Even as the American public huffed and puffed its way toward fitness in one way or another last week, the country's best cross-country runners, a zealous lot with little regard for snappy uniforms, personal safety or celebrity, took part in four national championships over an eight-day span. During that period members of this emerging nation of athletes raced over golf courses and hay-fields, through creeks, mud, snow and oxygen debt, jostled up and down precipitous hills, and fought the elements, the compass and each other before witnesses that for a change did not consist solely of trees.
Ever since cross-country running was replaced by gunpowder as a means of gathering food, it seems to have been a stepchild amid the welter of autumnal sports. At most schools the cross-country coach's office usually was down near the boiler room and financial support was restricted to supplying runners with laundry detergent for faded sweat suits. Today, with America alive to the merits of the neighborhood jog, cross-country is gaining stature and the coaches are getting calls from alumni asking about the benefits of interval training. But as the sport's finest gathered together—first for the men's and women's collegiate championships in Madison, Wis. and Denver, Colo., respectively, and then for the two AAU meets last Saturday in Seattle and Memphis—there were enough zany occurrences to suggest that the sport is not yet out of the woods.
For instance, in three of the four meets, runners got lost. At Seattle, the two pacesetters made a pact to finish together, only to call it off and sprint to the tape. The race was decided when one of them misjudged the finish line.
The world's best distance runner, Henry Rono, got cold feet at Madison and finished as a straggler. At that same event an elderly guard collapsed. Fans tend to stay away from contests where a ticket also guarantees frostbite, but it could have been worse. At the AAU race, officials threatened to arrest spectators.
Some people claim that such unpredictable events are what make cross-country interesting; that, in addition to raw running talent, the event requires discipline, concentration and the ability to stay upright, to say nothing of a refined sense of direction and the capacity to compete in conditions better suited to hibernation. In Seattle eight inches of snow fell on the weekend before the race and meet director Bill Roe was asked what would happen if the stuff did not melt. Or worse, if it snowed again. "We'll run the race," he said firmly. In Memphis there was no threat of snow but, in order to get women accustomed to international-style racing, they were asked to splash through creeks as well as jump over logs and bales of hay.
Through all of this there emerged a series of heartening personal triumphs. Mary Decker, no longer a teen-ager, at last, continued her comeback by winning the AIAW meet, then headed off to New Zealand to train with her friend and coach, Dick Quax.
Alberto Salazar, a junior at the University of Oregon, came close to becoming the first man ever to win both the NCAA and AAU titles in the same year. He took the NCAA, then came back strong in the AAU only to finish a yard behind Greg Meyer, his teammate at the Greater Boston Track Club.
Kathy Mills, the defending women's collegiate champion, suffered a cruel disappointment when she missed a turn and lost this year's race to Decker. She spent most of the following week with an ailing foot in a bucket of ice, then gamely raced another 5,000 meters in the AAU meet and finished fourth behind winner Julie Brown, thereby earning herself a berth on the American team that will compete in the world cross-country championship in Ireland next March. But cross-country runners are nothing if not hardy. Brown, for instance, once won a race on a broken leg.
For the world's best long-distance runner, however, there was no such glory at the NCAA championship. The body of a distance runner is always crying for mercy. This time Henry Rono listened. Exhausted by a year in which he set four world records at distances from 3,000 to 10,000 meters and discouraged by the arctic conditions in Madison, the Kenyan star was never in the 10,000-meter race after the first mile. He masked his embarrassment by chuckling and mumbling to himself as he fell farther and farther off the pace. Rono finally plodded across the line 237th in the field of 241 finishers, so annoyed that he threw away his finish number and refused to talk to the press.
During the night before Rono would fail in his defense of the individual NCAA title he had won the last two years, an inch of snow fell on the Yahara Hills Golf Course and at race time the temperature was well below freezing, a stiff breeze was blowing and the wind-chill factor was—20°. Some of the runners wriggled into panty hose to keep warm while others donned lightweight tights or, like Salazar and his Oregon teammates, went all out with long underwear. Shortly before the start a student trainer for the University of Texas at El Paso squad, which was one of the favorites for the team title, applied a concoction of "Miner Medicine," a lanolin-based protective glop, to the faces and necks of the school's shivering Kenyans.
The early pace was very fast as Salazar and Rono led a narrowing funnel of runners. Then the pair, confused by the snow that made course markers hard to spot, took a wrong turn and a dozen additional competitors followed. The error was almost instantly discovered and cost only a few seconds, but it was the last Rono saw of the lead as he drifted back and was swallowed in the pack.
Salazar's rivals call him Mule because he is too stubborn to quit. At the Falmouth Road Race late this summer he proved them right when he collapsed at the finish line after vainly chasing winner Bill Rodgers and was taken to a hospital with a temperature of 108°. Over the last frigid section of the NCAA meet, Salazar doggedly built up a 50-yard lead, once again bound for either the finish line or the emergency room, or both. Coming down the stretch the Mule was splay-legged, but he churned out a winning time of 29:29.7.
Michael Musyoki finished second, almost four seconds behind, but he was one of four UTEP runners who placed in the top 16 and earned the team title for the Miners. Salazar's Oregon squad was the runner-up, and Wisconsin was third. The host team's fine finish was the result partly of the fifth-place showing by Steven Lacy, a feat that so delighted Wisconsin students that they wrote his name in the snow.
Salazar's victory had additional sweetness because of the neighborhood feud between Oregon and Washington State, the two powers in the Northwest. Rono, a junior at Washington State, was trying to become the first runner ever to win the NCAA title three times in a row. Gerry Lindgren of Washington State and the late Steve Prefontaine of Oregon both had failed in the same quest, Lindgren in 1968 and Prefontaine in 1972.
The rivalry between the schools has been fed by consistently close and frequent competition and by charges that John Chaplin, coach of Washington State, has loaded his program with Kenyan runners who are older than the average Joe College.
Salazar was born in Cuba, the son of a government civil engineer who fled the Castro regime. He came to America at the age of two. When Salazar and Rono met earlier this season, Chaplin was on the sidelines yelling, "Beat the Cuban."
Salazar's chances to sweep the nation's two major cross-country titles soared when both Rodgers and Frank Shorter decided not to compete in Saturday's AAU meet. Rodgers was getting ready to run in the famed Fukuoka marathon in Japan, and Shorter, the only four-time AAU cross-country champion, canceled out because he was not fully recovered from ankle surgery.
Thus Salazar's biggest competition would come, in effect, from himself. Could he return with only four days' rest to master the steep slopes of the West Seattle Golf Course?
If the course was brutal, at least the 46° temperature was more hospitable than Wisconsin's. After the first mile Salazar was again in the lead. Gradually the competition dropped away until it seemed certain that either Salazar or Greg Meyer, who has run a sub-four-minute mile indoors, would win. Salazar is from Wayland, Mass. and Meyer from Boston. The two are good friends. As they raced, they proposed that they finish together, especially since the rest of the field, save for one lone runner, had somehow made a wrong turn and was hopelessly off course. As race officials vectored the addled athletes back and forth to get in the required 10,000 meters, Salazar and Meyer approached the final hill. And there they decided to sprint to the tape. For a moment Salazar surged ahead, leaning at what he thought was the finish line—except that his estimate was 15 yards short. He finished muddy and regretful. "Now I'm sorry we decided to run together," he said.
Meyer's time was 29:35.9 over the hills and dales. The Mason-Dixon Athletic Club of Louisville, Ky. won the team title, prompting the meet announcer to ask. "Where's the Mason-Dixon line?"
For the last few years a lot of people have been asking a version of the same question about Mary Decker. She is the little girl who ran out of her playhouse and began setting world records at the age of 14, then dropped from sight. Now 20 and a student at the University of Colorado, Decker has recently become an expert on physiology—she has had surgery on her legs twice in the past 16 months. The latest operation was performed in August. Like the first, it was to relieve the pressure on her shins. Two weeks later she was doing light jogging. By September she was up to 65 miles a week, and last month she won a three-mile race in 18:18.3 on the cross-country course at the Kent Country Day School in Denver where the AIAW meet was to be held.
For the women's collegiate championship, Decker had everything in her favor: she was fit again and accustomed to the altitude, and her top competition, Kathy Mills of Penn State, the defending champion and also the American record holder at 5,000 meters, had a foot injury. Moreover, Mills did not arrive in Denver until 3 a.m. Saturday, only seven hours before the race.
Penn State's late arrival was an attempt to avoid the lag that shocks runners' systems when they encounter oxygen-rare air. The Nittany Lion coach, Chris Brooks, believes in the microscope as well as the stopwatch. She trained her squad in a university altitude chamber, simulating the atmosphere in Denver, running the team on a treadmill as they watched slide projections of the racecourse terrain. Mills, she noted, had turned in a 17:07 on the treadmill.
On the morning of the race Mills felt as if she were still at the airport baggage-claim area, and she trailed as Julie Brown of Cal State-Northridge set a furious pace. Brown, who was running despite having been declared ineligible, had a 4:58 first mile. By the halfway point she had dropped back and Decker, Mills and Julie Shea of North Carolina State were running together for the lead. With 250 yards left Mills looked strong, leading Shea by five yards and Decker by 20. Then Mills made a wrong turn. By the time she got back on the course, both Shea and Decker were well ahead, and the finish line was only 60 yards away. Decker kicked for the victory in 16:59.4. Shea was second and then came Mills, who was so mad that she kept running, and running, and running, up and down the field near the finish line, as other competitors lay unconscious nearby, victims of the high altitude.
Iowa State took the team title, which was no surprise; perennially strong, Iowa State now has won all four national AIAW titles. It has lost only one women's cross-country meet in its history.
During the following week Mills pampered her sore left foot. She has been bothered by a torn fascia muscle since summer, but she still planned to race in the AAU at Memphis, not only because Jan Merrill would be there but also because she wanted a berth on the world cross-country team.
Julie Brown also had a special interest in Memphis. The AIAW had declared her ineligible for the collegiate meet because they maintained she was in her fifth year of competition even though in two of those seasons she was running for a club, not a college, team. Although Brown went to court and won an injunction allowing her to run, AIAW officials still refused to count her score. Brown holds nine national titles and in September she set an American record of 2:36:24 in the women's marathon despite having suffered two stress fractures in her legs in the last year. She viewed the AAU race as a chance to prove herself this year in cross-country.
As expected, the race on the State Technical Institute course turned into a four-way battle among Brown, Mills, Merrill and Shea. With 400 meters left, just about when everyone expected Merrill to make her move, it was Brown who had the kick and pulled ahead. She finished in 16:32.6, with Merrill second and Shea third. Mills limped in next.
Afterward, Merrill said she ate some spoiled food Thursday morning and had been sick for 24 hours. The state of cross-country is such that no one knew about her illness, since she was virtually ignored by the media. Still, devout fans did turn out to watch the runners during the week. In Madison thousands bundled up in the bitter cold and trekked over the course, and in Seattle spectators stood patiently behind barriers. They were barred from going onto the course because officials feared they would damage the soft turf, so they stood where they were and tried to make some sense out of a race that lost its way. No one seemed too upset; cross-country is that kind of a sport. Just as it has been for years.