A Steep, Rugged cross-country trail climbs Cemetery Hill in the Bronx's historic Van Cortlandt Park. It crests, takes a deep breath, then crashes down the precipitous back side, leaving runners to fend for themselves. "The footing is difficult," said Pat Porter of Alamosa, Colo., who hit the hill first on Saturday, four miles into the men's race at the TAC cross-country nationals. "There are rocks and roots and things sticking out. If you're not careful, you could bust an ankle real easy."
Porter was undaunted. Having opened a six-second lead over Jim Farmer—a runner he later couldn't remember meeting—Porter felt he was safely on his way to his sixth straight U.S. cross-country title. There aren't many American runners who can catch Porter, and his only remaining opponent seemed to be the 6.3-mile Van Cortlandt course itself, the most esteemed in the East.
Van Cortlandt's terrain can lay waste to great runners. Standout miler Craig Masback, who ran the course frequently while competing for Princeton, describes running there as "a rite of passage." Porter himself had said somewhat wistfully before the race that "anybody who's anybody has run here." Except for a "warmup" race in October, Porter had never run Van Cortlandt.
As Porter attacked Cemetery Hill, his loping strides turned short and choppy. Unbeknownst to Porter, Farmer was beginning to gain on him. When the two flew down the back side, Farmer flew faster. "I felt free," Farmer said later, "like I was floating." Suddenly, in the oak-forested back hills, a race was on.
As Porter cruised over the undulating hills, neither he nor Farmer could see exactly what the other was doing. Porter came off the hills and crossed a bridge over the Henry Hudson Parkway.
With Farmer some thirty yards behind, Porter raced down the last, steep hill and onto a vast expanse of playing fields, the site of the finish. Both reached for a higher gear. Farmer wouldn't quit. Down the last straightaway both runners were sprinting full-bore. Porter hit the line first, in 29:58—a course record. Farmer finished just three seconds back. "Who are you?" Porter asked him in the finishing chute.
Farmer gave his name and told Porter that they had been introduced to each other at a Manhattan pizza restaurant the night before. "He probably couldn't recognize me in a toboggan hat," said Farmer later.
A fifth-year senior at North Carolina, Farmer hadn't run a cross-country race since the '86 NCAAs, in which he placed 19th. His goal on Saturday had been to place "around the 30s.... The only thing I've done different this year is I've bounced my mileage up about 15 miles a week [to 75]," he said, trying to explain his improvement.
As for Porter, he is careful to avoid the over-racing syndrome that has so badly damaged U.S. distance running. He competes in few big-money road or European track events and estimates that he turned down race offers worth $60,000 last year and others well into six figures in 1984, when he was the only American finalist in the Olympic 10,000. "It's a matter of priorities," he says with a shrug.
Now Porter is in position to tie the record of seven straight U.S. titles set by America's first great distance runner, Don (Iron Man) Lash, between 1934 and 1940. But in Farmer he may have found a new challenger.