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Steve Prefontaine arrived in Los Angeles from Eugene, Ore. last week with a worry. And a disdain for people who look to the planets for prophecy. The worry was over the early pace of his two-mile race in the L.A. Times Indoor Games, which he was afraid would be so slow that he would have to set it himself. The disdain came after he learned that an astrologer, one Burton Morse, had said that Prefontaine's planetary influences were less than favorable and predicted he would finish behind Emiel Puttemans of Belgium and Kerry O'Brien of Australia. "Phooey on the stars," said Prefontaine, or words to that effect, and glared heavenward.
And so, with the planets out of the way, Prefontaine got down to the pace. "I just hope some of those foreign guys help out," he said. "I don't want to set the stupid thing all by myself. In America you don't get the comradeship you do in Europe. Over there everybody helps with the pace, and then the guy with the most guts wins. Over here they let you go out all by yourself, just hitching an easy ride and hoping somewhere near the end you'll drop dead. To hell with them. Maybe I'll let the first mile go by in 4:51." He grinned. "Of course, the crowd will start throwing stones at us."
"That's not too funny," said a friend.
"Did you ever run behind a slow pack?" said Prefontaine. "You get a trailing wind and a lot of body odor."
"You shouldn't say things like that. Somebody will print them."
"Aw, nobody would print that."
"Yeah, I guess you're right."
Unbeaten in a distance race since 1970, the 5'9" University of Oregon junior found himself almost totally wiped out after the Pan-American Games. He came home to Coos Bay, Ore. with a gold medal and a Salmonella infection, a sort of super diarrhea. When the doctors had pumped enough medicine into him to kill the Salmonella, they also killed all the good bacteria and he came down with a yeast infection, another sort of super diarrhea.
Finally healthy again, Prefontaine won his second straight NCAA cross-country championship last November, and a few weeks ago in Portland he won a two-mile in 8:26.6, just .4 off the American indoor record. George Young, the 34-year-old American outdoor record holder, had been invited to run in the Times meet but had declined. "Too much youth in that race," he told Will Kern, the meet director.
"Goldarn!" said Prefontaine. "I wanted to run against Young more than anybody in the field. I wanted to test the veteran out." He laughed. "I almost said the old man, but I don't want to make him mad and give him something to use against me when we do race. Besides, he's not really old. And I like him a lot. He's super intelligent. And very good-looking. And has a great family. And I hope he remembers all these nice things I'm saying when we do race."