With a mile and a half left in the 11,826-meter (7.3-mile) men's race at Sunday's IAAF World Cross Country Championships in East Rutherford, N.J., Carlos Lopes (pronounced LOW-pesh) of Portugal hopped over a three-foot-high barrier of hay bales, took the measure of his three remaining rivals and, with a burst of speed, showed the 17,418 fans at the Meadowlands racetrack and an international TV audience that at age 37 he's no old nag. All that stood between Lopes and his first world title since 1976 was the last of four laps around a snaking 2,237-meter loop laid out on the infield grass. "I know I'm not strong in the last 200 meters," Lopes would say afterward, and so, having run in a pack with Tim Hutchings of England. Steve Jones of Wales and U.S. champion Pat Porter of Alamosa, Colo. for the last few miles, he now sprinted off alone.
Already this had become in several respects a landmark event. Never in their 81-year history had the championships been held outside Europe or North Africa, and never had athletes from so many nations (40, including a two-man team from Palestine) taken part in a single competition on U.S. soil. The 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid were co-holders of the old record, with 37 nations apiece. To that point, Sunday's competition also had included an upset: 33-year-old Maricica Puica of Romania had defeated five-time champion Grete Waitz of Norway in the 5,000-meter (3.1-mile) women's race.
Even esthetically the meet had been a change from the past. Though it had frequently been held on horse tracks, never had it been run in less bucolic surroundings. In place of hill, dale and forest were Giants Stadium, Brendan Byrne Arena and an expanse of flat swampland. The only "hill" on the infield portion of the course was an 80-foot-long, 12-foot-high bridgelike structure made of scaffolding and plywood. Jets from nearby Newark airport whistled overhead. Visible six miles to the east was the hazy skyline of Manhattan. Barely visible at all were the spectators, who were sealed in a glass-enclosed grandstand. "You probably will not hear much," race organizer Fred Le-bow had warned a group of English runners, who, like most Europeans, know these annual championships to be raucous affairs, with crowds of 30,000 and more packing the stands and lining the course. "The spectators will see you very well through the glass and on more than 500 television monitors and on a huge video screen built into the tote board in the middle of the field. They'll see you and they'll be yelling. You just won't hear them."
However, despite the 47° temperature and a stiff, cold wind, enough fans strayed into the small outdoor section of the stands to give Puica a little cheer as she sprinted away from Waitz on the final straightaway. "I kept looking back. I couldn't believe it," said Puica, who had spent most of the race in fourth or fifth place. She reached the tape in 15:56, two seconds ahead of runner-up Galina Zakharova of the Soviet Union, who passed Waitz in the final meters.
Though Puica was stunned by and ecstatic over her triumph, she really hadn't been that much of a long shot: Two years ago she not only broke Mary Decker's world women's mile record with a 4:17.44 but ended Waitz's streak of four straight world cross-country titles with a victory over her in Rome. Late in 1982, however, the 5'6", 121-pound Puica injured her ankle during one of the basketball drills that are part of her normal training routine, and she competed rarely in 1983. Her 54-year-old husband and coach, Ion Puica, who was the principal of the high school at which Maricica took up running, gave a simple explanation for her comeback. "She lives a healthy life," he said. "Maricica goes to sleep at 8:30 every night except Christmas and New Year's. Then she goes to sleep at 12:05."
Puica's victory was a fitting prelude to that of the 5'6", 126-pound Lopes, who was an Olympic silver medalist in the 10,000 in 1976. No stranger to leg injury himself, Lopes was sidelined for two years shortly after the Montreal Games with a torn Achilles tendon, but he came back with the help of acupuncture. He's now among the favorites for this summer's Olympic marathon and may be the most versatile distance runner around: Last year he ran history's sixth-fastest marathon (2:08:39) and third-fastest 10,000 (27:23.44).
But for much of Sunday's race it was all Lopes could do to run as fast as Porter. A former NAIA track and cross-country star at Adams State in Alamosa, the 24-year-old Porter is a skilled frontrunner; on essentially the same Meadowlands course, he easily won both the 1982 TAC nationals and last month's U.S. men's trials by leading virtually from the gun.
True to form, Porter led the field of 249 down the backstretch of the Meadowlands' .8-mile turf oval on which the thoroughbreds usually run. "The surface was very dimpled," Porter said later, adding, when asked if he found any other evidence of the hay-burners, "I was too busy to look." He took the field through three-quarters of a clockwise lap and then, near a sign that read NO GALLOPING THE WRONG WAY, led the pack out of the track to the stable area. This was the race's only foray out of the track proper, and during it Lopes hung back in sixth place, 40 yards to the rear, trying merely to stay in contact with the leaders.
Porter remained in front as the field streamed onto a warmup track and then made a sharp turn back toward the stables. This was where bulldozers had created a roller-coaster series of hills that were, in order, 15, 8 and 12 feet high. Porter came flying off them, hurried past manure piles by the barns and returned to the regular Meadowlands track.
By the end of the first lap, Lopes was fourth, behind Porter, Hutchings and Jones; no other runners were within 60 yards of them. And so the order stayed for two more loops. With 1½ miles to go, Lopes made his surge to the front and then the rest of the way to the tape in 33:25, 40 yards ahead of Hutchings, and didn't seem to mind that the infield tote board put his name up as Lopez. Porter, meanwhile, having spent himself too soon, hit the line fourth, just behind Jones, in 33:34. Lopes was seemingly unaffected by victory; Porter was gracious but disappointed in defeat. "Nothing [Lopes] does surprises me," he said. "He's a phenomenal runner."
Porter's strong performance wasn't entirely for naught. It had helped the U.S. men to a second-place finish behind Ethiopia (134 points to 161) in the team race; the American women had earlier won their second straight team title—52 points to 65 for England—even though their top finisher had been Betty Springs in ninth place.
At the postrace press conference Lebow presented Lopes with the huge banner that had hung above the finish line. He told Lopes to take it home to Lisbon, where next year's world championships will be held. It's quite possible, Lopes said, that he will retire after that race. But for now, he's clearly not ready to be put out to pasture.