5 October 2011

Interview with 1968 Olympian Van Nelson

Van Nelson winning the 3-mile at Drake [Cowles Library, Drake University

**This interview originally appeared in two parts on Down the Backstretch in January 2009- compliments of DtB contributor and local running blogger Chad Austin. **

Van Nelson– a Minneapolis Washburn and St Cloud State alum– was an Olympian in the 10,000 meters at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. He is also one of two athletes to win the 5k/10k double at the Pan Am Games (1967) and was the first athlete to win two events in three consecutive years at the Drake Relays– capturing the 3-mile and 6-mile titles in 1966, 1967, and 1968.

DtB: How did you first get involved with the sport?

Nelson: I started when I was a junior at Washburn High School. I went out for the cross-country team in the fall of 1962. I had always done well at the 660-yard physical fitness run in school and the previous year I had watched the cross-country team run. So I said to myself, “I could do that.”

DtB: Had you participated in other sports before that?

Nelson: No, not really. I played some intramural basketball, but that was about it.

DtB: Did you have any major influences at the time?

Nelson: At that time Al Haley was a major influence. He was the coach at Southwest and they were the powerhouse in cross country at the time. They’d run the State Meet and 7 of the first 10 or 12 runners across the line were from Southwest. I was always right up there, so Al would come over and talk to me. And since I lived by Lake Harriet, I’d go down there and train all by myself and I’d see Al down there with all his guys.

DtB: Did you qualify for State your first year? What was the rest of your high school and college career like?

Nelson: Yes I did. I did quite well, but then I didn’t train at all after the season. The next spring I went out for track. At the time, the mile was the longest event they had. I went to the Twin City Indoor meet at the U of M and I thought I was going to set the world on fire. I took off like I was shot out of a cannon. After 2 laps I started fading, and fading, and fading. I came in dead last in like 5:15. I was embarrassed, but I used it as motivation.

That summer I trained with a kid from Southwest named Oliver and we put in over 1,000 miles. That fall in cross country Oliver and I were just burning up the turf on the cross country course. At the time, everything, including the City Meet and the State Meet was held on a 1.8-mile course around Lake Nokomis. No one had run under 9-minutes on that course. If you ran 9:10, you were considered a super runner. At the City Meet that year, a kid from Minneapolis Central – Barnett, I think his name was – ran an 8:36. Unbelievable! I was 2nd in 8:40 and Oliver was 3rd in 8:41. I think there were 10 or 12 kids under 9-minutes. After that I went to the State Meet where I think I finished 8th or 9th.

Then I really got inspired and trained hard. I knew the U of M’s coach, Roy Griak, from when he was at St. Louis Park. I asked him if it’d be possible for me to run intervals in the field house over the winter. He said yes, so three times a week I’d go there and run 220-yard intervals. I went back to the Twin City Indoor meet. This time I took off and never looked back. I won in 4:26.

After the race, Bob Tracy, the coach at St. Cloud State came up and talked with me and I was really impressed with him. He asked what my plans were and asked if I’d like to be a National Champion some day. I said yes, but that I’d also like to go to the Olympic Games. I think he thought I was nuts. But I thought if I could keep improving like I had been, I might just be able to get on the Olympic team.

That spring I ran 4:17 for the mile, which was the all-time Minnesota state high school record. That ranked me as the 5th fastest high school miler in the U.S. Of course, Jim Ryun was ranked first. After that, guys like Garry Bjorklund and Steve Plasencia came along and started running really fast miles. It was kind of nice to pioneer distance running in Minnesota. We always had distance running, but this helped take it to the next level.

Of course, Roy wanted me to come to the U of M, but I thought a smaller school would be better for me. That’s how I ended up at St. Cloud State.

When I first got there, they didn’t even have a cross country team. We had myself, Chuck Spoden, and Kenny Mitchell. We founded the first cross country team at the school. We’d run in meets, but didn’t count in the team scoring. I qualified for the National Meet and ended up 8th. After that we had a team with guys like Lewis Johnson, Warren Slocum from White Bear, Bruce Johnson from Minnetonka, Chet Blaycheck, and Earl Glavitz.

DtB: Can you tell us a little bit about your Olympic experience?

Nelson: The 1968 Olympic Games were held in Mexico City, which is at altitude. So after qualifying, the bulk of the team trained in South Lake Tahoe on top of Echo Summit. It was cool and dry. Then we went to Mexico City where it was hot and humid at the same altitude and on top of that there was some smog to deal with. Some of us had a hard time. Even Ron Clarke, who was the 10,000m World Record Holder, had to be carried off on a stretcher after finishing 7th or 8th. I ended up 28theven though I was ready to get a medal.

My world rankings going into the Games were 4th at 5,000m and 8that 10,000m. I qualified for both and although I was used to running both events at meets, I decided to focus on just one event because of the conditions. Based on how I ran at the trials, my coach, Bob Tracy, and I thought I had a better chance to medal in the 10,000m. I felt so good at Tahoe. I felt strong. I was strong. I was ready to get a medal. I justcouldn’t withstand the conditions. We thought we were doing the right thing by training for the altitude, but we didn’t take the other conditions into account.

But you know what? I was happy. I made the team. I was in the finals and no one can ever take that away from me. We’re all a brotherhood, all the Olympians.

DtB: It seems like 1968 was kind of the start of the dominance by the Africans at the distance events.

Nelson: Yeah, Kep Keino was the first one. I remember locking horns with him once when he first came on the scene. He was a phenomenon and everyone loved him. He’d go to meets and people would flock to see him run. In his early days he used to wear a hat and his trademark was to throw to the sidelines right when he was making his final push for the finish line. He’d throw it down and take off and all the other runners would freeze. Well in this particular indoor 2-mile I used that to my advantage. I ran right behind him and then when I saw him start to reach up for his hat, I kicked it into overdrive and blew right by him and won the meet. That was the last time he ever wore a hat.

DtB: What happened with your career after the Olympics?

Nelson: After the Olympics I concentrated on finishing school. I would still run a few meets here and there. Then in the fall of 1969 I was student teaching and that took half a year. I’d still do some jogging once in awhile, but I wasn’t in the shape I used to be in. Back then theydidn’t have running circuits like they do now and you didn’t get paid like you do now. I had to get on with my life. I couldn’t be running all the time.

DtB: So was there a conscious decision to retire?

Nelson: In the summer of 1970 I was working construction on the new Apollo High School in St. Cloud. We were laying sod and it happened to be really wet and heavy. As I was unloading the sod, I ruptured the L5 vertebra in my lower back. That left my right leg 18% disabled after surgery.

The following spring I ran my last international meet and finished 4th. In my opinion I didn’t do very well. I had always finished in the top-3.

I did continue to run to help strengthen my leg and even ran a 4:28 mile when I was 41-years-old. After that I didn’t do much running again. I guess I was a little down on myself because I wasn’t where I used to be. The mind was there, but the body wasn’t.

DtB: It sounds like you have very high standards for yourself?

Nelson: Yeah, I did. My philosophy was, when I worked out, I never cheated. If I was 10 yards from the end of my workout, I ran those 10 yards. I never took a shortcut. If I was supposed to run for an hour, Ididn’t stop at 59 minutes.

DtB: What was your training like?

Nelson: First, we never missed a day. It didn’t matter if it was cold or raining. We just dressed appropriately, but we never missed a day. I ran two-a-days all the time. The mornings would be an easy 10-mile run, right around 60-63 minutes. The evenings would be another 10 miles, either on the roads in around 55 minutes or intervals on the track.

I never ran anything over 220-yard intervals with a 220-yard jog. I’d do like 30-36 of them. My coach would time them and they’d only vary a tenth of a second on either side. Depending on how I felt, they’d probably be around 30.1 to 30.3 with about a 50 second jog. And the last 220 was always all-out in like 26 or 27 seconds.

DtB: Wow, you never ran 440s, 880s, fartlek workouts, etc?

Nelson: No. Speed was for speed. If it was going to be a long, hard run, then we’d be out on the roads running 10 miles in 55 minutes. Therewasn’t anything in between.

DtB: Is that how you think most people trained? Did you ever compare notes?

Nelson: I don’t know. I just know that’s what worked for me.

If we were there for speed, we were there to get the knees up. Why drone on at half-speed? We tried 440s a couple of times, but they didn’t seem to work. We wanted that quickness. I’d do some shorter stuff, like jogging the curves and then high knee lifts down the straight-aways.

We always ran how we felt. If we were tired one day, we’d just step it down and adjust the time of our 220s. Instead of the 30.2s, we’d run 32.5s. Otherwise, trying to run faster than your body will allow just defeats you mentally and you’re shot.

DtB: What was your longest training run?

Nelson: I’d very rarely go over 10 miles. Maybe twice a month I’d run up to 15 miles. But it was 20 miles every day, so I was running 140 miles per week. Everything was quality and pushed hard, except for the mornings.

DtB: What about easy days?

Nelson: Easy days would occur during our taper leading up to meets. And some meets we’d train right through without a taper. I’d run 10 miles in the morning and then the meet in the afternoon.

When I did taper, I’d run my last interval workout 5 days before the meet. Then during the last 4 days I’d only run once a day; 10 miles, 5 miles, 3 miles, 1 mile. There was no speed work on those days.

DtB: Do you run now at all?

Nelson: I do some light jogging, walking, and biking. Years ago I’d get together with Steve Hoag for a run around the lakes. We’d watch little old ladies and kids pass us and we’d just laugh and say something like, “It sure was nice [when we were fast].”

DtB: Who was your biggest influence throughout your career?

Nelson: My coach, Bob Tracy. He was much coach at St. Cloud State as well as at the Olympics. Unfortunately, he passed away last spring at the age of 80.

DtB: How do you think your life would be different without running?

Nelson: Well it gave me a lot of confidence. I was a shy kid. Running was a confidence booster and it’s carried over into the rest of my life. As a teacher, it’s helped me get up in front of a group of students. And the work ethic I developed through running has carried over to my teaching too.

DtB: Can you tell us about your family?

Nelson: My wife, Lynda and I got married in 1974. She taught too, but is now retired. We have two kids, Adam and Katie. Adam graduated fromMankato and is teaching preschool autistic children. Katie lives in California and works for a merger and acquisition company.

DtB: What has your non-running career been like?

Nelson: After graduating, I taught in Maple Lake for one year and then got a job in Edina where I’ve been for the last 38 years. I’ve been teaching health education for the last 25 years. I have two more years before I retire and then I plan on traveling more. I also like to go biking, go to antique shows, and fishing with my brother Richard.

DtB: Finally, what are some of your fondest running memories?

Nelson: My best race memories would be running in the Olympics. That is, of course, a highlight of my career.

I also remember running outdoors in the Toronto Maple Leaf Games in 1967. It was the fastest 3-mile race for a group of runners EVER in the world at that time. I ran a PR of 13:09 and was able to beat 5 other Olympians and came in 2nd to Ron Clark.

Setting two Pan-American Game records and winning two gold medals in the 5,000m and 10,000m races in 1967 in Winnipeg, Manitoba Canada.

In 1965, setting a new U.S. freshman record for collegiates, 13:45.8 for 3 miles, in Sioux Falls, SD.

Three years of double gold medal races at the Drake Relays and twice winning the Drake Relays’ Outstanding Athlete Award.

But, probably the fondest memories that I have as I look back would not be all the records. My fondest memories are the ones I have of traveling the world and running the races with and for my coach, Bob Tracy.