Comebacks: The Big 4:00

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, May 1996

Comebacks: The Big 4:00

Miler Steve Scott's post-op dreams of one more for the record books
By Todd Balf

After doctors diagnosed U.S. mile record holder Steve Scott with testicular cancer in May 1994, he was given two options: He could take the safer route and undergo chemotherapy, which in addition to attacking the cancer would damage his lung tissue and effectively end his running career, or he could submit to a dangerous, radically invasive procedure in which surgeons would make a 24-inch incision across his belly and remove 35 lymph nodes. He might run again, but surgery had its drawbacks, too. If doctors found that the cancer had already spread, Scott would have to undergo chemo anyway, rendering the operation for naught and slamming the door on any hope of an athletic future.

"It was a risk," admits Scott, 40, who hopes to make his gamble pay off on the May 26 at the venerable Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon. Scott has set his sights on the record for the mile run in the masters division, 3:58.15, which was set indoors by Ireland's Eamonn Coghlan in 1994. If successful, Scott would become the second over-40 runner to record a sub-four-minute mile--and the first to do it outdoors. "We're ecstatic about the way things are going," says Irv Ray, Scott's coach. "Everything points to him doing a 3:58."

If Scott can best four minutes, it would be the crowning achievement of his career. True, few of today's masters milers were even alive on May 6, 1954, when Briton Roger Bannister broke the elusive barrier. Nonetheless, the four-minute mile still holds mythic status--and has proved to be every bit as daunting--on the senior tour. No masters runner has run even a 4:02 outdoors. And before the cancer, Scott wasn't even inclined to try.

"I thought after Eamonn did it indoors, nobody would care," says Scott. "I figured I might as well retire and find something else to do." But Scott, a miler all his life, didn't know what, and his inability to fill the void left him an emotional wreck. "All I could think about was, What am I gonna do?" he says. Months later, his doctor discovered the cancer.

Once Scott rebounded from surgery, he decided that he could speed his return with a clear-cut goal: to crack the four-minute barrier. "Part of Steve's drive," says Ray, "is that he still has something to prove. He's held the American record for 13 years, and he's run more sub-four-minute miles--136 of them--than anyone. But he's never really gotten the recognition. This race can change that."

So can Scott pull it off? Maybe, says the now retired Coghlan, who in a post-op note encouraged Scott to "accomplish the one true objective left: to run a sub-four-minute mile where it really counts." But did Coghlan sense the necessary hunger when the two met at last February's Millrose Games? "To be honest, no," says Coghlan. "It was more a fear of the daunting task ahead. But who knows, he may have been holding back. He never was one to show his aces."

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