Memory of Prefontaine prevalent as Rupp breaks 5K record (cont.)
There is a trio of coaches from El Camino High, north of San Diego: Terry Hart, 57; Martin Nolasco, 63; and Bob Cartin, 59. They regularly go on bucket list trips together, to Texas and Michigan for football and now here for the Trials. They were all young runners when Prefontaine passed away. "I remember when he died,'' says Cartin. "I was at Cornell, driving in my car around Ithaca and the news came on the radio.''
There is Kevin Curran, 29, cross-country coach at Bishop Kenny High in Jacksonville. He and his wife, Libby, were making their way up the West Coast and built in one night at the Trials. Back home, Curran motivates his young runners with quotes from Prefontaine. "Every time we go to a meet,'' he says, "the kids are watching one of the Prefontaine movies on the bus.''
Then there was Jason Lester, 37, a nationally known, ESPY-winning endurance athlete who was completing a 4,600-miles bike-and-run journey across the United States. He arrived with a group of supporters from Nike, who sponsor him, placed a T-shirt next to the headstone, and then knelt on the ground for several minutes. "We're all just carrying his torch,'' said Lester after rising. "I feel blessed to be a vessel for his message: Never quit.'' (It's important to understand that in 2012, Prefontaine and Nike are inextricably linked.)
They ran two 5,000-meter races Thursday night at Hayward Field, where the Trials swung into the fifth of eight days. Prefontaine ran everything from the mile to the 10K, but the 5,000 was his sweet spot. There were 22,682 in attendance, a Hayward record. They arrived in warm sunshine and sat through persistent, cold rain, then just a hazy chill by the end of the night. Eugene weather, as we have learned this week.
First came the women's race, in which 28-year-old Julia Lucas, who trains in Oregon and wears the green, black and white of Oregon Track Club Elite, was a solid favorite to win the race and secure her first Olympic berth. She was near the front for more than nine of the 12 ½ laps and then quickened the pace, immediately gapping a group that included Molly Huddle, Kim Conley and Julie Culley. It was a brave move, and at the risk of pushing a metaphor too hard, a Prefontaine move.
After the race, Lucas would explain that she was uncertain about her chances in a sprint finish. So she relied on her fitness. "I felt like I was the best athlete in the race, so I wanted to put in a long grind to the finish,'' she said. She nearly made it, but in the final stretch was passed by Culley (the winner) and Huddle (second) and right at the line by Kim Conley, who also achieved the Olympic `A' standard by .21 seconds with a time of 15:19.79.
"I screwed up,'' said Lucas. "The best athletes show up on the line and deliver and I didn't. I wish I had waited until 600 meters; my legs didn't have three laps in them.'' A reporter tried to tee up an excuse for Lucas by asking if any lingering injuries had bothered her. A lot of athletes would have grabbed the lifeline. She didn't. "I was in no pain at any time,'' she said. ``No pain at all.''
I leaned over the barrier and asked her if she had taken the time yet to process the fact that her surge not only cooked her legs, but also made the pace fast enough for Conley to make the "A'' standard (had Conley run .22 seconds slower, Lucas would have gone to London). "I hadn't thought about that,'' said Lucas. "Until just this second.'' She smiled painfully. Tough young woman.
Linda Prefontaine is 58 and has lived in Eugene for nearly four decades. (The Prefontaines were born in Coos Bay, on the Oregon coast; Steve Prefontaine is buried there). She misses her brother every day, and yet she sees him every day, and not just like people see a deceased relative's photograph around the house. On T-shirts and magazines and in store windows. It is hard to imagine how unusual this must be. "I feel like his older sister now,'' says Linda, who also has a sister older than both her and Steve. "And that's very unusual, because I was always his little sister. But I'm 58 1/2 years old and my brother stopped aging. He's always the boy in Brian Lanker's picture.''
Linda never goes up to the rock. "It's a place of sadness for me,'' she says. And it's not always easy being the survivor. "There are wack jobs out there who I am constantly dealing with,'' she says. "There's a downside to having a famous last name. It's a small part of it. But there is definitely a down side. In modern society, there are no boundaries. People will knock on your door and ask to come inside. People will tell me they dated my brother and actually, they never met him.'' (I got a little taste of this; one of the people at Pre's Rock said he used to chase Pre on his runs and was in kindergarten when Prefontaine died. Even heard the sirens. Then the man said he was 38, which means he was 1 when Prefontaine died.).
Yet in all of this, Linda sees through to the good. "He's been dead for so long,'' she says, "but he's still influencing people. What a great compliment that is. It wasn't worth him dying, but I am still extremely proud.''
In the second of Thursday night's 5,000-meter races, it was a son of Oregon (yes, like Prefontaine) who gave the Trials their most compelling moment yet (at least for those who are not fans of dead heats). Galen Rupp, 26, who was born in Portland and competed for the Ducks, outkicked the venerable Bernard Lagat to win the men's 5,000. Rupp not only became the first runner in 60 years to win both the 5K and 10K at the U.S. Trials, but also ran 13:22.67 to break the Trials record of 13:22.8 set at Hayward Field in '72 by Prefontaine. (To be fair, many U.S. runners in the last four decades have been capable of running faster than 13:22.8, but the Trials races are usually slow and tactical). Rupp had also broken the Trials record in the 10,000 six days earlier.
It would be unfair to Rupp to describe his victory only through the prism of its connection to Prefontaine. It was a breakthrough performance for him. At the world class level, winning 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter races has become dependent on the ability to sprint fiercely fast over the last 200 meters. That is Lagat's specialty. So before Thursday night's race, Rupp's coach, Alberto Salazar, told Rupp to push the pace with 800 meters left and, expecting Lagat to make a move late said, "Don't let him gap you.''
Rupp moved with two laps left and Lagat went, too. "I told myself, I can't take any chances,'' said Lagat, who said he is only 90 percent fit. "I'm gonna go [also].'' The two of them sprinted free of Lopez Lomong on the final lap and Lagat took the lead. It seemed certain that Rupp was cooked, but instead he fought back and caught Lagat in the final strides. He ran his final lap in just over 52 seconds and his last 200 meters in under 26 seconds. When I profiled Rupp and his British gold-medal-favorite training partner Mo Farah in Sports Illustrated in February, Rupp's coach, Salazar promised that Rupp's natural speed would eventually be there for him in the final lap, with maturity.
In Salazar, too, there is a Prefontaine connection. Salazar was recruited out of Massachusetts and matriculated in Eugene in the fall of 1976, 15 months after Prefontaine's death. His college coach was Bill Dellinger, who ran for Bowerman and knew Prefontaine well. I found Salazar standing in the fog outside the media tent Thursday night during Rupp's press conference. "Coach Dellinger used to tell us something,'' said Salazar. "He used to say `Pre's dead. He's not coming back. But that doesn't mean you all have to stop running, too.''' Salazar nodded his head for emphasis. "There are some great runners in America right now. Americans are winners.''
After the men's 5,000, I texted Linda Prefontaine, who was at Hayward Field to watch Rupp's race. Her response: "[Galen] ran a great race. He ran 2 great races but I am a little sad that my brother's record was broken. At least it was Oregon blood that did it.''
Back at Pre's Rock, 12 hours earlier, 25-year-old Thomas Whitcomb had stood by the memorial and talked about Prefontaine's memory. "He was such a great runner,'' said Whitcomb. "But the thing that really elevated him was the What If? There's no period at the end...''
I ask him if he had seen the movie Garden State, in which punctuation figures prominently, the ellipsis representing lack of closure. He had seen it and liked it.
"The ellipsis,'' says Whitcomb. "That's Pre.''
Yet in the fog of a late night at Hayward, a record fell, a crowd roared and a son of Oregon stood tall and moved his sport forward for another generation of Americans. The whole thing felt an awful lot like a period.