WHAT WOULD PRE DO ?
by Dave Milner | published 05.30.05
Exactly thirty years ago today, our sport lost one of it's most promising runners. On May 30th, 1975 Steve Prefontaine died, crushed under the weight of his overturned MGB convertible on Skyline Drive in the hills above Eugene, Oregon. Pre, as he was known to all his fans and track lovers, had run his last race, drawn his last breath.
To this day, young high school and college runners make pilgrimages to the spot where Pre died, slipping racenumbers between rocks, leaving flowers, even their track spikes as a mark of respect.
I remember, when I first came to the United States in 1995, picking up an old copy of Running Times. I guess it was the May issue, talking about the 20th anniversary of his passing. As a track fan, I knew who Pre was but I couldn't quite fathom why there was all this fuss made about him. Afer all, he had never won an Olympic medal, and he had never set a world record. I read the article, and soon realized that it wasn't necessarily what Pre had achieved on the track that captured people's imagination, and continues to do so to this day; it was the way he ran, the way he thought, the way he lived.
But, lo and behold, when I drove out to Eugene to attend summer school at the University of Oregon in '99, one of the first things I did, after securing a roof over my head, was to make a pilgrimage to what has come to be known as Pre's Rock (right), the place where he took his final few breaths. It may be the closest thing to a distance running church.
As Deborah Uff wrote on stevepre.com, a site dedicated to Pre's memory, "He wasn't a president or a rock star. He was a puny kid from the logging town of Coos Bay, Oregon who was born with one leg shorter than the other. He ran the 5000 meters in the '72 Munich Olympics, but didn't even bring home a medal. His personality has been described as arrogant, brash, and cocky. His shocking death in a one-car accident is tainted by the specter of driving under the influence."
Superficially, then, it may be a challenge to recognize the profound and motivational lessons his life can teach. But if you dig a little deeper, scratch at the surface, as I did, "a picture emerges," Uff writes, "of an astonishing athlete with a voracious hunger for life, love, and competition." His grit and determination are well documented in several books, two motion pictures, and a fine documentary called 'Fire On the Track'.
If you were a runner in the early '70s, chances are, Pre was your idol. Give Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers their due, but it was Pre who captured the essence of running as no other ever had or probably ever will.
"Some people create with words or with music or with a brush and paints. I like to make something beautiful when I run," he once said. "I like to make people stop and say, 'I've never seen anyone run like that before.' It's more than just a race, it's a style. It's doing something better than anyone else. It's being creative." Can you imagine any of the current crop of American distance runners saying that? Okay, maybe Gabe Jennings. But can you imagine someone saying it and not eliciting mockery.
Pre had charisma - by the bucketload - and a style that grabbed you by the shorts and pulled you around the track with him. When I was twenty I once told a friend that I wished I'd been born earlier because I loved 70s music. Now, sometimes, I wish I had been born earlier so I could have seen Pre run.
At the time of his death, Steve Prefontaine held every American outdoor track record between 2000 and 10,000 meters. In all, he set 14 American records and broke the 4-minute mile barrier 9 times. He had an amazing capacity to train hard, recover, and race even harder. His workouts were legendary and his high school coach once remarked of him that limitation was not in his frame of reference. Pre's high school records continue to be the standard by which up and coming middle distance runners are measured and many consider him the greatest American distance runner of all time.
Was he America's greatest runner? Probably not, but who knows how good he could have been had his awesome potential not been snuffed.
He was indeed a prodigy. When he set his American record over 5000m at the '72 Olympic trials, it was, of course, without the benefit of rabbits, and was at the time only 6.2 seconds slower than the World Record. As Tom Jordan, author of Pre: America's Greatest Running Legend points out, "Imagine the excitement today if a runner born and raised in small-town America were to run 12:45 at the age of 21!"
What would Pre be doing if he were still alive today?
Maybe he would have medaled in Montreal. Or maybe he would have been the fastest runner in the world in 1980, only to be denied a chance at medalling in Moscow by President Jimmy Carter.
Maybe he would be preparing to guide the Oregon Ducks to yet another men's NCAA Championship team title, a title powered by distance dominance. Since Pre's death, the Ducks have gone from being the best cross-country program in the nation to not even being the best in the state. Up until 1998, the year Martin Smith took over from Bill Dellinger, the worst Oregon had finished at the NCAA Championships had been 15th. In 2003, they finished 21st, and last fall they didn't even make it to the meet at all.
Maybe things will turn around with Pre's former room mate Pat Tyson helping out, but I'd like to imagine that, if he were still alive, Pre and Tyson would have been at the helm, for the last two decades, of an unbeatable distance program of which every high school runner in the nation was begging to be a part.
Or maybe he would be sitting at what is now Craig Masback's desk, making sure that the sport was been run fairly, athletes deserving financial support received it, and drug cheats - no matter how big a star they were - were kicked out of the sport for good.
Who knows what Pre would have done with the rest of his life? People have often speculated that he would have been a great marathoner. After all, he was "one tough SOB" as Seattle Times writer Blaine Newnham writes, but would he have had the right temperament, enough patience, for 26.2 miles?
Maybe the reason Pre has captured so many people's attention, particularly Americans, is that Pre was just - as Jordan points out - "quintessentially American."
"Growing up middle-class in a house built by his father. A pride born of the conviction that his achievements were the result of hard work, not some genetic gift of nature. A willingness to lay everything on the line, or as Steve put it: 'to see who's toughest.'"
What appears to be in little doubt is that Pre would've poured the same effort he did into his race into whatever he would have been doing now. There'll never be another Pre. But what also seems in little doubt is that our sport desperately needs another hero, another maverick, another balls-to-the-wall runner, who isn't afraid to lay it on the line.