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Because Americans so often hold major cross-country races on parkland or golf courses, distance runners who excel upon gentle hills and resilient turf have dominated the national championships. Steve Prefontaine of Oregon won three NCAA titles before graduating last year, and Frank Shorter, the Olympic marathon champion, entered last Saturday's AAU title run in Belmont, Calif. with the justifiable expectation of making it his fifth championship in as many years.
But each cross-country course affects the runners laboring upon it, punishing most, rewarding the peculiar strengths of a few. The 10,000 meters of rock-hard clay trail at Belmont, curling through the mesquite bushes high above San Francisco Bay, were best for the nimble and the tough. A field of 300 started, a dangerously large number considering the gopher-ventilated ground over which the runners were to sprint for position during the first quarter mile.
Nick Rose of Western Kentucky and Bristol, England, who had won the NCAA meet over a golf course in Indiana five days earlier, jogged the Belmont route in practice. "I've wanted to run in the AAU championship for years," he said, "because the AAU always has better runners than the NCAA. But it doesn't seem like cross-country if you don't have grass, does it? That ground is unbelievably hard. It seems better suited for motorcycles, actually."
Billed as the first-ever cross-country match between Shorter and Prefontaine, the race was deflated in the final hours by Prefontaine's decision to stay home. "I'm in the worst shape I've been in for five years," he said, "and I don't care to be embarrassed." In Prefontaine's absence Neil Cusack from Ireland, the Boston Marathon champion, seemed the best bet to battle Shorter. "He's gutty tough," said Rose. "He's a hard driver, better on tough courses." Shorter, as is his custom, did not arrive until the morning of the race. Warming up, he seemed distracted, consumed by worries. "I've been training at 9,200 feet," he said. "I don't know if I've been at sea level long enough to adjust back. I haven't done any speed work, so I can't start fast. This will be a real test."
The starting gun was fired by Peter Snell, the New Zealand Olympic gold medalist now studying at the University of California's Davis campus. The army of runners answered with a rumbling downhill charge, their collective footsteps on the clay sounding like a cloudburst on an enormous tin roof. After 600 yards the pack funneled onto the trail. Running blissfully 10 yards ahead was Kenyan half-miler Mike Boit of Eastern New Mexico, taking full, if brief, advantage of his speed. Ted Castaneda of the Colorado Track Club was near the front, as was Cusack. John Ngeno, another Kenyan from Washington State University, and Rose were well-placed in the top 20. Shorter was engulfed by the pack. As the field rumbled off, several fallen entrants lay writhing with injured ankles, beating the dry indifferent earth in pain and frustration. At 1� miles, near the top of the first grinding hill, Boit had dropped back, and Cusack and Rose were in the lead with Ngeno and Castaneda right behind. Shorter, glassy-eyed and distant, was working his way from 50th place.
As the trail descended from a ridge that had a misty view of the bay, the relaxed Cusack and the snorting, animated Ngeno moved away from the rest. At 2� miles Matt Centrowitz of the New York AC went down hard in a rutted depression, felt something pop in his hip and rolled off into the dry grass and burrs. At the halfway mark, Cusack and Ngeno were drawing farther ahead, and most of the field behind them looked sore from the pounding. Expressions were those of disgust, recrimination. At four miles Ngeno surged into the lead, breaking contact with the now-straining Cusack. At five miles the Kenyan had a 100-yard lead.
The finish was on the crest of one last cruel hill. Ngeno drove up and over the line in 29:58.8. Cusack made it 16 seconds later. "That hill took the last bit of my momentum," he said later. "It seemed that I ended stock-still on the line, like a crucifixion."
Castaneda, the first American finisher, was third, and that fine performance led his Colorado Track Club to the team title over the New York AC. Shorter, ashen and unsteady, finished 11th. "The combination of coming down too late from altitude and getting caught in the pack did me in," he said, "but I don't think I could have won, anyway, not against Ngeno on this kind of country."
John Ngeno (pronounced nyea-no) is from the town of Kericho in the Rift Valley of Kenya, a region that has its share of sunbaked clay. He is a rather thick-waisted man of 21, and as he accepted the camelia wreath of victory he spoke with a disarming simplicity. "I am so strong now it is very hard for me to get tired," he said. "I came to this meet because I did not win the NCAA last Monday. I lost there because I did not get to the front early. Today I knew I had to start fast. I wanted to race Cusack and Rose and Shorter." He smiled a broad, unselfconscious smile, flecked at the corners with froth. "It was easy today. It was warm and I have been training hard. Some of my 10-mile runs have been faster and harder than I ran today." He likened the course not only to the hills of East Africa but to those around the WSU campus in Pullman, Wash. "We have one there we call Agony Hill. It is feared by everyone. Then there is one even more painful. That is called Ngeno's Hill."
Ngeno ran well in 10,000-meter races on the track in Europe this summer, and he expects to do the distance next year in 27:25, some five seconds under Dave Bedford's world mark, but he clearly has an attachment, too, to running well over rugged landscapes. "I did not always like cross-country races with hundreds of runners because I like to start easy. But now, when I have to go hard to be free at the first of the race, I can do it." As he spoke, he caught sight of Rose, his conqueror five days earlier, who finished far back this day. "On some courses better than others," he added.