As the nation's
best marathoners gathered in Buffalo last May for the Olympic Trials, among
them was a short, 33-year-old man with a reddish beard and a squashed orange
cap. Except perhaps for some manifestations of his age, he looked much like the
other runners, but if only the competition could have seen Dr. Steve French in
In fact, few of
the other marathoners knew much about French, beyond that he was a surgeon from
Salt Lake City. He answered their questions only as they were asked and offered
no information about his past. No, he hadn't run in college. His best 10-km.
time? Er, 30:30—in a marathon. Most of all French avoided conversation because
he didn't want to reveal his feeling that he had no business being in
As the field
surged forward at the start, French wanted to yell, "Hold it! This is all a
great mistake. All I wanted to do was lose weight." Actually, when he took
up distance running in 1977, what French really yearned to do was get into a
pair of size-38 pants. Back then he couldn't have beaten anyone in a race,
except perhaps to the cookie jar. The 5'8" French had spent almost a decade
imitating the Michelin Man, his weight at one time having been 226. He simply
hoped running would help him shed some pounds. Now, weighing 128, he was one of
178 runners to have qualified for the Olympic Trials by completing a marathon
in less than 2:21:54.
Three years ago,
French still was waging a battle with his appetite. He would drop a few pounds,
but he'd always regain them. Finally, running seemed the only answer. "I
probably lost 500 pounds and never changed weight," he recalls. "To
lose weight, you have to cut calories. I couldn't whip that problem. But it
occurred to me that I'd never seen a fat person who ran five miles a day. Well,
running was something I could do."
A strange thing
happened while French was shedding pounds. He discovered that the talent he'd
shown as a high schooler—he'd once done a 4:41 mile—hadn't expired under all
that blubber. His times began dropping as fast as his weight. Six weeks after
he took to the road, he tried a marathon, with no intention of finishing, and
went the distance in 3:34:43; the following year, after juggling his training
around a 100-hours-a-week job as a senior surgical resident at Primary
Children's Hospital, he did a 2:29:10 in the mountainous Deseret News marathon
at Salt Lake City; then, last Feb. 10, he rah a 2:18:40 in New Orleans.
Suddenly other runners began to notice him. Bill Rodgers, the American record
holder at 2:09:27, said, "Dropping his time like that over such a short
period would be impressive even if he'd been thin. I ran three years in high
school, four in college and two more after that before I hit 2:19.
he had a lot of motivation. It's amazing that out of all the runners there are
now, he'd be one of the few who break through despite imposing obstacles. There
were so many things against him. Just the impact of all that weight would make
him vulnerable to injury. I wonder what the difference is between this guy and
French's habit of
defying the odds might be the answer to Rodgers' question. No one from the
family of John Wesley French, a Wilmer, Texas truck driver, had ever gone to
college when Steve was accepted by Texas A&M. He arrived at College Station
a year behind in math—he literally had no idea what calculus was—and left with
a master's degree in nuclear engineering, having earned a 4.0 average in
But grades were
the least of French's challenges in becoming a doctor. He couldn't stand the
sight of blood—he'd fainted when a Little League teammate gashed open an elbow.
But taking care of people had always appealed to French, and he decided to
become a doctor despite his aversion to blood. He took his pre-med requirements
while attending engineering graduate school and then enrolled in the University
of Texas Medical School at Houston. In 1976, having become a good deal less
distressed by the sight of blood, he went to the University of Utah Medical
Center to serve his internship in general surgery.
himself through med school, French neglected both his wife and his body. His
12-year marriage to a high school sweetheart dissolved, even as his body
ballooned from 125 pounds to 226 in a matter of three years. Then French hit
his breaking point. "I got a pair of size-38 slacks for Christmas, and I
couldn't come close to fastening them," he says. "That was ridiculous.
When I entered medical school, I'd thought there's nothing more disgusting than
a fat physician. And then I became one."
In April 1977
French began running for the first time in 12 years. Despite the promise he'd
shown in high school, his parents had discouraged his participation in college
track because they feared it would distract him from his studies. By 1977 that
talent was nowhere in sight. French had to stop and rest just walking across
the Utah campus from one class to the next. For his first run, he decided to go
three miles, or 12 laps of the Highland High track. He quit halfway through the
second lap. "I thought I was going to die," he recalls.