Sunday, May 31, 2015


Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the tragic end to Steve Prefontaine's life.  If you don't know about him that's understandable: 40 years is a long time!   Pre was the inarguably the best American distance runner of his era, but in 1975  - the night of a meet where he had brought the Fearsome Finns to Eugene to line up with the best runners in the US  -he crashed his MG on the way home from the celebratory party and was crushed underneath the car, bringing an abrupt end to a career that was assuredly destined for even more greatness.  
The Classic Pre Shot
I was reminded of the anniversary by getting a great link sent to me by Big Alan Meier of an essay done by Jeff Johnson, Nike's first employee and quirky long time track fan.  I won't even try to describe Pre the way that Jeff Johnson does; he knew Pre well and is very articulate, and the essay is so heartfelt - even after all this time - that it's clear that Pre still retains a special place in his heart.  But I will try to describe what Pre meant to me and my cohorts.

I'd love to say that when I was 10 I was a huge fan and followed track and field and distance running and his life- and death- inspired me to take up running, but the truth is that I was 10 and Pre's passing passed me by.  However, I did run my first race a year later, and soon enough I was running cross country and track and someone gave me this great book by Tom Jordan and I think it's safe to say that it changed my life.

There were so many attributes that Pre had that resonated with me:  while it was clear that he was an amazing natural talent, his workout ethics were legendary (he didn't miss a single workout in college, and he was always the guy who wanted to do more, and more.  His pithy quotes were gospel for an aspiring runner:  the "guts" one in the photo, above,  "if someone wants to beat me they've got to bleed to do it", "Over the years, I've given myself a thousand reasons to keep running, but it always comes back to where it started. It comes down to self-satisfaction and a sense of achievement."  No one will ever win a 5,000-meter race by running an easy two miles. Not against me." and "some people might think that pace is suicidal; well; it's a good day to die!"

I apparently had mostly slow twitch muscles even when I was an adolescent, and if anyone was near me at the end I would lose the sprint, but Pre  - with his famous front-running style - was a big advocate of just pushing people so hard in the middle of the race that they would either not be around for the finish or had nothing left for the finish, something that I tried to take to heart myself (though anyone who can run a 3:55 mile has plenty of leg speed; he just perceived that he wasn't as fast and didn't want to leave the finish up to chance).   15 years after his death, I was still doing "Pre" workouts:  one memorable one was a 3/4 mile that started with a 60 second lap, then into a 65 second lap, then a 70 second lap, then don't even stop and head out the door for a hard 6-7 miles with a harder surge in the middle, and looping back to the track to finish with another 3/4 mile going 70, 65, and then 60 secs.  I never even came close.....

One of the most important aspects of Prefontaine is that he was cool, and he made distance running cool.  For sure, when he started at University of Oregon he was a scrawny little dork, but after an amazing debut season there he ended up on the cover of Sports Illustrated:

Yes, there had been milers Jim Ryan and Marty Liquori, and longer-distance (and marathon gold medalist) Frank Shorter:
Pre and Shorter the day before Pre's accident
But Pre - with his trademark "outlaw" mustache, brash behavior (yet seemingly endless capacity to give himself to people, whether they be friends or school kids he regularly gave presentations to), and outspokenness (fighting the AAU to get them to get rid of the "amateur" status of Olympic-caliber athletes so that they could compete with the likes of the state-sponsored Finns and Russians) seemed to take the gawky nature of runners and make it cool; something that is all important when you are an impressionable high schooler (to be sure, our 1982 cross country team was chock full of dorks and misfits who reveled in the lack of hand-eye coordination needed to run with no need to move out of a linear plane!).

And just as important as his influence on the likes of me was the influence that he had in creating Nike (and the subsequent "running boom"); the likes of Phil Knight (still CEO) and Bill Bowerman took the same attitudes of hard work and an unconventional aggressiveness that Pre exemplified into the footwear world and of course has been able to parlay that into being a $20+ billion dollar business (Pre's legacy is well advertised on the Nike Campus:
this is the greeting hall building; other athletes have buildings named after them and are office buildings; this one is basically just a shrine to Pre:
I got this pic off the interweb; I don't know who the dork is with the coonskin cap!
Pre was basically the first shoe company-"sponsored athlete" (aside from Chuck Taylor, of course!), basically paving the way for the likes of Michael Jordan and Lebron James.

And so, 40 years hence, as we lace up our shoes and head out for a run, it's a good opportunity to think about the influence of the brash young "rube" (as Bowerman called him; a good-natured jibe at his humble upbringing) who fundamentally changed running.  Below is part of Bowerman's eulogy:

“All of my life – man and boy – I’ve operated under the assumption that the main idea in running was to win the damn race. Actually, when I became a coach I tried to teach people how to do that. I tried to teach Pre how to do that. I tried like Hell to teach Pre to do that… and Pre taught me – taught me I was wrong.
Pre, you see, was troubled by knowing that a mediocre effort could win a race, and a magnificent effort can lose one. Winning a race wouldn’t necessarily demand that he give it everything he had from start to finish. He never ran any other way. I tried to get him to. God knows I tried.
But Pre was stubborn. He insisted on holding himself to a higher standard than victory.
A race is a work of art. That’s what he said. That’s what he believed. And he was out to make it one every step of the way.
Of course, he wanted to win. Those who saw him compete and those who competed against him were never in any doubt about how much he wanted to win. But how he won mattered to him more.
Pre thought I was a hard case. But he finally got it through my head that the real purpose of running isn’t to win a race. It’s to test the limits of the human heart. And that he did. Nobody did it more often. Nobody did it better.

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