I still remember the first time I heard the name Steve Prefontaine. It was the first day of my junior year of high school and I had just turned in my summer training log to our team’s cross-country coach. My coach reviewed my training log and exclaimed,
“967 miles?”! “Geez! You’re like Springville’s own Prefontaine.”
“Who is that?” I replied.
My coach gave me a puzzled look and said “Seriously? A kid that just ran 967 miles in 12 weeks doesn’t know who Steve Prefontaine is? There is a book about him. You should read it. I’m pretty sure you will love it.”
That night, after practice, I sat down at my family’s computer and typed Steve Prefontaine and book into the search bar of this new thing called the Internet. The first result was a link to the book Pre: The Story Of America’s Greatest Running Legend by Tom Jordan.
I jumped into my car and headed to Barne’s and Noble to see if they had the book in stock. I was in luck. The book had recently been reissued due to a surge in interest surrounding Prefontaine due to the recent 20th anniversary of his tragic death. I turned the book over to read the synopsis on the back cover and the quotes beneath the short synopsis jumped off the page at me.
“I’m going to work so that it’s a pure guts race at the end, and if it is, I am the only one who can win it.”
“Somebody may beat me, but they are going to have to bleed to do it.”
“A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest. I run to see who has the most guts, who can punish himself into exhausting pace, and then at the end, punish himself even more.”
Who is this guy? I thought to myself. I had never heard a distance runner speak so boldly. I was new to the sport at the time, but the distance runners I saw on televised track meets and in the Olympics were never cocky or arrogant. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I could recall ever hearing of a distance runner being interviewed by the media in United States. American distance running had been suffering through a severe drought of runners that could compete at the international level for years by the late 1990’s. African runners had risen up to be the dominant force in distance running and the American public, except for the very small percentage of passionate distance runners, had simply stopped paying attention to any distance longer than the 100 meters or 200 meters; and even then, they only cared about those distances every four years when the Olympics rolled around.
I was not a big reader at the time, but I went home and started the book immediately. I was hooked from the first page. Pre’s larger than life personality and accomplishments captivated me. His personality demanded attention. He would give interviews before his races and he would name names and make predications about what he was going to do in the race. These antics caused some people to refer to him as the Muhammad Ali of track. Pre’s accomplishments were as large as his personality…
- He set a national 2 mile record during his senior year of high school.
- He made the US Amateur team and travelled to Europe to compete against the best in the world at the age of 18.
- At the age of 21 he challenged the best in the world in the Olympic games. He won 7 collegiate national titles during the 4 years he ran for the University if Oregon.
- He was a vocal voice in the fight for change in how amateur athletics were governed in the United States.
From the time I finished his biography, I wanted nothing more than to train and run like Pre did. I had also learned that Pre had many other characteristics that I wanted to emulate in my own life…
Pre was an aggressive self-starter and hard worker.
In high school Pre regularly ran 100 miles a week and held two jobs. Steve would regularly wake up before dawn to get his morning workout in, go to school, go to practice, go to work, and then come home and do his school work. No matter how tired or sore he was the next day, he was always out the door before dawn to get his morning work out in. What made this even more impressive to me is that no one was making him do this. Pre’s parents were not former distance runners trying to relive their high school cross country days. They never pushed him out of bed to go running. In fact, Pre’s mother thought it was foolish for him to spend so much time on his running and Olympic dreams. Steve’s parents didn’t even go to many of his meets due to their work schedules.
Pre firmly stood up for what he believed in.
Pre would regularly clash with his college coach Bill Bowerman when he tried to get him to stop pushing the pace and being a front-runner. Simply put, Bowerman believed you should run a race with only one goal in mind; winning. Steve believed in winning races, but only if he had run as hard as he could and had given his best. It bothered him that a mediocre effort could win a race and an all out effort could lose it. The scene below from the film Without Limits captures Pre and Bowerman’s relationship perfectly.
Pre always made time for other people
Even now, the defining characteristics people remember about Pre are his confidence, brashness with the press. Pre definitely had those traits, but if you read stories from those that knew him best, a different person emerges. In interviews, people frequently say that when you spoke with Pre one on one, you felt like at that moment you where the only thing that mattered to him at that moment.
When Pre was a senior at Marshfield High School in Coos Bay, he had not been defeated in nearly two years and was being recruited by every major college running program in the nation. Many of the Marshfield High cross country and track team seniors would not pay much attention to Freshman runners. When a new freshman joined the team during Pre’s senior year, Pre noticed after the freshman’s first practice that he did not have any racing spikes to train in. When practice was over Pre told the Freshman to follow him to the locker room. When they go to the locker room Pre pulled out a brand new pair of racing spikes and said, “take these, I have more than enough spikes.”
In college, despite running before dawn, being a full-time student, going to practice, and work, Pre would regularly hold running clinics for the youth in Eugene. His message to the youth at his clinics was to work hard, follow your dreams, and always give your best at everything you do. He would always end his youth clinics with the quote “to give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” After his meets, Pre would never leave until he had signed autographs for all of his young fans. He would tell the reporters that were pressing him for an interview that he was busy and that no one gets an interview until he was done with the kids.
Once, when Frank Shorter was staying with Pre, he asked Pre why there was a letter from an inmate at the state prison on his kitchen table. Pre said, that he knew this prisoner to be a good man and had been trying over the past few months to help him get paroled. When Frank asked Pre how he knew the man, he let Frank know that he had started a running club at the prison and he regularly traveled to the prison to hold running clinics with the inmates. He also wrote letters with custom training plans to many of the inmates in his spare time.
Pre lost the biggest race of his life, but he didn’t let his discouragement drive him to quit running.
Pre entered the 1972 Olympic 5,000 meter final as a favorite to win a medal. Pre didn’t just want a medal, he wanted the gold medal. At the age of 21 he took on the most talented field of 5,000 meter runners that had ever competed in an Olympic 5,000 meter race. From the sound of the starting gun, the race did not suit Pre’s style. The pace being set by the field was incredibly slow. The experienced runner’s in the race knew Pre’s front running style and they boxed him into the middle of the pack for the first two miles of the race. The runners were doing their best to be sure the race would be decided by who could sprint the fastest in the last 200-300 meters. Although Pre had good finishing speed, he knew he could not match the other runners in a race that was left down to a final kick. Pre found an opening with just over a mile to go and he took the lead and pushed the pace on the field. In the end, Pre’s all out effort with a mile to go caused him to fade in the final 150 meters of the race. He nearly collapsed as he crossed the finish line in fourth place. Ian Stewart had passed Pre in the last 10 meters to get the bronze medal. Pre had run his last mile in 4:04 and made the race what is now considered one of the greatest Olympic races of all time. The television commentators said, “one man made the race, and another man won it.” Even Ian Stewart said, “give credit to Prefontaine. I didn’t deserve an Olympic medal, not how I ran today.”
You can watch the recreation of the race from the film Without Limits below (start at the :15 second mark)
Although Pre was crushed that he did not bring home a Gold medal from Munich, he didn’t stay down for long. His senior year at Oregon was brilliant. He won his third consecutive national cross country title and his fourth consecutive national three mile title (a feat that had never been accomplished and that has never been replicated).
Pre didn’t let the lure of money dictate his actions.
After college, Pre struggled to make a living. Although his presence brought thousands of paying fans to the track meets he participated in, he lived on food stamps and the Amateur Athletic Associations allowance of three dollars a day. He couldn’t accept money from any professional organization or he would love his amateur status and would forfeit the chance to run for the gold medal in the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Pre worked for his coach Bill Bowerman’s small shoe company called Nike. His title was National Public Relations Manager and he was paid in shoes. It was during this time that the new professional track league offered Pre $200,000 to turn pro. Although the money would have made Pre’s life much easier, he told the professional track league to “keep your money. I run best when I run free.” His goal of winning the gold medal at the Montreal Olympics meant more to him than having a large bank account. How many of us would make the same choice if we were given the chance to go from living on food stamps to having over $200,000 in the bank?
Pre inspired people.
When Pre died on May, 30th 1975, he had won seven collegiate national titles, held every American record for distance running from 2,000 meters to 10,000 meters, and had competed for his country in the Olympic Games. He was only 24 years old.
When Pre’s fans read the newspaper on the morning after his death. They were in a state of shock. They couldn’t believe he was gone. There wouldn’t be any more track meets at Hayward Field where their cheers of Pre! Pre! Pre! seemed to help Pre push through his pain and surge for the finish line. Pre’s competitors didn’t take the news of his death much better. Although Pre was known to be brash and arrogant, his competitors loved to run against him. Pre’s all out efforts on the track caused those he raced against to push harder than they ever had and many of them set their own personal records in the process. Who would be the one that they could depend on to make them rise to the occasion and perform their best now that Pre was gone?
Ian Stewart called Pre the best runner that America never had; because he didn’t live long enough to fulfill his all of his limitless potential. Distance runners traditionally do not hit their prime until their 30’s. We, the fans, are left with so many questions about what might have been. Would Pre have won the 5,000 meter gold medal in Montreal? Would he have set the world record for 3 miles that he coveted? Would he have moved up in distance to win gold medals in the 10,000 meters and the marathon if he would have lived longer? I believe that the questions left behind by Pre’s death and his all out front running style are what fuels his continued popularity.
Today marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Steve Prefontaine. A lot of great runners have come and gone over the last 40 years; many of them with career accomplishments that are arguably more impressive than Pre’s. Bill Rodgers, Rod Dixon, Alberto Salazar, Bob Kennedy, Galen Rupp, and Meb Keflezighi come to mind, but Pre is still the standard that all of America’s up and coming distance runners are held to. High school cross-country teams across America still wear t-shirts with Prefontaine quotes on the back of them. Thousands of runners each year make the pilgrimage to Pre’s home town of Coos Bay Oregon to see where his career began and then drive to Eugene to visit “Pre’s Rock.” They leave race bibs, medals, and old pairs of running shoes that they set a personal best wearing.
I made the pilgrimage to Coos Bay and Eugene myself when I was 26 years old. I had not run seriously for many years when I made the trip, but Pre was still one of my heroes. I had never forgotten the connection I had felt with Pre when I first read his biography at the age of 17. I had no idea how much Pre and the example he set during his life would effect my own life. I have always tried to be a self-starter. I have always tried to stand-up for what I believe in, even when it was not the popular choice. I have always tried to make time for other people and to help them when I can. I have tried not to let the biggest defeats I have experienced in life keep my from following my dreams. I have tried not let the lure of money dictate my decisions. Finally, I have tried to live my life in a way that can inspire people. Even now, nearly 20 years after I learned about Steve Prefontaine and his life, I still want nothing more than to be able to run like Pre and to emulate the characteristics I admired so much about him after that first reading of his biography.
A documentary film titled “Fire On The Track: The Steve Prefontaine Story” was released in 1995 to honor Pre on the 20th anniversary if his death. I believe that the picture below perfectly captures everything that made Pre the legend he is today and how the documentary got it’s title. There he is, out in front of the pack, pushing the pace, obviously in pain, but he won’t be satisfied unless he gives every ounce of energy he has during the race. Bill Bowerman said that Pre finally taught him that the point of running was not to win a race. It was to test the limits of the human heart. Pre never ran any other way. I think it is safe to say that, even 40 years after his death, the fire on the track is still burning.
“To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” – Steve Prefontaine