The interesting thing about cross country as a sport is that teammates tend to spend enormous amounts of time together. Whereas athletes in track and field tend to split into training groups for mid-distance and long-distance training, in cross country it’s “all-in” all the time.
As freshman, our group of five classmates entered the Luther program and constituted much of the scoring for that year and next. We were the wild cards in a rebuilding program that helped achieve a perfect score in conference our first year and nearly repeat the trick the next, with 16 points.
That 1976 season is when we added a sixth joker to our deck. His legal name is Steve Corson, but we all called him Duke. He played Luther football his freshman year but decided to come out for cross country as a sophomore. He had already made a strong impression as a trackster competing in the half and mile races. Possessed of innate strength and speed, he needed to grow as a distance runner to compete in cross country.
That he did. He looked like our version of the late Steve Prefontaine with his Fu Manchu mustache, strong physique and ‘have-at-em” running style. He was admittedly a Wild Card in other ways, as cross country racing required a consistency of habit with which he was not always familiar. Plus he loved to live fast and fun and was popular across a number of campus segments.
Yet when he was on, he was very on. When the sport called for toughness, he was extremely tough. I well recall watching him finish a five-mile race against the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse in which he arrived at the finish chute with his white Luther shirt covered in a bright red spray of blood. His sinuses had dried during the race and the blood burst forth across his bearded face.Yet he finished, wiped it off, and uttered some sort of combination of disgusted and amazed profanity at the experience.
He was also funny in ways that really helped our team. Following one particularly long practice, Coach Finanger sent us into the pool to loosen up and splash around. Duke found his way to the high diving board and repeatedly flew off the board with dolphin-like-in-air gyrations and antics that can’t be described. I hung onto the edge of the pool laughing. He was simply a larger-than-life character. At least, in my estimation he was.
That was his nature. He seemed unafraid to try anything. I once watched him slide down the Union hill on a cafeteria tray and fly off a sidewalk mid-air through the woods and disappear among the bushes and snowbanks below. “Oh My God,” I said out loud. “Duke might be dead.”
Yet he managed to land safely and emerged from the drifts covered in snow, laughing loudly, and said something like, “Well, I better not try that again.” Understatement of the Year.
His companion in many of these antics was my cross country teammate and roommate during sophomore year and junior year, Paul Mullen, also known as Moon. The two of them were at times inseparable. When we weren’t all running together, there were foosball games in the college union, where Moon’s defensive skills and Duke’s fast and powerful wrist shots won the table many times over. That profound “THUNK” of a foosball slamming the back of an opponent’s goal when Corson sent it home still resounds all these years later. Sometimes he’d look up with a grin, and you could sense the satisfaction.
The voices of those two boys often mixed together in laughter. Moon’s laugh was typically low and growling, and always in on the joke. By contrast, Duke’s laugh was high and full of mirth, daring people to figure out what was funny in any situation. They quacked like ducks at people acting stupid, and we engaged in constant banter that was less than complimentary about the people we chose to criticize. Such is the language of the terminally competitive. We weren’t always kind, but we found our funny on many occasions.
Sometimes Duke and Moon got into minor trouble ramming about the way they did. One Friday night a group of us were headed to a dance club when we spied Duke’s tiny blue Mustang with its wheels on both sides of a ditch. One of them had turned too quickly on an icy Decorah night and plopped the car into the snow.
When it came to running, Duke had strong, muscular legs and a loping stride that always made it look like he was ready to start a finishing kick. Moon ran lower to the surface and drove forward with his arms. Our teammate Keith Ellingson had a smooth stride that seemed to defy gravity. Dani Fjelstad always clipped along, typically with a midfoot strike, always ready to apply a burst of speed at a second’s notice.
I prided myself on having good running form, something I learned as a freshman in high school after reading a Sports Illustrated article on the subject. Having good form was actually a necessity with my taller frame. The trick was putting it to good use…
Early in the season of 1977, all of us were clicking with fast times at the four-mile distance. At the Iowa State Invitational, it was Ellingson, 20:13, Fjelstad 20:18, Mullen, 20:39 and Cudworth 20:46. Luther finished fourth behind Iowa State, Club Midwest, and Central Missouri.
A week later, we took third behind Augustana and Hamline in our own Luther All-American Invitational, besting teams like LaCrosse, St. Olaf, St. Thomas, and Carleton in the process. It was Mullen, 20:39 in sixth, teammate Eric Lindberg in 8th at 20:43, Fjelstad 12th, Cudworth19th, and Corson 25th. We may have been a pack of jokers, but we were kicking ass and making a name for ourselves.
A week later we swept through the Grinnell invite with a perfect score of 15 points. Dani Fjelstad led our pack, followed by Mullen, Ellingson, Cudworth, and Lindberg. The team in second place was Central College with 90 points.
We moved up to the five-mile distance for the next meet, with Fjelstad leading again and Corson running as our fifth man. I had a relatively off race in 27:00, and finished out of our top seven. Then we won the St. Olaf Invitational the following week, beating LaCrosse by a narrow margin, 73 to 78. There was always a keen rivalry between our schools.
The next week at Carthage, I came down with a cold and finished as our 13th man in 27:40. Luther still won the meet, beating Northwestern University 65 to 76. I bounced back the following week to run 26:15 as our sixth man behind Ellingson, Mullen, Lindberg, Fjelstad, and Corson. We had five men under 26:00 that day.
Then came the Iowa Conference meet held at Waverly, Iowa on November 4th. That race turned out to be one of the most difficult moments of my life to that point.
What I recall from the race is that it was nearly dark by the time we finished. But a different kind of darkness had already swept over me that day. Something about the changing seasons or the loss of sunlight was affecting me.
Or worse, I’d struggled some that fall with the emotional aftereffects of working at that horridly depressing summer job at Olympic Stain. The verbal and physical abuse had taken a toll on my psyche. Whatever the case, my body and mind at the conference meet were locked in a struggle just to run. It was like one of those bad dreams where you want to run away and can’t. Looking back, I now realize it was the first bout of genuine depression that I’d ever experienced. Over many decades, I’ve learned much more about my mental health, depression and anxiety. And ADHD, which is often found in association with the aforementioned conditions.
I felt bad about that conference race because I’d finished ninth and twelfth at Conference as a freshman and sophomore. But darkness owned my soul that day in Waverly, and I struggled home in 25th place. I staggered to the bus embarrassed and ashamed that I’d failed the team after what had mostly been a solid season.
There were important team and individual triumphs to be celebrated, however. Keith Ellingson and Paul Mullen raced to a tie for the Conference Championship. The trophy was given to Ellingson, an honor that Paul Mullen explained to me years later: “He deserved the win. I was hanging on the whole way.” But you can see their mutual determination in the photo below.
We’d won our third straight Iowa Conference title that day, but I sat in the bus thick with anger and frustration. I went back to campus that evening wondering what had happened to my brain that afternoon. Perhaps I’d actually been sick and didn’t know it? That was always a possibility during all that intense training. It also probably didn’t help that in class I’d been studying the Philosophy of Existentialism and concepts such as the irreversibility of time and the hell is other people notions of Jean Paul Sartre. That probably didn’t help my emotional state much. But it has fueled decades of healthy cynicism about the human condition. So there’s that.
We all know that hell is feeling all alone with your most recent failure. Yet if anything marks the character of a distance runner, it is the ability to bounce back from a bad performance. On November 12 of that same year, I sucked it up and ran as our fifth man at Nationals, helping lead the team to an 8th place finish, the highest of our college career to that point. And we did it in thick snow covering the course in Ohio.
Our finishing order was Keith Ellingson in 38th place at 27:05, Paul Mullen in 50th at 27:12, Erik Lindberg 58th at 27:15 and Steve Corson 68th in 27:21. I was our fifth man that day at 123rd with a time of 27:46. The spread between our first and fourth man was only 16 seconds. We beat regional rivals St. Olaf and Hamline, Carleton and Augustana.
Sadly, for many years I let that one bad race color my recollection of a junior year college cross country season. Looking at the results, I realize that 1977 was not a bad season for me. There’s a lesson in that for all of us. Forgive yourself for failures recent or past. None of us is perfect.
We hung together that year winning four straight invitationals including the conference meet, and built lifetime friendships in the process. For a bunch of jokers and a few wild cards, we did all right.