It's a sweltering Indian summer day in Bloomington, and the rolling fields around the University of Indiana golf course are dry—and brick hard. The only hint that this is the cross-country season are the trees, which have ripened into harvest reds and oranges. Nevertheless, the Indiana Invitational Cross Country Meet 5,000-meter women's race is about to begin. On the starting line, one runner stands out. Michelle Dekkers, 21, is the only barefoot entrant.
The gun fires, and Dekkers sprints to the lead. Though the baked ground bruises her feet, she steadily pulls away. Dekkers is in her element. "Cross-country is not as nerve-racking as track," she says. "You don't have to be so tactical. You just run." Dekkers reaches the finish 45 seconds in front of her nearest pursuer, in 16:58.7.
Later, in the men's 8,000-meter race, Indiana sophomore Bob Kennedy also will quickly move to the front. But this is out of the ordinary; usually Kennedy is more patient than Dekkers. She is by instinct a front-runner; he prefers to wait and kick. "I like to follow the other runners, and feed off them," he says. But today Kennedy and Terry Brahm, an Indiana graduate who ran the 5,000 at the Seoul Olympics, have agreed to push each other. They plan to run the race at an even three-minute-per-kilometer pace, but by the halfway point the heat has drained their expectations. Still, Kennedy and Brahm finish first and second—Kennedy in 24:51.34, Brahm in 24:51.50.
Dekkers and Kennedy are a historic pair. At last year's NCAA championships, in Granger, Iowa, they became the first runners from the same school to win NCAA cross-country individual titles in the same year. Dekkers has not only won every cross-country race she has run for Indiana but also has yet to trail in a cross-country race. Kennedy, who was just three months past his 18th birthday when he won the NCAA title, became the first American to win the title as a freshman.
Kennedy and Dekkers, who will defend their NCAA championships on Nov. 20 at the Naval Academy Golf Course in Annapolis, Md., contrast in ways other than just preferred cross-country running tactics. They are from strikingly different backgrounds. It seemed inevitable that Kennedy would choose Indiana over the 75 other schools that recruited him out of Westerville (Ohio) North High School. Both his parents are Indiana graduates. As a Hoosier junior in 1967, Bob Kennedy Sr. ran a school-record 14:13 for three miles and was third man on the team that won the Big Ten cross-country title. In fact, Bob Jr. was born in Bloomington while his father was serving as a graduate assistant to Indiana cross-country and track coach Sam Bell. Dekkers, on the other hand, grew up in Cape Town, South Africa. Five years ago, as a student at Voortrekker High School, she had never heard of Bloomington.
For all their differences, Kennedy and Dekkers are heirs to a single remarkable running tradition. Throughout the 1930s, Indiana was the mecca of cross-country running. Don Lash, who graduated in 1937, won seven straight national AAU titles, from 1934 to '40, and in 1936 the Hoosiers won the national AAU team title with a perfect score of 15 points, the only time that feat has ever been accomplished.
So it was no surprise that when the first NCAA championship was held, in 1938, the Hoosiers won. It was also fitting, because no one had done more than Indiana coach Billy Hayes to campaign for cross-country as an NCAA event. His Indiana squads won the team championship again in 1940 and tied for the title with Penn State in 1942. Fred Wilt became the first Indiana runner to win the individual title, in '41. The Indiana coach's influence and reputation was such in those years that the NCAA team trophy was originally called the Billy Hayes Trophy.
But when Hayes died in 1943, so, too, it seemed, did the Indiana cross-country tradition. The Hoosiers did not win another NCAA title—team or individual—until 1987, when Kim Betz, an unheralded Hoosier sophomore, triumphed in the NCAA women's race. But since then Betz has been plagued by compartment syndrome—an enlarging of a muscle to the extent that it outgrows the muscle sheath and causes severe pain—and has been operated on twice for it. Betz has withdrawn from school this term; otherwise Indiana would have three past champions running in Annapolis.
Still, Kennedy and Dekkers need not look far for inspiration. Bloomington has again become home to many of the country's top middle-distance runners. On most days Bell's workouts are attended by four to six athletes who have run either four minutes for the mile or the metric equivalent to that. Among them are Brahm, Indiana senior Mark Deady (who has run a 3:35.83 1,500 meters and was on the U.S. Olympic team at Seoul), Charles Marsala (Indiana, 1988, who has run 3:37.63 in the 1,500) and—until he moved to Chicago—world-class miler Jim Spivey. When runners such as these gather to train together, the air crackles with possibility. "The guys build on each other," says Bell. "Deady is injured [he is recovering from surgery he had last month on his Achilles tendon], but normally Kennedy would be training with two Olympians. It gives him an idea where he can go."
Kennedy has been thinking along those very lines. Bell points to a conversation they had while driving back to the hotel after Kennedy won last year's NCAA cross-country title. "We had gone maybe a mile when Bob said, 'I've got to forget about this and look ahead." That was a very short reverie."
A business major with a GPA of 3.0, Kennedy is nothing if not a pragmatist. He is interested in a career in corporate law, and his summer reading included Donald Trump's The Art of the Deal. "I like the way Trump gets things done," says Kennedy. He views long training runs as a necessity, not a chance to sight-see. "I don't enjoy seeing the country when I run," he says. "I'd rather look at it from a car. I do long runs because I know they will help me when it comes time to compete."
Although he was the top high school middle-distance runner in the nation in 1987-88 (he ran the equivalent of a 4:06 mile) and easily won the Kinney National High School Cross-Country championship, Kennedy's weekly training mileage was incredibly low: He never exceeded 35 miles a week, and during track season he dipped even lower, into the 20s. "On Sundays," Kennedy says, "our training schedule said 'gentle or rest.' I usually opted for the rest."
When it is pointed out that heavier training—70 miles a week is not unusual among top high school runners—might have made him the first U.S. high school miler to break four minutes since Marty Liquori did it in 1967, Kennedy shrugs. "I was satisfied with 4:06," he says. "You have to realize that the peak age for my interests in running is 26 or 27. I just turned 19 in August. And I'm planning to run until I find out how good I can be." Since going to Indiana, Kennedy has doubled his weekly mileage, to 65. He believes the change may explain his improvement last year.
While pragmatism marks Kennedy's running career, Dekkers's seems propelled by sheer enthusiasm. "I can't remember when I started running," she says. "In primary school we would run, and I could beat the other little kids, boys and girls. And then my dad started running with me." As with Kennedy and his Olympic-veteran training partners, Dekkers's father, Deon, could provide plenty of incentive for her. He had the strength to win the South African cross-country title in 1969 and the speed to run a 4:00.1 mile the same year.
Cape Town was a runner's paradise for Dekkers. For distance runs there was a seemingly endless network of forest trails around the family's home on Table Mountain, high above the city; for speed work there were grass tracks and cricket fields.
Dekkers was 15 when her father decided she needed a real coach. His choice was DeVilliers Lamprecht, who in 1968 had become the first South African to break four minutes for the mile. Lamprecht lived 500 miles away, in Bloemfontein, and sent Dekkers her workout schedules by mail, but the long-distance partnership proved to be fruitful. By the time Dekkers was 17, she had run times that would have placed her near the top of U.S. high school lists in several events: 2:08 in the 800, 4:22 in the 1,500 and 9:31 in the 3,000.
Dekkers knew that because of the international ban on competition with South Africa, her running would be limited to domestic meets. Her only chance to test herself internationally would be to leave her homeland. "I always pestered my father about going to the U.S. when we ran in the mornings," she says. "And he's the sort of person who is very much interested in trying new things. He's very restless."
In 1985, faced with the withering South African economy brought about by sanctions, Deon Dekkers decided to sell much of the construction equipment he owned. He found a market for the gear in Houston, and within three months of first visiting the U.S., he decided to bring his family to this country.
For Michelle the transition turned out to be far more difficult than she had imagined. "When I came over, I stood still," she says, wincing at the memory. "It was awful."
Dekkers grew up speaking Afrikaans and still speaks it at home with her family. She began to speak English at the age of 10. Suddenly, as a freshman at the University of Houston, she was faced with college-level textbooks written in what was little more than a classroom language to her.
Dekkers spent three unhappy semesters at Houston, where her top running performance was 11th in the Southwest Conference cross-country meet. While living in Houston, she became friends with Olympic 1,500-meter runner Gawain Guy from Jamaica, who was attending Rice University. She acknowledges that it would have been hard to sustain their friendship in South Africa—Guy's ancestors are from India and Jamaica—but the situation was also tough in Texas. After graduating from Rice, Guy moved to Bloomington in 1987 to train under Bell. When Dekkers visited him, she liked what she saw of the Indiana program. "The workouts were more structured than what I'd done at Houston," she says. "The training was a lot like what I was used to in South Africa." But Dekkers is not looking to duplicate Cape Town in Bloomington; occasionally she can even be seen wearing running shoes on her training workouts.
Dekkers's future is still somewhat uncertain. Though she has applied for U.S. citizenship, she is still a South African citizen. She can compete while attending Indiana because the NCAA has its own rules, which do not ban South Africans. But "anything sponsored by the IAAF I can't do," Dekkers says. "It's so silly. It's not my fault."
Although she is running at least as well as she did last year, Dekkers will be tested in Annapolis. Villanova's Vicki Huber, who was redshirted last fall after finishing sixth in the 3,000 at Seoul, is back and running well. Like Dekkers, Huber feels most comfortable when she's setting the pace. "Mentally, it will depend on who stays calm," says Deon.
Kennedy also will have a tough race. Marc Davis of Arizona and German Beltran of Alabama are threats to his title, and Iowa State, the top-ranked team, has sophomore Jonah Koech, of Kenya, the younger brother of Olympic steeplechase silver medalist Peter. Kennedy knows exactly what to expect, from the others and from himself. "I know I will hurt as bad as anyone else," he says. "But when you win you don't remember that. You think it was the easiest race of your life."
At Annapolis, Dekkers and Kennedy hope to repeat as the NCAA champs.