On October 2nd of 1978, our cross country team ran a hill workout in Palisades Park, a bluff reserve on the southeast side of downtown Decorah. That weekend, we were scheduled to race at the St. Olaf Invitational. My former roommate Paul Mullen was in my group, and we talked about the upcoming race. He’d been working through an extremely sore toe during the early season, but was still racing at a high level as our second or third guy. Still, he had his concerns. “Cud,” he said, pulling me aside. “You’re running really great, but we need you to step up this weekend. Fjelstad’s hurt, and we need you to be a leader.”
I assured him that I was ready.
However, the mileage was piling up already that season, as was the daily pace we ran. We typically ran much faster than what Coach Finanger prescribed. Something had to give and after that Palisades hill workout and a set of 50-yard pickups on a cambered road during a ten-mile run, I felt a twinge and then deep soreness in my left Achilles tendon.
I was not alone with that problem. The rest of the top guys were all sore as well. Coach had made a big mistake having us run repeats on that slanted road. We were all paying the price.
Up to that point, I’d been largely healthy the first four weeks. I wasn’t panicked, but I did go to the campus doctor to see if there was some sort of aspirin or something I could take to quell the pain. He wrote out a prescription and gave me a bottle of pills to take. The label said: Butazolidine.
Medicine.net describes its effects this way: Phenylbutazone is prescribed to treat inflammation and pain that results from ankylosing spondylitits, rheumatoid arthritis, gout, and osteoarthritis. Phenylbutazone has been removed from the United States market due to the availability of newer drugs with less adverse effects.
I took one of the pills right away, and within an hour or so I could barely function. My head was dizzy and I had trouble concentrating in class. I skipped the morning run the next day. Then I took another pill as the prescription required, and showed up for practice that afternoon to run six miles in an absolute haze. That’s when Coach Finanger announced that we’d all be making a trip up to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota the next day. Our season was at risk of ending if we didn’t all fix these Achilles problems.
We met with a physician named Dr. Hamlet Peterson, a Luther grad that Kent Finanger knew from his college days. He asked us all some questions. When it came my turn to talk with him I handed him the bottle of pills I’d been taking.
“Who gave you this?” he wanted to know.
“The campus doctor,” I replied. “I’ve been kind of dizzy the last couple days.”
“No wonder,” he told me. “This is how much they give to horses. Stop taking this right away.”
That afternoon, we all stopped at a running store and bought new shoes, a Brooks model called the Varus Wedge. The shoe had a built-in supination insole, and it did seem to help us all get back to running. The Achilles loosened some, and that weekend, I raced to 8th place in the St. Olaf Invitational with Paul Mullen just ahead of me in seventh.
The leg remained sore through the middle of the following week, when it finally started to fully heal up. With no race scheduled on the 15th, we ran 13 miles on an evening run out to Bluffton and back the Thursday before the weekend. That was a good sign.
Getting up every day to do those morning runs was an act of pure discipline. My roommate Dani led the way many of those sessions, which we typically did at 6:00 pace. I recall racing through the streets of Decorah one chilly October morning and showering quick at the dorm so that we could grab breakfast and make class together by 8:00 a.m. Those morning runs replaced all the times I’d spent in the dishroom those first three years at Luther College. I was relieved to be done with that drudgery, and free to put in the necessary miles to build greater fitness.
When we sat down to class that morning, our Anthropology instructor Clark Mallam asked Dani and I to stand up. He turned to the class and said, “Do you see these two guys? I saw them flying through Decorah this morning on a workout. How far did you go this morning? he asked.
“Eight miles,” Dani replied.
“They work hard,” Mallam said with some admiration. We often saw him at meets along with many other Luther professors.
But with all the back and forth of training and racing and injury and recovery, I was in no mood for the ongoing gamesmanship with my girlfriend. She was pressing too many buttons about my dedication to her, and on Friday night of October 14th, I put my foot down and told her I was done. We had a grand breakup fight but made up by morning with the requisite makeup sex. There was no meet scheduled that Saturday, so we went for a walk with our friends Bob Snodgrass and Kirsten Rove. It was cool and windy, but the sight of her jet black hair and bright green eyes against the fallen leaves swept me back into her spell.
That Tuesday, we raced against our perennial rivals from the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse. I’d always run my best races against them in both track and cross country. We’d lost to them in dual meets those first couple seasons at Luther because the Hanson brothers Jim and Joe were too much of a one-two punch. But we’d built up confidence over the years and stood a great chance of winning that dual. I drew up a flier to post around campus to let people know what a great race it might be.
Regrettably, the one guy that was still struggling going into the LaCrosse dual was Keith Ellingson. His sore back refused to heal properly all season. But we continued to hope that his baseline training and natural talent would be allowed to come through by season’s end, because he’d been one of our finest runners all four seasons at Luther. A former conference champion and team leader. And a premier jokester, to say the least.
The course at Luther began on the lower campus with a loop around the giant athletic field at the base of the Oneota Valley. Then it climbed a rough dirt trail to the upper campus, and before I even knew what was happening, I found myself with a lead going into the two laps that would constitute the next four miles of racing.
With a half-mile to go, I finally got passed by a LaCrosse runner, Steve Ostwinkle, who tore ahead to a nine-second victory at 25:46. I finished second in 25:55 on our hilly layout, and Dani Fjelstad took third in 26:04. Bill Fischer and Jay Heldt of LX took 4th and 5th, and Luther’s Rob Serres took 6th. Jeff Miller of LX was seventh, and Steve Corson, Tim Smith, and Joel Redman were 9-11 to seal our 28-29 margin of victory.
That was the first and only time I’d been Luther’s first runner in a varsity cross country dual meet. After four years of racing, that made me feel like I’d actually arrived. It wasn’t a conference championship, grant you, but it didn’t matter to me at the time. My goal was always to be a leader for the team, and it finally happened. My season up to that point was consistent and solid.
Fjelstad always kept a few cold Michelob beers in our dorm room fridge to open when we got back from meets. For several weeks I’d been the second team man behind him in most meets, and we’d clink those beer cans together and take a long sip of celebration. There is no more determined human being on earth than Dani Fjelstad, and it helped to have him as a roommate. I can say the same thing for the two previous years as well. Paul Mullen was also an exceptional guy, and we had many laughs and motivating times together. Plus he put up with my artistic ADHD and all that. God Bless You, Paul.
Thus it hurt that my freshman year roommate Keith Ellingson wasn’t running up to par that senior year that I finally arrived. I would have liked to have raced alongside (or right behind him) when I was finally capable.
We all had our travails and our surges over those four years. And by mid-October 1978, with the season 2/3 over, it was time to get serious about what our prospects were for the final meets of the year. We still had the Carthage Invite to run, and the IIAC Conference meet to complete on the godawful Dubuque course with its horrific hills. There was not a flat spot on that course. Frankly, I dreaded it.
Then we’d face the challenge of qualifying for cross country nationals through the first-ever regional meet. That was new territory for every team in the country, and there was plenty of good competition in the good old Midwest with North Central College, a perennial national champion it seemed, always leading the way.