Memory of Prefontaine prevalent at trials as Rupp breaks 5,000 record
A main attraction at trials is Pre's Rock, where fans pay homage to legend
Steve Prefontaine was larger-than-life figure before he died in 1975 car crash
Galen Rupp completed 10K, 5K sweep by breaking Pre's record with 13:22.6 in 5K
EUGENE, Ore. -- At first there was a just a solitary soul standing at Pre's Rock on Thursday morning. Her name is Laura Lee, 50, from Boulder, Colo., where she works for a shoe company whose name and logo are not splashed all over this pristine city, but nonetheless has its own business to transact at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials. Lee had run from down on Franklin Boulevard in the valley up the steep, winding (is it insensitive to say treacherous in this context? Because they are treacherous) roads -- Fairmount Boulevard, Birch Lane and finally, Skyline Drive -- that lead to the Rock, and now she stood sweating in the rising sun. She did this because she's old enough to know the story behind the Rock and also, maybe more importantly, because she told her son, 16-year-old high school runner Zane Jeffress, that she would make the pilgrimage.
She was alone there for a few minutes, just looking at the outcropping of charcoal gray rock struck by Steve Prefontaine's sports car on the night of May 30, 1975. The car flipped over, pinning Prefontaine underneath and he died there in the road on Skyline Drive, 24 years old, famous then and in ways both inspirational (mostly) and a little discomforting (sometimes), more famous now. "I told Zane all about Pre,'' says Lee, never taking her eyes off the rock. "And now he just worships him.''
Soon there were others at the rock. A middle-aged man and his son from Pennsylvania. Two college runners from Ohio. Three high school coaches from California. A celebrity endurance athlete with a full-fledged entourage. A high school cross-country coach from Florida. A guy who says he grew up down the at bottom of the hill. Together they looked at the Rock. Sometimes they would look over their shoulders at the roadway from whence Prefontaine came on that night, a narrow serpentine byway carved from a hillside of tall pines.
If you look at the picture or video shot by SI's Bill Frakes above, you can pretty much see what Pre's Rock looks like. It is a compact wall of hard, scratchy boulders in an irregular vertical mosaic. There are no other such features nearby. The top and sides of the rock are infringed upon by creeping kudzu-like vinery. Prominent at eye level is a hand-painted eulogy: PRE 5-30-75 R.I.P. It looks to have been repainted regularly by someone. (I wondered who would do that job, so I asked Tom Jordan, the respected director of the annual Prefontaine Classic meet, author of a book on Prefontaine, friend of the Prefontaine family and all-around go-to source on All Things Pre. His answer: "Yes, someone repaints the date each year but like the tributes left at E.A. Poe's grave, I don't know who.'')
Next to that is a more faded message, RUN PRE. There is a formal tombstone at ground level, featuring the (literally) timeless head shot of Prefontaine taken by legendary photographer Brian Lanker. Visitors to the rock have left pieces of their lives: A pair of running shoes, a T-shirt, a wilted yellow rose.
Prefontaine died here after running a meet at Hayward Field and then partying with running friends up the road from the Rock. His last stop was to drop off Frank Shorter. Four years ago I wrote a little on SI.com about Prefontaine in connection with the Trials and I'm comfortable repeating that stance here: There is no need to belabor Prefontaine's passing. He was legally intoxicated at the time of his death. Local legend -- and a well-researched section in former Sports Illustrated writer Kenny Moore's book, Bowerman and the Men of Oregon -- suggests that another car might have run Prefontaine's sports car off the road.
At the time of Prefontaine's death, he held every American track record from 2,000 meters to 10,000 meters. In the pre-Internet, three-channel television world he was a figure of powerful -- yet hazy -- significance to runners. Not just for his performances, but for this his passion. He liked to run at the front and run hard. He threw his personality behind the battle to make runners professionals.
These qualities outlived him through the 1980s and into the 1990s, but exploded into full-blown mythology in the middle of the 1990s with the release of three movies: A documentary called Fire on the Track, and two Hollywood features: Prefontaine' and Without Limits. Both movies included Prefontaine's heartbreaking fourth-place finish in the 5,000 meters at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. And both movies lionized Prefontaine for forcing the pace in that race with a mile to run, the signature push among many in his career.
There was a book by Jordan just on Prefontaine and Moore's book on Prefontaine's coach, Bill Bowerman, in which Prefontaine was prominently featured. (In Eugene, Prefontaine's enduring presence is a hundredfold more pervasive; it seems difficult to live through a day without coming across some reminder that Prefontaine once ran here.)
Heath Harris, 21, and Albert Brannan, 22, both run track and cross-country at Akron University. They made the trip to Eugene to see the Trials and, like Laura Lee, they ran up to Pre's Rock on Thursday morning. "If you're here, you don't want to miss coming up here,'' said Harris, chest heaving from the short, steep climb up from Birch onto Skyline. "When I was younger I watched all three movies, and then as I've gotten older, I've learned more about what he represented.'' Harris pauses and then unleashes his inner track nut on me: "You know,'' he says, "He's still Top 10 on the all-time high school list, 8:44 for two miles.''
Nearby is Jeff Brandt, a balding and bespectacled 57-year-old man from Danville, Pa. He says he was in attendance on Jan. 10, 1975, when Prefontaine was outkicked by Marty Liquori in an indoor mile at Cole Field House on the campus of the University of Maryland. "I was watching on my black-and-white TV when he ran at the Olympics in '72,'' says Brandt, who was in Eugene for the first time. He brought his son, Chris, 20, a college cross-country runner whose roommate educated him on Pre culture.