Tom Sederquist and Ben Sathre/Part 2: Inspirational Beginnings
If you missed part 1, check it out here.
Tom Sederquist never really had a Genesis 1:1 moment to his running career.
“I don’t even really remember a time where I didn’t run.”
His claims of an innate lean towards the sport have justifiable credence, with two Hall of Fame running parents at Moorhead State University, Concordia’s 8th street rival. Both mom and dad would shape his view of the sport, the goals he would set, and ultimately, the value he would extract from it and use in other areas of life. Jane had the first official chance to do so, as Tom’s first coach at Moorhead Junior High School.
“Maybe for some people, that would have pushed them away,” he says in referring to his mom being his coach during the vulnerable middle school stages. Tom not only embraced the experience, but, like a child soaking up the first words from a parent to learn a language, was a sponge to the basic principles passed down from mom to son.
“Still my biggest influence were those junior high years.”
He got his first taste of his favorite workout, mile repeats (which Jane often used as a ‘proving ground’ to her athletes, letting them know she was legit as she often beat them all, even the top guys, in several repetitions) from fall afternoons spent grinding to stay within the top three or four along 8th street, 11th street, Woodlawn Park, and the Lindenwood Trail.
Stuck in his 5th grade body for what seemed like forever, Tom’s progress through 8th, 9th, and 10th grade was not huge, but it was steady. As a 7th grader, he barely made it under 12 minutes in the two mile – 11:59, and he repeated the ‘big steps’ like that through his first year of high school, going 17:59 in the 5k in a fast race in his inaugural Freshman campaign.
“I wasn’t actually that great, especially as a I got into high school. But, I was always improving, and always seeing how far I could push myself.”
He extracted every last ounce of performance from his 100-pound frame, knowing his efforts would pay off when he finally did grow, a tip he had received from his ‘late blooming’ dad, Dave, and had been using to nourish his attitude about all things running.
His best time in high school was just a shade under 17:00, though he spent most of his time consistently running 17:05-17:15 during his last two seasons – marks that, since he ran nearly every race the same way, he hit pretty consistently. At his first race in college, an invitational at UND in Grand Forks in the fall of 2007 he was encouraged to pace himself, respect the new 8,000 meter distance, and make sure he didn’t go out too fast. Tom defied this logic, and decided to go out with the front, hang on as long as possible, and see what happens.
“My first year in college, I went out with the leaders.”
This was the default strategy; as each race and season went by, the time he spent on their heels lengthened.
“I really always did keep doing that (go with the front) until one day, I could stay with them.”
During his sophomore track season, when he finally went under 15:00 in the 5000m, he felt he had really started to turn a new leaf. But, his official coming out party would not take place until the following fall, when he went out with the lead group at the Roy Griak Invitational, and not only didn’t fall off the pace, but threw in a surge, running away from the crowd en route to victory in 25:39.
His strategy, even then, was eerily similar to how he had approached every race – from the first mile run that forged a love for the sport and its ability to test one’s limits and objectively compete against others while setting goals and knocking them off one at a time, to the UND invite way back in 2007.
“I’m just going to do the same exact thing and see what happens,” he recalls in thinking about his mindset going into Griak. At that point, an ability existed inside of him that maybe only he knew about, and it was time to show it.
While Tom’s story in running is perhaps more typical of a star runner – coming to the sport early, receiving steady nourishment and a clear idea of just what was possible in the sport at each step of the way from parents who were well versed, Ben’s is more of the fairy tale.
“My sister skied in high school. She really wanted me to go out and try skiing,” Ben recalls, remembering the requirement from his parents that he do something, he joined speech because running sounded very unappealing and speech seemed …easier. His nordic skiing sister was running as well, and Sathre, who admits he was not a natural speaker, was convinced to be dragged out to practice one day as a junior in high school.
“Wow, this is surprisingly fun,” he says, describing those first practices. “(You’re) out and about, doing something that makes you feel good and you’re having fun and meeting so many awesome people. It’s such a diverse group of people because there are no barriers to entry; literally anyone can show up with a pair of shoes and go for a run.”
Even though Ben would eventually become a world beater, a confident racer with a stone cold, quiet face who let his racing do the talking, it is quite apparent a vital aspect to his overall view of running is the value he places in communion with teammates. “I just thought it was so neat that you meet all these different peoples that I would have never had any encounter with.”
Perhaps a part of his affinity to those righteously true statements about running and its accessibility are part and parcel with his own collision with the sport. He was an individual himself who benefited from the fact that the cross country team was a group anyone could easily join, and be objectively viewed based on time. Thus, it was an effective vehicle for him to make a name for himself and have total control in doing so, through hard work, toughness, and ability. Having only run for two interscholastic seasons, however, it is a struggle to conjure up a plethora of early running memories.
In the few times he did run before his junior year, the 2019 Tommie Hall of Famer remembers going out for 1-2 miles at the most.
“I just remember if I got really stressed out, and I needed a mental break, I would go take a walk, and occasionally, I would feel the urge to run. Just for like a mile of it. Literally just in jeans and basketball shoes. I didn’t know anything.”
In learning of the humble beginnings of his collegiate adversary and post-collegiate brother, Tom can only react with somewhat sarcastic, hushed tones: “He was one of those guys.” By “those” what he seemingly is inferring is that Ben was a unique talent who could have easily gone undiscovered, but, through hard work, huge dreams, and a determination to prove others wrong, he not only became a respectable athlete, but a legitimately elite talent. Again, in some ways, a fairy tale.
His junior year saw him peak at 17:52, a time he recalls without hesitation in our interview. Though he may have been blind to any preconceived expectations which can sometimes stunt the growth of runners who come from places where retired runner parents exert pressure, or at the very least, construct a ceiling of potential through the dissemination of knowledge of their own times, Ben is by no means a clueless runner. You can tell he thinks about things on a deep level. He has introspectively reflected upon the overall fabric of his career and on individual moments, actions, and races, as well as individual coaches, influences, and competitors that create its charmed tapestry.
By his senior year, he had made it to state and was running in the 16:20’s. He was not a standout, and thus, was not recruited by the local DI school, the University of Minnesota. This fueled Ben to prove the doubters wrong while making a name for himself at Division III St. Thomas. His career would see him take down DI competition throughout it’s four year span. Maybe it is no coincidence that perhaps his finest collegiate performance by the standard of time was an 8:07 he ran in the 3,000 meters at the Jack Johnson invite, Minnesota’s home meet in late January. The time is astonishing given when it takes place – early in the season, when most are not sharp and have only been doing speed for a couple of weeks, as was the case with Ben – and because it was on a flat track. But the real sweet part of the memory is that he went down to the venue of the school that in his mind, stood him up, and showed them just what they had missed out on.
Granted, at the time, Ben Blankenship was finishing out his own record setting career as a Gopher, which may have distracted coaches enough to make them ignore Sathre’s athletic statements. Even though Blankenship would run 7:52.52 to set the current school record, a time which Sathre may never have been able to match in any circumstance, it is at least worth wondering about what the career trajectory could have been like had he ended up at a DI school.
“What if I had known and started my freshmen year (of high school),” Ben ponders, looking back in reference to his late entry to the sport. “What if I had gone to a DI school. I mean, think about it. If I had started running as a freshmen, I wouldn’t be here, (doing the podcast) with you.”
From what I have observed, it’s my belief that the greatness of his career was largely a result of being dismissed by DI schools. If anything, it curdled his competitive juices that much more. The chip on the proverbial shoulder, and the curiosity in his ability as a result of him not realizing his total high school potential arguably are what drove him to such great heights. Of course, that is only thinking externally from a place of competition and results. Perhaps more telling is that Ben’s takeaway is that he wouldn’t be in Duluth, sitting in the house of a rival turned friend, doing a podcast with his little brother, if things would have been different. To Ben, it seems as much about the people and the whole experience running provides, and cherishing and honoring that, as it is about hitting times, winning races, and setting lofty goals.
And the goals have always been lofty – for both athletes.
“You’re shooting for the moon, you might land in the stars,” Tom says as he describes how he viewed the deepest parts of his relationship with running, even in middle school. Even then, he was thinking, someday, maybe he could do what Dick Beardsley did and pop off a 2:08 or 2:09 when he got older. Why not? Ben concurs, remembering that he too had those same types of long term, post-collegiate goals as a youngster, even when the majority mindset of competitors in the field was narrowed in on present, tangible concerns like section or conference championships.
“You were thinking three steps ahead (of other kids),” Ben says.
Even when they hadn’t made it to state, they had their eyes on an Olympic marathon team. Even when they weren’t all-conference, they were thinking about being a national champion. One of my favorite part of our interviewing was witnessing the two athletes realize this shared vision, as unique as it is. I am wired in a similar way, and sometimes wonder if that is one of the key components to athletes who live to train and compete for a lifetime, never seeming to run out of steam or desire.
“I absolutely had those big goals; that I would make an Olympic team in the US,” Ben says as Tom looks at him across the table, almost as if the two runners’ visions are now linked in solidarity. “Even in high school and college, I remember watching the Olympic trials in 2008 and thinking, ‘I could do that.’”
Neither athlete has given up on those goals, but the post-collegiate journey has brought about as much pain and suffering as the last five laps of a 5000 where you started way too hard …. oh wait. Well, maybe since we already heard about how both of these guys have done that a time or two, it should come as no surprise they were able to weather those storms and be transformed by the trials they faced.
To read about how, join us for the conclusion of our three-part series on this MIAC rivalry when we publish it next week on seder-skier.com.