This is the fifth in a series of articles about the Sweet Season of 1978, my college senior year when our Luther College team placed second in the nation in NCAA Division III cross country. To follow the chronological narrative in full, please begin in order by volume.
Volume one • Volume two • Volume three
After a personal fifth place at the Grinnell invitational September 23, 1978, I noted in my running log that “Hantsbarger outlasted me. Dani first again.” We won the meet and my mileage topped 90 miles for the week.
My method of record-keeping and mileage was not sophisticated, just a pen on paper chart mapping mileage in a converted college composition book. But it worked as well as any modern data tracker today. In the log shown, one can see the difference in the mileage I ran in the spring track and field season and cross county in the fall. In spring I raced steeplechase and 5000 meters, no more than three miles total. In fall we raced four and five mile races in the Division III category for the NCAA.
The weeks ripped by as the typical mileages for each day told the story: Sun 9-6, Mon 5-9, Tues 5-10, Wed 8-9, Thur 3-7, Frid 5-3 and Sat 3-7. Morning workouts were done with a teammate or two. We’d get up at the first light of dawn and run 4-8 miles before our 8:00 a.m. college classes.
Evenings we joined the entire team for longer workouts, much of it done at 6:00 mile pace or under. We trained right through races and raced right through training. Perhaps it wasn’t the ideal approach for a thirteen week season. But that’s how we rolled.
Our sixth meet of the season was held in Waverly, Iowa, between Luther, Wartburg College and St. Olaf, whose top two runners Mike Palmquist and Matt Haugen were perennial All-Americans. In thinking back on running against them, I reached out to both of those runners via email to ask how much mileage they did in college. Palmquist wrote me back: “
I recall running about 60 miles per week in cross country and 40 miles per week in track. I bumped up those miles during the summer, but the intensity was much lower. I tended to be a low-mileage, high intensity trainer. Matt, on the other hand, ran quite a bit more than I did, mostly by adding morning runs and doing a bit extra on the weekend. I ended up running higher mileage after I graduated and started competing as a full-time runner, but I seldom ran more than 100 miles per week. I seemed to do much better at 80 to 90.
Matt Haugen, who went on to complete an 8:40 Ironman Triathlon after his All-American career at St. Olaf, had some interesting mileage tales to tell. He wrote:
So were were all living on the edge in one way or another. My daily mileage totals soared hight the very next week to Sun 8-11, Mon 6-8, Tue 3-7-5, Wed 7-7, Thur 3-10, Friday 4-4, and Sat 8-8 for an estimated total of 99 miles, give or take a few. That would be the season’s high mileage. Accurate or not, it likely topped 100.
My journal from those weeks also recorded consistent efforts to stay grounded through all that running. Sometimes it was just a question of looking around while running through the scenic Oneota Valley in Decorah, Iowa. “Within the last two weeks I have seen two pileated woodpeckers. One flying across the valley below Silvercrest Golf Course. The other I saw on Phelps road just along the river. He called like a cross between a crow and a flicker. Clarinet-like ‘heah-heah.’ A green heron landed along Lindeman pond.”
So my brain was trying to absorb something other than the irreversibility of time while running all those miles. The relationship with my girlfriend continued to deepen in emotional and physical connection. Every week we seemed to immerse ourselves in richer conversation about things that mattered to both of us. We even discussed religion as she was studying Judaism with a Professor or Religion named Richard Simon Hanson. She was somehow drawn to the story of Israel and the Judaic tradition. In truth she even looked a little like what some might call a prototypical Jewish girl with her deep black hair and bright green eyes. Plus she was fiery and tough and musical and determined all at once. I’d never met a woman like her before. It seemed we were meant to be together.
One weekend she flew home to visit her parents. I wrote in my journal: “(She’s) gone for the weekend. I’m a little lonely. I ran well today and have dorm duty, thus no one to share it with. 99 miles this week. I just want to stay healthy and run well. I miss her, although I sort of value the time alone. Now her flight’s delayed.”
The flight mentioned refers to a trip back by private plane from an airport northwest of Chicago. They’d fly her to a small airstrip on a hill east of Decorah. Somehow the flight was arranged through her well-connected parents. So I went to bed in my dorm room alone wondering if this is how love always felt. Like you’d just about die when you were apart from the one you loved.
But I couldn’t moon around long… wondering what the next day would bring. The pressure to perform well each week was now firmly on my shoulders. I’d been our second man in all but one meet, so there were now expectations to meet. No longer was it good enough to go out and race and hope to crack the Top 5.
Granted, my rise in the team architecture was partly the result of injuries to two of our formerly men. But the fact of the matter is that timing is everything, and my relative ascendency coincided with a need for someone else to step up.
The same held true with our top runner, a runner who led our distance guys in track and field. He’d previously been one of our Top 5 in cross country, but never the true team leader. That all changed fin the fall of 1978 and he’d won a string of meets in a row.
Plus we were roommates. After every meet when we got back to the dorm, we’d crack open a ceremonial Michelob beer that he kept in his fridge as a reward for good performances. So far we’d not missed an appointment with those black cans of beer.
As a team we were also the beneficiaries of two stellar freshman that had joined the squad. Both were placing in our Top 5 each week. That meant there was a tinge of the bittersweet in the sweetness of the 1978 season. We’d now won all but one of our meets thus far, but how much better would we be if everyone was healthy? Could we place at nationals? That remained to be seen.
That said, there were also signs that the training was taking its toll on us all. I noted the presence of a sore calf on October 1. That day we ran thirteen miles in the morning and five at night. Just your average Sunday…
Then came a Monday workout on the hills of Palisades Park. We gathered at the base of a long incline of perhaps three degrees that featured a sharp rise right at the end. Our two-mile warmup to the base of the hill felt great despite the calf soreness from the day before. Then we jogged to the top of the hill, trotted back down at a fair clip and ran hard back up the hill.
“It’s up to you”
After the fourth of eight such intervals, my former roommate came up to me during a rest phase at the top of the hill. “You have to run great this weekend at St. Olaf,” he told me. “We’re counting on you now.” I found his urgency a bit surprising as I’d not had a faltering week thus far. But I literally looked him in the eye and said, “I know. I’m ready.”
We ran the rest of the hill repeats side by side, almost sharing the same oxygen as we lifted onto our toes on each rise of ground. At the end of the workout, we quietly slapped hands.
It seemed like he was finally coming around from the toe injury that was causing him so much trouble in training and racing. That next spring at track nationals, he’d only miss All-American in the steeplechase by one second. He was one of the best runners ever to come through Luther College, earning individual conference championships in both track and cross country. He’s now a well-deserved member of Luther’s Athletic Hall of Fame. So I appreciated his call to arms in trying to motivate me for the upcoming race.
That next day we ran a loop called Freeport. Coach had us doing 100 yard pickups back and forth on the road to sharpen our speed for upcoming meets. But the camber of the road was too steep as the drop from road center to the gravel edge was probably a full foot. That afternoon, I noted in my running journal the next day: “Sore Achilles.”
Nearly the whole team wound up lame from that workout. Indeed, I skipped the next two morning runs, settling for runs of six miles in afternoon workouts to let my leg recover.
In fact the leg was so sore that I visited the campus doctor. He looked me over and prescribed a set of pills that I picked up at the local pharmacy. The bottle read:
While taking that medicine, I wandered around campus in a complete daze for two or three days. I couldn’t find my way across campus on several occasions. Just by happenstance I hardly made connections with my girlfriend those few days. She was particularly busy with rehearsals for the Godspell musical in which she was starring.
Our coach was so freaked out by the Achilles problems vexing the whole team that we made a trip up to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota to visit a prominent doctor who was a Luther graduate. When he asked how I was doing, I handed him the bottle marked Butazolidin and said, “This is what I’m taking.”
He pulled his glasses down in front of his face, then looked back at me in wonder and said, “Stop taking this immediately. This is how much they give to horses.”
In fact, that campus doctor could well have killed me with the amount of medicine he had prescribed. This is how the Medline website describes the relative effects of that drug on humans:
Butazolidin is an NSAID (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug). Butazolidin overdose occurs when someone takes more than the normal or recommended amount of this medicine. This can be by accident or on purpose. Butazolidin is no longer sold for human use in the United States. However, it is still used to treat animals, such as horses.
Now, that last sentence is rather funny because our coach always liked to call us his “horses.” It was his way to compliment the way we ran. But now we were all lame as thoroughbreds, and needed to do something fast. So coach took us to a running store in Rochester and purchased us all a brand new pair of Brooks shoes called the Varus Wedge. It was one of the first orthotically designed shoes with an outward camber built into the sole to control pronation. That was our raw prescription for Achilles problems. For many of us, it helped, but a generic prescription of running shoes does not heal everything. There would still be trouble to follow.
As if the Achilles soreness and dangerous prescription I was given were not enough of a challenge, that following Monday an incident that took place in the college union that felt like a social earthquake. Walking out of the cafeteria with my girlfriend, I felt her hand suddenly tug backward in mine. I turned in time to see her toss a glass of orange soda straight into the face of a guy that I recognized as a track teammate. She said something on the order of…“Don’t you ever…” and the rest I did not hear because the scene erupted into multiple voices shouting and pushing and confusion.
I did recognize the instant anger on the face of my teammate, and adrenaline quickly pumped into my system. I pulled her toward me wondering, “Will he hit her?”
Quickly I stepped between them and tried to calm the situation. “What’s going on?” I asked half out of fear. I certainly wasn’t prepared to fight the guy. He stood 6’3”, weighed 195 lbs. and was one of our best sprinters in track and a star middle linebacker in football. I weighed 139 lbs. at the time and had 3% body fat. He’d have torn me apart if it had gone that direction.
As calmly as I could, I apologized to my track teammate. He stood inches from me at that moment. That’s when I realized that in all the time we’d spent together in three years of track and field, through countless practices and even competing on the basketball court in intramurals, we’d never been so near to one another. Now we stood face to face, and he was staring over my shoulder at my girlfriend.
Something in me stood still. At that moment some unspoken bond worked through us both. He looked me in the eye, and then moved away. So I stepped back from the scene of the confrontation. Then I turned to him and said, “I’m sorry man.” I could see that his face was still wet from the orange soda that she’d thrown at him. His companions, including some women, were uttering low threats that I could not really hear. Then the stairwell door closed behind us and I walked away wondering what had just happened.
“Why did you say you’re sorry?” she demanded to know. “Weren’t you going to defend me?” All I could think is that I had not truly heard or seen all that had happened. Part of me greatly wanted to protect and defend her. Yet part of me honestly trusted my teammate as well. Competing loyalties are a strange thing indeed.
This much I knew: she was feisty like me. Competitive as I was, I’d flown off the handle for small and large offenses on my own in the past. Thus I truly did not know what to think about something that happened so suddenly. Without information or explanations to determine all that, my instincts told me to not judge anyone, to remain calm as possible and to not make things worse by taking sides.
Change of subject
So we walked back to the dorm together and the subject rapidly changed. We strolled through the pretty campus with its massive oak trees changing color. A cool breeze was coursing over the Oneota Valley and life seemed to return to normal as fast as it had changed. I felt like we’d just lived through an earthquake.
Over the years, I’ve thought back to that moment in the union. To this day I am not sure exactly what transpired. My track teammate was one of just over 100 black students on campus at the time, several of whom shared rooms with me on track trips. Some were inner city kids that had taken the risk of heading out from the inner city of Chicago to attend college in the cornfields of Iowa at a school of 2400 kids primarily suburban and rural kids from the Midwest. The haven of cultural identity on campus was the Black Student Union. That seemed a blessing in some ways and a curse in others.
Matters at hand
All I wanted to do after all that upheaval was focus on the meet ahead. The weather had cooled for a few days, yet as we traveled to St. Olaf the temperatures moderated and it turned out to be a dank yet relatively warm day for a race. We stripped down to our Luther singlets and everyone on the team had a serious air about them. It all came down to one thing: We wanted to win again.
Our hill training came in handy on the St. Olaf course. We won the meet against tough competition, specifically the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, whose D3 runners were some of the best in the Midwest. With 800 meters to go, the teammate that had provided focused inspiration earlier in the week ran right on my heels. Finally we closed on a LaCrosse runner ahead of us, a guy that neither of us had likely beaten before. But there was literally no stopping us now. My teammate said “Let’s go” and we started a kick with 400 meters to go. As we came up behind our competitor,Limy teammate said, “Let’s close him off.” So we swung around either side of him and cut back in to form a perfect duo as we sprinted to the finish line. I finished 8th overall in the meet and Luther won the title. Our nearly unbeaten streak in the Sweet Season continued.
But bigger challenges still lay ahead.
*”Life tectonics” is a term I originally coined in 1981 for a fiction book titled “Admissions”.” That book accurately predicted social, political and cultural issuesthat would come true in the decades to follow. My son and I are now editing the book for release as it was set in the future, a period we’re living in now.