Not all of New Jersey looks like the back of an old radio. It only seems that way. Take Far Hills, for instance. That's horse country. The pastures are green and rolling, the fences are split rail, the horses are thoroughbreds, and the horsepower is mostly Mercedes-Benz. Jackie O. lives there. Get the picture? At this time of year a lot of the locals have departed for the Kentucky Derby, but last Sunday Far Hills played host to a thoroughbred race of its own. Only these thoroughbreds were of the two-legged variety. The occasion was the Midland Run, a 15-kilometer (9.3-mile) road race that brought to the exclusive reaches of Far Hills what may have been the best road-racing field ever assembled.
The event attracted 25,000 spectators to the sloping fields of AT&T-owned Moorland Farms, where 1,600 runners started in a mass charge on a sunny, breezy afternoon and finished in a weary straggle. Picnickers spread comestibles on tailgates or on the grass and munched to the wails of a bagpipe band. More fans stationed themselves beside the race route, which wound along hilly, tree-shaded back roads, past a placid reservoir and stately homes. In many of the driveways, Far Hills' citizens relaxed on lounge chairs with cameras and cocktails, ready to toast the passing runners, some of whose names are legendary to enthusiasts of the running boom—Bill Rodgers, Henry Rono, Lasse Viren and road racing's new superstar, Herb Lindsay.
The favorite was Kenya's Rono, who was making his American road-racing debut. Rono is the undisputed king of distance running on the track, holding world records in four events—the 3,000-meter steeplechase and the 3,000-, 5,000- and 10,000-meter runs. Last November he won the NCAA cross-country championships for the third time, thus amply proving that he is also master of that sport. Now, in choosing to take on the impressive field at Far Hills, Rono was vying to be king of the road as well.
This was only the third running of the Midland, and the credit for turning it into a Kentucky Derby for road racers must go to its energetic director, Bob Bright, a 40-year-old ex-Marine captain who makes his living as a broker of thoroughbred horses. Bright ran in the first Midland in 1978, a 20-km. event in which the entire field of 700 made a wrong turn at the start and ended up running an extra three miles. Last year he took over the management of the race, which attracted a field of 1,100 and produced 20-km. American records for both men and women. This year Bright stopped taking entries when they reached 1,600 a month ahead of the deadline. Defending champion John Flora said only half-jokingly that he would be happy to finish in the top 25.
Bright admits that he didn't start out to assemble the best field ever. "My goal was to get the public to relate to the sport of road racing," he says, "and for that I needed media coverage. To get it I knew I needed something unique." Bright's bright idea was to invite the Russians. This was back in November—pre-Olympic boycott—and the Soviet Union agreed to send a team. To attract more 5,000-and 10,000-meter runners, Bright dropped the distance to 15 km.
A few days before the race Bright was informed that the U.S.S.R. contingent had withdrawn, citing a conflict with their own Olympic Trials. However, by the time the Soviets pulled out, a curious thing had happened. The chance to compete against them had lured athletes who, in turn, had lured other athletes, and the field for the 1980 Midland Run had grown into such a star-studded assemblage that the loss of the Soviets was inconsequential.
First came a flood of Americans. In addition to Flora, there were Greg Meyer, who set the American 15-km. record of 43:40 in Tampa in February, and Garry Bjorklund, whose record Meyer had broken. Rodgers, who has won three straight marathons in Boston and four in New York, signed on. Rodgers may be the best-known road racer in America, but he wasn't ranked No.1 in the U.S. last year. That honor went to a muscular sporting goods salesman from Boulder, Colo. named Herbert Donald Lindsay. He came to Far Hills fresh from an American-record-setting 10-mile run of 45:59.8 in New York's Central Park the previous weekend. In 1979 Lindsay had run the fastest 15 km. in the U.S.—44:17.
The women's field was also impressive. Along with defending champion Marty Cooksey, who set an American 20-km. record of 1:11:24 at Midland last year, and Anne Sullivan, who recently held the American 10-mile mark, it contained the top female finishers in the 1980 Boston Marathon—Jacqueline Gareau and Patti Lyons, present holder of the 20-km. record and winner of seven marathons.
The big attention-getters at the Midland Run were the foreigners in the men's field—Rono, Dick Quax and Viren. New Zealand's Quax is the 1976 Olympic silver medalist and former world-record holder at 5,000 meters. On New Year's Day 1980, he ran the fastest 15 km. ever on a track, 43:01. Finland's Viren was the gold medalist at 5,000 and 10,000 meters in each of the last two Olympics. In March he came to New York for a TV show and entered a 10-km. road race. In non-Olympic years Viren has frequently pocketed expense money and then jogged leisurely through American road races, but this time he announced he had trained hard, running as many as 160 miles a week. He then proved his conditioning by winning the New York race in 29:13, breaking the course record by 27 seconds. Anxious for a shot at Rono, he sought out Bright, and asked why he hadn't been invited to the famous Midland Run. Bright asked if Viren wanted to run or was just looking for a workout. "I will run to the level of my fitness," replied Lasse. Bright extended an invitation, whereupon Viren departed for Colombia for high-altitude training, not to return to America until two days before the race.
By Rono's standards, however, Viren was an early bird in Far Hills. Some 21 hours before the 2 p.m. Sunday start of the Midland Run, Rono was in Nairobi, 7,680 miles from Far Hills. His itinerary called for a nonstop flight to London with a quick connection to a Concorde bound for New York. If all went flawlessly, Rono would arrive at JFK Airport at 8:30 Sunday morning. His race to the starting line seemed likely to be more difficult than his race to the finish line.