The photo above is as old as it looks. It is a snapshot taken by my father with one of his jury-rigged cameras in the late 1970s. My folks had come up to Kenosha, Wisconsin from our home back in Illinois to watch our Luther College team compete in the Carthage Invitational at Petrifying Springs Park.
They also came to meet my girlfriend, the woman walking toward me in the photo. I’d fallen quite in love with her. She’d also come up from Illinois after having visited her folks for a few days back home.
The other guys in the photo are people with whom I’ve kept in touch all these years. The runner at left was my roommate that year, a talented runner named Dani Fjelstad. The gent in sweats to my left is Bradley Stene, a former Luther runner who came up from Illinois to watch us as well.
Up to that point in the cross country season, things had gone along even better for me personally than the script I’d laid out in my head. I was consistently racing as second man on our team while my roommate Dani was our #1 guy, ranking highly on the national charts in having won several key invitationals.
But Dani had suffered a calf pull that slowed him the previous week. In fact the entire team had run into Achilles tendon problems after a speed workout we’d done on the roads. Most of us recovered within a week or so, but not everyone was up to par. Thus I ran as our first man in the Tuesday dual meet against University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse the same week as Carthage. I’d barely missing out winning the race when a LaCrosse runner named Steve Oestwinkle outkicked me in the last 400 meters.
We’d already faced down a number of challenges that season. One of our top senior runners, Keith Ellingson, was forced out of action by back problems. Another of our best guys Paul Mullen had been hampered all season with a sore big toe. But thanks to some talented freshman and runners stepping up each week, we still saw an opportunity to take a win at the Carthage Invite.
From the opening gun I knew that I wasn’t feeling my best that day. Up to that point I’d been beyond solid in every race, but within a mile my body wasn’t responding with the same verve. Perhaps it was the mileage buildup we’d been doing with 100-mile weeks. Or perhaps it was racing every week. In any case I faded from second man to sixth that day. Along the way, my teammates offered encouragement and I kept on running, but it was a struggle.
Per usual, one of our teammates Steve Corson stepped up as top man that day and barely missed placing in the Top 10. That would have earned him a coveted Carthage Invite watch against competition that featured featured Northwestern University and other big time teams.
That’s why there is a strain of disappointment in that old black and white photo. After what had been a dreamlike season, it was a disappointing day for us. Of course, most of the crowd in attendance and even my parents didn’t really realize that we had not run our best. The excitement of cross country on a bright fall day is a blessing to the fans. The sweaty young men who walked out of the chute still looked glorious and brave in the autumn sunshine. Quite often the expectations of the athletes are far different from the impressions of the fans.
Nor did I ever marry that girl. It was simply a great college relationship that lasted another year or so. So when I look at that photo, I see a slice of time that was a blessing even though the results that day and the feelings in that moment were not perfect. If that’s not life in a nutshell, I don’t know what is. Sometimes we all need a snapshot to remind us how important all these moments really are.