Vanny's Cemetary on Vault Hill is the known final home for many members of the original Van Cortlandt family who owned the surrounding region in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is also by some accounts the place where in more recent times a few unlucky runners were laid to rest. Nearly 20 years ago, though, the most celebrated American running dynasty was terminated on Cemetary when Pat Porter's string of 8 consecutive US Nationals Cross Country championships was finally broken.
A legendarily tough, hill-loving runner from Colorado who was known for pushing the early miles of races to the limit to crush the spirits of his chief competitors, Porter began his streak of US XC championships in 1982 when he was 23 and won his 8th straight crown in 1989. During those years he set a world record for the 10K on the road, competed well in the World Cross Country Championship for the US, and ran the 10,000 in the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Games. The worse the XC course conditions, the more Porter enjoyed it, and for 8 years all of the top North American-based distance runners who battled him for the American XC crown were broken and left behind in the dust or more usually the mud.
In 1990 Porter and the distance stars came to Van Cortlandt Park to run for a US XC championship that had first been held a century earlier in 1890. The year before at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, Porter had broken Don Lash's 49-year-old record of 7 straight US National titles. During that race, he had typically ignored the advice of his friend and that year's women's champion, Lynn Jennings, to take it easy on first part of the rain-swept muck of a course and had again used his fast front-running strategy to keep his competition at bay. At 31, however, Porter was beginning to hear more loudly the footsteps of younger runners, some home grown like John Nuttal, Tim Hacker, and Bob Kempainen and some from abroad like 1989 challenger John Halvorsen. The question was, Would the same morale-crushing technique work once more on the famed Vanny course?
Porter had some familiarity with VCP. His 6th US championship in 1987 had come on his second visit to VCP (following his first race there by two months). The 1987 championship had been a classic duel with Porter trying to power up Cemetary but soon after finding Jim Farmer on his tail and having to work hard in the flats to win by 3 seconds and finish in a mind-boggling course record 29:58 for the 10K course. The time broke the old course record by 36 seconds, which had been set by John Mason 19 years before during the last US championship that had been held at VCP. Porter had commented about VCP that "anybody who's anybody has run here," and he certainly put his name in the books with his run in 1987.
Three years later for his second run at a Nationals title at VCP and attempted 9th overall, Porter saw no reason to ditch the strategy that won him his record championship streak. The first-half-pedal-to-the-floor technique flew in the face of the common wisdom for ways of attacking the VCP 10K, but that point did not faze Porter. He believed he could open up enough of a lead so that any problems on Cemetary and the back hills would leave him still with a big margin that could be taken to the finish. This time, however, Jennings' comments turned out to be more prescient as she cruised to her own 4th straight Nationals title and second at VCP, "You have to leave something for the hills." A former star at Princeton, Jennings knew every rock on the trail and used a strategy of surging up hills and flying down the back side though she had a healthy respect for Cemetary.
Through the halfway point in the 1990 race Porter held a lead over Nuttal and Kempainen, and he started a big push as he rounded the southeast corner sign and sprinted north toward Cemetary. This time though the legs did not feel the same as in the past, and when he got to the top of the famous hill his reign as king was on the rocks. His two pursuers chased him down the north slope of Cemetary and passed him going over the bridge and into the back hills. Porter regrouped to try to hang on as Kempainen pulled away on the flats, but his final effort still left him 2nd in 30:35, 13 seconds behind the winner. After the race, Porter summed everything up, "I got buried on Cemetary."
There is no marker on Cemetary Hill for Porter, arguably America's greatest cross country runner, but that is indeed where his legendary career found a final resting place.