Normally, you can taste the excitement of running in the air during this part of the late-summer and early fall. Teams sweat out long, hard intervals on humid days and relocate their longsleeves as the leaves begin to turn. It is the time of year that evokes tradition, competitions, friendships, and all of the other great things that make up our memories in the sport. Stuck in 2020, none of this quite feels like it is happening the same way this year. Teams have been cut, seasons have been cancelled, and races look a lot different, if they’re even happening at all. And so, the Seder-Skier Team is bringing you some written reflections to get you back in the harrier spirit.
Today, a memoir on one of my earliest running traditions. At some point in the season, my mom (our coach) would allow our whole team to end a run at the local outdoor DQ. Then, we got to enjoy our treats by walking the quiet residential roads on the way home.
My mom and I pull into the small parking lot in front of the Moorhead Junior High track. The bumpy, worn out pavement, the faded wooden sign on the track entrance, which does not have a gate but only offset chain fence, are all little things which make this spot familiar. I am only in 5th grade, but in some ways I have grown up on this track. In first grade, we marched here from nearby Probtsfield Elementary for the mile run. The chain fence seemed bigger then, and so did the track. Running is like that: for a first grader, to travel from this school, across busy 8th street, and all the way to Gooseberry Park was akin to Frodo and Sam’s quest in Lord of the Rings. Once you are in college, it is not even a worthy warm-up before an 8x1k workout.
I’m excited to attend practice today, because it means I get to take part in another team tradition: a Dairy Queen run. It involves running all the way to Moorhead Dairy Queen, along 8th street, which again, seems like a never ending straightaway, ordering an ice cream treat, and then slowly walking back to the school through the historic residential neighborhoods.
A conversational pace has thwarted any feelings of anxiety – those are still ever present in the ultra-competitive junior high kid when mile repeats are on the docket. At that age, the distinction between “hard” by practice terms, and “racing” like your identity depends on it …. which the very word ‘mile’ brings to mind, is hard to differentiate. But ‘conversational’ pace makes perfect sense. If I am able to talk with you, I am going the right speed. Ice cream, well, we don’t need any help with that step, and we get to order it from the most famous Dairy Queen in the entire country, in my biased opinion. Finally, walking home means a chance, even for me, to try and walk closer to that cute girl and hope I can sneak in a word of conversation. What could be better than this tradition?
“32 ounces!” Hannah cries in disbelief. “Man….I just remember when I graduated from the junior (12 oz) and I thought that was a big deal.”
Charlie Larson, an 8th grader, has just received his 32 ounce cookie dough blizzard through the window from the all female workforce. I remember watching the weight of the cup force his body to make an adjustment in its stance, thinking I had never seen a single food item that was so enormous. I remember when Hannah Stordahl made her remark that I was thinking the same exact thing. My parents wouldn’t order me anything above the 12-ounce blizzard, and quite frankly, I didn’t need anything larger than that…I wouldn’t have been able to finish it anyway. I suppose they knew that, and I guess her parents thought the same way as mine. I remember the long walk home, and seeing parts of his melted blizzard on the street. He got to the end and claimed he ate it, but he dumped out parts that had melted ….well, no duh you finished it! That’s the hardest part — eating all of it. Unless you are Joey Chestnut, you are bound to have to work through some melted cream and the hardest section: the bottom of a blizzard, which, as you might notice, is always stacked with cookies because filling that part in such a dense way is the first step in construction.
It was one of those perfect Minnesota fall days – 70 degrees, sunny, no humidity. The crispness of fall was palpable. You could smell the leaves changing and the traditions which follow: parades, soups, fall colors, sweatshirts, backyard football, Friday night football, and cross country meets in high heat, bitter cold, and everything in between. I can feel specific emotions tied to each of those entities, and even as a youngster, I want so badly to just hold onto them tightly. The thing is, fall has a way of bringing a tinge of melancholy to the introspective sole by nature. It evokes feelings of reflection, memories of old, and despite your greatest efforts to cherish them, those moments always have a way of acting just like a leaf that has changed color, dried out, crumpled up, and blown away. I remember, even as a youngster, thinking about such things. A perfect fall day at the end of a week, with no stress coming on the weekend is filled with feelings and emotions I want to last forever. There is happiness and warmth, and I never want to leave the moment.
But alas, the days are getting shorter, and we have to get back to school, because practice has to end, and we have to get picked up and go home.
But, as I said, today is an easy day to go home, since there is still great optimism in the air. It’s only Friday, and we don’t have a meet tomorrow, which means we don’t have to stress about the race, go to bed early, and wait until everything is over until we get to relax again. We can stay up late, maybe play ping pong or NFL 2K2. Things are happy and good.
My mom whooshes by on foot, running back and forth between groups of wild junior highers, making sure they are safe and making ok time traveling back to the school.
“We should probably run a little,” she says.
It is the farthest thing from my mind at this point. I’ll be lucky at this point to finish my blizzard in peace without having to sit on a curb and witness my stomach literally explode. It’s crazy now – I wash down every meal with a solid 50oz smoothie and bran flakes; I could probably swallow a junior oreo blizzard in one fell swoop. Well, things change, and people grow.
I look down at my old worn shoes as my feet try to stride faster and keep up with the group. I’m just a little “RizzerRunk,” as my dad would probably say if he were witnessing this moment from a cloud. Long hair, bleached from endless days playing in the country sun. Skinny, tan legs – little boy legs – but springy with joy for movement and sports. Walking down the middle of a road, oversized ice cream treat in hand, following a team he pretends to belong to, even though he is two years too young.
I actually play a pivotal role, one which I have, to this day, been told no one has done better. And that is to be an assistant coach who takes stats. I’m fast enough to get to the mile mark in a two mile race, and my instincts for data is uncanny. I can real off times, right them down on my excel spreadsheet, and perhaps most importantly, identify every single boy and girl on the 50 man roster as it happens in real time. The first time I tried it, I failed miserably. But, like everything I’ve realized, from unscrewing a bolt to scraping a waxed ski to folding a church bulletin, if you repeat it enough times, the body finds the most efficient way to do it really fast, if you listen and let it.
And so, I’m the master statistician. That year, for the first time, I embark on a tradition which I will repeat several times in future roles as a captain, assistant coach, and head coach, for my athletes, which is to write them a very long personal, handwritten message at some point in the season. I spend a full four hours one day during a break from my studies writing out notes to every athlete and placing a chocolate candy with each one. I had a crush on one girl, and the only way to send her a note anonymously was to do write every single person a note.
I got to walk by her on the way home from the Dairy Queen, by the way. It didn’t amount to anything in the long run, but that’s just fine. It is cute to think about now.
I lived through many more Dairy Queen runs. In 6th grade, I tagged along again, and with more of my friends in the 7th grade and officially on the team, my ‘position’ moved from younger brother and assistant coach to ‘redshirt’ freshmen with an unfair extra year of eligibility. I got serious about running that year. Too serious – just like everything – and that’s ok, too, for the most part.
The walks home that year and the next probably had a few moments of me and Elisabeth Hanson shooting the breeze about the state of the Moorhead Spuds Varsity basketball squad. She could talk about anything. Timothy and Jakob were trustworthy leaders of the team. Talented, hard working, role models in every aspect. I tried as hard as I could at every practice to be brushing shoulders with them as long as I could. Tim out sprinted me in most races, but I remember the joy I felt when I held him off just one time. He went on to be a MIAC champion in the 5000 meters, and in most races at the next level, I didn’t have much of a chance of being with him. Jakob went off to Harvard and trained and raced well there for a full career. It was enjoyable over a Christmas break one year, a decade after those DQ runs, as Jakob, myself, and Erik Hanson, an 8th grader when I was a 5th grader, all went on a leisurely 10 miler on our old stomping grounds.
Dairy Queen runs weren’t a part of my college running. It was a tradition I could always reflect on. I would remember where I had come from every time I turned towards Fargo at Main Avenue, the general area of most of our Cobber runs. Most of the time, we’d slip through Moorhead without hitting that specific downtown intersection, but every once in a while, I wanted every one in town to know I was training, so I’d rip my shirt off and motor right down 8th straight. I sometimes wondered if there was ever a regular, a DQ worker, or someone else who took that commute every day who had watched me grow up in Moorhead. Maybe they had seen me go from the tag along ‘coach’ in 5th grade to a being a Spud basketball player to now, thinning out and running for the local college. I knew it wasn’t the case, and in some ways, the anonymity was both charming and motivating. I could totally disappear, even in my hometown that I had never left. It was a good reminder about perspective. No one is a very big deal, relatively speaking, and nothing you have accomplished really lasts.
Of course, it is not as if I did too much to make Moorhead proud on the track or cross country course. I tried to do everything right and do everything I could to maximize my potential. I recently read a book by Kareem Abdul Jabber where he spends a season coaching on a reservation in rural New Mexico. He comments that the rarest thing in sports and life is not a person with talent, but the person who maximizes their potential. I would like to say I did that, but I think the reality is that I maximized my situation. Maybe, had I kept brushing shoulders with Tim and followed him to Northfield, I could have been a better runner as an Ole. Maybe, if I had quit sports altogether, I could have been a PhD student in trumpet performance. Maybe if I had, right from the start, determined to be the next Bob Costas, no matter what, I would be covering Tokyo 2021.
Maybe if I hadn’t found the love of my life in college, I wouldn’t have stayed up way too late one night before a meet, parked in the DQ eating treats and flirting under the stars well after the employees had closed up…. and I wouldn’t have had to go to my coach and confess my actions out of worry it would effect my performance, even though he couldn’t have cared less and the whole story was hilarious and romantic and nothing close to irresponsible. I ended up running 9:04 in the 3k the next day, my personal best at the time. It is the magic of the DQ.
Of course, that DQ specifically holds more significance than just being connected to a fall running image in the photo album of my brain.
This was where I stood in line every Monday night, outside, through fall and winter, with my dad to order a curly shake – the obvious best value at DQ as it is two treats in one – after Bible Study Fellowship. Interestingly, perhaps, was the fact that I genuinely did not attend BSF for the sole reason of getting the ice cream treat at the end. I was eager to sit in a 40 minute lecture (would that even be legal for a class with nine-year old kids now?!) and take notes, and later compare them with my buddy Lukas (who also happened to be a cross country teammate and more than that, a lifelong friend who not only ran with me but basically lived out almost every single ‘Moorhead’ memory I experienced in this article and then some).
The class took place on Monday nights in north Fargo, concluding around 9 PM, which left my dad and I about a 40 minute commute back to our country house in south Moorhead. It was just about the perfect amount of time to digest the lesson, listen to Monday night football, and eat ice cream. Every time we’d get to the railroad tracks north of the DQ, my dad would lean over and say, “Well, do you want some ice cream.” I would think about it and answer, almost as if we were pondering over whether or not we should fill up with gas on a 1/8th full tank. And as natural and obvious of an answer as would suffice in a situation like that, I’d usually stare ahead and respond, “Yeah, sure I suppose.”
Bible, then sports, then ice cream and sports. This is how men decompress after a long day, and I suppose this is good, too. We didn’t need to talk much on the ride home to be together.
Dairy Queen was the site of my first date with my wife (not the late night one I already mentioned which took place before an indoor track meet at St. Johns the next morning!). I ordered a cone with sprinkles and spilled it because unlike my natural instinct of eating first and talking later, I was so excited to be in this woman’s presence, I forgot all about the ice cream. We went to a Wayne Bergeron concert and listened to a trumpet player smash high notes for two hours. He was the ego-maniac type player who let everyone in the theatre know he was top dog every 15 seconds with some riff ending on a squealing triple high ‘C.’ I couldn’t emote that kind of testosterone, so I let someone else do it on my instrument for me while I focused on judging whether or not I should hold her hand (of course I didn’t….this relationship moved slow….really, really slow).
I don’t live in Moorhead now. For a span of about four years in college, I ran close to 500 or more annual runs in that city alone. Twice a day, most days, for 11.5 months of the year. I traced up and down the roads so many times, if I only make it there for one or two annual runs now, I can still throw myself right back into all of the special memories. The classic winter, bitter cold runs where you don’t feel anything but a hateful, stingy cold for 60 minutes. The times in January where you cross the blue bridge in Fargo over the interstate and wonder, “Can I really make it back to Olson after what I’ve done so far?” and the sun goes down, the wind picks up, and the ice and snow stay firm. But you know how sweet it will be to take a warm shower, put on sweats and hunker down at the food cafeteria with warm smiles and food.
I can think back to my days as a Spud, when I ran but thought mostly of basketball. I still covered some miles, and I still thought about those Moorhead traditions like Dominoes Mile runs at the park and the only annual meet which can guarantee heat, wind, and humidity: The Shocky Strand Invite at Johnson Park.
And of course, I can even think back to those first runs away from the “Old Junior High,” when two miles was a full workout. And when getting all the way to DQ meant we could walk back.