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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.
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 St ember, 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 testicle.
"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 wants this."