Pat Porter, lean and hungry, sat in a restaurant in Raleigh, N.C., and stared at his Thanksgiving dinner. Lasagna. Again. "I haven't had turkey in seven years," he moaned, "ever since I started coming to these things. The "things" Porter spoke of with seeming melancholy are national cross-country championships, but, in truth, no one relishes them more than Porter. "I love this time of year," he said. "I love cross-country, and this meet especially."
It shows. On Saturday Porter, stoked in part with those carbohydrates from his untraditional Thanksgiving repast, went to the starting line of the TAC championships at Meredith College in Raleigh, hoping to tie Don Lash's record string of seven national titles (1934-40). "This is Pat's baby," said U.S. Olympic marathoner Ed Eyestone, who has chased Porter in five TAC championships. "He's beatable on the roads and he's beatable on the track, but he hasn't been beatable at this event since 1981."
This year, however, Porter seemed vulnerable. He had developed a severe case of tendinitis in his right ankle only two weeks before the championships. "You couldn't even see the outline of the bone, my ankle was so swollen," he said after the race. Timing also had conspired to handicap Porter. This is an Olympic year, and Olympic years are tricky. They can drain a runner physically and emotionally. Porter's long months of training and racing caught up with him at the worst possible moment, during his heat of the 10,000 in Seoul. "At 17 laps, I was right in the race, feeling good, working the front," he says. "Then boom! My body just shut down. People were pulling away from me even though the pace wasn't picking up at all. It was embarrassing."
Porter finished 11th and failed to qualify for the final. "The next day I went to the hospital and had a blood test," he says. "It turned out I had an infection [to which his intense training had made him susceptible]. They put me on antibiotics and told me to take it easy." Porter was able to start training again when he got home to Alamosa, Colo., but that left only seven weeks to get himself fit for TACs.
"I think people are realizing that Pat's not the favorite he has been in the past because of the Olympics," said a hopeful Jim Farmer, who last year came within three seconds of ending Porter's streak. "I just don't see where he's had a break."
Certainly there had been no clear favorite at the NCAA championships, which were held the previous Monday on the rolling fairways of Jester Park golf course outside Des Moines. In that meet two runners from the same school used very different strategies to win.
Shoeless Michelle Dekkers, an Indiana junior who grew up running barefoot on the grass tracks of her native South Africa, sprinted to the lead at the gun. By the quarter mile, she had a 20-yard lead on her pursuers. Though she would never open up a really safe margin, Dekkers also never faltered, finishing the 5,000-meter circuit in 16:30, four seconds ahead of Tina Ljungberg of Texas-El Paso. Like most winners, Dekkers felt none of the pain and all of the rapture. "When it's grass, like this," she said, "running barefoot is beautiful."
Robert Kennedy arrived at Indiana this year from a less exotic locale but with pretty exotic credentials. Last year, as a senior at North High in Westerville, Ohio, he ran a 4:05.13 1,600—the fastest in the country by a schoolboy—and also won the 5,000-meter Kinney National High School Cross-Country Championships. But the NCAA race is a 10,000—much too long for a freshman miler, according to conventional wisdom.
Kennedy showed he possesses tactical savvy beyond his years. He waited patiently as one runner after another tried to break from the pack, only to fail and fall back. Then, with just 150 yards left, Kennedy sprinted past Yehezkel Halifa of Clemson to finish in 29:20, one second ahead of Halifa. Kennedy thus became the first American male to win the NCAAs as a freshman.
Neither Kennedy nor Dekkers competed in Raleigh. Given his youth, Kennedy was probably wise to forgo the TACs, but Dekkers had no choice. Her nationality, which bars her from TAC-sanctioned races, automatically prevented her from testing her front-running skills against Lynn Jennings.