The cross-country season is the time when distance runners everywhere quit going around in ovals and take to the hills. All fall, while the stadiums and the fans belong to football, out in the parks and on the golf courses thin young men in shorts run four-, five-and six-mile races on nature's all-weather surfaces—grass and mud and rocks—school against school, club against club.
Last week, with winter closing in, cross-country competition reached its peak of intensity and quality with the national championships, first the NCAAs at Penn State and, on Sunday, the AAUs in Annapolis.
The six-mile course for the NCAA championship was laid out on Penn State's 36-hole golf course by Track Coach Harry Groves. It was wide and well marked, with major hills at 2.2, 4 and 5.2 miles and no tight turns to slow the pace. The feeling among the coaches killing time in the lobby of the Nittany Lion Inn was that the course was a fair balance of hills and flats, unlike last year's at Indiana University, where the advantage went to the hill climbers.
"I have watched every NCAA championship since 1956," said Groves, "and the only fair course was the one at Kansas in 1965 and '66. This is my masterpiece."
"It's a great cross-country course," said Gary Wieneke, the Illinois coach. "Deceptive. People think it's going to be easy because it appears gently rolling and downhill overall. But a good share of the footing is difficult. There is little fairway and a lot of rough, and much of it is on a sidehill slant. It will require a lot of concentration."
"It's fair. Not hilly enough for the Easterners and too hilly for some of the others," said Penn Coach Jim Tuppeny. "And this is perfect distance running weather—cool and dry. For 26 years the NCAA was at Michigan State, where it snowed every fourth year."
"I wish we'd have a blizzard tonight and that it would sleet all day tomorrow," said 1974 champion Nick Rose the day before the race. Rose is a good-natured 23-year-old native of Bristol, England, who is on a track scholarship at Western Kentucky, where his shoulder-length blond curls, tiny gold earring and overalls draw as much attention as his running.
Rose is a cross-country runner in the European tradition, and the rugged Indiana course had been a homecoming. "It was muddy, hilly, demanding," he said happily. "Conditions I like. A cross-country race should be tough, not just a track race on grass." Rose had upset the favorite, Washington State's Kenyan star John Ngeno, and set a course record. But five days later Ngeno had avenged himself by winning the AAUs over a less hilly 10,000-meter course in Belmont, Calif.
Again this year, Ngeno was a co-favorite for the individual title, along with his teammate and fellow Kenyan Joshua Kimeto, Rose and that rarity among top-rank collegiate distance runners these days, a U.S.-born competitor, Craig Virgin of Illinois, a junior who has set course records in all but one of his seven races this season. Before this year's success. Virgin had suffered a two-year siege of injury and illness, but his competitive instincts remained unimpaired.
Wilson Waigwa, the University of Texas at El Paso's sub-four-minute miler from Kenya, would also have been highly rated at Penn State, but a thigh injury suffered at the Western Athletic Conference meet two weeks ago kept him away. His UTEP team, however, led by fellow Kenyans James Munyala and Frank Munene, was thought to be strong enough, even without its No. 1 man, to make a strong run at Washington State for the team title.
The starting line at Penn State was 125 yards wide, crossing two fairways. By the 11 a.m. starting time sunshine and 40° temperatures had softened the frozen ground. At the gun, 276 runners pounded up a slight grade, intent on grabbing and trying to hold the best possible position before the course narrowed. At 880 yards, Rose and Ngeno were in the front rank, along with Dave Merrick of Penn, the IC4A champion. Ngeno said that his mistake last year had been starting easy; he did not intend to do it again.
Just short of the one-mile mark the course narrowed to 30 feet or so, squeezed between a line of trees on the right and a bunker to the left. First out of this funnel came Rose, then Ngeno, then Merrick, followed by Brigham Young's Paul Cummings. The time for the mile was 4:35. By two miles, where the course dipped and crossed a gravel road, Ngeno had dropped back to sixth. Rose and Merrick still led the pack, but now running right behind them came Virgin, Kimeto and Penn State's George Malley. Going up the first hill, which rose 45 feet over its quarter-mile length, Merrick fell victim to a side stitch, and the order was Rose, Virgin, Kimeto and Ngeno as the four leaders opened the first break on the pack.
Coming up to the four-mile point, marked by the start of another hill, this one half a mile long and rising steadily from the lowest to the highest point on the golf course, Rose and Virgin had gained a lead of 20 yards over the Washington State Kenyans. Here Rose, the hill specialist, made his first big move, an effort to shake off Virgin. But Virgin would not be shaken, and the pair disappeared behind a clump of trees at the top of the hill. When they reappeared it was Virgin who had a slight lead. Ngeno was still third, and Kimeto was falling back. The rest of the field, strung out over half a mile, moved along behind like an undulating multicolored ribbon.
Virgin and Rose continued to battle through the next mile, scratching inches from one another. On the flat leading to the last hill, with three-quarters of a mile to go, Rose lengthened his stride. Virgin's strategy until this point had been defensive. Now, at the final hill, he made a move of his own. The two tore into the rise and, at its top, Virgin had Rose beaten by a step.
"I turned it on and immediately I felt him begin to go," said Virgin later. "Last year I went to pieces with half a mile left. Everybody and his mother passed me and I went from fourth to 12th."
This time it was Rose's turn to fade; he crossed the finish line 15.5 seconds behind Virgin's 28:23.3.
Ngeno held on to third, but teammate Kimeto finished 14th. Almost overlooked in the excitement of the leaders' duel was a two-mile-long battle for fourth among some seven runners, finally won at the wire by Oregon's Terry Williams, who came in .4 seconds ahead of Paul Stemmer of Penn State.
UTEP took the team title (determined by adding the finishing positions of a squad's five top-placed runners) with 88 points to Washington State's 92. That contest, too, had been decided on the steep final hill.
Virgin passed up the AAU six days later, as did all the first four finishers. Ordinarily the AAU fields enough distance stars to make it the more glamorous of the two championships. This year, however, Frank Shorter, the Olympic Marathon champion who has won the AAU title four times, was snowed in in Taos, N. Mex. and Tony Waldrop, the indoor mile record holder now billed as a runner for the Philadelphia Pioneer Club, failed to show.
Marty Liquori, once again looking pale and young after shaving off his beard and mustache, was in the field, running for the New York Athletic Club, as usual, but Liquori is not noted for his prowess in cross-country and was not one of the favorites. After finishing 10th, Liquori said that his favorite cross-country course would be "smooth as a track and flat as a pancake."
The course that the Naval Academy's cross-country coach, Al Cantello, had laid out over the Eisenhower Golf Course just outside Annapolis was anything but that: 10,000 meters—six miles, 376-plus yards—of rolling hills and difficult footing, with three narrow bridges that had to be crossed six times. The enormous field of 360 starters poured some 800 yards down a fairway, across an earthen dam and into the first of four loops. At a mile and a quarter the eventual leaders were already sifting their way through the mob. Greg Fredericks was in the lead, and John Gregorio of the Colorado Track Club was third. Fredericks had broken Shorter's American record for 10,000 meters when he was running for Penn State in 1972, and according to his college coach, "Greg was the only one who ever got a smell of Steve Prefontaine."
By three miles, Don Kardong, the Stanford alumnus who ran a 12:57.6 minute 3 miles last year and Garry Bjorklund of the Colorado Track Club, who ran the 10,000 at the Pan-Am Games in mid-October were first and second, respectively, while Fredericks was a tight fifth. Kardong and Bjorklund had lost their way for a short time early in the race, but had made up the lost ground, Kardong with a time for three miles of 13:56.
Between four and five miles the leaders broke away: Gary Tuttle of the Beverly Hills Striders, Bjorklund, Fredericks, Glen Herold—who had begun moving up at about 3½—Kardong and Gregorio. Twenty yards back, Ted Castaneda of the Colorado TC was trying to make up ground, but catch-up in cross country is a difficult game and Castaneda finished a disappointing 11th.
Turning into the 150-yard stretch to the finish line, Gregorio had a slight lead on Fredericks, but not enough. Coming up the last small rise Fredericks jumped Gregorio. "I was just trying to maintain contact till I could make my one big move," he said minutes after he crossed the finish line, the winner by five feet after more than six miles. Behind him Bjorklund and Herold were sprinting for third, a contest that Bjorklund won by a nose. Kardong and Tuttle were fifth and sixth, and all were within four seconds of each other, a rare cross-country finish.
On the basis of the two-three finish of Gregorio and Bjorklund, the Colorado Track Club took the team title with 31 points; the New York AC was second.
And with that, fall was officially over for distance runners. In just a few weeks the indoor season begins. The footing will be good, the hills will be banked and runners will be going around in ovals again.