Publish date:


Craig Virgin made short work of the tough Longchamp course to win the world cross-country championship

I didn't put any constraints on this team, unlike a good oppressive manager should," said Dr. Dave Martin of his stewardship of the U.S. men who would run in the world cross-country championships a day later. "I gave them their money and a map of the city and said. The work begins on the weekend.' " As the city was Paris, Martin admitted "Until now, nobody thought a damn thing about the race."

For a time it seemed that each runner had reverted to the age when he had learned, or was supposed to have learned, French. When Dr. Duncan Macdonald. an Olympian, the former U.S. record holder at 5,000 meters, and at 31 the dean of the men's team by six years, was dubbed Drunken Macdeviate by teammate Guy Arbogast in a restaurant, Macdonald responded by informing their fellow runners that "the porcelain thing in the bathroom you've never seen before—that's an Arbogast." Two French girls sitting nearby picked up their table and moved it farther away.

The U.S. women were the defending world champions in Paris, and though not as boisterous as the men, matched them for vividness of character. Joan Benoit, who in early February in New Zealand broke her own American record in the marathon by almost four minutes with a 2:31:23, the second fastest ever run by a woman, is small, but not quite delicate. Her face is capable of becoming an emotionless mask, even her eyes going dull, so that one attends only to her words. Thus is their outrageousness enhanced. Rooming with Benoit was Ellison Goodall, who placed third in last year's race in the mud of Limerick, Ireland. Goodall is slight and blonde, and wears seven gold rings and running shoes of hot pink and lime green.

Also back from last year's team were Jan Merrill, who is shy but cannot hide the rich good spirits that dance behind her eyes; Julia Shea, whose melancholy expression is not supported by her behavior; and Margaret Groos, the AAU champion, who suffuses a room with light. Among them, the language strained to carry the weight of their frequent double entendres.

"Joanie, I haven't seen you all day," Goodall said one evening.

"I ran to Nice and back, dead-panned Benoit.

"That was nice," replied Groos.

"But I forgot to get the dried fruit you wanted," said Benoit.

Goodall looked wounded. "Oh dear," she said, "then I'm going into raisin debt."

Morning and evening the women ran over dew-glistened cobblestone streets, through a pedestrian tunnel where a flautist piped his silvery song, into the green and chalky-gravel space of the Bois de Boulogne. Moist trails led them around a lake where flashes of pumpkin and cream through the dark, unleafed trees resolved themselves into narrow row-boats tied in a drift against blustery March winds. They continued up Avenue Foch to the Arc de Triomphe, that remaining substance of Napoleon's ambition, buoyed by the style of Paris, but Groos for one felt that the city's urbanitè was at odds with the fèrocitè necessary to cover rough country faster than anyone else in the world. Indeed, as she and Goodall ran in their rustling rain suits, befurred and coiffed Parisian matrons twice stepped from their path and hissed with disdain, "Les enfants." And when they went to use the exercise equipment in a brassy spa, they were ejected for being in shorts; all respectable women were required to wear tights.

Perhaps in reaction, Benoit spoke darkly of a practice for which she is feared in knowledgeable circles. "The barracuda may strike after the race," she said calmly one evening at a dinner given by a French sports-shoe representative, an elegant and fashionable man named Jacques.

"Comment?" he said. "Qu'est-ce que c'est barracuda?"

"Jaws," said Benoit. "La grande pois-son. You're going to get it."

The marked man remained puzzled, but Shea later revealed the nature of his fate when she whispered, "It's time to leave a party quick when Joanie starts biting people on the bottom."

Meanwhile, the American men sustained their morale with encouraging workouts in the spacious French National Training Center near the Ch‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¢teau de Vincennes, with tours of museums and with leisurely French dinners in the Latin Quarter, at which the themes of the day were discussed.

"If you are what you eat," said Macdonald, "stay away from the turtle soup and the escargots."

"If this Beaujolais gets better," said Don Clary, "I will end up sleeping in the Arbogast."

This time when a nearby table of Parisiennes began to look edgy, Arbogast scooted his chair over and took up the cause of diplomacy with a cashmere-wrapped strawberry blonde. Amazingly, he was successful.

The only regret was that Craig Virgin, the winner of the U.S. men's trials, was not yet in Paris to enjoy the prerace idyll. He had recently founded a consulting firm and was in Germany speaking with a shoe manufacturer. An ambitious man, comfortable with the ways of promotion, Virgin is intent on taking full advantage of his success, and thus differs somewhat from the balance of the team, for whom the camaraderie of such a trip and the competition itself are reward enough. While not resented, Virgin's forceful drive gave rise to wishes that he relax a little. Virgin himself admits to feeling "pulled at" by the demands of running and business, but says, "I've been training really hard. Let's let this race decide if I'm holding together."

European cross-country is notorious for its treacherous ground and daunting barriers. In Paris, uncertainty about such conditions mounted because the French authorities permitted none of the runners onto the course, which was laid out over the famed Longchamp Hippodrome, until the day before the race. Thus all the contenders found themselves testing the thick green turf together. Above them the great white wings of a four-tiered grandstand rose over the long final stretch of 600 meters. The tip of the Eiffel Tower peeked above the Bois from across the Seine, but all eyes were upon the ground.

"A bit of grass, that," said Nick Rose, who had run away with the English championships. "We should get a lawn mower and go to work." The rougher the better, thought Ireland's John Treacy, who had won the race over heavy, cloying mud the last two years, as had Norway's Grete Waitz the women's division. Waitz was, as usual, nervous in anticipation, mentioning the fitness of the Soviets, wondering if the long grass would endanger her ankles. Eventually she confessed to feeling stronger than ever. A month before in Tampa, she had set a world record of 48:01 for 15 kilometers, three minutes better than Benoit's old mark.

Soon it was found that the exploring runners' feet were pressing the turf into a firm path near the rail, a condition that seemed to favor the superior track racers. The three barriers on every lap of 2,450 meters, usually formidable constructions in French races, had been lowered to a mere two feet. "Not very European," said Don Clary, an 8:26.8 steeplechaser who had been hoping for killing jumps. "More like our golf course races that Europeans bad-mouth all the time."

While the competitors jogged and schemed, team officials gathered at the rail. Talk inevitably turned to the U.S. position against taking part in the Moscow Olympics so long as the Soviet Union occupies Afghanistan. The most striking observation for the Americans was that the Europeans did not appear to take President Carter seriously. The International Amateur Athletic Federation would hold a council meeting in the days following the cross-country championships, and the New York Road Runners Club president, Fred Lebow, would be there to bid on staging the 1984 races at New York's Belmont Park. "I spoke with nine members of the council about Carter's position," he said. "Eight of them said, 'Moscow will go on. The U.S. will be there.' "

Two days later, having received a signal from Carter requesting that the track-and-field governing body assist, or at least not oppose, the organizing of an alternative international games in late August, after the Moscow Olympics, the IAAF tabled consideration of the matter until a meeting in Rome in early June. Because even at this late date, work needs to be started immediately—or not at all—on an alternative competition, the IAAF tactics were clearly to delay, and so pressure the U.S. back into the Olympic fold, which seems highly unlikely now that the Soviets appear to be digging in for a long stay in Afghanistan.

Thus the possibility seemed acute that for the American runners, these races would be the only world championships open to them this year. But the unpleasantness of this dawning fact seemed to fade against the colorful mingling of sweat suits, languages, old friends. The scene at Longchamp embodied both the glory and the weakness of amateur athletes. Choosing to live in an enclosed world of immediacy and performance, they are at once untouchably free and eternally pawns. Their world is defined in the quality of the race, and all three events in Paris were memorable.

On the second Sunday in March, 25,000 Parisians turned out to watch humans, not horses, enjoy the Longchamp course. The junior men (19 and under) led off the card, running 7,400 meters. That field displayed its youth in the first quarter-mile, blazing off at a destructive pace. As the first of the skyrockets, which went up every kilometer to mark the leaders' progress, drifted to earth, Ed Eyestone, an 18-year-old freshman at Brigham Young, was in 20th place. "Guys were dying all around me already from the fast start," he said later. "I got to the outside and started picking them off." As at the 1979 championships in Limerick, swarms of spectators ran onto the course, pressing against the inside rail. At the end of the day the barrier would be bent and uprooted. "Somebody had a German shepherd, and it took a nip at a Russian guy in front of me," said Eyestone. "I moved out a little." Behind Eyestone, California's Tom Downs and Stanford's Bill Graham were working through the field. They finished third, fifth and 11th, respectively, behind the winner, Jorge Garcia of Spain. Eric Sappenfield of Santa Barbara (Calif.) High School was 56th, giving the U.S. team a total of 75 points, second to the U.S.S.R's 50.

Farther back, UCLA's Farron Fields went down. Later, Duncan Macdonald gave this account: "Two minutes before the start of the senior men's race, [Assistant Manager] John Chew ran up and said one of our juniors had collapsed with a tendon injury and was taken to an ambulance, where his Achilles tendon was iced. Then someone noticed he had no blood pressure. He was taken to the hospital unconscious and with his pupils dilated, not a good sign at all." Distracted and running with a queasy stomach, Macdonald finished his race in 104th and rushed to the hospital. "The first thing I saw above Farron's bed was this X ray. It showed a florid pulmonary edema.

" 'Is that his X ray?' I asked an attendant."

" 'Oh, yes, that is his.' "

" 'Sweet Jesus!'

"Then I looked at Farron and he was pinching a nurse. So I went back to the X ray and saw from the bone condition that it had to be that of an 80-year-old man." To protect the nurses, Macdonald got Fields released.

Belying all her fears, or turning them to energy, Waitz destroyed the women's field. Her pigtails flying rhythmically in time with her stride, she ran as if the lumpy sod were a fairway, winning by almost 300 meters. A year ago, the deep Soviet team had tried to stay with her and had been run off its feet, to be overtaken by the Americans. This time Irina Bondarchuk, Elena Sipatova, Giana Romanova and Svetlana Ulmasova let Waitz go and easily mastered the rest of the world, finishing 2-3-4-6. Only Merrill broke the Soviet ranks, with a strong fifth. The U.S. women would have benefited from a longer race than 4,550 meters, as Groos (10th), Shea (13th), Brenda Webb (21st) and Benoit (26th) were still coming on at the end. Their 49 points—the first four finishers counted—were the same as England's. The tie was broken on the strength of England's fourth woman, Ruth Smeeth, finishing two places ahead of Webb.

As he warmed up for the men's 11,580 meters, Virgin knew that in its 77-year history no American had ever won this most difficult of races. "But you have to shoot for the stars to hit the moon," he had told Ellison Goodall earlier. "You have to try to win just to get a medal."

Position is everything in a field of 190 men, so it was no wonder there was a false start. It was controlled by the officials with arresting ropes. The starter then fired the gun before everybody was reorganized. Virgin was facing the wrong way when the cavalry charge began. "I got tripped and stumbled along on the verge of falling," he said later, "when two hands grabbed me—I don't know whose—and held me up. By that time I was sealed inside the pack."

The leaders, eight abreast, covered the first uphill 800 meters in 2:02. As they swung into the stretch of the first of the race's five laps, Providence College's Danny Dillon was in the lead. "Last year I got left and never even smelled the leaders," he would say. "This year was going to be different." But not for long, as Rose surged to the front.

Climbing the backstretch hill on the second lap, Rose opened up powerfully, and quickly gained 30 meters on defending champion Treacy in second.

Virgin had worked up to 25th. "On the second lap I made one hard surge that got me around a big clot of people," he said. "I could see the leader out there, but at first it didn't register who he was." Rose's hair is shorter and his torso more muscular than when he ran for Western Kentucky four years ago. At the end of two laps, Rose seemed in control, gradually lengthening his lead over Leon Schots of Belgium, the 1977 champion. Virgin was now ninth.

"In the third lap I made it to the front pack," said Virgin. "Alex Antipov [of the U.S.S.R.] was there and Schots. I ran with them for a while, and suddenly I realized that while I had been gaining ground on Rose before, now I wasn't. I thought, 'This is ridiculous.' So I said 'Excusez-moi' and went after him."

Virgin cut Rose's lead from 40 meters to 20 on the fourth lap, but on the downhill leading into the stretch he had to chop his steps before a barrier, while Rose sailed over in stride. With a lap to go, Rose looked weary, but Virgin was no longer gaining on the Englishman.

"On the last backstretch not only was Rose pulling away, but I could sense the German [Hans-Jürgen Orthmann] and Belgian [Leon Schots] right behind me and I thought, 'I'm in danger of getting beaten out of the medals.' "

With 900 meters to run, Rose was driving with his arms, using all he had. "I just thought about winning," he said later. "Only winning." At the top of the long stretch Orthmann was in second and gaining. He passed Rose with 350 meters to go.

Virgin was still 10 meters back. "I could see them right there battling it out with what seemed a ways left to go," he said, "I had two thoughts: I've got to time my sprint, and, hell, all the magazines say I've got no sprint. Well, sometimes it's there and sometimes it's not."

Virgin got past Rose 150 meters out, and about that time Orthmann began to stiffen. Sprinting freely, Virgin seized the lead for the first time with 70 meters to run and crossed the line with an exultant bound. "I realized my dream had come true. I was winded, but the excitement was so great that all I could think of was wanting to run back up the stretch and let everybody know who won." Which the 24-year-old from Lebanon, Ill. did, trembling with glee, as Orthmann and Rose slumped in the chute.

"Reminds me of the 1973 NCAAs," said Rose when he could speak, recalling the race in which Steve Prefontaine made up 80 yards on him in the last three miles to win at the end. "People will say if I'd started slower I'd have won, but if I'd started slower it wouldn't be me."

Rose had led the English to the team title with 100 points. The U.S. was a surprising second with 163, as Mark Anderson of Colorado was 48th, Clary of the University of Oregon 43rd, Plasencia of Minneapolis 36th and Ken Martin, who'd had to argue with Bill Dellinger, his coach at the University of Oregon, to be allowed to go to Paris, a sparkling 23rd and Dillon 12th.

Virgin was mobbed when the police turned loose the crowd—hardly patrician boulevardiers, these—to swarm around at the award ceremony. "I have some sympathy for rock stars now," he said after crossing the finish line through a gantlet of several hundred people seriously trying to tear his clothes off.

Later, at a champagne bash, Virgin watched the multinational swirl on the dance floor, which included even 78-year-old IAAF President Adriaan Paulen. Again, Virgin's thoughts turned to the thoughts of others. "I wonder if the people back home will ever be able to fully appreciate this," he said. "Here I've been exposed to 50 million Europeans on TV today, but in my own country I'm sure I'll only draw modest attention." To many runners that would be a source of relief, but Virgin seemed concerned.

Much, much later, as the U.S. team wound down its celebration of its best-ever performance, Goodall held the unsuspecting Monsieur Jacques' overcoat. Benoit, teeth bared, darted in. Jacques experienced, as he put it, "a mortification of the flesh."

"La Grande Poisson was a success," said Goodall. "But we at least know that the real big fish today was Craig Virgin. And in the biggest pond of all, too."


No barrier was high enough to stop Craig Virgin from becoming the first U.S. man to win the title.


England's Rose set the pace, but wilted in the stretch.


The long arm of the law embraced three-time winner Waitz.