In November 1978 I was a senior at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. Our team had just placed second in the NCAA National Cross Country Championships in Rock Island, Illinois. I was fifth man for the team that day after performing most of the season as our second runner on the varsity.
That was a large step up from the first three years of my college running career. I’d largely lurked in the bottom half of the Top 7, but still finished in the Top 10 in conference three times. So I was a contributor to our team success, just not the leader each season.
But thanks to my own running progression coming off a successful junior track season in which I set all my distance PRs from one mile to the steeplechase, I came to school that fall in good condition and ready to change my fate.
It also helped that I cut off the long hair and scruffy beard that had been my hallmark the year before. I fashioned myself a copy of Finnish distance runner Lasse Viren, and looked like him in the thinning hair and pale skin department. My thin chin beard also matched the look.
But it was time for a change, so that summer I told the barber to cut off my shoulder-length hair. That same week I got my first pair of contact lenses. I retained the mustache in keeping with a Steve Prefontaine or Frank Shorter look.
We ran hundreds of miles in training. Week after week I was second man behind my roommate, Dani Fjelstad, another Luther runner who took it upon himself to meet his true potential that season. He’d been similar to me in his cross country career at Luther, typically in the middle of the roster when he wasn’t hurt. He came to campus that fall in awesome shape, winning the Luther Invitational against a tough field, and many other races as well.
we pushed each other to lead the team, which was by happenstance beset by injuries to two of our best runners. That year a pair of freshman arrived on campus with keen credentials, so the stage was set for Luther to finally place at Nationals. We won several invites that fall, yet barely made it through regionals in 5th place.
So it was a shock to many that we placed second in the nation. Our margin of error was thin. We only beat the third and fourth place teams by a couple points. That made the sensations I felt in the last half mile seem surreal. I knew somehow that I had to pass people and let no one pass me. Time seemed to slow down.
After our triumph, I returned to campus to find myself behind in a couple courses. Our training and meets consumed so much time that I had to make up tests and finish other projects before the term ended. One of those obligations was a drawing course within my Art major. My professor John Whelan was himself a runner of note. But he believed in the merit of real college-level work in art. He informed me that there were still eighteen hours of outside-class drawing due to complete the course requirements. I had a weekend in which to finish the work.
So I recruited models and worked from studies of other great artists. The live models sat for me as life drawing subjects. But come Sunday evening everyone was busy with their own end-of-term work. So I sat down and started the self-portrait that would finish up the last two hours of drawing.
Recently while going through my portfolio drawers I stumbled on that drawing (first image in this post) again. I see the thin and determined face of a young man that had just completed one of the most challenging thirteen weeks of his athletic career. I was lean and fit as a hawk during hunting season. In fact the self-portrait has the head of a red-tailed hawk drawn next to it. That’s because I’d made a talisman from the talon of a road kill hawk and turned it into a necklace. It was my promise to myself that I’d get back to the art work after devoting myself 100% to the task at hand, a winning season.
Granted, I was not “national class” in the sense that I placed in the Top 25 to earn individual All-American status. I’d run 25:16 on a flat, fast Arsenal Island course on a cool fall day and placed around 60th overall. Dan Henderson of Wheaton College won the race in the low 23:00 range. A few years later I’d run 24:46 for five miles and that was as fast as I ever got.
But it took determination to do even what I did. Of that I’m proud and still feel those strains of determination within me to this day. It’s something you learn through effort, and keep the same way. The face may have changed with age, but the self portrait is a depiction of a spirit I’ll never give up.