Racing to win

I was recently turned on to a short video on the University of Oregon runner Steve Prefontaine. Affectionately nicknamed “Pre”, he was known for his ‘balls-to-the-wall,winner-take-all’ racing style. Archival footage in the video shows how he raced; never waiting to let others determine the tempo. It was refreshing to see that he raced for himself, regardless of who else might be in the race. Steve didn’t always win the entire race, but when the race was over, he was always a winner. His racing style made him a living legend. In the process, he set numerous high school, collegiate, and American running records in distances from the mile to the 10k. Tragically, in 1975, Prefontaine died in a single car accident―he was only 24. But, he left a legacy.

Admittedly, I knew little of the already deceased Pre when I embarked on my own 28 years of competitive road racing back in 1980. Without the benefit of the internet, my heroes jumped out from the pages of Runner’s World and The Runner, the two premier magazines which would eventually join forces in 1986 to form a single magazine. My heroes were road runners like Bill Rodgers, Alberto Salazar, and Craig Virgin. Later, after my own career took off, I would be focused on peers from within my own running community. Note: never did I let these folks determine my pace.

The way I see it, we all need folks to look up to; people who are good at doing the thing we are trying to do or want to try. Most need heroes and mentors, or we tend to get lazy. Like Pre, we should always be pressing for continuous improvement. Countless people, though, are afraid to push the envelope. They believe it requires too much effort; causes too much pain. In my nearly three decades of competitive running, I found quite the opposite to be true. The constant battle to fit into your favorite pair of jeans, the daily struggle with the bathroom scale, your love-hate relationship with the dreaded mirror; now those things are truly exhausting, wouldn’t you agree? My friends, in choosing to participate in the sport of running, you have an unparalleled opportunity for self-improvement every day. Each time you strap on your running shoes, you have a chance to improve on your physical self, and your mental well-being too. I think that’s pretty exciting. Don’t you?

Now, about the herds of runners who take it easy for most of the race, and then kick over the final 100 yards, they aren’t winners in my book. Pre certainly didn’t wait for a kick. He understood that the real battle takes place in those miles sandwiched between the beginning and the end of the race. If you’re one of those folks who are always waiting to see what others are going to do, perhaps even waiting for your own chance to kick, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. The prime opportunity to improve on your running, on yourself, is always now. Even when a person is talented enough to wait and then out-kick the rest of us, it doesn’t connote success―no, not to me. There will always be good kickers. I know this, because I ran against them. Post-running, I see them every day. It is a fact, though, that most of them will never achieve their best. They might win the race, but they didn’t run their best. In my book, they’ve cheated themselves.

The folks I respect are those who lay it on the line day in and day out; the guys like Pre. Watch the video here:

After watching Pre race, I hope you’ll agree that waiting for a kick means choosing to be less than your best. And, none of us wants that.