicate timekeeping and can disrupt travel, billing, record keeping, medical devices, heavy equipment,[5] and sleep patterns.[6] Computer software often adjusts clocks automatically, but policy changes by various jurisdictions of DST dates and timings may be confusing.[7]

It is helpful to have it get light a little earlier in the morning now that the sun has surreptitiously slipped south toward its winter equinox. By my count that’s just over thirty days away on December 21.

So there do seem to be some benefits in terms of safety on morning runs. Some cyclists go out no matter what the conditions. They just gear up with reflective wear and lights and choose roads where they think the least number of stupid people drive.

When darkness falls, we all have to make do the best way we can. I guess fooling ourselves with Daylight Savings Time changes is about as good and foolhardy as it gets.

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To become a faster swimmer, learn to speak Australian

Aussie swimmers.jpgIt’s hard to get up really early and go swimming. There, I’ve said it. Now I’m done complaining.

Perhaps it’s hard for you too. The bed is so warm and the covers so comfy. Add in a cat or two leaning on you for warmth and it’s easy to waste those precious minutes needed to get up out of bed and ready to go swim.

Even a half hour can make the difference in the morning. One of our swimming options begins at Marmion High School at 5:30 in the morning. That means leaving by 5:15 at the latest because it’s a five mile drive. Which actually means getting up at 4:50 a.m. to brush teeth, hit the bathroom and toss on something resembling clothing before heading to the pool.

Aussie hottiesTo counter this dark ensemble of tasks, I resort to wearing really bright colors on mornings that we head to the pool. One of the swim coaches has long noticed my habit (it was hard to miss) of dressing like a human highlighter. He teases me whenever I’m not brightly dressed and color coordinated to boot. This is my coping mechanism. I may not have the hot body of an Australian swimmer like these bad boys, but no one wears a day-glo warmup like I do.

Whatever it takes, you know? 

But the other pool option available to us allows a little more flexibility. I can get there at 6:00-6:15 a.m. and count on a lane opening up. It’s not such a morning shock to get there by six. I can sort of shake off the cats pressing me into the covers, ramble out of bed at a sane pace and even put on work clothes on before leaving. I gobble down a Larabar and take a water bottle with me. Good to go.

Olympic Games 2016 SwimmingThat’s what I did this morning and like magic a lane opened up the minute I walked into the pool. The water was a reasonable 79.2 degrees. I dangled my legs getting used to the wetness. It also takes a bit of stretching the old shoulders to get ready to swim. Then it’s a matter of just plunging in without pussyfooting around.

My warmup is no different than many: a few hundred meters with a pool float between the legs. Some paddle swimming to activate the shoulders. Then a few hundred meters of kicking with fins on. Finally I’m ready to go.

New record

Aussie Swimmers hotThis morning I chose to do a set of 100 meter repeats. And on the first one I took off hard and set a new record for me: 1:44. Oh shut up. I can hear the laughter coming from as far away as Australia, where a few of my readers lurk, and where people all swim fast because there are reports of land sharks rising up from the billabong. And if those don’t get you, the giant crocs will swallow you in one bit.

BlairOh my gosh is Australia fun to write about! I never knew that! Can you imagine a dozen koalas doing kicking drills? A band of cockatoos crushing the IM medley? A collection of kookaburras killing the 100 meter fly?


See, all you have to do to become a faster swimmer is learn to talk like an Australian. It can’t help but rub off on you in the pool! That’s exactly how I plan to break 1:40 in in the 100 meter freestyle one day. You can do it too, because there’s actualy a guide to Australian slang that is bound to turn you into a faster swimmer too.

You can click through to that website, but here’s a few fun samples to inspire you to talk like an Australian:

  1. Bludger – Someone who’s lazy, generally also who relies on others (when it’s someone who relies on the state they’re often called a ‘dole bludger’)
  2. Brekky – Breakfast
  3. Cactus – Dead, Broken
  4. Drongo – a Fool, ‘Don’t be a drongo mate’
  5. Mongrel – Someone who’s a bit of a dick
  6. Piece of Piss – easy
  7. Root Rat – someone who enjoys sex (maybe a little too much)
  8. Skull – To down a beer
  9. Straya – Australia
  10. U-IE – to take a U-Turn when driving

Now, here’ show it works. Just watch while I speak like an Australian now. This is my Australian slang motivational speech about getting up early in the morning to swim:

Don’t be a bludger about this. Have a little brekky and don’t go cactus, cause that’s a bit of a Drongo or worse, a mongrel. This should be a piece of piss ya root rat. When it’s all over, you can skull like a Straya and do a U-IE on yer old self, ha heah?

Ausssie Sausage eh.jpegSee how easy that was? Now get your ass up even if you’re stuffed. And for the ladies, or the gents if you prefer, you get yourself a piece of stiffy snag from one of them Australian swimmer boys. You won’t regret it.

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Laid back and loving it

IMG_0533After a weekend in which I drove up to Northeast Iowa and back for visits with friends and former college professors, it was nice to have a little time to slow down this past weekend. Sue and I went to yoga on Saturday morning and class turned out to be laid back. The rest of the day I spent patiently cleaning our garage and mulching leaves with the mower as the wind was low and it was fairly easy to get the job done. Satisfying too.

Come Sunday morning the predicted rain was supposed to hold off until 10 a.m. That meant Sue and I had time to run and chose a loop of exactly seven miles up the west side of the Fox River from North Aurora and back down the east side. The second half of the route is hilly and rich with all sorts of deciduous trees. That sheltered us from a stiff southeast wind. Our run went along smoothly with the exception of a little soreness in my back that I blame on our aging mattress. So that might have to change.

It turned out there was a half-marathon being conducted on the east side of the trail. We laughed because we had not heard a word about the race or we’d likely have participated in it. As it stands, we’re headed up to run the Madison Half-Marathon in Wisconsin next weekend. Sue competed in that race a couple years ago and I dropped out with soreness in a calf I’d tweaked in training, so it will be good to try again.

This past Sunday we were running 10:00 pace south. That turned out to be against the flow of runners coming back north in the half marathon. Halfway back down toward North Aurora, we encountered a running friend of ours named Kris who is a registered nurse and volunteers as a Race Medic. They were keeping an eye out for people with injuries or illness while wearing their red-white and blue shirts and black kits strapped around their bodies.

We stopped to chat with Kris and her two trainees and I jokingly asked, “Can you fix a sore back?”She turned to her cohort and said, “Break out the Bio-Freeze.”

EMGN-Tramp-Stamp-6.jpgTramp Stamp reveal

Now, I’d received a free sample of that Bio-Freeze stuff at some race this past year but had never used it. Now it was my turn to haul up my shirt and reveal the Tramp Stamp tattoo I’d gotten recently.

Naaaah, I’m just kidding about that.

But… wouldn’t this look absolutely great on a sixty year old man with love handles? You’re damn right it would. LOL.

Anyway, the BioFreeze Guy let loose with his spray (sans Tramp Stamp) and he must have been a bit of a rookie with the whole spray applicator thingy. He shot so much Bio-Freeze on my lower back that I jumped like a hapless critter in a Biology 101 experiment.  I was shocked, in other words. I stood there for a moment wondering what came next? I felt the cold radiate across my lower back and thought, “This isn’t going to turn out well.”

Then I went numb. So we started up running again and I told Sue, “Well, this is either going to be really great or turn out really bad.” She laughed. We kept on running.

Then I noticed a new sensation and said, “Okay, is it bad if this stuff runs all the way down my butt crack?” She laughed. “Uhyeaahhh….that’s probably not good.”

Mercifully the Bio-Freeze stopped just before it hit the rear portal, so to speak. I just kept on running. I’m thinking a Bio-Frozen butthole is probably not a real good thing.

Running on

IMG_0506.JPGAs we moved south along the trail the canopy of trees was still thick with bright fall leaves. The trail itself had plenty of leaves covering it as well. Our path looked like the Yellow Brick Road from the Wizard of Oz.

We finished our run just when the rain began to fall. On the way home our windshield wipers were whap-whapping and the wind picked up. The nasty shit was just beginning.

Chilling out

Back home we showered up, had some eats and settled on the couch to watch the New York City Marathon. We’d recorded it from the start, so I was content to watch it in our ‘real time’ while buzzing through the commercials. Sue could not resist the tension and looked up the results. She said, “Oh man, this is a really good race.”

I stuck my fingers in my ears and went “la la la la lahhhh” to keep from hearing any results.

My daughter joined us on the couch. She was sick with a cold and felt like crap. But she asked some good questions about the race. She’s never been a runner, yet her comments took specific notice of the footplant and strides among the leading women. I raised her well.

NYC Marathon

IMG_06CFA5EA009A-1We watched Mary Keitany split the pack and then followed Shalane Flanagan coming in for third and thrilled at the overall efforts of every woman on the course.  I especially liked seeing Molly Huddle do so well. And Allie Kiefer as well. Strong women. Strong performances.

Then came the men and it nearly turned into a sprinter’s duel at the end but the determination of the winner Lelisa Desisa won the day. He was tough and unwilling to lose.

That all ended around noon. Then the Chicago Bears game came on. The weather outside had turned even uglier. We lit the gas fireplace for warmth and mood and let the rain beat its watery head against the windows. Sue was tucked under her favorite blanket and I was laid flat on the sectional, sometimes dozing off.

Partway through the afternoon, my daughter commented: “I finally know the kind of weather that can keep you two inside.”

We all laughed. “I mean it,” she observed. “Most of the time you’re out doing something. And Dad, this is the most laid back I’ve seen you in a long time.”

One of our cats was sound asleep on my gut at the time.

Pumpkin spice kind of day

I was loving it. Her boyfriend made even more hot chocolate, this time with pumpkin spice rum thrown in for good measure. That evening, Sue and I collapsed on the couch for even more TV, catching up on the last hour of last season’s Outlander series before starting the new season.

Yes, it was a laid back day and a generally laid back weekend compared to many this past year. A perfect start to November in many ways. But next weekend we’ll be back in action racing the streets of Madison, Wisconsin where I hope to finish thirteen-p(o)int-one miles before my aging hips tighten up. That’s why I ran three miles this morning and went to work on my hips with a yellow stretchy band until my hip flexors felt like old pieces of gum.

I may be laid back and loving it, but I’m not dead yet. Let’s go for it.




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Finding unity in a sweet season

This is the sixth in a series of articles about the Sweet Season of 1978, my college senior year when our Luther College team placed second in the nation in NCAA Division III cross country. To follow the chronological narrative in full, please begin in order by volume. 

Volume one •  Volume two •  Volume three • Volume Four • Volume five

CudMoonDani.pngThe first week of October brought the first rash of injuries for much of the team. But after a visit to the Mayo Clinic at which a Luther graduate doctor expressed shock at the volume and type of steroids the campus doctor had prescribed to treat my sore Achilles tendon, things settled back into training for me and the rest of the team. Up to that point, I’d covered mileage weeks of 70-82-91-82-90-99.

Blessedly the next weekend brought a meet against a weak Loras College team. We ran our Junior Varsity runners against them and still won the meet. That freed some of us to heal up from the constant barrage of training and competition. We still put in 82 miles of training. The onset of true fall was beginning and my running journal stated simply: ” Leaves are changing.”

By October 12th we ran a beautiful thirteen-mile route called the Bluffton. The roads took us through rolling terrain. Temps were 55 degrees and my journal noted, with relief: “Achilles better.” Over the weekend we ran 3-10 and 7-8 training days. The weather turned cool and windy again. The gyrations of autumn weather had also begun.

Ups and downs

The same could be said about the nature of my love relationship and the woman with whom I was so totally smitten. But her tempestuous nature and constant testing of my loyalty suddenly got the best of me. I noted in my journal: “Told Jenny I am done.” That night I went down to the bars and after a couple hard drinks told a few friends about our breakup. She and I stayed apart for the evening, but called each other once we got back to the dorms.

By the next morning, we’d resolved our lover’s spat, but the rumors of our breakup had spread to my teammates. Questions flew and concerns were expressed at the next morning’s practice. Someone had even shared the news with our coach, and even he asked how I was doing in the love department. They were all looking out for me, and knew that every runner depends on a certain level of stasis in their life in order to run well. The guys didn’t want me to collapse into remorse as a result of a busted relationship.

DEcorah one lane.jpgPart of the healing process was going on a walk with some close friends Bob and Kirsten. The woods and hills around Decorah, Iowa were always lovely beyond description. Every run we did held fascinating scenery of one kind or another. Even after the leaves fall, the shape of the landscape is intriguing and full of mystery.

Later that day I went for a solo bird walk to gather my wits and have some time alone. The afternoon was murky and as I crept into a limestone canyon in search of ruffed grouse a bird flew up into a tree and I quickly identified it as a Townsend’s Solitaire, an irruptive migrant from the far western portions of the United States. Something about the bird seemed like a good omen. I still felt really strong inside and out. I was standing up for myself, a new feeling in my life.

Show me my rivals

Luther sophomore.jpg

A pic from my sophomore year at Luther, at the Carthage invite in Kenosha

On Tuesday night we had a meet scheduled against one of our top rivals, the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse. I loved running against them in both cross country and track. There was something about their team attitude and the character of their guys that made me want to compete rather than being nervous or scared. For several years they’d been led by a pair of twins we called––with a high degree of respect and reverence––The Hanson Brothers. Jim and Joe. Both had run mile times close to 4:00 and were All-Americans in many disciplines of running. Their presence always lifted the quality of a race, and their skimming strides were so distinctive there was no mistaking them in any situation.

But they had graduated by the time I was a senior, replaced by an almost equally tough set of runners wearing the maroon and white colors of LaCross. I was so prepped for the race that I took the lead going into the second mile. I held that lead for much of the race and had hopes of taking the overall win for the first time in my college career when a LaCrosse runner caught me with half a mile to go. We ran stride for stride up a steep incline and he gained a few yards. Then we sprinted to the finish but I could not catch him. Still, that was no real disappointment given that I’d never before finished as first man for the Luther varsity. And I’d run my best race against LaCrosse. That was satisfying.

It was also bittersweet as our top man was still limping from the injuries we’d all picked up the week before. The tectonics of training and racing thirteen meets in a season were upsetting the team apple cart.

Carthage calls

Carthage aftermath

My roommate and Luther’s top runner Dani, my girlfriend, myself and asst. Brad after Carthage

As we headed into a big meet at Carthage College in Kenosha, my confidence was high. However, we did a ton of speed work that Thursday and I felt stale and a bit “stomachy” warming up for the race. That was disappointing because a finish in the Top Ten at Carthage came with the prestigious and much-desired reward of a watch.

When the gun went off I took off at the anticipated pace of a sub-5:00 mile, and hung on for 15th place overall. But the race wasn’t easy. I struggled through the middle miles as a teammate or two ran beside me offering encouragement. We finished second as a team to a Big 10 school, Northwestern University, and our top runner missed earning a watch by one place. I was glad to just get through the race, having picked up a side stitch at 2.5 miles.

A cadre of supporters had traveled up from Chicago to cheer us on. I was a bit bummed that I’d faded in the middle of that race, because the Tuesday race against LaCrosse had gone so well. Perhaps it was one too many speed sessions that week that put me over the edge. There’s always a fine line between peak performance and collapse.

Drunken travels

After the Carthage meet, we drove back across the state of Wisconsin in a caravan of Somewhere along the way a couple vehicles ditched the bumper of our coach going on ahead.  We stopped to buy a case or two of beer. That was an insane practice of the day, drinking like mad as we came back home from meets. Even the driver sometimes imbibed, and one year I refused to get back into the car after stopping for gas at Prairie du Chien. The driver was so drunk he could not properly fill the gas tank. In that moment I took charge and hand-picked the least drunk guy, or at least the man I thought could handle his liquor the best. We made it safely across the bridge spanning the Mississippi River to MacGregor, Iowa.

Pushing our luck

There were probably six or seven times during our college cross country career when we were lucky not to have crashed and been killed as a result of such drunken stupidity. But it was the habit of the times to engage in such idiocy, and somehow we made it through.

Back on campus we cranked out fifteen miles on Sunday in two runs, then on Monday did a set of intervals: 16 X 400 at 72 seconds and under. It was getting dark by the time we were finishing up and our Top seven guys swung out across the track to run hand in hand the last 400 meters. Team unity is an important yet tenuous thing. We recognized that fact and were trying to get everyone healthy and focused for the last three weeks of the sweet season we’d earned so far.

And it was working.



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Abiding with the seasons

Birding Black and White.jpgThis time of year, the day after Halloween, things seem to happen fast.

Weatherman Tom Skilling of the Chicago Tribune this morning notes that November is the fastest chilling month of the year.

Those of us who run and ride certainly know the outline of that story.

Here in Illinois, we’ve had a few straight days of weather above sixty-five degrees.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that type of weather will hold out forever.

Most of us who run and ride have learned our lesson by now. November is the most fickle month of all. I well recall a November day twenty years or so ago that dropped below zero degrees Fahrenheit. To go from forty degree days to a sudden shot of cold like that is shocking. However, the temps have been moderating the last few years thanks to climate change. A mild winter is predicted here.

Sandhills Sunset.pngI have another measure of the changing seasons that I always trust. That is the migration of birds. Typically in our area of the country, the first and second week of November brings cool north to northwestern winds. That’s when sandhill cranes come thick and fast. They’re headed southeast to Florida for the most part.

We have cranes now breeding here in Illinois as well. They’ve become quite common, even to the point of lurking around suburban yards as if human beings don’t even exist. That’s a big change from even twenty years ago when the local population of breeding cranes was sparse and skittish. Now they couldn’t give a rat’s ass about human beings as long as one does not approach them directly. They even walked up to our bird feeders from our backyard several times this year.

Junco.pngThe bird feeder is where one can most easily see the change of the seasons. The dark-eyed juncos have arrived along with the fall sparrows. They inhabit the feeder zone in rotating shifts it seems as each morning progresses. The sparrows might start, but then the blackbirds and grackles arrive and chase them out. When those leave the juncos swing into action.

But there are also progressions of birds that arrive and depart with the passing seasons. These mark the typically slow progression of fall into winter, or winter into spring. I welcome it all. Because what else can you do?

IMG_6701.JPGThese have been the measures of the seasons for me for more than five decades. I’m still running like I did in the early 70s, and I still get out birding now and then. Or else I’m taking photographs of birds because that’s a satisfying way to capture those experiences.

I don’t suppose these rhythms will ever change much, or at least I hope not.  We all need foundations for belief and interest. These also keep the seasons from running into each other without notice or observation. The world wants to be noticed and engaged. It is only ours to oblige, and abide.



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