This will be the first in an installment of eight blogs about a cross country season forty years ago.
Over the next eight Thursdays, I will recount a most significant period in life, entering a senior year in college.
That’s when hard work paid off, self-belief took hold and gratifying results took place. All while love entered the picture.
A Key Transformation
Coming off a year of genuine transformation, I entered the summer of 1978 with a will to change. Arriving home from college, I couldn’t find a summer job at first. We were living way out in the country on a farm property eight miles from the town where I’d attended high school. So the idea of cycling to the golf course or working some other local job wasn’t an option.
That meant I had time to take stock and figure out what came next. One morning I got up and took a long look at myself in the mirror. My hair was long and thick. It framed a set of harrowed cheeks that had been thinned by hundreds of miles of training that spring. That had led to dramatic drops in my racing times from distances ranging from one mile to 5000 meters. But my outward demeanor and appearance had not changed.
My face was covered with a dark yet thin beard. So I took out shaving cream and dragged a somewhat dull and long-neglected razor over my face to remove all of it but the mustache.
The bearded look had indeed served me well as I vicariously assumed the pale form of a Lasse Viren wannabe during the winter and spring track seasons. I’d trained hard during January and February and dropped my indoor mile times down to 4:20, and my two-mile time to 9:30. Then during the outdoor season, I lowered my 3000 meter steeplechase time to 9:23, which at that moment was a school record. It was later broken by a teammate, but the achievement built confidence in me just the same.
Confidence is almost everything in life to a distance runner. Which is why I stood in front of that mirror as a 20-year old kid assessing my self-image. Those thick glasses on my face were doing me no favors. It was time for a transformation.
After shaving the beard, I took out big scissors and sheared off large chunks of thick hair. Of course, it looked awful, and I looked ridiculous. So I grabbed the keys to my parent’s car and drove to the barber shop in town. “I need a haircut,” I told them. That was the understatement of the century.
The barbers seemed to sense my predicament but said little to embarrass me. I’d been to the barber so few times during my college years that when asked to put my head over the sink to have the hair washed, I leaned forward with my face down in the sink rather than backward so that my hair could be washed and rinsed. Again, they corrected me with little comment.
When the haircut was finally complete, I felt liberated from a dark period of my life.
The next change that took place was getting rid of the Coke-bottle-thick frameless glasses that made me look like Napolean Dynamite. I’ll admit that probably there were elements of that movie character in my own persona. I was an avid birdwatcher, for example. Not exactly a turn-on to the ladies in the late 1970s.
Well, I didn’t give up that avocation, but I was interested in giving up those glasses. So this time around I literally begged my parents to let me get contact lenses. Fortunately, they were by then feeling grateful that I was likely the first boy in their family to graduate in four straight years. My two older brothers, to their eternal credit, largely put themselves through college on their own money and volition. So this is not an indictment of them. My only point is that it was almost time for my younger brother to enter college, and he looked to be getting a full ride in basketball, and that came true. So my parents felt they could spare $100 to help me out.
Seeing my way clear
Also by that time, my folks had made the decision to move our family back into town. Then I landed a job doing janitor work at a building managed by my best friend’s father. So everything seemed to be changing at once. My folks had purchased a home in a newly built subdivision. They occupied that same home for the next thirty+ years.
But for me, the new start actually represented a chance to get back to my old running routes in the towns where I’d built my run career during high school.
It was time for a new look at the world, and it was quite gratifying to put those contact lenses in my eyes and take to the streets without heavy glasses bobbing on my face, or those damned glasses straps pinching up behind my ears.
During the very first run on which I embarked, I was ecstatically covering a nine-mile route that took me on a rolling stretch of asphalt called Country Club Road. It was a warm June day, and as I wiped sweat from my eyes, the contact lens in my right eye popped out. I didn’t notice it for at least twenty yards, but when I did, a wave of panic shot through me. I turned around and trotted back the twenty yards while trying to calculate how far I’d run since wiping my eye. Then I stopped, bent down to peer at the gravel, and sure enough, found my contact lens sitting in a stretch of well-lit pebbles. Close call.
Now I had to get the thing back in my eye. I was a rookie at that. But I managed to stick it on the surface of my eyeball even in its dry state and keep it there until I arrived home. Not a word was said to my parents, who had warned me that I better not lose them.
It took several weeks to get used to those contact lenses. At first, my eyes could only take about 2-3 hours of wearing them. then it was back to glasses. But when July came around I was getter better at wearing those baseline hard contact lenses and could stand them for 5-6 hours.
So my friend and I drove up to Decorah, Iowa to participate in the annual Nordicfest Elvelopet 15k, a 9.3 mile race that covered streets and trails in the hilly environs around town.
I felt like a new man with all that hair chopped off, the beard gone and those glasses removed from my face. All that I recall is putting those contacts in that morning and feeling like a surge of open-faced confidence. The race went well, and following that effort, the feeling of liberation and hope was profound.
Post-race, we all gathered at the home of our cross country coach sat to have some beers (drinking age was 18) and talk about the upcoming season. My eyes had tired out from wearing the contacts so I put the glasses back on. In some respects, that meant my transformation was not complete. Yet deep inside I felt a quiet determination to break free from all that had limited me in the past. My dark days were over.
Weeks later I was scheduled to participate in a retreat for Luther College residence hall managers. The event was to be held at a camp called Bethel Horizons north of Dodgeville, Wisconsin. That meant packing up all my college stuff to deliver it a week early to the campus, then get dropped off back at the retreat.
I clearly recall my father driving me through the Wisconsin hills on the way back up to campus. He’d been the one that suggested Luther would be a good place for me. He knew that I’d love the close access to wild woods and streams in Decorah. We’d also visited the campus at Augustana in Rock Island, Illinois. And while that school accepted me, I’d been placed on academic probation from the get-go. My grades in high school were merely Cs and low Bs, but I took that decision by Augie as a slap in the face.
Luther didn’t look at me that way. So when my dad and I drove into Decorah to visit the Luther campus for the first time that summer day in 1975, we stopped at a cafe in downtown and had lunch together. I could see that he was happy and relaxed in being there. That was a seemingly rare condition for my father in those years. For all our differences and difficulties through my early and teen years, these were moments when we finally relaxed together.
We didn’t even know where the college was located in relation to the main part of Decorah, but my dad smiled and said, “Don’t worry, we’ll ask around.” After that weekend, I pulled my application from Augie and signed up for Luther just a month out from the start of cross country season.
Those first three years at Luther were from 1975-1977, all tough winters and challenging academically I’ll admit. But I’d made it through and the drive back to campus my senior year with my father felt mildly triumphant. Along the way, we admired the sight of purple bergamot (bee balm) blooming in the fields next to bright yellow sunflowers. My dad sensed and appreciated that I’d cleared my head from the year before, and was excited to see me showing self-confidence after years of holding myself back. “Have a good year,” he told me after our trip up to the campus and driving me back to the RA retreat site. Then he set off toward home, and I was all alone.
The August mist
Despite some deep insecurities during my first three years in college, I’d done quite a bit to establish myself as a student and athlete. My artwork had progressed in maturity, and my internship at the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology had seen me curate their entire collection of bird art while studying raptors in the “hawk barn” in real life. I’d earned a reputation as a person willing to push myself and try new things.
So it wasn’t as if I was emerging from a complete shell or anything like that. I’d also painted four large murals for a nature center in Calmar, Iowa, and held several solo shows of my work, much of which sold and provided needed money for my life on campus. And I’d greatly improved as a runner.
Those experiences were why I’d applied and was accepted as a Resident Assistant (RA) on the Luther Campus. That required some preparation and training. So I joined dozens of other RAs at the retreat held in mid-August of 1978.
We met throughout the day for training and discussions. That left early mornings and late afternoons open for my running. I’d been building up to higher mileage through the month of July, concluding with the Elvelopet race in Decorah, and had made it a point to shoot for an 80-mile week during that August week at Bethel Horizons.
The wonderful aspect of that retreat was its location, which bordered a state park called Governor Dodge, a site to which I’d return many times, and over many different seasons, during the ensuing decades.
August provided supreme running conditions. I’d rise at 5:30 and trot silently away from the campsite in one of many directions. Often there would be morning mist obscuring the roads. It invited me with its mystery. As I ran, the mist would grace my skin with a cooling effect. Then the sun would rise and the mist would burn off. I’d arrive back at camp in a sheen of sweat of my body, shower up and be completely relaxed and focused for the day ahead. Then I’d repeat the process in the glowering heat of late afternoon. I was honing my body for the cross country season ahead.
The lure of the August moon
A few days went by like that, with long runs both morning and night, and socializing during the day. During all that interaction, I’d met a woman to whom I had an instant attraction. She seemed to respond in a similar way. Thus I felt competitive toward the attention she was getting from other guys. Thus I found myself tracking her whereabouts during every social break.
By the fourth day, we’d begun to hang around together a bit more. Then as evening fell, we sat together beneath an August moon with other people we’d met during the retreat. Everyone was talking quietly when she eased her body onto the blanket under us and placed her head on my knee to relax. She looked up at me with bright green eyes that reflected the August moon. I fell instantly in love.
Return to campus
From that point forward, we were a couple. Everyone at the retreat recognized what was happening. I spoke to that fact with a series of guy friends as we were walking to dinner one night. “Now, you boys stay away,” I told them. They all laughed and knew what I meant.
Later that week, we returned to campus and I walked into a party being held by the fraternity of which I’d been a member since sophomore year. But things seemed changed. No one seemed to know me. Then a frat buddy walked over and asked who it was that I knew at the party.
“Dave,” I told him. “I’m Cud.”
His eyes flew open and he replied, “Dude, I didn’t even know who you were.”
We both roared.
The very next day I joined up with my cross country teammates for the first workout of the season together. Most had been on campus for the week that I was stationed out at the RA retreat. That meant the hierarchy of team dynamics was already in play. Runners tend to sort themselves out quickly by pace and competitiveness, and here I’d arrived in the thick of that process. There were a few quality freshmen that were sticking with the seniors through every workout. That day we ran a track workout in late summer heat, and I felt good all the way. The hill running in Wisconsin had done my legs a world of good. Plus I was tan, had those contact lenses and a new girlfriend.
The stage was set for one sweet season.