Across-country race, even a national championship cross-country race, has too much of a deliberate, cerebral quality ever to be a big deal in the U.S. In Europe the season lasts from November to March, large and knowledgeable crowds turn out to watch and a national title event can draw a field of up to 1,500 starters. Here, however, the sport has traditionally been that short, quiet interlude between the serious stuff that goes on outdoors in the spring and summer and the circuses that are held indoors each winter. The distance runners are logging all those long, long training runs designed to build strength 10 ways and the races serve merely as a pleasant diversion and a chance to check one's progress.
At the National AAU championship the single tangible reward is a trip to compete in the New Year's Eve race in Sao Paulo, Brazil and so the pressure is low, low, low. Which at least for most of the runners makes the race fun, fun, fun. One result is that the starting fields are growing so big that this year the meet sponsors were hard put to dredge up a course large enough to contain the mob.
In this respect, cross-country may be on the verge of a popularity breakthrough, and the surprising size of the starting field may explain why at last week's meet near San Diego a strong pre-race favorite, Ken Moore, a former champion and a seasoned performer who runs for the Oregon Track Club, lost his head and finished sixth while Frank Shorter, the defending champion, kept his and romped to victory by 150 yards. He defeated second-place finisher Steve Stageberg and an assortment of 280 other half-milers, milers, steeplechasers, distance runners and marathon specialists that even included, at least for a while, world mile record holder Jim Ryun. He did it with the nonchalance that may become a Shorter trademark in the Olympic year to come. And he had other things on his mind.
"I'm not too concerned about this race because cross-country is not all that important," said Shorter, a Yale graduate who is studying law at the University of Florida and who competes for the Florida Track Club. "It's probably important that our club wins the team title, but what I'm really aiming at is a marathon next week in Japan."
The organizers, however, were concerned when the entries began to pile in. "It became sort of an odyssey to find a suitable course," says Ken Bernard, the manager of a reinforcing-steel firm and president of the San Diego Track Club. "We'd originally counted on using Balboa Park in the middle of town, but the park department paved over the walking paths, which made it impossible for the runners to wear spikes, and the place was too cramped anyway. So were the other cross-country courses around here. Strictly dual meet stuff. We lost a running battle with the city to get one of the golf courses."
What they finally got was a trail pounded into the dirt on a plateau in the hills north of town—a barren stretch of gray-brown wilderness virtually unmarked by a bush, a tree or even a refreshing green blade of grass.
"It looks like something out of 2001," said Ken Moore in his second-floor room at the Holiday Inn. "A stark, barren plain with nothing but this motel jutting out of the horizon. Typically California plastic. Obviously, they must think that cross-country runners are all simple, Spartan ascetics and this kind of place is where we'll feel at home."
The loop that Moore could only barely discern through the early-morning haze started as a pie-shaped segment that funneled down after 285 yards to a throat 40 feet wide and a dirt path, heavily watered by sprinkler trucks and bordered by stakes and yellow plastic rope, that veered slightly off to the right. After some nine-tenths of a mile the trail dropped into a slight hollow, rose gradually for 200 yards and then headed back toward the start. The roughly two-mile loop was to be negotiated three times with an extra 365 yards tacked on to round out the race's official distance of 10,000 meters.
At breakfast Moore worried about the crowded start he knew would come and about how Shorter, whom he considers a strong hill runner, would use the rise to further his own cause. "Ordinarily I could figure on staying back and out-kicking Frank," he said, spooning up oatmeal, "but it's dangerous to lay back in such a crowd. I've also been getting ready for that marathon in Japan, so I haven't done the kind of training you need for a fast six miles. What I'll look for is for Frank to try and break away going up that hill for the second time and try to stay with him. If he doesn't I'll feel a lot better. I'll know he's tired."
By the time that moment came later in the day it was Moore who was tired, to the point of exhaustion. On the curved starting line the Oregon Track Club had been placed in almost the exact center. At the starter's signal Moore moved away smoothly, but after about 60 yards he suddenly became aware that the runners to the left of him and the runners to the right of him were surging ahead and closing down toward the narrow entrance to the trail proper, which loomed like the jaws of a hungry alligator. Alarmed at the prospect of being swallowed while Shorter pulled blithely away out front, Moore spurted.
"I saw this corridor open up just in front and I thought it best to take advantage," Moore said later. "That was what started me off. I shot up with the leaders much too soon and when I heard a mile time of 4:20 I was appalled at how fast we'd been going. Losing was my own damned fault. I disintegrated in the last three miles and finished up full of lactic acid, feeling bilious and horrible, hitting and kicking myself for running such a stupid race while Frank was being so smart."
Shorter's smart move was to bide his time and go through the first, fast mile a comfortable seven seconds back of Moore and the other early leaders.
"As usual everyone went out like crazy," Shorter said. "I was in about 100th place after 200 yards, but then everyone proved to be very nice. As I moved up through the crowd I'd say, 'Excuse me, can I get by?' and everyone would move over. In Europe they'd probably have knocked me down and kicked me in the teeth. By the end of the first mile I'd worked my way up to about 15th and from there on I settled into my steady race pace, pushing myself just as hard as I thought would keep me going to the finish."
A disappointing no-show, especially to Shorter, was Oregon's bumptious Steve Prefontaine, who had successfully defended his NCAA title in Knoxville earlier in the week and said he felt too sore to run at San Diego. "Most of us are now friendly and relaxed with each other," said Shorter, "but not Prefontaine. He's a throwback to the old school who thought they had to be cocky and combative. I could have really gotten psyched up trying to beat him."
A dismayed midrace dropout was Jim Ryun, although 10,000-meter cross-country races are not exactly his forte. Ryun has left the pollen-clogged air of Eugene, Ore. where he was subjected to seizures of asthma and hay fever, and has settled in Santa Barbara, where he works as an industrial photographer for Raytheon. Ryun was distressed by the news that his infant daughter had sprung a 105° fever that morning. Plagued as well by an upset stomach, he left the course after 2½ miles.
"Up until now it's been a great fall for me," he said, shuffling off through the dust to find a digestively soothing Coke, "but I guess I'll have to get in a good six-miler some other time."
Shorter finished in 29:19, easing up. Four of his clubmates came in not long after to give Florida the team title as well. Shorter's time was one of the fastest ever run in the national championships, possibly a harbinger of good times to come in Japan, Brazil, even Munich, so Moore was not overly despondent. "Sixth place wasn't bad under the circumstances," he said philosophically. "If I could be so stupid and still finish so well it at least shows I'm in good physical shape."
And second place wasn't bad for Stageberg. He won the trip to Sao Paulo. As defending champion in that race, too, Shorter already had an invite.