Those first few weeks of cross country competition as a freshman in college always features ups and down. At our most important early season meet, the Luther All-American Invite, I ran a credible 21:23 four-mile on the rolling home course. That left me as ninth man overall because two runners in the JV race including freshman Eric Inbody beat me. He ran 21:09 in the JV race.
I bounced up and down in the Top 7 those first few meets, so it was a bit of a downer to be sent with the JV team to a meet with the University of Northern Iowa. I shouldn’t have been disappointed, as capable runners like Keith Ellingson and Dave Hanson also traveled to the meet. In any case, I was determined to run well to prove myself worthy. The day was overcast and gray. When the gun went off, I felt strong from the start. In fact, I gravitated to the front, unlike other races in which I’d competed that season. One of our worst enemies in running is a limited self-perception, as in…thinking that other runners belong in front of you. That is a good way to get left behind.
I raced along with two UNI guys and finished third overall in 20:52, our top guy and my second-best time of the season. My roommate Keith Ellingson ran 21:05 and Hanson was our third guy at 21:09. It felt a bit liberating to run without the burden of keeping up with our top guys ahead of me. As Kent Finanger told me often that year, that’s how I should always run. “Let yourself feel the pace of the day,” he advised.
A bird moment
As I raced along at UNI, the course turned around a golf pond and I glanced down to see a strange bird spinning around the water. As a birder with a growing life list at that age, I almost paused to get a positive ID. All I knew was that it was a late-arriving phalarope, a species of shorebird that to that point in my birding career I had never seen before. I craned my neck around to study the bird as long as I could, but at 5:15 mile pace with a mile still to go in the race, my running priorities won out.
This time, following the race, I actually got to turn around and watch the rest of our dedicated team members come in the chute. Jim Holt, Wayne Monson, Brad Stene, and Tony Amabile. Mark Finanger (the coach’s son) and Bill Higgins. He was followed that day by a runner that the year before was one of our top guys. Now he was running in the middle of the pack in the JV races. What was up with that?
He perplexed me. But as time went by, we all realized what was going on with him. He’d developed a habit of smoking pot. He was high most of the time, even during workouts. His eyes were often red, and he was definitely unmotivated compared to the guy who ran in the top tier at the NCAA meet the year before.
It would have been a good thing to have conducted some kind of intervention with him. Perhaps there were other things going in his life that held him back or caused him to self-medicate. I could be all wrong, but the 1:1 relationship was obvious to most. Like many other people in that era, he was hooked on pot and couldn’t give it up. He was not alone. We had other runners at Luther that got too into drinking or smoking pot as well. I’ve read many times that marijuana is not an addictive drug. I don’t buy it, having witnessed both friends and associates try to come to grips with it over time. Certainly, alcohol is an addictive substance. Pot is too. In any event, it was always tough to watch a guy like our teammate succumb to its powers, especially considering all the talent that guy had.
Along the way, I’d have my own negative experiences with partying. But that comes later.
The Dedicated Crew
I’m pretty sure the guys that finished just behind him that day at UNI would gladly have absorbed his talent for their own hard-working purposes. My big friend Walt Maakestad ran 22:56 at UNI. Dennis McCann, Jim Nielsen, and Dan Knutson finished out our squad, all running just over 6:00 miles for the four-mile race. That’s credible stuff, if you ask me.
The point behind sharing that story is that every guy in the Luther cross country program was highly valued by Coach Finanger. We ran a meet at Mankato that season, driving up from Iowa to Minnesota on an increasingly chilly afternoon for a race on their campus. The seasons seemed to change even as we drove north with the trees finishing their fall colors the further we drove. There were long lines of bright yellow beech trees out on the cross-country course. A chill breeze blew out of the Northwest.
As we lined up for the race, Mankato’s coach announced that split times would only be given to the top runners at the mile markers. “The rest of you are on your own,” was his message that day. I saw Kent Finanger slap his clipboard on his thigh in disgust. “No!” he muttered half under his breath. The decision to skip mile times for the rest of the team was not acceptable to Kent. I think he sent our equipment manager out to one of the mile markers with a watch. Somehow there were other people shouting times as we ran around the course. Kent believed that every single runner on that course deserved the same level of respect.
When the horse smells the barn…
That message that everyone matters got through clear and strong to our team every day in practice. That said, there were still grumblings if one of the guys outside the Top 7 took the lead and picked up the pace on a day that was supposed to be slower. But we all had the tendency to race home in the last mile. When that happened, someone would mutter, “Uh oh, the horse smell’s the barn…” and off we’d all go, running like a bunch of madmen on Pole Line Road back to campus.
I liked all the guys on that team, but a runner named Jim Nielsen and I spent loads of time together around the freshmen dorm. We both loved playing table tennis. During the evening we invested many hours in the rec room challenging each other in ping pong for the fun and competition of it. That was our own little world, that ping pong table. We ultimately entered the college tournament and finished second in a doubles match against two superior Asian players. I wound up playing for the college championship against a tennis star named Jeff Renken. He beat me by a few points to claim the title, but I gave him a good match.
Our four-mile meets were all used up by mid-season. It was time to graduate to running five miles in competition, all with our sights set on winning the conference meet in a few weeks time.