My son stopped by my office last Friday over the lunch hour to chat. In the midst of our casual conversation he suddenly asked me if I knew how Steve Prefontaine died. His question took me by surprise. “Where did you hear about Steve Prefontaine?” I asked.
Steve Prefontaine—or “Pre” as he was known by scores of distance runners in the early 70s—at one time held the American record in every long distance race from the 2,000 to the 10,000 meters. Pre was the darling of the distance men. He met his death tragically when the small MGB he was driving struck a rock wall by the side of the road and overturned, effectively pinning him underneath. The weight of the vehicle crushed his chest. Suddenly, at 24 years of age, this living legend belonged to the ages.
“This morning I met a guy I used to run with in high school at the track,” my son said. “He still runs. He had his dog with him. The dog’s name is Pre.”
I googled Prefontaine on my laptop. Together we scanned the Wikipedia entry. I learned a few things. As a high school sophomore, Prefontaine ran a 4:31 indoor mile. During his junior and senior years he ran undefeated. By the time he graduated, Prefontaine had set 19 national high school records in track. He went on to participate in the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, and was preparing for the 1976 Games when he died in 1975.
“He was some runner,” my son said over my shoulder.
“Well,” I said, clearing my throat, “your old man ran undefeated in the mile his senior year, with a personal best of 4:31 for the season. The following year, as a college freshman, I turned in a 4:21.8 indoor mile and placed third at the Middle Atlantic Championships.”
“I didn’t know that, Dad. What happened then?”
“A small intervention called the draft. That was at the tail end of the Vietnam war.”
We were both silent for a moment. Then I said: “It says here that Prefontaine used to say ‘To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the Gift.’”
“Sounds like he was quite a guy.”
“One of the greats,” I said.
The following day Michael Phelps won his first gold medal at the Beijing Games, breaking his own world record in the 400 meter IM swim. The time was an astounding 4:03.84—61 seconds per 100 meters of water.
Phelps has the perfect body for the water—a long torso and a wingspan of 6’ – 7”—perfect form and the drive of a champion. In training, he habitually swims 50 to 60 miles a week. At 23 years of age, he has become a world class athlete at the pinnacle of his career. Phelps is now the darling of the mermen.
Steve Prefontaine, Michael Phelps—athletes in their prime. Pre inspired one generation of runners; Phelps inspires another generation of swimmers.
Yet, like A. E. Housman’s athlete dying young, Steve Prefontaine never had to grapple with fame that fades when records fall to faster runners:
Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:
Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.
Like many world class athletes who spend years in intensive training to realize the goal of Olympic Gold, Michael Phelps will have to wrestle with finding meaning in life after he passes his prime.
Only a select few of us can achieve goals of such magnitude in this life, yet each one of us has been given a race to run, a distance to cover.
I don’t mourn my “what if” days. Thankfully, I somehow managed to channel my athletic energies into other areas and pursue different sets of goals. For me, these days it’s no longer about winning the race. Instead, it’s about learning to pace myself to find meaning in this journey to the finish.