[Preface: I wrote this originally in 2011 and like its reflection back on what RhodyCo has been.]
Wakeful one night at 3 AM, I got up and clicked on HBO. Sometimes the concerns that keep me restless provide remedy as well. This was one of those times. HBO was showing ‘Without Limits’ the second (I think) movie about Prefontaine. This one starred Billy Cudup (who looked nearly identical to the real Pre) and Donald Sutherland as Bill Bowerman, a strong part in this version of the story. Anyway . . . . Bowerman’s eulogy at the end, describes Pre’s running. He says that Pre cared more about performing on any given day, at any given meet to his utmost limit, more than he cared about winning. He wanted to win, but he knew that a mediocre performance can sometimes win, and a stellar performance lose. He preferred the later over the former. I like that.
It had, of course, been RhodyCo keeping me awake. As I sat slumped comfortably in my chair, feet up, the quiet of the night helped Pre’s point-of-view sink in, alone and unfiltered. I got into this business entirely because I loved to run. Pre’s passion reminded me not of my own adventurous miles, and that’s what they were, running from L.A. to San Francisco and such, but, no I applied Pre’s racing state-of-mind to how I’ve felt about RhodyCo. We produce runs like Pre ran. Whether the event is judged a success or not, even when the race production is not very profitable for us, we have never done less than our best. After 30+ years we still want to win, but, more importantly, we want to know that we gave it everything we had.
We have not been winners like Pre. Whatever records we might have set — most runs produced in one year (23), largest run honoring a cartoonist (Run To The Far Side), most consecutive annual races across the Golden Gate Bridge (Across the Bay 12K/Houlihan’s, interrupted only by Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003) – they’ve never been headlines, nor should they have been. We’ve won by enduring in the way Pre did, giving it our all but still kicking to the finish. We’re not finished. We continue to ‘endure’ — although I have to make a point of addressing the definition of ‘endure’ related to the races label with that name as well as our personal/business lifelong endurance.
Dying young, Pre did not endure in a lifelong sense. But I’m still struck with his example. In the 1974 ‘Restoration Race’ – a 3-mile race that included Frank Shorter and Don Kardong (Pre set a new American record of 12:51.4) – photo above – Pre went out fast, took the lead, ignored the competition and just ran as hard as he could for 3 miles, apparently pissing of his coach. He wasn’t thinking about his next race. He was running as though this one might be his last
What I see when I look at the old photos or the movie portrayal is Pre in his Zen, in that perfect moment where you are full of certainty and completely alive. Which is why I have a problem with the standard definition of endurance.
Endurance races, from the mile to the marathon and up to the ultra-distances, have an image problem.
en·dure [en-door, -dyoor] verb, -dured, -dur·ing] – verb (used with object)
- to hold out against; sustain without impairment or yielding; undergo: to endure great financial pressures with equanimity.
- to bear without resistance or with patience; tolerate: I cannot endure your insults any longer.
- to admit of; allow; bear.
The dictionary makes the word smack of martyrdom and submission. Endurance, the races and the business, are the antithesis of this. Pre ran endurances races and ran them with abandon. Not, how long can I keep this up but how fast and hard can I go right now in this race? He transcended the distances he ran. ‘Transcendence races’ would be a good redefinition, although a tough sell.
Long distance races do need an image shift. The image problem is explained by the increased popularity of ‘mud runs’ and ‘hell runs’ – the images throughout these races, nasty obstacles — mud, fire, junked auto heaps and barbed wire — provide much richer graphic content than a smooth track or an open road. The photos alone can’t compare to the wan face of a skinny marathoner breaking the tape. Marathon winner photos show nothing of the focused two hours and six minutes, the runner is focused and flying across the pavement at four minutes and fifty seconds (4:50) a mile.
As a runner you know the physical experience of propelling yourself forward with every single muscle in your body. Relaxed, focused, compelled. The deep, deep inhalations you take, rhythmic, steady strides, eating up the miles. Every breath is as satisfying as the best things in life, like the desperate, joyful breathing of laughing or sex. Your arms pump, your body dances forward, light and easy, as efficient as a machine, all flesh-and-blood. The finish line is the goal. Winning is getting there. Speed is a relative value coupled with efficient and exhaustive use of your inner fuel. Even when it’s just for fun, it’s focused.
Over the past thirty years, we take more time to re-gather our certainty and strength, which is why we don’t produce twenty-three a year or even twelve a year, which we did for at least two decades. We finish strong when we can, sometimes limping, sometimes crying, sometimes still with a big smile but we still leave it all on the track (on the roads in our case).
Our endurance is not, and has never been, about the day of the race. Race day is the finish line. For us it’s the months of planning that lead up to each production. Details and timelines, problem solving and motivating, every event has to be marshaled into a plan that starts one week out and finishes race day. Instead of tapering off on race week, like sensible runners will do, the Monday prior to the race begins the 7-day stretch that tests our endurance, our plans and our team. We know that our finish line is late afternoon on race day (Sunday). The first six days of production week are the first 20 miles of our marathon; race day is the final 6.2.
Perhaps we are less full of joyful accomplishment, but the thrill is not gone. Not only do we still believe in what we do, we live it. I sleep better knowing that Pre’s short life of long distance running redefined endurance and that we can claim a piece of its new meaning.