As he ages, every athlete begins to notice signs that it could be time to quit. Some are better at acknowledging them, and they retire with pride and grace. John Elway managed this; so did Jackie Stewart. Michael Jordan finally did, too, after a false start. Ali struggled with his personal signs, ignoring his slowing hands and feet at the expense of his head and body. The sport of running is particularly brutal in delivering these signs. There are no teammates to pick up the slack for you when you lose a step, no rope-a-dope to try when your legs weaken. The stopwatch never lies.
Then there is the pain. It accompanies all runners at one time or another. Plaatjes had run with it before, too, although he was never at his best when it was around. "I've always been the type of runner that to race well I had to feel well," he says. "I've trained with guys who while doing hill work will get to the top of the hill, keel over and vomit, and then go again. I've never been that kind of runner." He'd also never crossed the line into overtraining -- a tired kind of pain that can make you feel old quickly.
On May 7, at the Olympic trials in Pittsburgh, Plaatjes was nursing a sore hamstring, and he found himself covering the opening miles of the race laboriously. He struggled to condense his mile times into less than five minutes and thirty seconds -- a crawl for a man who at his peak tended toward the lesser side of five minutes. But he couldn't summon the energy and so, with the race not a fifth over, and without fanfare or ceremony or a press conference, he simply stopped. For good. "I felt gimpy," he said after the race. "I felt old, is how I felt."
Today he confirms, "There will be no more competing." But unlike other athletes who quit their sports, runners rarely slow to a walk altogether. "I'll run until I can't run anymore," Plaatjes says. He also plans to try skiing and inline skating, two sports he has had to avoid over the years for fear of injuring his valuable legs.
A race -- particularly a long one, such as the marathon -- is the sum of many parts. Runners train with the hope that all of those parts fall together on the day of the race. Yet despite all the training and pain, it is truly a rare event when they do.
Fifteen years ago, as Plaatjes sped through Port Elizabeth to his personal record of 2:08:58, the most extraordinary thing about the race was that as the miles went by, he kept feeling stronger. "I ran my last kilometer in 2:42," he recalls. "I had so much left that when I got onto the track, I saw I needed to run the lap in 48 seconds to break the record -- and I ran it in 43."
With so much energy unexpended, he found himself wondering what would happen if he gave it everything. If he could run this fast without exhausting his reserves, what kind of race was he capable of? "I'm only 22," he remembers thinking. "I'll do it again."
Despite the great and memorable races -- Los Angeles, the '93 World Championships -- it would never happen again. "I don't think I ran my best marathon," he says. "I never really got to red-line it. It was always something -- my training, an injury, the wrong race or the wrong course. It just never came together like that again."
So running fans can now only imagine: What if it had -- in Los Angeles or Seoul or Barcelona?