The Kenyans did not have particular faces. The Kenyans did not have particular names. The race unfolded in Adam Goucher's head and all he saw were forms, the figures of fleet black men, surrounding him. The Kenyans. The Ethiopians. The Africans. He was right in the middle.
He ran alone along Magnolia Road (elevation 9,000 feet) in Boulder, Colo., ran the South Boulder Trail, ran the Aqueduct Trail with its strange signs that warn of CERTAIN DEATH if you fall into the swift water. In his mind the Kenyans were always running with him. The Kenyans. The Ethiopians. The Africans. Ninety-five miles a week.
"You have to beat the Kenyans, the Africans, if you want to win a championship," Goucher told himself as he approached last weekend's 27th annual World Cross Country Championships in Belfast, Northern Ireland. "That's what I want to do—win a championship."
Truth is truth. No sport has been dominated more thoroughly in recent history than men's distance running has been dominated by runners from Africa, especially from Kenya. Africans had won every men's world cross-country championship race since 1986, and Kenyans had won all of those races except two. The indomitable 29-year-old Paul Tergat, Kenyan, had won the past four long-course races (12 kilometers) and was going for a fifth. The first short-course race (four kilometers), added only a year ago, also had been won by a Kenyan, John Kibowen.
How do you break the chain if you're a 24-year-old American, fresh out of the University of Colorado? That was the daily crossword puzzle Goucher had to work out while training in Boulder. He thought he had filled in most of the blanks.
"The thing with the Kenyans, the Africans, is that they've been running longer than me," he said. "They start running when they're five years old. That's when they start to harden their bodies for running. I was playing all kinds of sports beginning at that age. I loved football. I don't think I ran in a race until I was 14. It's a matter of time, not technique. I just have to get older. My body has to get harder. I grow closer to them every day."
Goucher used last year's NCAA cross-country championships to make his point. Maybe it wasn't a world-class event, but the field was stocked with African runners on U.S. scholarships. Africans had won the race the past five years. What happened this time? When the leaders came down the stretch, it was the exact picture from his head: He was surrounded by four Africans. They surged. He surged. They surged again. He stayed with them, step for step. Two Africans dropped back. He surged at the end, nipping Abdi Abdirahman of Arizona at the finish. See? It could be done.
"I'm looking to be in the top three," Goucher said, heading into the world championships. "Anything worse than that, I won't be happy."
He was entered in the short-course event and wouldn't have to contend with Tergat. The other African runners to watch? He had no idea. He bumped into the Kenyan delegation in Heathrow Airport in London on Wednesday, traveled with the Kenyans on the same plane to Belfast, stood at the same luggage carousel with them. He didn't recognize one person. He wouldn't have recognized a name if he had heard it. He only knew that he was looking at fast people, people he would have to beat. No words were exchanged. "You just kind of look at each other out of the corners of your eyes," he said. "You size each other up. I think some runners on our team get intimidated by the Kenyans. I don't feel that way. I refuse to be intimidated."
Goucher believed the choice of Belfast as the site for the meet was a plus. Forget the political troubles in the background, the IRA and Ulster Volunteer Force murals that jump off the buildings on Falls Road and Shankill Road, the long wall in the middle of the city still dividing Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods as the tortuous peace process continues; think about the cold weather and the possibility of rain. How would the Kenyans, the Africans, react to that?