Friday, May 02, 2014

Mike Slack Blazes a Trail, Takes on All Challenges, Big and Small

The cover of the August 1977 Track & Field News
featuring Steve Scott(UCI), Wilson Waigwa(behind
Scott), Mike Slack(in the lead), and Mike Boit(green shorts)
Mike Slack probably doesn't think of himself as a trailblazer.  As a kid in Minnesota, he didn't begin his athletic career as a runner, but rather on the ice with a stick and a puck. He didn't have instant success in either sport.

Like many other runners, he got into the sport he was really good at by accident.  In his case the "accident" was the fact that his high school hockey coach at Harding told his players that they should do a Fall sport and if it wasn't football, it was running cross country.  Slack was not built for football, so XC it was. By his junior year at Harding, Slack knew that his athletic future would not be on skates.  He began to get serious about it, running to and from his factory job in the summer, putting in the work to develop the talent.

As luck would have it Slack wasn't the only talented middle distance runner in high school in Minnesota at the time.  A like minded runner from Twig, Minnesota, Garry Bjorklund, had already made a name for himself in the sport.  The pair's senior year and on the first synthetic track put in as an experiment by 3M at Macalester College in St. Paul, they went one, two in the mile.  Bjorklund ran 4:05.  Slack ran 4:11.

Bjorklund's time was the fastest by any US high school kid that year.  Faster than a young man from Oregon who was already getting a lot of attention, Steve Prefontaine.  "I just tried to run with him(Bjorklund) as far as I could," said Slack.  "I just wanted to get better."

The pair almost ended up as college teammates at the University of Minnesota, but Slack had second thoughts about going to a 'big school."  "I was going to go the Minnesota with (coach Roy) Griak,"  said Slack.  "I visited North Dakota.  I talked to the coach.  They had just put in a new 220 indoor track(Minnesota had the dirt track in "the barn").  I decided a smaller school was better for me.  I wasn't a real great student. (I was) a C student...We ended up having some pretty good teams.  It ended up being a perfect fit."

The NDSU cross country team won the NCAA DII championship and Slack won several DII individual titles in both track and cross country.  In 1971, Prefontaine, Bjorklund, and Slack finished first, second, and third in the NCAA DI cross country championships in Knoxville, Tennessee.  Back then the champions in the other divisions were invited to run in the DI meet.

Slack was no longer just trying to keep up with his talented peers.  He was now their equal vying for titles and "getting better."  While Prefontaine and Bjorklund gravitated toward longer races, Slack found his niche in the mile.  When asked what his most memorable accomplishment was during his career, Slack said that he was proud of his versatility, having PR's of 1:46 for the half mile to 59:58(then the American record) for 20K.  As for one event it was running the first sub-four minute mile in North Dakota on the school's indoor track in January of 1973.

He did it solo.  No pacers, like Bannister's first sub-four nearly 60 years ago at Oxford, no fanfare, just a milestone that anyone running the mile covets.  Like Slack, Prefontaine would run sub four many times, but Bjorklund never accomplished that feat, though he did play a role in another runner attaining that mark.  A sophomore at the U, Bjorklund lined up with a strong field in the mile at the University of Indiana track in Bloomington, Indiana with his sights set on the four minute barrier.  He and Illinois' Lee LaBadie took the pace through the first three quarters of the race, followed by a then virtually unknown Mid American Conference runner from Bowling Green State University.

That runner, Dave Wottle, would outkick the rest in the final straight to break four minutes for the mile for the first time and go on to win the 1972 Gold Medal at 800 meters at the Munich Olympics.  Wottle finished 12th in the 1971 NCAA DI XC meet mentioned above.  Thus, when a week after Slack's first sub-four, he ran faster in the Houston Astrodome on a full 440 yard oval,  the track world took notice and Slack began getting invites to the big meets.

Back then, however, was not the "Open era," professionalism where Olympic athletes could be openly paid for their efforts in prize and/or appearance money/sponsorship income/endorsements. Then all the available money was "under the table" and minimal.  After graduating from college, athletes, such as Prefontaine, Bjorklund, and Slack had to take side jobs, much like "starving artists" in the music or acting business who would bartend, wait on tables, work as janitors.

It was a Spartan existence with no big pay off, just the goal of Olympic glory.  Slack would make Pan American Games teams, compete for the US in meets abroad, but his greatest notoriety came on the Road Circuit, where he and Bjorklund were christened "the Minnesota Twins."  The two trained together, shared housing, and, eventually, became part of the Twin Cities running store movement during the first "running boom" in the early '70s.  Bjorklund and John Naslund started Body 'n Sole in Dinkytown, which later morphed into GBS  Sports and was really the incubator for the specialty running store movement in the area.

A primary goal was to allow runners to earn a steady income, while they still had flexibility to travel to races and compete on an elite level.  Through the efforts of 1972 Olympic marathon champion Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, and then TAC sports administrators Ollan Cassell and Alvin Chriss, the rules on "amateurism" within Olympic sports were swept away and the sports became open to "pros," who could make a meager living while pursuing their athletic ambitions, but none of this was in place for Slack and his contemporaries.

Slack's training partnership with Bjorklund was beneficial for both of them.  "I had better leg speed," said Slack.  "Garry had better endurance."  One thing they both shared was what has been described for Slack as "mincing," but really translates into a short, compact stride, not the flowing "sprinter's stride" of a Mo Farah.  Bjorklund said that the shorter stride was due to the Minnesota winters, where a longer stride was a liability as it increased the chances of slipping and/or falling on the snow and ice-slicked pavement.

Both runners were pretty much self coached.  They had had mentors in college.  Griak for Bjorklund and NDSU coach Roger Grooters for Slack.  Both are strong willed,independent and hyper competitive.  Long training runs would often turn into a survival of the fittest battles with neither giving an inch.  Bjorklund would describe some of those runs with Slack or Garry's Gopher teammate, Don Timm, who like Slack, was a fourth place finisher in his event at the US Olympic Trials, just missing the Olympic team.  The two runners would stagger away from each other, barely able to stand, but not wanting to show the other how draining the workout was.  A simple: "See you later," or a wave attempted to mask the effort's impact.

Slack has few regrets of his Olympic pursuits: "I'm happy with my career," he says, but he regrets that "I didn't run enough mile races.  Didn't try to run in Europe more to run faster."  In the end, however, it wasn't training issues or which races he did or didn't do, it was his feet that let him down.  "My left foot started to really bother me," Slack says.  "On a run my calves would start to cramp on me. (My feet) put me through everything, but they let me down in the end."

"My big toe joint locked up and froze. My right foot had a bunyon, which was probably causing the problems with my calves."  He had operations for the bunyon and another bone problem in his feet, but noting seemed to solve the problems completely.  So, Slack says: "I had to look for other things(to stay active).  Anything else but run."  He hikes, cross country and downhill skiis, bikes, and keeps doing something to stay fit.  He's been inducted into the NDSU athletic Hall of Fame and the USATF Minnesota Track and Field Hall of Fame. Retired from his jobs as a shoe buyer for sporting goods chains, Slack lives in Leadville, Colorado, and his wife, Jody, is concluding her teaching career in Littleton, a suburb of Denver.

When she retires, the couple will sell their house in Denver and both will stay in the cabin her father built in Leadville, where Slack spends much of his time now, as he is still staying in touch with the sport by coaching cross country and track at Lake County High School, a small school with an enrollment of around 250 students.  Slack has had to work just to get enough kids out for the team as "kids that are 5'9" and 130, they want to be football players," says Slack.  Football is the prestige sport, not running, not track.  But it is rewarding to see these young athletes progress, he says.

The 10,000 foot altitude doesn't help as running fast is limited by their location.  Still he now has 12 kids out for the cross country team and there is no baseball or softball to compete for the kids athletic outlet in the Spring.  The kids have "a lot of other interests, a lot of distractions," said Slack, but like his own situation with his various impedements to activity, Slack hopes to show them the way to overcome the obstacles.  He does not expect to find Olympic prospects.  The the goals will be more modest.  Teaching the kids the basics of training and the benefits of hard work.  The discipline to set goals and complete the training necessary to achieve them.

As for his goals, Slack says, this year it's just staying away from hospitals.  Last year was a nightmare of issues from broken bones in his wrist from a bike riding fall to multiple shoulder surgeries to repair damage there.  It's not running a  four-minute mile, but it is the challenge Slack has taken for 2014.  Just as he was a trailblazer in running, Slack hopes to demonstrate how one overcomes these sorts of obstacles to activity thrown at him recently. As those who know him will tell you, he's not one to back down from a challenge.  Lines from a Dylan Thomas's poem say it well: "Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

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