The hours spent running with twenty-four guys proved to be great way to get to know people that freshman year in college. While dorm life was a rush of introductions and a socially manic environment by nature, running cross country was like an extended live therapy session. The upperclassmen generally led the way, but as time passed our group of freshman learned to chime in.
One of the chat leaders was a senior, Kirk Neubauer. Possessed of a naturally wry temperament, Kirk would truck along teasing other guys about whatever topic came to mind. Somehow, the topic of summer jobs came up, and Kirk related his summer work as a typewriter repairman. The first time he described the work, we all listened intently, not knowing exactly where he was going with the story. In fascinating detail, he related the order in which the keys needed to be checked or fixed. At least, that’s how I remember it. The funniest part of the day was that Kirk’s Typewriter Repair story lasted almost the entire ten-mile run.
It’s hard to describe why the story remained fascinating given its seemingly innocuous detail. The way Kirk told the story was the key to its amusing magic. He spoke methodically, with a seriousness of detail that defied its otherwise mundane topic. He spoke as if he was divulging great secrets or actually teaching us how to work on typewriters. Plus Kirk has a natural lilt to his voice that makes just about everything he says a point of amusing fascination. That’s who he is.
The next day, as I recall anyway, someone began the run by repeating the question of what Kirk did for a summer job. In spirited fashion, Kirk responded in deadpan fashion, as if he’d never talked about it before, describing how he’d repaired typewriters for a summer job. Members of the team pitched in and peppered him with questions they could recall from the previous day’s descriptions. And so it went, for another long run, as we all joined in asking about Kirk’s typewriter repair skills.
The Bird Man
As I got to know the guys, I dared to point out some of the birds I saw along the way, because Decorah is a birding hotspot with pileated woodpeckers, wild turkey, bluebirds and yellow-headed blackbirds. There was never that much interest from the group, who considered birds more of a distraction than a point of interest. But one day a tall figure loped up next to me and in a soft voice, inquired, “How do you know so much about birds?”
That big guy was an Alaskan named Walt Maakestad. He stood something like 6’5″ with a full reddish beard and a shake of wild blonde hair atop his head. He proved to be a great influence for me as the weeks went by. Just running next to him made me feel more confident. About running. About life. One day he showed up to model for my freshman art class. He peeled off his shirt and we call did our best to capture the big man in the light of the art studio. I still have that drawing to this day.
Headless Dave Hanson
There was another wry personality on the team by the name of Dave Hanson. He hailed from the small town of Grinnell, Iowa. We both shared a love of writing. His nickname was Headless because in part because he wrote a column for the College Chips called the Headless Norseman. When Dave learned that I could cartoon and write, he invited me to get involved in creating an alternative college newspaper. I don’t remember what he named it, but a crew of us put the paper together with articles, photos and all. The only thing we’d forgotten to do was sell advertising to pay for its publication. The alternative publication never came out, but we had a blast writing the thing. I’d written for the high school newspaper back home, and would later write for the College Chips at Luther, but the notion of developing our own unhindered voice on campus intrigued me to no end. In some ways, that motivation to write in alternative fashion drives me to this day.
If I had wanted to follow a true revolutionary, there was one of those on the team as well. He was an Illinois boy like me, hailing from Elk Grove where he was a standout distance runner with two-mile times in the low 9:20s. At Luther, he ran in the wake of Steve Murray and Tim Williamson the year before I arrived, but he was one of the lead guys on the team in 1975.
Damian was an alternative thinker by nature. He was smart, aggressive and open-minded. The 1970s were the perfect storm of opportunities for that kind of person. Damian got interested in the work of a professor named Oliver Cornell that was getting students interested in communism on campus. Those lessons didn’t stick forever, as Damian turned out to be immensely successful in selling Real Estate out west. I do recall coming home from college that year and talking about communism with the father of one of my one of my best friends. His dad was a keen IBM executive and I thought his head was going to explode as I talked about communistic principles.
The closeness of team travels really did mean you got to know guys well, for better or worse. Damian and I got paired as bunkmates on one of our cross country road trips. It turned out he liked to sleep naked, and my shock at bumping into him at night resulted in a yelp and a jump to other side of the bed. The other guys in the room had a laugh about that the next morning. That was just Damian. He was a no-filter kind of guy.
The Long Run
We’d all gotten to know each other pretty well by the time Coach Kent Finanger prescribed a twenty-mile run down to Calmar and back. I’d never done a 20-miler in training, but I did have experience running that long by accident. Back in high school, a group of us sophomore distance runners signed up to run a 30-mile route during a Walkathon out in Dekalb, Illinois. Long Walkathons were popular fundraisers in the early 1970s, replaced these day by road races and other events. Some Dekalb HS runners showed up at the start and we all took off running at a competitive 6:00 pace for the first 10k. Eventually, a bunch of guys dropped out and a few of us were left covering ground in the dead-looking April cornfields in Illinois.
Our plan was not well thought out. As we quickly discovered, none of the aid stations were set up because we reached them long before the volunteers assigned to provide water and other support material showed up. That meant we had nothing to drink or sustain us the entire way. At twenty miles, a few more guys from my team cut back into town, but they were far enough behind me that their voices were lost in the wind. I wound up running all alone with nothing but a hand-drawn map to follow for the last ten miles. For some inane reason, I persisted.
I ran and ran, not knowing the pace or what I hoped to achieve. My legs got sore and tired as hell. At 27 miles, the route finally entered town again and I stopped at someone’s house to ask for something to drink. They were a bunch of college kids. One of them offered me a Coke. I’d been told by my Kaneland cross country coach never to drink Coke during the season, but at that point the thirst within me trumped all other perspectives. I downed the soda and thanked them. Then I continued running. The Coke helped, of course. I arrived back at the NIU fieldhouse exhausted, only to be asked by a few teammates, “Why didn’t you stop?”
It was that experience that convinced me there was nothing special about running exceptionally long distances. That’s why I never focused on marathons during my competitive career. Mostly, I considered them stupid. I still think I’m rather right about that.
A different animal
Perhaps if I’d recalled that adventure I would not have felt trepidation about the 20-miler at Luther that freshman year. We took off south on the shoulder of a state highway and reached Calmar ten miles into the run. I don’t recall getting any water there. We likely just turned around and came back. For all his exercise physiology knowledge, Kent wasn’t one to push us to drink much. He’d have a big cooler and a few cups to share, and that was that. The Old School Way of thinking is that hydration was more of an afterthought than a necessary habit. We never drank water or anything else during any of our ten-milers, and we ran them hard, at 6:00 pace most days.
Fortunately, it was a blessedly cloudy morning that Sunday. A few of the freshman hung in there through 14-15 miles, then dropped out. The van followed us along and I kept going for another mile or two before I was thoroughly bonked. Finally I stopped, climbed into the van and watched the rest of the team heading toward Decorah without me. That left me wondering whether I’d be judged for quitting.
I’d failed the Long Run test but actually didn’t feel too bad about it. Other than the insane 30-mile debacle I’d done in Dekalb that one time, that sixteen-miler was the longest run I’d ever done in my career to that point. It honestly felt great to climb into that van and sit down. There were several of us, including several of the other top-flight freshman with whom I was competing for a Top 7 spot on the squad.
For all the tale-swapping and team building that went into that first few weeks, it was competition that drove us all, all the time. We competed in practice. Competed at the foosball table after dinner. Competed with jokes at the dinner table and even competed for attention with women. Competition was never far from anyone’s mind. Every step, every movement, was about getting better and beating somebody else. That’s the harsh truth of the sport. It’s all about competition.