Cutting wind wailed in 25° temperature across the desolate plain surrounding the Laramie (Wyo.) Country Club. The altitude was 7,200 feet, but the land was flat, varying less than 100 feet in elevation for miles around. Looking across the plain, with its scrubby grass and patches of snow, toward the distant gray mountains, you could see no trees, no houses, no wildlife—nothing but a few pickup trucks, some colored flags marking portions of a six-mile cross-country course, and 112 athletes who were jogging around, preparing to run those six miles.
A comfortable voice from inside one of the heated trucks called out over a loudspeaker: "Three minutes until the start. Take off your warmup clothes." The competitors stripped off windbreakers and other bulky clothing and moved toward the starting line. In their motley assortment of bright caps and earmuffs and long underwear beneath their team uniforms, with the steam from their breath hanging about their faces, the athletes looked strange, ghostlike, almost comical—like willing victims of a vast practical joke.
The race was for the National Collegiate Athletic Association cross-country championship, the climax of the fall season for the college distance runners. The participants had endured months of rigorous training and hard competition. They had run miles and miles every week, pushing and punishing themselves for the private satisfaction of beating someone else dedicated to the same goals, while the rest of the campus watched the football team. Now they had reached the summit of their sport, in the peculiarly fitting setting of Laramie.
After the University of Wyoming was founded there in 1887, the people of Laramie were moved to call the town the "Athens of Wyoming." Now an active city of 22,000, Laramie is jovial enough for even the strictest Baptist church to advertise "Friendly Fundamental Biblebelieving," and image-striving enough for citizens to proudly call it "the home of both Curt Gowdy and Drew Pearson's first wife." The Chamber of Commerce guidebook reassures newcomers that "Laramie has never been a boom town nor has it suffered a really severe setback." The town is as stolid and as unglamorous as cross country itself, and last week, as if to make the distance runners feel truly at home, it was completely wrapped up in football; its adored Wyoming Cowboys are undefeated and headed for the Sugar Bowl.
The runners ventured into Laramie for the rare privilege of testing their fortitude in an altitude that would burn their lungs, against a wind that would numb their faces and almost close their eyes, in a brutal 30-minute exercise that would only prove to most of them what they knew already: that they could not run as fast as Gerry Lindgren of Washington State. For Lindgren, the race was an experiment in racing at an altitude comparable to that of Mexico City, a first step in a year of careful training for the Olympics. For a few others, the cross-country season was a training period to help prepare them for more intensive efforts at shorter distances in winter and spring track. But for most the NCAA was an end in itself, a chance to prove to themselves that all their solitary work was not in vain.
The race itself was about as exciting as watching the snow clumps on the prairie. Lindgren moved into first place after less than half a mile, led the field down a fairway, through a few gates, over a wooden bridge that spanned a dry creek, and, with 4½ miles to go, had made the ultimate result clear. At the farthest point from the start, the wind became most severe—but the slight Lindgren seemed the least troubled of anyone. After three miles Gerry turned into a one-mile straightaway as forbidding looking as any part of the course. He hardly glanced at the seemingly endless expanse ahead of him and calmly maintained his lead. "The wind almost cut me in two out there," said Mike Ryan of the Air Force Academy, who finished third. "And that straightaway," said Mark Gibbens of Indiana, who was 12th, "well, you just can't let yourself look at that. You've got to keep your eyes on the feet of the guy in front of you."
Returning to the wooden bridge—with about 1½ miles to go—Lindgren looked downright relaxed. "I did feel very good at that point," he said. "But then that fellow Gelling made a good run at me and I had to pick it up. That last mile, against the wind, was just murder. I had all I could do to keep running." Actually, Arjan Gelling, a tall, 21-year-old sophomore from North Dakota University, did not seriously threaten Lindgren, although he closed strongly in second place. Lindgren arrived at the finish all alone, to be greeted by the quiet applause of a few dozen spectators.
The applause will get much louder for Gerry during the next year. Last week he was far more concerned with his personal findings in his first real test at high altitude. He won the six-and three-mile at the NCAAs last spring at Provo, Utah (4,549 feet above sea level), but, he said, "The times were too slow to tell me anything." His six-mile time at Laramie was 30:45.6, good under the conditions and fast enough to tell him a lot. "I heard that the altitude affects you most after two days," he said, "so I came in two days before the race. I wanted to feel the worst that it could do to me—and I guess I did. I felt dizzy after the race. I could hardly get myself to move. Now I feel a little better, but I think I've learned something about altitude today."
While Lindgren was concluding his experiment and casually winning his second NCAA cross-country title, the runners behind him enjoyed the real excitement of the day. Before the race Gelling had looked around him and said to a friend, "What am I doing here? I shouldn't be running against these guys. I'll be lucky to finish in the first 15." Gelling, who was born in Holland and lives in Canada, took up cross country for a not unusual reason: "I was so slow that the 10-mile was my best race in high school. In fact, I went to North Dakota because every other school thought I was too slow to be given a track scholarship. But if I could finish second here I guess I can hope to run the 10,000 meters on the Canadian Olympic team."
Ryan followed Gelling across the line and immediately turned to wait for Air Force teammate Terry Gruters, who ran the best race of his life to be 14th—good enough for the All-America ranking, which goes to the top 15. "I'm so happy," panted Gruters. "I just never figured on something like this. In fact, I was going to quit cross country this year. But I knew we'd have a good team, and I didn't want everybody saying, "We have a good team now because Gruters quit.' And now I'm All-America. This is really farfetched."
Air Force, benefiting from experience in the altitude, almost pulled off an upset of heavily favored Villanova, falling only five points short in the team standings. Unlike Lindgren, Villanova Coach Jim Elliott was not at all interested in challenging the altitude under the worst conditions. "It hurts you least if you have more than 21 days or less than 24 hours in it," he said. "So we arrived about 18 hours before the race. It still bothered some of our runners like Dave Patrick [who was 34th] and Frank Murphy [68th], and we could have done better with some training here. But at least we won."
Many coaches and athletes fled Laramie within minutes after the race; Lindgren did not even bother to wait to pick up his award at the ceremony an hour later. The Wyoming people who did show up at the ceremony talked mostly of the Sugar Bowl. But no amount of anticlimax could really detract from the moment for most of the runners. Awards and attention are not essential parts of the cross-country way of life. Neither, for that matter, is winning. There were guys finishing 90th or 100th at Laramie who had been finishing far back all season, and who probably will return next year to work just as hard and finish just as far back. "'We all live on hope," said Glen Knapp of Oregon State, who was 92nd. "I don't think there was anybody here who didn't have the idea that he could be in the first 20." The icy wind was at Knapp's back, slapping his thin sweat suit against his legs. "'And I don't think the weather conditions were bad. I'd say it was a great day, really."