As the last two weeks of cross country season wound down, there was little time for looking backward as all our focus came down to one thing: getting through the Regional Championships to make Nationals. That was our whole goal for the season and the culmination of four years of hard training and racing. The previous year we’d placed eighth in the nation. We thought we could do better.
We’d been through injuries that season with the Achilles tendon debacle. Then we made it through the Conference meet with an 8th straight win. Now it was time to put up or shut up.
After adding up my mileage for the fall, I wrote in my journal: “I have an incredibly skinny face. My body is quite lean, 137 lbs. My whole semester and fall is assessed in two pages. Everything about me is lean. I feel a little mean at times too. Since last November, I have run 2,571 miles. More than ever.”
Earlier, I’d written, “These next two weeks will take some thoughtful dedication. A long list of things will be done, and they should and will be done right. Be calm. Be proud. Be prepared. Be understanding. Be strong. Be yourself.”
While all that was going through my mind, things on the relationship front ran hot and cold. After a 70-mile week leading up to Conference, I wrote, “Hard race. Hills were exhausting. But felt smooth on flats. Warm as heck. Beautiful weather,” and then….”I really love her, but this Jim bastard messes me up a tad. I am feeling strong however. She has been good to me.”
That Jim guy was the bugger back home in Barrington, Illinois who was doing his best to steal her from me. She’d been back to visit her folks a couple times, and each time she returned with hints that her parents favored her dating other men. The Jim guy kept coming up.
I’d met her folks two or three times, and had gotten to see how their family dynamic worked. Her father arrived home from work each night after a commute from the city. He’d go for a slogging run through the neighborhood, then collapse in a Barcalounger chair in the living room with a big drink in his hand. He worked for the Barcalounger company as a VP or something, and it seemed ironic to me at the time that the one thing he enjoyed at home was built by the same company that stressed him out daily. But that was life in the late 1970s. The American Dream.
They lived in a modest two-story Colonial house in a wealthy community out in the far reaches of Chicago’s Northwest suburbs. Her mother was somewhat artistic, so she liked that aspect of me, but she really wanted her daughter to be financially secure in life. On that front, her mother was absolutely right about me. I’ve never become a rich man.
Ironically, her mother had once been enrolled in the same motivational course that my father attended, That meant they actually knew each other before my girlfriend and I met. The motivations to attend that course were sort of odd. My dad had gotten immersed in a network marketing scheme back in the early ’70s that messed with his mind. He never completely freed himself from the approach and language of get-rich-quick schemes and the Zig Ziglar School of Motivation. I never liked that shallow type of motivation. Plus I think Ziglar was full of shit with some of his famous quotes, including this one: “There has never been a statue erected to honor a critic.”
Ziglar’s wrong. Mark Twain was one helluva critic, and there are plenty of statues dedicated to his intellect and wit. Plus, he once said, “All it takes is ignorance and confidence, and success is sure.” These days, I’d call that an indictment of arrogant and corrupt men like Donald Trump, to whom a statue should never be erected. Criticism and cynicism toward men like that have an important role to play in this world. I learned it back then, and I hold it to be self-evident to this day.
I was also especially suspicious of canned motivation after my father blew a bunch of money by sucking up to two corrupt and criminal network marketing schemers. Perhaps that’s why I liked running so much. There were no false premises involved. You either ran hard and succeeded or got left behind. As a noted marathoner, Olympian and great runner Kenny Moore once wrote, “Running is hard, clean, and severe.”
So I could see through some people. Secretly I think my girlfriend’s mother was embarrassed by the fact that she’d attended the same sort of lowbrow course as my father. It was one of those programs where shallow slogans meet high fears. So we didn’t talk about it once the fact was known.
Their family had a chip on its shoulder in other ways. The oldest son had sustained a brain injury somehow. He was susceptible to irrational outbursts at times. I knew him well before dating his sister, and I liked the guy. We’d talked a bunch as we rode up to Luther from the Chicago area in a shared ride common to that era. I understood that due to his occasionally angry behavior, he’d encountered some flack from the college during his years there. The family was not cool with how the institution responded.
Her younger brother, by contrast, was considered the Golden Boy. He was a decent golfer, as I understood it, and fancied himself a good athlete overall. One day while I was visiting the family, he started talking about his basketball prowess and my competitive juices flared. Somehow the conversation turned to my own basketball background and my girlfriend said, “Well, he could beat you in a game of one-on-one.” I accepted that challenge and mopped the court with him 10-1. She was not happy.
During that same weekend, the family’s grandmother took ill. We all traveled to the hospital. Anxious over her state, the family circled around her bed. I waited for things to settle down and walked over to the bedside on my own. Later on, I wrote a poem about the experience. Clearly I was trying to figure out if I had a place in the family’s future.
All I wanted at the time was to love and be loved. I wasn’t prepared to think five steps into the future, or seriously consider what it might mean to get married. That language was given to me in the context of dating her. My sole and somewhat innocent goal, in retrospect, was to run well for two more weeks of my life. Was that such a crime?
The regional meet was scheduled to be held in Pella, Iowa, the home of Central College, our chief conference rival in cross country and track. The local newspaper coverage set the stage, “Luther harriers to run in Regionals at Pella.”
“Central Head Cross Country Coach Bill Herzog feels the schools to beat will be North Central, Ill., which won in both (illegible) and has never finished below third; St. Olaf, Minn, which will bring last years third and fifth place national runners Mike Palmquist and Matt Haugen; Augustana, Ill., Carleton, Minn., St. Johns, Minn. Nebraska Wesleyan, St. Thomas, Minn and Iowa’s Luther College.
Regionals were held on the Pella Golf and Country Club. The course zigged and zagged up and down the fairways. Having grown up next to a golf course as a kid, I always liked racing on the smooth fairways. But the pace at Pella was super fast. Dan Henderson of Wheaton took individual honors with a speedy 24:28 five-mile time. Kevin and Kurt Roth of St. Thomas, took second and third, and Mike Palmquist of St. Olaf. took fourth. They were all within five seconds of each other in the wake of Henderson’s elite blowout of the entire field.
Our first Luther runner was Dani Fjelstad in 25:31 for 22nd overall, just behind perennial All-Americans Matt Haugen of St. Olaf, Dan Skarda of North Central, and Mark Malander of St. Thomas. The runners between them and the front pack constituted a who’s who of Division III cross country nationwide. Paul Mausling of Macalester, Jeff Milliman, Steve Jawor and Rich Scott of North Central, and weirdly, Doug Rogers of Wartburg, who hadn’t even placed in the top ten in our conference meet a week earlier. Perhaps he didn’t even run that week due to injury, or else the hills of Dubuque swallowed him whole. In any case, he ran great that day.
Luther freshman Tim Smith, our top guy at conference the week before, was right with Fjelstad at Regionals in 25:35. Steve Corson was right behind at 25:37, Chris Cudworth was fourth man at 25:49 and Rob Serres was fifth man at 25:51. All five scorers finished in the Top 35 in the race, just over fifteen seconds apart.
We ran fairly well, yet we finished in fifth place in the Regional meet. That was the last team to advance to Nationals. The competition was so strong in that race that we barely squeaked through. North Central won with 61 points. St. Olaf was next with 96. St. Thomas took third with 117, and Luther finished fourth with 130.
Augustana, the team scheduled to host the national meet a week later, appeared to have a rough day and finished sixth with 215 points. They’d beaten us at our own Luther invitational earlier in the season, and their runners had not done badly at regional either, with John Isebell in 28th at 25:40 and Duane Peterson in 32nd at 25:43, and Rich Moore wasn’t far behind in 25:46. But the quality of teams in that Midwest Regional was so strong it only took one off-day among a team’s top five to be eliminated.
So the stage was finally set. We’d made it through to Nationals. I got back that weekend and had a mildly celebratory beer with my roommate and teammate Dani Fjelstad. “One more week to go,” we both said.
That night was the first performance of the musical in which my girlfriend played a semi-lead role in Godspell. She had a marvelous voice and loved to dance. The cast worked hard to prepare for the performance. Yet when the curtains lifted and the first singer launched into a solo, she started off-key and it made everyone in the cast struggle to find the right notes. That was shocking, to say the least. Luther’s reputation for music far exceeded even our prowess in sports like cross country and track. I cringed in my seat and waited for the ensemble to dive in and start singing. Fortunately, the show balanced out from there. But my girlfriend was disappointed it started out that way. Just like Jackson Browne once sang, That Girl Could Sing:
She was a friend to me when I needed one
Wasn’t for her, I don’t know what I’d done
She gave me back something that was missing in me
She coulda turned out to be almost anyone
With the possible exception
Of who I wanted her to be
It goes to show that no matter what activities we do in this world; sports, music, relationships or family, there is always the chance that a small mistake or missed cue will cost us dearly. The trick is tuning out the distractions and maintaining focus when it’s Performance Time.