Ten years have passed, but the passion for Dana College cross-country hasn't.
The relationships formed on runs through Blair have endured.
“It was a lot of different people from a lot of different walks of life,” said a member of the final team, Jeremiah Feine
“It means the world to me,” said another former Viking, Kipp Schuler. “We became a family in a short amount of time.”
Rachel (Ness) Beckman, meanwhile, made her family with another former Dana runner, Joel Beckman, through marriage.
“Going to Dana was one of the most important decisions of my life,” she said.
And former Vikings coach Marc Bierbaum can confirm and prove each of his former athletes' points of view. He has a phone full of memories with his running family post-Dana College. He has weddings, shared races and group photos from, seemingly, every occasion where the Vikings were together again after 2010.
“I love Dana,” Bierbaum said. “I love it.”
Together and then not
Before coaching the final 4.5 years of Dana College cross-country, Bierbaum himself was a Viking.
The current Iowa Western Community College assistant graduated in 2001 as a three-time national qualifier.
Bierbaum so loved running all-out miles and hills on Blair days so hot “you could find God there,” that he joined on as the coach. He'd lead his team on loops through neighborhoods, to the flats and on the tough course at Black Elk-Neihardt Park.
At his alma mater, Bierbaum would go on to coach a national champion, five All-Americans, 40 national qualifiers and five conference gold medalists.
“We finally started to get the numbers back up,” he said of the program that had had low points. But there seemed to be forward momentum all around the school during that final year.
As it turned out, though, the last All-American was Christina Hanson in the marathon event.
Bierbaum was at a Missouri Valley softball game watching a recruit when he got the news of his school's closure. Going through his own emotions, he stayed to the end of the game and relayed the news to the future Vikings' family.
“It was something else,” he said. “I felt just miserable about it.”
Within 48 hours, Bierbaum called everyone with Dana cross-country ties individually. It took non-stop calls to get it done and more than once the Vikings asked what was next for the coach. They wanted to keep the team together.
But, as it turned out, just two team members were able to follow Bierbaum to the University of Nebraska-Omaha. One was a runner who had just moved to Blair from Florida to compete at Dana.
The rest of the Vikings moved on, too, but stayed close with their running family. Schuler transferred to William Penn in Iowa with another Dana coach, Allen Friesen, while Feine moved onto Midland and James Vonnahme went to Grandview (Mo.) with Sadie Fischer and Kevin Brown. David Eads and Hanson eventually arrived at Concordia University in Seward, while Cory Logsdon of Fort Calhoun spent graduated life becoming an ultramarathon runner in the Omaha area.
Cody Brousek — who also served as Victor the Viking while at Dana — transferred to Nebraska Wesleyan and pursued a career in athletics. Today, he's the director of operations for the cross-country and track teams at Notre Dame.
The Fighting Irish staff member said Friday that Bierbaum and Friesen had given him the reigns to put together a high school meet that ended up not happening after Dana's closure. That experience, though, got him “behind the scenes to see what it takes to host a meet.”
Bierbaum, meanwhile, continue on doing just that.He's spent time at UNO, Missouri Western State and now Iowa Western. Through all of that time, though, he and his team remain Vikings.
Viking XC reunions
Bierbaum called Feine the “backbone” of the last Dana College team. That remains true a decade later.
“He is a huge part of the reunions and keeping Dana spirit alive,” the coach said.
Feine said what the Vikings went through grew their bond. He worked in the admissions office the summer the school closed and was sent home early one afternoon. After working a second job, he returned to his team to find Bierbaum talking to his peers about the closure.
Dana's runners remained linked, though. Six runners and their coach went and got matching tattoos in Omaha soon after the closure, while Rachel Beckman admits that, at one point, half of her wardrobe was Dana apparel. She still has posters from her college running days scattered around the house.
Vonnahme, meanwhile, still wears Vikings shirts on runs and is having a blanket made.
“It just keeps going,” Bierbaum said.
Brousek has shirts and jackets and, may or may not, have a mascot costume back home at his folks' house.
Annually, 10-15 runners get together to reminisce and make new memories. Barbecues and running events are still on the table, though family life takes up a bigger aspect of the get-togethers than it used to.
“The running family,” Bierbaum said. “That was my life and is.”
The coach isn't bluffing. He has the photos to back it all up.