Part 1: 1986
I attended a small Division III college in Minnesota (Carleton) without athletic scholarships. We were all students first, and competed simply for the love of the sport. For most of my college career, a trip to the Drake Relays was not on my radar. Some years our sprinters were competitive enough that our coach would enter a 4 x 100, 4 x 400, or a sprint medley team, but we distance runners would have been out of our element in the heightened atmosphere of such a exclusive meet.
But near the end of my senior season, Coach Bill Terriquez surprised me and other senior milers with a chance to run the University and College 4 x 1600-Meter Relay at Drake. It was a nice gesture; a “gift” to us for our four years of dedication to the track program. We would certainly not be in the running for a podium finish. We would probably finish near the back of the pack, perhaps even bringing up the rear. But it was an exciting opportunity, and we knew we would give it our best shot, and possibly run the races of our lives in front of a packed stadium.
The sprinters and the milers piled into one of the college vans and set off south toward Des Moines, settling into our hotel and soaking up the atmosphere as the city buzzed with excitement about one of its biggest events of the year. In the morning we milers headed out for an easy run through town to loosen up. We merged in with a large group of runners heading along one of the main streets, only noticing after a block or two that they were all wearing race bibs. We had accidentally crashed a local road race! We sheepishly turned away from the race course and continued our run on quieter streets.
On race day (sunny and around 80 degrees), the stadium was a flurry of activity. We picked up our race packets and stayed out of the sun in the adjacent gym. I was used to getting nervous before races, but my adrenal glands were on especially high alert this time as the crowd roared in response to every event outside.
Finally it was time for our race to begin. Drake Stadium is a big bowl, with grandstands almost completely circling the track, the seats almost reaching ground level. The crowd is right on top of the runners, and you can see and hear them throughout the race, a colorful, roaring blur that never dissipates. I was our second runner, so the nervousness continued well past the starting gun.
As anticipated, we quickly fell into a spot near the back of the pack, but our runner was at or close to PR pace, and just being at such an historic meet was reward enough. Then it was time for me to line up and await the handoff from my teammate. I tried not to let the deafening crowd and colorful scene overwhelm me and lure me into a overly optimistic pace, and I was mostly successful. I ended up passing two other teams during my leg and coming close to a mile PR by the time I staggered home to hand off to our third runner, so I was happy with my performance.
Our final two runners gave it their all and also came close to PRs. Although we finished last of 43 teams by 4 seconds (two minutes behind 1st place Indiana University), we had still averaged 4:34 pace, and we were proud of our effort and grateful to be able to compete on such an amazing stage.
Later, outside the stadium, I bought a T-shirt from one of the street vendors, because I knew this would be one race I would never forget. Back at Carleton, one of the sprinters and I headed straight from the van to our mailboxes. Among my mail was a note informing me that my thesis had passed “with distinction”. That news capped off a great weekend. My sprinter friend congratulated me. I was ready to graduate!