Friday, January 30, 2009

The Bell Lap

Steve Prefontaine (known as “Pre”) is a long-distance runner from the 1970s who once held the American record in the five distance track events from 2,000 meters to 10,000 meters. He died tragically in a car accident at the age of 24 in the prime of his athleticism. Recently, the movie “Prefontaine” was on ESPN Classics. This movie about his life left me in a state of introspection I haven’t experienced since the last time I got caught up in a Sex in the City Marathon.

“Prefontaine” is not an Oscar-winning film by any means. It’s actually quite distracting to engage in the story of an iconic distance runner when you’re forced to watch him as portrayed by Jared Leto with stick-on sideburns and an unkempt mustache (although he’s not too bad on the eyes during the sweaty running scenes, but I digress). Tougher to take still, is watching Ed O’Neill as his assistant track coach. There’s something about watching Ed Bundy shepherd a young boy on his voyage to Olympic Gold that doesn’t sit right with me (insert image of hand-in-pants on couch here).

While the movie was aesthetically displeasing, its message is worth more than any Olympic or Oscar Gold. Steve Prefontaine’s running career reminded me of all the ways that running is a metaphor for life. In the final scenes of the movie we are at his funeral service as a hearse circles the track with his body inside. The score clock at Hayward Field counts down the time that he had aspired to run for the three-mile distance, as his former coach narrates the final moments of the would-have-been race. He speaks of Pre’s gift to the sport of track and field and how he ran every race like it was his last.

“This is his last race, this is the bell lap for Steve Prefontaine.”

In track, distance races last for multiple laps around the track. When the first runner makes it to the last lap, a bell is sounded to alert him that he has 400 yards to go. This is known as the bell lap. Pre’s life ended too soon, and some believe it was before he ever realized his full potential. His running career is a reminder of how we can all seek to better our lives before our own bell lap is sounding off.

Here, the lessons learned by walking (or running) in the shoes of Steve Prefontaine.

Sometimes success is found where you least expect it.
Pre wanted to be a miler in track and field, the same way most little boys dream of being a quarterback on the football team. At the time, dominating in the mile was one of the most celebrated successes in the sport. Little else was acknowledged or spoken about with regard to track. In the movie, when Pre begins working with coach Bill Bowerman, he expresses his interest in training to win in the mile despite his shortcomings in that distance. Bill Bowerman urges him to focus his efforts on the 5,000-meter race (roughly three miles) instead.

Pre’s response was, “Nobody cares about the 5,000.” His coach: “So make them.”

It’s easy to look at what others already do well and aspire to do it better, but sometimes the opportunities lurk in the less obvious places. Sometimes people get so caught up in having to matter in some kind of pre-defined list of “success stories” that they forget their own quirks and skill sets might be the true key to being successful. Forget about “The Mile” – when Steve Prefontaine was done with the 5,000 he not only highlighted other areas in track and field, but the idea of running as a whole. Along with his coach Bill Bowerman (eventual co-founder of Nike) he has been largely credited for the “jogging” phenomenon.

You don’t always have to fit the part to get the part.
Based on the movie, Pre actually wanted to take part in the usual team sports like baseball, basketball and football when he was younger, but since he was built smaller than other boys his age he never made the team. He turned to running and began his career as a freshman cross-country runner. Though he didn’t possess the ideal build for a distance runner either, he trained hard to improve. His first two years were nothing spectacular as he was finding his rhythm as a runner in different events and working through issues with injuries and competition that was stronger than him, but by his junior year he came into his own to set 19 national high school records in track. He continued his winning streak as he moved into college, training with Bill Bowerman at the University of Oregon where he would win three Division I NCAA Cross Country Championships and four straight three-mile/5000-meter titles in track and field. Ironically, among his only defeats in college were two races in the mile.

It has been said that Steve Prefontaine turned running into a blood sport – not bad for someone who was cut from the football team and doomed to participate in the “dork” sport of cross-country.

Life isn’t fair.
After college, Pre went on to compete in the 1972 Summer Games in Munich at only 21 years old (two years younger than anyone else in the 5,000-meter field). Taking the lead with a mile to go, and holding it until less than 600 meters remaining, he ultimately finished fourth (13:28.25) behind Lasse Viren of Finland (first, 13:26.42), Mohamed Gammoudi of Tunisia (second, 13:27.33) and Ian Stewart of Great Britain (third, 13:27.61). Stewart passed Prefontaine less than 10 meters from the finish line for the final medal.

During the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, a group of eight Palestinian terrorists belonging to the Black September organization broke into the Olympic Village and took eleven Israeli athletes hostage in their apartment, killing two of the hostages in the apartment after fighting back; the subsequent standoff in the Olympic Village lasted for almost 18 hours. This became known as the Munich Massacre.

“Prefontaine” the movie, shows how this event effected the athletes participating in the Olympics at the time, and how it may have stirred Pre up in ways that eventually cost him an Olympic medal in the 5,000. It doesn’t seem fair that his Olympic experience (and potential to win a medal) was marred by terrorism – and it seems even less fair that just three years later he would die in a terrible car accident before he could return to the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal to prove himself. Many believe that Pre had yet to peak as an all-star runner, but he would never get the chance to find out.

Passion, applied to anything, will make it stronger.
One of the things Pre was best known for was his aggressive front-running style. It isn’t usually advised to take the lead in a pack of runners, since doing so drains the leader while enabling the rest of the pack to draft behind. Pre’s philosophy on running was to get the race to a place where only pure heart and soul mattered. It didn’t matter to him who was bigger or smaller, stronger or lighter, or who knew how to put together a better race. He didn’t care about the logistics of the race – he cared about the desire. There are many quotes from Pre on what drives him, but the one below is one of my favorites because I think it perfectly sums up the idea that applying passion to something gives it that “X” factor. There’s an intangible quality to things that truly have a force in the world – something about them that can’t be grasped, recreated, or extracted for safekeeping. You can be aware of it, but you’ll struggle to define it because it can’t be captured – only experienced.

I'm going to work so that it's a pure guts race at the end, and if it is, I am the only one who can win it. – Steve Prefontaine.

You may read this and wonder what you could have in common with an iconic runner from the 1970s. Steve Prefontaine’s story isn’t just about a gifted athlete whose life was cut short. It’s the story of a man who played with the cards he was dealt to the best of his ability and along the way, showed the world a thing or two about passion, guts and perseverance. His spirit was what we should all hope to possess inside: the will to push harder, the desire to dig deeper, the courage to change something as we know it. They celebrated this spirit during Pre’s bell lap. What will people celebrate when it’s your turn?

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