As a senior in college, I was chosen as the anchor leg of our 4 X 1-mile team for the Drake Relays in Des Moines, Iowa. My position as the anchor leg on the relay was not assigned because I was the fastest miler at our school. In fact, I was the least fast of the four small-college runners from Luther College lined up against the likes of Arkansas, Kentucky and Kansas. But I still had a role to play. Finish the damned thing.
Clearly, we would be outclassed against some of the top Division 1 schools in the country at the Drake Relays. But that was the wonder of the challenge and the excitement of such a competition. It would push us to run faster than we might on our own at the Division III level.
The real deal
So we trotted out on the track in the company of the D1 guys. The gun went off and I watched a former Kaneland high school teammate named Ron Ackerman lead the Kentucky relay team out with a mile leg of 4:01. Ron was an Illinois state champion in the 880 and an exceptional athlete on many fronts. I don’t recall how his Kentucky teammates did that day, but it would not have surprised me if they’d won the race. Kentucky had recruited every good Illinois runner they could find and turned their program into a powerhouse in the mid-to-late 1970s.
Against such competition, my Luther teammates were running strong. I think our best runner Doug Peterson led off with a 4:08 mile. My senior-year roommate Dani Fjelstad ran a 4:12. My soph-junior year roommate Paul Mullen ran a 4:16 or so. Then I was handed the baton. Despite our strong showing, we were pretty close to last place in the race.
I ran a 65-second opening lap, then another. Managed the third leg in 65 and was hoping to really kick it in for a great time. But I only managed a 64 closing lap and ran a 4:19.*
Alone in the world
As it stood that late April day in Des Moines, Iowa, I was fairly much alone the entire last lap. I ran the first turn to a trail of muffled applause as the loyal Drake fans acknowledged a closing effort by a small college runner wrapping up the event.
Yet as I neared the far turn, the stadium went silent. The Drake marching band was lined up around the curve in preparation to play the national anthem. I’m pretty sure no one on that end of the stadium even thought the 4 X 1-mile relay event was still going on. Thus I could hear my own footsteps striking the smooth pink track of the Drake Bulldogs. As I rounded the apex of the far turn, a lone voice called out from high up in the stands. “Way to go, slow fucker!” he yelled.
Laugh it off
I couldn’t help laughing. Then I raised the baton and swung it around in the air as if I’d were winning the whole race. This drew a round of light applause and a little laughter from the crowd. That actually gave me a boost of sorts. I kicked in as hard as I could those last 100 meters, I managed a 64-second last lap. My low-pressure relay leg was done. Just another pale skinny kid finishing up an effort at the Drake Relays.
I got to compete three years in a row at Drake. Each time I ran a little better than my previous bests at the relay leg distances. The bar to perform well at Drake was set high in my head. I remember sitting in high school study hall thumbing through Track & Field News magazines that our track coach Bruce Peterson encouraged us to enjoy. I’d study those black-and-white photos from the Drake or Kansas Relays never really dreaming that I’d actually get to run there.
Our little college never accomplished a miracle of any sorts at the Drake Relays. We’d beat a few bigger colleges, but let’s be realistic, even four guys running 4:08 mile legs would have had a tough time against the likes of Arkansas or Kansas. But we did our best and brought home our Drake Relays tee shirts with pride.
I actually kept one of those Drake tees in my closet for thirty-plus years. It was folded and stashed neatly with other classic tees until I moved a year ago. In the rush to clear out the house after 20 years of life in that classic ranch home, a few semi-prized possession were shunted into oblivion. That Drake tee-shirt and a bundle of other old favorites were likely tossed into a big black garbage bag and carted off to Goodwill.
Those shirts were all pretty small on me these days anyway. I weigh a bit more now than I did as a 140 lb college senior running 100-mile weeks. But perhaps those tees have found a new life on someone just as skinny.
My real hope is that some hipster digging through the bins at Goodwill found that classic Drake Relays tee shirt and wears it around proudly these days. What greater honor could there be in life than to have a shred of your personal legacy become part of the Hipster movement to honor bad fashion from years past?
I’m so proud.