Season heating up
Having come off a speedy team performance in a quadrangular meet against Augustana College, University of Northern Iowa and the University of Iowa, in which we lost only to UNI, our squad was fired up going into our own Luther College invitational. Our top runner had just won two races in a row, and there was a good chance he’d also take the solo victory at the Luther Invitational.
It would be held on September 16, and that September the weather been fluctuating between cold mornings and really hot afternoons. The quadrangular meet had been scheduled as a five-mile race, but was shortened to four miles due to extreme heat at the noon start.
Not so hot shoes
Cross country is always a sport of adaptations I’d purchased some Etonic Streetfighter training flats before leaving home for school, and those shoes were proving to be a mistake doing all the high mileage. They were too wide and too flat, and the rubber felt hard. Plus they blistered me. It was time to dump them.
That meant the bulk of my running was done in waffle-style trainers from Nike. The company had truly come into its own during the years 1975-1979. Some of their shoe-design experiments were noble and compelling but others made us feel like suckers and guinea pigs. A style of shoe called Nike LDVs were issued in a version so wide and flared that the inside edge of the sole at the heel scraped away at inside of our legs until they were raw. We tried sawing them off but that made it worse. Even the bow-legged among us were not safe.
Making them last
We’d all tried to make our shoes last longer by placing layers of athletic tape on the outside edge of the heel to keep it from wearing away. That was actually a quite genius and practical solution. It would prevent the uneven wear from one side to the other if one had a longer leg. It also kept the shoes from wearing down so badly on the heel before one got the full value from the rest of our shoes. We’d sometime get 500-600 miles out of a single pair that way. Then again, that only meant 5-6 weeks of wear. Then it was time for a new pair.
Still, we’d all found the less radical version of the LDV in yellow with a sky blue swoosh to be a perfect shoe for backroads training. For racing, the flats that most of us wore were Nike Waffle Racers, blue with yellow swooshes. As a racing flat, those Elites were more substantial than spikes and could be worn to race across a variety of surfaces, which was often the case in college cross country.
Racing at home
That third week of the season it was time to prep for the home course, which started on the lower campus on a massive athletic field split by baseball diamonds, rugby pitches and even a soccer field, the earliest nod of acceptance for that sport at our little college in Iowa. We’d run hard mile intervals on that flat expanse of grass, dipping down below 4:50 to get ready for race pace.
The cross country course headed straight from one end to the farthest reaches of the large mowed field. Then it urned right for 400 meters and right again to reach the base of a hill. The course would all be marked by a white line. Generally it was straight unless a cross-eyed facilities named Earl was assigned to lay down the line. Then it would swerve like a giant snake because he literally could not see straight.
That was the case the morning of the Luther Invitational. We all laughed during warmups as other teams kept coming up to us asking what the deal was with the swerving line. We told them: “Just run straight.”
The right philosophy on running
Before the gun for the varsity race, there were a series of other races including a high school competition and races for JV, women and Open runners. These were all held in line with the philosophy of our coach who believed that running was for everyone that wanted to participate. By the time we were seniors at Luther, the women’s program that started with just two gals was now thirty in number. Within a few years the program would see Luther women earn individual national championships.
So there was plenty to cheer throughout the morning, but as the day warmed, the guys on the varsity all found a place to hunker down in the shade until our race came around. While we waited, one of our teammates rigged up some huge speakers to a stereo parked in a truck. The music of The Cars was blasting more than 100 decibels as we warmed up. There was lots of slapping of hands and “Let’s Go!’ before the gun went off.
True to form
My roommate Dani Fjelstad again won the meet, his third individual victory in a row, this time going head-to-head against a tough University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse runner named Jim Ingold . I finished as our second man in 20:42 for 11th or 12 place overall, but Luther still finished second to Augustana, our arch rivals for many years.
On hearing that announcement, I blurted out a loud and disgusted “Fuck!” and was immediately chagrined that my competitive blasphemy was heard by so many people. So I instantly trotted off to console myself with additional warm down time.
The loss stung, but we got right back to training. Or most of us did. For reasons of love and distraction I completely forgot about our Sunday morning workout the day after the invitation. Instead my girlfriend and I rented a tent and went camping high on a hill overlooking the road that led out of campus. We stayed up late as the air cooled and shared a sleeping bag. In the morning, with the calls of crows ringing out above us in the trees, I recall hearing the familiar voices of my teammates passing by on the road below, chatting as usual while they headed out on a Sunday morning run. I watched them through the screen of the tent door and realized that I’d simply lost my head in love with that girl and was now missing a workout.
“Oh no!” I said out loud. “I forgot we had practice this morning.”
It was too late to try to join them. I was simply smitten with my new girlfriend, and in the scope of things, missing that Sunday practice was no big deal. But there would be new tests to come in our relationship. Even as we grew more in love, there were competitive issues swirling around us and life’s demands waiting down the line. That night in the tent was symbolic of things to come as each of us would be pulled in different directions.
But first, there were practical matters at hand. And when I showed up for breakfast later that morning the guys told me coach was so ticked about the fact that we lost the team title at the invite, he hardly noticed that I wasn’t there for practice. “But he made us run hard this morning,” the guys told me. “So you better put in a good workout.”
I waited until the afternoon heat was fading a bit, and then went on a solo run of nine miles, just like the guys in the morning had done. In keeping with the call to run hard, I ran nine miles at six minutes per mile. And having been fueled up by the affections of the one I loved, every step felt light and purposeful. I flew along with sweat flipping off the blonde ends of my brown hair, a look that was fading as the September light took over. That was the last practice I’d miss that season for any reason. But it was worth it.
There was another Saturday coming up fast. We’d be traveling to Grinnell, Iowa for a matchup with our conference rivals from Central College at the Grinnell Invitational. We hated those Central guys, and they pretty much hated us. Our competitive instincts were kicking into high gear. It would be a race to remember.
That’s how every meet felt that sweet season. I was running so well that I relished the chance to compete. At the same time, those old runner’s doubts would creep in now and then. I’d been second man every meet in the season so far, and wondered if my luck or training or something might fade. But every week, arriving home at our room after every meet, my roommate would crack open a victory Michelob and hand it too me with the mist of the beer floating above the lip of the bottle. “Good job,” he’d tell me. “#1 and #2. Way to go!”
It felt as if I was running that well by invitation only from my roommate, who was on an incredible roll and was now ranked nationally for his results. By invitation only, indeed.