The starts are always savage in the international cross-country championships. Hundreds of the world's best runners slash through the turf with half-inch spikes, shoving for position. In the men's race last Sunday at Riverside Park in Gateshead, in the north of England, Olympic 5,000-and 10,000-meter champion Miruts Yifter of Ethiopia was hurled down and kicked out of the back of the mob like a rugby ball. His teammate, defending champion Mohammed Kedir, lost a shoe and had to go back for it.
It was the same in the women's race. Seconds after the gun, the U.S. team had to pick its way through a sea of mud in front of its starting gate. Soon the Americans were boxed behind slowing Spanish and Swedish runners, while the favored Soviets roared past on firmer ground.
"I saw that if someone didn't break through the girls ahead, we'd be stuck," said Jan Merrill later. She had been second to Norway's Grete Waitz in this race in 1981, but this year an injured right hamstring had cut into her training. Yet she wanted to help her team. "I knew if I made myself the point, they'd come through," she said. She wedged a space, and teammates Margaret Groos, Joan Benoit and Betty Springs followed.
After 800 meters of the 4,072-meter race, Merrill had brought the U.S. women back into contention, but they were still well behind a dense pack of five Soviets, led by 3,000-meter world-record holder Svyetlana Ulmasova. Only Waitz was near the U.S.S.R. contingent, bleeding from a spike wound in the hand. "Margaret, come on let's go," Merrill said to Groos. "She talked us through the whole thing," Groos would say later. "She practically made me cry about three times. It was the most emotional race I've ever run."
The four, the exact number needed for a full team score, were 11th through 14th at the halfway point. Soon, Ulmasova's pace broke everyone but teammate Tatyana Pozdnyakova and Waitz. The Norwegian, who had won from 1978 through 1981, was running with a right knee sore from tendinitis, which had required a series of cortisone injections.
Merrill had led her crew into striking position, but she was incapable of moving farther up. Benoit surged on, with Springs and Groos following closely. Ahead, the Soviets were coming apart. They had misjudged the severity of the course and begun too hard. Benoit, Springs and Groos moved to 5-6-7 with 600 meters to go. Up front, Waitz was running away from the Soviets to win her fifth world championship. Alison Wiley of Canada, a freckled Stanford freshman from Toronto, just caught Pozdnyakova in the stretch for second. Benoit and Springs overhauled Ulmasova before the line to get fourth and fifth, and four seconds later Groos was in ninth. The gallant Merrill hung on for 13th. Behind her, the Soviets' Yelena Sipatova, a former 10,000-meter world-record holder, fell to 21st, and the U.S. was the world champion, 31 points to 41 for the U.S.S.R.
Merrill almost couldn't get her sweats on for the hugs from her tearful, grateful teammates. "I've felt more a part of this team than any other," she said.
In the men's race Alberto Salazar could help his team most by winning. He hoped for brutal conditions. "The more miserably sloppy and hilly, the better," he said, "not because I like it but because it bothers everyone else more."
Pat Porter, the 23-year-old TAC champion from Alamosa, Colo. is a blazing starter, and at 550 meters he was leading the race. Salazar, wearing black tights against predicted sleet that would never come, began modestly, unworried about catching up. At the end of the first 2,000-meter lap-there would be six—Porter and teammate Thorn Hunt were in the front rank, another U.S. runner, Ed Eyestone, was 21st and Salazar 25th. Farther back came Americans Craig Virgin and Mark Anderson. Yifter and Kedir were out of it, but an unknown Ethiopian ran near the front. This was Bekele Debele, a 20-year-old army private with a crescent scar under his right eye. "We have a special Ethiopian sport," he would say later. "We get on horses with spears and shields and fight. The scar is from when I fell off my horse four years ago." Debele had been only 10th in the World Cross-Country junior race in 1982 but had won the San Bias half-marathon in Puerto Rico last month. He felt fine. "In the middle of the race I wanted to run away," he said, "but I thought if I try, they might stay with me. So I changed my mind and waited."
That was acceptable to Salazar, who had joined the leading cluster. At the halfway mark, he and Porter were abreast in the lead. "I felt great on the flat," said Salazar, "but on the hills and mud it was tough. The harder I tried, the more I seemed to struggle, like on a sand dune, or in a bad dream."
So Salazar waited, too. "I've been running great. I got cocky. I waited for the kick," he said.
With no one seriously trying to break away, the race remained a nearly unbroken torrent of runners. With a lap to go, Robert de Castella of Australia was leading and seemed to be paying particular attention to Salazar. These two fastest-ever marathoners will race that distance against one another for the first time on April 9 in Rotterdam. There, they will likely be alone at the end. Here, they were surrounded. Carlos Lopes of Portugal, the 1976 Olympic 10,000-meter silver medalist, was there, as was Muge Some of Kenya. And Porter, the great revelation of the race, was hanging close.
Porter had miscounted laps. When he expected to turn for the finish, he saw officials ringing the bell for another 2,000-meter circuit. Somehow he steeled himself to keep on. He was in seventh, and he would finish ninth, his remarkably long stride strong to the finish.
Salazar kept waiting. "I thought we had about 800 to go, and I was getting ready, when someone hollered we only had 400 to go, and the other three [Lopes, Some and Debele] took off," said Salazar. "I was shocked because they seemed tireder than I was." Nonetheless, he put his head down and went after them, and churned past with 100 meters to go. "I thought I'd won it. I thought they'd used their kicks. Then we hit more soft ground. And they had one more spurt."
In the stretch, first Debele shot past, then Lopes and Some, a 22-year-old soldier with only two years of running behind him. With 25 meters to go, it seemed anyone's race. Debele, Lopes and Some all were given the same time of 36:52, but Debele was the winner. Lopes held off Some for second, and Salazar was fourth in 36:53. De Castella was sixth, seven seconds back. Ethiopia's depth told in the team race—Kedir came back to rally his men to six places in the top 21—and they won with 104 points.
Behind Salazar and Porter, Hunt was 28th ("a long struggle"), Eyestone 30th, Virgin 42nd and Anderson 57th, and their 170 points took second, ahead of Kenya's 191, equaling the best placing an American team had ever achieved.
"I screwed up by not pushing the pace," said Salazar, but even in his chagrin he found a positive note. "It was good for me, if only for showing me how I was overconfident. I normally wouldn't think I could outkick those guys. Now I'm hungry. Now I'm down to earth."
Rotterdam must have been on his mind then, with its fast course and the challenge of de Castella. This had been a grand race, and in a world where victories last only a day, it had sown the seeds of an even grander one.
The women fought grimly for position on a tough English course with tricky footing.
Lopes, Debele, Salazar and Some were packed in tight at the tape.