The continuum of rutted quagmire that passed for the course at last Saturday's TAC national cross-country championships in Raleigh, N.C., would have been better suited to tug-of-war or mud wrestling. But cross-country runners always play it as it lies, and few seem to revel in the elemental challenge as much as Pat Porter and Lynn Jennings, who won the men's and women's races, respectively, going away.
Porter's training regimen around his home in Alamosa, Colo. ranges from rarified runs along mountain trails at elevations up to 10,000 feet to quadricepburning slogs through the sands around Great Dunes National Monument. Jennings prefers the fecund forests that surround her home in Durham, N.H. In the woods there, she says, she achieves a running nirvana by becoming "one with the mud."
Both Porter and Jennings won in the mud Saturday by seemingly skimming over the ankle-deep puddles and rain-drenched rolling hills of Meredith College with remarkably similar wire-to-wire dominance. This was Porter's fourth consecutive TAC victory and leaves him with a realistic chance of equaling the record seven consecutive national championships won by Indiana's legendary Don Lash from 1934 to 1940. More immediately, it marks Porter as America's best hope to break European and African dominance at the world cross-country championships in March in Neuch√¢tel, Switzerland. His previous best finish in the world championships was fourth in 1984. "He could win it, and he will definitely win it before his career is over," said Bob Sevene, coach of Athletics West, Porter's club. "Pat is only going to get better."
Jennings's win in the women's 5,000-meter race was the latest and most decisive step in a yearlong comeback. She set five personal bests last summer and is now fulfilling the promise she showed when she won the TAC junior cross-country championship in 1977 at the age of 17. After that, she had slowed her training to concentrate on-earning a degree at Princeton. People said she was burned out from too much, too soon, but she says she was just hitting the books. "Lynn is very fit and very hungry," said Lesley Welch, the second-place finisher.
Porter, 26, and Jennings, 25, are prime examples of a new breed of American distance runners: They avoid the perils of overracing in rich road competitions and focus on cross-country as the basis for all-around running excellence and longevity. "It's what the Europeans have been doing for years," said Joe Vigil, Porter's trainer and the coach at small-college distance-running power Adams (Colo.) State. "It's going to lengthen careers and enhance performance."
And if the NCAA championships five days before the TAC were any indication, America's distance-running talent is getting deeper. The University of Wisconsin took both the men's and women's team titles—a first for the NCAA—both with homegrown athletes. On a snow-covered golf course in suburban Milwaukee, Badger senior Tim Hacker exhibited his miler's speed in winning the men's 10,000 in 29:17.8. In the 5,000-meter women's race, the aptly named Suzie Tuffey, a freshman at North Carolina State, won easily in 16:22.5. The NCAAs ended in tragedy. A small plane carrying members of the Iowa State women's team, the second-place finisher, back to Ames crashed in an ice storm in Des Moines. All seven people on board were killed, including coach Ron Renko, his assistant, Pat Moynihan, and three runners.
When Porter arrived for the TAC, he hadn't raced since October, when he finished second to Ethiopia's Wodajo Bulti in the IAAF World Cup 10,000 meters in Australia. He felt well rested and confident and was quoted as saying there was "no way" anyone would beat him in Raleigh.
Porter's style is pure guts—get out front early and stay there. Before the race, which was held in 40° cold and a light rain before a few hundred kindred spirits, Porter's chief rivals, Bruce Bickford and Ed Eyestone, decided to collaborate on strategy. "We basically knew Pat was going to go out and hammer it," said Eyestone, who won the NCAA 5,000-10,000 double last spring, "so Bick and I decided we'd get behind him, push each other and try to run him down."
Even though the first 400 meters of the course were likened by Eyestone to a rice paddy, Porter emerged from a pack of 360 runners and going into the first uphill turn took a slight lead over the two conspirators. But Porter had no intention of cooperating with their plans. He immediately stretched his 6-foot, 135-pound frame into a quarter-miler's stride and opened a 25-yard lead.
"Pat just put it into overdrive," said Eyestone, who had faded to fifth the year before after trying to stay with Porter. "I thought, 'No way he can keep that up under these conditions.' So I went to Plan B—maybe try to reel him in later. I didn't do much reeling."
Instead, Porter had the field reeling. "I don't come back," he explained later, with some satisfaction. With 3,000 meters to go he had a 25-second lead and as he roared by Vigil, who was watching from an archery field, Porter gave him the thumbs-up sign.
"Ed and I were doing quite a bit of talking, trying to encourage each other," said Bickford, the reigning TAC 10,000-meter champion. "But Pat was just too strong. Finally, I just said to Ed, 'How the hell does the guy do it?' "
Well, there was always the chance he would fall, which he did with only 800 meters to go.
"My face went right in the mud—squish" a laughing Porter said after the race as he scraped caked mud off himself with paper towels. "But I had so much adrenaline, I just popped right up. I still couldn't see anybody."
Porter finished in 30:33.1. Bickford was 120 meters and 21.3 seconds back. Eyestone was third, and Hacker, in a bid for the first men's national cross-country double in 25 years, finished fourth.
In the women's race, Jennings and Welch, the 1982 NCAA and TAC champion, separated themselves from the field early. The two are friends, Jennings having recently written a feature story about Welch for Boston Running News.
Friendship or not, Jennings broke away to a 20-meter lead over Welch at the 2,000-meter mark and finished more than 140 meters ahead in 17:27.9. Christine McMiken was third, and 1983 champion Betty Springs fourth.
"The footing was atrocious—I loved it," said Jennings, who is also good friends with Porter. While they traveled together on the European summer circuit, Jennings promised to knit Porter a sweater of Icelandic wool if he won in Raleigh. "I learned a lot about keeping cool from Pat," said Jennings. "He's been a great help, so now all he has to do is pick out his colors."
Had Porter's influence included imparting his philosophy of running? "No, Lynn's just gutsy," he said. "I think she knew that she was the standard of the field here. When that's what you are, everybody is waiting for you to make your move. She did, and that was it."
That was it for you, too, Pat.