A Steep, Rugged cross-country trail climbs Cemetery Hill in the Bronx's historic Van Cortlandt Park. It crests, takes a deep breath, then crashes down the precipitous back side, leaving runners to fend for themselves. "The footing is difficult," said Pat Porter of Alamosa, Colo., who hit the hill first on Saturday, four miles into the men's race at the TAC cross-country nationals. "There are rocks and roots and things sticking out. If you're not careful, you could bust an ankle real easy."
Porter was undaunted. Having opened a six-second lead over Jim Farmer—a runner he later couldn't remember meeting—Porter felt he was safely on his way to his sixth straight U.S. cross-country title. There aren't many American runners who can catch Porter, and his only remaining opponent seemed to be the 6.3-mile Van Cortlandt course itself, the most esteemed in the East.
Van Cortlandt's terrain can lay waste to great runners. Standout miler Craig Masback, who ran the course frequently while competing for Princeton, describes running there as "a rite of passage." Porter himself had said somewhat wistfully before the race that "anybody who's anybody has run here." Except for a "warmup" race in October, Porter had never run Van Cortlandt.
As Porter attacked Cemetery Hill, his loping strides turned short and choppy. Unbeknownst to Porter, Farmer was beginning to gain on him. When the two flew down the back side, Farmer flew faster. "I felt free," Farmer said later, "like I was floating." Suddenly, in the oak-forested back hills, a race was on.
As Porter cruised over the undulating hills, neither he nor Farmer could see exactly what the other was doing. Porter came off the hills and crossed a bridge over the Henry Hudson Parkway.
With Farmer some thirty yards behind, Porter raced down the last, steep hill and onto a vast expanse of playing fields, the site of the finish. Both reached for a higher gear. Farmer wouldn't quit. Down the last straightaway both runners were sprinting full-bore. Porter hit the line first, in 29:58—a course record. Farmer finished just three seconds back. "Who are you?" Porter asked him in the finishing chute.
Farmer gave his name and told Porter that they had been introduced to each other at a Manhattan pizza restaurant the night before. "He probably couldn't recognize me in a toboggan hat," said Farmer later.
A fifth-year senior at North Carolina, Farmer hadn't run a cross-country race since the '86 NCAAs, in which he placed 19th. His goal on Saturday had been to place "around the 30s.... The only thing I've done different this year is I've bounced my mileage up about 15 miles a week [to 75]," he said, trying to explain his improvement.
As for Porter, he is careful to avoid the over-racing syndrome that has so badly damaged U.S. distance running. He competes in few big-money road or European track events and estimates that he turned down race offers worth $60,000 last year and others well into six figures in 1984, when he was the only American finalist in the Olympic 10,000. "It's a matter of priorities," he says with a shrug.
Now Porter is in position to tie the record of seven straight U.S. titles set by America's first great distance runner, Don (Iron Man) Lash, between 1934 and 1940. But in Farmer he may have found a new challenger.
Saturday's duel in New York ended a superb week for cross-country racing, one that had begun with the redemption of Arkansas senior Joe Falcon (SI, Oct. 26) in the NCAA championships on Nov. 23. Falcon had been leading the 1986 NCAA men's race in Tucson when he tripped on a sprinkler head 150 yards from the finish, fell and ended up second. Last week, running over the rolling meadows just west of Charlottesville, Va., Falcon burst from the pack on an uphill slope almost five miles into the 6.2-mile race and never eased up.
Raising his arms in elation, Falcon broke the tape in 29:14.97, more than five seconds ahead of John Scherer of Michigan. Falcon had not only led Arkansas to its third team title in four years (with 87 points to second-place Dartmouth's 119) but had completed a rather remarkable comeback: Three weeks earlier, having lost 10 of his 116 pounds through flu-induced vomiting and diarrhea, he finished 33rd in the Southwest Conference championships. That night he wound up in a Fayetteville hospital with an IV in his arm, which made this win all the sweeter. Falcon, America's brightest distance-running prospect in years, chose not to compete at Van Cortlandt, preferring instead to rest up and then start training for the 5,000 at the Olympic trials next July in Indianapolis. The surprise NCAA women's champion, Indiana sophomore Kim Betz, who took up cross-country only after entering college, also skipped Saturday's TAC meet, which was won by 1985 champ Lynn Jennings, 27, formerly of Princeton. She placed sixth in the women's 10,000 meters at the Rome World Championships in September and is the second-fastest American woman ever at the distance, behind only Mary Decker Slaney. Then on Saturday she clocked 19:35 for 3.7 miles to beat Nan Davis by 12 seconds. "I didn't peak for this," said Jennings. She will be ready, however, for the world championships in Auckland next March. So will Porter.
The two are good friends, and Jennings was the first to rush up to him at the conclusion of the men's race. "I got complacent," said Porter as they hugged. "I was lucky." But Jennings, who has run the course for 12 years, knew the truth: No one ever conquers Van Cortlandt Park on luck alone.