I’m leading off today’s original thoughts on running, riding and swimming by asking readers to consider a question: How much do you value your college experience?
And then I’ll follow up with a confession. Perhaps I’m one of those people that has valued it too much, but will never apologize. I’ll explain why.
I ran for a Division III school in Decorah, Iowa, called Luther College. While there, I received an education that challenged me to think about many things. Religion. The Philosophy of Existentialism. The Psychology of Adjustment. Art. Biology. English. Even Communism. But that was the product of an extra-curricular movement on campus led by a professor named Oliver Cornell. It was the early 70s. Nixon had just resigned. The Vietnam War had exploded America’s national image. The nation was exploring what comes next.
Through all of that study, I ran and ran and ran. Typically 800 miles just during cross country season alone. Then came indoor track. Then outdoor track. Then summer mileage done alone in June, July and August. Then it was back to campus for another go. Another season. Line up and wait for the crack of the gun.
Between all that came January terms in which I drew nudes for six hours a day the first year, traveled to the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology for an internship the second year, painted four 4′ X 8′ murals for a nature center the third year and frankly, I can’t recall what took place during January of my senior year. But I was in love with a girl and that was enough, in any case.
When it was all over I fell into a job as an Admissions Counselor for the college and met my quota, but it was a time of disillusionment. The Admissions office was in a period of great transition and the college was facing enrollment pressures. When I popped out the other side I had learned a thing or two about office politics and the realities of the world and money. Frankly, I was embittered.
But I was still loyal to my friends and memories of the college experience. Perhaps a bit too much, as years later my wife finally complained that I talked too much about it all. So I put the edit feature on and realized that yes, maybe romanticizing the college experience was a bit much as you grow older.
That said, Decorah, Iowa has always been a lovely place to visit. It was an enormously beautiful place to train. I’ve probably been back (and I don’t want to exaggerate) nearly one hundred times over the last forty years. To run. To ride. To cross country ski. To canoe and kayak. To have sex in the woods. It always reminded me of the hills in Upstate New York where I was born and returned many times as a child.
Now I’m even collaborating with a retired Luther College Professor of Religion on a new book in review with Literary Agents. It is titled Rescuing Christianity from the Grip of Tradition: What Jesus’ revolt against religious authority teaches us today. So the college of ideas and contributions to the world never really ends. It changes. Undergoes metamorphosis. Matures.
I’ve held art exhibitions on the Luther Campus several times. I often visit my art professors when back in town. And recently, I dropped in to visit a former biology professor to view a collection of frog drawings that I’d done for field biology. He’s always supported my work, and it was fun to see those highly detailed renderings of the frogs I’d studied and painted all those years ago.
And last year I joined one-hundred other former track athletes for a big reunion. It was fun to meet other Luther tracksters, both men and women, that had competed over the years. We covered many of the same roads together, and in separate eras. There’s a bond in that too. I’ve turned some of those experiences into art.
Sometimes I’ve pondered the meaning of those four years against many other friendships and experiences. I’ve had several jobs that lasted twice as long as the Luther experience, and the people I’ve met there are still friends. That’s a good thing.
Yet those college bonds remain something special. And now that we’re “up there in years” in the eyes of society, we all kind of laugh about how long ago we ran together. All those miles. All those stories. All those accomplishments, failures and experiences.
They do matter. They still matter. They were formative. They were shared. They took hard work to achieve. They built loyalty and bonds, both personal and institutional.
And because there is considerable history and tradition behind the idea of “giving it the old college try,” many people do maintain loyalty to their college or university. That’s why big time college sports is so popular. It means something to have a “family” of sorts to which one claims to belong.
In our case, we were able to place second in the nation in cross country, and there were several trips to track national championships as well. That senior cross country season was something of a fluke because one of our best runners was hindered with a bad back, another had a toe injury that limited training and racing. But other people stepped up in the wake of those difficulties and it all came together on the right day. Everyone that ever ran for the program contributed to that achievement. A few years later, another Luther team placed even higher, winning a national cross country title in 1985.
That sort of magic only happens a few times in life for most people. Some never experience it at all. But it is the moments in between that make up most of our lives, and college tends to be a foreshadowing of all that eventually takes place in life. That includes happiness and love as well as sorrow and loss.
So we celebrate the college colors…the Blue or the Red, the Orange or the Green or the Black or the Brown. And once in a while we stumble on a photo of those old college friends and give it the old college try once again. And smile.
How much do you value your college experience?