The 1975 season saw plenty of jostling among the top ten runners to remain in the Top 7. Everyone had their ups and downs, but one runner in particular, my roommate Keith Ellingson, started coming into his own. At a dual meet in LaCrosse, he was our top man against a powerful team led by Joe Hanson, whose twin brother Jim made up a fearsome duo. Ellingson ran 26:10 over the five-mile distance, which seemed to suit him even better than the four-mile races we’d been doing.
I’d been running sixth and seventh man most of the season, running times in the low 27:00 range for five miles. Our other promising freshman Dani Fjelstad fought some injuries, and even Ellingson had a toenail removed mid-season. He came back to the room and pulled the bandage off his toe for a new one. The spot where the nail had been was bloody, red, and pulpy. I wondered how he’d run at all the next day. But he did.
Keith was a funny guy by nature. Extremely wry and quick-witted. He also had a funny knack of complaining in a way that you never knew if he was serious or not. But this time, I knew his toe hurt plenty, so I tried helping him out with stuff. We ran within a few seconds of each other at a triangular meet at Wartburg where he ran fifth man and I ran sixth. I don’t recall being jealous of his rising up the ranks. I could only be concerned with my own efforts.
That wasn’t the case with everyone on the team. Some inter-team rivalries cost more in terms of personal relationships. There were always certain guys on our squad to whom I did not like to lose. While we were all running for the same cause as a team, I admit to viewing myself as a superior runner to teammates on the cusp of the Top 7. I think that kind of comes with the territory in distance running. Nothing much can change that.
It also worked the other way around. I got a thrill out of seeing certain teammates achieve success. And when Paul Mullen and Keith Ellingson, two of my freshman class teammates, took 1-2 in a dual against Loras with Dave Hanson third, Mike Smock fourth, and Damian Archbold fifth, it was pretty cool to see things go good for all of them. We had a perfect score in that meet. I hated that hilly course, and ran 28:00, but still qualified as our seventh man behind Kirk Neubauer.
I finally cracked the Top 5 at the Carthage Invitational, held at a park called Petrifying Springs outside Kenosha, Wisconsin. Our top guy Doug Peterson ran 26:08 and I ran 27:00 behind Smock, Ellingson, and Mullen. It felt great to finally count as one of our scoring runners. We finished fifth behind Western Michigan, Northwestern, Stevens-Point, and Wisconsin-Parkside. All far bigger schools.
We were coming together as a team, yet some of our collective judgment was lacking. On the way back from the Carthage meet we engaged in college kid antics that were both dumb and dangerous. Some things you only learn by experience. Exceeding one’s capacity for risk-taking and stupidity is one of them. We were fortunate to make it all the way back home.
Finally, the day came for the IIAC Conference meet. Luther had already won the conference for four straight years under Coach Finanger’s guidance. Yet due to the graduation of two top-level runners, Tim Williamson and Steve Murray, the rest of the conference thought they had a shot at us in 1975.
As it turned out, the Luther College cross country program was not depleted. It had merely reloaded. We traveled to Oskaloosa, Iowa, to race at William Penn College (now University). The course was an up and down affair with long stretches and abrupt turns. By that point of the season, I’d earned enough points to tie with Kirk Neubauer as our seventh man. Graciously, Kirk suggested that I be given the chance to run as part of the development of the team. That showed Kirk’s vision and grace. He would later go on to coach successfully in the Luther College running programs.
The honor of running in the conference race was not lost on me. As a team, we talked through a plan to run together the first mile. We rolled in a pack to a 4:55 mile. That must have been a daunting sight to the remainder of the runners in the conference. Just blue and white, in a horde. We weren’t behaving arrogantly. We were running a smart race.
The course went uphill and from there, the Luther pack split up. My goal was to finish in the Top 10. As it turned out, all seven of our runners finished in the Top 10. I was ninth. Our first five guys of Doug Peterson, Keith Ellingson, Paul Mullen, Dave Hanson, and Damian Archbold ran to a perfect score of 15 points. Mike Smock and I both finished within a minute of our lead guy Peterson over the five-mile course.
Thinking back on the race, I recall a conversation about it with my late buddy Keith Ellingson. During the last year, I spent quite a bit of time on the phone with him. Through the fall of 2020, he’d been dealing with Parkinson’s disease for nearly ten years. Then came another diagnosis of Lewy Body Dementia. He was in assisted living and during the Covid-19 pandemic, was not allowed visits from his family. His girls missed being able to be close with him, and their children too.
For all that thickening of body and mind, Keith kept up his interest in sports and distance running. Following graduation from Luther, he had moved into coaching and developed more than 60 athletes into All-Americans during a Hall of Fame career at Simpson College. Over the first months of 2021, we talked about his coaching and laughed about our college days and beyond. We’d both worked in college admissions for Luther. Then we both served as Class Agents. So we’d kept in touch off and on.
Keith and I also had one common tragedy in common. We both lost wives to ovarian cancer when they were in their fifties. I knew his wife Kristi well from having met her all those years ago when they were young and dating in college. They got to know my late wife Linda quite well through many meetups at Luther reunions and such. When both women were going through cancer treatment, and we crossed paths at reunions, the two of them talked softly with each other about their respective challenges. Kristi’s mousy-brown hair turned silver and curly when it grew back after chemotherapy. My wife Linda’s hair fell out several times over eight years of treatment.
So Keith and I had many things to talk about during the last months of his life. But I recall one quiet evening he began talking about that Iowa conference meet where Luther swept the top five spots and Keith took second. As a junior, he would win the conference in a tie race with Paul Mullen. Yet there was something special, Keith insisted, about the dominating win and the perfect score. “I don’t think anyone will ever replicate that,” he told me. It was a perfect score for the ages.
The thing about distance running is that you never, ever know what can happen. Our team was proof that year of the capacity to rebound during a year in which were perhaps expected to lose. Perhaps there was a life lesson in that for Keith and the rest of us. We’d done something special, but nothing is ever truly “perfect” in this world. We certainly weren’t. Not as a team. Not as individuals. But we came together on a cloudy day at the height of our youth and accomplished something unique. That wasn’t the last time we’d enjoyed success. Yet sometimes the first victory is the sweetest.
So here’s to Keith Ellingson and his appreciation of perfection wherever one can find it, make it, or live it. God Bless you, Keith.