This is the second installment of eight blogs about a cross country season forty years ago.
On Thursdays, I will recount a most significant period in life, 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.
Back on campus after the Resident’s Assistant retreat in the hills of Wisconsin, it was time to set up our dorm room. Having a much larger room was one of the perks of being an RA, yet my roommate, also a runner on the cross country team, decided we should each built privacy lofts in the event that we needed them given our pending girlfriend situations.
We scored some lumber somewhere and built our own personal love shacks within the dorm room. He’d also rented a small refrigerator and stocked it with beer and some snacks. All was good to go.
I’ll not share that roommate’s name because this is just my take on the events of that year. But he’d come to campus that fall in supreme shape. He would lead the team for most of the fall until a calf injury slowed him a bit. All I can share is that being in his presence that fall was akin to absorbing a new sort of energy. We began training together on most morning runs, all done at a pace under 6:00 per mile. Over the next twelve weeks, we’d rack up 80-100 miles every seven days, and do it all over again.
My hunger to do well nearly equaled his that fall. For much of the season, we’d compete as the #1 and #2 runners on the squad. He’d been a dominant and inspiring force on the track in preceding years, but had not paralleled that success thus far in cross country. That would change in the fall of 1978 because he’d logged strong mileage that summer back home in Albert Lea, Minnesota. He arrived tan with blonde streaks in his hair from all that time running under the sun. A Norwegian god.
The entire team was geared up that fall. The music we were sharing reflected the energy within the group. The Cars had just come out with their first album, an intense collection of songs (My Best Friend’s Girl, Let the Good Times Roll, and more) and we’d blast out the dorm room windows and even played them loud on a set of oversized speakers that we set up near the starting line of our own invitational that fall. We were all in.
Mr. Blue Sky
A few days before heading back to college, I’d holed up in my bedroom with my own stereo system. I was trying to determine what it meant to be entering my senior year in college. So I worked through a number of albums and closed with the entire ELO double disk that concluded with the anthemic Mr. Blue Sky.
Runnin’ down the avenue
See how the sun shines brightly in the city
On the streets where once was pity
Mister blue sky is living here today, hey hey
Then I shut off the stereo, packed up my walnut veneer Radio Shack Optimus 1B speakers, stuck the receiver and turntable in their respective boxes and staged them for delivery back to the college dorm.
Shattered and ready for action
Back at school I unpacked all that and set it up carefully. Then I put on the Rolling Stones new record Some Girls and blasted a song called Shattered, in which Mick Jagger (with whom I share a July 26 birthday) screamed lyrics that felt like a catharsis of sorts:
Laughter, joy, and loneliness and sex and sex and sex and sex
Look at me, I’m in tatters
I’m a shattered
But in my case, having been shattered was a good thing. I’d shattered my lack of self-esteem. Shattered the nagging shell of self-doubt. Shattered the inward-facing image I’d created for myself. And emerged with a will to succeed.
I’d also constructed a little talisman to symbolize the renewed spirit in life that I felt. It also symbolized a commitment to who I would become.
I knew that running during the fall of 1978 would require all of my attention. So I rescued a claw from a red-tailed hawk that I’d found dead in a roadside ditch and asked a local jeweler to mount it in a clasp to be worn on a silver chain around my neck. According to wildlife protection laws, it was highly illegal to have that talisman. But I was trying to break out of a mindset and affirm my deep devotion to nature at the same time.
When my new girlfriend asked what the necklace meant, I explained that while I’d be 100% committed to running that fall, someday I’d get back to my love of nature and become the best painter I could be. That has turned out to be a lifelong journey. That piece of jewelry ultimately disintegrated, but the vow on both fronts has stuck with me.
Forty years on
Now that it’s forty years later, and when I look back at the visage of the young man that I was, I realize there were some really strong instincts at work. Most importantly, it’s easy to beat yourself up for what you haven’t yet become, or where you might have failed. Those lessons would need to be learned again and again. Finally, I think I get that.
It’s much more difficult and yet so important to develop focus and apply the discipline necessary to make things happen. That previous spring I’d turned a corner on my self- worth and had seen genuine improvement running as a result. I was dropping my times at every distance from the mile to 5000 meters. Now I wanted to transfer that improvement to the sport I really loved, which was cross country.
But like all things in life, the start of my Sweet Season contrasted to what others close to me were experiencing. My freshman year college roommate, for example, had been one of the best cross country runners on the entire team during our first three years in school. In the fall of 1978, he was deeply hampered by a painful back injury that would not relent all season. While we were all focused on doing our best, it was frustrating to see him struggle to return to the free-flying running style for which he was famous.
That was ironic because as a rule he was was the most flexible among all of us. Yet looking back, I believe it was the whiplike strength of his powerful legs that caused such torque against his otherwise slender frame. He worked hard all season to regain his running form, and nearly made it back during the regional meet. But not quite.
What we also missed from him on the roads was his quick wit. His wry jokes and infectious laughter were a pleasure that broke up those long training runs. Sometimes he was so funny we’d be reduced to pulsing fits of laughter to the point where we could hardly run at all. But most poignantly, he was also a sentimental favorite with our coach because he’d grown up literally across the street in little Decorah, Iowa.
Due to the back injury, he could not train with us much. And what a loss. He’d previously won the conference championship and been a leader every season during the first three years of a cross country program. We’d reached as high as eighth place in the nation thus far. That was a decent result, but it certainly did not match our expectations in a program that had seen seven freshmen arrive in 1975 with sub-15:00 three-mile times to their credit.
My roommate from sophomore and junior years was also hurt going into the season. Somehow one of his big toes had developed pain and it wasn’t going away. He gamely trained and continued performing well, but there were times when he’d be frustrated by how the sore toe limited his pushoff.
Later that year in senior year in track he’d go on to place seventh at nationals in the steeplechase. He also performed a magnificent 10K-Steeple double at our conference track meet. He won the 10K on a Friday night and came back on Saturday to place second behind me in the steeple. That was 13,000 meters of racing in two days, including 3000 of it over 35 barriers and 7 water jumps. Remarkable running for anyone.
Our solace going into the season despite the injuries was the performance of a couple freshmen runners that were strong enough to run with the seniors from the get-go. Each would place in the Top 7 during our early meets.
So despite our challenges due to injury it was full steam ahead going into the first meet of the season. After the Intersquad meet, we traveled to Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois for a quadrangular against Augustana, Northeast Missouri, University of Iowa and Luther. It was hot that day and the meet started at noon. The flat course on Arsenal Island felt like it was literally baking in the sun. My roommate won the race and I ran 20:26 to finish somewhere in the top ten. It was a good start to the racing season.
We came home that afternoon, and after we went for a four-mile training run to cap off a 90+ mile week, my roommate cracked open one of the Michelob beers that he kept in the fridge. “Here,” he told me. “Nice job. Second man. Way to go!”
Down and off
Then it was back to a training week and hanging out with my new girlfriend.
That next day while we were walking hand in hand through the college Union, things felt right with the world. I was truly in love with her and running well. What could be better?
There were just a few things to close down. That summer I’d broken up with a gal (by letter) that I’d dated the previous semester. She wasn’t quite convinced it was over and had sewn me a nifty down vest over the summer and delivered it to my dorm room that fall when we got back to campus. I told her politely that I shouldn’t keep the vest. “I’m sorry,” I responded. “I’ve met someone new. We’re done,” I repeated.
“You can keep the vest,” she insisted.
So I was wearing that down vest while walking through the Union when I felt a tug, then another tug. The third tug was much harder and the material at the shoulders of the vest gave way as it ripped completely off my back. My former girlfriend gave a short scream and ran back down the hallway with the shredded jacket flailing in her hand. I was chagrined and freaked out at the same time. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry in that moment. It wasn’t my plan to hurt someone that badly. But I’d changed over the summer and felt like a fresh start was needed in every phase of my life. During that moment at the beginning of my Sweet Season, the changes I’d made suddenly felt bittersweet.
Then my new girlfriend kissed me. Her green eyes flashed and I realized there are simply some things in life that you can’t change. One of them is the flow of emotions once they’ve found a new channel.
That evening I ran a ten-mile workout with renewed intensity. I was determined not to go backward in any way, shape or form that fall. Every footfall felt like it had a purpose. The dust kicking up from my shoes was symbolic of where I was headed, straight toward the blue skies I imagined were ahead.
Sun is shinin’ in the sky
There ain’t a cloud in sight
It’s stopped rainin’ everybody’s in a play
And don’t you know
It’s a beautiful new day, hey hey
––Mr Blue Sky, ELO