My parents both drove back with me to Luther College in the fall of 1978. We took the back roads through southwestern Wisconsin to enjoy the scenery, stopping at times to get out and stretch while gazing at the hazy hills from some high point on a country road. The purple blooms of bee balm coated every hill. The sun was bright and we were all in a good mood. It was quite the change from years previous when everyone in our family seemed to be struggling with one type of mood or another.
I hauled my stuff up to the large dorm room that I’d earned by signing up for a Residents Assistant role that year. That commitment required attendance at an RA Retreat at Bethel Horizons camp north of Dodgeville, Wisconsin, so I had to turn right back around toward Madison to attend that event. I don’t recall if my parents drove me back in that direction, or if I rode with other students to the camp. In any case, I was excited to be heading into the school year with confidence rather than trepidation, as the case had been the year before.
My summer tan was rich and brown, and the sun didn’t let up that week in Wisconsin. I got up well before the rest of the campers to do a set of morning runs. My journal that week recorded several ten-milers through the hills of Governor Dodge State Park. By the time it was over, I put in 80 miles.
The RA Retreat consisted of a series of meetings to educate us about Luther campus policies and how to interact with our fellow students in a supervisory manner. It wasn’t hard work, mostly conversational groups, and some singing along the way. During the middle of the week, the organizers held a campfire on the side of a valley. The August moon rose large and yellow in the eastern sky. I’d been edging closer to a girl all week in hopes of asking her out when we got back to Luther. Then a group of guys was gathered in the parking lot and one of them mentioned that she was looking good this year. I jumped into the conversation right away. “Yeah,” I agreed. “I’m going to ask her out when we get back to Luther.”
I was protecting my prospects. That night at the campfire I sat down next to her without hesitation. As the conversation softened she spun around to lay on the blanket next to me and placed her head back on my knee to look back up at me. I looked into her eyes and instantly fell in love.
There was no doubt about my feelings from that point forward. It was love at first sight and I fought for her attention the rest of the trip. I didn’t have to fight hard. She was just as interested in me. I liked her jet black hair and exceptionally green eyes. I kept thinking about her during those morning runs, and we rode back to Luther in the same car, holding hands, as I recall, because we’d become an item.
For a guy that was already feeling much better about himself for the first time in years, falling in love made it that much better. She’d be serving as an RA in the Miller dorm and I was in Dieseth, so our commitments and schedules would be similar. Her big goal that fall was preparing for a semi-lead role in the college musical Godspell, while I was focused on helping our cross country team finally meet its full potential.
There was one more item of business that needed to be handled going into that senior year in college. My girlfriend from the previous year still wanted to continue our relationship. I met up with her on campus and explained that I’d be going in a different direction and that we were definitely no longer together. “Well, I made you this down vest,” she told me, handing it over. “You can still have it.”
“No, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I told her. “It’s definitely over between us.”
“I get that, but I don’t want it now. You keep it.” I shook my head and walked away with the vest.
A few days later, while walking through the college union, I was holding hands with my new girlfriend while wearing the vest. Suddenly I felt a tug on the vest collar, then a ripping noise as she tore it in two, right off my back.
I felt horrible at how I’d handled that entire relationship. But now that I was really in love, I recognized the difference between what I’d pursued the year before and what was going on in my life at the moment. There was no turning back.
The New Me
Another weird moment came that week at the inaugural fall party for Pi Sigma Omicron, the local fraternity to which I’d belonged the two previous years. Stepping into the party, I wandered around a bit before walking up to some guys I knew and greeting them, said. “Hey dudes.Good to be back, huh?”
They stared at me for a moment. “Do we know you?” one of them asked.
“It’s Cud!” I replied. “I just got rid of the hair, the glasses… and the beard.”
“Fuck, man, you look different!”
And so it went with the New Me. Who could blame them? I’d gone from a guy shrouded in thick hair to a clear-faced dude without glasses. I’d cleaned up my act.
Piling on the miles
The running schedule ramped up quickly. We clicked off an 18-miler on August 26 (Felt Great!, I wrote in the journal) and I put in another 80-mile week. We ran the Intrasquad meet on a hot, muggy day and I finished as our second man in 21:16, a bit slower than I’d run in previous years. “Can’t figure out the slow time,” I wrote.
That first week of September I knocked out 91 miles with two-a-days, then raced a fast four miles at Augustana College. That was the course where the national cross country championships would be held later than fall. Even in the 90+ degree weather (“the hottest day of the year,” I noted) I ran 20:26 as our second man that day. My teammate and roommate Dani Fjelstad won the race that day.
The next week the weather cooled off and we prepared for the Luther College All-American Invitational, our biggest early-season meet. I ran 82 miles with a couple days of taper (seven miles and four miles) and raced to 13th overall in 20:42 behind Fjelstad, who barely beat Jim Ingold of LaCrosse in 20:19 to 20:24.
That meet was bittersweet because we’d begun to realize that one of our ace runners, Keith Ellingson, was genuinely hurt with a stiff and sore back that would not heal. A pair of talented freshmen, Rob Serres, and Tim Smith were stepping up to fill the gap along with our core guys Paul Mullen (also hurt with a sore toe) and Steve Corson. We missed Keith’s presence not just in races, but in practices where he was always a steady leader. He was also one of five team captains that year, and it felt weird not to have him running with us.
We got beat by Augustana at the Luther Invite that weekend. At the awards ceremony, I blurted a loud “FUCK!” when it was announced that Luther placed second, not first. It was poor sportsmanship but I was so determined to help the team win that year that I lost perspective. In frustration, I ran another five miles that afternoon to polish off the mileage for the week. Later that afternoon, I met my girlfriend to go camping that night on a ridge above the Luther Farm property across the street.
The weather was cool and the night sky was magical. We dozed off in each other’s arms. In the morning, I was lying next to her stroking her cheek in the morning light when I looked out the tent screen to see my teammates passing by on the road below the ridge. “Oh God!” I muttered. “I forgot about practice,” and collapsed into her arms laughing. I was so smitten that I’d forgotten all about our Sunday morning workout. As it turned out, it was a hard workout. Our coach was a bit frustrated by the loss at our own invite. The guys told me he was a bit miffed at my absence too. So I ran the nine-mile workout hard on my own later that morning and topped off that Sunday with a six-miler that night.
In any case, the season was off to a solid start.