It’s a humbling realization to think that this fall marks the 40th anniversary of my enrollment in Luther College. As a college freshman at that time, the entire college experience was a mystery. Luther was six hours from home. I’d visited the campus just once in July before the semester began. Everything was last minute, and I was both scared and excited like most freshman.
A couple classmates from St. Charles would also be attending Luther, but the entire cross country experience was going to be something I did on my own.
It had been a great recruiting year for Luther that fall. No less than six entering freshman had run under 15:00 for three miles in high school. And that was just our class. The upperclassmen were a talented group of eclectic runners eager to make the varsity as well.
The first run on which we embarked took off at a fierce clip under six minutes a mile. That would be a theme for the next four years in fact. Almost all our training was done at that pace and under.
The team hung together in clumps as we raced along a rolling 8-mile route called Under Phelps-Palisades-Ice Cave. The roads were gravel and my feet struggled to grab enough traction to keep up. We all had long hair and despite the pace there were jokes and comments flying around as we tripped along at a high rate of speed.
Rite of passage
The first four miles were almost dizzying. Frankly I had not run much the last week. Only a few days before my friends and I had held a massive going-away party involving tons of alcohol, skinny dipping and donuts ingested at four in the morning. To this day I’m not sure the booze was completely out of my system before that first run at Luther.
But there was no quit in me or anyone else. So along with my fear at being dropped and complete lack of knowledge how far we’d gone already, it was hellish going.
Then we turned onto the long road leading up to Palisades Park and the road grade spiked. Everyone went silent. The huff of lungs could be heard, and runners either pulled forward or peeled back. I hung in there with a few other guys and emerged just behind the leaders once we’d crested the hill.
Then came a crazed descent and a race back toward campus. This was a sorting process, survival not of the fittest by that point, but of the most determined for sure.
That last small climb back up the hill to campus almost killed me. But we made our way through the quad and down the hill to the field house and stood around trying to look like we were not tired.
“Look at this guy,” one of the juniors pointed at me. “He’s not even sweating!”
Indeed I was not. But rather than a sign that I was not tired, it likely reflected the strange state of dehydration from the drinking a couple nights before. Still I smiled and laughed and uttered something like, “Yeah, no problem.”
Running is often an alliance of raw effort and lies like that. You never want to give away our weaknesses. Not when a spot on the team is on the line.
Yet there’s also a camaraderie that builds among teammates as the season builds. That run was only the first of two that day. We’d be back for an afternoon workout as well. And then another morning. The stakes would remain high with every effort, but somewhere along the way that bond of survival infuses the entire group. It sooner or later becomes evident who is going to make the team, and lead it.
Cross country across the country
That first fall in college was full of such experiences. It makes me think of all the runners now gathering for two-a-days and a season of competition. There are now middle school cross country teams, high school and college. There are many of us that continue training long into our 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond. We do it to test ourselves. It’s the smell of the air, the August heat and the start of cross country season that never changes in my mind.
That first season at Luther our team took 7 out of the top 10 places at the conference meet. I placed 7th man and 9th place overall in the conference meet.
Then we flew to Boston and competed at nationals. I’d actually been tied or close in points with a senior named Kirk Neubauer, who had certainly earned the team place and deserved to run at nationals. But in an act of gracious athletic vision, he told me that he was giving up his place to let me run in the national meet. “You have four years ahead of you Cud,” he told me. “You’re going to need that experience.”
Kirk has gone on to become an Admissions officer at Luther. His often selfless service to the college has benefited the institution in many ways. But his act of selflessness in giving up his spot on the nationals team will never be lost on me. It proves there are many aspects of sport that go unrecognized.
In my case it essentially took all four years of running at Luther to pay off Kirk’s selfless investment in the program. As a senior I finished fifth man for the Luther team that took second place to North Central College in the National meet.
Practice makes perfect
Between that first run at Luther and the final cross country season there were hundreds of two-a-day workouts. Many were run in August heat or September mist, October light and the first frosted mornings of November. There really is nothing like it, the sport of cross country.
I always hope that young people entering such endeavors know enough to appreciate all that is transpiring. Building fitness builds character. Building character builds teams. Building teams builds friendships that last a lifetime.
Indeed those guys that entered or were teammates at Luther in 1975 are still friends today. So I encourage all those young men and women lining up for cross country practices to take a good look around. Yes, you’re going to compete with all those runners in the group. But there’s something much greater going on as well. The lessons you learn and the friendships you make through competition become the core of your being.
That’s worth a little sweat in the August heat, and pain under the September sun. Come October the big meets call on you to give your all, and by November you come to realize that there’s a story to every stride and a completeness to the journey. It’s like life itself. It truly is.