Our men’s and women’s teams flew to Minneapolis for the Minnesota Invitational the middle of October, the last meet before the conference championships, our men’s and women’s squads tagging along with the football team for their contest against the Gophers Saturday afternoon. Becky was my seatmate on the flight, both of us taking a break after forty minutes of reading. I smiled and lean towards her.
“I’m worried about putting on weight, you know, eating too much in the dining hall.” I buried my head like a scared turtle. “Do you have any suggestions to…?” My words faded.
“Sarah.” She had such a serious look. I was suddenly nervous. “Sarah. I just want to say one word to you…just one word.” I was waiting for her to smile but she didn’t. “Are you listening?”
I nodded, trying to guess why she was so serious. Did I do something wrong?
Becky’s face went from earnest to laughter in a split second, my faint response to her giggles half-hearted. What in the hell is going on? She finally stopped laughing.
“Didn’t you see ‘The Graduate?’ You know the graduation party scene where some guy pulls Dustin Hoffman aside to tell him the future?”
Becky smiled and shook her head.
“Anyway, what I’m trying to tell you is, always bring healthy snacks in your backpack. You know, baggies with carrots, nuts, pretzels...apples, oranges, bananas…so you have something good to munch on.” Becky patted my hand. “Otherwise you’ll be getting Doritos and Ding Dongs from the vending machines.” She laughed. “And definitely skip lunch in the dining hall…too much fattening food.”
It was chilly when we got off the chartered plane, the leaves on trees filled with more color than those in Evanston, the skies cloudy and portending rain.
That afternoon we did a run-through on the Bolstad Golf Course, marveling at the constant undulations, the hills on this tough course a great tune-up for the Big Ten meet in two weeks. Stacey Bant, my roommate at the Kinney Championships in San Diego two years ago was a sophomore on the Minnesota team, a cast encasing her lower leg, a crutch under each arm. I waved and rushed over to give her an awkward hug, stepping back when we released.
“What happened? Is it broken?” She nodded.
“Stress fracture. Right behind my little toe.” Stacey grimaced. “So now I have to use these medieval torture sticks.” She indicated the crutches. “For two more weeks. No Big Ten meet for me.”
“Bummer. Will you be able to redshirt?”
“Yep.” Stacey nodded. A horn honked in the background. “Well, I gotta go. It’s my ride. See you tomorrow.”
Knowing the course is hilly and running a hilly course are two different things. It was quite apparent the Bolstad GC was filled with ups and downs but the reality of glancing at a hill that never seemed to end was tough to take in. Although I hung with teammates throughout the race, my success today was more a battle of attrition than some triumphant performance.
From the gun we had seven in a tight pack up front, the squads from Minnesota and South Dakota State with equal representation, a runner from UW-La Crosse charging to the front as we crested the gradual slope four hundred meters from the starting line. Anita, Joanne, and Becky were shoulder to shoulder with the La Crosse athlete, Jennifer, Janelle, and me half a step back.
We had already climbed two challenging ridges by the time we approached the mile, an official calling “5:25…5:26…5:27” as we passed. Whoa doggie. This race is going to hurt.
The big hill on the back side of the course loomed ahead, the thought of it as exciting as shaving my legs with a dull razor. “C’mon girls” was all Becky could spit out, six of us charging up the long slope, breathing so loud it was tough to hear anything but the air racing in and out of my mouth. At the top of the hill there was a spectator with a big sign waving it back and forth like a carnival barker, repeatedly shouting.
“Go Tori Go!”
I stared at the cardboard poster twenty yards above us, Joanne falling behind as I continued to respond to challenges from Becky and Anita near the crest of the hill. The effort hurt so badly I wanted to cry out. All I felt was pain. I’m dying. I passed the two mile but times from the official didn’t register in my brain, the last hill at the northeast corner of the Bolstad course a huge obstacle between me and the finish line.
When I made that turn towards the finish I was half-past dead, uncertain how I would ever get to the line, the needle on my gas gauge far into the red. Anita and Becky pulled away as we entered the long last straight, Alm from Minnesota passing me with two hundred meters remaining, my resistance fading like a dying comet. I couldn’t have been going at more than a jog when I crossed the chalked white line, stopping at the mouth of the chute to put hands on my knees, an official grabbing my arm to pull me forward.
Fifth place. Not bad.
Anita was laying on the grass at the back of the chutes, her eyes closed, Becky bent over beside her, glancing up at me. “Nice job girls.” I patted Becky lightly on the back and tapped Anita on the forehead. We turned to see Joanne halfway down the chutes with one Minnesota runner in front and another trailing, Jennifer two runners behind that cluster in ninth place. I turned to Anita and Becky.
“We won.” We had five before the Gopher’s number four.
“Way to go ladies!” Coach O’Shea lifted a hand to slap mine, waiting for me to open my palm. “Nice job Sarah. You were tough.”
He waited until everyone’s breathing slowed, some standing, others sitting in the grass.
“I liked what I saw today. An aggressive start, strong pack running, and a good response to the hills. We’ll continue to do work on Mt. Trashmore each week, but I’m sure you can see how important the hills will be in team success at the Big Ten meet.”
He paused as a flock of geese passed overhead, their load honks overwhelming his voice, resuming with a smile.
“We beat Minnesota today so we’ve shown our team can be in the top five at the conference meet. Wisconsin, Michigan, and Iowa are tough, but after them it’s up for grabs. So if we do our job – run as a pack and challenge the other schools on the hills, well…
We cheered on the boy’s team while doing our cool down, Coach Nalley happy with Tim and Bob in the top two spots on the 8K course, Phillip only four places behind them. Their squad was also victorious today.
Later that afternoon while the boys team went to the football game with our coaches, Phillip joined us in Dinkytown for a late breakfast on the Minnesota campus, eight of us spreading out at two tables in Tony’s Diner. I was happy coach let us shower so we could remove the grime and get into regular clothes.
“I can’t believe the number is up to seven…people who died from the Tylenol capsules.” Anita took a bite of the bagel. “Did you read the article in the Daily yesterday? They said the capsules were tampered with when they were on the shelves.”
“Yeah, my mom was freaking out.” I bit off a piece of bacon. “Can you imagine if it happened in Evanston? I mean, Arlington Heights and Elk Grove are only fifteen miles away.
“It’s weird that they still don’t know who did it.” Jennifer continued. “I had some capsules so I exchanged them…but I’m still uncomfortable.”
“Thank God I use Midol!” Anita smiled.
I wish our football team had lost because the plane was crazy on the way home. At least I was pleased with the 17:51. There would have been nothing worse than a happy gridiron team alongside a poor cross country performance.
Coach dropped us off at the dorms after the flight from Minneapolis, Jennifer and I looking forward to a long nap before we did a little homework. She was such a great roommate. We were both serious students, consistent about putting in study time at the library, and most importantly, getting to bed by 11pm. We needed regular sleep, our room at the end of the hall making it easier because it was away from traffic noise on Sheridan Road, and the obnoxious girls yelling up and down hallways on weekends.
In spite of the school’s academic reputation, our dormitory had far too many who went out on Thursday and Friday nights, more than likely sorority pledges, coming home drunk well after midnight, Jennifer and I making a point to pound on their doors early the next morning. The first time I did this Jennifer thought I was a nut, but she quickly took to the payback, laughing at her own brazenness.
After Becky’s talk on the plane both of us began carrying baggies of carrots, grapes, strawberries, and pretzels; including an apple, orange, or banana in backpacks as we trudged towards campus each morning. It was the best advice I’d gotten from a teammate – a simple way to control our intake. Wearing bun-huggers accented my worries about putting on weight, and this simple act kept concerns at bay. Mostly.
Initial thoughts that college was easy had quickly changed, workloads piling up like dirty laundry in the hamper, the assignments never done. I was getting A’s in the history and English classes, but in chemistry I felt like a drowning swimmer, struggling every day just to stay afloat. With Jennifer’s help I kept my head above water – although I rarely felt ready for the next day’s class. Calculus was challenging, never allowing me to coast, but if I put in a steady effort things would be okay.
It was exciting to be back in Iowa City but nerve-racking to know why. The 1982 Big Ten Cross Country Championships. Mom and dad stopped by our hotel Friday after the team dinner, sitting on either side of me in the lobby, planning out the rest of the weekend, meeting some of my teammates for the first time as they checked out guys from other teams. I was planning to stay after the meet, mom promising to drive me back to Evanston Sunday afternoon.
Danny, my older brother, would be in town to watch me run the Saturday morning race, excited to watch me compete – the first time in three years. He had always been my biggest supporter when I was little, encouraging me to try every sport the boys did, patient with me when all the neighborhood kids were anything but, teaching me the ins and outs of everything – how to shoot a free throw or tips on the correct hitting stance. I begged him to come watch, wanting to make him proud. To let him know he was a big part of the reason I got to this point.
Although the race course was on Upper Finkbine, at breakfast the next morning I asked the girls if we could warm up on Lower Finkbine, worried I would get too many well-wishers bothering me before the competition. I was far too nervous and their good intentions would only make the pressure worse.
As always, Anita had something to say.
“No problem Sarah…but I was sorta thinking maybe we should set up a receiving line after the race.” She grinned like the Cheshire Cat. “At the back of the chutes. You know, where your fans could come up and say hi…kind of line a wedding reception line.” She laughed. “I’ll arrange the fees for autographs and if they want a picture with you it will cost them...a buck.”
Anita burst out laughing, all of us joining in.
I did a fifteen minute jog with the girls and then met dad over by the Letterman’s Club patio twenty minutes before the race, using the bathroom in the building that he somehow got me into. When I returned he got started.
“Okay, lay on your back, hands on your stomach. Close your eyes.” He paused. “In through your nose…two…three…four…five. And out one…two…three…four…five.” He repeated this pattern for three minutes and then let me breath on my own. When I looked relaxed he continued.
“How many state titles in cross country did you win?” Dad waited for my response.
“And how many state titles did you win in track?”
“Good. And who is the best father in the world?” He chuckled.
“You better believe it.” Dad grinned. “Today’s prediction. Seventeenth! It’s my lucky number.”
I gave him a big hug and jogged to the starting line.
There is no sporting event more colorful than the starting line of a cross country race on a crisp fall morning, the cool air sharpening the hues. The setting was resplendent with color, leaves awash in red, yellow, and brown; the green grass brilliant against the fluffy white clouds and bright blue sky; athletes in multicolored uniforms of navy and orange, blue and yellow, black and gold; others in single colors of green and purple and red.
Runners did strides to burn off nervous energy, shooting from the starting line like crayons flying from a fallen box, tension filling the air as others nervously shuffled side to side, repeatedly running fingers over ears to put hair in place. There was a long whistle and then dead silence, only the soft sounds of breathing from teammates as we waited for the starter.
“Runner’s set.” Everyone leaned forward at the command. “BOOM!” And we were off.
It was easy to spot Nan Doak sprinting to the front, her blond ponytail bobbing side to side like a happy dog’s tail, the entire Wisconsin team hot on her heels, Purdue’s Becky Cotta weaving through the Iowa squad to get beside the leading Hawkeye. Our team got out well, positioned in front of the bell-shaped curve, riding it as though we were pushed by an ocean wave, all of us praying we’d finish the race as a top five team.
Coach O’Shea was at the turn three hundred yards from the start, shouting through cupped hands.
“Remember to ride the hill. Stay relaxed.”
The downhill must have been 250-300 yards long, ninety-two runners moving at a pace that would have been crazy on the flat, each of us anything but relaxed despite his entreaties. Coach claimed the initial 800 meters would be fast, somewhere between 2:20-2:25 because much of it downhill.
At the turn around the 14th green I had no doubt his estimate was pretty close, all of us leaning hard into the corner as though we were running on an indoor track, colors flashing by like the wooden ponies on a carousel. Behind us I could hear a loud “oof” and someone stumble. Bummer.
Anita, Joanne, and I were twenty-five meters behind Nan Doak and Becky Cotta, the pair charging up the hill side by side, Rose Thomson and Cathy Branta leading the Wisconsin squad, every one of them seemingly oblivious to the incline. As runners neared the top of the long hill I recalled Coach O’Shea’s words after yesterday’s run-through.
“Remember, no one is going to fade up the first hill. Don’t be worried. Expect to hold your position. But you’ll begin to see cracks in their armor the second hill so take advantage of it, and on the third one I want you push hard and improve your position.”
The course worked its way back towards the clubhouse, spectators on either side of the white line shouting through cupped hands, the wall of sound pushing us ahead.
“Go Sarah. You can do it.” “Great job Sarah.” “Go get ‘em Sarah.” I recognized the voices of my high school teammates as I ran the gauntlet.
“You can do it Sarah. At-a-way.” It was my aunt. “Whoo hoo, let’s go Sarah.”
“Eyes up.” I knew it was dad. “I want you to get three up the next hill.” He pointed at the trio.
“Great job Sarah.” It was Danny. “Awesome.”
I glanced over at Anita and Joanne, the three of us turning in unison down the hill into the second loop. It made me nervous to not see the others but I didn’t have time to look for them. As we galloped down the slope I tried to count the number of runners in front, Iowa’s Doak leading the field. Twenty-three?
Our feet slapped the grass on the downhill like wet cardboard on cement, gravity pushing runners almost faster than legs could handle, just ahead a Michigan State Spartan stumbling when the load got too heavy. We curled around the second green and I peeked to see if I could spot teammates just as my high school coach shouted through cupped hands when we leaned into the corner.
“That-a-way Sarah.” It was Coach Raffensperger. “You’re doing great. Keep it going.”
A pair of Purdue runners with white bows in their hair and a redhead from Michigan State were only ten yards ahead. We slid by one of the Boilermakers halfway up the hill, her teammate glancing over when we went by a few seconds later, the redhead succumbing to our efforts a few yards from the top of the long slope. Twentieth.
Coach O’Shea shuffled alongside us as we skirted the clubhouse, fans shouting from every direction.
“C’mon girls. Last loop. Dig deep. Keep it going.”
Ten seconds later I heard dad’s voice again.
“Awesome Wildcats. Awesome. You got three back there.” He pointed ahead. “Now get four more. Next hill.”
From my peripheral vision it was clear Anita and Joanne were moving their arms in bigger arcs, fatigue stealing strength from legs with a mile remaining. I’m certain my arms looked the same as theirs. I’m so dead. I don’t know if I can do it anymore.
A left turn and we were racing down the initial descent a last time, my legs crying out for relief from the relentless pounding, everyone’s speed significantly slower this time through. We pulled up on a Michigan runner as the 14th green neared, the three of us hanging back until we came out of the turn. Here goes nothing.
Six hundred meters remained, two hundred fifty meters of it uphill. I glanced at my teammate’s faces, their eyes pinched tight like they were running through a cloud of dust, only blank stares as we went around the Wolverine. Runners from Illinois, Iowa, and Indiana were just ahead as we suffered the long climb, Joanne slipping behind as Anita and I pushed after the trio just in front. I didn’t know how much longer I could last. I’m dying.
We passed the Hawkeye and then the Hoosier two seconds later, the Illini runner fighting us tooth and nail as the apex of the hill approached. I had nothing in the tank, my mental toughness gone, Anita slipping away with every step.
“C’mon darling. You can do it.” At first I thought I imagined it but she said it again. “C’mon darling. Keep fighting. I know you can.”
It was Marie – my fallen friend.
Off the top of the hill I fought to pull back even with Anita, both of us going by the Illinois runner with one hundred meters remaining, Anita beating me to the finish line by a step. Seventeenth. Just as dad predicted.
I squeezed my eyes closed, the pain racking my body as I ran hands along the pennants in the chute to keep me walking straight, breaths blasting from lungs in a steady beat. Reaching out, I put hands on Anita’s shoulders, and leaned forward.
“Thanks.” I paused. “You were...a godsend.” I took a deep breath. “I couldn’t have...done it without you.”
Dad and Danny rushed up at the back of the chutes, my father squeezing me in a bearhug, smiling as he said.
“Seventeenth. Just like I predicted.”
My brother enveloped me in his arms, the first hug I could ever remember him ever giving me.
“You did good Sarah. Real good.” He smiled and patted me on the head.
My high school coach approached.
“Impressive Sarah. Very impressive.” He grimaced, uncertain whether to continue. “Did you know that your teammates get knocked over on the turn at the bottom of the first downhill.” I shook my head, my eyebrows going up. “Someone caught a heel…the blond-headed runner on your team, and she fell into two of your teammates, the three of them flat on the ground as the pack pulled away. One of them didn’t finish and the other two never worked their way back into position. So it’s not good…teamwise.
My head dropped. That’s why Becky and Jennifer still hadn’t come out of the chutes.
Ten minutes later we learned the team was 9th. Damnit! If those two had finished in the top thirty – a realistic performance, our team would have been 4th. We were quiet on the cool down, a rain cloud hanging over every head. We had no chance of running in the NCAA Regional with this performance.
I sighed. Being a college runner was way harder than I guessed.
Just a year ago my only strategy in cross country was run to the front and make sure no one passed me. I was happy with seventeenth at the conference meet, grateful for a fifth in any of our triangular races, never seriously thinking I could win any of them. Now I was one of those invisible athletes sprinting towards the chutes, spectators paying little attention to my time or place, thinking of me as just another unknown runner.