Prefontaine legend lives on
“Most people run a race to see who is fastest. I run a race to see who has the most guts.” – Steve Prefontaine
By Dave Price
Appeal Sports Writer
Thirty years ago yesterday, America lost one of its great distance runners of that or any other era when Steve Prefontaine was tragically killed in a single car rollover in Eugene, Ore.
Since then, his story has inspired two movies (Prefontaine in 1996 and Without Limits in 1998) … statues can be found in Eugene as well as his hometown, Coos Bay … runners and joggers still come to the Steve Prefontaine Memorial Jogging Trail in Eugene … and a meet named in his memory, the Prefontaine Classic, will be held Saturday at Hayward Field in Eugene.
Even though he is gone, the legend lives on.
Only 24 at the time of his death, Prefontaine owned each of the eight American records between 2,000 and 10,000 meters and between two miles and six miles. He also won seven NCAA titles and set eight collegiate records during his career at the University of Oregon between 1969 and ’73. His success – along with Frank Shorter’s marathon gold medal at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich – is often credited with igniting America’s running boom in the ’70s.
Pre really only had a short run in the limelight. He never won an Olympic gold medal – he finished fourth in the 5,000 at the Munich Games – although many firmly believe his best days were yet to come.
He was a crowd favorite and his presence in any race – especially in Eugene – usually brought fans to their feet. He loved the fans, and he said so when asked about his future running plans after running the Olympic 5,000 in Munich: “If anything will keep me running, it’s the fantastic response. Complete strangers write me wishing me well. The local people are so great. I would have to move away from Oregon. I couldn’t retire here,” he told Track & Field News.
Prefontaine was not one to sit back and let things happen. Win or lose, he went out and made things happen.
That was the objective when he ran the Olympic 5,000 in Munich. Finland’s Lasse Viren, who only a few days before had recovered from a fall to win the 10,000, came back and completed the first of his two fabled Olympic 5,000-10,000 gold medal doubles.
This 5,000 was special in its own right, and the following is a brief account from Track & Field News (a copy was made available by Steve Vandenburg of Carson City, who was in Munich for the 1972 Olympics):
The early pace was slow, with the leaders passing the first two miles in 8:56.4, pedestrian-like by world-class standards. Knowing he didn’t have the raw speed to run a traditional tactical race and win at the end against a field loaded with runners known for their kick, Prefontaine made his move with four laps to go on the track. He pulled the field through the next lap in 62.5 seconds. He ran the next in 61.5. And the next in 60.3, setting the stage for a dramatic finish.
Viren, defending Olympic champion Mohamed Gamoudi of Tunisia, and Prefontaine were the leaders as the bell sounded for the last lap. Prefontaine tried to start an all-out sprint to the finish as he headed into the backstretch, only to be cut off as Gamoudi made his move at the same time. Prefontaine tried to move again and closed in on Viren as the runners headed into the final 200 meters. But there was no catching Viren, who pulled away to the finish – clocked at 55.8 for his final lap at the end of a 3.1-mile race.
Prefontaine, his energy spent from the torrid late pace, faded and was ultimately denied any medal when Britain’s Ian Stewart passed him in the final 15 meters.
For the most part, America has not been a factor on the world distance running stage in at least 20 years. However, there is group of talented young stars on the stage now, such as 19-year-old Galen Rupp, a University of Oregon freshman who has rekindled some of the old spark among fans in Eugene. Rupp recently helped Oregon win the Pac-10 men’s team championship and earlier ran a junior national 10,000 record time of 28:15.52 before a chanting crowd of more than 3,000 at the Oregon Twilight Meet.
“To win a race here in an Oregon uniform, there’s nothing like it,” Rupp told the Eugene Register-Guard afterward. “People can say that it’s not what it once was, but I’ve thought about running at Hayward Field ever since I was in high school. Everybody goes nuts and you can’t ask for a better environment.”
So, there is no forgetting Steve Prefontaine. Not as long as any young distance runner comes out and takes pride in running on guts.
n Contact Dave Price at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (775) 881-1220.
PRE’S PERSONAL BESTS
1,500 meters: 3:38.1, June 28, 1973, Helsinki
One mile: 3:54.6, June 20, 1973, Eugene
2,000 meters: 5:01.4, May 9, 1975, Coos Bay
3,000 meters: 7:42.6, July 2, 1974, Milan, Italy
5,000 meters: 13:21.87, June 26, 1974, Helsinki, Finland
10,000 meters: 27:43.6, April 27, 1974, Eugene
Born: January 25, 1951 in Coos Bay, Ore.
Died: May 30, 1975 in Eugene, Ore.
Degree: B.A. in communications
Info: See GoDucks.com