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Three miles into last Saturday's TAC National Cross-Country Championships, at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, Pat Porter made the move everyone—spectators and runners alike—had been waiting for. Rounding the south end of Van Cortlandt's vast spread of playing fields, Porter, his stride opening and quickening, surged to a 30-yard lead over John Nuttall and Bob Kempainen, the only runners who had dared to stay with him that far.
"I knew when Pat moved like that, I couldn't stay with him," Kempainen said later. "I thought, Well, there he goes again."
When it comes to cross-country, the 31-year-old Porter has a history of going and not coming back. He brought a record streak of eight straight TAC national championships to the New York meet, all of them won in the punishing front-running style that has become Porter's trademark. Thus, by the 3�-mile point on the 10-km (6.2-mile) course, as Porter made his turn from the flats and headed into Van Cortlandt's hills, it appeared certain that he was on his way to title number nine. But Van Cortlandt can be cruel—even to an eight-time national champion.
"You have to save something for the hills," says Lynn Jennings, who a half hour before Porter's race had added to a streak of her own, cruising over the 6-km (3.7 miles) women's course in commanding fashion to win her fourth straight TAC title. "You have to be careful."
But Porter, charging recklessly up Van Cortlandt's infamous Cemetery Hill—a steep, ragged climb that crests just past the four-mile point of the course—was beyond careful. He was struggling.
"That's usually my strong point, the hills," Porter says, "but I got to the top and I just didn't have it. I didn't feel bad, but I didn't feel normal."
Behind him, Kempainen sensed Porter's distress and started to close the gap, pulling Nuttall along with him.
Kempainen, a 1988 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Dartmouth, had chased Porter before. He was third in this race last year and second in '88. He also placed second behind Porter in the 1989 TAC 10,000 meters on the track, in Houston.
Yet as much promise as Kempainen has shown, Saturday's race hardly figured to be the occasion for the 24-year-old's blossoming. After spending the past two years working as a technician in a molecular genetics lab at Dartmouth, Kempainen is in his first semester of medical school at the University of Minnesota.
"There have been a lot of changes. I can only fit in one workout a day, so my mileage is down," he says, "and I'm working with Vin Lananna [the Dartmouth running coach] by phone."