Remembering the 41st NCAA X-C Championships; Rono vs Salazar at Lehigh
All Photos by Francis Rizzo
Imagine if the NCAA Division 1 cross-country championships were going to be held again in our backyard, the Saucon Valley course at Lehigh University. Better yet, the current world record holder for the 5,000 and 10,000 meters, Kenenisha Bekele, was going to run as well. It would something to behold.
Such was the case on November 19th, 1979 when Henry Rono of Kenya and Washington State University came to Bethlehem along with 240 + other qualifiers for the 41st edition of the NCAA x-c championships. Rono at this time, held not two world records, but four ! He had run 3,000 meters in 7:32, the 3,000 meters steeplechase in 8:05.4, 5,000 meters in 13:08.4, and finally the 10km in 27:22.4, all world records in 1979 and all set in the past year or two. In other words, Rono was in his prime.
Making the race even more interesting was the quality of the overall men’s field, with the likes of defending national champion, Alberto Salazar, leading the Oregon team under Bill Dellinger, as well as numerous future distance record holders, Olympic team members, and medal winners like Sydney Maree of Villanova, Mark Nenow of Kentucky, Jim Spivey of Indiana, Ray Treacy of Providence, Bruce Bickford, John Tuttle, Frank O’Mara, Suleiman Nyambui, Jon Sinclair, Kip Koskei, Rudy Chapa, Thom Hunt, James Rotich, and Samson Kimombwa.
The Kenyans running for UTEP, Washington State, and New Mexico, were practically the Kenyan Olympic team, as the NCAA had no age-limit for athletes at this time. In other words, it may well have been the highest quality field ever assembled for a NCAA championship meet.
The conditions on race day, as always the Monday of Thanksgiving week, were perfect; an Indian summer day of 60 degrees, sunny, with no wind. The previous year in Madison, Wisconsin, a frozen snow-covered course was not to Henry’s liking as he fell, then inadvertently ran off-course and finished far-back to Salazar’s victory.
The Lehigh 10k course in 1979 was essentially not much different from the one used today at Lehigh University. The start and finish are different due to the construction of their football and field hockey stadiums over the last 25 years, but nevertheless, about 5 miles of the rolling hill course are exactly the same.
The pace from the get-go was brutal. James Rotich of Texas El Paso (UTEP) roared off the starting line passing the mile mark in 4:20. The chasing pack included Salazar, Thom Hunt of Arizona, and Rono. 2 miles was passed by Rotich in 8:50. By 3 miles it was down to Salazar & Rono in 13:26, with Alberto now forcing the pace. Rono was quoted afterwards by Gene Beckner in the Easton Express, “My plan was just to watch Salazar and not let him ahead of me more than 20 yards. When I try to pull away I lose a lot of energy”.
It was a two person race for the rest of the way along the corn fields and hilly sections of Saucon fields, which high school and collegiate harriers still run today. Alberto pushed it as hard as possible, but to no avail. My unofficial clocking at the 4 mile, had them going by me in 18:10.
“Whenever I felt good on the downhill’s, I tried to pick it up,“ said Salazar to the press afterwards. “I knew he was there and I knew I had to break him. He just passed me on the downhill with about a mile left and started to pull away. I’d rather win but I did everything I could. I don’t think I could have run much faster and he seemed to have plenty left.” These were vintage Salazar quotes as we, who followed his career, all came to know. He would push himself in the tradition of Steve Prefontaine, a fellow Oregon Duck, to the point of physical breakdown.
Rono broke the tape in 28:19.6, followed by Salazar in 28:28, Kip Koskei in 28:48, Rotich in 29:04, and Hunt in 29:09 for 5th. In all, 34 runners broke 30:00. This was Rono’s 3rd NCAA x-c title, tying him with Pre and Gerry Lindgren, who also won 3 titles in their careers. UTEP won the team title with 86 points to Oregon’s 93 with Penn State in 3rd.
To the best of my knowledge, no one has broken 29:00 at Lehigh since the NCAA’s in 1979. The meet was held at Lehigh again in 1983, won by Zach Barie of UTEP in 29:20. Unfortunately, I don’t believe the NCAA’s have taken place there since ’83. Nevertheless, the Paul Short meet has a collegiate 10k every October, but it is rare to see anyone even break 30 minutes.
The quality of this NCAA championship was perhaps the best of any NCAA meet ever held. It is shame the championships have not taken place there since ‘83, as it would have been interesting to see if a Galen Rupp, a Chris Solinsky, and many of our collegiate distance greats over the past 30 years, could have approached 28:20 at Lehigh. I doubt it though.
1. Henry Rono -WSU – 28:19.6
2. Alberto Salazar -Oregon – 28:28
3. Kip Koskei – New Mexico – 28:48
4. James Rotich – UTEP – 29:04
5. Thom Hunt – Arizona – 29:09
6. Mike Musyoki – UTEP – 29:15
7. Sydney Maree – Villanova – 29:16
8. Joel Cheruiyot – WSU – 29:21
9. Jon Sinclair – Colorado State – 29:28
10. Rudy Chapa – Oregon – 29:29
11. Chris Fox – Auburn – 29:30
12. Suleiman Nyambui – UTEP – 29:31
13. Solomon Chebor – FDU – 29:32
14. Mark Anderson – Colorado – 29:33
15. Jim Schankel – SLO – 29:35
16. Geir Kvernmo – Wyoming – 29:36
17. Mark Nenow – Kentucky – 29:37
18. Dan Heikkinen – Michigan – 29:37
19. Alan Scharsu – PSU – 29:40
20. Wilson Kigen – UTEP – 29:41
21. Jim Spivey – Indiana – 29:44
22. Hillary Tuwei – Richmond – 29:46
23. Tom Graves – Auburn – 29:47
24. Don Clary – Oregon – 29:50
25. Larry Cuzzort – W.Kentucky – 29:52
1. UTEP - 86
2. Oregon - 93
3. Penn State – 186
4. Colorado – 189
5. Auburn – 222