"Faster," John Kerry told the driver. "Faster, faster."

The senator was late for a political event in Springfield, Mass., moving along the turnpike at 55 mph.

"I said, 'We're going to be late, John. That's the way it's going to be,' " recalled Jonathan Winer, the aide behind the wheel. "John reached his long leg over and said, 'No. That's the way it's going to be,' and he stepped on my foot and pushed the accelerator to 75. And then he said, 'There.' "

Kerry was in a hurry, as he often is. Whether on the road to Springfield in his early Senate days or in the race for the White House at this late stage of the campaign, Kerry is a man, associates say, who lives for the sprint. The holes in his shoes, friends tease, are testimony, as is the long board with which he snowboards, to maximize the rush. Even his mother used to joke that her son was born in a hurry; she barely made it to the hospital in time.

The Democratic presidential nominee may have been born to run, but it remains to be seen if he can win. As Election Day approaches in this close contest, Kerry's reputation as a good closer will be put to the ultimate test. Just as he did in his tight Senate race in Massachusetts against then-Gov. William Weld in 1996, Kerry gained momentum in the debates. Polls show the candidates very close.

Speed has always been central to Kerry's character. It has worked in his favor, such as during the Democratic primaries, when he came from behind. But his urgent manner has also slowed him down. In high school, some scorned Kerry as a striver. He was seen by some in the military as a medal digger, in the antiwar movement as an opportunist and in the Senate as a dilettante.

He has been restless all his life. "If he's comfortable, he's uncomfortable," said Chris Gregory, who has worked in all of Kerry's campaigns. "He'll argue with you, not because he thinks he's right, but because he wants more tension. Politically, he likes to go right to the edge."

This is the edge, the finish line not only for the 2004 campaign, but for a man whose life has essentially been one long race. The question left to be answered on Nov. 2 is whether he has timed it right.

Restless at Root

"He had aspirations," said Kerry's aunt, Angela Winthrop. "We used to pull his leg -- 'Oh, Johnny, you want to be president of the United States!' He'd say, 'Yes, I do.' "

Kerry's 92-year-old aunt smiled over a cup of Earl Grey, sitting with her son, Frederic, in a dim corner of the banquet hall at Groton House. The paint in the Winthrop mansion is peeling and the rugs are thin, but the family's Civil War-era swords and portraits of ancestral generals have endured. Kerry spent weekends and school vacations at the 700-acre farm north of Boston, a home base in an itinerant childhood. It was places such as this, some friends and family say, that encouraged his ambition.

"They called his father a diplomat, but he could never get proper pay," said Winthrop, whose sister, Rosemary, was Kerry's mother. "Things were difficult for Rosie."

When a Kerry baby was born, Angela Winthrop sent over her Scottish nanny. Kerry wore Frederic's hand-me-downs. Another aunt paid for Kerry's school. As Frederic had put it earlier: "We didn't think John had a pot to pee in."

But at the Kerry-Winthrop Thanksgiving touch football game, John plowed over Frederic. And when Kerry drove the Winthrop hay wagon, "he was so wild, my father had to tell him to slow down." Among his Protestant, Republican and rich peers, Kerry, the Catholic Democrat raised on his father's government wage, had something to prove, his friends said.

But Kerry's brother, Cam, said the pressure came from within: "His hard-wiring was to be a striver, competitive."

Whatever the cause, his pace alienated some, said his friend Dan Barbiero: "As long as I've known John, he's been extremely driven, even in prep school, and that can put kids off."

As Kerry grew into a 6-foot-4 young man, his legs chafed against the underside of his desk. The worst torture for him at Navy survival training was being confined to a small box, forced to squat with his head between his knees.

"If there's one thing that makes me grumpy, it's when I'm not able to take a run or ride my bike," Kerry said in an interview last year. "That's the meditation, liberation. I need an hour of freedom every day."

He finds freedom in speed: "There's a great similarity between flying, skiing, motorcycling, sailing, windsurfing -- an element of nature that combines with you. It's liberating. Why did Icarus try to fly? Why has it been a dream? Because it takes the spirit to a different place, unbound and unfettered."

During these last, frantic campaign days, when Kerry checks his watch, he might be thinking about his schedule. Or maybe not. Kerry set his sports watch to tell him when it is high tide on Cape Cod: "Tells me when I can hit the tide right." He may not be able to windsurf or to race his boat these days, but his stump speech is getting crisper, and he is delivering more energized one-liners -- smiling more, droning less -- as he tries to pick up speed.

What's the Rush?

Kerry was in his Boston townhouse on a short break from campaigning, sifting through old files in his study. For more than an hour he flipped through them, reading out loud from his Vietnam War diary, sharing his girls' Father's Day cards, smiling at his father's pilot flight log. Then he opened a high school notebook and cringed.

On June 3, 1962, around the time he graduated, Kerry had written a mission statement: "Life is divided into two sides -- those who make it, and those who put their mark on it. . . . It is the challenge to make a mark that I strive for."

Letters from his youth show a man eager to serve. In 1968, while in the Navy, he wrote to a friend: "Sometimes I feel torn between many things but always, on top of everything, is the public issue, the imposing question of what CAN be done for all those around us. It's a fantastic challenge -- one we are so lucky to be able to even consider undertaking."

And in another letter: "My God, though, I can't wait to do something. It's going to be so damn exciting that I get excited just thinking about it."

Some people have interpreted Kerry's impatience as self-promotion. In July 1971, when he appeared at an anti-Vietnam War news conference with relatives of prisoners of war, the wife of a missing soldier heckled him from the back of the room, "Mr. Kerry, you are using these people for your own callous political ambition."

In April 1972, when he moved to Lowell, Mass., and announced his run for Congress the very next day, some dismissed him as an opportunistic "fly-in."

Kerry squirmed when asked to explain his ambition. "Loads of people want to be the best," he said, folding his arms. "Loads of people would want to be [New York Times columnist] Tom Friedman and win three Pulitzers. Too bad. I want to do something important. I'm not going to worry about it."

Kerry offered a glimpse of one motive when he spoke at his father's funeral. After a series of losses, his father had been "wrestling with his own relationship with God," Kerry said, but resolved it by pledging himself to public service. He found meaning in life through civic duty.

Kerry told the mourners: "Human conscience, [my father] said, when it works -- is the most divine thing in our small segment of the universe."

Although Kerry is guarded in talking about his faith, like his father, he has found a higher purpose in public duty. These days, he carries a Bible, a gift from former senator Max Cleland (D-Ga.), inscribed: To John, God has called you to lead. Let Him lead you.

The hurried life has its drawbacks, Kerry said, chief among them letting down old friends: "I'm not as good a friend as they are to me, because friendships take time."

Kerry's first wife, Julia Thorne, despaired at his hectic schedule. "John was never the kind of man she wanted -- the guy coming home at 5 o'clock and playing with the kids," Barbiero said. "I said, 'Julia, how could you imagine he would be that man?' "

After their divorce, Thorne made a list of qualities she would like in a man, she said in a 1996 interview with Washingtonian: "One thing I wrote on my list was: No suits. If a man is in a suit, he's probably a banker or a lawyer or a politician or somebody who's into manipulating power, and that person isn't going to be there for me."

Kerry's second wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, recalled with a laugh their introduction in a Senate hallway: "He was rushing to go somewhere. I thought, this is a man in a hurry. Boy, this guy moves fast. Zip-zip."

And yet, Heinz Kerry said, he also needs moments of repose, when he might sit on the porch for an hour and say nothing. Or he might write a poem, such as this one: Fall; resplendent colors and the feeling of loss, time passing by . . .

Kerry's moments of contemplation -- of over-contemplation, staff members grumble -- often end only when a crisis prompts him. "The time you like him most is when the chips are down and there's a high-stakes interaction," Gregory said. "It covers up every flaw he has."

The stories of last-minute rescues pile up. Topping them all, perhaps, is the time he stepped off a Senate elevator and found then-Sen. Chic Hecht (R-Nev.) choking on an apple. Hecht had stumbled out of the Republican senators' weekly luncheon and had fallen over, unconscious and blue. Kerry applied the Heimlich maneuver. "He saved my life," Hecht said.

That said, for all of Kerry's hustle, for all the urgency of his life, it has taken him until age 60 to approach his goal. Kerry has said, almost defensively, on the stump, "Al Gore and I came to the Senate at the same time. I'm the only guy in my Senate class who hasn't run for president."

In the fall of 2002, Kerry roared his motorcycle north from Boston to visit with his sick mother. He was no longer a young man in a hurry but a gray-haired man with a problem prostate, who set his cell phone on the loudest ring so he could hear it. Kerry's mother lay in bed, in her modest apartment in Manchester-by-the-Sea, her days waning. She wore a pin on her nightgown, "I'm John's Mom." Kerry bent down next to her and told her he was running for president.

"There was determination in her voice," recalled Cam, Kerry's brother. "A particular set of her jaw to one side, like she was fixed on an idea."

She held her Johnny's fingers in her bony, veined hand and said:

"It's about time."

A longtime friend said of Sen. John F. Kerry: "As long as I've known John, he's been extremely driven."