Going into the last meet of the 1978 season, we felt as if we were still capable of doing big things at nationals. Our highest team place in our four years at Luther had been eighth place. I don’t even recall where that particular meet was held. What I do recall is that our freshman year national meet was run through the mud in Boston, Massachusetts.
Then came a national meet held in the snow of Cleveland. Both were cold and miserable efforts. Running tights had not yet been invented, so we tried on nylon stockings and even pulled up long john underwear before realized that neither would work. So we took to the snowy golf course in Cleveland bare-legged with the rest of the frozen-thighed masses trudging through snow and mud at the NCAA D3 nationals.
I threw up after the race, and a bit of errant vomit landed on the snow-covered shoe of a competitor. He yelled and punched me in the head. I didn’t really blame him.
Let it happen
So there wasn’t much glory to build upon going into nationals our senior year. We’d finished only fifth at regionals, yet the season behind us had been so successful that there was a quiet confidence among us still. Coach Finanger built upon this near-term history as our strength and hope. Our daily pre-workout meetings were rich with motivational talks and chalkboard documentation of our training up to that point. It all added up. We were ready to run great if we 1) made it happen and 2) let it happen.
If that seems contrarian, then you don’t really understand distance running. It takes all sorts of force and work to become a better runner, but then you have to relax. And yes, it’s counterintuitive. But that’s how it works.
On the Friday before nationals we all piled into a fleet of cars to make the drive down to Augustana College in Rock Island. The trip took us about four hours. A bevy of fans and supporters would follow us, including faculty and those that had watched us perform well all year. Our parents would drive in from locations in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. Those states were the bedrock for Luther students.
Considering North Central
The best team in the nation, without a doubt, would be North Central College. Their coach Al Carius would later be named NCAA Coach of the Century for the many national championships his teams racked up in all his years coaching the Cardinals. Their jerseys were vertically striped red and white. You simply could not miss them. The trick was to keep up with them. That was the tough part.* (see notes at bottom)
Our Lutheran rival Augustana College was also hoping for a good performance on their home course. They’d beaten us in our own invitational. Their blue and gold jerseys were so familiar from racing them so many times over the years, we almost felt like we were part of the same team. Beyond those known factors, the national meet was a mystery in many ways. It was impossible to know for sure who we’d be up against for some kind of trophy. That was our goal: run our best and bring home some hardware. Somehow.
The night before the meet, our team gathered at a pizza joint for dinner. Coach didn’t really watch us all that carefully as we dined. That allowed one of our runners, known better by his nickname “Duke,” to order a pitcher of beer.
That wasn’t all that uncommon a sight among most college cross country teams. But this pitcher of beer was intended for one person only: Himself. In fact he dipped his head straight down to the edge of the pitcher, grabbed the handle on one side and took a long swig with his eyes wide in delight. We all laughed.
We knew from experience over four years of college that Duke knew how to handle his liquor. But we had also been joined at our table by a runner from Central College, the guy that had won our conference meet earlier in the year. Either his coach wasn’t around or he simply wanted company the night before the meet. In any case, we’d forgiven him the bitter speech he’d made in victory after conference. We all wanted him to run well to represent our Iowa schools. He was a generally conservative guy however, and as he watched Duke down that booze his eyes grew wide in wonderment. We all just chuckled under our breath. Luther guys had a reputation for being a bit crazy. This only proved it.
We all headed back to the hotel. On the way, we wanted to stop and grab ice cream. Coach protested a bit thinking that ice cream might not be the best way to prep for a big meet like nationals, but he relented.
Ups and downs
The weather had been up and down in temperatures going into mid-November. Snow and slush had struck the Quad-Cities the day before we drove down. We worried a bit that nationals might turn into a reprise of that awful snowy meet back in Cleveland. Instead, the weather warmed and cleared the day before. Any leftover precipitation dried up and the course on Rock Island Arsenal would prove dry and fast.
In fact the course on Credit Island would turn out to be so fast that the runner who went on to win that year, Dan Henderson, took the first mile out in 4:23. That was Division 1 quality running. Sure enough, after easily winning the D3 meet, Henderson was allowed to enter the D1 race two days later.** He ran well enough to place 10th, earning All-American status at two distinct levels of running. Henderson’s time in the D3 8K race was 23:42, so clearly his presence at the D1 race was no fluke.
A D3 ripper
In the Division III race Henderson made the entire field tear through the first two miles. Our original lead runner that season might have enjoyed that early pace given his 4:08 mile speed. His mid-season injury to his had slowed his training, yet he still ran strong enough at nationals to help lead our team.
The man who emerged to lead our team at nationals that day was good old Duke. Our lead beer drinker and party guy used his 1:54 800-meter speed to get out fast in the first couple miles. Duke had a constitution as steely as his resolve to help us achieve our goals. He would only miss individual All-American status by a stride or two, and his 8K time in the high 24:00 range would turn out to be one of the best performances by any runner on our squad the entire season. Or any season, for that matter.
Our two freshman also ran superbly. At times I ran next to one or both of them, but with less than a half mile to go I was our fifth man, the last scoring place on our team.
Focus and determination
The course swerved around tall grassy areas alternating with long straightaways. Every runner on the course clung to those tangents trying to take the straightest line between them. A few even cut across the brush edges where the grass brushed their lower legs. I was one of them.
With a mile to go, something in me dialed into an entirely different kind of focus. Time seemed to slow even as the pace picked up. I felt a tremendous surge of awareness manifesting itself in resolve that I could not allow even a single runner to pass. With 200 meters to go, I took a quick glance around me and sucked in a big breath before starting the kick that would bring me home. I knew that our 1-4 guys were already through the chute. It was up to me to close out the deal.
My speed increased as I passed one or two guys heading toward the finish. My mind’s picture of those moments recalls the bright light of the November sun as it shone all around us. With five steps to go I watched my own shadow pass ahead of me through the finish line. The race was over. I’d run 25:16 for 8K and placed 62nd place overall. Now we’d all have to wait for the results.
The relative quiet following a big running race is still punctuated by the voices of runners recalling their efforts. The shaking of hands with teammates and competitors commences. For all present, it is the inspiring sight of distance runners coursing through the trees and chasing each other back through the colorful chute that is one of the most inspiring visages in all of sports.
It all becomes richer when a national title is on the line. When the running’s over, and the athletes start pulling on sweats to gather near the announcer and hear results, the buzz of voices takes on a different tone. For all those races you’ve run that seemed important, there is only one that really matters in that moment. The one you just ran.
We stood around as the judges did their work. It took a while, but finally the scores were tallied and checked. Then re-checked. Apparently the results were quite close. Then the announcer started calling out teams that had earned the top ten spots by order of their finish.
As each college was announced, we all became a bit anxious. By the time the sixth and fifth place teams were announced, our hands were clenched in wonder over whether we’d placed in the Top Ten at all. For a few moments, our hopes truly wavered. After all, we’d been fifth in our own regional. Why did we think we could leapfrog over teams that had beaten us just two weeks before in Pella, Iowa? It all felt surreal.
Finally the fourth Place was named at 159 points. Then came St. Thomas at 152 points. We’d beaten them earlier that season at the St. Olaf Invite. So we whispered, “They sure had a good day.”
Then the announcer said over the loudspeaker, “And in Second Place, with 151 points….Luther College!”
We’d done it. Second place in the nation. By only one point. Second in the nation after placing only fifth in our regional meet. We erupted in cheers and admittedly behaved as if we’d won the whole damned thing. North Central College had finished with 60 points to win the national meet by more than 90 points. We didn’t care. They were in a league of their own. We’d done what we came to do. Take home some hardware.
Admittedly, we were shocked. Yet we were also joyous that after three years of ups and downs, injuries and disappointments, we’d finally made good on our potential. In my case it came on the heels of the previous year’s cross country season when I’d been wracked by my first real encounter with depression. To come out of that dark period and help lead the team truly made it a sweet season.
Now grant you: what we accomplished didn’t really constitute a miracle. It surely didn’t mean much in context with the rest of the world’s problems, or even our own. Perhaps winning it all might have qualified as a miracle. And to that end, a Luther College team would win the national title in 1985. I was out in the work world by then and heard tales of how that group of guys had overcome heat and humidity down south to win Luther’s first-ever national cross country championship.
A co-worker at my office happened to visit Luther College that year with his daughter, and he kindly bought me a tee shirt with the national championship logo featured on the front. I hated my job at that time, and in some ways that vicarious “victory” provided both the inspiration and motivation to move on.
A crazy ride into the sweet season
It had all been a somewhat a crazy ride, those four years at Luther. Twenty years later I visited campus for a college reunion and used our old cross country locker room to change before going out on a run. To my surprise, the athletic tape that was stuck above our lockers in 1978 was still there. It bore our names in black magic marker. Elly. Duke. Cud. Moon. Dani. A year or so later that locker room was remodeled and the names finally disappeared. But the magic marker legacy had held on for many years. Perhaps it actually all meant something.
All those miles. All those laughs. All the joking around about topics ranging from sex to beer and classes. All those cold runs in the rain and double workouts in the heat. It had all led to something in the end. But most importantly, it also meant that everyone counted. Every last guy who pushed in those workouts or had led us in previous seasons. They contributed in many ways. So did the guys who came before us and the guys and gals who would follow. Luther’s women’s program that had started during our freshman year blossomed and turned out national champions as well. We hadn’t done any of it conventionally or predictably. Some of it we even did wrong. But we did it. That’s the thing…
Following that nationals race I noticed my folks standing away from our group with the other parents. All were smiling of course. I walked over and hugged my little mother, who stood just 5’3”. She’d given birth to four tall, athletic boys and one girl who did not survive after childbirth. My mother attended so many baseball games, track meets, soccer matches, basketball games, cross country races and other sports activities there should have been a Hall of Fame display in her honor at our humble home. But what she got from me that day was a hug that told her thank you. That was mostly what she wanted from her boys. Hugs.
Then I turned to my father, who’d been the one that pushed me into cross country my freshman year in high school. That wasn’t my first plan. I’d won the local Punt, Pass and Kick competition in the little town of Elburn, Illinois and advanced to districts. I thought I was hot stuff and a football prospect, maybe even quarterback.
Yet with all of his boys, my dad didn’t like the prospect of what football could do to our bodies. His best friend from college was wracked with the effects of football injuries as he’d gotten older. Thus my dad took me to the high school and said, “You’re going out for cross country. And if you come back out of that locker room, I’ll break your neck.”
That is the way my running career actually began. When you take a look at the physique of my body in the photo below, you can see why football was probably a bad idea. But running was perfect. Plus it provided a release for the anxieties and depression that would someday vex my mind.
I was a cross country runner from that point on. I made the Varsity as a freshman, led the team in the points category my sophomore year and then shuddered with disbelief in the middle of 10th grade when my dad moved our family twelve miles east from Kaneland High School to attend a bigger school in St. Charles.
Two decades later when I got around to asking my father why we moved, I inquired whether it was the gas shortage or an attempt to shorten my mother’s commute to her teaching job in St. Charles that were the reasons for our move. “No,” my dad replied. “I didn’t want your younger brother to play basketball in that slowdown offense out at Kaneland.”
“What about me?” I responded incredulously. “I was class president and the top runner in cross country!”
“I knew you were a social kid,” he stated in a matter-of-fact way. “I knew you’d survive.”
My brother went on to earn a full-ride basketball scholarship at a Division 1 school at Kent State University. So my dad made good decisions despite some of the pain it caused me.
In St. Charles, I led that cross country team to a district title and began attracting attention from small college coaches. I received a recruitment letter from North Central’s now-famous coach Al Carius. But my interest in attending North Central was low because of a strange experience on their campus my junior year in high school. A district cross country meet was held on their campus, and I had to hit the bathroom before the race started. Thus I headed into the dusty old field house to find a single toilet perched in the middle of the floor. A long line of guys was waiting as another runner did his business in full view of the crowd. I thought to myself, “I am never going to college here.”
It wasn’t long after that when North Central began upgrading its facilities, which are now world-class. But I also knew little about their program, and the things that Carius was doing terms of pulling great performances out of kids with humble resumes from high school. Many were the distance guys who entered North Central with two mile times well over 10:00 who went on to run under 9:00 when trained by Al. So if there were an alternative universe, it would have been fun to race there as well. I came to know many of their runners while competing in the Chicago area following in college. I even set my 5K PR of 14:47 on the North Central track at midnight during an All-Comers meet in May of 1984. So many times we find out that our key rivals in life are the people we most need to advance.
With all due respect
All that context was due to my dad making a good decision for me to send me out for cross country. He was also the one that ultimately encouraged me to attend Luther College. We drove up to campus in June or July the summer of 1975. I’d already applied and was accepted to Augustana College where I expected to run for their coach Paul Olson, another coaching legend in D3. He was a Luther grad and only recently retired after fifty years coaching track and cross country. But at that time, Augie was going to put me on academic probation because my grades were not that stellar in high school. My ACT scores were good but I was definitely a distracted underachiever as a student.
Luther brushed that all aside and looked at the overall perspective of my student activities as well as grades. They saw potential, and I wound up having a B average during college. But that summer as my dad and I drove six hours through Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa to arrive in Decorah. He told me, “Chris, this is the perfect place for your birding and painting. You should go here.”
And my dad was right again.
Becoming a Norseman, for better or worse
So I asked for my application fee back from Augie, and for some reason they sent it. Then I committed to Luther only a few weeks before practice started in August. That was why I thanked my father with a big hug after that national meet. We’d had our many difference through my teen years, but I told him with all sincerity in that moment, “I love you dad.” He’d certainly been through some dark and weird phases of his own while bringing us up. He was not always a gentle man. But I really meant it when I told him that I loved him. Later in his life I’d become his principle caregiver, and that was difficult at times. But love got us through.
The Big Production
A week or two after the cross country triumph at nationals, my college girlfriend performed in the production of Godspell she’d been working with the drama team all fall. I wasn’t that big a fan of the tunes in that musical, but I’d gotten used to them as she sang now and then with her lovely voice. We’d started to hang around with her theater friends as well. Some were gay and one or two were flamboyantly so.
Sometimes my teammates would make jokes about those people as they passed through the Luther cafeteria. By then I knew them well enough to speak up in defense, making small comments such as “He’s smart,” or “He’s cool.” I took some flack for that, and recall bristling aloud one night when someone mumbled an insult about one of the theater guy’s masculinity. I actually knew him to be a strong person and one who helped guide the production at many levels.
Yes, those were certainly different times when it came to how people viewed homosexuality. As a Resident Assistant in the dorms there were several occasions when my job was to defend their rights on campus. It wasn’t always easy. My own impressions of what it meant to be gay, in modern nomenclature, were changing through contact with my girlfriend’s associates. And truth be told, I liked them all.
My own progeny
When my own son came out during his freshman year in college, I could see the relief and joy in his embracing his real and honest identify. When my late wife asked my daughter what she thought about her brother’s sexual orientation, she immediately replied, “I think we both like good-looking guys.”
And to me, that insight is the true definition of godspell as it relates to our earthly existence. Acceptance, love and tolerance trumps all notions of law and especially interpretations of scripture that are used to discriminate, drive hate and produce cultural acrimony. It would still be a journey for me from the fears so often promulgated in the 1970s (and before) to the present day celebration of gay rights and identity, but it was a start.
And for that I credit that college girlfriend, for she was an astute observer of other people. She was also a religious person in a deeply curious way, a student of Judaism, a religion whose matter-of-fact worldview she admired. She and I went separate ways after two years of dating, but I’d recall her compassion several years after I married the woman to whom I be betrothed for 28 years before she died of cancer. My mother-in-law traveled to Israel and converted, for a while, to Judaism, attending synagogue rather than church. Eventually she came to believe so deeply in God the choice of her religion did not matter. She had transcended even the designations and denominations that rule so much of the world. My other mother was a Unitarian as well. These were smart women.
My own faith was re-emerging during college, and to my surprise the lyrics of the songs in the Godspell production tore into the fabric of blind perception. They suddenly appealed to me, including this set of lines:
“You do not belong to you. You belong to the Universe.”
The Godspell play went well for my gal, and despite our ups and downs during that sweet season, we each pushed the other to do our best in our individual pursuits.
She sang and danced with passion with the ensemble that was well-rehearsed and talented. Unfortunately, one of the main singers got off to a bad start and wound up singing flat the entire show. It was evident even to those of us without musical training that something was “off” the whole performance. That was ironic, because Luther is quite famous for its musical talent. Thus I wondered how that person got so far through rehearsals without someone calling them out for off-tune singing.
My girlfriend defended them, remarking: “They were never flat before. I don’t know what happened. Maybe it was nerves.” She was miffed, but there was nothing anyone could do about it. The show was over. That challenge drew enormous empathy from me. I’d seen plenty of “flat” performances on my own and among other runners over the years. When you’re putting yourself out there, a bad day can come along at the worst time. There’s not much you can do about it but survive.
Let bygones be bygones
I often thought of those moments as a symbol for what would happen with our relationship as well. Her parents held a dim view of my future as a businessman and campaigned behind the scenes to cut me loose. In any case, she had met a guy up in Minneapolis where she was living while I was back in Chicago. Thus we decided to split with a romantic weekend together in Minneapolis. We sat by one of the lakes watching lightning play about in huge thunderheads as the fireworks burst into bright colors in the foreground. We both cried and made love one more time before I turned around and went home.
She would indeed marry and have four daughters. We both knew it was goodbye that July 4th in 1980. Yet years later the daughter of a close friend would come home from a Norwegian camp she attended in Minnesota each year to share a fact with her parents (also Luther grads) that surprised us all. It turned out that the gal with whom she’d been close friends in camp for four years was actually the daughter of the woman I’d dated in college. The subject of Luther College had come up, and my friend’s daughter exclaimed “Oh my God!” when she heard her friend tell her that her mother had dated some guy named Chris Cudworth in college.
I’ve always thought that was a remarkable circumstance. Our connections in this world never really cease to be.
We can all relate
That is the allegory for life that I drew from that sweet season. Performing your best isn’t just about running fast, or being perfect in some way. It’s about the connections you make, and realizing that not everything you do is going to be all sweetness and joy along the way. There will be heartaches, as I learned many times. And fears, as we all learned when injury struck us all in the middle of the season.
There are certainly greater triumphs than the accomplishment our little college cross country team was able to achieve. But that’s not really the point of any of this. Because it’s not how your triumphs compare to others, but how we all learn and grow to appreciate the triumphs of others. That is what makes all of life a sweet season.