218: Running Along the Northern Border

Giants Walk Among Us

by Jess Koski

 

It will come up in casual conversation. The family doc performing a digital prostrate exam mentions, “Yeah, I ran a 4:04 mile at West Point…”

The massage therapist working out a tight hip, “I guess my claim to fame is that I won the Oregon State 2-mile race the year after Prefontaine graduated.”

An old hippie (old? yeah, he’s like 55!) down the road once told me, as he worked some Drum tobacco into a Zig Zag paper and pulled at a jug of cheap red wine, that he’d placed third at State in XC.

Anyone who has read the Duluth News-Tribune regularly will probably recognize the name Warner Wirta from the Opinion page. Activism is in his blood, as is running.

I met with Warner at the Co-op in Duluth—where he makes regular appearances in the Deli.

Wirta was born on a farm in Embarrass on Sept. 30, 1933. His father was active politically, involved in farming issues. His parents also handed down a fantastic heritage—that of a “Finndian.”

Oh…there goes Koski again on those Finns.

Well, they’re hard to avoid up here in 218 Country. And Finndians are often some of the most interesting characters—the Ojibwe blood “warming” the Finn it seems.

Warner was a member of the legendary “Flying Finns” of Embarrass High School Class of ’51. Though they never won State in cross country against the much larger schools of the south, they were within seconds of doing so.

However, running solo, Warner garnered second place finishes in XC and the State track mile in ’50, and won both events as a senior in 1951, the same year John Swain led his Duluth Central team to one of his XC titles (Go Trojans!)

Wirta credits his coach, Ed Hendrickson, with the transformation of the team from “greenhorns to a well-oiled running machine.” The boys had no experience, no tradition of running, no resources. Hendrickson bought Flying Finn singlets for all of his boys.

Training consisted of distance work in the pastures and country roads, and a lot of half-mile repeats on dirt straight-aways.

Wirta’s HS mile personal best was 4:31, incredible given the tracks available in 1951 and only a 1/2 second off the state record of the day, he told me. He lowered his time to 4:20 a few years later.

Another Flying Finn? Local PBS celebrity Marvin Lamppa, who’s done a film history of iron mining in Minnesota.

Giants.

After graduation, Warner spent a couple of years in the Army just after the Korean Conflict had ended. Then he traveled to Kansas State Teacher’s College where he again competed in Cross Country, winning the team event at Nationals in 1956-57.

It was during this time that Wirta was invited to run the Olympic Trials at 5000 meters. His 15:20, 25th place in Bakersfield, California wasn’t good enough to send him to Melourne, but it kindled the fires for a 1960 Olympic bid. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with a bone disease—Paget’s, which can have many detrimental effects on the body— and his competitive running career was essentially ended. (Years later he tried to train for an early Grandma’s Marathon, but blew out a calf muscle.)

Like most runners of that time, running had to take a backseat to earning a buck. Warner took a job teaching at Orr High in 1960, where he taught until 1973. He then earned a Master’s in Social Work at St. Cloud and worked with the VA. He’s lived in Duluth since 1973.
Wirta seems to channel much of that old running energy into thinking and writing about social injustice and Progressive politics. “Don’t even get me started on that George Bush,” he says with a wry grin. His letters are eloquent and impassioned and anyone with $2.95 left on his or her credit card can access his latest letter published on Sept. 19th. So much for “free” speech….

So, the next time you see an older gentleman dozing in the sun at the corner table of your local food cooperative, give him a little shake and ask him, “Excuse me…what’s your mile pr?”
He might be a giant.