Call it the Seven-Per-Cent Problem. A miler running at 15 mph—or four minutes per mile—spends a tenth of his energy just overcoming wind resistance. At least a front-runner does. Those following within a yard or two benefit from the leader's setting the air behind him in motion. Spared 70% to 80% of the resistance of still air, the followers can therefore keep to the leader's pace with approximately 7% less work.
As in cycling and auto racing, the efficacy of such drafting means that in a race among equals the pacesetter practically never wins. Thus the need for sacrificial rabbits in record attempts. Too, this explains the dawdling, wait-and-kick races that usually develop in major rabbitless events like the Olympic 1,500 meters. It means that any miler who wants to go hard the whole way and so approach his true limits not only has the distance and the watch to strain against but also that 7% penalty for taking charge of the pace.
Steve Scott, 25, America's best miler since 1977, has accepted that penalty in almost every important race he has run. He has chosen to simply override it with at least 8% more courage. And each year, inexorably, he has improved, until now he's the second-fastest U.S. miler ever, with best times of 3:51.11 for the mile and 3:33.33 for 1,500 meters, only the thinnest of margins short of Jim Ryun's 14-year-old American records of 3:51.1 and 3:33.1. After winning the Pepsi (3:52.50) and Jumbo Elliott (3:52.26) miles in May, Scott seems a sure bet to finally break Ryun's records this summer in Europe. He is probably capable, on a perfect day, of breaking Steve Ovett's world records of 3:48.8 and 3:31.36 as well. It is always possible, however, that Scott might do just that but not find himself in first place when he crosses the finish line.
Scott's determination to run hard miles has not always pulled him clear of the competition. Twice he has led Ireland's Eamonn Coghlan into the last 440 of indoor miles in San Diego. Twice Coghlan has kicked away to set world indoor records of 3:52.6, in 1979, and 3:50.6, last February. In the Oslo Golden Mile of 1979, Scott escaped from all but one of the field on the third lap, but that one, England's Sebastian Coe, kicked away to win in a world-record 3:49.0. Had Scott not inexplicably relaxed a few steps before the finish, he would have saved the .02 of a second needed to take Ryun's American record.
June 21, 1981
The refrain after these races was always the same. "You have to give Scott credit for the record," said Coe, for example. "He kept the pace on all the way." Other milers now look to Scott to take the initiative; they plan their races around it. "When Scott didn't lead, it surprised me," said Ireland's Ray Flynn after losing to him in January's Sunkist Indoor. "I had to rethink the whole race."
Scott's history is one of remarkable doggedness in a craft that quickly separates the truly determined from the merely desirous. "Steve is the most congenial, friendliest, least temperamental of all milers," says Steve Lacy, who finished second to Scott in the Olympic Trials 1,500 a year ago and has run a 3:33.99, the third best by an American.
The California-bred Scott was once willfully lazy; he didn't like to train in high school. That's not a failing now, but Scott remains an unconventional runner, and not solely because he's a golfer and an aficionado of soap operas—neither calling being exactly rampant among serious runners—or because he and his wife, Kim, share their house in Tempe, Ariz. with a half-coyote, half-German shepherd named Tiggers and her puppy, Tubbs. Scott is unique, a puzzlement and an inspiration among milers, because he is at once braver and milder than all the rest.
Dr. Gordon Scott and his wife, Mary, Steve's parents, still live in the low, spacious house they bought in Upland, Calif. when Steve was one. Mary, who has close-cropped hair and a milder version of the curve of Steve's nose, is athletic and brisk. She began running to encourage her son in high school. Gordon, a general practitioner and a man of gentle wit, recalls that he looked on that undertaking with less than great expectations.
"He didn't like discipline. If he didn't want to do something, he simply didn't do it," says Gordon, his expression one of fond perplexity. "For that child to have become a distance runner seems an impossible contrast. From always taking the easy way to choosing an endeavor that represents the hardest possible way is a switch I'll always marvel at."
Switch is perhaps not the most accurate description, for this wasn't an overnight transformation. Steve's older brother, Kendall, now 29 and a doctor, was witness to its beginnings. "Steve's only original interest in cross-country was that it was a means to becoming a four-year letterman," Kendall says, "so he began as a freshman at Upland High. But his idea of training had yet to, uh, evolve. He and a friend, Jimmy Farr, would be at the beach and they'd tell Mom, 'We're going five,' and they'd start off O.K., but then they'd hide behind the lifeguard tower. After the appropriate time they'd splash on some water and come back, out of breath, saying, 'That was a tough one....' "
Thus, Steve's parents have high praise for the forbearance of Bob Loney, the Upland coach. "He knew all the kids and made an individual approach to each," says Gordon, "but how he got Steve to train.... I guess it was success. If Steve had gone years without improvement, I don't think he'd have kept on. In fact, after he got his varsity letter as a freshman, he wasn't going out the next year. I said, 'You're not being true to your coach.' I wouldn't let him not go out."
Gordon's convictions didn't spring from long familiarity with running. "We tossed a baseball around for hours," he says, "but I didn't know anything about track. Watching my first cross-country race, I thought I'd never seen such anemic-looking cadavers in my life. I thought, 'This is a sport?' "
That has changed. "Now track meets have become the center of our social life," says Gordon. Mary has become almost a ticket broker for family and friends who go to Steve's races, buying, for example, 150 seats in a block for the Pepsi Meet at UCLA in early May.
In all of the Scott children there's an astonishing abundance of constancy. Kendall married his high school sweetheart, Bonnie. Alicia, 27 and a nurse, married her high school sweetheart, Dennis Stout. And Steve, the youngest, married his H.S.S., Kim Votaw. She was his J.H.S.S., actually; they met in the seventh grade. Hanging in the Scotts' Upland home is a framed montage of photos: Steve and Kim dressed as dominoes, Steve and Kim going to proms, Steve and Kim posing in a buffalo pasture, in the rain, after graduation, in front of the Christmas tree, kissing....
"The first time I met Kim," says Alicia, "I thought she was a real squirrel. 'Course she was only 14." Now, the family agrees that Kim is the best thing that ever happened to Steve, being responsible for the stability that lets him take chances in races and for a lot else. "They've grown together so well," says Mary. "When they got married in 1979, they'd built more trust and been through more than most people who've been married for five years."
"Steve's so nice," says Alicia, her tone seeming to rank niceness with skin diseases. "People can walk all over him."
"It's good he has Kim to protect him," says Mary. "Certainly when they're shopping," says Gordon. "I kind of doubt Steve would be any good in high-pressure business, like sales, because he's incapable of facing another person and being untruthful."
Mary has carried on with her running, too, since those days of demonstrating to her malingering kid that it was easy. She completed her first marathon in 1979, in four hours. "It was great," she says. "I like the idea of patience and steadiness being rewarded."
"She also likes to run down the hotshot guys who start too fast and hate being passed by a little old lady in tennis shoes," says Gordon.
Mary squirms, self-conscious at that. One is reminded of her son's words after winning the Sunkist mile, when he was asked if he relished having a killer instinct. "Sure," said Steve. "Uh...on the track, anyway."
A visitor arriving at the Phoenix airport moves warily through clusters of white-haired people struggling to lift bags of golf clubs. There's a sudden pressure on his back. "Don't look around," says a low voice, "just keep moving. There's a car waiting." Scott couldn't pull this off if he took acting lessons for a year, and is promptly told so. "Well, there is a car waiting," he says. In it are two friends and houseguests, Dennis Caldwell, a California race organizer, and Tom Wysocki, a national-caliber road racer and 10,000-meter runner whose best time is a respectable 28:19.56.
It is 8:30 on a Monday night, and Phoenix and its surrounding communities leap brightly from the ashen desert, a grid of bright lights to the horizon. "Show you the sights of Tempe," says Scott, and he drives to a bowling alley, where the group is told the next open lane will be available in a couple of days. "We'll wait in the bar," says Caldwell.
Driving on, finding that all the movies have already begun, Scott settles for a visit to Cowboys, a Gilley's-like expanse of lighted floor, bucking bull ride, electronic games and Arizona State coeds in black Lycra as waitresses. Clearly in the grip of uncontrollable addiction, Wysocki and Caldwell begin surrendering quarters to Asteroids.
Scott watches a succession of young men and women being flung from the mechanical bull, until he is seen by another infrequent patron, 1968 Olympic steeplechase bronze medalist George Young, who lives in nearby Casa Grande. Soon, Young is expounding on the runners of his generation, the prodigious talent of Ryun, the stalwart bravado of Steve Prefontaine. As he speaks, he glances often at Scott, who is quiet and intent and respectful. When Scott has gone to get another round of beers, Young says, "I've never met this kid, but they say he races as tough as anyone."
"Tougher," Young is told. But from his expression, it seems the wily old runner finds it hard to credit.
In the morning, Scott takes a four-mile run around a nearby golf course, pointing out where he, a 12-to-14 handicapper, hit heroic or disastrous shots during his afternoon round the day before. He returns to his home on College Avenue moist and relaxed, leaving his running shoes outside the front door, a house rule.
Kim is cooking breakfast. She is pregnant, expecting in August—Steve will return from European racing for the blessed event—and radiates domesticity. The house is airy, with lots of feminine dècor, pastel dishes, rainbows on the shower curtain. "I like rainbows," she says. "Steve likes tigers." So there are recurring photos of tigers, and a tiger statue in the living room. The kitchen is glassed, with a view of the pool, and contains a hutch that holds plates and crystal from Scandinavia and Germany and Austria, the sparkling residue of Steve's last four summer campaigns.
Kim is a respiratory therapist at Tempe Community Hospital. She works with asthma, emphysema and cardiac-arrest patients, known in the trade as "the baggers, the pumpers and the jumpers." She discusses her more interesting cases, including a lady with lice and another whose husband hit her over the head with a hammer. This cheerful patter continues as Kim cooks for four men and washes and hangs up a load of laundry. It is true of both husband and wife, this matter-of-factness about things charged with emotion, whether restarting hearts or running into unconsciousness.
Scott, in fact, has driven himself to near-unconsciousness three times since last fall simply as a favor to a friend, Doug Connolly of the Arizona State Human Performance Laboratory. To aid Connolly's research Scott did uphill treadmill runs to exhaustion in September, March and June to see if his maximum oxygen consumption, economy of movement and heart rate paralleled his improving race fitness. "Well, I got competitive the last time," says Scott. "I wanted to stay on the thing longer, at a steeper grade than before." He did, but was so tired he ended the session by collapsing on a support and letting his feet drag, uncaring, on the moving belt. "To tell you the truth, although I want to help research, I didn't like the thing," he says. "I know I'm in good shape. I don't need a treadmill to tell me so."
Scott eats breakfast with Tiggers' head resting on his thigh. Dog and master share alternate bites of scrambled egg, from the same fork. "Tiggers sleeps between us every night," says Scott. Then he recalls his impending fatherhood. "Uh, every night but one."
Later, Steve, Kim and Tiggers arrange themselves under an afghan on the couch before the TV. They are faithful watchers of the soaps, following none more devotedly than All My Children. Indeed, when in New York in February for the TAC Indoor meet, Steve and Kim were permitted to watch the show being taped. Now, as scenes of seduction, wife-beating, seduction, alcoholism, seduction, parental neglect and seduction slither across the screen, Scott is distracted by a constantly ringing phone.
"...Well, I had a talk with my coach and he doesn't think it's really necessary for me to have an agent at this time," he tells one caller, rolling his eyes. This causes loud exclamations on the other end. Scott patiently soothes the man and hangs up. "Always got to treat anger with kindness," he says.
"Yeah," says Wysocki. "It ticks 'em off even more. But Steve isn't always a marshmallow. At the Olympic Trials he got a dozen of us watching this program and made a reporter wait until it was over."
The trains of miseries can't keep ahead of Kim. She knows the front doors of all the characters. "I've watched this show for 12 years," she says with fierce defensiveness. "It's an American tradition."
At the soap's teasing conclusion, Kim races off to work. Scott slowly dresses for his afternoon workout, which will be on the track at Arizona State, where he's a part-time assistant to his coach, Len Miller. (Scott is also an employee of a running-wear firm.)
"You're right, I didn't like running mileage in high school," he says. "I loved the camaraderie of the team, though, and I loved to race." And he had a fair amount of talent, evidenced by a 1:52 for 800 meters his senior year.
Scott wasn't heavily recruited, except by Miller, then the coach at U.C.-Irvine. Scott went with him because of an almost instant sensation of trust. "He was concerned with improving you as a person, not just a runner," Scott says. "He didn't promise any shortcuts, but the feeling of caring and self-confidence really shone through."
The Arizona State track has orange trees around the outside of the first turn. Miller, a dark-haired, businesslike man, watches the varsity do its stretching exercises and turns the workout over to assistants to be free to time Scott through two sets of decreasing-distance intervals, the first of 605, 550, 495 and 440 yards, the second of 550, 495, 440 and 330. These Scott will do without knowing his times, the better to run as he feels.
"Every year we try to include a new element in his training," says Miller as Scott warms up. "Something that we have some rational basis for assuming will improve his performances." He speaks of a weakness that is currently being worked on. "When Steve shifts over to hard sprinting carriage and posture, he loses some of his efficiency of movement. So this year we've cut the volume of his intervals on the track and increased the intensity, in hopes of smoothing out the really fast running."
Scott sets off on his 605-yard run, passing the 440 in 56.9. He runs erect, with a stride that cannot be called effortless. The 550 segment is at a 57 pace all the way, the 495 at exactly the same speed, then the 440 in a 56.4—a 57 pace happens to work out to a 3:48.0 mile. His arms aren't just carried, as are Coe's or Coghlan's, but work vigorously, imparting force. The top of his head as he goes down the backstretch is steady.
While Scott jogs an 880 between sets, Miller says, "In the seven years we've been together, this is the first time we've ever done this exact workout. The reason is that coaches and athletes have favorite workouts, checkpoints to give them confidence. The trap is what happens if you do that special set of 660s, or whatever, and the times don't show progress? Where's the confidence then? So we do things a little differently each time, and we end up asking each other what we think, and that's usually pretty positive."
Such is the case on this day, as Scott powers through the second set about a second per 440 faster than the first. His jaw twists to the side with the effort in the last few yards of each run, and his eyes close gratefully as he slows. As he trots between intervals, though blowing hard, he's the same affable young man he was over breakfast, but as he heads into each new run, a mask of concentration snaps over his face and his eyes focus on some distant point. "Stay tall now," says Miller, and Scott visibly lifts.
Miller trots with him before the last 330, elated over how well Scott is doing. "A lot of his workouts are more exciting than his races," he says. "The races are just the product of the training." The 330 is done in 38.9, which is a 52-second 440 pace, and Scott stamps his foot on the finish line in celebratory salute.
After he has cooled out, Miller shows him a page with his times carefully noted. Scott quickly reads them and glances up for Miller's assessment. Miller turns over the sheet to show him a drawing he has done there, a little smiling face. It seems an appropriate note of sweetness in this severe context, a transition back to the restrained, soft-edged world that Scott had left for a while there.
They go to Miller's office in the athletic department, passing planters of cactus and lavender lantana. There they address the central issue of Scott's career, how he was transformed into a man able to do what he has just done. Miller begins by assessing the raw material.
"When he came to Irvine, Steve was not into excellence." He looks steadily at his grinning subject. "His commitment was to frivolity. I don't think he ever got to bed before eleven...."
"That's giving me some," Scott chimes in.
"And I don't think he ran in the morning more than twice that first year."
"But he had strong family backing."
"The first day we did an ungodly amount of mileage," says Scott. "I'd never been on a 10-mile run before. I was homesick. I missed Kim. I called my mom after three days and said I wanted to leave Irvine."
"That wasn't the record," says Miller. "Some other kid I had wanted to quit after a day and a half. Anyway, Steve's mother said maybe after a year he could reconsider, but not three days."
"That was family backing?" says Scott.
"His strength was in his being a positive, appreciative person. Without making a big deal out of it, he enjoys life, enjoys the give and take of a team."
It seems that it was Scott's attachment to his teammates that pulled him through. "Eric Hulst was an animal on off-track training," says Miller, "and Ralph Serna had a great aptitude for distance as well as a unique sense of humor, and they helped his transition from a runner who trained only on the track to one who does 90% of his work away from it. He roomed with Ed Ahlmeyer, a steeplechaser and an all-American fan at the same time. Because Steve went out of his way to like and encourage these guys, they evolved into a support group for him."
It's not unusual, given common goals and the unifying force of hard labor, for a training group to become tightly loyal to its own. "One day I shouted at John Koningh, a fine miler who was always about 3% too carefree for my taste," says Miller. "Steve felt I was abusing John. We had hill work scheduled, and I got up above and I could hear Steve down below calling me an SOB, defaming me something terrible...."
Scott eases back in his chair and closes his eyes, enjoying this.
"I went down the hill and said, 'Who said that?' Steve dutifully raised his hand. 'You're suspended. Talk to you later.' But at the top of the hill he's still there, saying, 'Can't I be suspended after the workout?' I said no. And from then on it was the greatest workout I ever saw...for all of them. They knew if I'd suspend Steve, I'd suspend my mother.
"I got back to the office and Steve was there.
" 'Got something to say?'
" 'I wouldn't have called you an SOB if I'd known you could hear me.'
"We laughed and had a talk, and I allowed that I probably hadn't acted in the manner of a gentleman coach in the way I'd offended him. And after that he took me more seriously, at least when I was in earshot, and I took him the same."
Scott's miling education seems to have advanced by means of several such lesson-rich passages. As a freshman in 1975, dearly wanting to earn the U.S.A. uniform that came with a first or second in the Junior Nationals, he won his semifinal but didn't have the stamina yet to race well on successive days. "Steve Lacy went by him in the final like Steve was wearing cement boots," recalls Miller. "And Paul Buttermark put him into third. On the plane I said, 'Learn anything?'
" 'I've got to work harder, get more mileage.'
"It was perfect," Miller says now. "Rather than my trying to shove it down his throat, he grasped it all himself. The end of that summer he said he realized he had some talent and he meant to see how good he could be. That was his first clear commitment."
Then came the 1976 Olympic Trials. Though Scott hadn't made the Olympic qualifying standard, Miller hounded meet officials about their responsibility to promising young runners until they let Scott in. "But my brother was getting married on the day of the finals," says Scott. "I had reservations home every day in case I didn't keep advancing." He missed the wedding because he made the finals, and he might have made the team but for a suicidal early pace of 1:51.3 for the first 800 set by Ohio State's Tom Byers. "I lost contact," says Scott. "But making the finals did something to me. I came home a lot more intense, not disappointed but ready to keep on."
In 1977 Scott outleaned Kenya's Wilson Waigwa to win the AAU 1,500 and made his first European tour. "Racing in Europe is the Ph.D. program for runners who have their B.A. and M.A. from U.S. meets," says Miller.
The main thing Scott has proved is that he concedes nothing. "If somebody's beaten him 20 times in a row, Steve isn't intimidated by that," says Miller. "It took him 15 or 16 tries over three years to win an indoor race, but now he has everyone mastered except Coghlan."
In fact, indoors and out, Scott has run more sub-four-minute miles than any other American. "And biased as I am," says Miller, "I'm sure that if Steve had been in the Olympics, the 1,500 would have been four or five seconds faster. [Coe won in Moscow in 3:38.40 and later beat Scott in Zurich in their one meeting of 1980, 3:32.19 to 3:33.33.] The three races in three days at the Games is different than one shot," says Miller. "Each day his strength would've been more of a factor."
Each day now it's more of a factor, because it keeps mounting. "With Kim and Len and my family on my side, I have everything I could possibly need," says Scott, driving back home through a ridiculously gaudy Arizona sunset. "If I do poorly, they know why and we fix it. If I win, I get modest rewards but no swelled heads are permitted."
So the road leads only up and up. "I can't conquer the mile," he says. "It's not like climbing a mountain. No matter what I do, there's always a new level I can reach. It's the nature of the sport. And I guess that fits in fine with my own nature, being momentarily happy, then looking ahead."