Cross-country runners are connoisseurs of adversity. They trade tales of hills and rocks and mud the way soldiers swap battle stories. And so Pat Porter sounded positively gleeful last Friday as he listed the hazards he would be facing when he sought a record eighth straight U.S. cross-country title in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park the following day. "This course has got everything," Porter said. "Sand, roots, acorns, steep uphills, steep downhills, plus places where you have to run fast."
As it turned out, Porter was able to add wind and rain to this masochist's wish list. On Saturday an ugly storm blew in from the northwest. The wind tore at the tops of the cypress and eucalyptus trees that lined the course, and rain pelted the runners in pitiless gray sheets, leaving ankle-deep mud puddles all over the course. Runners dragged home in the early races spattered and spent, looking as if Jackson Pollock had used them for target practice. Moments after winning the women's championship, a bedraggled Lynn Jennings, 29, gave Porter, 30, what sounded like sensible advice. "It's tough out there," she told him. "So don't go out too fast."
"That's when I thought maybe I would go out hard," said Porter later. "You can crush a lot of people that way, on a day like this. You crush their spirit and their will."
Indeed, Porter is something of an expert in the fine art of crushing people. Last year, in Raleigh, N.C., he claimed his seventh consecutive title. That tied him with Don Lash, who won seven straight while competing for Indiana University and the Indiana State Police Athletic Association from 1934 to 1940. Each year another challenger shows up and each year Porter matter-of-factly runs him into the ground. Among those he has defeated in this event are former world cross-country champions Craig Virgin and John Treacy; Steve Jones, former holder of the world marathon best; Alberto Salazar, holder of the U.S. marathon best; and Bruce Bickford, the top-ranked 10,000-meter runner in the world in 1985. Porter's average margin of victory has been 12 seconds, but more revealing is the fact that he has not once trailed after passing the 2½-mile mark. His strategy is simple but effective: He sprints until he opens a gap of, say, 80 or 100 yards on his gasping pursuers, then he dares them to close it.
That has also been Jennings' strategy in winning her last two titles, and for half a mile of the women's 3.7-mile (6,000-meter) race, it looked as if she was going to do it again. But just before the mile mark, which Jennings passed in 5:13, a time that spoke eloquently of the miserable conditions she faced, a runner attached herself to Jennings' shoulder and steadfastly refused to be shaken. Jennings did not recognize the challenger but surmised correctly that she was 25-year-old Elaine Van Blunk of West Deptford, N.J., who recently surprised the running world with a 31:15 for a road 10,000. "It was nice to have someone to run with," Jennings said after the race, with a shrug.
The competition never looked quite as relaxed as Jennings made it sound. She took the lead at the top of the final hill, only to have Van Blunk snatch it back as they swept down onto the park's huge Polo Field. But Jennings' move, when it came, was unanswerable. She opened up 30 yards in the last 150, finishing five seconds in front of Van Blunk in 21:11.
As for Porter, absolutely no one was surprised when at the gun he sprinted across the Polo Field into the lead, opening up five clear yards as he splashed around its muddy rim. At the one-mile mark of the 6.6-mile (10.6K) race, which he passed in 4:33, Porter had 10 yards on the man from whom he expected the stiffest competition: Norway's John Halvorsen, a 23-year-old senior at the University of Ottawa. At this year's World Cross-Country Championships in Stavanger, Norway, Halvorsen finished 10th, 21 places and 46 seconds ahead of Porter, who says he got a poor start because of an official snafu. In their one meeting this fall, at a 10K road race in September, Halvorsen again beat Porter convincingly. "Right after I crossed the finish line," recalled Porter, "Halvorsen came up to me, looked me in the eye, and said, 'I'm going to run TAC cross-country. I just wanted to let you know.' " Such, Porter has discovered, are the dubious rewards of a winning streak.
But whatever designs Halvorsen may have had, they dissolved in that second mile. Flying down a dirt road gushing with muddy streams, Porter hit the two-mile mark in 9:22, with Halvorsen 11 seconds behind him. Porter's lead swelled to 18 seconds at 3½ miles, then grew no more. By that time his leading pursuer was no longer Halvorsen but Tim Hacker, the TAC outdoor 5,000-meter champion, who had started slowly and worked his way through the pack. "Last year I tried to go with him," Hacker would explain. "I paid."
Jeff Atkinson, who won the 1,500 at last summer's Olympic trials, was one of many spectators itching for a real race. "You've got to remember," he said, "Pat's slowed down a lot over the last mile the last few years." Unfortunately for those who would like to see Porter pushed, his opponents have slowed down, too.
It looked, for a time, as though Hacker might catch Porter. At five miles, which Porter hit in 24:33, Hacker had closed the gap to nine seconds. Jubilant cries of "You've got him, Hacker!" rose from the crowd lining the course, but they proved more wishful than prescient. Porter's long, smooth stride never buckled as he reached the finish in 32:08, 11 seconds in front of Hacker. Halvorsen, who spent most of the race paying for the ambitiousness of his first mile, finished sixth, in 32:49. "These are the worst conditions of any of my eight victories," the winner said happily.
At the awards ceremony at a San Francisco hotel Saturday evening, Porter received a well-deserved standing ovation from the other runners, who by now are wondering out loud what it is going to take to wrest the title from him. "It's unbelievable," said Hacker, shaking his head in wonder. "When Don Lash won Seven in a row back whenever, that was pretty good. But to do it now, in modern times, well, that's incredible."