Copyright 2012 by Ed Bagley
It has now been 37 years since the untimely, tragic death of America’s greatest running legend and its greatest middle distance runner, Steve Prefontaine, and his legacy continues to grow as the void he filled remains open. It is rare but true to say that his legacy may never be matched again.
“Pre”—as he would become known to the world beyond Coos Bay, Oregon—was not only unbeatable on American soil but he captured the hearts of runners and spectators. Fans still swear upon pain of death that many times when Pre would step onto the Hayward Field track at the University of Oregon, the sun would burst through the overcast skies, as if announcing that something great was about to happen.
And happen it did because Steve Prefontaine was there to not just win a competitive race, he was there to entertain his faithful, who could expect a superlative effort as well as a victory.
Pre never thought of himself as the fastest runner in the race, but there is no record of a runner who ever faced him that doubted that he was the toughest, most courageous runner ever. That list included some world-record holders and his most intense rivals.
Like a lot of 5-foot, 100-pound athletes who were 8th grade benchwarmers in the more popular sports like football, Pre turned out for the cross-country team as a freshman and discovered his place in the world.
By the time to graduated from Marshfield High School, he had won 2 state cross-country titles, won state track titles in the mile and 2 mile twice, run a 4:06.0 mile in the Golden West Invitational, and set the national high school record in the 2 mile with a sensational 8:41.5 time.
As an 18 year old he qualified to represent the United States on an international tour and finished 3rd in the 5000-meter run in Europe. His 13:52.8 time was faster than any ever run by the legend of the previous generation, the great Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia. He held his own against the world’s best, and had yet to begin his collegiate career at the University of Oregon.
In his first 3-mile race against Washington State in a dual meet at Eugene, Pre won in 13:12.8, the 7th-fastest time ever by an American and the fastest time by a U. S. runner in two years. After 21 straight collegiate meets without a loss, he was the hot-shot prodigy, on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a freshman. No one could have known that he was just getting started.
“A strange camaraderie grew up at the time among those of us who lost continually to Pre,” said Don Kardong of Stanford. “We were united in our belief that no one should have the success coupled with pride that Pre had. We really wanted, I think, to see the big tree fall.” But for Pre, his competitors seemed to not even be on his radar screen.
After his freshman year, Pre never lost a cross-country race, winning 3 individual NCAA championship titles. He would win 4 NCAA 3-mile titles in track, becoming the first runner to ever win 4 consecutive NCAA titles in the same event.
After his junior year at Oregon, he qualified for the U. S. Olympic team in the 5,000 meters and would finish 4th in 13:28.3 as Lasse Viren of Finland won in 13:26.4. The field literally plodded through the first two miles and sprinted the last mile. Pre would take the lead at one point but could not hold it in the end.
In preparing for the Olympic 5,000 meter, Pre had run four 1320s and three 1 milers with decreasing times. His 1320 times were 3:12, 3:09, 3:06 and 3:00, then he came back with the cut-down miles. For sharpening, he ran a solo mile under 4:00; he just walked to the line in practice, got set, then clicked off a 3:59 mile with no competition. He was ready, but he was not as experienced as the world-class runners he was facing.
Because of his relentless front-running, Pre was non-stop, and many of his opponents set personal records in losing against him.
Think about his personal best times: a 1,500 in 3:38.1, a 3,000 in 7:42.6, a 5,000 in 13:21.9, a 10,000 in 27:43.6, a mile in 3:54.6, a 2 mile in 8:18.4, a 3 mile in 12:51.4, and a 6 mile in 26:51.8, all accomplished by 1975. At his best, Pre once held every American record in the middle distance events from 2,000 meters to 10,000 meters.
Alberto Salazar, the former American-record holder in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters and marathon, had this to say about Pre: “He would not take second effort—it was not acceptable . . . I think it comes down to pride in the end. Not proud, necessarily, that you are better than everyone else, but that you are tougher than anybody else. That if you lose, you are going to make whomever you are running against pay. And that is what Pre did.”
John Gillespie, a coach and fan, said “He had charisma. That word—there is something about somebody when you tell people you are going to do something, and then you go out and do it. I know of no single person who could draw people like he did.”
Wendy Ray, the Hayward Field announcer for all of Pre’s races there, said “He just had whatever that is—I don’ t know, actors have it. Singers have it. Some people have it, some people don’t. Most people don’t. He had a lot of it.”
Tom Jordan, a writer for Track &Field News in the early 1970s, said “Pre would fix you with a steady gaze and give the impression that you were the most important person in his life at that instant, and that the things he was telling you were known by few others.
“It was an enormously flattering and appealing trait,” said Jordan, “and contributed greatly to what came to be called his charisma.”
Pre ran every day of his athletic life. He was up at 6 a.m. and out the door, running again in the afternoon at workouts. Perhaps even more incredible than the records he set and championships he won was the fact that he never missed a single day of practice or a single meet during his 4-year career at the University of Oregon. He was a force that no one wanted to reckon with, or run against.
On May 30, 1975, 24-year-old Steve Prefontaine was killed in a tragic auto accident. A memorial marks the spot of his death in Eugene, Oregon, and attracts runners and admirers to Pre’s Rock, the roadside boulder where he died. Like a flame that refuses to be extinguished, Pre lives on.
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