The last time I stood at Pre’s Rock in Eugene, Oregon was on September 22, 2001. I guessed the distance of my run that day at 6.7 miles. I weighed 166 pounds. It took me one hour and twenty minutes to run from my airline layover hotel to this spot and back. I know all this because I have a detailed training log that goes back to 1982. Every run. Every ski. Every mountain. Several years ago, I put all the paper logs into a data base. I can figure out things like this with the click of a button.
I remember that I had a difficult time finding the rock where Steve Prefontaine died in a car accident. I remember bushwhacking uphill through a neighborhood to find it. When I finally found the spot, I stood there and wondered about the future. I wondered whether my friends that were still in uniform would be going to war soon. Just eleven days after “Nine Eleven” (which was a new phrase), I was on my first airline trip after the brief suspension of all flying after the attacks. I wondered if and when I would lose my job. I wondered how I’d put a roof over my wife and one-year old son. I got out of the service in 1998. My wife just left the service in May 2001. I was confused and agitated.
I took comfort in running. I think it’s interesting that I ran every day but one from September 12th to the 22nd when I ran up to Pre’s Rock. One workout was a 30-mile rollerski to East Canyon Reservoir in Utah, where we lived at the time.
You don’t know who Pre is. One of the pictures I post here will summarize his life. Or you can go to Wikipedia. Or you can read my amusingly dated piece here with lots of pre-“Lance doping scandal” idol worship. Bottom line: Pre was probably the best distance runner this country ever produced. 4th in the Munich Olympics in the 5000 not good enough for you? Well, when he died at that curve in the road in May 1975, he held every outdoor track American record from 2k to 10k. Like any good martyr, he left us at age 24. We are all left to wonder: What did he leave undone?
I don’t know. But I know he left me motivation. He’s got a million quotes. But I think this is my favorite:
“Some people create with words or with music or with a brush and paints. I like to make something beautiful when I run.” –Steve Prefontaine
I’ve briefly tackled the idea that a lifetime of hiking could be considered performance art. Paints. Dance. Writing. What isn’t art, if you bring the right attention to it? Even brushing your teeth. Running a chainsaw. Dedication. Persistence over time. Whittling away the unnecessary until you have what you value. Maybe life can be an art form. I certainly believe Pre raised running to an art form:
“A race is a work of art that people can look at and be affected in as many ways they’re capable of understanding.” –Steve Prefontaine
On a handful of occasions, I raced at the very height of my capabilities. Running and skiing and cycling. I was the best I would ever be and dedicated myself to maximizing my potential. Those moments were precious. As I age, I’m still able to periodically focus and maximize my current potential. I’ll never be as fast as I was. But I can still create something. I can inspire others to create lives full of the things they value. Sport as a microcosm of life. A signpost pointing to a life well lived.
Today, on a sunny day in Oregon, I ran from the very same layover hotel along the Willamette River. In the past 15 years, I went from civilian airline pilot to a man back in military uniform. I was laid off twice for a total of 7 years. Ultimately, this led to a 13-year absence from my chosen post-military profession. During that 13-year absence, I went to war four times in Iraq and Afghanistan. I led a fighter squadron in combat, which feels like an Olympic gold medal to me. I had a second child, a daughter, a native Duluthian. I retired from the service after 3200 hours in the Viper. Now, I’m a guy who just turned 50 and is back making America angry 150 people at a time in the airlines.
I crossed the trail over the river and struggled up the hill. Things were different. I didn’t have to work to find it. I had Google maps. There were road signs pointing to the Rock. I had a smart phone strapped to my arm. (This is the first time I’ve ever done this; I wanted to take pictures.) The GPS on my wrist told me it’s exactly 3.8 miles to Pre’s Rock. No guesswork. My digital scale at home says I’m precisely 20 pounds bigger than 15 years ago.
But some things are the same. I stood in the spot where Pre drew his last breath and I wondered about the future, just like I did 15 years before. Yet again, I was a confused and agitated civilian airline pilot. My son is driving. My daughter looks at her phone too much. We have bills to pay. Standard shit.
But it’s okay. My son has raced on mountain bikes and is switching to cross-country running this year. My daughter has taken up rowing after a season of running on the track. And they both ski with strength and poise and fire. I know this because they both have the “angry eyebrows” when I yell at them as they pass. They don’t hear me. They are so far gone, they’re deaf. They’re busy making art. Pre says so.
I thought about these things as I ran down the wood chips of Pre’s Trail and returned to the rest of my life. Almost back to my hotel, I saw an osprey return to a nest atop a pole next to a busy highway along the river. An airplane left a contrail just above it. Our future is extremely hard to predict and terrifying and magnificent.