Nature of cross country competition even prettier than scenery


BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- Traditionally, competing in cross country is pain. Run, run, run over hill and dale and, just when you think a lung is about to pop from your chest, there's a steep hill ahead, followed by the lengthy sprint, usually through mud.

They tell about an NCAA title meet in the late 1960s at the Air Force Academy in Colorado when a foot of snow fell on the course the day before.

That was nothing. Come race day, the temperature hovered around 32 degrees and it was sleeting. Competitors had to have their frozen shoes cut from their feet, which are probably still numb.

Then there was yesterday. Every athletic event should contain the identical elements of the NCAA Championships as staged on the campus of Lehigh University, alias Camelot.

As much as it was the setting, a positively scrumptious day in breathtaking Lehigh Valley -- sunny, 50 degrees and a slight breeze -- it was the nature of the competition. Nowhere in the perspiring arts do you see as many winners as there are at a cross country meet. Either that or the kids are great actors.

"We got fifth," a couple of lads in Michigan blue squealed as they headed toward friends to celebrate.

"Second was fine with me," said Villanova's Jen Rhine. "I knew I couldn't go with Carole [teammate Zajac] when she took off at the two-mile mark."

Over and over exclamations of satisfaction bordering on contentment were heard from the 300 athletes representing dozens of colleges and universities. There had to be disappointment, sure, but no one was going to spoil the festivities with self-interest and gripes.

With about a half-mile remaining in the women's 5,000-meter showdown, favored Arkansas led Villanova by 40 points, meaning the latter team had to get a super-human effort out of its fourth and fifth runners in order to successfully defend its title. It did.

Dramatically and similar to stewards at the race track checking a finish line photo to determine a winner, officials had to go to a videotape of people crossing the line to determine beyond reasonable doubt that Villanova had indeed prevailed by six points over the Lady Razorbacks. Last year, the margin of victory between the rivals was seven points.

"This season has been such a pleasure," said Zajac, who successfully defended her individual title with a 16:40 effort. "I was focused on both myself and the team and, while it's special to achieve a personal goal, there's so much more glory to win as a team."

Especially since this makes it five straight for the fillies from Philly who haven't lost a race in four years.

"Not much was expected from us because we lost some people through graduation and transfer, and we had some 800-meter runners we had to pull up [to distance]. That fired us up," said Zajac. "After our first race we knew we had something. I think we had underestimated what we had, too."

Denna Drossin, Arkansas' top finisher in sixth position, spent just an instant telling of how the team "really wanted this" before brightening and adding, "how about our men?"

Yes, an hour before, the Razorback men had made the 10,000-meter romp over comfortable, spongy turf resemble a team workout in the hills surrounding Fayetteville as they ran 2-3-8-16-25 in the team standings for an awesome score of 31. By comparison, second-place Brigham Young tallied 153 points.

The winner of the men's gallop in 29:32 was Josephat Kapkory, a Kenyan chemical engineering major representing Washington State. He has been so dominating this season, Arkansas just about conceded him the race.

"We decided to run as a team and just let Kapkory go," said victorious coach John McDonnell. Still, it wasn't as if several of the Razorbacks were content trailing the wire-to-wire leader throughout, especially after they had the team title safely in the satchel.

"This was our 20th NCAA title and that was the most important thing to us," said Jason Bunston, a Canadian. "With a little more than a kilometer to go, Niall Bruton [from Ireland] and myself knew we had our positions secure and that's where we saw the coach and he was screaming for us to 'give it a go.' "

The teammates did put a dent in Kapkory's race-long lead of about 12 seconds, but an eight-second victory in this sport qualifies as a semi-breeze. "I planned to be alone as quickly as I could," said the winner, "but I was surprised when no one followed when I went out [at about the mile mark]."

It helped that Washington State did not have a team entered, just two individuals, for as Kapkory explained, "I could concentrate on myself. I have no problem running alone. When you're going for time, you need someone close to push you. When you are running simply to win, all you have to do is look around to see what you have to do."

"We told our guys beforehand to hold on for 30 minutes of agony for 12 months of glory," said McDonnell. But darned if the demonstrative crowd of about 5,000 saw anything even resembling agony at this magnificent event.

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