The AAU senior women's cross-country race is a high-stakes event, as things go in the sport. Prizes for the first six finishers in last Saturday's run in San Bernardino, Calif. were trips to Glasgow for the world championship next March. But because the AAU conducts its age-group races along with the open nationals, the seniors competed in an atmosphere richly leavened by kids. Some 500 7- to 13-year-olds joined their elders in racing over soft green turf and sandy desert trails on the campus of Cal State at San Bernardino, filling the air with squeals about sideaches and cotton mouth, dusty ankles and grasshoppers. And when the kids' races were over, two gifted senior runners joined to produce a magnificent race, a duel which demonstrated that the best women run as hard—if not as fast—as is humanly possible.
The courses ranged from a mile for the 9-year-olds-and-under to three miles for the senior women. All began at the same place, a broad lawn beneath an airy wood of eucalyptus and alder. One tree was only four yards from the start, prompting a 12-year-old standing behind it to say, "Sure, I promised my coach I'd run through a brick wall for him, but I never said anything about trees."
The seniors watched the younger racers for evidence of the course's subtle traps, its 260-foot rise over a mile and a half in the middle portion, its energy-sapping sod and sand. The kids' races all began in the timeless fashion of cross-country, with yells and sprints for position. The sprints were furious and the shouts were high-pitched, as though great treefuls of starlings—or an exaltation of larks—had taken flight at once. On the course, the girls bobbed through smoky gray brush, past places thick with the sinus-clearing odor of mesquite and sage, always running inside a corridor of string to which blue ribbons had been tied. From the farthest reaches of the course, distinct cheers marked the leaders' passage. "Be the national champ, Tamil" was one, echoing faintly off into the San Bernardino Mountains. (Tami Darr, unattached, won the 14-15 race.) As the runners rounded the last turn, the finish line was clearly delineated, for Wilt Chamberlain rose up there in a shining blue tank top, timing, encouraging, recalling his childhood. He had run cross-country for Overbrook High School in Philadelphia, never making the top five. "Track and field is my greatest love," he said, "and distance runners enjoy my greatest respect. Lord, I know how they feel."
Trailing each girls' race was Bob Hickey, an L.A. policeman. He ran just behind the last runner, collecting the finish tags of dropouts so officials could know that the course was clear. This naturally put Hickey right next to the runners in greatest distress. "Why does he always make those girls cry?" said Chamberlain. Behind the starting line an enormous picnic developed, with coaches and parents setting up lawn chairs, spreading out blankets and opening coolers. Typical runner talk filled the time between races.
"My folks are such health freaks," said one 13-year-old. "We have fruit and nuts by the ton, but never any sugar in the house. You can never bake anything."
"So is my dad," said her companion. "My brother bought a jar of mayonnaise and my dad made him throw it away."
"My littlest girl got 14th in the 12-13 race," said one coach. "She's happy but she's so dry that she can't talk. Her poor vocal cords are just seared shut. I think she wants to call home, but what good would that do? It'd sound like the last whisper of a dying man."
Laura Craven, 12, of the Scioto Track Club of Columbus, Ohio, won the two-mile for 12-and 13-year-olds. Down the grassy approach to the finish, she ran through what appeared to be a lawn sprinkler but in fact was a spray of dancing grasshoppers. "Forget my award, just give me water," she said. "I was really concentrating. Nothing was going to bother me, not even grasshoppers."
That was the mood of the seniors as well. The defending champion, Jan Merrill, now a junior majoring in math at Connecticut College in New London, warmed up for her usual hour and a quarter. Forty-nine days earlier her appendix had been removed, and this was to be her first hard race since. "She has excellent recovery," said her coach, Norm Higgins, as he watched her do repeated 100-yard strides. "We were cautious. We waited four more days after the doctor said it was O.K. for her to run. First we did hikes. Then jogging. I told her I was reminded of Abebe Bikila, who won the 1964 Olympic marathon only 40 days after an appendectomy."
Merrill set the women's world record of 15:37.0 in the 5,000 in West Germany last summer, and was so impressive in the World Cup 3,000—she broke the American record by 8.3 seconds with an 8:46.6—that normally she would have been favored to win last week's race almost before the stitches were out. But this year, Kathy Mills of Penn State has begun to show an awesome talent. Only 19, Mills won the AIAW meet in Austin, Texas by 34 seconds. Earlier, in a Seattle road run, she defeated 10,000-meter world-record holder Peg Neppel. Yet Mills did not exactly ooze confidence as she sat in the shade and watched Merrill jog and stride. "I don't think I'll win," she said. "If I can just make the international team I'll be happy, really happy." She had trained in San Bernardino all week and had given in to a persistent vice. "I bought a turtle—and my parents will just die. I'm always trying to get animals into the house."