The running scene in the early 1980s was largely about adapting to the road racing world. During the late 1970s, runners such as Bill Rodgers, Frank Shorter, and Craig Virgin led the American scene while African and European runners racing for colleges in the United States saw opportunities to “go pro” as road races started offering prize money. It still wasn’t easy making a living as pro runner, but thanks to the efforts of Steve Prefontaine, who bucked the Amateur Athletic Union system as a high-profile distance runner, the idea that runners should remain amateurs was quickly falling apart.
That was the world into which our band of college runners graduated. We’d had such fun and done well enough in cross country and track that the guys from Luther College decided to form a racing team. We called it Wonder Left after one of our favorite training routes in Decorah, Iowa.
There wasn’t yet an active club circuit in the Midwest, but there were enough races going on that it seemed like a good idea to team up and race in them. Logistically, I’m not sure anyone thought that completely through. We were spread out across Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois. It would take some doing to expect more than a few of us to show up at any given race. But the goal was to keep competing, so a bit of idealism was in order.
The recruitment sheet described the background and goals of the club. I don’t recall if this was used in attempts to recruit sponsorship or not. Wonder Left was an experiment in progress…
“All the runners on this team have attended Luther College. Luther College is located in Decorah, Iowa and is a member of the Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (IIAC) and competes within Division III of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. (non-scholarship).
The Luther College Cross Country team has won the last ten straight Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championships. In NCAA competition, Luther has finished in the top ten teams seven of the last ten years. The 1978 team finished second and the 1980 team finished third in the NCAA meet.
Track and field has also brought out the best in Luther athletes. The track and field team has won the Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title seventeen of the past eighteen years. Luther has also sent numerous runners on to NCAA competition in track and field in the distance events.”
“The overall goal of the Wonder Left Racing Team is to unify the individual efforts of past Luther College athletes who have been running road races around the Midwest. The members of the club have enjoyed great success over the last three or four years running local races within their area of their individual communities. By forming this club, we wish to continues competing in local races as well as arrange a schedule of major competitions that we will be able to race in as a club. Forming the club and unifying our efforts towards major competitions will allow the members of our club to improve on an individual basis as well as promote the Wonder Left Racing Team in club competition.
The club wishes to be in operation by May 16 in order to compete in the Syttende Mai race in Madison, Wisconsin. The race is listed in Runner’s World top seventy-five road races. Last year Bob Emmons was our top finisher in that race placing seventh. We are presently drawing up a competitive schedule with certain races receiving major team emphasis. Future plans include directing our own road race in the Decorah area.
- Syttende Mai (Stoughton to Madison, WI) 20 miles
- Hopkins Raspberry Festival (Minneapolis, MN) 5 miles
- Bix Road Race (Quad Cities, IA) 7 miles
- Cudahy (Milwaukee, WI) 10 miles
- LaCrosse Half Marathon (LaCrosse, WI) 13.1 miles
- Iowa Governor’s Cup (Des Moines, IA) 10 kilometers
- USTFF Cross Country Championships (Kenosha, WI)
The team ordered orange and white uniforms in the Bill Rodgers (BR) brand. That change from Luther Blue to an all-new color scheme was interesting, because our key conference rivals in college was Wartburg, whose uniforms were orange and black.
But the BR gear was appealing and stood at the forefront of early 80s chic. The Wonder Left team name only made sense to us, but that was part of the mystique.
I ran a series of races wearing the Wonder Left Racing Team gear in 1980 and 81. I won a local road race in West Union, Iowa, took second in a Lake Forest, Illinois 10k, and placed in the top fifty or so in the Chicago Distance Classic in the spring of 1981.
Our plans to convene at the ‘major’ races never really coalesced. But Wonder Left Racing Team members did win a bunch of races during our short-lived status as a road racing club.
World-class Wonder Left racer
The pinnacle of Wonder Left exposure came through the talents of a former Luther runner named Morton Warland. He hailed from Norway and came to Luther for a year of two thanks to Luther’s long connections to Norway. The Norwegian-American museum is located in downtown Decorah, Iowa.
Warland was a top-flight competitor for Luther, running 1:51.6 in the 800 and 3:47.8 in the 1500 meter run. Those times and some competition in Europe earned him a spot in a Dream Mile won by American Steve Scott in 3:47.66, just shy of the world record held by Sebastian Coe at the time, of 3:47.33.
Video of the race shows Warland stoically sporting his Wonder Left Racing Team jersey on the starting line next to the world’s best milers in Craig Masback, John Walker, Ray Flynn, and Scott. The race was fast from the gun, with a first lap of 56 seconds, and it didn’t slow down. Warland finished a bit back from the leaders, but still ran a pretty credible race.
I wore the Wonder Left gear through the fall of 1982 when I landed out in Pennsylvania with a work-related move and joined up with an active club team called Runner’s Edge. But while it lasted, the Wonder Left Racing Team was a candy-coated ideal wrapped in Dreamsicle orange and white. Somewhere there are probably Wonder Left jerseys still hanging in the closets of club members, but perhaps not. It was all so long ago.
It’s fun to look at the list of guys on the team. Many of them went on to run times even faster than those listed. But what this list really signifies is that burst of youth in young men (and women) that know in there is only one time in life when you’re in your twenties, and what are you going to do about it?
We did our best to run our fastest. There’s always some wonder left about whether we could have gone faster, farther, or smarter along the way. That’s the nature of running, and of life.