Sederquist and Sathre – Part 3:
The meaning of running
We left this story full of optimism. Both of our main characters, their shared vision of maximizing their running potential, shooting for the stars and hoping they at least land on the moon, striving for a Dick Beardsley-esque 2:09 marathon out-of-nowhere race, coupled with a chance to race at the Olympic Trials. The belief is there, the ability is there, the desire is there …. what more could we need?
Well, as anyone who has run more than once around their city block knows, one’s journey in running is about as sure to include a few injury related trials as it is to involve a side ache. At some point, no matter what you do, it is going to happen. The response, the journey through the fire, the character-revealing moments, and the subsequently transcendent, life-long lessons garnered are perhaps the most valuable thing we ever get from the sport. Running rewards those who are willing to take a few bumps and bruises. It is a sport that gives back to those who seek whatever exists on the bottom of that proverbial “well” that we are all going ‘deep’ into. What they never told us, though, was how sometimes … most of the time …. we find the bottom of the well by falling to it.
Thus, the conclusion of our three part series with Ben Sathre and Tom Sederquist is a glimpse into their lowest of lows.
What was that like for them?
As someone who has had a few disappointing setbacks related to injury, I am always fascinated by peering into the human spirit of others to see what images they saw and emotions they felt while walking through the storms of despair. Hopefully, this closer look will be a valuable source of inspiration for all my readers to continue or maybe even start a journey in running – no matter what end goals you have.
Externally, they may be different, but internally, we all want the same thing: to learn about ourselves …
so that we may improve ourselves.
If there ever was an ideal time to get injured, one would postulate the early, more than likely, irrelevant chapters of a collegiate athlete’s career, would be the stage we would select. To suffer a season ending injury or to take 6-weeks off during your senior year is more than simply “unfortunate,” or “less than ideal.” It is tragic. It puts immediate pressure on the very foundation of a runner’s identity. Especially if they have spent the first three seasons proving to themselves and to others how ‘worthy’ they are because of their performance, accolades, and accomplishments. They have to go from being ‘big man on campus,’ to addressing the inevitable question: “Who am I …. really?”
“On what basis is my worth – my identity – founded?”
The runner who has misplaced his identity in running no doubt struggles when this occurs. And yet, it is the sport’s way of cleansing that troubled soul, forcing them to find a more stable foundation. In a way, both of our protagonists faced such a task.
Going into the summer of 2011, Sathre suffered a significant stress fracture, and for the first time ever, was restricted from running for an extended period of time. I’ll reiterate what you can already infer: this was particularly poor timing. Going into his senior year of cross country, the Tommie was coming off a campaign in which he flashed his national-caliber ability more than once. An All-American as a sophomore, he was the national runner up as a junior.
This was to be his magnum opus opportunity. The final stamp of dominance. The idea of everyone in the MIAC -and the nation – except for him, out training for the fast approaching season was a catastrophic disaster. Using modern verbiage, the whole thing had “gone 2020.” Ben’s response at the time was originally one of absolute despair. He contemplated quitting.
“I still have emails and notes I saved from Pete (Wareham),” he says. “I sent Pete like five emails saying I was quitting, I was dropping out, I was never running again. I hit some really low points, like I’m sure anybody can relate too. I remind myself – I still have those saved.”
We can get back to the bold phrase in a minute, because I think it is particularly thought provoking from an inspirational, internal standpoint. For now, let’s wade through the waters of that 2010-2011 campaign. Fortunately for all of DIII … or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it (especially if you are a St. Olaf or Hamline alumni), Ben did return.
And his return came with a vengeance. He went undefeated.
In fact, in his last two seasons, he finished first or second in 11 of 12 races. He captured his only MIAC cross country title, decimating the field by 32 seconds, followed it up with a repeat as region champion (a 20-second victory) two weeks later, and ran the then second fastest time ever (23:44; the meet record was 23:42) at the NCAA DIII national meet, “re” overtaking Lee Berube in the final mile after running alone in front for the majority of the race. He didn’t stop once the snow fell, either.
An 8:07 3k P.B. and a 4:09 mile in January, and a successful double (mile and 3k) at the MIAC indoor championships were all his as well. For whatever reason, to this point he had never been able to put together a great national meet in either indoor or outdoor track, a trend which continued even in this most illustrious concluding movement to an otherwise Beethovianly brash symphony. Truly, the music educator in me just had to equate Ben’s career to Ludwig Von, as both boldly and brilliantly went by the beat of their own drum, were generally misunderstood by their peers, and perhaps only truly appreciated by the majority once they were gone.
Outdoors had never really been Ben’s thing either. Granted, he still posted some pretty fast times – sub-30 for the 10k is nothing to complain about. But, one wonders how fast he could have ran on a track had the opportunity presented itself at the end of November, when he always seemed to be invincible and effortlessly floating. Watching him devour the hills at late season cross country races meant witnessing an almost machine-like, monolithic dictation of pace – all out. To win. To make a statement.
This made his last MIAC outdoor meet all the more depressing as a fan of Ben. It was my feeling as I watched in the stands at Jake Christiansen stadium in May of 2012, that Ben was ganged up on by the entire conference. It was as if they had tried everything in the previous 8 months and been thwarted in cross during the season, at Como Park, at regions, and at nationals … and the same had happened in indoor. It couldn’t happen at outdoor, too.
This was the joint, last ditch effort to prevent him from pulling off a run of distance dominance in the conference not realized by anyone in a single calendar year. Hamline and St. Olaf versus Ben did not work favorably for the purple and black, as the pace in the 10k was slow and controlled. Ben did not do his ‘normal thing’ of blasting from the gun, and paid the price, losing in a final sprint to Devin Monson by less than six tenths of a second. In the 5k, Jack Diechert, arguably the most influential runner at the meet, reeled off the victory in a devastating final lap. Ben had gone 0 for 2. As someone who felt distantly connected to Sathre because his style was like my brother Tom’s, I almost felt a little bad for the guy. Everyone in the crowd seemed really excited to watch the Tommie struggle and get beaten. It seemed like a hard way to watch things end.
“I felt like I really underperformed in college – I’m sure everyone feels that way,” he reflects. His times are fast enough, his accomplishments grand enough, that his name will forever be etched in the annals of at least St. Thomas, if not the entire MIAC. His sentiment, however, which hints forward to the commonly held wide-eyed, almost greedy vantage point of post-collegiate potential – the opportunity to satisfy college goals left unchecked and finally ‘get in that fast race when you are in peak form,’ is powerful. The allure effectively entices many runners, especially DIII athletes who, void of the financial and administrative pressures often felt at DII or DI, are excited to chase after the true full potential for a few more years – or longer. That is just what he set out for.
“I wanted to stay focused on the track. I did eventually set some PR’s a little bit down the road.” He ran a sub 14-5k, broke his 8:07 by a second (but over three years later) before finally moving up to the marathon, the last frontier of growth for every runner.
“I moved up to the marathon because I didn’t have a shot at making the world champs or the Olympics (in shorter events). Some people are like, oh, 13:50, oh you’re so close….that is a massive difference.” The intrigue of the wild west, the hope of riches and unpredictable improvement, and final frontier of personal growth and discovery of the limits of athletic possibility was ever present in the 26.2 mile distance.
“You can always run more miles. You can build endurance almost indefinitely. Whereas speed has a finite limit for everyone. You’re always as a runner seeking improvement, and the marathon is a place where you can always find room for improvement. There’s always a challenge, always something you can work on, especially as you get older, and you start to lose your speed,” said Ben.
“So that’s why the shift to the marathon.”
His first marathon wouldn’t come until 2017. In between 2012, when he graduated, and 2016, Ben suffered through many injuries. They always seemed to plague him in the fall. First, it was the summer/fall of 2011. A femur fracture in 2012 was followed in 2013 by a stress fracture in the other femur. In 2015, a naviular injury sidelined him for 4 months. In 2016, he endured a bad case of plantar fasciitis.
Remarkably, Ben did not give up on his dreams or the pursuit of finding out what he could do, and he never stopped believing in himself.
“I stuck with it just because it was possible. If he (Chris Erichsen) can do it, I can do it,” he says, referencing the former St. John’s runner who made headlines in the midwest running scene with his 2:17 qualifying time for the Olympic Trials. They had overlapping careers, and the marathon performance came right around the time Ben and Tom were hitting their peak collegiate strides.
It paid off, as he ran 2:21 at his debut at CIM in Sacramento in 2017, 2:15 in January of 2019 at Houston, and 2:16 at the Frankfurt Marathon last fall. Recently, he also made the switch from competing for team USA, as he now competes for Luxembourg.
“I just felt like I would have better opportunities being able to race in Europe and I really wanted to represent my mom’s home country, which is Luxembourg, and I felt like long term, I would be happier doing that.”
The demanding reality of the USATF schedule – highly competitive, lots of races, and pressure to race well all year, were not conducive to Ben’s ideal training plan. “I can develop on my own schedule,” he said, speaking of his current situation, having realized the pressure to compete well all the time was probably burning him out, leaving him injured, and preventing the long term, gradual growth needed for the marathon which can only come from being healthy for prolonged stretches of time.
After enduring the agony of sitting out both indoor and outdoor track and field during the 5th-year senior season that was supposed to redeem his dad’s prophetic advice about the benefits of being a late bloomer, Tom graduated from Concordia in 2012 with absolutely no fanfare. In May of 2012, he didn’t so much graduate from the program as he disappeared from it. It was sad to witness. How could it be that just 18 months ago, he had been on top of the midwest running universe, holding his trophy at the Roy Griak? How could it be that just 10 months ago he was finishing a memorable January and February of his own, shattering school records in three consecutive weekends en route to an outdoor 5000 meter MIAC crown?
In 2012, as the conference meet took place on his own track, he helplessly sat in the stands, watching the lone Cobber in a distance final take his marks in the 1500. For the first time in four years, no one would represent the corn husks in a 5k or 10k. As other fans watched, he sat in anonymity which depressing and eerie for a younger brother to witness. His career didn’t end in a festive culmination complete with the great, all out, lung-searing efforts, school records, and big time races he seemed to deserve, but a disappearance that stung even more because it almost seemed like it didn’t matter. Going back to our opening lines: this was running being brutally honest with its participant. Right when you think you start to matter because of something related to the sport, you are humbled by the reality that no matter how great you are and how many amazing things you do on the track, no one really cares or actually remembers. At least not because of that.
In the following months, Tom would leave Moorhead, the only town he had ever known, and move to Northfield, MN. Because his achilles injury (which had actually been a plaguing him since the spring of 2011) was preventing him from doing anything ‘fun’ like running, skiing, or general adventuring, he opted to have surgery on a problematic right shoulder. He figured since he was unable to move, he might as well solve one bodily issue.
Going back to his final fall cross country season, in addition to sitting out of the Griak instead of attempting to defend his title, the nagging achilles had forced him to run MIAC, regions, and nationals on a very limited training regimen. In the final month, he was barely even running in between races at all. He was truly hanging by a thread. After graduation, he slowly attempted to return to training. He was adamant about regaining lost fitness and retaining whatever measure of identity he had in running. It was, for good or for bad, quite a bit.
The period was a low point for the young bachelor. Anytime he started running even meager distances, his injury would flare up, and he’d be back on his stationary bike for a week or more, sweating out precious fluids and adrenal points in his lonely studio apartment in the downtown city surrounded by MIAC distance meccas Carleton and St. Olafs … constant reminders of the past he had unceremoniously walked out from.
In the fall of 2012, just as his running seemed to be finally coming around, he started to notice a sickness that was off and on.
“Finally I get back to feeling a little better, and I’m starting to run again, and I’m getting terrible stomach and gut pain. I’m used to taking my health for granted. You want to be performing at this incredible level, and here I am, struggling to perform … just at life.”
Pancolitis was what he was dealing with then. By the next fall, he had full blown proctitis. “I didn’t understand the severity of this until now,” he recalls in thinking about his state in both 2012 and then 2013. “I was having blood in my stool and was like, ‘this is not good.’” He was a patient at Mayo because of his achilles, which allowed him to get in within a month for his gut. By the time he went there, however, he was in even worse shape. He had lost a bunch of weight.
“It’s hard to talk about because it is so disgusting and so terrible, no one wants to hear about it.”
The condition got worse in the hospital as doctors performed invasive procedures, one after another, on a colon that was already very inflamed. It was a different type of discomfort, one that shell shocked a runner who was notorious for dealing with pain so stoically on the track and cross country course. “It felt like I was going to die,” he says without any sarcasm. “This otherworld pain. Extreme. Different level of the pain of the dislocation of an arm or a chin ripping to shreds (both things he had experienced) or running. It was an insane internal burning.”
His options were limited at that point. He could take hard drugs to improve his condition, but the side effects were far too serious for Tom to consider.
“I had some dreams of being a decent runner after college. I’m thinking, can I just live normal again?” he describes his mindset at the time. There was indeed a whole different view of things now. His employer, Trystar, thankfully kept him on this entire time, but he was not working, and he was watching his hard earned savings being drained daily. Up to this point, even in that arena, doing the ‘right’ thing wasn’t working. He had gone to school on a full-ride academic scholarship and walked into a well-paying job immediately upon graduation. Frugality, planning, and saving are no match for the unexpected twists and turns of life, a lesson that lives on with Tom to this day as he balances discernment and wisdom in planning for the future with living each moment to the fullest. He tends to error towards the latter, and if you are with him for any amount of time, you can see it is with twice the joy, engagement, and fullness as he did prior to his colon battle.
Tom, with the help of his parents, who had dropped nearly everything at this point to fight for their son, made a valiant effort at different treatment options. From fecal transplants to diets based off of detailed, personalized gut bacteria tests, they tried everything. Usually, noticeable changes occurred, but always only for a short time. The time involving these experimental hail-mary’s, the winter of 2014, actually saw Tom return to work, gain some weight, and somehow, even start to run, albeit in a very limited quantity.
“I still followed running a bit,” he remembers. Even between bouts of fighting for his health and in some ways his very life, Tom still kept a few ounces of his heart fixated on those old goals.
“I’m watching Devin and Ben run these insane times. All these MIAC guys that I used to race.” It is hard to imagine how he could have felt then. The weight of realizing the fragility, not only of running, but of simply the ability to walk to the mailbox and back, rake leaves into a pile, or stain the walls of a cabin, likely put things into a more proper perspective for him. I remember during the fall of 2013, going to visit Tom in Northfield over Thanksgiving. It was just our immediate family that stayed in Tom’s place, something that, for Sederquists, is insanely rare over a holiday. We are the family that typically does holidays in the “full on, three day, extended cousins crammed into a small country house, sleeping on top of each other, playing football until we collapse, cross country skiing and fort building in the woods until our toes freeze off,” type way. So, the utter desolate quietness of the five us, solemnly gathered in front of a TV for the whole day, with Tom, normally the most active of the bunch, barely able to open his eyes, was weird. We spent the whole day watching football, except for a brief attempt at going outside. The memory is vivid. Dan and Tom and I went out to his front yard and stood 8 yards from each other – the three boys, about to play catch. We must have thrown the ball for less than five minutes before Tom said something along the lines of, “I’m sorry guys, but I just can’t. I need to go lay down.”
Things most people never had to worry about – eating and relieving oneself – were focal points which consumed Tom’s thoughts through the day and the night. While his mind was being drained thinking about this, here were two wily competitors, Devin and Ben, free to focus with laser sharp intensity and whole-hearted devotion on goals like breaking 29:00 for the 10k. Devin even made it into the USATF track and field championships in the 10,000 meters, a race won by Galen Rupp that I witnessed working for Eagle Eye in Eugene, Oregon.
In comparison to Tom’s plight, even a USATF title chance seems trivial. Yet, one could argue and thus sympathize with Tom on the basis that between those three – Devin, Ben, and Tom – it is pretty easy to argue Tom was the one who left the most on the table in college. Not only was he a late bloomer who most likely would have benefited from finally playing on an equal field from a physical development standpoint when he was a 5th year senior (the year he was hurt), he also never competed at the true “time trial’ races out west at Stanford or Mt. Sac. It’s hard to know a persona’s true 5k and 10k ability when they are running around a track with snow in the middle – a common site for MIAC season meets. Tom, like his parents before him, had to set many of his personal bests in the unforgiving spring conditions of northern Minnesota. The most amazing stat from his career at Concordia might not be the three school records he did set, but the fact that the outdoor 10k record remains from the 1980’s. Even I should have had a pretty good shot at that. Tom should have annihilated it.
Eventually, Sederquist opted into a three-stage surgical procedure to remove his colon over the course of about 18 months. This was in the summer of 2014, a period he believed was one of the worst points, as colitis returned from the brief remissions period with a vengeance. This was right around my own wedding, and I remember wondering if Tom would be able to even attend the event. He did, but three weeks later, was unable to do so at our cousin’s wedding. It was a hard time for everyone – the stress of my June wedding, my twin brother’s October wedding, and Tom’s critical health related decisions and harships – all were at peak intensity during this 4-5 month period.
Between 2014 and 2016, he rode the rollercoaster of slowly gaining fitness and health only to return to bedrest, recovering from the latest surgery. This happened three times, but by the end, he finally towed the line at the Brian Kraft Memorial in Minneapolis, and who was on the line next to him?
“I was so thrilled to hang out with this group again,” Tom said, recalling the reunion with the community of runners at his first “real’ race back.
Battling through injuries is something most very serious runners will endure. And it seems to me that the more serious you are, the worse it is – both the injury and the battle. Part of this lies in the inherent nature of the maniacal runners – those who have prioritized running to such an extent it becomes sewn into the very fabric of their identity in a truly unhealthy way. Tom and Ben were not immune to this, and it is worth passing along the message to young high school, collegiate, and post-collegiate runners that the lowest points, those where you feel truly alone, are waters that others have and are currently treading through.
“The day after an injury, I’m nobody, I”m worthless, I have no value,” Ben says with his characteristic light, joking tone of voice. His words, so full of truth and yet hard for every person to admit, are maybe only possibly uttered by a runner when they are on the outside, looking back, and able to sort of laugh at how foolish they were to think the whole world would come crashing down now that they were on the sideline. In the moment, dealing with the injury, there is blindness. It is as if one is in a dark room, their rationale skewed as they crash into mistake after mistake as they desperately try to find solace in the middle of a long night. Endless frustration followed by pleading for the nightmare to just simply be over.
One of the most difficult things about an injury, perhaps, is finding the motivation to come back to the sport. “It’s easier to move on after college,” Ben says about injuries which stop your running. “In college, it’s – ‘well, there’s always next year’ – but after college, well, ‘I can move on with life,’ and that’s that. It’s hard to find a way to creep back into the sport.”
During those moments where he was fighting through his own injuries, the Tommie found some extra motivation from the guy who was always fighting to keep pace with him during his MIAC years. “You see someone like Tom out there and you’re like, ‘Well, he’s been thru hell. Certainly I gotta get out there and try to train and beat him one more time.’” (This might have been my favorite quote from the weekend we spent together!).
While no one would have placed money on Tom in that Brian Kraft, race, the Duluth resident’s return to races has been shocking to say the least. Just this winter, he ran an 8:45 in an indoor 3k. Last June, he pulled off a 1:11 in the Garry Bjorklund half marathon. I remember talking to him the night before the race, and I don’t believe he had completed a run longer than 11 miles at the time; he was doing about 30-45 miles per week I think. My advice: run the first 5 or 6 miles easy, and then, if you feels good, finish at a marathon pace. Tom’s decision: go out with the lead women, race at max speed for as long as possible….
and hold on…. It was the 2007 UND Invite all over again.
So, why do they go out like wild, crazy men? When I asked that, I expected to get a shared response – some transcendent, poster material quote that would have made Steve Prefontaine proud. Maybe they would say something like “It is the only way to truly discover who you are and what you can do.” Their answers, however, sprung more from a competitive well than I expected, and had less to do with the person vs. person battle and more with how they felt was the best way to vanquish their foes on the course or track.
“My strategy was supposed to make them think that I was way better than them. I knew it was my only card to play because I was the slowest one in the field, from a sprinting standpoint,” Tom says in a calculating manner.
Front running for him is as much a logical conclusion – his best bet for winning – as much as it is a philosophical statement about how the sport should be treated and how one should always run and compete. In a follow up moment with him, he expounded to say that for him, races always felt like a competition with himself. He worried about extracting the maximum performance from himself and knew that was all he could ask for anyway…and, he begin to realize and trust that if he was able to do that, he had a great chance of beating most people. His confidence was interconnected – interdependent – with his willingness, ability, and consistency in extracting maximum effort from himself. It started from his ideology: the clearest path to satisfaction with performance is knowing you gave it your all. It led to: whenever I give my all, I do pretty well, I know what to expect. And eventually, what he came to expect to happen was that he would be able to vanquish his foes if he simply elicited this type of effort.
Sitting at the table, fascinated by the time spent with two great runners, I lean over to Ben to ask the same question. Fumbling over my words, it is clear I’m trying to get them to admit some sort of defect in their personality, as if that will provide a reasonable defense for this rare approach. Ben seems to read my mind:
“What was possibly going through our heads when we did the things we did when we were running in the MIAC?” he says as he and Tom are laughing.
He doesn’t hesitate, but instead continues with his response, which I honestly thought was a continuation of the joke – I suppose it could have been. His ability to be sarcastic and humorous at our expense was effective but refreshing, since I’m a little less used to being sarcastic these days. (Can’t ever be too careful, you know…)
“I think honestly it was arrogance, right ..would you agree?” He says as Tom leans back, heave laughing. At this point, I don’t know if Ben is being honest or not, but I am laughing, too.
“I was like, ‘I’m better than Tom…if he’s going out in 60-seconds, I’m going out in 59.” We all laugh.
Classic ‘Tommie,’ I thought – always thinking they are better than everyone else. All of the MIAC now had audio proof that our deepest suspicions and most firmly established stereotypes were actually true.
“I’m pretty sure that was it. He went out super fast. I’m better than him, so I’ll go out faster.” With that comment, you can almost sense where the truth is, trying to peek out through the sarcasm.
My final calculations and diagnosis go something like this: The reasons for being a front runner for both athletes are a functional derivative of their early years in the sport. Early on, Tom was given this idea that running was about setting goals and ultimately setting personal bests. This lent to every race being a time trial, in essence, and a time trial is all about full throttle the whole way. Experiential knowledge became simply figuring out how to arrive at the race in the best condition and determining the speed limit for every type of race or distance. In addition, as appealing as this objective means of seeing individual performance was, another satisfying element for Tom was how running seemingly afforded him an objective way to stack himself up against others.
As his brother, I can testify that Tom has always been someone who believes he can win and wants to do so, at, pretty much everything. Sports with more nuanced methods of ranking its athletes – baseball, football, or basketball – are perceived by Tom as being games where individual control and responsibility are not as easily discerned. Thus, though he has a remarkable talent for hand eye coordination, balance, touch, and just general athleticism, all of which have enabled him to play almost any sport (all of the four majors including hockey plus about 100 different invented games combining various elements of those sports. In addition, he is exceptional as a wind surfer, wakeboarder, water skier, and backcountry downhill skier).
In general, he has spent the most time enjoying those activities where he has total control over his own outcomes. Like running and track. I think that personality trait comes out in this quote and in his view of front-running:
“Running, in its purest state, is everyone lining up and racing from point a to point b as fast as they can. I am kind of an odd duck. I always enter(ed) a race – even when I was bad – thinking, if anyone lets me win this, I’m going win. I’m not going to be intimidated by anyone. I’m going to go as hard as my body is can go, and if that’s good enough to win, I’m going to win it.”
He gets control of his effort, and because he is competitive with himself and others, that stream of effort needs to be on high for the whole way.
For Ben, it harkens back to those early experiences in the sport. He came from nowhere, and it is almost as if he has felt a need to prove himself and make a name for himself right from the get go. When I asked him what his most memorable running experience was, it was not any of his MIAC titles, his NCAA cross title, when he qualified for the Olympic trials, or any other monumental external moment you might expect. He mentioned the first practice he had as a Tommie, a low key 5k time trial with the Carleton College team around Pine Island.
“I remember two miles in I was kind of in the lead and I was like, ‘let’s go for it,’ and see what happens, and I through in this little surge just to see if I could win it, and I didn’t. I just remember the effort being one of those days where you gave everything because you wanted to prove something so badly. Nobody knows who you are because it’s your first day. You want to prove something; I’m going to give it everything and see if I can make a name for myself here.”
These moments matured him into the athlete who, once he had arrived and ‘made a name for himself,’ used the strategy more or less as a demoralization tactic. “I wanted that fear factor,” he says. “I didn’t want people to get ideas that they could beat me. I wanted them to know that I’m untouchable, and let’s just leave it at that.”
Where did this confidence stem from? Not just his abilities, but also all of the hard work he did outside of racing. “I always took my confidence from my training. I told myself I had trained harder than anyone else.”
While these may be subtle differences, there are some more obvious similarities that came as a result. For example, both athletes hint at the importance of the 4-minute mile, and in characteristic, ‘why not us,’ attitude, mention college experiences where they actually went for it.
“I wanted to say that at least one time I tried to go out in 1:59 went out in 1:59, because you might as well try if you can do it.” In other words, by breaking 2:00 in the half mile, Tom was now obligated to make a reasonable attempt at 4:00. It makes me imagine 8-year old Tom, calculating after running 14.9 in the 100 meters in gym class, that he now had a reason to make mom drop him off at a track and make his own Roger Bannister attempt. It is yet another example of his obligation to his philosophy of racing. Dream big and maximize your potential within the logical framework of having total control of your effort. Turn the faucet on all the way. If that faucet can fill up a 1:59 halfway through, then turn it on full bore and see if it can fill up the rest of the bucket and give you 4:00. After all, it’s your hand on the handle of the faucet. Why not?
Ben’s sub-2 came in a MIAC championship race. In the 2012 indoor MIAC, he stuck it to the ‘real’ milers in the stacked field, Brian Saksa, Jack Diechert, and others – athletes who had proven they not only had 4:05-4:07 speed, but also incredible closing ability. They were legit 4×400 athletes. While everyone in the building probably expected a tactical dual between the kickers, I stood next to my older brother, injured during that nightmarish 5th year winter, as he boldly predicted, “Ben is going to win this race.” It seemed out of left field, but sure enough, Ben won by taking it out in 2:00.
“I just wanted to see what would happen if I went out in 2:00,” he says, putting his bold, frontier/wild west mentality on full display. Unlike some type-A runners in the private school division III conference stocked with midwestern, conservative, Scandinavian culture whose aversion to boldness, daring, ‘putting yourself out there’ actions would make Garrison Keillor proud, Ben was ok, as I said before, being the Beethoven. Take a risk. Go for it.
Another interesting intersection where the rivals met because of their shared adoption of a frontrunning mentality was their agency over eliciting absolute peak performances. For many, only when the lights come on, the crowd heats up, and the competition pushes buttons, is a different level reached. For Tom and Ben, great performances could just as easily come at practice.
And they did.
Before setting the school record in the mile at Olson Forum, Tom set it at a random practice. In the span after cross country and Christmas break, Ben stepped onto the track and ran 8:17 in a friendly time trial at practice. Eventually, he would lower that school record to 8:07.
Though their names are etched onto walls at their respective alma maters, printed in record books and race results for anyone to look up until the end of time, as I walked through Olson Forum as a junior in college, debating on whether it was worth it to face the icy chill of another January Moorhead, MN day just so I could get my obligatory daily 15 miles in (probably the only thing I surpassed Tom in during my Cobber days was the frequency in which I turned in 100+ mile weeks), I remember thinking about the utter meaninglessness of those types of things. Records. Titles. Trophies. Halls of Fame.
As my shoes squeaked walking across the shiny tile, my eyes stopped, as they sometimes would, on the various faces on our hall of fame wall.
“I wonder if I’ll ever do something amazing enough to get on that wall?” I would think.
“I’m running out of time … “
That was usually my next thought.
Then, standing their, gazing at shrines for people who are long gone and have moved on to become doctors, teachers, and for everyone but maybe three individuals, anything but an athlete, I realize how meaningless, even from a sheerly external, secular standpoint, it would be to earn the right to be a hall of fame member.
I would be one of hundreds …
at a tiny school…
in a small town in the middle of the mid-west.
I mean, now that I thought of it, I couldn’t even remember who the MVP of the previous Super Bowl was. No one gives a rat’s behind if I make it into Concordia’s Hall of Fame. …wow, I can’t even do that.
Then, my eyes went a little lower, and I saw that big Griak Trophy, and I remembered watching my brother come across the line in first place from behind the finish line. It was such a cool moment. And I thought, “Wow, this trophy will sit here for a while, and then get stored away like those old 1928 and 1929 back-to-back state championship trophies I saw at Moorhead High School for basketball.”
When I was a Spud, I always saw them and thought, “Maybe I will get up early tomorrow morning, sneak into the gym, hoist a couple hundred jumpers….maybe it is worth finding out how good I can be.”
Maybe the pursuit of our ‘fullest potential’ is a worthwhile one.
In 2013, the idea of that trophy being meaninglessness was hidden from me. It had great meaning. It was a source of inspiration to head out the door and get my training in. It was the catalyst – NOT the true source of my purpose — but the catalyst for many hard efforts, workouts completed that should have never been attempted, and 100 mile weeks. It had pushed me out the door and inspired me to do things which made me grow as an athlete. In running, improvement happens over the course of many consecutive correct decisions which take place daily, for months, years, decades even, without a single wrong turn. In order to be that disciplined, to make that many consecutive hard calls, tough decisions – unnatural decision – humans need help. Staring at a ‘meaningless’ trophy that had great personal meaning to me was my answer to that question. It was the solution to the dilemma of ‘how are you going to make the right decision to be a little bit better …today?” It got me out the door, the step, as my coach Garrick has often correctly identified, “is the hardest part.”
Maybe, in 2089, another kid will stand by that trophy like I did with the 1928-1929 trophies and decide to up his mileage by 10% that week. Maybe it will be the small moment that makes him decide to actually complete his Sunday long run, or to take an extra 45 minutes and work on his glute/hamstring strength in the weightroom. Maybe, even though the trophy will have anonymous affiliation for him, it will carry on aura of excellence that will pervade his soul and ward off the temptation to NOT pursue it all and to actually sacrifice the gift. It will be the symbol that reminds him that the greatest success does not exist in a trophy, but in the satisfaction of knowing you gave it your all, day in and day out, to be the best version of you that was ever possible.
Then, the harsh reality of what will probably happen.
Someday, probably in 2089, some kid will ask about how that trophy ended up there. And then, if the current coach is as good of a record keeper as Garrick, that person will unlock a secret closet with stash upon stash of 5 inch binders filled with everything from IOU notes to interval times to practice plans from decades gone by. He will probably marvel at the amount of money spent on yogurt and Cheerios on the 2013 Park Rapids Training Camp – whatever that was – and discover by looking through the 2010 roster that at one point in time, a kid named Tom Sederquist used to attend Concordia (back before they finally changed the name to THE Concordia College). And then that kid will shrug his shoulders, say, “That’s lit,” and fail to notice when a member of facility management tosses the trophy into a dumpster one day, never to be seen again (except maybe when the 2089 version of the MSUM Dragon XC college house finds it and makes it their shrine for the annual Throwers vs. Distance Softball game).
And yet, such is the reality of running. Even greatness and glory is fleeting. And eventually, all great runners are faced with the truth and have to reconcile why it is they even train and race in the first place.
“Running has taught me so many things about life,” says Tom. “The biggest thing I’ve learned in running is the ability to set goals, and have that be a part of my life in other areas, too. To me it’s the perfect platform for that sort of thing. You can have really concrete, objective things you’re shooting for, and then you take little steps toward them, and you can accomplish and knock off goals, and I think that has really served me well in all areas of my life.”
“You’re capable of so much more than you think you are,” Ben says when asked what his greatest lesson learned from the sport is. “You figure that out. If you believe in yourself, and you’re confident, you can really do anything.”
Running, in my opinion, is one of the great ways we learn how to be successful. It is, as Ben, says, the way some people are taught that they can accomplish more than they once thought possible. It is the way our limits are tested and expanded. And, it is, as Tom highlights, the vehicle by which we work on the actual skills we will need to apply to all areas of life: setting goals, working hard, and gradually improving. If you can do that well, you can be a great mom, dad, doctor, teacher, DQ server, inventor, CEO, radio host, pastor….
All that sounds noble, and it is why in college, athletics are championed by many as being vital vehicles for learning. I have often wondered, however, if there is any point in approaching running – or any sport or even hobby for that matter – with the same intensity we ever did in college.
Personally, college athletics was a unique time for me. It was what I believed, even then, to be my only chance to ‘live’ the life of a pro athlete. I guess I placed more limits on myself than Tom and Ben, though I humbly hoped I was wrong. Still do.
I could prioritize workouts, races, and the pursuit of elite performance with the same level a pro runner does, and not be socially frowned upon. Or, at least not as much as if a 45-year old non-pro would! Keep in mind, even at that time, I understood that not everyone viewed NCAA sports in the same way, and I didn’t think that was wrong. To them, it served a different purpose. But for me, at that time, it was a place that I felt I ought to give the same business-like attention I would to my next chapter: Real life. If I could balance academics, social life, music, and a ‘job’ as a runner, I felt it was good preparation for the next phase of my life. I would, as Tom articulated, be honing those ever important life-long skills and learning life-long lessons.
Now, as someone who from the outside, appears to have ‘never given up on the dream’ and can’t let athletic performance go (if there is a VISMA Ski classics team willing to negotiate a contract, I am open and will NOT make Kirk Cousin’s like demands), I think I’ve realized that if what I believed about running is true, then I can continue to use it as a way to sharpen and practice those really important skills, in addition to using them at my actual job. So, well I’ll admit that most of my workouts are just my chance to be outside, enjoying the mountains, and de-stressing from a tough day at work, my overall serious approach to skiing, running, and competing is still the same as it was when I was 20 because I believe there is great meaning in doing so. It is the avenue by which I can fully express who I am at the core: someone who cares about things deeply, and is willing to take those things very, very seriously.
I hope I never wake up not chasing after something. The goal has changed and probably always will change, but there is something so meaningful about having a ‘thing’ – sports, music, art – or an outlet for us as humans to dream, play, strive, fail, and achieve in.
I guess I believed that even before my conversation with Ben and Tom, but hearing them express goals in running encouraged me to not let go.
To not seemingly ‘demote’ running to a 20 minute drill you squeeze into a busy day three times a week (and if that is where you are as a runner, that statement is in no way demeaning that – this is an activity that is versatile and not limited to one philosophy of its usage!) or view it as simply a hobby. If sports was simply a hobby for me, than I’ll be the first to admit that my priorities are way out of line – I spend far too much time and energy partaking in it. But if sports are a priority, a calling, a way by which we fulfill our highest calling and purpose, even if there is no revenue coming in, then it is worth it to still sacrifice for the sake of the pursuit. To avoid, as Pre would say, ‘sacrificing the gift.’
And this is the way these two view it. How do I know? I asked them this question:
What would have to happen for either of you to be satisfied in your running career?”
If you have this mindset I am talking about, you struggle to answer this, because you know the point of running, when it is prioritized and viewed as a calling or purpose, is all about the chase.
“Getting the most out of yourself,” Ben says. He continues in his John Woodenesque answer, “Knowing you gave everything you had. You trained hard, you maximized your potential.” There is no race victory or podium that could satisfy that expectation. This is a search that goes as far as you want it to.
“The exciting part about running is finding that limit,” echos Tom. “You can never really totally know. I’m still hopeful that I haven’t found it yet.”
For these two, even after the age of thirty, running still has a hold on their hearts. Many probably see it as foolish at this point. And that makes sense, quite frankly, because they don’t see value in what they are doing, given their view of the world and of the sport. At this point, the opportunity cost of continuing to chase running goals, times, and qualification standards has far eclipsed what the normal human would see as being beneficial. The odds are stacked against them. But, just like at that outdoor 5k where they went out hard and no one believed in them or considered their approach legitimate, it seems like Tom and Ben are at peace with the idea of being lone wolves, venturing out to see if there is another elk the rest of the pack didn’t find high up on some ledge.
For some, the urge to do this flamed out when they left their high school team. For many more, it was after graduation from college or winning a big race. Thousands of people go on runs every day, and thousands of them are setting goals and entering races. But there is a difference between that and being maniacal about the sport and elevating it to a place where it requires the same level (or in many cases, actually more) of sacrifice and commitment as a real world job. That is the hold which most let go of early on, when regular life becomes too overwhelming to maintain it all. Who knows when these guys will hit that point. My guess is to some degree, they will never let go. Sure, at some point, they might decide it isn’t worth it to train as much, and running does become their 20-minute escape from the rat-race. Or, at 70, they will use it merely to chase grandkids around the front lawn. Maybe Tom will time himself in a 20 yard dash and realize he technically should still be able to run a 10:30 3k. Who knows. That part may never disappear.
Even now, they both have realized an interpersonal element to the value of running in ways they didn’t maybe before realize was possible. Or, at least, given their tendency to want full control of their running destiny in a very individualistic sense (controlling the pace, objective rankings and times, etc.), might have seemed less likely. “As I’ve gotten older, there is a whole ‘nother aspect,” says Tom. “Like Ben is saying – the people you get to meet – being able to be a positive influence on others in a whole bunch of ways … in life … but running is a big part of having that influence on them. (It) has been almost more of an awesome thing actually,” the assistant coach at UW-Superior says. His influence with those athletes has been far reached.
“Tom, it is so awesome that you are here, coaching us,” said one of his UW athletes when I joined for a midweek 9-mile run.
Overcoming injuries, reaching highs, battling through lows, and winning titles certainly can have a long lasting impact, but a life in running, as Ben also reiterates, contains more than those things. “The other thing – you enjoyed the journey,” he says in reflecting on what he hopes of himself when he stands at the final finish line. “Take advantage of it and really respected it; the people you get to meet and the places you get to go. Just really enjoy it.”
So, let us running fans and supporters not be quick to judge their next chapter by their fastest times, whether or not they made it to the Olympics, or if they are able to beat some of those times they left hanging after college. Instead, we can learn from and marvel at their unique journey through the sport and freely take some of those nuggets of gold they found along the way.
And, if they are indeed a lone wolf who heads up the ridge no one wanted to go to, caring about the pursuit more than others thought wise, risking more than others thought was safe, dreaming about what others deemed as unpractical, and expecting more than others thought was possible…. they seem to be the type of wolves willing to share in the bounty – a valuable, satiating treasure trove of lessons, memories, and experiences in a unique journey in the sport of running. Reflecting on that isn’t meaningless. In fact, it is, in its essence,
the meaning of running.
Seder-Skier.com wants to thank Tom and Ben for their generous time in doing the interview, willingness to share all of their stories, insights, and lessons, patience in letting me ask questions that were wordy, personal, invasive, and abstract, and tolerance for allowing me the honors of joining them on a 6 mile run