It was early on Wednesday morning – about 5:45 a.m. when I started to run my warm-up heading clockwise around the Westlake High School track. There was nobody in the stadium, nobody on the surface with me as you could hear my soft footfalls striking the ground 180 times per minute.
Shortly after my first mile a couple of other runners showed up, dropped their water bottles and car keys on the infield and started in behind me.
2-mile warm-up, a bit of light stretching and drills and then it was time for the workout.
3-miles of “in and out” 100’s – where I would run the straightaways of the track at just under 5k pace (5:40min./mile) then float the next 100 meters around the curve before settling back in to 5:40 pace for another 100. Repeated for 12 laps or 24 cycles.
My usual training partner David was not at the workout on this morning – his toe had been bothering him a bit on Saturday after we completed “The Monster” – a workout that deserves its’ own post sometime soon – so I was not surprised to be running alone for the workout. On any other day I would have been down about that prospect, but on May 29th it seemed fitting.
As I finished my first set of 100’s my coach called me over to correct my form. I had clocked the first mile including the floats at 6:20 with a goal of 6:18. Wind was gusting close to 25 mph, so I felt like I pretty much nailed it.
Coach noticed that I was cutting my stride a hair short, making my plant leg land too far “under” my hip, which was putting more shock on my lower legs. Instead she wanted me to remember to bring my knee up just a bit higher so that my bent foot after striking the ground would pass by my planted foot closer to knee level, and not below it.
I ran the curve practicing this adjustment and ran my second mile at the same effort in 6:16.
I ran the final mile of the workout in 6:14. Faster still even though I was working hard to stay “even”.
A tough workout, especially one done alone with nobody to pace with – but I was able to focus in on the task ahead of me and tick them off – 6:20, 6:16, 6:14 and had plenty of gas left in the tank.
What should have served as a big confidence booster for me coming off of a really tough week last week just felt “blah”. Thundering along my final 400 around 5:35 pace should have been invigorating – the buzz usually lasts almost all the way through my mile long cool down. But not on this day as my thoughts traced all the way across the country to Coos Bay Oregon where a family will be mourning the loss of their son today and as will the small blue collar town on the coast.
In Eugene, the same thing will be happening at track workouts, pubs and around the University of Oregon campus where people remember Pre. An American Distance Runner that made running “cool”. A sport which to that point and to some extent even still today is a lot of things, but “cool” isn’t necessarily one of them.
Pre ran the way that most of us wish that we could. I’ve come to accept that running and especially the speed at which we run is relative. There really is no slow. Just degrees of fast. People often say to me – and keep in mind, I am by no means an accomplished runner, or one who is particularly talented or gifted – I just tend to work at it harder than some others.
“I’m not fast like you are” or “I’m not a real runner like you”.
To me, a runner is anyone who is working as hard as they can to approach their potential. By that I mean, if your genetics, age, injury history, mechanics and training allow you to approach a 9:00 minute mile and you do your absolute best to improve that to 8:50 …. then you are every bit the runner I am as I try to improve my marathon time by a handful of seconds per mile to break 3 hours. Or to take just :03 off of my 5K PR to break 18 minutes. We are working just as hard at the same exact pursuit.
The pursuit of excellence.
When I say that Pre ran the way that all of us wish that we could, that sentiment is captured perfectly by Bill Bowerman’s Eulogy taken from Steve Prefontaine’s funeral service:
“All of my life – man and boy – I’ve operated under the assumption that the main idea in running was to win the damn race. Actually, when I became a coach I tried to teach people how to do that. I tried to teach Pre how to do that. I tried like Hell to teach Pre to do that… and Pre taught me – taught me I was wrong.
Pre, you see, was troubled by knowing that a mediocre effort could win a race, and a magnificent effort can lose one. Winning a race wouldn’t necessarily demand that he give it everything he had from start to finish. He never ran any other way. I tried to get him to. God knows I tried.
But Pre was stubborn. He insisted on holding himself to a higher standard than victory.
A race is a work of art. That’s what he said. That’s what he believed. And he was out to make it one every step of the way.
Of course, he wanted to win. Those who saw him compete and those who competed against him were never in any doubt about how much he wanted to win. But how he won mattered to him more.
Pre thought I was a hard case. But he finally got it through my head that the real purpose of running isn’t to win a race. It’s to test the limits of the human heart. And that he did. Nobody did it more often. Nobody did it better”.
Maybe that is why as badly as I want to run well at Cottonwood and I am training harder than ever before to give myself the best possible chance of breaking through 3 hours on race day – more than anything – I just want to run a race that I can be proud of.
To test the limits of my heart in a way that a now 62-year-old Steve Roland Prefontaine might glance with respect at the slight middle-aged runner from Austin TX, the same height he was, 7 lbs. lighter with hair much shorter – running the final 385 yards pouring every ounce of energy into the pursuit of excellence.
To be better on that day than I have ever been before – 2:59 or not – to me, anyone that sees me race that day will know that I was there and that I could not have run that race even one second faster. In my eyes, that is the definition of a runner.
At the time of his death Steve Prefontaine held every single American Record from 2,000 meters to 10,000.
Pre started 153 races in his career and won 120 of them.
In High school he broke 19 different records.
Just last summer, 40 years after he set the mark, Olympic Silver Medalist Galen Rupp finally broke Pre’s 5,000 meter Olympic Qualifying record in 13:22:67. Prefontaine’s record time, the oldest track and field Olympic trials record on the books was 13:22.80.
Somehow I have a hard time believing that head-to-head Pre would not have found a way to dig down and summon the strength to find those 13/100’s of a second.