It's a sweltering Indian summer day in Bloomington, and the rolling fields around the University of Indiana golf course are dry—and brick hard. The only hint that this is the cross-country season are the trees, which have ripened into harvest reds and oranges. Nevertheless, the Indiana Invitational Cross Country Meet 5,000-meter women's race is about to begin. On the starting line, one runner stands out. Michelle Dekkers, 21, is the only barefoot entrant.
The gun fires, and Dekkers sprints to the lead. Though the baked ground bruises her feet, she steadily pulls away. Dekkers is in her element. "Cross-country is not as nerve-racking as track," she says. "You don't have to be so tactical. You just run." Dekkers reaches the finish 45 seconds in front of her nearest pursuer, in 16:58.7.
Later, in the men's 8,000-meter race, Indiana sophomore Bob Kennedy also will quickly move to the front. But this is out of the ordinary; usually Kennedy is more patient than Dekkers. She is by instinct a front-runner; he prefers to wait and kick. "I like to follow the other runners, and feed off them," he says. But today Kennedy and Terry Brahm, an Indiana graduate who ran the 5,000 at the Seoul Olympics, have agreed to push each other. They plan to run the race at an even three-minute-per-kilometer pace, but by the halfway point the heat has drained their expectations. Still, Kennedy and Brahm finish first and second—Kennedy in 24:51.34, Brahm in 24:51.50.
Dekkers and Kennedy are a historic pair. At last year's NCAA championships, in Granger, Iowa, they became the first runners from the same school to win NCAA cross-country individual titles in the same year. Dekkers has not only won every cross-country race she has run for Indiana but also has yet to trail in a cross-country race. Kennedy, who was just three months past his 18th birthday when he won the NCAA title, became the first American to win the title as a freshman.
Kennedy and Dekkers, who will defend their NCAA championships on Nov. 20 at the Naval Academy Golf Course in Annapolis, Md., contrast in ways other than just preferred cross-country running tactics. They are from strikingly different backgrounds. It seemed inevitable that Kennedy would choose Indiana over the 75 other schools that recruited him out of Westerville ( Ohio) North High School. Both his parents are Indiana graduates. As a Hoosier junior in 1967, Bob Kennedy Sr. ran a school-record 14:13 for three miles and was third man on the team that won the Big Ten cross-country title. In fact, Bob Jr. was born in Bloomington while his father was serving as a graduate assistant to Indiana cross-country and track coach Sam Bell. Dekkers, on the other hand, grew up in Cape Town, South Africa. Five years ago, as a student at Voortrekker High School, she had never heard of Bloomington.
For all their differences, Kennedy and Dekkers are heirs to a single remarkable running tradition. Throughout the 1930s, Indiana was the mecca of cross-country running. Don Lash, who graduated in 1937, won seven straight national AAU titles, from 1934 to '40, and in 1936 the Hoosiers won the national AAU team title with a perfect score of 15 points, the only time that feat has ever been accomplished.
So it was no surprise that when the first NCAA championship was held, in 1938, the Hoosiers won. It was also fitting, because no one had done more than Indiana coach Billy Hayes to campaign for cross-country as an NCAA event. His Indiana squads won the team championship again in 1940 and tied for the title with Penn State in 1942. Fred Wilt became the first Indiana runner to win the individual title, in '41. The Indiana coach's influence and reputation was such in those years that the NCAA team trophy was originally called the Billy Hayes Trophy.
But when Hayes died in 1943, so, too, it seemed, did the Indiana cross-country tradition. The Hoosiers did not win another NCAA title—team or individual—until 1987, when Kim Betz, an unheralded Hoosier sophomore, triumphed in the NCAA women's race. But since then Betz has been plagued by compartment syndrome—an enlarging of a muscle to the extent that it outgrows the muscle sheath and causes severe pain—and has been operated on twice for it. Betz has withdrawn from school this term; otherwise Indiana would have three past champions running in Annapolis.
Still, Kennedy and Dekkers need not look far for inspiration. Bloomington has again become home to many of the country's top middle-distance runners. On most days Bell's workouts are attended by four to six athletes who have run either four minutes for the mile or the metric equivalent to that. Among them are Brahm, Indiana senior Mark Deady (who has run a 3:35.83 1,500 meters and was on the U.S. Olympic team at Seoul), Charles Marsala ( Indiana, 1988, who has run 3:37.63 in the 1,500) and—until he moved to Chicago—world-class miler Jim Spivey. When runners such as these gather to train together, the air crackles with possibility. "The guys build on each other," says Bell. "Deady is injured [he is recovering from surgery he had last month on his Achilles tendon], but normally Kennedy would be training with two Olympians. It gives him an idea where he can go."
Kennedy has been thinking along those very lines. Bell points to a conversation they had while driving back to the hotel after Kennedy won last year's NCAA cross-country title. "We had gone maybe a mile when Bob said, 'I've got to forget about this and look ahead." That was a very short reverie."