Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Mon, 17 Dec 2001 09:06:31 -0500

Two Eugeniuses


The most famous performer to emerge from the University of Oregon in Eugene wasn't Steve Prefontaine. For all that Pre did, Ken Kesey did more. I have the thinnest of ties to both of them.

Pre and I once shared a track, briefly. He raced a mile on the inner lanes of Hayward Field while I finished a marathon in the outside lane.

I was too far gone to pay him any attention. And of course he couldn't let his mind wander to a marathoner who couldn't finish before the mile started.

I saw Pre run only one other time in Eugene. That was when he won the 1972 Olympic Trials 5000.

Three years later Pre was gone. In death Pre became larger than life. He has a Eugene track meet and a trail named for him. He became the subject of a biography, a documentary film and two feature-length movies.

Last week I drove one of his fans to the track where Pre ran his best races, and then to the spot where he died. This visitor isn't young, at 40, but he hadn't yet started to run when his hero passed on.

Such is the power of the Prefontaine legend. Yet it pales beside that of Ken Kesey.

Kesey, like Pre, was a boy wonder. Kesey's field was literature, where the stars usually peak much later in life than athletes do.

He wrote two big novels, "Sometimes a Great Notion" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" -- both before he turned 30. Critics say he burned out from the wild trip of the 1960s and squandered his talent.

For the rest of his life he was content to dash off quick articles, essays or short books. One of his last pieces commented on the events of 9-11-01 for Rolling Stone.

My first brush with him came as he wrote one of the quickies that paid his bills. Editor Paul Perry of Running magazine idolized Kesey and lobbied to locate the magazine in Eugene, not because this was a running center but because Kesey lived nearby.

Perry arranged a dream journey for himself, accompanying Kesey to the Beijing Marathon. I did the original editing of prose from that trip, and it was as raw as any a writer has ever handed me.

He wrote in a big, bold longhand scribble on plain paper, as if lines would have confined him. He misspelled words and mangled punctuation (and sometimes grammar). He wrote more than twice the assigned length, then trusted an editor (me in this case) to retype and refine his work.

The work itself, though, was unquestionably brilliant. This was the longest article in the brief life of Running Mag, and the most talked-about.

That magazine died. Paul Perry left town, and I didn't see Ken Kesey again for years.

By then the worst tragedy that can befall a parent had hit him. His son Jed, a wrestler as Ken had been at the University of Oregon, died when a team van crashed.

Long after that I sat with Ken at a luncheon where he was to speak. Kesey had been a big man -- a former college wrestler -- with a personality that had made him seem larger yet. The loss had subdued, even shrunken, him.

The last time I saw him was a year ago at the local library's event for authors. By then a mild stroke had slowed him, yet his table drew the longest lines by far.

A recent front-page headline in the Eugene paper announced that Ken Kesey was hospitalized in critical condition, with liver cancer. It was as if the family let this news out then to prepare his friends and fans for the news that came two days later, when he died at 66.

The next week NPR replayed an old interview with Kesey. He talked there about the fingertip-sized mole on his cheek.

"I could have had it removed," he told the interviewer. "But I left it there as a reminder, whenever I look in the mirror, that I'm an imperfect human being."

An imperfect one, for sure. An amazing one, absolutely.

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