Lynn Jennings has never apologized for the fearsome intensity she brings to a race. "I have the killer instinct," she once explained. "That's how I feel on the starting line. Would you want a surgeon to say, 'Gee, I really hope I do a good job on this heart transplant'? No. You want him to say, 'I'm going to open up that chest, I'm going to take that heart out, I'm going to shove a new one in there, and 'tis going to work.' "
It is probably a good thing that Jennings's career plans never included medicine. Instead, she has become the most versatile distance runner in the U.S., currently holding national titles indoors in the mile, outdoors in the 10,000, on the roads in the eight-km race, and in her beloved sport of cross-country, in which she has won six of the last seven national titles, including the last five. Last Saturday morning she stood in a snow-covered field in Boston's Franklin Park with 126 of the best female runners in the world, telling herself she was going to win again.
Only once before in its 19 runnings had the world cross-country championship been held in the U.S. That was in 1984, when it was contested over makeshift hills of plywood and dirt at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. The city of Boston, aiming for something a bit more traditional, invested $500,000 in designing and landscaping a course worthy of the event. The 54 countries competing in Franklin Park found a challenging layout. The basic loop is 2,300 meters long, and once in each circuit it climbs over Bear Cage Hill, a wooded mass of rock rising 194 feet over the field below.
The world cross-country championship is the most competitive footrace in the world. Every year it provides neutral turf for distance runners of every description: marathoners and milers, road runners and cross-country specialists. It is not unusual for an Olympic champion or world-record holder to finish out of the first 50. The 1988 Olympic men's 10,000 champion, Brahim Boutaib of Morocco, finished 56th in Boston. When someone asked the 31-year-old Jennings if she expected the women's event to become a two-person race between her and world 10,000 champion Liz McColgan of Scotland, Jennings grew exasperated. "This is the world cross-country meet," she said. "It's foolish to think that there are only two women in it. There are at least 10 who could win."
But the number of serious contenders in Boston dropped with the temperature. The African women, who are starting to show the same brilliance as their male teammates, had never seen such conditions. Three inches of snow had fallen on Thursday, leaving the 6,370-meter (3.8-mile) women's course perilously slippery in most places and muddy everywhere else. As the women warmed up, you could see their breath. That was no problem for Jennings, who trains through the winter in Newmarket, N.H. "I would hardly call three inches of snow 'bad' conditions," she said. "I run in snow four months of the year. It doesn't bother me."
It didn't seem to on Saturday. From the gun, Jennings charged to the front, pursued by three Kenyans, who, no doubt, disagreed with her about the footing.
By the time Jennings reached the main loop, it was clear that she had a second advantage: Franklin Park is virtually her home course. She grew up 40 miles west of Boston, in Harvard, Mass. Seventeen years ago, as a sophomore at the Brom-field School, she won the first of three state high school cross-country titles over much the same course. As a Princeton student she raced against Harvard and Yale in Franklin Park, and that was where she won her sixth national cross-country title last November.
"I knew everyone," she said, "all the technical people and all the officials on the starting line. My neighbors were here with their two children. It was like putting on a race in my own backyard. I wanted to stop and take it all in."
Park officials put the crowd at 30,000. At the bottom of Bear Cage Hill the spectators stood 10 deep, screaming themselves hoarse. Many tore back and forth across the snowy fields, hoping to glimpse as much of the race as possible. Among them were Jennings's husband of six months, Dave Hill, and her coach, John Babington. On her first trip up Bear Cage Hill they screamed some significant news to her: McColgan was out of contention. (She would finish 41st and complain of a sore throat.)
One by one the Kenyans fell back, leaving Jennings at the front with Albertina Dias of Portugal, who had finished second to her two years before. This being Boston, some of the spectators may have felt a moment's conflict soon thereafter when an Irishwoman, Catherina McKiernan, caught Jennings and Dias with a mile to go and it became clear that the world champion would be one of the three.
With 150 yards to go, Jennings pounced. She passed Dias, gained a step on McKiernan, then slogged through a patch of sand.
McKiernan struggled back and inched ahead. "That's where Lynn's willpower comes in—her absolute refusal to be beaten," marveled Babington later. "It was the kick in the butt I needed," said Jennings.
She sprinted again, and McKiernan was broken. Thrusting both her arms up in jubilation, Jennings crossed the finish line in 21:16, two seconds ahead of McKiernan. Dias was third, in 21:19.
After the race Jennings found Hill, hugged him and began sobbing uncontrollably. Twenty minutes later Babington received the same treatment and seemed concerned. "Are you all right?" he asked Jennings a bit nervously.
"I was crying tears of joy," she said later. "I never did that before."
The men's race, by contrast, was almost boring, so easily did Olympic 5,000 champion John Ngugi collect an unprecedented fifth title. The 29-year-old Kenyan is one of the stranger sights in track and field. He stands just 5'10" but possesses legs that seem to have been built for a much taller man. Loping along with a pronounced forward lean, his singlet slipping down off his left shoulder, Ngugi looked like Groucho Marx hurrying through Franklin Park.
Ngugi finished 12 seconds ahead of teammate William Mutwol, in 37:05 for the 12,530-meter (7.518-mile) course. Kenya packed five of its runners into the first eight places to easily beat France for a seventh straight team title.
Ngugi believes he will break Arturo Barrios's world 10,000 record of 27:08.23 sometime before he wins the 10,000 Olympic gold medal in Barcelona. "He'll do it without a doubt," said his agent, John Bicourt. "He's never run [the 10,000] when he's been 100 percent." Still, he has run it in 27:11.
Jennings also hopes to run the 10,000 in Barcelona. On Saturday night she sat with Hill in the lobby of a Boston hotel, pondering for an instant the question she had just been asked. "My most memorable race?" Jennings said with a sly smile. "I don't think it's happened yet."