"I just never gave up hope..."
This year, Penn State cross country fans will again have a chance to see the best collegiate runners in the country when the Lions host the 46th Annual National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I Cross Country Championships on Nov. 19.
The meet, known simply as "the nationals," is being run on Penn State's 10,000-meter course for the fifth time. The last time they were held here was 1975, when many of the NCAA rules that govern cross country were initiated by Penn State Head Coach Harry Groves.
For instance, Groves was the first to use an alley of two lines for the runners. Before 1975, runners would sometimes lose their way on courses that were marked only with a single line.
"Up until 1975, things were very haphazard," Groves said. "People were disqualified for running off courses and sometimes people were pushed into marking stakes that were too low."
Groves even went as far as to measure enough room for each of the seven runners on each team at the starting line. Before, there was only enough room for five runners on each team to stand on the starting line.
Other innovations from 1975 are the specifications for the width of the alleys in the finishing chute and an elaborate timing system at the finish line which includes a 16-millimeter camera, two video-cassete recorders, an Accutrack machine, a digital timer and a chromonex timer.
"In 1975, the nationals 10,000-meter course was heralded by the athletes as the best course that anybody had ever seen," Groves said.
"It's a real runner's course," he added, "because when I laid it out, I kept going along and saying to myself, 'What is the best way to go here if I'm a runner?' "
What Groves came up with was a 10,000-meter course that has a little bit of everything, including a route that winds through golf course rough, fairways, woods, fields and some hills that can be very deceiving.
Craig Virgin, the winner of the 1975 nationals at Penn State and holder of the second best time on the 10,000-meter course, had nothing but praise for the course when contacted recently at his Illinois business, Frontrunner Inc.
"There are plenty of good hills there and lots of good grass to run on," he said. "I felt that it was a very challenging course and when you ran it, you knew that you had gotten on a wild horse."
In recalling his championship performance of that year, Virgin said it was an "eyeball-to-eyeball, elbow-to-elbow" type of race when Nick Rose, from England and running for Western Kentucky, started to pull away from the pack at the two-mile mark, but Virgin stuck with him.
"It was one of the most physically demanding races I've ever been in," Virgin said.
Rose and Virgin, who was undefeated at that time, collided several times as both runners tried to outdistance each other. In the end, though, it was a long hill near the end of the course that did in Rose, who ironically had complained to Groves before the race that the course was not hilly enough.
In one of the great races that was run on the course, that same hill was the downfall of a future Boston Marathon competitor, Greg Meyer. In a race in 1976, Penn State All-Americans George Malley and Paul Stemmer decided, much to the dismay of Groves, that the only way to beat Meyer was to use the long hill at the end of the course. Malley and Stemmer sprinted up the hill and when they reached the top, they took off on a 100-yard dash and Meyer never caught up.
Another great runner, Marty Liquori, shaped the future of the Penn State course in his own unique way. When he raced here, Groves said, he had a tendency to pull the branches of the trees lining the course into the faces of the runners behind him. Since then, Groves has tried to steer the course away from any trees.
Groves does not expect any drastic changes this year for the 184 men and 136 women who will compete in the nationals at Penn State. He said most of the runners should be very pleased with the layout.
"Most people, after they run the course, say that it's tougher than they thought it was going to be but nobody moans because they think it's a very fair course," Groves said.
Virgin, who competed in the 1984 Olympics and is shooting for the 1988 games in Seoul, South Korea, said it is a good course as far as golf course routes go.
"I would reccommend the course to any cross country runner for a race because sometimes you find golf course routes that really are more like a track race or a road race," he said, "but that course is set up so that it makes you feel like you were on a real cross country course."
* The story is no longer edited. I'm still a jerk, but happy to have the additional info and permission to not have to edit such things in the future. Rules still apply, even to me. Although from reliable sources, Coach does enjoy the blog. The hill surge story is priceless. Except maybe to Meyer. Thanks for the story.