Arkansas senior Joe Falcon is never quite so comfortable as when he is stalking something...or someone. Most weekday mornings, after a four- to six-mile jaunt, and before his classes begin, the nation's premier collegiate cross-country runner can be found in the foothills around Fayetteville, bass fishing, hunting or just leaning against a tree, deep-breathing the sweet air.
"Some people might think of that as being a redneck," says Falcon, who neither looks nor sounds the part, once you get past the Razorback he had tattooed on his right arm a year ago. "I just enjoy the challenge of stalking something, waiting two, three hours to get one shot. You either make it or go home empty."
Falcon made his one shot count last Saturday morning, blowing away a field of 75 at the Arkansas Invitational cross-country meet. The race was a tune-up for the Southwest Conference Championships, in Fayetteville on Nov. 2. Falcon admits he is looking beyond that race, as important as it is for the undefeated Razorbacks, to the Nov. 23 NCAA championship, in Charlottesville, Va., where he hopes to gain redemption for The Fall.
Saturday's 10,000-meter race consisted of four laps around a circuit at Razor-back Park Golf Course that includes a nasty quarter-mile-long hill, part of the Razorbacks' regular training circuit. It amuses them when visiting runners pooh-pooh their hill. On the first go-around, everyone attacks it like a Marine. By the fourth ascent, however, legs wobble and knees threaten to buckle.
Falcon is renowned, and feared, for his assertive surges late in a race. "I'll make my move from 600 or 500 or 300 or 150 meters," he says. "You don't want to become predictable." Having clung remoralike to early leader Dave Barney for the first four miles on Saturday, Falcon left him the third time they went up the hill. "He made an absolutely dominating move," marveled Barney, an Arkansas alum now training for the '88 Olympics at 10,000 meters. "It was as if he were running on the flat. And he just kept pouring it on. I tried to make it up and didn't get anywhere."
Falcon glided to a 29:32, finishing a football field ahead of Barney. Waving as he clipped through the tape, Falcon exchanged hugs and chatted breezily with friends and family while all around them other finishers gasped and heaved, hands on knees.
That's the kind of performance Falcon wants to give next month to make up for last year's NCAA meet in Tucson. Employing his signature strategy, Falcon had glued himself to the heels of the leader, Arizona's Aaron Ramirez, until they crested the final hill. Barney, a spectator at the meet, remembers how Falcon burst ahead. "They were together, then, boom! In about five seconds Joe put 15 yards between himself and Aaron." Falcon was firmly in control with 150 yards to go—"I've got it won!" he remembers exulting to himself—when he treated the crowd to his impersonation of Chevy Chase impersonating Gerald Ford. Turning around for one last look at his victim, he tripped on a recessed sprinkler head and did an abrupt face plant. "When I got up," he said, "my ankle was too sore to go hard after Ramirez." Falcon had to settle for second.
The Fall was all the more galling because teammate Reuben Reina had pointed out the sprinkler to Falcon the day before, while on a practice run. "I was devastated for about a week," says Falcon. "But everything happens for a reason. How a person responds to something like that can be the difference between being an Olympic champion and an also-ran."
Yes, Falcon, 21, has Olympic aspirations. Equally important, it seems, his coach shares them. John McDonnell, who has directed Arkansas's prodigiously successful cross-country program for 16 years and track and field for nine, is grooming Falcon. But in what events? For which Games? Falcon's extraordinary range—he has run a 1:49 800-meter relay leg indoors, 3:56.77 for the mile indoors, 13:45.91 in the 5,000 meters and 28:34.3 in the 10,000—clouds the decision.
"Probably the 5,000 and the 10,000," says McDonnell. "I see him as this country's top distance runner of the future." He is sitting in an office so cluttered with Coach of the Year plaques and All-America certificates that there is no more room on the walls. "Joe's got a fine chance of making the team in '88, but I think 1992 will be his year. He'll be 26 and just reaching his prime."
That's heady stuff for an Air Force brat from Belton, Mo. Falcon's father, Lou, became a Catholic deacon there after retiring from the service. His mother, Pat, was an avid hunter, angler and tennis player. Joe loved tennis, too, but began running in the seventh grade because cross-country was the only sport open to his class. That year, he recalls, he was often lapped in three-lap races. He was always last.
Discouraged, Falcon dropped cross-country in the eighth grade to concentrate on tennis. When he was a sophomore, his mother suggested he start running again to build stamina for tennis. He won his first race and was hooked. As a junior, Falcon ran a 4:11 mile, and McDonnell earmarked him for a scholarship. He was contacted by about 50 schools, but McDonnell's early interest drew him to Arkansas.
"You can't really predict who the great ones are going to be," says McDonnell. "I didn't expect him to make the cross-country team when he was a freshman." Not only did Falcon make the team, he became Arkansas's first-ever freshman All-America by finishing 24th in the NCAA championship.
To Falcon, the hunt has always been the thing. "I'm most comfortable when I'm stuck in behind someone, just waiting," he says. Last spring, in the 10,000 at the SWC meet in Lubbock, Texas, Falcon and Texas's Harry Green were even with 200 to go. Falcon won the race by 8.55 seconds. At last year's outdoor NCAA championships in Baton Rouge, he outkicked Michigan's Chris Brewster for the 10,000 title, bringing the final 400 home in 55.1 seconds.
"That's not so slow," says McDonnell, pensively.
"I have a small stride, which helps my acceleration," says Falcon. Another factor is upper-body strength. At 5'6" and 116 pounds, Falcon, who gives away at least 30 pounds to Pee-wee Herman, is brutishly strong. During a weight workout his freshman year, Falcon was getting ready to bench-press 250 pounds. A dozen incredulous football players were watching. One, who had seen Falcon work out before, bet the others Falcon could lift the weight. The skeptics paid.
"Joe's not afraid of hard work," says McDonnell, whose lilting Irish brogue does not alter the fact that he is a man who demands lots of it. "The only leash I ever had to put on Joe was to hold him back. As a coach, you love to hold 'em back."
Nor is Falcon afraid of clean living. "You watch," said Barney after Falcon had beaten him on Saturday. "The guys on the team will go out tonight and do a little celebrating. Joe will go home and have a nice dinner with his mom and dad. He'll play some dominoes and go to bed at 10:30."
On second thought, Falcon might go nuts. He might break out the old flashlight and rod and reel, and do some moonlight bass fishing. Joe Falcon likes to surprise you. Just ask the guys he runs against.