Nov. 20, 2009

 

By Jason Lloyd
Special to NCAA.com

   
Jason Lindelof’s life began burning down in August. He is still trying to extinguish the flames.
   
A junior at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, Lindelof will run in Saturday’s Division III Men’s Cross Country Championships. He is perhaps the most unlikely of the 280 entrants, since he took last year off and competed in just three meets during the regular season.
   
He won’t be the favorite this weekend, not with Hamilton College (N.Y.) senior Peter Kosgei back to defend his individual championship. He won’t have any teammates – he is the lone UWS runner, and the Yellow Jackets didn’t make it as a team, where seven of the top 10 from last year are returning.
   
SUNY-Cortland (N.Y.) is back to defend its title against North Central College (Ill.), which is trying for its 13th team championship after finishing runner-up last year.
   
But Lindelof’s goal, regardless of how unrealistic it seemed when he couldn’t break 28 minutes in late September, was to get him ready for this moment.
   
Through injuries, fire and tragedy, he made it.
   
“He’s a great person,” Wisconsin-Superior coach Paul Nisius said. “He is the poster boy for an NCAA student-athlete. And he has an incredible story.”
   
Lindelof is 25 – fairly old to be a college undergrad. But he spent the better part of five years kicking around the Twin Cities working odd jobs and heading nowhere. He always loved to run, but herniated a disc in his back so badly while lifting weights his senior year of high school, the surgeon told him it was the worst disc she had ever fixed.
   
Figuring his running career was over, Lindelof worked an assortment of odd jobs, including standing on the tarmac at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport with glow-in-the-dark sticks helping planes to land.
   
“I was spinning my wheels,” he said. “I had to get out of there and get out on my own.”
   
He moved to Duluth, Minn. three years ago and enrolled just over the border at UWS with the intention of running again.
   
Both his freshman and sophomore seasons ended prematurely – he broke his tibia as a freshman, while his sophomore season ended with a heel injury. When he felt at his best, he ran 25:32 at regionals two years ago on a flat course in Winneconne, Wis. The sore heel prevented him from going to nationals, then he broke bones and tore ligaments in his left foot when he fell during a run in early 2008.
   
With his legs and feet a mess, surgery seemed inevitable. Instead, Lindelof took last year off to recover and began wearing specially fitted insoles for his shoes. He didn’t resume running until July, when an Achilles injury forced him to shut it down again.
   
One month later, Lindelof was asleep in his basement when he awoke to the sound of shattering glass. A fire that began with his toaster was burning his house to the ground.
   
“I still remember the sound of the glass breaking, how loud it was,” he said. “It was way louder than a baseball through a window. The heat was making the windows explode.”
   
Lindelof had purchased the house that overlooks Lake Superior when he moved to Duluth, back when home loans were much easier to acquire. Now he was standing outside, watching his life turn to ashes. One of his roommates was trapped on the top floor – flames and smoke made it impossible for him to get out.
   
“Kick out the window and jump,” Lindelof hollered. “I’ll catch you.”
   
Lindelof estimates his weight at between 140 and 150 pounds. As his roommate began falling toward the earth, Lindelof thought of his weak disc and surgically-repaired back. He wondered if trying to catch his roommate, who weighed about the same, would make his back explode again.
   
True to his word, though, Lindelof made the catch. He and both of his roommates escaped unharmed.
   
He spent the next few weeks homeless while the insurance company haggled with the scorched house. It was still tourist season in Duluth, and finding available hotel rooms isn’t always easy in late summer. Lindelof had to check out of his hotel every morning at 10 a.m., then check back in again at 4 p.m. Sometimes he was in a different room, sometimes he was in a different hotel.   
   
“I was basically just living out of my car,” he said. “I’d go two or three days wearing the same clothes. I had bigger problems to deal with.”
   
Like making the $800 mortgage payment on a house he no longer lived in. Before he had two roommates to help with the mortgage. After the fire, they had moved on and he was on his own.
   
Lindelof slowly began running again while working at least 30 hours as a delivery driver for a local restaurant. With class and cross country, he wedged in all 30 hours by working 10 hour shifts on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Sometimes he would pick up a co-worker’s shift during the week, pushing his hours closer to 40.
   
He can’t afford remaining a full-time student year round. He enrolls full time in the fall, in order to remain eligible for cross country, then drops down to part time status the rest of the year. Still, he is on pace to graduate next fall with a degree in exercise science and a minor in coaching. After that will come grad school. What he’ll do with all those degrees, he’s not yet sure.
   
“One step at a time,” he laughs.
   
He finally found a house to rent after a few weeks of hotels, and life finally began getting back to normal. Then five weeks ago, his best friend, Joe, killed himself.
   
Joe had lived in the house that burned down with Lindelof until about 18 months ago. The two renovated the house, adding a deck and hot tub to the back. That made winters bearable, since even on the coldest days in January, there was no better feeling than sitting in the hot tub watching 1,000-foot ships cutting through Lake Superior.
   
Through the injuries, fire and life in a car, rock bottom didn’t come until Joe’s death.
   
“That was the worst,” he said. “By far.”
   
Lindelof and Nisius kept their expectations for cross country season minimal.
   
“I told him to just be thankful he was healthy,” Nisius said. “The goal was for next year to get back where he was.”
   
When he ran 28:15 at the Roy Griak Invitational, an important meet in Minneapolis on Sept. 27, any chance for success this season seemed remote. But the times were slowly improving, and after he ran a 26:20 at the conference meet, Nisius spent hours running the numbers.
   
“All of a sudden,” he said, “we realized Jason had a shot.”
   
When he returned to Winneconne for regionals this year, Lindelof ran 24:52 – a full 40 seconds better than he had two years ago on the same course.
   
“I went from not running for 15 months to running the best race of my life,” he said. “That just doesn’t happen.”
   
The dream becomes a reality on Saturday. The physical injuries have healed, although the painful scars from his best friend’s death still remain. The house has since been considered a total loss by the city of Duluth.
   
Through it all, Lindelof found ways to run through the pain.
   
Nisius will always remember watching Lindelof coming up a hill at the regional this year with about 800 meters to go. Nisius knew he was in good shape, but saw a wall of runners closing in from behind.
   
“Jason! You gotta go!” Nisius hollered. “You gotta go!”
   
His legs weary, his chest heavy, Lindelof looked up at his coach and smiled.
   
Then he gave him a thumbs up.
   
Finally, life is good again.