Not all of New Jersey looks like the back of an old radio. It only seems that way. Take Far Hills, for instance. That's horse country. The pastures are green and rolling, the fences are split rail, the horses are thoroughbreds, and the horsepower is mostly Mercedes-Benz. Jackie O. lives there. Get the picture? At this time of year a lot of the locals have departed for the Kentucky Derby, but last Sunday Far Hills played host to a thoroughbred race of its own. Only these thoroughbreds were of the two-legged variety. The occasion was the Midland Run, a 15-kilometer (9.3-mile) road race that brought to the exclusive reaches of Far Hills what may have been the best road-racing field ever assembled.
The event attracted 25,000 spectators to the sloping fields of AT&T-owned Moorland Farms, where 1,600 runners started in a mass charge on a sunny, breezy afternoon and finished in a weary straggle. Picnickers spread comestibles on tailgates or on the grass and munched to the wails of a bagpipe band. More fans stationed themselves beside the race route, which wound along hilly, tree-shaded back roads, past a placid reservoir and stately homes. In many of the driveways, Far Hills' citizens relaxed on lounge chairs with cameras and cocktails, ready to toast the passing runners, some of whose names are legendary to enthusiasts of the running boom—Bill Rodgers, Henry Rono, Lasse Viren and road racing's new superstar, Herb Lindsay.
The favorite was Kenya's Rono, who was making his American road-racing debut. Rono is the undisputed king of distance running on the track, holding world records in four events—the 3,000-meter steeplechase and the 3,000-, 5,000- and 10,000-meter runs. Last November he won the NCAA cross-country championships for the third time, thus amply proving that he is also master of that sport. Now, in choosing to take on the impressive field at Far Hills, Rono was vying to be king of the road as well.
This was only the third running of the Midland, and the credit for turning it into a Kentucky Derby for road racers must go to its energetic director, Bob Bright, a 40-year-old ex-Marine captain who makes his living as a broker of thoroughbred horses. Bright ran in the first Midland in 1978, a 20-km. event in which the entire field of 700 made a wrong turn at the start and ended up running an extra three miles. Last year he took over the management of the race, which attracted a field of 1,100 and produced 20-km. American records for both men and women. This year Bright stopped taking entries when they reached 1,600 a month ahead of the deadline. Defending champion John Flora said only half-jokingly that he would be happy to finish in the top 25.
Bright admits that he didn't start out to assemble the best field ever. "My goal was to get the public to relate to the sport of road racing," he says, "and for that I needed media coverage. To get it I knew I needed something unique." Bright's bright idea was to invite the Russians. This was back in November—pre-Olympic boycott—and the Soviet Union agreed to send a team. To attract more 5,000-and 10,000-meter runners, Bright dropped the distance to 15 km.
A few days before the race Bright was informed that the U.S.S.R. contingent had withdrawn, citing a conflict with their own Olympic Trials. However, by the time the Soviets pulled out, a curious thing had happened. The chance to compete against them had lured athletes who, in turn, had lured other athletes, and the field for the 1980 Midland Run had grown into such a star-studded assemblage that the loss of the Soviets was inconsequential.
First came a flood of Americans. In addition to Flora, there were Greg Meyer, who set the American 15-km. record of 43:40 in Tampa in February, and Garry Bjorklund, whose record Meyer had broken. Rodgers, who has won three straight marathons in Boston and four in New York, signed on. Rodgers may be the best-known road racer in America, but he wasn't ranked No.1 in the U.S. last year. That honor went to a muscular sporting goods salesman from Boulder, Colo. named Herbert Donald Lindsay. He came to Far Hills fresh from an American-record-setting 10-mile run of 45:59.8 in New York's Central Park the previous weekend. In 1979 Lindsay had run the fastest 15 km. in the U.S.—44:17.
The women's field was also impressive. Along with defending champion Marty Cooksey, who set an American 20-km. record of 1:11:24 at Midland last year, and Anne Sullivan, who recently held the American 10-mile mark, it contained the top female finishers in the 1980 Boston Marathon—Jacqueline Gareau and Patti Lyons, present holder of the 20-km. record and winner of seven marathons.
The big attention-getters at the Midland Run were the foreigners in the men's field—Rono, Dick Quax and Viren. New Zealand's Quax is the 1976 Olympic silver medalist and former world-record holder at 5,000 meters. On New Year's Day 1980, he ran the fastest 15 km. ever on a track, 43:01. Finland's Viren was the gold medalist at 5,000 and 10,000 meters in each of the last two Olympics. In March he came to New York for a TV show and entered a 10-km. road race. In non-Olympic years Viren has frequently pocketed expense money and then jogged leisurely through American road races, but this time he announced he had trained hard, running as many as 160 miles a week. He then proved his conditioning by winning the New York race in 29:13, breaking the course record by 27 seconds. Anxious for a shot at Rono, he sought out Bright, and asked why he hadn't been invited to the famous Midland Run. Bright asked if Viren wanted to run or was just looking for a workout. "I will run to the level of my fitness," replied Lasse. Bright extended an invitation, whereupon Viren departed for Colombia for high-altitude training, not to return to America until two days before the race.
By Rono's standards, however, Viren was an early bird in Far Hills. Some 21 hours before the 2 p.m. Sunday start of the Midland Run, Rono was in Nairobi, 7,680 miles from Far Hills. His itinerary called for a nonstop flight to London with a quick connection to a Concorde bound for New York. If all went flawlessly, Rono would arrive at JFK Airport at 8:30 Sunday morning. His race to the starting line seemed likely to be more difficult than his race to the finish line.
Rono, who got married on April 19, originally was supposed to arrive in the States on April 18. When he didn't appear, Bright and Gordon Cooper, a friend of Rono, began to worry. Bright asked Cooper for a phone number so he could call Rono in Kenya. Cooper explained that that would be difficult because Rono doesn't have a telephone.
The only way to reach Rono in his hometown of Kapsabet, said Cooper, starts with a New York operator getting in touch with a Nairobi operator. The Nairobi operator then calls the operator in the district capital, Nakuru, who in turn gets in touch with an operator in a neighboring town called Eldoret, who finally puts the call through to Kapsabet. Experience has taught Cooper that the only time all the lines necessary to make this connection are open is after 8 p.m. Kenya time, and then you have to work fast, because the Eldoret operator goes to sleep at nine. Once through to Kapsabet, Cooper speaks to the postmaster, telling him to have Rono return the call.
The postmaster in Kapsabet doesn't deliver the mail. He just hands it out if you happen to drop by, so several days can elapse before Rono gets his message. But when a week went by and Bright and Cooper still hadn't heard, they began to panic. After what Cooper estimates was more than $100 in phone calls, he was connected with Rono at the Nairobi Hilton, where he had taken his wife for a honeymoon. "What is wrong?" asked Rono calmly when he heard Cooper's anxious tone. He then explained that he was being delayed by difficulty in gathering all the papers necessary for his new wife to follow him to America.
Cooper insisted that Rono would be better off getting off the plane and running than arriving a day early and getting a good night's sleep. He noted that Rono would be chasing the night westward and might have as much as 12 hours of sleep on the flight. One of Far Hills' well-heeled citizens offered to send his helicopter to JFK to get Rono to the race on time. "That's my dream," said Dick Buerkle, the former indoor world-record holder in the mile and a contestant in the Midland. "I want to get so good they send a helicopter to bring me to the race."
The helicopter wasn't necessary. Cooper shepherded Rono from the airport to the starting line by car. Rono kept right on going, leading the field at the start as it surged across a wide field of Moorland Farms before spilling onto the town's roads. But on the road, Rono began to drop back. Then, shortly before the three-mile mark, as the lead pack headed downhill, Meyer made a move to break away. Only Lindsay and Viren went with him, and suddenly the Midland Run was a three-man race.
Meyer started to fade after the sixth mile, which the three ran in a speedy 4:27. Now it was a duel between Lindsay and Viren. "Lasse was tough," Lindsay admitted later. "He put in some real surges. He was hammering on me. I had the accelerator to the floorboard."
For the 25-year-old Lindsay to be racing head to head with a four-time gold medalist would have seemed pure fantasy a year ago. He is the sixth of six children, and when his widowed mother married a widower with six kids he became the 12th of 12—eventually the 12th of 15. He went to Michigan State on a track scholarship, where he ran mostly relays, but failed to make a name for himself. His best performance was a fourth in the 1976 NCAA cross-country, which was won by a Washington State freshman named Henry Rono.
After graduation in 1977, Lindsay taught elementary school physical education in Okemos, Michigan. He kept running, hoping to make the 1980 Olympics, but it seemed unlikely that he would ever progress beyond the local level. Eventually, against the advice of family and friends, he packed up his wife Terry, moved to Boulder, took a part-time job and began to concentrate on his training. Lindsay had seldom run more than 75 miles a week. In Colorado he began to put in up to 125 miles. Last July he won a silver medal in the 5,000 at the Pan Am Games. Then, starting in late August, he won five straight road races to earn his No. 1 ranking. In the Midland, Lindsay called on his new confidence to hold off Viren and then sprinted home to beat the Finn by 40 meters in 43:54. Meyer was third, while Quax finished seventh in 44:54, the last man to break the 45-minute barrier.
Rono merely finished. It didn't take him as long as the trip from Nairobi, but it took him longer than a lot of the women, including Lyons, who won by more than a minute in 51:50. Gareau, in her first non-marathon performance, was fourth in 53:43.
Lindsay still hopes to make the 1980 Olympic team in the 10,000, but he admitted, "I like road racing better than the track." Why not? He is a celebrity of the road after years of anonymity on the track, and he clearly likes being the center of attention.
In fact, he sends out a report of 10 pages or so that he calls the Lindsay News Letter and that keeps readers abreast of his doings. The News Letter was originally a shortcut to touching base with family and close friends, but as Lindsay has become more recognized, the mailing list has grown. It now numbers 58. After Sunday's race, the folks in Far Hills may well be subscribing to it along with The Thoroughbred Record.