Three miles into last Saturday's TAC National Cross-Country Championships, at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, Pat Porter made the move everyone—spectators and runners alike—had been waiting for. Rounding the south end of Van Cortlandt's vast spread of playing fields, Porter, his stride opening and quickening, surged to a 30-yard lead over John Nuttall and Bob Kempainen, the only runners who had dared to stay with him that far.
"I knew when Pat moved like that, I couldn't stay with him," Kempainen said later. "I thought, Well, there he goes again."
When it comes to cross-country, the 31-year-old Porter has a history of going and not coming back. He brought a record streak of eight straight TAC national championships to the New York meet, all of them won in the punishing front-running style that has become Porter's trademark. Thus, by the 3½-mile point on the 10-km (6.2-mile) course, as Porter made his turn from the flats and headed into Van Cortlandt's hills, it appeared certain that he was on his way to title number nine. But Van Cortlandt can be cruel—even to an eight-time national champion.
"You have to save something for the hills," says Lynn Jennings, who a half hour before Porter's race had added to a streak of her own, cruising over the 6-km (3.7 miles) women's course in commanding fashion to win her fourth straight TAC title. "You have to be careful."
December 3, 1990
But Porter, charging recklessly up Van Cortlandt's infamous Cemetery Hill—a steep, ragged climb that crests just past the four-mile point of the course—was beyond careful. He was struggling.
"That's usually my strong point, the hills," Porter says, "but I got to the top and I just didn't have it. I didn't feel bad, but I didn't feel normal."
Behind him, Kempainen sensed Porter's distress and started to close the gap, pulling Nuttall along with him.
Kempainen, a 1988 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Dartmouth, had chased Porter before. He was third in this race last year and second in '88. He also placed second behind Porter in the 1989 TAC 10,000 meters on the track, in Houston.
Yet as much promise as Kempainen has shown, Saturday's race hardly figured to be the occasion for the 24-year-old's blossoming. After spending the past two years working as a technician in a molecular genetics lab at Dartmouth, Kempainen is in his first semester of medical school at the University of Minnesota.
"There have been a lot of changes. I can only fit in one workout a day, so my mileage is down," he says, "and I'm working with Vin Lananna [the Dartmouth running coach] by phone."
Last Thursday, Kempainen flew from Minneapolis to New York for the meet, bringing a batch of medical texts along to study for finals. He had Thanksgiving dinner with two friends at a Chinese restaurant in Manhattan.
"Things have been hectic," says Kempainen, "but I felt I was in pretty good shape. I just wasn't sure what I could do in a race." Coming up Cemetery Hill behind Porter, he was learning.
By contrast, Jennings, 30, had a clear idea what to expect. She had come to the meet at the close of a brilliant season that included a world indoor record of 15:22.64 for 5,000 meters, as well as a victory in the World Cross Country Championships in Aix-les-Bains, France. A slight ankle sprain in October healed quickly, and on Friday Jennings proclaimed herself "100 percent."
"Lynn should have her own way here," said Nike Boston team coach Bob Sevene moments before the start of the women's race, as blustery winds blew dark clouds over the park.
To Jennings, the Van Cortlandt Park course feels like home. She first ran there in an age-group meet in 1975, when she was 15. She still has the medal. "The place has great sentimental value for me," she said before the race. "I know it like the back of my hand."
At the gun, Jennings sprinted hard for the lead, but 28-year-old Shelly Steely of Albuquerque, and last year's runner-up, Elaine Van Blunk of West Deptford, N.J., came with her. "It was windy, so I tucked in behind them," said Jennings.
She stayed in their lee for three quarters of a mile. Then, rounding a tree and heading for the cow path and the hills, Jennings spurted to the lead.
"When we left the flats for the woods," said Steeley in wonder after the race, "Lynn took off like a rocket."
Jennings opened a 10-second lead in the space of half a mile and continued to pull away for the rest of the race.
"It felt just like a training run back home in New Hampshire," she said later. "I didn't look back, and I didn't hear any breathing." Her time of 19:07 broke her own course record of 19:35, set three years ago. It was Jennings's fifth championship title and tied her with Doris Brown for the most ever by a woman. Steely, who finished second, was 26 seconds behind.
"That's it," said Jennings, as she pulled on her sweats after the race. "I'm on vacation now—for the next month."
Asked what she intended to do with her time off, America's best female distance runner flashed a grin. "Ben and Jerry's Vanilla Chocolate Chunk," she said.
Porter, meanwhile, couldn't consider such pleasant thoughts. Instead, he could only think about his power failure on Cemetery Hill. "I didn't know whether to push it again or to try to regroup," he said after the race—adding with a rueful smile, "I got buried on Cemetery."
Actually, the interment took place about a half mile farther along the course. Kempainen, running just ahead of the gritty Nuttall, erased most of Porter's gap during the precipitous descent on the other side of Cemetery. By the time the runners crossed a bridge over the Henry Hudson Parkway and headed again into the heavily wooded back hills, with just under two miles to go, Kempainen was pulling away.
"I tried to come back," said Porter, "I thought if I could stay with him, I'd get him in the end."
But Kempainen was running an inspired race. "People kept yelling to me that I had 50, 60 yards," said Kempainen after the race, "but I wanted to keep the intensity up until I crossed the line."
He did just that, breaking the finish banner in 30:22.43. Porter, his face drawn tight with effort, finished almost 13 seconds back, as Nuttall hung on for third. Porter's streak—one of the most impressive accomplishments in recent running history—was over.
Seated beside Kempainen in the interview tent after the race, Porter said, "It's almost a relief. I'm happy for the guy. He's been working real hard. It's not as if he lucked into it."
With his victory, Kempainen automatically earned a berth on the U.S. team for the world championships next March in Antwerp, Belgium. Jennings, too, qualified to defend her title, while, for the first time in nine years, Porter will be required to run the trials race.
"I would have anyway," said Porter with a shrug.
Whatever happens in the Belgian rematch, Kempainen's name will remain linked with Porter's for good.
"That's one footnote," said Kempainen with a smile, "I don't mind being in."