One of the most challenging aspects of being a runner is building a self-perception conducive to improvement. For starters, you must believe that it is possible to improve. Secondly, you must do the work necessary to improve. And finally, you must execute in competition when given the opportunity to supercede prior efforts. That is the 1, 2, 3 of endurance event success.
During scholastic and college years, all that is plugged into the context of team dynamics and competition. There is the daily competition of training with teammates. In those circumstances, managing mental attitude and focus during workouts is the key to improvement. Then when races roll around, turning that fitness into results takes determination and concentration.
As distance athletes, we sometimes find ourselves trapped in cycles of self-perception. These bind us to a level of performance that seems satisfactory in some respects, yet really doesn’t rise to full potential. We get used to running in certain patterns, for example. When you reach the photo of our team starting a race later in this blog, I find it interesting that in the photo from the next year, the same seven guys are all starting out in the exact same positions.
We limit ourselves sometimes. Going out at a given pace to avoid early fatigue is one such habit. Running behind runners that have beaten you in previous weeks is another. We’re not always aware of these habits that hold us back, but they exist.
That means it is vital for endurance athletes of all kinds to seek ways to break out of unforced habits. It’s far too easy to stumble into races week after week hoping that something special will happen. Occasionally it might. We might run faster on a given day because it feels goods. But that’s no real path to improvement, is it?
Times have changed in some respects when it comes to how high school and college cross country programs operate. Back then, we raced thirteen meets in college cross country, and from eighteen to twenty-one meets in high school cross country. Was that a bit too much racing to pile on top of fifteen weeks of hard training?” We even “ran through” some meets, not taking a break in training in hopes of earning fitness dividends down the road.
In college, we averaged between 70-80 miles per week, and some of us pushed that up to 90-100. That’s not huge mileage by the measure of many programs, but it was tiring on top of college life. And was it really necessary to race five miles effectively?
Some of us graduates from the Luther program have asked ourselves over the years, were we being sophomoric in our training tactics? The word sophomoric means pretentious or juvenile. Were we running too much, or running too hard all the time? Was that good for us? Were we overtrained? Or simply overwrought? We were certainly were that in many ways.
Personally, I look at results from the fall of 1976 and realize that while I typically wasn’t in the Top Five in many of our races, my times were only 10-15 seconds slower than our fourth and fifth guys. That pattern is simple enough to analyze. I was doing my best, and my teammates were simply faster than me most weeks. Our record that fall tells a compelling story. Our team took third against big college competition at the Iowa State University invitational. Then we won the Luther College All-American invite, the Grinnell College Invite, the St. Olaf Invite, and the Carthage College invitational. Our dual meet record was 4-1 and we took 1,2,3,4,6 to score 16 points in the Iowa Conference meet. I placed twelfth in that meet on a hilly course as our seventh man. All told, that is a really successful season for all involved.
My teammates Doug Peterson, Paul Mullen, Mike Smock, Eric Lindberg, Keith Ellingson, Steve Corson and Dani Fjelstad were all hard-working, exceptional runners. The fact that I didn’t often break into the top five that season was not due to any actual failure on my part. It was instead a credit to the quality of men that I ran with. And there were women runners on our squad to admire as well. That season our women’s team grew from two original gals to six dedicated people.
The women ran their own training modules designed by Coach Kent Finanger. They raced at many of the same meets as the men, and also a couple meets of their own.
The men’s team trained about 750 miles in ten weeks. It all looks objective in print, but we can’t forget that all those miles were accomplished while attending school and trying to stay healthy in the college dorm germ factory. That is no small feat. Add in the new dimension of social interactions of the small-school fraternity I joined with my roommate Paul Mullen, and one has to just shake one’s head and go, “Damn, I guess I made it through.”
Of course, every cross country season is peppered with fine memories of a particular course or effort. Our last invitational of the season before conference, we traveled to Carthage College in Kenosha to race in a park called Petrifying Springs. It was a rolling affair, with places on the trails where passing other runners was not possible. The race started and finished across a wide grassy field, a fine opportunity for a hard start and a fast sprint at the end. Peterson and Smock both earned watches for finishing in the Top Ten, and I was less than a minute behind as our seventh man in 26:15 for the five-mile course. With our 76-point total, we beat schools from UW-Stevens Point, Carthage, UW-Parkside, UW-Platteville, and Northwestern University.
That next week we met our only dual meet loss to the powerful LaCrosse team led by the twin runners Jim and Joe Hanson, who won the meet in a tie at 25:20 on their home course. For some reason, I loved running against the LaCrosse team every year, and I ran as our fourth man that day in 26:10. The splits are interesting to study as I went 4:55 with our bunch through the mile, then 10:16, 15:35, 20:58 and 26:10 for five miles.
It’s hard these days for me to imagine running that fast. In my sixties, I can barely run even one lap at 5:00 mile pace without great strain. So looking back at nationals that season in 1976, I can’t beat myself up for running 27:07 to finish 152nd on a snow-covered route at the Highland Golf Course in Cleveland, Ohio. I was about a minute behind the 25th place (All-American) runners 25:55.
The other thing one remembers most from those day is the friendship and joking, the ridiculous stunts of running naked through town and the occasional drinking bouts that led to the occasional hangover the next day in training. Running ten or twenty miles with booze in your system is a character-building all on its own.
It was a heady time to be a runner overall. New types of running shoes were being introduced as fast as we could wear them out. We ran in blue-and-yellow Nike Waffle Trainers for workouts and competed in yellow and green Nike Oregon Waffles for races. Our guys hunted the running shoe market for new products all the time. We experimented with New Balance, Brooks, Lydiard, Etonic, adidas, Puma, Tiger/Onitsuka and others. As the heels wore out on our shoes from training, we put layers of athletic tape on the heels to keep them level and get more miles out of them. We were New School Old School, you might say.
Following our manic training trip out West to Yellowstone to start the season, we won almost everything we took on, and finished 13th at nationals. It was a sophomoric season to remember.