Betty Springs looked out over the Penn State golf course last Saturday morning, a cold, stiff wind stinging at her cheeks. "I'D have to run conservatively," she told herself. "I'd better tuck in behind somebody." That would seemingly be easy: Springs is only 5'2" and 100 pounds, and alongside tier on the starting line of The Athletics Congress National Cross-Country Championships stood 129 other, generally larger, women. Because the top six American finishers would qualify for the XII IAAF World Cross-Country Championships, to be held next March 25 at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J., at least a few of her rivals were likely to go out fast, and provide protection.
But Springs had other concerns, too. A surprise winter storm had hit University Park, Pa. two days before, and only now were the last thin cobwebs of snow melting off. That meant treacherous footing. Laid out mostly on grass, the 5,000-meter women's course would be rather squishy. Springs's biggest worry, however, was defending champion Lesley Welch, who, fittingly enough, made a big splash at the gun. In 1982, Welch, then attending the University of Virginia, had become the first woman in history to win both TAC and NCAA cross-country titles in the same year. Here she served notice that she would not resign her TAC crown easily, aggressively attacking the opening hill, building a 10-yard lead on Springs in the first half mile.
"She was opening a gap, and I just couldn't allow that," Springs would say later. By the end of one mile, with the rest of the field 40 yards behind, Springs and Welch were running side by side.
What Springs wanted most was to repeat Welch's unique TAC-NCAA double. Five days earlier, in Bethlehem, Pa., Springs had defeated Iowa senior Nan Doak by nearly five seconds in the NCAA championships, sprinting away from Doak in the final 400 yards after the two had dueled for nearly three miles. That victory had confirmed Springs as the nation's dominant collegiate woman distance runner—she won NCAA track titles at 5,000 and 10,000 meters last June, as well as the NCAA cross-country championship in 1981.
Now Springs wanted her first national title and toward that end was running a canny race. Just past the one-mile mark she and Welch veered sharply left onto a hazardously rutty, wildly undulating path cut through a blackberry bramble. This was the only truly mucky stretch on the course, and Springs came out of it with a slight lead. But the path debouched into another set of windswept fields and fairways; Springs promptly backed off and let the 5'10", 125-pound Welch deflect the unpredictable but strong gusts. She had briefly tried the same trick when facing steady winds at the NCAA meet, but with less success: Doak her 4'11", 89-pound rival there didn't provide much of a shield.
But Welch did, and while Springs drafted behind her, Welch labored. She hunched forward to reduce her wind resistance, to no avail. She began to tie up. With two miles to go, on a long uphill stretch, Springs went past her. That is, she flew past, hitting the crest of the hill with a 40-yard lead. From there Springs cruised down through the last mile of fields, reaching the finish in 16:30.8, an astounding 41.7 seconds under the women's course record. No one was within 120 yards of her. Doak finally reached the line in 16:47.3, taking second place, while the spent Welch struggled home 12th in 17:11.2.
As Springs set off on an easy jog to warm down, 322 men lined up for a hard run. Their 10,000-meter national championship race would not determine the U.S. World Championship team—a qualifying trial next Feb. 19 at the Meadowlands will—and it seemed quite possible that the winner wouldn't even be an American. Foreign runners had dominated the NCAA men's race on the previous Monday, taking seven of the first 10 places. Zakaria Barie, a 24-year-old Tanzanian running for Texas-El Paso, had finished first, 175 yards ahead of Yobes Ondieki of Kenya and Iowa State, and had led the Miners—three Tanzanians one South African one Kenyan, one Norwegian and one ahem Californian—to their seventh team title in nine years UTEP's 108 points had put the team well ahead of runners-up Wisconsin (164) and Oregon (171).
"I'm trying to recruit more Americans," said Miner Coach Larry Heidebrecht, who himself was born and raised in Hutchinson, Kans. "Eighteen of the 27 people we brought in this year are from the U.S." Still, Heidebrecht is likely to continue to take advantage of UTEP's traditionally strong overseas image. Such is the school's reputation in Tanzania, for example, that the Miners have already signed 30-year-old Filbert Bayi, former world-record holder in the mile (3:51.00), for his three remaining years of eligibility. "The Tanzanian government pressured him into coming [to UTEP] to train with his countrymen for the '88 Olympics," says Heidebrecht.
The one who felt the pressure as Saturday's men's race began was 24-year-old Pat Porter, the defending champion and America's best hope to win. "People say I got away with last year's race because nobody knew who I was," Porter said. "After I got a big lead everyone thought I would die. Well, this year people know who I am."
Porter, a slender (6 feet, 135 pounds) Coloradan whose credentials also include two NAIA titles in cross-country and one in the indoor two-mile as a student at Adams State College in Alamosa, Colo., did nothing to further his anonymity last Saturday. Leading all the way, he covered the Penn State course in 29:18.6—almost 50 seconds under the course record—and won by 110 yards over Sampson Obwacha of Kenya. Porter, who lives and trains at the 7,500-foot altitude of Alamosa, thus became the 14th man to win successive national cross-country titles.
"I don't know if I like cross-country better than track," said Porter, disappointed to find out that, alas, there would be no victory ceremony, "but it's sure nice to go out there and look like you're going somewhere instead of just running around in circles." Last week Porter and Springs proved they were both going somewhere.