Pat Porter, lean and hungry, sat in a restaurant in Raleigh, N.C., and stared at his Thanksgiving dinner. Lasagna. Again. "I haven't had turkey in seven years," he moaned, "ever since I started coming to these things. The "things" Porter spoke of with seeming melancholy are national cross-country championships, but, in truth, no one relishes them more than Porter. "I love this time of year," he said. "I love cross-country, and this meet especially."
It shows. On Saturday Porter, stoked in part with those carbohydrates from his untraditional Thanksgiving repast, went to the starting line of the TAC championships at Meredith College in Raleigh, hoping to tie Don Lash's record string of seven national titles (1934-40). "This is Pat's baby," said U.S. Olympic marathoner Ed Eyestone, who has chased Porter in five TAC championships. "He's beatable on the roads and he's beatable on the track, but he hasn't been beatable at this event since 1981."
This year, however, Porter seemed vulnerable. He had developed a severe case of tendinitis in his right ankle only two weeks before the championships. "You couldn't even see the outline of the bone, my ankle was so swollen," he said after the race. Timing also had conspired to handicap Porter. This is an Olympic year, and Olympic years are tricky. They can drain a runner physically and emotionally. Porter's long months of training and racing caught up with him at the worst possible moment, during his heat of the 10,000 in Seoul. "At 17 laps, I was right in the race, feeling good, working the front," he says. "Then boom! My body just shut down. People were pulling away from me even though the pace wasn't picking up at all. It was embarrassing."
Porter finished 11th and failed to qualify for the final. "The next day I went to the hospital and had a blood test," he says. "It turned out I had an infection [to which his intense training had made him susceptible]. They put me on antibiotics and told me to take it easy." Porter was able to start training again when he got home to Alamosa, Colo., but that left only seven weeks to get himself fit for TACs.
"I think people are realizing that Pat's not the favorite he has been in the past because of the Olympics," said a hopeful Jim Farmer, who last year came within three seconds of ending Porter's streak. "I just don't see where he's had a break."
Certainly there had been no clear favorite at the NCAA championships, which were held the previous Monday on the rolling fairways of Jester Park golf course outside Des Moines. In that meet two runners from the same school used very different strategies to win.
Shoeless Michelle Dekkers, an Indiana junior who grew up running barefoot on the grass tracks of her native South Africa, sprinted to the lead at the gun. By the quarter mile, she had a 20-yard lead on her pursuers. Though she would never open up a really safe margin, Dekkers also never faltered, finishing the 5,000-meter circuit in 16:30, four seconds ahead of Tina Ljungberg of Texas-El Paso. Like most winners, Dekkers felt none of the pain and all of the rapture. "When it's grass, like this," she said, "running barefoot is beautiful."
Robert Kennedy arrived at Indiana this year from a less exotic locale but with pretty exotic credentials. Last year, as a senior at North High in Westerville, Ohio, he ran a 4:05.13 1,600—the fastest in the country by a schoolboy—and also won the 5,000-meter Kinney National High School Cross-Country Championships. But the NCAA race is a 10,000—much too long for a freshman miler, according to conventional wisdom.
Kennedy showed he possesses tactical savvy beyond his years. He waited patiently as one runner after another tried to break from the pack, only to fail and fall back. Then, with just 150 yards left, Kennedy sprinted past Yehezkel Halifa of Clemson to finish in 29:20, one second ahead of Halifa. Kennedy thus became the first American male to win the NCAAs as a freshman.
Neither Kennedy nor Dekkers competed in Raleigh. Given his youth, Kennedy was probably wise to forgo the TACs, but Dekkers had no choice. Her nationality, which bars her from TAC-sanctioned races, automatically prevented her from testing her front-running skills against Lynn Jennings.
Jennings, like her buddy Porter, took no time off after the Olympics. "It's a gamble," she said the day before the race. "There was no time to take a break and still contest this. I've been waiting to crash." But Jennings wasn't going to crash just yet. She raced past one mile (oddly, the splits in these metric races were given in terms of miles) on the twisting and bumpy 6,000-meter (3.75-mile) course in 4:56, with her Athletics West teammate Sabrina Dornhoefer in shoulder-to-shoulder company. For the next half mile, the two stayed together, their brows gathered in fierce concentration. Finally, as the rocky, wooded trail headed up a small hill near the halfway point, Jennings sprang. "When we hit that little rise," she said after the race, "I floored it. Sabrina detached."
Jennings was never again in peril. She crossed the finish line in 19:32, 21 seconds ahead of Dornhoefer. Jennings, who has won three of the last four TAC championships, said afterward, "This is probably the most aggressive cross-country race I've run. In fact, I've raced aggressively since I came back from Seoul. Why? I don't know. Olympic fortitude?" With that, Jennings excused herself. "I've got to go cheer for Pat," she said.
Porter, in fact, was in need of some cheering. Just before the start of his 10,000-meter (6.2-mile) event, his nerves got to him. "I called Lynn over to calm me down," he said. "She said, 'Go from the gun.' Then she came back and said, 'But don't go too hard because the hills will catch you.' Then she said, 'Ah, just go.' " Porter shot away from the line and passed the first mile in 4:19, an astounding time, considering that that stretch featured tricky footing, an awkward switchback and several tough little hills. The only runner to stick with Porter was Richard Nerurkar, an Englishman doing graduate work at Harvard. "Somebody's got to try to beat him," said Nerurkar later.
But he wasn't going to be that somebody. Porter broke him on the same uphill where Jennings had detached Dornhoefer. At four miles, Porter's closest pursuer was no longer Nerurkar but Bob Kempainen, a 1988 Dartmouth graduate who had finished eighth in last year's TAC race, and Kempainen was gaining. He made up seven seconds on Porter in that fourth mile. "People kept yelling at me he was coming back," said Kempainen. "I knew that if he had any problem, I'd be on him in a second."
Porter's face was haggard and chalky. His fifth mile was a 5:02, and as his long strides drew him closer to the finish, he threw quick glances over his shoulder. "I had my spies from my alma mater, Adams State [in Colorado], all over the course telling me how close Kempainen was. Whenever I thought he was getting too close, I'd try to surge up a hill."
Kempainen gained a little in the sixth mile, but it was too late. As Porter eased through the final 200 yards, he turned to watch the race behind him. His work was done. Waving to an appreciative crowd, he finished the course in 31:07, 13 seconds ahead of Kempainen. After walking stiffly through the finish chute, Porter noticed that the inside of his left knee, where he'd spiked himself somewhere along the way, was bleeding. "I'm always covered with either blood or mud," he said. "That's what cross-country's all about, isn't it? The next one isn't going to be nearly as hard as this."
Porter is 29, he races selectively, and this meet clearly means a lot to him. Is there reason to doubt that he will be back to try to break the mark he now shares with Lash?
Porter was asked what he knew about the man whose record had stood unequaled for almost half a century. "Absolutely nothing, although I hear his name every year about this time. He must have been quite a horse." That you can believe: It's coming straight from another horse's mouth.