Proud Plainsman

By April 28, 2006April 11th, 2014Running Times Magazine

Sub-4:00 miler Scott McGowan talks about home

By Rachel Toor

As featured in the April 2006 issue of Running Times Magazine

My local running store used to be on a block with an art gallery, a hair salon and a porn shop. Then it moved around the corner to Higgins Street, the main drag of Missoula, Montana—a more foot-traffic-friendly location. The Runner’s Edge has a good selection of shoes, all the right accessories (water bottle holders, gels, race entries), and a friendly and knowledgeable staff. Recently when I went in to get a new pair of shoes, a tall, leggy guy with dark hair, big ears and a ready smile waited on me. An hour later, I left with the shoes I’d come for and a book recommendation. Counting Coup, by Larry Colter, describes the intense interest in basketball—in this case, high school women’s basketball—on Montana’s Crow Indian Reservation. “It’ll give you a sense of what it’s like on the rez,” the young man said, writing down the name of the author and title on a Post-It for me.

When I first came into the store I noticed that he was reading a book of serious nonfiction. I asked him about it, and from there our conversation galloped and gamboled along. I had no idea that Scott McGowan was such a bookworm. It surprised and delighted me. Because, like many people who live in Montana, I knew Scott for his achievements only in one area: on the track.

He’d hit the magic number, and we all knew about it. McGowan had done the one thing that everyone—even and perhaps especially non-runners—can relate to and admire. He entered the pantheon of those people who have captured our communal imagination by doing the special things, like breaking the sound barrier, batting .400, and winning a Nobel Prize. Last spring, at the Reebok Boston Indoor Games, Scott McGowan became the first Montanan ever to go under four minutes in the mile. For his efforts, McGowan received a hero’s welcome—lots of news coverage and an invitation to the state capital in Helena, where, as he says, “A proclamation was read, and hands were shook…. It was really nice for my parents,” he adds, shrugging off both the applause and the achievement.

As most serious runners know, it’s no longer such a big deal to run a sub-four-minute mile. And accomplishing it was no surprise to McGowan, whose 1500 meter times made it clear that this was an obtainable goal. “But,” he says, “it’s hard to explain to someone that, since I’ve run 3:37 in the 1500, and the mile is only 100 meters longer, if you extrapolate—you know, they just don’t really get it.”

Scott McGowan is quick to downplay any success. He has the modesty of a fourth-generation Montanan. There are, I’ve learned, Montana values. They go something like this: You get a fair day’s wage for fair day’s work, no more, no less. You have to be able to trust in a person’s word. There’s the “Popsicle rule”—if you have enough for everyone, you can eat your popsicles in the front yard. Otherwise, do it in private. Montanans hew to the idea of wealth without conspicuous consumption; it’s what you’ve done that’s worthy, not what you have. And you don’t talk about what you’ve done. No bragging, no whining.

Scott McGowan is a true and proud Montanan. But he’s grown up a little differently from many in the state. “When I tell people that I’m from Poplar, I get everything from sympathy to being called ‘Prairie Nigger.’” His town, tucked into the northeast corner of the state, is the tribal headquarters of the Fort Peck Reservation, home to the Sioux and Assinboine tribes and to only a handful of white folks. As reservations go, it is typical. Which means, to many whites, it is a scarred and scary place of boarded up or barred windows, abandoned junk cars, and people looking for drinks or fights. To McGowan, it is a home he loves and is fiercely proud of.

“My dad has said that if I got a nosebleed I wouldn’t be Native American anymore,” McGowan laughs. His father, a farmer, is the third-generation McGowan to live on the reservation in the town of Poplar; his mother retired recently from her job as the school’s librarian. The McGowan family has always had many tribal members as friends. Scott himself is one-eighth Native American, his paternal grandmother was half Chippewa.

On the Fort Peck rez, as on others throughout the state, basketball is a big deal. At 6’4″ (“I say that I¹m 6’3”, he says, because now that I’m a runner I really want to be smaller”), Scott regularly scored twenty points a game. “I just did the dirty work,” he says, “getting the ball to my friend Richard, who scored thirty points a game. I could rebound, but wasn’t a good shooter. I wasn’t that good in general. I just worked really, really hard.”

He’d been hoping for a basketball scholarship and got some offers from smaller schools, but decided, instead, to focus on running. Since basketball was his main thing, he never trained for track. Running, on the rez, is almost as big as round ball. The Poplar cross country team—McGowan’s graduating class was 45 students—won the state championships in their division three years in a row. Scott was good, but not great. But in June of his senior year, he ran 4:12 in the mile. That got him all the way west across the state to the University of Montana.

“I lived college life a little too much,” he says of his first couple of years in Missoula. “I didn’t really train as hard as I should have.” He was good enough, however, to be a four-time All-American and to break the school record in the 1500 (3:41) and the mile (4:02). Then he woke up. On the edge of the Olympic A standard, McGowan went to a little meet in Occidental California, “a last-chance qualifier,” he says, and ripped off a 3:37.7, a PR by more than four seconds, making him the fifth fastest American that year.

“It was a big surprise to everyone,” McGowan says. It netted him an agent and a contract from New Balance. The Trials were two weeks later, and while McGowan made it to the final, he ran, as he says, “horrible,” coming in twelfth place, dead last. “I was embarrassed,” he said. “Disappointed in myself. I was afraid that people were saying, ‘Oh that guy from Montana—he rides horses and tips cows, and he got lucky one time’.”

But McGowan doesn’t ride horses (any more), and he doesn’t tip cows, and his time was not a fluke. Last winter he won the USATF Indoor Nationals in the 1500, though, typically modest and with a historian’s devotion to the truth, he’s quick to point out that neither Alan Webb nor Bernard Lagat showed up.

With his Montana reserve, you have to really press McGowan to give you his bona fides. “It’s hard for me to think that I’ve done anything. Until I run a mile under 3:50—then I’ll talk about running. Guys like Alan and Bernard are going to make guys like me train harder and work harder.” He thinks that his best events might be those he hasn’t yet tried—the steeplechase and the 5,000m.

Now he’s taking a little break and continuing to work at Runner’s Edge, which, he says, is the perfect job for a runner. His boss, owner Anders Brooker, a triathlete, is supportively understanding of his schedule. And, when the things at the store are slow, Scott can read. He graduated from the University of Montana in 2004 with a degree in history, and the field continues to have a firm grip on his interest. He reads widely and closely, everything from books on World War II to the fight for women’s suffrage. “If I ever make a lot of money,” he says, “If I ever win the lottery, I’m going to give a whole bunch to the history program. I loved my teachers there.” He thinks for a minute, catching himself. “And track too. Track too. I’d split it up.”

People have suggested that he move for his running, that there might be other places that are more conducive to training than western Montana. “Yeah,” he says, “I tell people that we have about three months of decent weather. Then it’s snowy and cold, and then it’s fire season and the whole valley is blanketed with smoke and you can’t even go outside.”

I look at him. We both know that what he has just said is not true. Not even close. But Montanans are a funny people. An outward, superficial courtesy—which is often misinterpreted as friendliness by outsiders—is but a thin layer covering deep wells of wariness and reserve. “We don’t want people to come here,” McGowan says, echoing something I’ve heard from many other natives. “We like to keep the rural, small town, rugged individualist myth alive so that we’re not overrun with outsiders.”

“I like being the guy from Montana,” McGowan says, “I have a sense of pride not only in my state, but in my hometown. My father told me: Never be embarrassed about where you’re from. There are a lot of misconceptions about Indians and about what life on the reservation is like. But I know. I grew up there. The guys are my friends. It’s hard,” he says, when we start to talk about the intensely strained race relations of a place that, to most visitors, seems overwhelmingly white. “You can’t believe how tribal members are treated. When we were on the road, going to cross country meets, we’d go into a Wal-Mart and people said ‘there are too many of you to come in here.’ Too many Indians. A couple of times I’ve been called a ‘cracker’ by a Native American who didn¹t know me, but I’ve taken a hundred times more from non-natives.”

Both the Reebok Indoor Meet, where McGowan did his sub-four, and Indoor Nationals, took place in the Roxbury section of Boston. McGowan warmed up by running around the neighborhood. “They told me it was dangerous, that I shouldn’t go out there. I did, and it was fine. A couple of guys said to me, ‘Yo, you dropped your wallet,’ and I just laughed and said, ‘I’ve got no wallet.’ And they laughed. When I got back, people couldn’t believe I’d gone out there. I said, “I didn’t think it was that bad; you should see my hometown.’” He goes on to explain, “To me the reservation is one simple word, home. I know there are problems in Poplar, just like there are everywhere else, but the people back home are some of the nicest and most supportive folks I know. I am very proud to be a Montanan, but even more proud of the fact that I can call myself a Poplar Indian (school mascot).”

So for now, Scott McGowan will live, train, and do prodigious amounts of reading in Montana. He travels—he spent part of last summer competing in Europe—but is always glad to come back to Missoula, a town where runners, many runners of all shapes and sizes, trot along the river that runs through it, in shoes he’s sold them.