My freshman year at Luther College was some years ago. I entered college as a marginal student in high school with a high C average thanks to laziness in subjects that I disdained. But Luther saw potential in me beyond the grade point average. Perhaps an ACT that was spot-on with the average score at the college helped. So did my extracurricular activities such as the high school newspaper and prairie restoration project. I was “well-rounded,” they told me.
There was one more thing as well. The coach at Luther, Kent Finanger, saw potential in my running. That likely helped me get accepted that July before freshman year after originally enrolling at Augustana. On news of being accepted at Luther, I was quickly assigned to room with a fellow distance runner named Keith Ellingson.
It so happened that Keith lived directly across from Coach Finanger on the west side of Decorah just two blocks from the college campus. So while I was moving six hours away from home to go to college, at least I’d have a local guy to show me around.
Our freshman year was more than a deep dive into the competitive world of college running. Luther already had a solid team that had won the conference the previous year, so breaking into the Top 7 would be difficult. Yet in the freshman class alone, there were no less than five guys arriving with sub-15:00 pedigrees for three miles in cross country. Along with Keith and I, there was Paul Mullen, Dani Fjelstad, and Eric Inbody. The next year we’d be joined in cross country by another talented track and cross country man named Steve Corson. He’d played football his freshman year in college but decided to join us crazies in the best sport on earth.
Keith and I both helped lead the team that first fall to a sweep of the Iowa Conference cross country championships. I was our seventh man that day, finishing ninth in the race. Our team swept the top five places for a perfect score of 15 points.
By the time “Elly” was a junior, he won the individual conference title in a tie with my roommate that year, Paul Mullen.
But going into his senior year, something went wrong in Keith’s lower back that limited his training. He struggled with back pain all that fall, yet almost managed to qualify for our nationals team despite limited training. His dedication in the face of all that frustration was admirable. We placed second at nationals that fall after a season of winning invitationals right and left. I was always sad that Keith Ellingson didn’t get to show what he could really do that year. While Dani Fjelstad led the team for much of the season, we would have been that much stronger with Keith at full strength. Plus we missed him in practice many of those days.
The Decorah Flyer
Keith possessed a stride that made him look like he was flying over the ground. Part of that was his exceptional flexibility. He could sit with legs extended on the ground and put his head to his knees. His whippetlike running form was a joy to behold. But it might have been that leg-strength-to-upper-body difference that gave him back problems.
Following college he married his high school sweetheart Kristi Olson. For years after graduating from Luther, we both worked in Admissions recruiting Luther students. Later on, Keith and I would alternate stints as Class Agent. He led many reunions over the decades, maintaining a heart for Luther College that never wavered.
Hall-of-Fame Coaching career
His career turned back to running and he assumed coaching leadership at Simpson College serving both the men’s and women’s cross country and track programs. He coached national champions such as Danny Bauer and Kip Javrin, a three-time NCAA Division III decathlon champion. A timeless bio on Keith at the Simpson College website describes the high level of success he achieved while coaching in that program. Here’s an excerpt:
In his first term in Indianola, Ellingson led the Simpson track and field and cross country teams to unparalleled success from 1986-2001. During his time, he helped athletes earn 63 All-America certificates and set more than 20 school records.
Ellingson also brought Simpson to prominence on a national stage, guiding the men’s cross country team to a ninth-place finish at the NCAA Division III National Championship in 1986 and the men’s track and field team to a fifth-place finish at the Division III Outdoor Championships in 1988. Simpson scored 35 points in the 1988 meet, which is still the best finish in school history.
After leaving Simpson, Ellingson was the head cross country coach at UW-Stout from 2001-02. He served as the President of the NCAA Cross Country Coaches Association from 1999-2000 and sat on the United States Track Coaches Executive Board from 1999-2001.
Ellingson graduated from Luther College in 1979 and earned his master’s from Western Illinois University in 1985. Keith and his late wife, Kristi, have three daughters: Jessica (26), Catie (23) and Bailey (21). Catie was a standout runner at Simpson, graduating in 2013 as a six-time All-American in cross country and track.
Years gone by
Over these decades Keith and I would see each other on visits to Decorah and class reunions. Then another convergence took place in our lives, as our wives were simultaneously diagnosed with ovarian cancer. His wife Kristi and my wife Linda would meet quietly whenever we met at college functions. Both women went through multiple rounds of chemotherapy, losing their hair and dealing with side effects too difficult, in some cases, to properly relate. Each kept the faith through cancer survivorship that lasted years. That was a testimony to their strength and resolve to raise their families to adulthood. Eventually the effects of the cancer and treatments led to their passing.
But for Keith, the struggles of life would not relent. Soon after his wife Kristi passed away, Keith developed Parkinson’s, described on the Mayo Clinic website:
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movement. Symptoms start gradually, sometimes starting with a barely noticeable tremor in just one hand. Tremors are common, but the disorder also commonly causes stiffness or slowing of movement. In the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, your face may show little or no expression. Your arms may not swing when you walk. Your speech may become soft or slurred. Parkinson’s disease symptoms worsen as your condition progresses over time. Although Parkinson’s disease can’t be cured, medications might significantly improve your symptoms.
Keith experienced those symptoms and was treated with different sets of drugs. Last summer when we met with teammates for a large Luther track reunion, he was the most animated I’d seen him in several years. The effects of his condition and the medications included softer and slower speech and a muted body affect, but his wry with and often biting sense of humor never really diminished.
To illustrate the quickness and irreverence of that mind at work, here’s a somewhat inappropriate story to relate in this day and age. I recall a night that Keith and I went to a dance at a club outside Decorah called Matter’s. He and Kristi had an agreement that they could date while he attended Luther and she attended University of Northern Iowa. They trusted each other. So we hung out drinking beers before deciding it was time to try getting some girls to dance. He approached a lovely gal that we both knew and asked her to dance. She replied, in somewhat dismissive fashion. “No thanksss…”
Keith replied, without pause, “That’s okay, I have to take a shit anyway,” and walked away chuckling. “That won’t help matters much,” I laughed. It was 1975. Dating was such a hit or miss proposition one had to deal with rejection somehow.
To put it mildly, Keith always had a wicked wit. During our long runs his commentary would rise from the moving pack with that distinctive voice of his, typically accented with a staccato laugh. If someone said something unclear or naive, Keith would dice it up like a steak. Many times I wound up laughing so hard at his quips that I could barely run. Once when dealing with a freshman that had trouble describing some incident while running, Keith listened to his perambulations and snarked, “You’re such a thick quinker.”
We were all hard on each other that way. It was part of the competitive life we lived as distance runners. Yet it barely begins to describe how damn funny and smart Keith Ellingson always was. His impish nature came from a love of the ironic and an appreciation for the quirky side of life.
So I love the guy. That is why it makes me frustrated to share that on top of the Parkinson’s that he has so nobly endured all these years, my longtime friend Keith Ellingson is now dealing with memory loss. His family is caring for him as the effects are profound enough to require his admission to a care facility. Reportedly he is focused on his coaching days at the present moment. Perhaps he’ll make some recovery with treatment. I certainly hope so. But we never know.
(Author’s note: Keith did respond well to treatments and was entirely lucid except for late nights and early stages of the medications.)
Nothing will ever obscure the life we shared together. Through good and bad that first year in cross country, we competed hard, yet as roommates we respected and supported each other. His toenail come off that season from all the training. I remember sitting on the dorm bed as he peeled back the bandage after the surgery to remove the nail and recoiled at the sight of that red flesh glaring at us from where the toenail had been. The next morning, he wrapped it up in gauze and athletic tape, and went back out running the next day.
I do have to laugh at that memory because Keith was known as a bit of a complainer sometimes. It was just part of who he was. For Keith, that form of commentary was a way to put life into perspective. He’d bitch a bit, sometimes quite hilariously, then get to the matter at hand. He was great at almost everything he did, from playing Frisbee golf on the Luther Campus to playing pinball, foosball, or video games at the bar. I seldom beat him any of those. It wasn’t that he openly competed with you. He just did his best and dared you to do better. I think he took that same philosophy into coaching: Be the best you can be.
By example, he was also one of the best golfers I’ve ever met. In fact he played that sport at Luther College rather than continue his running career in track and field, a sport I don’t think he personally enjoyed that much as a runner compared to cross country.
We played golf together one day on a hilly course in Decorah. Toward the end of the round, he took a long approach shot to an elevated green near the clubhouse. It rolled off the green, bounced down the embankment and came to rest on the gravel cart path facing a stone wall. Rather than take a penalty stroke, he set up to make the shot, concentrated, and hit a wedge that still did not rise high enough to clear the stone wall in front of him. The golf ball ricocheted off the wall and struck him in the forehead, right under the bill of his golf cap.
He looked up at me with those clear blue eyes and laughed his ironic laugh, then said. “Son. Of. A Bitch…” Then he chuckled and chipped the ball right on the green.
Bonds never broken
Keith, I hope someone reads this to you no matter how well you can recall any of this. We talked so many times over the years about running, life and work. We shared bonds that not many people could or want to claim. We met in the passage between youth and adulthood, and now face aging with the strange twists of life swirling around us.
You are a man that has done so much in this world. So much good. Given so much love. Made so many people think, and laugh. The years may have passed, but the memories live forever, even if you can’t recall them. God Bless, my friend.