The first time our Luther cross country team traveled to the national cross country meet, we flew to Boston, Massachusetts and finished in 20th place with 441 points. North Central College, led by its perennial All-American Bruce Fischer in 4th place, won the meet with 91 points over Occidental in second with 111.
The next two years we finished 13th and 8th, respectively. Our hopes of earning a trophy in 1978 hung on the performance of a pair of freshman, Tim Smith, and Rob Serres, along with seniors Dani Fjelstad, Paul Mullen, Steve Corson, Chris Cudworth, and sophomore Joel Redman.
We’d hoped that our top runner from the previous year, Keith Ellingson, would return to top form by season’s end, but his back injury kept him from running like the Elly that had won our conference meet the year before and led us to eighth at Nationals the previous year.
Our performance at Regionals left us in fifth place behind four other Midwestern teams, so we were staring at an uphill battle to improve on that against all the other teams in the nation as well. Earlier in the season, we’d run a four-mile race on the Credit Island Augustana course where the national meet was held, and I’d covered that distance in 20:26 in fifth place overall against UNI, Augustana, and Northeast Missouri. While still rounding into shape in the first meet of the season, our team only had a spread of one minute between us.
The course was flat and fast. That much we knew. There was nothing to do but show up and run as hard and fast as we could.
The night before the race, we were joined at the dinner table by a couple close rivals from Central College. One was their top runner, Jerry Fitzsimmons. After his insulting speech in the wake of his win at the conference meet, we weren’t too keen on his presence, but it proved to be harmless. In fact, it proved to be a bit hilarious.
During the pizza dinner, a couple of pitchers of beer showed up. Apparently, that was not something to which our somewhat quiet competitor was accustomed. That left it to our lead fun-maker Duke Corson to make an impression. He grabbed the pitcher by the handle and chugged down a few large gulps of beer. We all ate hardy and even stopped for a touch of ice cream after the meal.
The weather broke cool and clear after several rainy, cold days in mid-November. By race time at noon on November 18, 1978, the temps outside were fifty degrees under sunny skies. So eager was I to start the race that I actually false-started. The entire field had to pop back into place before the gun went off. Then it was off to the races for sure. Dan Henderson led through the first mile in a reported 4:23 mile. Behind him, Mike Becraft and Jeff Milliman of North Central tried to keep pace. But it was no use. Henderson buzzed to a 23:54 victory while his nearest individual rival was 24:12.
That’s fast stuff for Division III runners. But it was an exceptional talent year and 31 guys finished under the 25:00 mark for 8k. The last All-American slot in 25th place was Jeff Lauber of Tri-State in 24:46. If all of us had been running six miles like the Division 1 distance, those times would have equated to the low 30s for six miles. Not bad.
After washing his pizza down with beer at dinner the night before, Steve Corson led our Luther contingent with a time of 24:59. Dani Fjelstad ran 25:05, Rob Serres 25:08, Tim Smith 25:12, and I finished as our fifth man in 25:16, my best time ever for 8k/five miles to that point in a running career. Only seventeen seconds separated our top five guys at the national meet, yet I was 62nd overall, a full 29 places behind our top finisher Corson. That’s how many guys packed into seventeen seconds.
During the race, I felt that sense of urgency and ran the tightest tangents I possibly could on the looping course. With 200 meters to go, an other-worldly sensation came over me. I somehow knew that I had to pass people and could afford to let no one pass me. I finished tied with Jack Cruse of Glassboro State yet somehow wound up one slot down from him. Tim Smith was tied with Joe Dotson of Rust University in 25:12, yet somehow wound up one slot down from him. Serres wound up tied with two runners as Rogers of Wartburg and a Humboldt State runner, who both ran 25:08 as well, yet Serres was listed below them. Even our sixth and event runners Paul Mullen and Joel Redman had run fast times of 25:22 and 26:01. But the flow of runners was so thick it was impossible to tell how any team had done. The only thing that Kent and our fans saw was that we had finished in a compressed group, one after the other.
In fact, our team had run as a pack through four miles, passing that marker in 20:15. We’d all run faster through that stage of the race than most of us had run in the four-mile race all season. What remained was to “gut it out” the last mile. 17 total seconds was all that separated us at the end.
There was not a second to spare among any of us. I’d never felt such pressure and joy in racing all at once. When it was over, we walked over to our camp, gave tired handshakes, and hung out while scores were being compiled. I threw on my Frank Shorter warmup jacket to keep warm and looked around at the guys. What a season it had been. Now we had to wait for the verdict.
Our fans and parents slapped us on the back. We picked up our gear from our loyal and competent trainer Chuck Kemp, who had seen us through every inch of every meet. We also watched Kent Finanger tally stats on his arns written in marker trying to figure out how the Luther Norse had performed at this penultimate national meet.
We waited anxiously. What was the result? Kent added up our points in the team category minus the individual runners: Steve, 20, Dani, 24, Rob, 29, Tim, 35, Chris, 42. That totaled 151 points. How would that hold up against the other five teams in our Regional? Had we passed any of them?
Finally, the awards ceremony was called and teams gathered around in bunches waiting to hear how it all worked out. We knew that the winner was obvious. North Central had scored a mere 60 points to win yet another title. What a program!
Then it was time to award the big silver trophy for second place. It was announced: In SECOND PLACE, LUTHER COLLEGE!
We all went nuts. From our squeaky close fifth place at regionals, we’d ascended to second place at nationals. Finally, we’d earned a place as team All-Americans.
The story got even more interesting from there. While we knew the race was close, we had no idea how close it actually was. Behind our 151 points was St. Thomas with 152. Fourth was Humboldt with 158, and fifth was St. Olaf with 209. That meant four out of the top five teams at nationals came from the Midwest Regional. No wonder it had been so tough to advance the previous week! Carleton was the only Midwest team that had an off day in 18th place with 435 points.
We posed for team photos after the awards ceremony. The look on Coach Kent Finanger’s face was priceless, a combination of joy and relief, I’m sure, at having pulled such a close one out. He’d built and rebuilt the team through his recruiting. Earning second place at nationals was a well-deserved reward for such a dedicated coach. His peers certainly respected him. Other coaches know what it means when your team finally comes through. Kent had served as president of the Cross Country Coaches Association the previous two years.
Our Central rival Jerry Fitzsimmons did not run well at all that day. He would one day become an All-American runner, but perhaps he was too freaked out from watching us drink beer the night before the race to run well at Rock Island. He managed to come home in 25:42 and 116th place, but that placed him behind all but one of Luther’s top six runners.
The same held true for Matt Haugen of St. Olaf who ran 25:22 after an All-American performance the previous year. The manic pace and two-loop course may not have suited him. But on an afternoon when Dan Henderson lit up the stage, it was either run fast or get left in the cold dust of November.
The truth is that Luther runners did not leave their race at the qualifying meet. We’d taken a risk and run through the race that week to some degree. It could have cost us dearly if we’d failed to advance, but we turned around and peaked on the right day. A seventeen-second spread between 1-5 is some seriously smart running. Coach Finanger noted that we’d bested 20 runners that were ahead of us at Qualifying. That’s how we jumped from fifth at regionals to second at nationals.
In a meet summary written for the Luther College Chips that week, I quoted one of St. Olaf’s runners who talked to us after the meet, “You guys really surprised us. We thought you were done after your finish at Central (Regionals.)”
I wrote in my journal that weekend. “It was extraordinary. We prepared, we planned and held back some. I knew we were better than we had run, and we did. God, thank you for allowing us to do our best. I am beginning to understand.”
Coach Finanger wrote us a long mimeographed message following the race: “This is one of the greatest accomplishments by a team in the History of Luther Athletics. Congratulations to the men who ran and the men who trained as our team all year. Twenty-seven men are members of the 1978 NCAA Division III Second Place Cross Country Team. I tip my hat to each and every one of you because I now know you are the ‘BEST’ in the history of Luther College Cross Country. All season long you have struggled to attain that–all season long with its ups, injuries, illnesses, downs, psychs, races, school courses, roommates, girlfriends, parties, practices, opponents, schedule, workouts, trainers, laundry, meet uniforms…you have always listened, practiced and trained and raced to be the BEST.”
He also wrote: “I have always believed and been taught that it is far better to GIVE than to RECEIVE and I thank with all my heart my Mother and Father, Brother and Sister for developing within me that beginning of a Philosophy of Life and Philosophy of Working with Others. Yesterday we GAVE and that giving was really over four weeks.” Indeed it was. Coach Kent poured his heart into everything we did.
Thinking back, one must take into account the sacrifices and time that a coach puts into every season. It’s not easy guiding a pack of 27 men and 14 women through a college cross country season. Hours are spent mapping workouts, holding team meetings, driving around to monitor the “horses” during long workouts, and then traveling back and forth to meets. All of that requires enormous time and dedication. The only real concession Kent asked was that we let him listen to radio broadcasts of college football on the way back from our Saturday meets. He’d been a top athlete in football and basketball during his own career, and loved the theater of sports as a whole.
On top of all that, Kent taught classes at Luther and raised a family. From a fully adult perspective, I now better understand why he was motivated to kick our asses late in the season when a few of us started talking about ‘burnout’. He didn’t want us to fritter away a legitimate opportunity to achieve something big. Thank God we listened to him and did not waste that chance.
The best finish prior to the 1978 season was a Luther team that finished fourth in 1972. That was no small accomplishment either. But on the way back from Rock Island that day in 1978, Kent stopped the lead car, got out on the side of the road, raised his arms in the air, and yelled, “Second in the Nation!” We all joined in.
In an assembly held in the gymnasium a week later, we presented the trophy to the student body, I gave a speech that concluded with, “November 18th was a historic day for Luther College. It may or may not be a long time before a cross country team takes second in the nation, but the special thrill of an unexpected success is the satisfaction I feel and share with you tonight.”
Luther College would win a national cross country championship in 1985. Kudos to that crew of guys who accomplished that win. I’ve gotten to know many of them through reunions and such. They were as crazy as us, and their win was just as “unexpected,” in a way, but not really. The bonds of brother and sisterhood carry us to many places that we do not expect to go.
What I also recall in the wake of the race that day in November of 1978 was walking over to my father and mother. My dad and I had a sometimes tempestuous and confusing relationship, but it was he that directed me into running in the first place. While I hadn’t been a true team leader those first three years at Luther, I stepped up and provided leadership that final season.
He knew that. So I hugged him and told him something I had not perhaps said in many years. “I love you, dad.” My mother smiled that big smile she always had when she was proud of one of her boys.
It felt good to make them both proud as well.