Saturday night as the crowds moved from Soldiers Field to various happy hours and bars, the Harvard men's cross country team hustled off to Logan Airport and boarded a plane for Madison Wis., the site of this year's NCAA cross country championships.
Since cross country times heavily depend on the course and the weather conditions, there are no world records in the sport. It is only through head-to-head competition that teams, and individuals, can test their mettle. The NCAA race is the meeting ground for the world's premier cross country runners--as captain Mark Meyer calls it, the "superbowl" of cross country.
There are 29 teams from eight different regions competing in the 10,000-meter race, scheduled to take place this morning at the University of Wisconsin's Yahara Hills, including last year's title-winner, Oregon.
Oregon upset Washington State for the championship last year, with all five of their scorers finishing in the top 25 of a 300-man field. This year, however, Texas El Paso, with junior college transfer James Rotich and steeplechase specialist James Munyala (both Kenyans), is the team to beat.
Penn State, sparked by freshman Alan Scharsu from Ohio, sports the finest team in the East and is a probable top-five finisher.
Henry Rono, a 29-year-old junior at Washington State and a native of Kenya, is the two-time defending champion and is favored to retain his title. Currently considered the top distance runner in the world, Rono holds four world records in track--the 10,000-meter, the 5000-meter, and the 3000-meter, along with the 3000-meter steeplechase.
As for Harvard, Meyer looks for a top-20 finish or ideally a place among the first 15. "If we all ran out of our minds we'd make the top 15," he said.
Two years ago, a Crimson team which included current team members Meyer, Peter Fitzsimmons. Thad McNulty, and Rocky Moulton, placed 23rd with over 700 points. The first Harvard harrier to complete the race, Jeff Campbell, came home in 54th place and Fitzsimmons placed in the mid-100s. Meyer, Moulton and McNulty would all rather forget their performances. As Meyer remarked, "There were not too many people who finished behind us."
The ...clads hope to at least better their 1976 showing and believe that having been to the nationals once before will help. "Two years ago we were just blown away by seeing all those guys we'd heard about before," Meyer said. "We just forgot what we were there to do," he added.
Coach Bill McCurdy stresses that the team is up in Wisconsin to run the race and the whole team knows it, but "without looking through Crimson glasses, I have to say we're going to be faced with the fastest pace we've ever seen."
Many of the Midwesterners run the first mile in 4:14-4:16. That's suicidal compared to the Crimson's fastest start, which was 4:30 in the Heptagonals.
"Going out that fast I don't know what will happen to us," McCurdy said. "We might run the race of our lives, or we could die after two miles," he added.
Ed Sheehan, a senior who was the ninth American finisher in the outdoor 10,000 meter competition, is looking to gain All-American status. (The first 25 Americans to complete the race are awarded the ranking of All-American.) "If all goes well I think the four of us [Sheehan, Meyer, Fitzsimmons and John Murphy] have a good shot at it," Sheehan said.
The rolling hills of the Wisconsin course favor strong, tough runners rather than speedsters, and Sheehan hopes that those conditions (the forecast for Monday is rainy, with temperatures in the mid-30s) will aid the Crimson and slow down the Midwesterners.
However, it's all really just speculation. The Crimson has never competed with any runners on the level of those they will meet today in Madison, and no one knows how the team will respond--it's all uncharted territory.
"I feel like Columbus," McCurdy said. "I don't know what's over there on the other side. Maybe the damn thing just drops off."