Steve Prefontaine's first coach at the University of Oregon, Bill Bowerman, was of pioneer stock. Bowerman's grandmother traveled the Oregon Trail (in utero) in 1845. "The cowards never started, and the weak died along the way," Bowerman would crow, summing up the great winnowing. "That just leaves us, doesn't it?" Oregon—dreamed up, claimed and settled by the stubborn—would always honor tenacity. � Pre was hardly Bowerman's first champion. Oak-hearted Bill Dellinger was, winning the 1954 NCAA mile and the '64 Olympic bronze at 5,000 meters. Then came Olympians Jim Bailey, Otis Davis, Jim Grelle, Dyrol Burleson, Wade Bell, Arne Kvalheim, even Kenny Moore. It took that tradition to lure Prefontaine 109 miles from his home in Coos Bay to Eugene in '69.
Oregon loved Pre's front-running battles against the clock because Oregonians' labor, in the woods and mills with huge logs and screaming saws, was so hard it could only be done with skill and endurance. The Hayward Field crowd didn't just see a chesty, beetle-browed kid driving into the turns. They saw work being done that they knew was hard unto impossible, difficult unto death.
During one 10,000 meters in rain and wind in 1974, Pre really seemed to be running into oblivion, his eyes rolled back, his mouth agape, moaning down every back-stretch. Yet when the crowd came up and howled, he showed that he heard. That was his difference. The rest of us heard, of course, but we didn't show it the way he did. We tried to lift a grateful arm afterward, but he cocked his head then, surged for the fans then, and they thundered all the more. He won them by stripping himself naked, absolutely unembarrassed at revealing his need and his agony. He ran an American-record 27:43.6 that day. (When he died, at age 24 in 1975, he held all seven U.S. marks from 2,000 to 10,000 meters.)
To understand Pre you had to read Sometimes a Great Notion, Ken Kesey's masterpiece, set in the coastal logging towns of Pre's youth. This is Kesey's paean to the inner worth of a man: "For there is always a sanctuary more, a door that can never be forced, whatever the force, a last inviolable stronghold that can never be taken, whatever the attack; your vote can be taken, your name, your innards, even your life, but that last stronghold can only be surrendered. And to surrender it for any reason other than love is to surrender love."
You think that's not distance running? You think that wasn't Pre? Prefontaine loved rough, lascivious talk ("Envision a satyr," Frank Shorter once said) and was quick to whine about injustice, but nothing was more obscene for him than surrender. He ran hard, he castigated those who didn't, and yet he loved the girls, loved the rush of life, loved kids, loved love. His morning 10-miler, he said, was to keep him from getting fat on the pizza and beer of the night before. He swore that if he didn't run, he'd gain four pounds a day, indefinitely. He was all appetite and power. His heaving chest in a race could seem luridly sensual. He had bellows for lungs, blasting his furnace with 84-4 ml/kg/minute of oxygen, the highest VO2 max reading ever recorded in a runner. Air for the burning.
You can't think of that chest without thinking of the accident, of Pre in his last battle, his convertible having rolled that May night in 1975 and come to rest on that great chest. He had not broken a bone. It was simply the weight of his beloved butterscotch MG pressing the life out of him.
Pre had to have left this world with a fine regard for its absurdities, one being that he was dying on a road he loved to run, on a hill where he made others suffer. He would have choked at the idea of his becoming our passion figure, one who suffered for us, whom we remember by doing the same. But runners from all over the world, from kids to masters to Olympians, still bring their race numbers and medals to the little memorial on Skyline Drive, the black basalt rock marking where he died. They leave them—offerings to the spirit of going all out—beside the monument put up by the prison running club he began.
And every year at this time when he left us, when the roses and peonies are most potent, when the rhododendrons in Hendricks Park bend under tons of wet, pink blossoms, we have Pre's track meet. This is his time, blending the two opposites that met in him, the voluptuary and the ascetic.
Pre's biographer, Tom Jordan, has been the Prefontaine Classic meet director for 20 of its 30 years. "The first time I saw him at Hayward was the 1971 AAU three-mile," says Jordan. "He came onto the field just to warm up and got an ovation. I got chills."
Jordan's most vivid memories of Hayward Field all involve the thundering crowd. "But the loudest, the loudest I've ever heard it," says Jordan, "was in 2001, beginning in the first turn of the last lap of the mile." World-record holder Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco had the lead and was on his way to breaking 3:50. But the knowing crowd, Bowerman's crowd, Pre's crowd, was watching a Virginia high school kid, Alan Webb, back in eighth place, moving out and beginning to pass. Webb took NCAA champion Bryan Berryhill on the turn, then Adil Kaouch of Morocco and Raymond Yator of Kenya on the backstretch. By then the sound was of such an order that stadium announcer Scott Davis, realizing that he couldn't be heard, turned off the mike and willed the 18-year-old on.