Several things made the national AAU cross-country championship in Philadelphia last Saturday such a pleasant affair. Although the sky was gray, it did not rain and the temperature was a comfortable 61°. In addition this was truly an American championship, in contrast to the NCAA meet five days earlier in Denton, Texas, where Kenyans running for Washington State and Texas-El Paso finished one, two and five. Third, there were no superstars on hand. Frank Shorter had scratched because of the flu, Bill Rodgers because of the weakening aftereffects of Mount Fuji's Revenge that assailed him during a recent trip to Japan. "I hardly know anybody here," said Barry Brown, who is going on 33. "I must be getting old."
One of the most highly regarded young runners was Terry Cotton, a 22-year-old PE student at the University of Arizona and a member of a San Diego club, the Jamul Toads.
Although Cotton had finished 18th in the NCAA, he had won seven of his last nine races, setting course records in six of them. Nobody, however, considered Rick Rojas a favorite, except perhaps his teammates on the Colorado Track Club. "Let's face it. I'm an unknown here," said the 24-year-old computer data analyst from Los Alamos, N. Mex.
The 10,000-meter course, running through Fairmount Park, the biggest city park in the U.S., was considered by many of the 400 starters to be the toughest in the country. It was a narrow hiking path through the woods that went up and down four big hills named Flagpole, Parachute, Surekill and Nursery. The course had half-buried rocks and treacherous gullies and it wriggled under the pines and sycamore trees, forcing the runners to chop their strides.
December 6, 1976
A week before the race Paul Stemmer of the Nittany Valley Track Club had set a course record of 30:51.2, and on Saturday it was Stemmer and teammate George Malley who set the pace for the first two miles. Kirk Pfeffer, 20, of the Jamul Toads and the University of Colorado, took the lead at the three-mile mark, flinging his 6'2" frame downhill. But Surekill Hill lay in wait half a mile farther on, and Rojas, a small, compact runner with a bushy black mustache, had slipped through the field from about 100th place at the first quarter and was suddenly at Pfeffer's heels. He flew up Surekill, passing Pfeffer with remarkable ease. "I wasn't even trying," Rojas said later. "Whenever the course went uphill, everybody around me seemed to stand still." From that point on, Rojas stayed in front. "I hadn't seen the course before," he said, "so whenever I came to a corner I had to ask directions. I didn't give it everything until I had about half a mile to go. By that time Cotton was breathing down my neck."
Halfway through the race Cotton had moved into fifth place. He had had a wisdom tooth pulled two weeks before and was also fighting a cold. "I was just hoping to stay there," he said afterward, "but when I moved up to second with a quarter mile to go, I realized I should have gone for the lead sooner. I guess I just gave Rojas the race."
Rojas broke Stemmer's week-old course record, clocking 30:23.8 and edging Cotton by three seconds. Most of the race had seemed like a cruise to him. "I didn't feel any pain at all," he said. The key to Rojas' success was that he came well prepared. After a frustrating summer in which he failed to make the finals of the Olympic 5,000-meter trials, he cut down his work days at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratories to six hours so he could train 110 miles a week at 7,000 feet. "We have the same kind of hills as these back home," he said in Philadelphia, "the same kind of dirt roads." When his father, an iron worker, campaigned for sheriff of Los Alamos County for his 10th term, Rojas ran 20 miles one day "delivering leaflets for the old man."
Until now, Rojas' running career had been rather unspectacular. He spent four years at Harvard studying Spanish literature. "At Harvard we concentrated a lot on dual meets," he said, "and by the time I got to the big championships I was pretty tired." The first time he was satisfied with his performance was in 1975, the year after his graduation, when he won the marathon in the Pan-American Trials. Later that year he won the 15-kilometer AAU race in Denver in 45:50, the fourth-fastest time ever run in the U.S., beating Shorter by 55 seconds. "Maybe I'll get some invitations to meets now," he said after winning in Philadelphia. For starters, his victory gave him a trip to the IAAF cross-country championship in D√ºsseldorf next March. There was a surprise team winner at Philadelphia, too. The Toads, a 2-year-old club, led by Cotton, Pfeffer (fourth) and Ed Mendoza (ninth), beat the Colorado Track Club, champions the previous two years. "Three weeks ago," said the Toads' coach, Bob Larsen, "my runners had to start raising money for the trip. We almost didn't make it. And we sure didn't think we had a chance." But then neither did Rojas.