"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Syttende Mai run was a rite of spring

I first heard about the Syttende Mai run (or race) from Steven "Skip" Sherstad. That was logical because Skip was the nephew of the man behind the Syttende Mai. This run was held for many years in Grantsburg, Wisconsin, home of Skip's uncle Carlyle Sherstad. Skip's father (and Carlyle's brother) was Emmett Sherstad.
Unfortunately none of the principals whom I have cited are still with us. Skip was only a year older than me and when he died he had no obvious pressing health issues. He was a long-time public servant.
Carlyle gave us the Syttende Mai run which coincided with the height of the distance running boom. The event drew a flood of people annually to the little western Wisconsin town.
Running had taken off in popularity partly because of Frank Shorter's marathon win in the Olympics. We also had the best-selling book by James Fixx promoting the pastime. Remember its red cover and how it sold like hotcakes?
Fixx would later die of a heart attack. Many saw irony in his death but since then we've gained a more informed perspective. Running gives no guarantee of sound health. No guarantee, yes, but if one's weight can be kept at an optimal healthy level through the pastime, it's something to be recommended.
Maurice Hobbs, who wrote a Star Tribune running column during that heyday, wrote of Carlyle's Syttende Mai that it was one of those runs that could be "hard to get into."
After learning of the event from Skip and reading Hobbs' column, I of course had to do it!
My first year running the Syttende Mai was 1985. It became a spring ritual for me. It's an especially terrific feeling getting into top shape in the spring, a time of year when many people discover flab as residue from our sedentary lifestyle over winter.
The Syttende Mai was held in mid-May to coincide with the Norwegian Independence Day: "Syttende Mai." Here in Morris the Sons of Norway (Norskfodt Lodge) puts on a special breakfast.
Today I'd rather just enjoy the breakfast than run 16.2 miles. Yes, it was quite the demanding distance imposed on us by Carlyle who had the most intrepid spirit about running. He called the distance "16.2 Norwegian miles."
How did he arrive at this distance? It's a combination of ten miles and ten kilometers with the latter equating to 6.2 miles.
I thought it was an ideal running challenge because you had to approach the event as if it were a marathon, yet it spared you those final few miles of a marathon which can tear down your body in an unhealthy way.
Like most runs it started in the morning. So, many of the runners spent overnight in Grantsburg and it's not as if there were a high rise hotel available.
Many host families stepped forward in the community. Mine had the last name of Johnson, an elderly couple, and we renewed our acquaintance every year for eight years. Exchanged Christmas cards too.
They drove me out to the Crex Meadows which is the biggest natural attraction of that area. I consider it like Wisconsin's answer to the Florida Everglades.
These experiences were the only personal contact I ever had with the state of Wisconsin. But they won't get me to root for the Green Bay Packers.
Which reminds me of an interesting contrast between Minnesota and Wisconsin pro sports. Minnesota's teams (Twins, Vikings and Wild) are named after Minnesota; they aren't named after Minneapolis or the Twin Cities. In Wisconsin we have the Green Bay Packers, the Milwaukee Brewers and Milwaukee Bucks.
I'm not sure what explains this contrast in naming approach. Doesn't Wisconsin engender a sense of statewide identity like Minnesota?
Grantsburg WI, being in western Wisconsin, attracted lots of Twin Cities runners. It felt almost like a Minnesota event. People from the Twin Cities could savor the true small-town atmosphere of Grantsburg. It's smaller than Morris.
The Rainbow diner on main street had a spaghetti special on the eve of the Syttende Mai race each year. Spaghetti is the desired fare for runners just before a long distance challenge.
There is a body of water just off main street where I'd see geese every year. I'd go over there after supper and sit at the base of a tree, the same tree every year, and ponder the adventures of the year just past and think about what might be ahead.
I never dreamt my profession of newspapering was headed for turmoil and severe retrenchment. The biggest trends in society leap up and surprise you.
My last year at the Syttende Mai was 1992, which was maybe a year before we all started hearing about such things as email. A new universe awaited us all, and we never could have guessed at the onset of the '90s all the ramifications of the changes coming.
Quaint. It seemed to be a quieter and slower-paced world back then, in which we all trusted each other a little more. "Friends" were something we tended to make face-to-face. The term "identity theft" hadn't been coined.
Full of spaghetti, I'd retire to the Johnsons' residence where we'd chat in a front porch manner that was right out of Mayberry. I was troubled toward the end because Mr. Johnson had symptoms of Parkinson's that were worsening. Fortunately this couple had family in the immediate community to watch over them.
Maybe in the hereafter we'll meet again to chat on that "porch."
Carlyle himself was cut down by a stroke that greatly limited his ability to communicate. It was charming how he could count up to the number six and say certain words like "wow." The look on his face showed he continued taking everything in and appreciating the enthusisam. But how sad that such an ebullient soul was slowed.
Saturday morning brought the serious business of running the Syttende Mai race. At its height it attracted some well-known runners like Dick Beardsley. Beardsley was a hero to the boomer generation runners of the Upper Midwest who were entranced with the sport in the '70s.
Beardsley helped establish Grandma's Marathon in Duluth, giving it stature with a superlative performance. Beardsley, from Rush City, had gotten famous with his duel with Alberto Salazar in the Boston Marathon. He wore a painter's cap.
My only chance to see Beardsley in the Syttende Mai was in photos afterwards. He'd get out ahead of runners of my level pretty fast, not that I was any slouch as a runner.
My time for nearly all of the years was around one hour and 48 minutes. If you do some math to compute the time per mile, it's pretty good for a recreational runner. It's especially good for a runner of my fairly large physique, as it was all I could do to get my weight in the 170 range. Heck, today I'm about 220. Good lord!
Damn those complimentary soft drink refills at McDonald's.
In my dreams I see myself running with the very best runners. But those are wispy people whose weight is in a completely different, more economical range than mine.
We sometimes don't realize how small and wispy those runners are because they are so often photographed with each other. It's just like NFL football players being so often photographed with each other, we don't realize how truly big they are!
The Syttende Mai eventually reached the end of its storied run. The boomer generation decided to diversify its training and not fixate on running so much.
Today it's my understanding that there is a June run in Grantsburg, much shorter, that memorializes Carlyle Sherstad. He was an all-around civic model, a distinguished WWII veteran and booster of the American Legion.
The Grantsburg Legion was always open to serve pancakes to runners after their Syttende Mai.
Should I go back? I suppose it would be like an old war veteran re-visiting a battlefield.
I'd enjoy seeing the geese, meditating and engaging in some front porch chatter, and of course filling my plate buffet-style with spaghetti or whatever's offered at the Rainbow.
But running 16.2 miles? I think maybe that's gone with the wind. But the memories are sterling.
Carlyle Sherstad, RIP.
-Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com


  1. I did enjoy reading your story. I ran the Syttende Mai in 1982, 1983, and 1984. I looked up to Carlyle,as he was so full of vitality. I wanted to join the Grantsburg Ridge Runners, but he wouldn't let me. He told me I was from Frederic, it would be better for me to join the Frederic running club. I actual went home and cried. I moved away for several years. Since retiring in 2011, I have moved back to Frederic. I have ran the Carlyle Sherstad Race the past 2 years. I intend to run again this Saturday. I always think of Carlyle when I run that race. The first time I saw Carlyle he was out on the race course with a bucket of paint, and a brush, wearing a painters hat. He was painting mile numbers on the street. I love that memory. Lorraine Phernetton

  2. We're packing to move to a new house and my wife put three of the Syttende Mai coffee mugs on the counter, asking whether I wanted to keep them. I had literally forgotten about the race, since my last one was in 1987 and I now live in Ohio. Enjoyed reading your memories of this great little race! I always looked forward to driving up from Minneapolis for it. Thank you.