This is the fourth 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.
Volume one • Volume two • Volume three
That’s me leading the way around a bend on the upper campus during a meet against Mankato. This was sophomore year, when I still wore glasses.
Nothing comes easy when you’re training 80-100 mile weeks. It was vital to get lots of sleep. That’s not always easy on a college campus. Adding to that challenge was the fact that my Resident’s Assistant duties kept me up late sometimes on Friday and Saturday nights. Then one night I was walking the dorm floor and noticed pot smoke roiling out from a room. I knocked and when the door opened, a host of my cross country teammates were lying around the room stoned. “Come on, guys,” I warned them. “Put a towel in front of the door, you rookies.”
Yes, we ran quite a bit. And yes, we partied sometimes. But never enough to truly hold back our performances.
So by the fourth meet of the season, scheduled for a Saturday in Grinnell, Iowa, our Luther College cross country team was finding a groove of sorts. We traveled in a fleet of cars rather than a bus, and stayed with alumni or current student families that lived in the area rather than hotel rooms. It was like living a hippie commune lifestyle.
I’d finish the race in 25:55 in the first five-mile competition of the season. The meet was held on a rolling golf course layout. Our Nike waffle racing flats were perfect for those conditions. We won the team title but engaged in a hard-fought race with conference rival Central College. It was a sunny, warm day and early in the race I found myself sharing the lead for a few strides. Then thought better of it. There were 4.5 more miles to go, and I knew that our lead guy and his top rival were about to start fighting it out.
I’d wind up third man as I recall, and happy to finish strong as the victory came down to a few strategic places. I remember racing stride for stride with a runner from Central named Brian. That season we’d bang heads a number of times. Forty years later I reachd out to him through Linkedin. We exchanged friendly greetings. I complimented him on a healthy rivalry. He wrote back through Linkedin:
Chris – we both had more hair back in our college days! I think that you got your facts wrong – I am sure that you beat me more often than I beat you.
My high point of my running days was winning the conference track championship my senior year. We had to outscore the mighty Luther in the next to last race – the 5K – to do it. I believe that we finished 3, 4 and 5 in the race. This was after Luther had finished 2nd or 1st in the cross-country DIII championship that previous fall.
My running days are over. When I turned 50 I started running again and was able to break 40 minutes in the 10K but then my legs started giving me problems so I had to quit.
I probably should start riding a bike instead as I believe you do.
I definitely recall the track race he mentioned. I had tried to double back in the 5000 meters after winning the steeplechase earlier that day. But my legs didn’t have the zip and my performance fell short, clocking a slow 15:20. With their effort, Central College took the conference track championship after Luther had won it for 17 years straight. I also recall some very bad sportsmanship that day when some of their athletes cheered when our All-American 400-meter hurdler shattered his leg going over the last barrier. Things almost came to blows on the infield between our two teams. They were sick of us winning and likely considered us arrogant. But old rivalries, even bitter ones, tend to disappear over the years.
Coming back home after the meet, we arrived to find a warm fall afternoon, the 23rd of September. Some of us gathered the gumption to run a few more miles when we got home. That meant we’d covered four miles in the morning, two miles warmup before the race and a cool down on top of five miles of racing. Then another three miles of running when we got home. Quite the day.
The next morning we got up to run a twenty-miler in the warm sun of September. All at six minute pace.
So I was tired and feeling a bit weary from all the racing and training when my girlfriend arrived back on campus that Sunday after making a visit back home to see her folks. While she was home, another suitor got wind of her visit and made some ardent ovations to win her attention. He invited her over to his apartment, and the guy found a way to traipse around naked to show off his ample dick.
She shared that story with me. At the time, I frankly wondered how she could even let herself get up in that position with a guy. If she truly loved me, why would she let that happen? Over time, I’ve realized that women trying to figure out their goals in life are more than willing to play the field and see what happens. In nature, even female cardinals entertain secret suitors when their birdy mates are away.
No doubt: I questioned what his motives were and hers as well. She explained that he was already out of college and working a job. Her parents liked the guy and they had suggested he might be worth seeing. Well, that came literally true, did it not? It taught me that her folks were not nearly as smart as they pretended to be.
Thus I decided to follow my instincts and proceed with confidence rather than fall into some trap of jealousy that might make me look weak and insecure. I was done with that in life. Yet that moment, I learned to distrust her parents a bit. And to some degree, also her.
Then I found out that her mother had actually met my father once back in Illinois. They were both enrolled in some kind of motivational selling course in the mid-1970s. That was not the high point of my father’s career or life. In fact he’d blown some money on a scammy network marketing scheme that had severely messed up our family financial picture and caused us to give up a lovely large house that we owned for a small split level that we rented. I get it: he was trying to create his big break in life. When that didn’t work out, he tried to leverage that negative experience into something worthwhile. That’s when he enrolled in that course and met her mother. She confessed her own reasons for taking that course with a bit of chagrin. Apparently it wasn’t her proudest moment in life either.
Still, I was deeply in love with that girl, and things were going great on many fronts. But a slice of that life began to feel suddenly weird. I grew into a close observer of reality pretty quickly Her parents were seemingly well-off. They lived in a fairly wealthy Chicago suburb. Their house was a classic colonial overlooking a relatively spacious landscape of other classic colonials. Her dad commuted to Chicago to work everyday. When he got home, he’d go out for a 1.5 mile run-walk to work off the stress of his job. Then he’d stumble in the house sweaty and flop down in his favorite La-Z-Boy chair, because that’s where he worked.
There was another dimension and connection in all those familial relations. Well before I met my new girlfriend, I’d somehow already come to know her brother. I felt for him because he’d been in some sort of accident earlier in life and had a brain injury that left him with some memory loss and some behavioral difficulties. It made schooling difficult for him at times, and we’d commiserated after I learned he was from Illinois and we shared a ride home at one point. But her family was bitter toward the college over how he’d been treated when his brain problems flared up. They had a chip on their shoulders about all that.
In fact there seemed to be a collective chip on everyone’s shoulder in that household. But they had a Golden Boy attitude toward the youngest member of the family, a son that was a junior in high school at the time I met her. When we visited their house during some fall break, my girlfriend started bragging about his basketball skills, intimating that he’d wipe the court with me if I ever played him. So I took that challenge, and beat him 10-2 in a game of one-on-one. I was a damned good basketball player and wasn’t going to take that kind of challenge lightly.
She was a bit angry about the way I played so hard against her brother, and showed no mercy. But I told her, “What did you expect? I don’t know why all the women I’ve known always underestimate me as an athlete, and in other ways.” That stopped her cold for a moment and she admitted, “You’re right. I’m sorry. I love you.” And I loved her. There were so many other ways that we clicked.
It’s true that I had a pretty big chip on my own shoulder fueled by a host of past insecurities that I’d been working hard to overcome. In some ways, that’s the core of what brought my girlfriend end and I together. We both shared that “chip on our shoulder” mentality. In fact that previous year, she’d lost a lot of weight while I’d shaved off my ugly beard and cut my long hair. So we were ‘born again’ as fellow “chippies” and now were well matched.
Perhaps her goal was to find a guy at Luther (or somewhere) that she might marry once she got out of college. Yet the concept of marriage was still foreign to me. That was a bit naive I suppose. Instead I was focused on the boyish and comparatively innocent task of running as fast as I could for as long as I could.
Deep inside a voice kept asking, “Is that some kind of sin? Is it so bad to be focused on this one thing in my life?” It was not. The truth of the matter is that all of us arrive at singular moments in our lives. In that moment we have “One Shot!” as the musical Hamilton so aptly suggests, to do this one thing that can be life changing.
I thought she should realize that was the case for both of us. She was also involved in a pursuit of her own, a performance of Godspell that was challenging and thrilling at the same time. She really could sing and dance with the best of them. Yet a Jackson Browne song that came out during the second year of our relationship that perfectly described how things were evolving:
She was a friend to me when I needed one
Wasn’t for her I don’t know what I’d done
She gave me back something that was missing in me
She could have turned out to be almost anyone
With the possible exception
Of who I wanted her to be
Thus even in the moment, I respected her focus as well as the “chip-on-the-shoulder” determination that made her an invited partner in my own pursuits. Plus she had green eyes that just killed me every time I looked into them. But in the end, it may never have been meant to be more than that. That is just how love works sometimes.
Standing up for myself
Yet in giving all of this consideration in the moment, I determined that the Dick Display challenge from the guy back home should be confronted. Thus I told her straight up, “I don’t want you to see him anymore.” I had never said anything of that sort to any woman that I’d ever known. She immediately agreed. She even seemed to be pleased that I had displayed determination and a sense of ownership toward our relationship. That is love too. It’s quirky and unpredictable.
Feeling good about myself
However it also worked the other way as well. I was hanging out at a local pub four blocks from campus one night, having beers with my buddies when a lovely female classmate showed up behind me in the crowd. I’d turned around and was having a nice conversation with her, digging the crystal clear blue of her big eyes and blonde Norwegian looks. Her blouse stretched open between her breasts and the sight of her bra inside had me excited and curious about what it might be like to be with her.
So there I was, perched at the top of my social popularity after four relatively lonely years on campus, able at last to show some personality and pursue some pleasure. Now I had a series of great races behind me and a growing reputation for success on campus. Suddenly another beautiful girl had taken notice. I was taking notice back.
And that moment is exactly when my girlfriend walked through the pub door and stepped directly between us. She knew competition when she saw it. Nothing was said but the message was clear. “You’re mine.” My potential new blonde friend gave a flash of her blue eyes and disappeared. She went on to become a doctor. Would that ever have worked? Those are questions to which we never know the answer.
So that’s the problem with love. For better or worse, it tends to put a glow on you that other people see. Certainly other women see it. They’ve got a radar of some sort that lets them zoom in on a guy with something going on. Self confidence, you might say, is the ultimate aphrodisiac.
Matters at hand
So the relationship stuff was buzzing around in the background as the weeks rolled by. But my focus was true, and there were critical running matters at hand.
We had a Tuesday meet scheduled against the University of Minnesota-Mankato. I recalled that the first time we ran against them when I was just a freshman. Our team left in mid-afternoon. as we made the drive up from Decorah, Iowa to Mankato, the weather cooled and there noticeably fewer leaves on the trees. We hadn’t come that much farther north, but the seasons had progressed a bit quicker.
A cool wind blew off the flat landscape of southwestern Minnesota as we jogged around the course in our bulky cotton sweats and noted that the course was composed partly of cinder trails and grass. That led us to check our spike lengths, because short spikes do not work well on cinders. Only a few teammates by then were wearing the Oregon Waffle racers we’d ordered because the shoes were so popular they were on back order through a running shop in Minneapolis. Such were the early days of the Nike era.
After the course tour, we stripped down to our racing singlets and stood there shivering as the coach from Mankato described the course. Then he bluntly stated that mile times would only be given out to the first few runners to pass. The rest were out of luck.
That made our coach extremely mad. He believed in the value of every runner on the team. He wanted every runner in the race to be given mile splits out there on the course. So he dispensed our team trainers to cover the mile points at two and four. It was cool out, probably in the high 40s, but the chill in the air was mostly between that coach and ours.
Hot for revenge
Somewhere in the archives of my cross country stuff the results of that meet are buried. But the memory of that conflict about mile splits never was forgotten. Thus when Mankato showed up on our campus for a dual meet on Thursday, September 26, 1978, we were all ready to run hard and beat them. They were always a good team, but we knew something special was going on at Luther College.
As it turned out, those poor Mankato guys had dressed for the weather back on their campus, which was much cooler when they left. Their runners all wore heavy dark blue jerseys with sleeves that came down to the elbows. The material was a deeply woven shiny fabric that held in heat quite well.
And that was a problem for them, because the afternoon they showed up was hot, somewhere in the low 80s, and they were already sweating like hell as they joined us on the starting line. We all secretly smiled at each other, and while my time of 26:18 was nothing to brag about in terms of a five-mile effort, it was much faster than even their fifth man. We wiped them off the map.
But things were not all perfect heading into the next steps of the Sweet Season. Two of my former roommates on the team were still struggling with injuries. It was strange for me to be running well for the team when those guys were not up to par. There was a vague sense of guilt and a keen sense of responsibility at the same time.
Certainly I’d led teams before, all the way through high school in fact, I was one of the top runners. Truth be told, I had trained for a moment or running revelation during all four years of college. I was coming into my own.
Now that I no longer had to rise early in the morning to work the dish room as I did the first three years of college, thanks to a new job on campus, I could train those early mornings and pump all my energy into athletic performance. Along with the improved self-image and dumping those stupid glasses on my face, it felt like anything was possible.
There was nothing to do but look ahead, keep on loving my girlfriend and keep putting one foot in front of the other. That’s the only way we get anywhere in life.