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Original Issue

Running On A Rocky Mountain High?

Colorado's Pat Porter, U.S. cross-country champ since 1982, is an athlete truly in his element

Pat Porter lifts his greedy gaze from a buttered cinnamon roll the size of a footstool and cranes to look around the Campus Cafe in Alamosa, Colo. He has just been asked how many of the room's 23 breakfasters he knows. "All of 'em, I think," he says. "Except those girls."

Two Adams State coeds in the next booth eat in studied, almost regal ignorance of Porter's expectant glances. In this they are alone. He's got the rest of the café in a festive mood. The Garrisons of Garrison Fence Co. drop by the table. "Congratulations on how you did down there in Waco," they say.

"Just lucky," says Porter, in neighborly understatement. What he had done was win the senior men's 12,000-meter U.S. trials for the world cross-country championships, to be held March 23 in Neuch√¢tel, Switzerland. With two miles to go, he had surged away from TAC 10,000-meter champion Bruce Bickford and had won by 12 seconds.

Porter already had made the U.S. team by winning, for the fourth year in a row, the TAC cross-country championships last November. He ran the Waco trials simply as a tune-up over sod, and the fitness he revealed makes him the strongest U.S. entry in the world championships since Craig Virgin unexpectedly won the worlds in 1980 and repeated in '81.

Porter has no real weaknesses. "Except getting a date in Alamosa," he says in the direction of the two blonde coeds, whose ears have turned to stone.

On the track, Porter was the only U.S. finalist in the 1984 Olympic 10,000, and finished a close second to Ethiopia's Wodajo Bulti in the World Cup 10,000 last October. But it is over rough, hilly, sloppy courses that his stride and wind and nature move him far out in the lead.

His four TAC victories were achieved with searing sprints from the start. Then, when close pursuers began to stagger and weave, Porter carried on. He does not seek the relative ease of tactical victory, of merely outsprinting a weaker man. He displays the full extent of his superiority. "As nice a guy as he may be the rest of the time," says a former Athletics West teammate, Sue Addison, "in a race, well...he changes." Her tone contains both respect and warning.

"Yeah, I'm pretty nasty the day of the race," Porter says. "I holler. I get aggressive. But let's take note of the sweetheart I am on all the non-race days."

That's fair, because Porter has an uncommon number of non-race days. He runs cross-country in the fall and winter, and track in the spring, but goes easy on the indoor meets and road events. This is a rare practice in the current endless season of big-money road racing.

"It combines what I'm good at and what will make for a longer, better career," says Porter. "I like cross-country. Most guys hate it. By contrast, I hate indoors. I don't do it well, and I get beat on. My stride is too long for the tight turns." He is being modest again. In Albuquerque's indoor two-mile in January Porter gave TAC indoor 5,000-meter champion Doug Padilla, a splendid finisher, all he could handle in the last lap.

"But beyond that," continues Porter, "it's a question of priorities. Rather than chase the bucks in weekly road races now, I want to have a few good peaks. I want to take care of my legs. I want to take a lesson from Carlos Lopes."

Lopes, from Portugal, is the world-record holder and 1984 Olympic champion in the marathon. He concentrated on cross-country and track until 1982 and made the marathon his own at age 37. Lopes is also the defending world cross-country champion and thus a Porter target as well as example.

Porter's tea cools rapidly, one of the effects of Alamosa's 7,540-foot elevation. The town (pop. 7,000) is the commercial center of the San Luis Valley, which stretches 125 miles from Saguache County in the north into New Mexico in the south. Lying as flat as water between the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the east and the San Juan Mountains to the west, the valley is known for its potatoes, hops, barley and 40-below-zero winters. Manassa, the birthplace of Jack Dempsey, is 20 miles south of Alamosa.

The café patrons send Porter off with waves and blessings. He ambles a few blocks, still in his morning-run purple tights. The grass, tree trunks and dust of Alamosa all are shades of gray. The wind is rising. "The one thing everybody asks," says Porter, "is why am I here? Well, I like it here. It's flat and high. And when you're a runner it's important to isolate yourself, to get away from the crowds. If I lived in Boulder everyone would know every time I made a left turn. Here no one knows a thing. Adds a little mystique." Shows a little orneriness.

Porter grew up in Evergreen, Colo., a piney community near Denver. His father was a district manager for Mountain Bell. Porter began running in high school. "I wanted the 220 or the 440, but the first guys to volunteer got the sprints. I was too shy to raise my hand. The leftovers got the mile."

He ran 4:29 as a senior, along with thousands of others, and was recruited by no one. He went to Metropolitan State in Denver for a year, then transferred to Adams State in Alamosa. "We always got beat by them so terribly, I figured this must be the place to learn. The next year, here I was."

He learned. "On the first day, I thought I was a stud. I'd trained maybe 10 miles all summer. I also thought the warmup jog was the whole workout. Then we headed out of town for 10 miles of Indian running, where you take turns sprinting to the front of the pack. I made it there twice." He wobbled back to the campus long after everyone else, hotter, sicker and wiser than he'd ever been.

The coach at Adams State since 1965 has been Joe Vigil, a powerful, resonant man, intimidating of visage, which makes his warmth all the more effective. "He's never had the luxury of recruiting great talent," says Porter, "but if you could measure how far runners come under a coach regardless of where they start, there would be no one better." The coaching fraternity apparently agrees. TAC has put Vigil in charge of the mission to Neuch√¢tel and elected him coach of the distance runners on the 1988 Olympic team.

"I have total faith in his knowledge of me," Porter says. "After I got going, I became a work addict. Coach Vigil's job then was to slow me down."

From the café Porter ventures into downtown Alamosa. Ron Seybold and Charlie Bocock see him and come charging over. They fuss about Waco awhile, and the old days. "Pat used to work for the local mosquito control board, spraying," says Bocock, a local businessman who also worked for the board then. "Everybody had to have periodic blood tests to see how much chemical buildup, how much Malathion, he had."

"The others were always at the max," says Porter. "But my tests were good. I think on my runs I was blowing it out."

For three summers Porter drove a truck, spraying from 6 to 9 a.m., then inspected standing irrigation water in farmers' fields for mosquito larvae, "throwing Baytex crystals at them," until noon. Then he slept and trained. In the evening he sprayed again.

"On race weekends I took the eight-hour bus ride through the mountains to Denver, raced, got back Sunday morning at 5:30 and went to sleep on my boss's porch. He'd come out in half an hour and take me to work." Porter's reverie contains the pride of having reached unhealthy extremes. "Things like that keep you from taking any of this for granted."

The circumstances of Porter's life have eased. He graduated from Adams State in 1982 with a degree in marketing. Athletics West, the Nike-supported track club, makes him financially comfortable. He has a monstrous black half-ton pickup, which he now uses to roar home to a white stucco house near the college.

Outside, Porter shows off his 1929 Model A pickup, its left front fender draped with a towel to hide the dent where he hit it with his other truck. Lurking in the garage is a huge, malevolent motorcycle. "Zero to 60 in four seconds," Porter says, waving at the arrival of Brent Friesth, a training partner.

Friesth, 25, came from Sioux Falls, S. Dak. to run under Vigil. "A coach more intelligent than I'll ever be," he says. "And a structure to the training."

They sit at Porter's dining room table and examine their training schedule, a 10-day cycle contained on a single white page. Every day calls for considerable labor, from six one-mile runs (for which Porter recently averaged 4:19) to two hours through the sage to 16 400-meter intervals (Porter averaged 59.0 with a minute's rest between) to 10 miles at a five-minute-mile pace. Easy days are 12 miles, which Porter runs at a 5:40 pace. Friesth, with a 10,000 best of only 29:45, is a remarkable man to stay with him.

"These workouts don't change," says Friesth. "It's an eternal cycle. Pat leaves, races, comes home a week later and has to jump right back in."

And everything is done at altitude. Porter will withstand whatever opening pace the world throws at him in Neuch√¢tel because he's used to operating with 20% less oxygen. "Did a 4:01 mile up here once," he says. "I saw God, too, right at the end. Everything got foggy, and there were bright sparkles."

Vigil says, "I consider Pat's 100 to 120 miles a week equivalent to 140 at sea level." So it seems the training at altitude may keep him from battering his legs as much as sea-level trainers.

Vigil has called Porter "scaringly fit right now," which means that he ought to frighten opponents, but also that Porter himself must face an unknown, must find out how good he has become. "He's a legitimate favorite in the worlds," says Vigil, "along with a dozen others."

Three or four are Ethiopians, good at cross-country for exactly the same reasons as Porter: altitude training and indomitability. Lopes will run, if healthy. Should Neuch√¢tel's course be muddy, John Treacy of Ireland will be a factor.

Porter isn't getting nasty thinking about it, not yet. Talk turns to hobbies, and he brings out a few of the guns he collects, the first a Ruger .223. "I like to target shoot and hunt deer and elk in the Sangre de Cristo," he says. The second is a Chinese-made AK-47 with a fixed bayonet. He aims it out the window and says, theatrically, "Why do people associate skinny with weak?"

This doesn't get the laugh that he might have wished. An assault rifle is an overpowering symbol of too much that is not sport. "I'm not a mercenary, not a fanatic," he says. "These are collector's items, like the Model A. The glory of the AK-47 is that not everyone can get one. Ammunition for it is available, but I have no intention of firing it."

He goes so far as to say, "Maybe they should have stricter rules for handguns. One or two steps for the sake of safety doesn't mean the eventual confiscation of all firearms."

When it is time for his afternoon run, Porter drives out east and north. After 25 miles, a dozen antelope bound across the sage as he nears Great Sand Dunes National Monument. Snow clouds obscure the mountaintops. Even here, he says, it never gets so cold he can't train. "If it's 40 below, it's too cold for the wind to blow. You throw on a layer of polypropylene, some sweats and a windbreaker, and go on out."

The dunes gleam with a light, new snow. Porter chats a moment with a fearless camp deer and jogs toward the sand hills. The snow makes little difference in footing, so he runs the curving, ascending ridges, sometimes plowing right up the soft leeward sides. He is 6 feet tall and weighs but 134, with wide shoulders and the slenderest of calves. It is clear that his great lungs and heart power the lightest, most efficient of limbs.

The mind's eye rises and retreats until Porter is but a dark, lean antelope moving on the white expanses, until all his high-valley environment can be seen around him. Alamosa has made him hard, inured him to the anoxia, the cold, the sucking mud. But it also has protected him, its altitude keeping him from too many miles, its people keeping him appreciative, humane, independent, his coach and philosophy keeping him on course for a long, rich career. The wind kicks up. He is in his element.



After hamming it up with a curious deer, Porter takes a run across the snowy hills of Great Sand Dunes National Monument.



Porter says he has no intention of firing this Chinese AK-47, which is in his collection.



The Model A is Porter's tinkering toy, but for fast starts he prefers a motorcycle.



As a prep for the worlds in Switzerland, Porter (7) ran, and won, the trials in Waco.