Steve Scott stands at the starting line on the track at the
University of Oregon's Hayward Field, in Eugene, on May 26,
1996. He has four minutes to prove to himself that he is
immortal. Running more sub-four-minute miles (136) than anyone
in history has not convinced him. Nor has setting the U.S.
record in the mile (3:47.69), a 14-year-old mark no other
American has approached. Beating cancer, which Scott did in
1994, came closest to establishing his immortality. "It was just
like overcoming an injury," he says.
Steve Scott--the name sounds boyish, like Peter Pan--will run
four laps around Hayward's oval against a world-class field.
Twenty-one days before, on May 5, he celebrated his 40th
birthday. "I couldn't wait to turn 40," he says. "For the last
three years I've been salivating for that day."
He wants to be the first masters runner to break four minutes
for the mile outdoors. (Eamonn Coghlan accomplished the feat
indoors in Boston in '94.) Three years have passed since Scott's
last sub-four, but as Coghlan, 43, says, "If anyone that age
knows how to break four minutes, Steve Scott does."
Starting in Los Angeles, where he first broke the barrier in
1977, Scott and the sub-four mile roamed 29 countries on six
continents. The track club that sponsored Scott in his prime,
during the early 1980s--its name was emblazoned across his
singlet, as if on a license plate--was called Sub 4. Scott's
California license plate reads MRMILER.
October 28, 1996
He was still running sub-four miles in 1989, but then his
running fell into decline. In '90 he finished next to last in
the 1,500 at the Bruce Jenner Classic, an event in which he had
broken the tape seven times. Two years after that, at the U.S.
Cross Country Championships in Missoula, Mont., he placed 10th.
He was 37. As a coterie of bone-chilled harriers huddled around
a results sheet, one of them spotted his name.
"Steve Scott?" the younger man said in astonishment. "I didn't
know Steve Scott was still alive."
After one lap of the men's mile at Hayward Field, Scott is in
16th place, ahead of only high school sensation Michael Stember,
18, of Carmichael, Calif. Scott's split time is 58 seconds.
Moments before the race Scott approached Stember, who has never
run sub-four. "Stay with me," advised Scott, who prefers racing
people to stopwatches. "Don't race against the clock."
Scott, his wife, Kim, and their three children live in Leucadia,
Calif., 20 miles north of San Diego, a mile from the Pacific
Ocean. On April 21, 1994, 18 months after the couple's third
child, Shawn, was born, Scott visited his physician, Darrell
Shrader, for a prevasectomy exam. He told Shrader about having
felt a lump on his left testicle, which had subsequently shrunk
and hardened. Shrader referred him to a urologist, Larry
O'Brien. On May 1 O'Brien removed the testicle, and tests showed
three types of malignancy: Scott had embryonal carcinoma,
teratocarcinoma and choriocarcinoma, each of which can spread by
means of the lymphatic system to other parts of the body. There
was no way of telling if the cancer had been confined to the
"Steve had two options," says O'Brien. "We could wait and see if
the cancer spread and then [if it did] do chemotherapy. That
would scar his lungs, ending his competitive running days. Or we
could preempt the cancer by removing the lymph nodes by which it
would travel." Scott opted for the surgery, which required an
incision from pubis to sternum. "The surgery was so simple
because Steve has no fat," says O'Brien admiringly. "Usually
you're operating on beer-league guys, but Steve resembled an
anatomy chart. No, wait, a child."
Scott's 800 split is 2:01. His coach, Irv Ray, is pleased with
the time yet anxious because Scott is running alone. Stember is
30 meters back, and the pack is at least that far ahead. "Steve
won't feel bad until the third lap," Ray said before the race.
"Then it's not fun anymore, and he'll decide whether he really
Scott was at San Diego's Kaiser Hospital for six days following
his cancer surgery. His mother, Mary, stayed with him for three
days. "Steve asked me to stay," says Mary, a registered nurse
who lives with Steve's father, Gordon, a retired physician, in
Upland, Calif. "He knew that nothing bad could happen to him as
long as I was there."
In junior high Steve built a dragon out of papier-mache for his
mom. It was three feet long, with fierce eyes and black spikes
on its green back. "I still have the dragon--it reminds me of
Steve," says Mary. "It's in his old bedroom, with his trophies."
At Steve and Kim's wedding in 1979, Steve wanted the organist to
play his favorite song, Puff, the Magic Dragon. Kim, mindful
that many folks consider Puff a pro-marijuana anthem, vetoed the
idea. It was not the first dispute between Steve and Kim, who
had dated since high school. Nor would it be the last.
"We have a rule for arguments," says Kim, the family's tough
cop. "Steve's not allowed to call me Big Butt--"
"--and she's not allowed to call me Mama's Boy," says Steve.
When the newlyweds moved into their first house, Steve
cautiously entered the laundry room, stared at the two machines
there and asked, "Which one's the dryer?" No wonder Kim is fond
of saying, "I've given birth to three children but am a mother
Of course, kids have more fun. "I remember watching Steve on TV
when I was growing up," says Steve Holman, 26, the top U.S.
miler today. "This was the Fifth Avenue Mile. Right before the
race, during intros, Steve's making bunny ears behind some guy's
Scott once ran a downhill mile in Auckland, New Zealand, in
3:29.44. (The course dipped 200 feet from start to finish.)
While he was a student at UC Irvine he streaked through a
Psychology 101 class. ("It was Deviant Day," he explains.) Scott
even ran a nude mile relay with friends one night in
Gainesville, Fla. (It wasn't one of his fastest performances.
"You must take into account," he says with a mischievous grin,
"the factor of drag.")
Scott is slowing. After three laps his time is 3:04. Scott has
always been known as a courageous runner--"The toughest
competitor I ever ran against," says Coghlan--but a 55-second
final lap demands more than courage from a 40-year-old body.
Stember is closing on Scott. He may be just the whip Scott
requires. The sellout crowd and a national TV audience take
notice of the duel for last place. In Upland, Gordon and Mary
Scott's TV is turned off. "I want to remember him the way he
was," says Mary. "My heart breaks for him when things don't go
Being the most prolific miler in U.S. history guarantees neither
fame nor wealth. Scott never held a No. 1 world ranking, never
set a world record. A member of three U.S. Olympic teams
(including the 1980 squad that boycotted the Moscow Games) in
the 1,500 meters, Scott had his best finish in an Olympic race
in Seoul in 1988, when he was a disappointing fifth. "He has no
Olympic medals," says longtime track official Bob Hersh.
"Unfortunately, that's the currency."
When his performances--and, thus, appearance fees--began to
diminish, Scott sought other income. In 1995 he and Kim invested
in a car wash in Fountain Valley, Calif. To promote the
business, Steve strapped himself to the hood of a car and sent
it through the gauntlet of water jets, bristles and buffers.
Last January, after seven months of financial losses, the Scotts
abandoned the car-wash trade. "Funny thing," says Steve, "I
always liked washing my own car, anyway."
A runner's 40th birthday gives him masters status, a new field
of competitors and, potentially, a financial windfall. "Nobody
cares if someone runs a sub-3:50 after age 30," says Scott. "But
running sub-four at age 40, as a cancer survivor--that would be
Scott is fading. On the homestretch he is passed by Stember, who
is wearing a sub 4 singlet he borrowed from a friend. At the
four-minute mark Scott is 60 meters from the finish line, which
he eventually crosses in 4:10.33, one second behind Stember.
Scott finishes last. "I'm glad I caught one guy," Stember says
later. "Odd that it happened to be Scott."
Weeks pass. Mary Scott's friends have offered to show her the
race on tape, but she will never see it. She is asked what her
son fears more, death or aging. "Probably getting old," says
Mary. "Steve's such a vivacious person. I imagine the thought of
slowing down would really scare him."
Summer passes. In September, Scott runs the Discover Card Mile
on New York's Fifth Avenue, twice--against a masters field and
then in a showcase versus Coghlan--and wins both races. His
4:06.57 in the masters event is his fastest mile since his bout
with cancer. "This is an indicator that good things are to
come," he says. "I'll do six or seven races in the spring to try
to get under four minutes."
Now Scott is standing on a cliff above the Pacific. On the
horizon a setting sun splashes a miracle of red, orange and blue
on the water. The sun, most powerful at midday, is most
inspiring at twilight. "I may never break four minutes again,"
says Scott, his blue eyes sparkling. "But if you enjoy running
as much as I do, what's wrong with continuing to do it? Even if
you are no longer one of the best."