The first test of the runners at last Saturday's TAC/USA National Cross-country Championships in Boston came in the opening half mile, in a long climb up the 7th fairway of the Franklin Park golf course. "You have to sprint like a maniac right away in cross-country, or you'll get trapped back in the pack," former champion Alberto Salazar had said earlier. "You have to run stupidly, really. But if you don't stay up near the leaders at the start, they'll run away from you."
With that apparently in mind, all 250 competitors in the 6.2-mile men's race charged up the fairway as if fleeing a disaster. They pinched in between the 7th green and a stand of pines, then veered left up a grassy drumlin known as Schoolmaster Hill, on which poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson once lived. As the runners streamed up over the hill in a dull rumble of footfalls, a certain order had already been established. Salazar was trapped back in 15th place, destined to finish 10th. Brigham Young senior Ed Eyestone, 23, who had won the NCAA men's title at Penn State five days earlier, was seventh but still in good position to challenge for an NCAA-TAC double. And the leader was 25-year-old Pat Porter of Alamosa, Colo., the tall, slender, confident man who has dominated U.S. cross-country racing for the past two years. "I was actually going out more casually than usual," Porter would say later. "I was waiting to see if anybody had any tricks up his sleeve."
Porter was showing the sort of effortless grace that had carried him to virtual wire-to-wire victories in each of the last two TAC cross-country nationals. Porter is the No. 1 breakaway threat in American cross-country running, a blend of hill strength, good track speed (he was 15th in the Olympic 10,000-meter final in Los Angeles) and mental toughness. A lifelong Coloradan, he has trained in the thin air of Alamosa (alt. 7,500 feet) since moving there in 1978 to attend Adams State. "Up at altitude, you go into oxygen debt really early, and it hurts like heck," he says. "But down here other people start to tie up and I'm still fine."
On Saturday, however, Porter quickly found that Eyestone, who trains 4,500 feet above sea level in Provo, Utah, shares the same capability. At one mile the two of them came barreling down a steep and rutted gravel slope—Eyestone almost out of control—racing shoulder to shoulder for the lead. No one was within 20 yards of them.
Their battle continued along a tree-lined edge of the golf course and curled past a small pond glazed with ice. As the race snaked across fairways, the fans scurried about like an anxious golf gallery, rushing from hole to hole to watch. At two miles some observers began to notice that Porter and Eyestone were all but duplicating what had happened earlier in the 3.1-mile women's race. Nothing wrong there: That race had been historic—and terrific.
Wisconsin senior Cathy Branta, who had won the women's NCAA race at Penn State on Nov. 19 and had led the Badgers to the team title there, had stayed on the shoulder of defending TAC champion Betty Springs until the final half mile; Branta then pulled ahead on a downhill stretch and beat Springs to the tape by 50 yards in 15:19.2. A superb cross-country runner since her high school days in tiny (pop. 1,612), hilly Slinger, Wis., Branta had thus become the third woman ever to win collegiate and open national titles in the same year. "I decided beforehand where to make my move," she explained. "My coach [German-born Peter Tegen of the Badgers] told me if I didn't decide ahead of time, I never would. My only goal was the NCAAs," she added. "I wasn't even thinking about this meet."
In contrast, it was clear that Eyestone had been thinking long and hard about it. Into the third mile he was still steadfastly refusing to let Porter pull away. "I just hope I can give Pat a race," Eyestone had said earlier, but a glint in his eye had suggested something more. The gap between the two has narrowed in recent years; at the world championships last March at the Meadowlands, a race won by Carlos Lopes of Portugal, Porter finished fourth, Eyestone sixth. At Penn State, Eyestone had broken from the field with 2½ miles left and coasted to an easy victory. He had coated his body with olive oil for protection from the freezing chill, but in Boston he cared only that his performance be well oiled. And so it was, for slightly less than three miles.
At that point, approaching another dash up Schoolmaster Hill, Porter put on a surge. "I just decided it was time to crank," he would say later. Or, as Emerson wrote, "Each man must think for himself and act on his own instincts." About the same time, Eyestone's body began reminding him of the NCAA meet; he began to lag. By the three-mile point Porter had broken away dramatically. "I knew then it was over," Eyestone said afterward. "Those last three miles were long."
Porter's remaining concern was his health. He had sprained his left ankle in training several weeks earlier, and the uneven footing of the Franklin Park course was aggravating the injury. "I didn't like the terrain much," Branta had said after her victory. "It was hard and holey and rocky." She had nearly tripped on an exposed section of waterpipe. But Porter felt such a rush from the crowd and from his own strong performance that he started flashing smiles at the fans as he ran, sometimes even clenching his fists with joy. Before long his lead over Eyestone had grown to 250 yards. He glided to the finish line in 28:06, a time so fast he suspected that the course was short. Wisconsin senior John Easker—Branta's fiancé, as it happens—came on at the end to take second in 28:14, with Eyestone fading to fifth (28:30).
Porter had become the first man to win three straight national titles since Frank Shorter, who won four in a row between 1970 and 1973. "This was the toughest yet," Porter said. "I'm not making any predictions about four." It might be a lesson to other runners in this age of overracing and overtraining that Porter actually took a complete break from the sport after the L.A. Games. "Mentally, I was beat to death," he said. "I took off six weeks without running a step. It was just me and All My Children."
Porter laughed the friendly, open laugh as natural to him as a sprint to the head of the pack. "This course had everything," he said. "Crummy footing, nasty hills and great competition. Now, what more could you ask?"