Jim Nielsen’s life journey a long run to China and back

Recently I received an email form a former Luther College teammate that lives in China. Jim Nielsen and I were cross country runners beginning our freshman year. But we also shared a love of table tennis and despite having tired legs from all those miles of training, we often played each other in the Ylvisaker freshman dorm recreation room. Those matches were fun and intense. We even took second in the college doubles tournament. But most of all, we ran miles together in cross country.

Jim Nielsen competing in a race in China.

Jim has continued running and has completed a marathon in every decade of his life since college. He’s training for a race this year in June, but it may be canceled due to the Coronavirus epidemic. But Jim is an eternal optimist, a man of strong personal faith and keeping relationships going as he loves people. He wrote me during the current quarantine period in China:

“Greetings form China! Just signed up for your blog, we run and ride.. Should have been following sooner but I am currently near the end of a 14 day quarantine in China after coming back from the states but through Korea.  It is affording me lots of time to read, study, research, watching movies and just enjoy catching up on the past.

I am still running and in fact am training for my last marathon this summer, the Lanzhou Intl Marathon in Lanzhou, Gansu China, in early June. I have run at least 1 marathon every decade since I was 20 so if I can accomplish this it will  be my 5th decade since I am 62, as you would know.

Funny thing is when I knew I would be quarantined for 14 days and confined to a hotel room, I thought, oh no, I will lose all I have gained in my serious training to date. The first hotel I was in I was the only one on the 9th floor so I ran back and forth in a 70 meter hallway. I was able to get in a run for  1:37.17 going 182 times up and down the hallway. Then I was moved to a government approved hotel with lots of other people quarantined. I proceeded for 3 days to run at least a 5 k but after the third night the police cameras caught me (there are cameras all over China). I was scolded and told if I continue I will get another 14 days. But with 3 more days to go I will be able to go to my home.

I WILL obey!”

Jim’s photo of a race starting line in China.

Jim was a devoted trainer even in college. His recollections of those years are keen and insightful, often bringing up aspects of our experience that some of us have forgotten. I offered to feature him in this blog, and this is what he wrote back.

“That would be quite flattering as I was at my very best 3 minutes behind your very best while at Luther. It was just so heady for me to be a part of a team with you guys who were clearly national class runners for the three years I ran with you.

I felt my role was best at the national meet when I was literally yelling, cheering you guys on and then watching what seemed to me each of you passing 20 or more guys at the end of the race to get us to second place, beating three teams that beat us in regionals. I will never forget Kent’s (our Coach Kent Finanger) railing on you guys after regionals  like I had never heard from him before.

I think the rest of us thought that you guys had already peaked out. And then Duke runs the race of his life leading all the rest of you to do the same. We thought for sure Dani had peaked after a sensational season where he rarely lost and then he comes back with a strong race. As I recall, what did it for us was I think there was only 13-17 seconds between Duke at 24:59 and the rest of you 5 at 25:16. Didn’t you run a 25:12? . Maybe it was a bigger spread but not much more. Of course there was no way any team was going to catch North Central I think almost 100 points ahead of us. I just love recalling the whole thing. It was a highlight of my whole time at Luther!

I did a J-term in California (where I took a gap year during your junior year) planning to run the Mission Bay marathon where Craig Virgin (Illinois stud) won it in his first marathon attempt. I was up to running about 100 miles a week and ran my best 10k in 34:19. But running road races in cross country flats I wore down the bursa sack in my knee and that ended my best hope to qualify. I never got back in that kind of shape.

But of all my  marathons there were only 2 where I finished as strong as I started and could say they were fun. And both of those I felt like I was almost walking the first 13. But as you well know, running equal or even negative splits is the best way to run most any race but especially for the marathon. So, my goal is to finish in less than 5 hours which is hardly worth writing about. I am just glad I can still run cause it is so much a part of who I am. I guess credit goes to Kent and his Fitness for Life mantra. I’m a firm believer to this day.

Jim being interviewed after a race in China.

My biggest highlight in running personally was being part of a team of 7 that ran across the united States in 1985 from Boston to Los Angeles covering 3400 miles. We did it in 5 weeks not running on Sundays to speak in churches as we were raising money for a mission. There were three of us of the 7 that ran about 20 miles a day for the 5 weeks. I was in super shape after that but also quite burned out and had a blood sugar problem for awhile almost hypoglycemic.

I asked Jim to respond to a few questions about his running and life in China

What has it been like training in China all these years? Has life changed considerably? 

I have been blessed of late to be running with a colleague of mine and we run together maybe once a week. Before I started running with Catherine, a 52 year old women, she had never run more than 5 or 6 miles. Last fall she completed a half-marathon and smoked me. She is really fit and a competitor in the Chinese way of just beating you but not talking about it like we do in America. If she had grown up in America I really believe she would have been a top runner. I love to coach, motivate people to run and just be fit. I have never been an upper body kinda guy but my semi professional soccer son, Jacob, got me doing plank and crunches about 5 years ago and baby, “you should see my 6 pack abs…well maybe 4 pack…lol Its what I like to show all the girls!?!?!? It sure has helped my running though. If only I knew that at Luther.

What is your work in the country? 

In 1992-1993 my wife was the primary teacher and I taught part-time oral English and was the primary caretaker of our then 2 year old son.  That was a top University in Nanjing, China called Southeast University.  In 2013 and until 2017 I taught economics, banking and human resources at a private school called Sias University. It is a tier 3 school which means the lowest level, not like private schools in America. Chinese students take a test called the Gaokao, which is like our ACT or SAT except on steroids. Their life after high school is literally determined by this test. There is so much pressure from parents and society to do well that they hate it, literally!

At my current Tier 1 school, Lanzhou University I teach Listening and Speaking English to top level non-English major freshman students. They take an English reading, writing and listening test when they first come to school and that determines their level. I also teach two sections of Cross-Cultural Communication which is my forte as I worked with an organization for 12 years that researched and specialized in the study of the 24,000 ethnic groups in the world.

How has your life’s philosophy been honed by running? Your faith? 

Let me just say that the day I can no longer run I think will be a tough adjustment for me as it is part of who I am.  I think even before Kent’s philosophy of Fitness for Life was “preached” to us by him I was already sold. I was almost raised by my half-sister who was a high school PE teacher and tennis champion in the state of Iowa. She had a profound influence on me. I was pretty much gifted as a natural athlete (I don’t say that to boast but most sports came pretty easy to me, except gymnastics and diving) and it is funny but running was my least gifted sport. I played basketball in high school and would have played tennis but my school was the best in the state.  I actually was going to play b-ball at Luther and my roommate was Randy Kemp , who either started or was a 6th man by his senior year.

I have to say that running for me is not only physical but also helps the mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of my life. As you know well, there is not anything you cannot work out after a gut busting 10 mile run, or whatever distance. And when those endorphins kick in who needs drugs!! The body produces the best, natural drug.  Running, in a way can become addictive but I have also run with guys, as I’m sure you have as well, that have no life apart from running. It’s their life and almost all they have to show for it is running.  That’s the bad side. It has become a little obsessive for me at times but then an injury or a slump can get me back to earth real quick.

I love the many ways Jim carried on his running. But in closing he also had some amusing recollections of college days

Jim Nielsen as a Luther College sophomore (upper left in glasses)

Well, I’ve ranted and reminisced enough. I have time since in my quarantine here I’m it total isolation for 4 more days with lots of time.  But those times at Luther, I can still recall them all. Sure were special – BFS sessions, streaking on the campus and barring the dining room door as our teammate was running through the other side – remember that? And then Jim Holt and I innocently sitting in the back of Damian’s Lincoln with Steve in the front and being stopped by Wisconsin police who pulled us over for drinking and speeding.

As soon as Steve got out of the car they threw him up against the hood like he was a criminal (he did look pretty scruffy after that carthage meet sophomore year) Turned out to to be one of my best races at 28:14. You should .have heard smooth talking Damian work his way out it! lol

Lots of great memories! Well, thanks for reading.

And thanks for sharing, Jim. Running pulls us all together somehow.

About Christopher Cudworth

Christopher Cudworth is a content producer, writer and blogger with more than 25 years’ experience in B2B and B2C marketing, journalism, public relations and social media. Connect with Christopher on Twitter: @genesisfix07 and blogs at werunandride.com, therightkindofpride.com and genesisfix.wordpress.com Online portfolio: http://www.behance.net/christophercudworth
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