On the Trail of Prefontaine

As my ten days in Eugene comes to a close, I have come to realize that coming here and running here really marks a milestone for me and my views on my running. Though I may be on the trail of Prefontaine, I am certainly not chasing Prefontaine.

I came to Oregon with my family, to spend the Thanksgiving holiday time period with family and friends, to decompress some after Iraq, and to get away. But I also came here to run. Since 11 August, I’ve been running 4 times a week and at increasing distances, all in preparation for the upcoming Honolulu Marathon. But it’s been more than that — the running, and this trip. I’m running to find myself, and I’m finding myself running.

Running in Eugene

Early in life, I wasn’t a runner. I swam like a fish, I played soccer when I could, I loved to ski. Running came late to me, when I started this demanding relationship with the Army and like a trying girlfriend, the Army said I ought to get out and run some, maybe lose a few pounds, add some plaid shirts to my wardrobe, comb my hair differently. And so I ran. Some.

In 2002, I was injured. Nothing too serious — I just couldn’t run for a few years. Well, I could, but doing so would take me out of commission for a week or more. I still did it — Friday 10km runs around the airfield, just to show the troops that, pain and misery or not, it can still be done. But I still wasn’t a runner. I ran because I was expected to – like wearing that sweater because you know that Aunt Martha will be there and will be pleased to see you in it.

Down by the river

When they patched me up some in 2005, they told me I’d be able to run — some. 2, maybe 3 miles, four tops. Never, say, a 10km run. Which really made no sense to me – I can run 4 miles, but not six? I set out to prove them wrong, and somewhere along the way, I became a runner.

By accident, of course. I never meant to become a runner. I never thought I’d take to it. I never thought I’d need it, much less want it. But as I slowly got back to running, first short distances a few times a week but slowly longer distances 4 times a week, I found it to be both an awesome experience and a positive influence on my daily life.

Rising Water

Maybe some of it had to do with where I was running. I’d started in Germany, taking to the tractor trails and heading up into the woods. By the summer, I was in Kansas, running through the heat and humidity, scampering up the one ridge line close enough for me to run. And as summer waned, and as my long runs pushed first past 10km and then past 10 miles, I started to revel in my weekend solitude, exploring the area and the changing colors of fall-time foliage. By the time I was finished in America and had returned to Germany and the cold, cold mornings and snow, I was a runner. I ran.

I didn’t compete. I didn’t enter some event every weekend, didn’t collect bibs to hang on the wall. I ran, just to run.

Late leaves and the end of the fall season

It didn’t take much then to push me to train for a marathon – not for the event itself, but for the challenge of just doing it. The 10+ miles I could do by the time I was leaving Kansas easily grew to half marathon distances, and the more I ran, the more I began to wonder just what my body could take. Push here, push there, and everything seemed to hold. Nothing was breaking. A marathon seemed possible. I searched and found the one scheduled in Luxembourg, I dig out links for the Hal Higdon training plan, I bought my Garmin Forerunner 305 and running clothes and new iPod headphones, and I let my running go. I dropped the reins and stopped holding on.

And it felt great.

The fog of winter

But in becoming a runner, I seemed to be missing one key thing: PR’s. Most everyone I encountered thought I was nuts for running like I did — both for the distances, and for running after having just been so broken. But the rare ones I encountered, the fellow runners, all seemed to be chasing some personal record. And I wasn’t. Was I suppose to? I didn’t get it, didn’t see the need. I ran, and I enjoyed it; when the run was over, I’d take a shower and get a meal, not scribble down notes in some log or deconstruct what I had done in an effort to squeeze (something) more out of my (something) time.

And, after completing the Luxembourg marathon in 2007, I remember thinking — I’d have been OK if the run had taken longer, because 1) I had not died, and 2) the process itself had been so much fun.

Down along the electric company

Was I truly a runner, thinking such thoughts? Running today, all the moreso on the web and in the magazines, is about speed and times and improvements and races and going faster, faster, FASTER. Everyone I talked to, everything I read online and in the fancy running magazines, all seemed to say that I was missing something for not chasing PR’s — 5km, 10km, half marathon, etc. I was a fake. I was something other than a runner, because I wasn’t chasing some land speed record. PR’s. PR’s, PR’s. Lighter shoes, to shave time off your PR. Less chicken but more salmon, to shave time off your PR. Less slow runs, more hills or intervals, to shave time off your PR.

But I didn’t. I spent more time spent playing with my kids, without a thought for my PR. More 14 mile runs up and back down the Königstuhl, without a thought for my PR. I was busy living life, without a thought for my PR.

And that was OK.

Pre's Trail

When I got back to Iraq this year, I kept on running. Slowly, at first, just to keep some miles flowing. But as the spring wore on, I got back to the point where I was running a half marathon every weekend. 25 to 30 miles per week felt right. It wasn’t crazy distance running, just longer runs during the week and once around the entire airfield on the weekend. No PR, but running to run.

But in July, I met Frank Shorter and Bart Yasso. And was shooting the shit with them and Kelly Calway, who is about to head off to the Army’s World Class Athlete Program to hopefully prepare for the 2012 Olympics. PR, PR, PR — it’s the mantra all three of them hit on. This, with me standing there in my Vibram Five Fingers shoes — the anti-running running shoe. One of the top runners in the US Army, one of the top voices in the American running community, and one of the top runners ever. And me. Three people very concerned with PR’s, and then me.

At Hayward Field

I knew then, but likely would not have said it with my outside voice: I’m a runner, because I run and I love to run. You can have you’re PR’s, I’ll take the miles and the hours and the great outdoors.

I do know where this puts me in the running community, but I’ll be honest — these days, I really don’t care. Thinking about all this has only ever caused me to want to head out into the sand and grit and wind and dead of night to go put some more miles in.

And it’s brought me here, to this place and point in time, and the realization that I am never going to set records, radically improve some PR, or gain some wild notoriety for doing this. I’ll never be a racer; I’ll always be a runner.

One thought on “On the Trail of Prefontaine

  1. Great post, Art. I read part of it to my gf, and she said, “‘Plaid shirts?’ You were talking about me, weren’t you??? What did you say???”

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