Across-country race, even a national championship cross-country race, has too much of a deliberate, cerebral quality ever to be a big deal in the U.S. In Europe the season lasts from November to March, large and knowledgeable crowds turn out to watch and a national title event can draw a field of up to 1,500 starters. Here, however, the sport has traditionally been that short, quiet interlude between the serious stuff that goes on outdoors in the spring and summer and the circuses that are held indoors each winter. The distance runners are logging all those long, long training runs designed to build strength 10 ways and the races serve merely as a pleasant diversion and a chance to check one's progress.
At the National AAU championship the single tangible reward is a trip to compete in the New Year's Eve race in Sao Paulo, Brazil and so the pressure is low, low, low. Which at least for most of the runners makes the race fun, fun, fun. One result is that the starting fields are growing so big that this year the meet sponsors were hard put to dredge up a course large enough to contain the mob.
In this respect, cross-country may be on the verge of a popularity breakthrough, and the surprising size of the starting field may explain why at last week's meet near San Diego a strong pre-race favorite, Ken Moore, a former champion and a seasoned performer who runs for the Oregon Track Club, lost his head and finished sixth while Frank Shorter, the defending champion, kept his and romped to victory by 150 yards. He defeated second-place finisher Steve Stageberg and an assortment of 280 other half-milers, milers, steeplechasers, distance runners and marathon specialists that even included, at least for a while, world mile record holder Jim Ryun. He did it with the nonchalance that may become a Shorter trademark in the Olympic year to come. And he had other things on his mind.
"I'm not too concerned about this race because cross-country is not all that important," said Shorter, a Yale graduate who is studying law at the University of Florida and who competes for the Florida Track Club. "It's probably important that our club wins the team title, but what I'm really aiming at is a marathon next week in Japan."
The organizers, however, were concerned when the entries began to pile in. "It became sort of an odyssey to find a suitable course," says Ken Bernard, the manager of a reinforcing-steel firm and president of the San Diego Track Club. "We'd originally counted on using Balboa Park in the middle of town, but the park department paved over the walking paths, which made it impossible for the runners to wear spikes, and the place was too cramped anyway. So were the other cross-country courses around here. Strictly dual meet stuff. We lost a running battle with the city to get one of the golf courses."
What they finally got was a trail pounded into the dirt on a plateau in the hills north of town—a barren stretch of gray-brown wilderness virtually unmarked by a bush, a tree or even a refreshing green blade of grass.
"It looks like something out of 2001," said Ken Moore in his second-floor room at the Holiday Inn. "A stark, barren plain with nothing but this motel jutting out of the horizon. Typically California plastic. Obviously, they must think that cross-country runners are all simple, Spartan ascetics and this kind of place is where we'll feel at home."
The loop that Moore could only barely discern through the early-morning haze started as a pie-shaped segment that funneled down after 285 yards to a throat 40 feet wide and a dirt path, heavily watered by sprinkler trucks and bordered by stakes and yellow plastic rope, that veered slightly off to the right. After some nine-tenths of a mile the trail dropped into a slight hollow, rose gradually for 200 yards and then headed back toward the start. The roughly two-mile loop was to be negotiated three times with an extra 365 yards tacked on to round out the race's official distance of 10,000 meters.
At breakfast Moore worried about the crowded start he knew would come and about how Shorter, whom he considers a strong hill runner, would use the rise to further his own cause. "Ordinarily I could figure on staying back and out-kicking Frank," he said, spooning up oatmeal, "but it's dangerous to lay back in such a crowd. I've also been getting ready for that marathon in Japan, so I haven't done the kind of training you need for a fast six miles. What I'll look for is for Frank to try and break away going up that hill for the second time and try to stay with him. If he doesn't I'll feel a lot better. I'll know he's tired."
By the time that moment came later in the day it was Moore who was tired, to the point of exhaustion. On the curved starting line the Oregon Track Club had been placed in almost the exact center. At the starter's signal Moore moved away smoothly, but after about 60 yards he suddenly became aware that the runners to the left of him and the runners to the right of him were surging ahead and closing down toward the narrow entrance to the trail proper, which loomed like the jaws of a hungry alligator. Alarmed at the prospect of being swallowed while Shorter pulled blithely away out front, Moore spurted.