This will be a trial run for 1984," Race Director Fred Lebow had said before Sunday's National TAC Cross-Country Championships at the Meadowlands racetrack in East Rutherford, N.J., but to 19-year-old Lesley Welch the event seemed a bit like 1984. Instead of running through wood and dell, Welch was loping past a huge electronic tote board and over man-made hills and living room carpet. On the smoggy horizon were smokestacks and the New York City skyline and jets landing at Newark International Airport. Even as Welch brought the 5,000-meter women's race through the halfway mark, leading veteran Jan Merrill by 40 yards, she crossed in front of the grandstand—and saw 1,000 or so spectators sealed off behind glass. This was cross-country?
Absolutely. This was international-style cross-country and a dry run for the March 1984 World Championships, which Lebow and his New York Road Runners Club will host at the Meadow-lands. "The world championships are usually held at racetracks, but they've never been held outside Europe or North Africa," said Lebow on Sunday. "Today we have to prove to 60 countries that we can do a good job."
To that end, using 1,000 tons of gray dirt, Lebow's workers had built a series of 15-foot hills just outside the track. "They weren't really hills, they were fun" said Welch. To make sure that no runner went astray, the sharply winding route was cordoned with eight miles of orange ribbon. The course committee did run short of hay bales to use as hurdles, however, and because of an unexpectedly large field—482 men and 183 women—had to widen the course at the last minute. "We had to remove shrubbery," said Lebow as soberly as a surgeon. "Two truckloads, after midnight. We had no choice."
For the second time in a week, Welch, a University of Virginia sophomore, was leaving her competitors with no choice but to race for second. "I always go out as hard as I can," she had said in the twang of her native Peabody, Mass., and here her aggressiveness put her more than 100 yards ahead of Merrill after two miles. Welch, a lanky 5'9", runs with long, loose strides and a goofy, gaping mouth that her teammates laugh at. The ease with which she extended her lead on Sunday seemed itself a joke: While Welch had never placed higher than ninth in the senior nationals, six of the women behind her had won a total of 10 national or collegiate cross-country championships. "I thought they'd be on me any minute," she admitted later.
Six days earlier at the NCAA championships in Bloomington, Ind., though, Welch had been just as dominant, leading from the start and building a 150-yard lead over Washington's Regina Joyce halfway through the 5,000-meter race. There, years of training with her twin sister, Lisa, also a Virginia sophomore, in the soft beach sand near their Peabody home paid off. Of the 141 women slogging over the rain-soaked Indiana University golf course, only Welch had seemed sure of her footing. She had worn spikes that were nearly a half-inch long and had taped her shoes to her feet so that "they wouldn't come off in the mud." Welch had won by nearly 30 seconds over Joyce, finishing in 16:39 and leading her Virginia squad, with 48 points, to its second straight women's team title ahead of Stanford (91) and Oregon (155).
Welch's victory had left her both elated and wistful. "We got the front page in the Cavalier Daily," she squealed on Sunday, but added, "I wish my sister could have been there." Lisa, the only one to defeat Lesley in a cross-country race this year, injured her hip a few weeks ago and spent last week in a Charlottesville, Va. hospital after having her appendix removed. "I went to see her on Thanksgiving," said Lesley. "Me and the team have her pretty well psyched."
By the time Welch hopped over the last row of hay bales in New Jersey and crossed the finish line, in 15:52, all her pursuers were still pretty well tangled up behind her in the maze of orange ribbon. Never before had a woman won both TAC and collegiate cross-country championships in the same year. Neither had any women's team—until four other Virginia runners crossed the line in 11th, 12th, 13th and 38th places to give the Cavaliers a 75-89 triumph over the Athletics West club of Eugene, Ore. For many minutes afterward, Welch's image was projected on the vast scoreboard TV screen near the finish line. "Today she was just awesome," said Merrill, who was second in 16:10. "She was running smooth, no effort, while the rest of us were back there struggling."
The top six women—Welch, Merrill, Julie Brown, Joan Benoit, Margaret Groos and Betty Springs—will be invited to the 1983 World Championships, to be held March 20 in Gateshead, England. Welch placed 75th in this year's Worlds in Rome but qualified for that meet only because Brown, Springs and Mary Decker Tabb turned down their invitations. After Sunday, she sensed that she really belongs among the world's best. "Funny," she said, "I always knew that someday I'd be running up with them, but I never knew when."
A shrill sounding of the call to the post brought the outstanding men's field to the line half an hour later for its 10,000-meter race. Oddly enough, a cluster of these superb, seasoned performers didn't even appear at the starting line.
For some reason, the contingent from the University of Texas-El Paso thought the race would be run in two sections, and that theirs was the second. Only when they realized that they'd be in the second section alone did the UTEP runners take off in a panic, and by then it was too late; none of them would finish higher than 20th.