Wednesday, May 27, 2015

V 5 N 45 Pre, We Hardly Knew Ye by Paul O'Shea

May 30, 2015 will be the fortieth anniversary of Pre's passing.    This piece was written and  sent to us by Paul O'Shea and has appeared in Cross Country Journal.  Many thanks for allowing us to use it, Paul.


Steve Prefontaine
January 25, 1951-May 30, 1975



Pre, We Hardly Knew Ye


By Paul O’Shea


To give anything less than your best, he famously said, was to sacrifice the gift.  It was an ethic Steve Prefontaine shared with us to the end of his brief life.
In the spring of 1975 I was riding under the Hudson River on a PATH train linking New York City with Hoboken, New Jersey, reading a newspaper. Buried in a sports news summary I came across these sentences: American distance runner Steve Prefontaine is dead, killed in an automobile crash in Eugene, Oregon.  Prefontaine was 24 years old.  
One of America’s greatest distance runners was gone. I was shocked, devastated by the news.
In a few weeks the international track and field community will mark the 40th anniversary of the death of the athlete who defines “iconic.” Commemorating that May 30, 1975 tragedy and honoring his memory, it’s fitting to ask: what made Steve Prefontaine the legendary “Pre”? Why does his name still resonate after all these years?  What can today’s runners learn from the way he never gave less than his best, never sacrificed his gift?  
Growing up in lumberjack Coos Bay, Oregon sports were the ticket to popularity, but Prefontaine was too small for football so he began running with the junior high team. At Marshfield High School he went out for cross country and discovered his life’s mission. As a sophomore he was an early success, placing sixth in the state meet.
“Ferociously competitive” as Olympian/author Kenny Moore would later describe him, Prefontaine twice was state cross country champion and broke the national high school two-mile record by seven seconds with 8:41.5. That got Frank Shorter’s attention who was then at Yale—the time was about the same as Shorter’s PR.
Following graduation Pre entered the 1969 AAU three-mile in Miami and qualified for the US national team, finishing fourth behind Gerry Lindgren. At 18 he was on his first international tour. That summer he ran 5,000 meters in 13:52.8, placing third in the U.S-Europe meet.
Jeff Johnson, a Track and Field News photographer, remembered seeing him for the first time after hearing about those high school performances.  At the AAU, on an elevator in the athletes’ hotel, Johnson talked briefly with “this little kid.” Later he noticed him hanging around the elite runners, apparently eager for autographs. The next day Johnson was focusing on the boldface names on the starting line--and there was the little kid, standing among the Sequoias, ready to race in his Marshfield uniform. “My God, that’s Steve Prefontaine!”
Before running his first collegiate race he’d been on the cover of Sports Illustrated, with a headline that read, “America’s Distance Prodigy.” Forty college teams pursued the Coos Bay wonder, but the hardheaded coach at the University of Oregon was a reluctant suitor.  Bill Bowerman didn’t recruit runners.  They applied for admission.
To be sure he wanted the precocious Prefontaine, but the Ducks’ leader was loath to chase the athlete who would have been the No. 1 pick in any distance runner draft.  Finally, Bowerman sent Prefontaine a handwritten letter that would transform the sport, the University and its historic Hayward Field.  For the next several years an irresistible force met an immovable object, each bending a little, but only centimeters.
In four years Steve Prefontaine won three Division I cross country titles and four consecutive three mile/5,000 meter track crowns.  He ran his best mile in 3:54.6, then just three-and-a-half seconds slower than the world record.  Bill Dellinger, who had succeeded Bowerman as coach, recalled that Pre never missed a workout or a race.
When we think of Pre we remember the biggest test of his career, the l972 Olympic 5,000 meter final in Munich, held four days after the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s terrorist attack resulted in the deaths of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches.
Those thirteen minutes, twenty-eight seconds he gave us, a painting that will forever hang in our memory, revealed familiar, obstinate ways.  It was the kind of race he hated, a typical championship shuffle. After a lollygagging two miles in 8:56, impatient Pre went to the front, having told the world that he would run the last mile in four minutes. “Somebody may beat me, but they are going to have to bleed to do it.”  
The 21-year-old led for the next two laps, then Finland’s Lasse Viren attacked with 800 meters left. In third, Pre counterattacked on the backstretch of the penultimate lap, but Viren regained the lead with 400 meters remaining.  Mohammed Gammoudi of Tunisia and Prefontaine gave chase but the Finn won going away, winning his second gold medal of the Munich Games. Viren had run 4:02.
Running the last mile in 4:04 Prefontaine was spent and lost the bronze at the finish line when Ian Stewart of Great Britain surged past. It was one of the great competitive distance races in track and field history.   
After the race, incapable of holding back emotionally, the American warned David Bedford, the UK’s 10,000-meter world record holder: “I’ll see you in Montreal and I’ll kick your butt.” Indeed, had Pre lived, he would have been a favorite to win the 1976 5,000.
The post Olympic years were ones of great achievement and personal challenge.  He set nine American bests including a 27:43.6 in the 10,000, just five seconds over the world record.
Now that he was no longer on scholarship there was a struggle to make a living. To survive he lived in a trailer, shopped with food stamps.  He tended bar where he was a regular patron, until the disapproving Bowerman shut him down.
A fledgling professional track association offered a $200,000 contract, but he rejected the offer in order to retain his “amateur” standing.  Bowerman and one of his former milers, Phil Knight began collaborating on a business that would become Nike, provider of all goods athletic. Pre sent the early Nike shoes to runners he had met, including Bill Rodgers. At first he was paid in shoes, then earned $5,000, the first athlete to sign with the company. Nike called Pre its National Public Relations Manager.
Off the track Pre pushed the pace in civilian life, too. He challenged the sport’s governing authorities, the AAU and the International Olympic Committee. Before track and field became a professional sport, he believed athletes should be paid openly, rather than under the table as was then happening.  The AAU’s per diem was three dollars.
He started a running club at the Oregon State Prison. For more than four decades the program has helped inmates cope with their incarceration. Limited to 150 prisoners, there is a four-year wait to get into the group.  He also volunteer coached at a local junior high school.
The legend grew as he won races with characteristic intensity:  “Most people run a race to see who’s the fastest.  I run a race to see who has the most guts.” Showman, hero, rebel, we remember Steve Prefontaine because he displayed front running courage.  He fed off the crowds. Spectators cheered his warm-ups.  He was spirited, cocky, even charming. He was a hero for his time, and remains a star to thousands of young runners today, who see the movies and documentaries, read the books and news stories, watch his races on film.
Accessible and immensely quotable, his words live on in interviews and anthologies: “Some people create with words or with music or with a brush and paints.  I like to make something beautiful when I run.  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.”
There was nothing false or contrived: “How does a kid from Coos Bay, with one leg longer than the other win races?  All my life people have been telling me, ‘You’re too small Pre.’ ‘You’re not fast enough Pre,’ ‘Give up your foolish dream Steve.’  But they forgot something.  I HAVE TO WIN.”
And then the man with the exceptional talent ran the last race, crossed the final finish line.
During that day Steve Prefontaine did the ordinary things that made him such an extraordinary individual.  He went for an eye-opening run (six miles at six a.m. was the regimen), and prepared for the early evening meet at Hayward in which he faced several leading Finnish runners he had invited to this country, though Viren pulled out before the meet.
When Pre won, looking back over his shoulder, defeating Frank Shorter in the second fastest American 5,000 time, it was just two seconds off his personal best. For the 35th time he was victorious on the Hayward track, losing only three races, each a mile in distance. Over his career he started l53 races, winning 120. At one point he held seven American records at every distance from 2,000 to 10,000 meters.
Bowerman said, “He had just begun to reach maturity when the show was over,” never having won an Olympic medal or broken a world record.
Later that May 29 evening the Oregon and Finnish runners threw a party.  Moore and Shorter remember Pre had three or four drinks before calling it an evening just after midnight. He left telling his parents who also were at the party, take care driving home.  Pre dropped Shorter off, drove down Skyline Drive, swerved into a rock at the side of the road, possibly having been run off the road by another car.  His treasured butterscotch MGB convertible flipped and he was trapped under the car. Four hours after winning, he was dead.  The police measured his blood alcohol level at .16, above the legal limit at the time, though his family and friends did not believe he was in danger.
Pre’s death stunned the world.  Four thousand people attended a Hayward Field memorial service a few days later. Kenny Moore, one of our sport’s finest writers said: “All of us who now say, ‘I had no idea how much this man meant to me,’ do so because we didn’t realize how much we meant to him.  He was our glory, and we his.”
A roadside memorial was constructed a few feet from where he died; fans visited Pre’s Rock, a stone with a picture of Pre. There you’ll find medals from races, running jerseys, shoes, newspaper clippings, flowers, contributed by athletes and fans, a commemoration of his life, a connection that will echo for decades to come.
Often compared with actor James Dean, who also died at 24 in a traffic accident, Prefontaine drew immense numbers of supporters to the austere Hayward stands over the years.  His life story was the subject of Disney and Warner Bros. movies, and several documentaries including the treasured DVD, Fire on the Track, which contains rare footage of races and interviews with teammates, coaches, family and friends. On the twentieth anniversary of his death, Fire was broadcast on the CBS network before the l995 Prefontaine Classic meet.
Another essential source is Tom Jordan’s biography, Pre, The Story of America’s Greatest Running Legend, Steve Prefontaine (Rodale, l977, 1994, 1997).  The Prefontaine Classic is one of the IAAF’s Diamond League fixtures on the international track and field circuit.  Jordan is the Pre Classic meet director.
What made “Pre”?  Jordan, in his book captures the runner’s essence: “Pre’s story…is about an individual who in an incredibly short span of time helped instigate the end of amateurism, set the tone for a brash company that became the Nike colossus, and inspired generations of American distance runners by his complete commitment to wringing everything out of what he called ‘the Gift.’”
Sadly, I never saw him run. Still, his is a gift that keeps on giving.


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Paul O’Shea has followed the sport for more than fifty years.  After retirement from a career in corporate communications he began contributing to Cross Country Journal and other track and field/cross country publications.  He resides in Northern Virginia and can be reached at Poshea 17 @Aol.com.





 I saw him run once in person, at the USA vs. Pan-Africa meet in Durham, NC in the 1970s.  He ran a 5K against Mirus Yifter among others.  With 2 laps to go Yifter took off in a full sprint so Pre went with him.  After 300 meters of that and 500 meters yet to go, Pre broke and surrendered to Yifter, unable to sustain that pace.  As he crossed the finish line with one lap to go Yifter left the track, thinking the race was over, having miscounted his laps.  Pre revved it up again, winning the race with Yifter unable to continue.  What was amazing to me was that someone actually broke Pre, but it was only because of a miscounted laps problem.

   The next day Yifter ran step for step with Frank Shorter in the 10K on an extremely hot day.  Both took off with a lap to go.  Shorter ran 57 but lost by 6 seconds.  Yifter ran 51.6 for the final lap and 22.6 for the final 200 meters, faster than the final 200 meters of the 400 meters that day by John Smith.  What an amazing meet and series of races. Bill Schnier


I  never saw Pre run, however my thoughts about him go to the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.  Many felt this one would have been Pre's Olympics had he lived, but that can only be wishful speculation when so many things can happen to runners who are favored in big meets.  The only thing we can be sure of was that had he lived and had he been fit in Montreal, the finish of the 5,000 would have been even more spirited that it was with Viren turning back Quax, Hildenbrand, Dixon, Foster, Polleunis, Stewart and the others.  One of the many highlights of that games was the  Opening Ceremony and the hommage that the Canadians seemed to pay to Pre by selecting the last runner carrying the Olympic torch into the stadium to have the name   Stephane Prefontaine.  Hardly a coincidence I'm certain.   Others may have run faster, others may have won more prestigious races, but no one who ever bought a ticket to see Pre run ever felt cheated on the price of admission.    GB

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