Coming off our narrow 28-29 dual meet win over LaCrosse, our team traveled east across Wisconsin to compete in the Carthage Invitational at Petrifying Springs State Park in Kenosha. We’d always performed well in that meet, and our pack was consistently running with less than a 30-second gap between our first and fifth man. We figured to do well, and planned to win the thing.
The big individual prize at Carthage was winning a watch for placing in the top ten. After a couple down races due to soreness and injury, our top runner Dani Fjelstad battled Doug Diekema from Calvin College for the overall victory. Diekema ran 25:32 and Fjelstad, 25:40. That didn’t surprise me, because I’d once watched Diekema run a solo 9:00 two-mile in a high school dual meet.
Our second man that day, Steve Corson, barely missed out on a watch by placing 11th in 26:14. The Carthage course was an up and down affair with narrow trails that made passing difficult at times. Yet we still managed to “pack up” as our third man Tim Smith ran 26:22 in 13th, Joel Redman 26:24 in 14th, Chris Cudworth, 26:26 in 15tth, and Jeff Dotseth 16th in 26:27. I recall not feeling all that great during the race, with a side stitch slowing me at the halfway point. Perhaps it was the long ride over from Decorah, or something I ate the night before, but I hung in there as our fifth man that day. Perhaps I’d burned off energy as our first man in the Tuesday dual meet, but Carthage was the first time all season that I’d finished below our 3rd man.
Had I run to full potential that day we might well have beaten Northwestern University for the team title. As it was, we had 55 points to their 53. We felt pretty good about competing at a level with a Big Ten team. Granted, a squad like Wisconsin would blow us off the map, but hey, everything is relative. There was also a glimmer of hope a little ways down in our squad. Keith Ellingson ran 26:48 for 26th place on the day. The back injury that had held him back all season was finally beginning to relent. He placed as our seventh man for the first time all season.
On our way back from Carthage the college antics started up again with a beer stop in Mt. Horeb. There was a sick little tradition of drinking in the cars on the way back from Carthage, and the fall of 1978 did not disappoint. Usually, we’d purposely miss a stoplight in some small town along the way so that Coach Kent would get ahead of us. Then we’d load up on beer to drink and talk and sing our way back to campus. Those trips and others like them were stupid as hell, and I’m grateful nothing ever happened. No drunk driving accidents or head-on collisions the country roads of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. Those were our swing states on many occasions.
Back in Decorah, we gathered for practice that Monday with the Conference meet staring us in the face the next weekend. We’d won the meet three straight years as a team, including a 15-point sweep our freshman year. We knew that Central College was improving quickly, and the course at Bunker Hill Golf Course in Dubuque was not going to do us any favors. We were shooting for our eighth straight victory in the Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
That week during a pre-workout meeting, Coach Kent overhead someone on the squad mention that they felt “burnt out” from all the training we’d done thus far. There’s no question that training in a constant tired state has its risks. We’d trained through nearly every meet that season, even doing morning runs on the day of invites and dual meets. A bit of mental fatigue does up toward the end of a season, especially with 13 meets on the schedule.
I’d added up my mileage in the journal that week out of curiosity. The weeks went 70, 80, 91, 82, 90, 99, 85, 82 and 79. That totaled 758 miles, and 84-mile-per-week average.
But hearing some of us bitching about being tired or “burnt out” did not sit well with Kent Finanger. He lectured us on the importance of thinking positively, not turning negative thoughts into reality. He delivered a fiery speech in the fieldhouse classroom where we gathered before workouts. We were all petrified by the seriousness of his tone. He then sent us out for a six-mile run with simple instructions: “No Talking.”
So it was that we ran the Under Phelps-Ice Cave route with none of us saying a word. The only sound was the crunch of our footsteps on the gravel road surface and the noise of our breathing. Occasionally someone might cough a bit, or blow a snot rocket, but mostly, we ran. And said nothing. The absence of talk after running together for four solid years had a dramatic effect. I think we all finally realized why we were together in the first place. To run as well as we could.
Back at the campus we met again in the fieldhouse with Kent. He could be an intimidating man when serious business was afoot. “Good, boys,” he observed upon our return. “Now shower up and we’ll see you tomorrow.”