This is the sixth 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.
After the big invitational win at St. Olaf, where our team rose to victory despite the continuing injury that had slowed our top man, it was time to regather. Now our goals were pointed toward qualifying for nationals and then seeking a win in the IIAC conference meet. For years we’d been a relative lock to win the conference, but in the back of our minds was the knowledge that our key rival Central College was a much-improved team and was now possibly capable of challenging us.
But first, we had an important task to accomplish at the District V qualifying meet on Central’s course down in Pella, Iowa. Some on our team were feeling the wear and tear of the season, and on the first Monday after the St. Olaf meet, our coach heard one of our team members speculate that maybe we were “burnt out.”
Nothing sets a coach on edge like overhearing negative thinking stated out loud. That was particularly with our coach Kent Finanger, And so, in practice that evening, he gave us instructions to run seven miles at 6:00 pace with no talking.
Not a peep, he warned us.
And so it was that we set out running an no one dared say a word the entire run. Not a whisper. All we did was run. Every footstep was audible as ran at a hard clip on the gravel roads that passed under tall limestone bluffs, a route we called Under Phelps-Ice Cave. Our movements echoed all around us, and the breathing of the entire team sounded like a rush of wind or the ghosts of Luther runners past. It gave us a strange sense of being watched the whole way. We arrived back on campus amazed at the effect it had on all of us. Everyone spoke with a certain reverence from then on.
The next day, Coach Kent Finanger pulled us all into the pre-run meeting. As with every practice, he started with a pep talk. But this one was different. He had been so disturbed by someone’s mention of being “burned out” that he’d gotten on the phone the evening before to talk to some of the leading run coaches in the nation.
He called Ted Haydon at the University of Chicago. He called Dan McClimon, coach at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Badgers. This was serious stuff. We all knew the names of those coaches. They’d worked with some of the leading athletes in the world.
Coach Finanger had written the names of those big name coaches on the blackboard. He’d quoted portions of their conversations and wrote them on the board as inspirational quotes in his distinctive writing. You’d have needed to be dead in your chair not to be inspired by the words he wrote and the way that he extrapolated inspiration from those conversations.
He revealed each quote with a dramatic flair by slowly raising the projector screen that had been covering the blackboard. Each new quote shared “news” about our potential and capabilities. Central to all these was the message that we were not “burned out.” Instead, we on the brink of a major achievement in the history of Luther cross country.
I’d never seen our coach so fired up in all four years of competing for him.
That night we did speed work and the focus of the team was incredible. When we showed up for the next night’s practice, coach handed us all inspirational tee shirts. He did the same thing with new shirts the next night, and the night after that as well. All that week there were urgent, inspiring motivational talks and tee shirts to affirm the themes he was communicating. If we had not felt like part of a team before those moments, we certainly did by the end of the week. It was time, he was telling us, to get serious about advancing to nationals and frankly, fulfilling our destiny as a program.
Because the truth of the matter is that at some point you only have one chance left.
Wow! Fun! Wow!
Coach Finanger was simply not allowing us to crumble into an attitude of defeat. Not after the success that we’d already accomplished that season. Certainly, we’d suffered injuries to some of our top guys that took them out of their rhythm, but Coach Kent was standing by the “Wow! Fun! Wow!” philosophy that he always embraced, without exception, on belief that it was joy in the process that drove the best efforts of everyone. Thus he emphasized positivity. This was true for running and as a holistic perspective in life.
Perhaps that phrase sounds trite and cliche to outsiders. But it was part of the culture that Coach Kent created and conducted with such commitment that we’d learned not to doubt its power. We’d seen the force of his vision come to fruition when he started the women’s cross country program our first year as freshmen at Luther. Within ten years the seeds of that vision would produce a national women’s champion in the likes of Tureena Johnson, a Honda All American athlete. All because Coach Kent believed in fitness for everyone.
Thus we embraced his words and what we might call an attitude of ‘serious fun.’ He wanted his “horses” (as he called us) to understand something more as well. We were all part of something special going on.
The weekend that we raced in the regional meet were a bit deflating, as we finished in the last qualifying spot, fifth place. It was a squeaker for the Luther cross country team. Still, we’d earned the right to advance to the national meet being held in Rock Island, Illinois in the fall of 1978. That was all that counted.
The meet was also bittersweet in another respect as well. One of our lead runners that had been conference champion the previous year was finally progressing from the limiting back injury that had kept him down all season. He lined up to run the race after two months of trying to return to form. His back problems had reduced both the volume and speed of his training during those 10 weeks of the cross country season. It was an enormously frustrating journey. Yet he kept on trying.
Team sentiment ran strong for him to rebound because he was a native of Decorah, the town in which Luther College is located. He’d literally grown up across the street from our coach. And when he was on form (see him leading five Luther runners in the black and white photo above and at left in the painting) he was a joy to watch. He seemed to fly across the ground. Thus we all quietly hoped he could run well enough to make the team for nationals. For all we knew, he might pull off some kind of miracle. Ultimately, he ran decently enough, and bravely to be sure. He simply did not have enough fitness stored up to crack our Top 7 for the national team.
Watching him go through the pain of that season our senior year in college was a sobering experience. It made me realize how tenuous it all was, every bit of it. Heading into the last few weeks of the season, I wrote in my running journal: “These next two weeks with take some thoughtful dedication. A long list of things will be done, and they should and will be done right. Be calm. Be proud. Be prepared. Be understanding. Be strong. Be yourself.”
Later in life, that lead distance runner and I would share a painful parallel. We had been roommates together our freshman year in college. I’d grown to love his sharp wit and often sardonic worldview. I’d also gotten to know his sweet girlfriend Kristi, the gal he’d dated since their sophomore year in high school.
They got married after college and his wife turned into a really good marathoner. She was both pretty and health conscious. Ultimately they had three children of their own, some of whom turned out to be runners as well.
Then in a shocking diagnosis during her early 50s, Kristi learned she had ovarian cancer. That diagnosis occurred at the same time that my own wife was going through treatment for the same disease. While they were both going through treatment, our wives would meet at our college reunions and have quiet conversations about their respective struggles and the fear that cancer always engenders.
It was a strange thing that two college teammates should lose their wives to the same disease on the random fates that so frequently vex human existence.
But in 1978 I was still trying to figure out whether my relationship with that college girlfriend would turn into something long-term. We ran together some, but she also smoked cigarettes. A few times we’d out jogging and she’d get a sidestitch during the run. I always figured the smoking caused that.
But I can’t claim that the taste of menthol in our mouth was not a stimulant for me at times. We’d become so close that our entire existence seemed intertwined. It was limb to limb and lip to lip for us, and as the sweet season progressed she would be there for me on many fronts. It seemed she needed me as much as I needed her. In that season, that was all that I wanted or could comprehend. So I had that love relationship as well as a commitment to our team, the coach and the idea that we all had something yet to accomplish.
Ups and downs
The next hurdle would be a lumpy one, for our conference meet was being held on a monstrously hilly course set on the Mississippi River bluffs of Dubuque, Iowa. I knew the layout would not suit my strengths. I typically ran best by getting into a groove and holding or building on the pace. As a taller runner, I’d needed to learn better how to run hills. That took place in all the training we did on the hilly terrain around Decorah. So I didn’t fear hills, but the Dubuque course was almost an absurd exercise in that respect. It had almost no flat surfaces at all. During the course tour, we all discussed strategy. I solemnly determined that it would be best for me to distribute the fitness I had across the entire span of the race rather than try to prove anything too big in the early going.
Holding my own
I finished 8th overall in the conference, one place better than the position I’d earned as a freshman cross country runner. We had put all seven of our men in the top 10 places that first season. As a senior, I was happy to have held my own on such a tough layout.
The Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference had improved over time. Our challengers from Central and Wartburg College had vastly improved their individual and team qualities. One of Wartburg’s runners had improved so fast that he would drop his1500 meter times into the low 3:50s, an All-American performer. The same held true for Central’s top runner. It would take more than confidence and wishful thinking to hold off that quality.
We got the job done, but it felt strange because the times on that mountainous course were so much slower than a typical college cross country race over the five-mile distance. I ran just over 28:00 at the end of a season when most meets were finished in the high 25s even on relatively hilly courses. The Dubuque course was something entirely different, and just holding my own felt good. It was just good to put that race behind us.
As the team and individual awards were announced, we stood around as a team feeling more relief than triumph over what we’d accomplished. Then the moment came for the individual winner to be recognized, and the Central runner who won the individual title launched into an impassioned speech that contained criticism of our program. That display of bad sportsmanship greatly disturbed our coach. It was strange to all of us because we knew the guy was not a bad person, just really competitive. It made no sense because we all knew him as a rather Christian guy.
Sadly that was yet another example of a pattern that I’d already in my young life and would encounter many times more in the wider world. As a high school kid, I’d been accosted by a Campus Life counselor who warned me, “You’ll never be a Christian if you keep asking questions.”
I thought that was an odd and contrary response from someone claiming to be a Christian. It taught me early in life to be on my guard around the aggressively self-righteous. They could turn on you in a minute.
It was all rather ironic given the fact that the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse guys all thought us Luther guys were probably religious types. A few years after college I got to meet a number of those guys at a truly wild post-race party following a half-marathon race in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. Half the room seemed to be naked, and the drinking was heavy and hard. I wound up sleeping on the floor under nothing more than a blanket on the living room. I woke up hungover the next morning and rolled over to see a woman wearing no pants stepping over me on the way to the bathroom. I lay there for a moment and said, “Well okay then.” Perhaps the LaCrosse boys were right: We Luther guys were probably choirboys by comparison.
But when it came to running, we’d barely lost to them in our dual meet that senior season. So there no loss of respect there, but they still considered their running program superior to ours. In the fall of 1978, that remained to be seen, because we competed in the same NCAA Division III national competition.
Within our squad, we had freshmen who competed on our varsity squad that sweet season of 1978. They were a critical component of our success while consistently running in the Top 5 guys week after week. The two freshmen filled in for the injured seniors that in 1975 had entered the program together with so much potential as part of a class that had six runners with sub-15:00 three-mile times in their high school careers. We’d finished as high as 8th place at nationals, but the general consensus remained that the potential of that group had never been fulfilled.
Hope and determination
Thus we came of regionals and the conference meet with mixed emotions but also filled with hope and determination. That did not mean we weren’t feeling pressure to complete the supposed season of destiny we had never yet achieved. Certainly, our coach saw our 1978 season as THE opportunity to meet those longstanding expectations. We’d come a long way. There was no turning back now.
Of course, he still had a few tricks up his sleeve on how to make that happen. The regionals and conference meets were behind us, and there was only one meet to complete that quest.
Thus we faced the specter of Division III Nationals with both anticipation and a degree of trepidation. Our fifth place at regionals was a notable thump in the chorus of success we’d had that fall.
But the course was clear. The national race would be held on the flat, fast Arsenal Island in Rock Island, Illinois that we’d raced on at the start of the season. We’d all raced well there in the heat of September. But there were many other teams scheduled to compete at nationals, including the all-powerful North Central College, perennial champions in Division III cross country. All that was left was to prep our minds and rest our legs for a big performance at nationals.
It was a simple matter of focus and effort. That was all.