With Limits

Billy Crudup as Steve Prefontaine

This week my training has been seriously curtailed by a near fatal bout of Man Flu. I have been suspended in a state of torpor since last Sunday, stupefied by highly concentrated cough syrup and with sinuses so clogged I’m seriously considering vacuuming my nostrils. In short, the only thing that has been running of late is my nose.

While confined to the sofa I thought that the best thing would be to take my brain for a few laps at least. So I decided to watch the Steve Prefontaine biopic Without Limits. Surely this would teach me a thing or two about running.

Without Limits charts Prefontaine’s progression from a child who has to run to flee from bullies, to a youth who runs for recreation, to a man who runs for medals. Prefontaine is played by Billy Crudup who portrays him as an impish character who cares little for rules or the impracticalities of running with a moustache (the wind drag must have been a real nuisance). But the real star of the show is Donald Sutherland who puts in a noble turn as legendary coach Bill Bowerman (replete with an astounding toothpaste-white flattop). Only the coldest of hearts wouldn’t shed a tear (or at least feign an eye injury) in the final scene when Bowerman eulogises the recently deceased Prefontaine from the centre of a running track.

When I sat down to watch Without Limits I was hoping for an insight into how the great runners train. And I did get an insight, just into a far broader spectrum of issues that affect elite athletes. Here are 7 things I now know …

  1. Never have sex the night before a race – Prefontaine does, with disastrous results as he injures his foot while attempting to dismount.
  2. Don’t give Adidas shoes to everyone you have sex with – Prefontaine does this and while it doesn’t necessarily diminish his lung capacity or the length of his stride it certainly gives him a headache.
  3. It’s probably just safer not to have sex at all if you are an athlete – a number of the problems in Prefontaine’s turbulent and short life seem to have been caused by his love of women and willingness to distribute free Adidas merchandise to them.
  4. Don’t run with your arse sticking out – Bowerman notes that this slows you down. It also makes you look like a tit.
  5. Not running hard and from the front is “chicken shit”, “bullshit”, “horseshit” or any other kind of animal shit that you care to appropriate – Prefontaine firmly believed that this was the only suitable approach to running a race.
  6. You should run an even race with even splits – Bowerman counters Prefontaine’s assertions with his belief that you can run much faster if you measure your pace more equally.
  7. Moustaches are brilliant – this shouldn’t require justification or explanation.  

So, as soon as this cold clears I’ll take to the track with renewed vigour – a moustachioed, celibate, front-running machine. And I’ll be sure to keep my arse tucked safely underneath my pelvis too.

There’s something about Steve

Every morning this is the first thing I see.

Steve Prefontaine: what a man, what a moustache

It’s not by design that I wake up to this portrait of Steve Prefontaine. It’s purely by accident.

A few months ago I took my current job working as a supply teacher in Aberdeen. I needed a place to stay short-term so I rented a room from an old university friend. This old friend, unbeknownst to me before I moved in, has a curious obsession with Steve Prefontaine. He has a t-shirt, he has a DVD and, hanging on the wall in my room, he has that portrait (no doubt he has placemats and mugs and bumper stickers somewhere too).

But, and this is the thing that you need to understand, my friend isn’t a freak. He’s not alone in this. There are a lot of people who have Prefontaine on their walls; it’s just that most of them live in America. Go into any house in America (preferably with permission) and there is a reasonable chance that Prefontaine’s moustachioed face is going to be there, on a t-shirt or in a book, or hanging framed next to a bookcase or above a mantelpiece or in the toilet. He could be anywhere.

Why though? It’s reasonable to expect that you haven’t heard of Steve Prefontaine before. Maybe from the portrait and the subject of this blog you can guess that he’s a runner. You’d probably guess that he was a successful one too, a world record holder or an Olympic medallist at the very least.

You might be surprised to hear that while Prefontaine was a runner he never did break a world record or win an Olympic medal. That’s not the allure with Prefontaine, there were other things that made him special.

Pre

Prefontaine was rebel, a man who defied convention. For a start he didn’t look anything like a distance runner: with his tousled golden locks, moustache and intense eyes – eyes that look like they’ve seen stuff, you know, heavy stuff – he looked more like a Vietnam veteran than an athlete. There was the way that he ran too, always hard from the gun. Prefontaine preferred to pummel his opponents into submission by setting a fast, unrelenting pace rather than rely on a quick finish in the end.

Prefontaine, to use the American vernacular, had balls. Before the Olympic 5000 metre final at the 1972 Munich games (a race he would finish 4th in) he said: “Somebody may beat me, but they are going to have to bleed to do it.” As far as Prefontaine was concerned running wasn’t about who could move their legs more quickly, it was about who had a bigger heart and, ultimately, who could suffer more pain.

There are other reasons why the Americans have such a love affair with the legend of Steve Prefontaine. Like all good heroes he came from lowly immigrant stock but managed to strike gold in the land of opportunity. Prefontaine is, in a way, running’s Rocky facsimile: an emblem of the American dream and proof that no matter how poor or how foreign you are, anything is possible.

Like all good icons he's used to flog trainers

And like other heroes Prefontaine had a real distaste for authority. He was a man who didn’t think twice about sticking it to ‘the man’. For many years he fought doggedly against the Amateur Athletic Union, a body that decreed American athletes must not be paid to perform if they were to compete in the Olympics. Frustrated by the hypocrisy of race organisers profiting from athletes who were, at the time, paid nothing, Prefontaine set about changing the system.  Like a modern-day Spartacus, Prefontaine crusaded for American athletes to be freed from the oppressive body that enslaved them so that they might profit from their exploits.

But there’s one more reason why the mystique surrounding Prefontaine hangs so thick: he died young. One of the darker facets of human nature is that we like our heroes dead – it’s safer to eulogise them that way. I suppose people prefer to think about what men could have done than what they didn’t do. Those who die before their time will forever be connected to those two big towering words: what if. When he died in a car accident aged 24, we would never the chance to find out if Steve Prefontaine could avenge his defeat in Munich at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. We would never know if he was capable of breaking a world record. And we would never see how far and fast he could really go.

It sounds mawkish to say that someone has inspired you under almost any circumstances (an Oscar acceptance speech being a notable exception). But at the risk of sound like a Mariah Carey lyric I have to say that Steve’s spirit inspires me when I run. And that’s not because I want to emulate the man in the portrait gliding down the beach in the vest, his mouth mantelpieced by a moustache. It’s the sentiment that I buy into – running isn’t about floating or gliding anywhere, it’s about feeling like your chest has been napalmed and still carrying on, it’s about having a stitch and not stopping, it’s about getting to the crest of the hill. It’s about heart and character and it’s about guts.

As Steve says: “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”