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The cross-country season is the time when distance runners everywhere quit going around in ovals and take to the hills. All fall, while the stadiums and the fans belong to football, out in the parks and on the golf courses thin young men in shorts run four-, five-and six-mile races on nature's all-weather surfaces—grass and mud and rocks—school against school, club against club.
Last week, with winter closing in, cross-country competition reached its peak of intensity and quality with the national championships, first the NCAAs at Penn State and, on Sunday, the AAUs in Annapolis.
The six-mile course for the NCAA championship was laid out on Penn State's 36-hole golf course by Track Coach Harry Groves. It was wide and well marked, with major hills at 2.2, 4 and 5.2 miles and no tight turns to slow the pace. The feeling among the coaches killing time in the lobby of the Nittany Lion Inn was that the course was a fair balance of hills and flats, unlike last year's at Indiana University, where the advantage went to the hill climbers.
"It's a great cross-country course," said Gary Wieneke, the Illinois coach. "Deceptive. People think it's going to be easy because it appears gently rolling and downhill overall. But a good share of the footing is difficult. There is little fairway and a lot of rough, and much of it is on a sidehill slant. It will require a lot of concentration."
"It's fair. Not hilly enough for the Easterners and too hilly for some of the others," said Penn Coach Jim Tuppeny. "And this is perfect distance running weather—cool and dry. For 26 years the NCAA was at Michigan State, where it snowed every fourth year."
"I wish we'd have a blizzard tonight and that it would sleet all day tomorrow," said 1974 champion Nick Rose the day before the race. Rose is a good-natured 23-year-old native of Bristol, England, who is on a track scholarship at Western Kentucky, where his shoulder-length blond curls, tiny gold earring and overalls draw as much attention as his running.
Rose is a cross-country runner in the European tradition, and the rugged Indiana course had been a homecoming. "It was muddy, hilly, demanding," he said happily. "Conditions I like. A cross-country race should be tough, not just a track race on grass." Rose had upset the favorite, Washington State's Kenyan star John Ngeno, and set a course record. But five days later Ngeno had avenged himself by winning the AAUs over a less hilly 10,000-meter course in Belmont, Calif.
Again this year, Ngeno was a co-favorite for the individual title, along with his teammate and fellow Kenyan Joshua Kimeto, Rose and that rarity among top-rank collegiate distance runners these days, a U.S.-born competitor, Craig Virgin of Illinois, a junior who has set course records in all but one of his seven races this season. Before this year's success. Virgin had suffered a two-year siege of injury and illness, but his competitive instincts remained unimpaired.
Wilson Waigwa, the University of Texas at El Paso's sub-four-minute miler from Kenya, would also have been highly rated at Penn State, but a thigh injury suffered at the Western Athletic Conference meet two weeks ago kept him away. His UTEP team, however, led by fellow Kenyans James Munyala and Frank Munene, was thought to be strong enough, even without its No. 1 man, to make a strong run at Washington State for the team title.