For the last few years a lot of people have been asking a version of the same question about Mary Decker. She is the little girl who ran out of her playhouse and began setting world records at the age of 14, then dropped from sight. Now 20 and a student at the University of Colorado, Decker has recently become an expert on physiology—she has had surgery on her legs twice in the past 16 months. The latest operation was performed in August. Like the first, it was to relieve the pressure on her shins. Two weeks later she was doing light jogging. By September she was up to 65 miles a week, and last month she won a three-mile race in 18:18.3 on the cross-country course at the Kent Country Day School in Denver where the AIAW meet was to be held.
For the women's collegiate championship, Decker had everything in her favor: she was fit again and accustomed to the altitude, and her top competition, Kathy Mills of Penn State, the defending champion and also the American record holder at 5,000 meters, had a foot injury. Moreover, Mills did not arrive in Denver until 3 a.m. Saturday, only seven hours before the race.
Penn State's late arrival was an attempt to avoid the lag that shocks runners' systems when they encounter oxygen-rare air. The Nittany Lion coach, Chris Brooks, believes in the microscope as well as the stopwatch. She trained her squad in a university altitude chamber, simulating the atmosphere in Denver, running the team on a treadmill as they watched slide projections of the racecourse terrain. Mills, she noted, had turned in a 17:07 on the treadmill.
On the morning of the race Mills felt as if she were still at the airport baggage-claim area, and she trailed as Julie Brown of Cal State-Northridge set a furious pace. Brown, who was running despite having been declared ineligible, had a 4:58 first mile. By the halfway point she had dropped back and Decker, Mills and Julie Shea of North Carolina State were running together for the lead. With 250 yards left Mills looked strong, leading Shea by five yards and Decker by 20. Then Mills made a wrong turn. By the time she got back on the course, both Shea and Decker were well ahead, and the finish line was only 60 yards away. Decker kicked for the victory in 16:59.4. Shea was second and then came Mills, who was so mad that she kept running, and running, and running, up and down the field near the finish line, as other competitors lay unconscious nearby, victims of the high altitude.
Iowa State took the team title, which was no surprise; perennially strong, Iowa State now has won all four national AIAW titles. It has lost only one women's cross-country meet in its history.
During the following week Mills pampered her sore left foot. She has been bothered by a torn fascia muscle since summer, but she still planned to race in the AAU at Memphis, not only because Jan Merrill would be there but also because she wanted a berth on the world cross-country team.
Julie Brown also had a special interest in Memphis. The AIAW had declared her ineligible for the collegiate meet because they maintained she was in her fifth year of competition even though in two of those seasons she was running for a club, not a college, team. Although Brown went to court and won an injunction allowing her to run, AIAW officials still refused to count her score. Brown holds nine national titles and in September she set an American record of 2:36:24 in the women's marathon despite having suffered two stress fractures in her legs in the last year. She viewed the AAU race as a chance to prove herself this year in cross-country.
As expected, the race on the State Technical Institute course turned into a four-way battle among Brown, Mills, Merrill and Shea. With 400 meters left, just about when everyone expected Merrill to make her move, it was Brown who had the kick and pulled ahead. She finished in 16:32.6, with Merrill second and Shea third. Mills limped in next.
Afterward, Merrill said she ate some spoiled food Thursday morning and had been sick for 24 hours. The state of cross-country is such that no one knew about her illness, since she was virtually ignored by the media. Still, devout fans did turn out to watch the runners during the week. In Madison thousands bundled up in the bitter cold and trekked over the course, and in Seattle spectators stood patiently behind barriers. They were barred from going onto the course because officials feared they would damage the soft turf, so they stood where they were and tried to make some sense out of a race that lost its way. No one seemed too upset; cross-country is that kind of a sport. Just as it has been for years.