On equipment day for the cross country season at Luther College, I was handed my first set of Luther Blues for training. I loved the simple dark blue tee shirt with the big number on the front. We got some nylon shorts, and a couple pairs of tube socks. I already had a set of blue Adidas SL-72s to train in. But then I was handed a set of Tiger suede blue spikes, and my heart sort of stopped.
I’d ordered a pair of Adidas blue spikes but either they weren’t in stock or considered too expensive for team issue. The Tiger spikes felt a bit clunky by comparison. I gulped a little, and asked if I these were the right pair. “Yup,” was the response I got. So I moved on.
Such is the nature of the Freshman Blues. So many new experiences that don’t match up with what you’ve done or seen before.
Once our gear was all handed out, we dressed in the pale blue locker room of the Luther field house and gathered upstairs for the first team talk with Coach Kenton Finanger. His stocky build and close-cut hair reminded me more of a football player than a cross country runner. Indeed, I’d learn that he’d been a Little All-American in football and basketball, the other sport he coached at Luther. Forty years later, walking next to Kenton while entering a campus building for the induction of his son Phil into the Athletic Hall of Fame, I noticed him walking with a bent back and a lurch in his stride.
“Well,” I commented cheerily to the man I knew so long. “I guess all our athletic pursuits have a bit of a cost,” and chuckled.
He stopped, looked up at me with that familiar glint in his eye, and said, “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Kent was an instructor in the Athletic department. His background in exercise physiology and kinesiology came into regular play in his instruction to us about running. The main theme he stressed often was “run from the hips.” He wanted to see that flow in your stride.
His pet word for his runners was “horses.” During one long run that freshman season, our team was cruising on a long downhill toward Decorah when a herd of four actual horses started running alongside us in a field. “Heyyyy….” I can hear Kent calling out the car window. “There’s my horses!” We all laughed.
Beyond all that, Kent was a first rate motivator. His favorite phrase, spoken quite often and scrawled across many mimeographed pages of coaching literature over the years, was “Wow! Fun! Wow!” It sounds cliche, but it wasn’t cheesy coming from the mouth of Kenton Finanger. He was serious about the Wow part because he admired the work done by runners to get fit and compete. He was also serious about the Fun part because he genuinely believed in Fitness for Life.
Kent also was a forward thinker. In 1975, the first two women showed up for cross country at Luther College. Lynne Schmidt and Karen Brandt were issued Luther Blues along with 25 or so men runners. Some of the guys in the program welcomed the girls. Others were not quite convinced. Kent set up training and races for them. Within ten years or so, Luther College women were winning national titles.
Before workouts, we’d gather in a fieldhouse locker room for Kent’s famous pre-workout talks. His rolling conversation style was often filled with anecdotes and stories about other athletes or inspiring examples of achievement. His most pointed language was about learning to believe in yourself.
I wish I’d listened more closely to that lesson at times. When you’re a freshman, and a bit scared by the idea of trying to make the team, all you can think about is keeping up when the running starts. More than once Kent counseled me to believe in myself. He even did it during races. A couple of times, I actually abided in his advice.
Rich with talent
That freshman year scenario was complicated by the fact that our freshman class was rich with competitive talent. We had five or six guys that had run sub-15:00 for three miles in high school. They included Eric Inbody from Palatine, Illinois, Dani Fjelstad from Albert Lea, Minnesota, Paul Mullen from Rochester, Minnesota, and Keith Ellingson, the hometown boy from Decorah, Iowa.
Keith lived right across the street from Kent Finanger in residential Decorah. There were quite a few Decorah guys in our freshman year class. I was a bit envious of the fact that his friendships carried over into college. He also had a sweet girlfriend named Kristi, also from Decorah, who came by the room to visit occasionally during that first semester. Sometimes she’s bring cookies. And sometimes I’d steal one. Or two.
We needed all the carbs we could get. The training regimen for our team was 70 to 80 miles per week. I’d never run that much in high school. Plus I was still recovering from the massive party my friends and I held when I arrived on the Luther campus that first week.
Nothing could have prepared me for that first day of running with the Luther boys. We took off south toward Pulpit Rock and ran through the campground to the gravel road below Phelps Park. The pace was fast, nearly 6:00 per mile, and the sound of our feet on the gravel road came up like a roar.
We cut through downtown Decorah and ran across a rickety metal bridge. Then we turned right toward Palisades Park. That’s when the college running scenario got Super Real. The road rises at first, then flattens out for a bit. It gains height again and turns abruptly up the side of a bluff overlooking downtown Decorah. I could still the see the front guys up ahead, but just barely through the trees. Around me there was plenty of hard breathing. Much of it was my own. We crested the top of the hill and ran dipping and weaving through the woods road.
Then, without warning, the road dropped back down the hill at a horrific slant. My toes slammed against the front of my running shoes and my knees bore the shock of the descent. Guys cursed. I muttered “Oh crap” and pushed up my glasses as we turned right yet again to fly back down the first hill we’d climbed up. By then, I was so disoriented by that point I had no idea where we were. Nor did I care. One thing ran through my mind.
We climbed the steep incline onto Ice Cave road and tore along its gravel as a manic bunch. Finally we arrived back in town and turned onto Leif Erickson drive toward campus. It was warm outside, and cloudy as I recall. I felt turned inside out as cut through campus and ran back down the slope to the fieldhouse. There we stood, trying not to look exhausted. I looked around to see that there weren’t that many guys back yet. I’d done alright. I’d hung in there.
Once the group settled down, a runner named John Mullen, the older brother of my future roommate Paul, pointed at my head and declared, “Look, this guy’s not even sweating!”
He was right. But that was true for all the wrong reasons. I actually think I was still dehydrated from the party effects a few days before. In fact, I was so out of whack I wouldn’t succeed in going to the bathroom that first couple days on campus. My body was rebelling in the vortex of all that hard running. Plus, I was shy as hell about the dorm stalls at first. Credit that to native anxiety. It was a great relief when I finally had to empty my gut after that first couple days of training.
We all adapt in our own ways to change. That’s the nature of the Freshman Blues.