There have been more sentimental moments in sport and farewell performances worth louder raves, but what the fans in Eugene, Ore. got last Saturday was just about right: a suitably happy ending to a long love affair. The occasion was the Pacific-8 Conference track and field championship in which Steve Prefontaine ran his last major collegiate race in front of his hometown fans.
On the scoreboard UCLA continued its dominance, winning the meet with a conference-record total of 156 points. Prefontaine, laboring with a pinched sciatic nerve that made him feel as if his gluteus maximus had been worked over by a sadistic field-goal kicker, won the three-mile run for the fourth year in succession, and the 11,000 faithful responded with lusty affection.
The mutual admiration between Pre and his Eugene fans is a longtime thing at Oregon's Hayward Field, where he has never lost to anyone but a teammate. "You have to recognize that track is a way of life here in Eugene," says Mayor Les Anderson, whose son Jon won the Boston Marathon last month. "Pre penetrates beyond the track and into the crowd. Some athletes win a race and afterward they're poker-faced. Pre's expression is 'You helped me win it.' "
Such a demonstration followed his victory over John Ngeno, a Washington State import from Kenya who had won the six-mile run the day before. Heading down the stretch, ahead by 50 yards, Prefontaine acknowledged the stands with a triumphant arm salute as a "Go Pre!" chorus greeted his sprint to the tape. Moments later track announcer Wendy Ray said, "Thanks for the good times, Pre."
By Prefonlaine's standards, however, his 13:10.4 victory did not qualify as such, even though the mark shattered the old meet record of 13:12.8 set by Gerry Lindgren in 1966. Healthier, Prefontaine might have ended his days as an Oregon Duck with a U.S. record or something better. If that seems mere speculation, consider what wonders he has worked already in his senior season.
At Bakersfield in March, almost on a whim, Prefontaine ran the six miles for the second time in his career. Unfamiliarity may explain why he comfortably set a pace that probably left a contrail. When the race ended, he had a new American and collegiate record of 27:09.4—the fourth best on the alltime list. Back home for a four-team meet on April 14, he ran the finest distance double in history, touring the mile in 3:56.8 and the three mile in 13:06.4. Two weeks later he recorded his best mile, 3:55, again on his home track. This season has also produced an 8:31.8 two mile which, like the others, is best in the nation.
Unfortunately for showmanship and for Oregon's slim title hopes, Prefontaine suffered his painful back problem three weeks before the conference meet. "I have thought about it being my last race in Eugene as part of the Oregon team," he said earlier in the week. "I'd sure like to do something great for the fans. But right now I'm not as fit as I was a couple weeks ago. I also wanted to double, but it's going to be hard enough just to run the three mile now. I can't relax, and relaxation is the key to running."
"I feel good that I won," Prefontaine said afterward. "It was a fun race. I did a lot of things I normally don't do, like saying things and making noises to make Ngeno think I was hurting more than I really was."
As for the fans, he said, "I kind of looked up at the crowd and a lot of races went through my mind. There have been some great ones here. They've given me a lot and I hope I've given them a lot in the last four years. But time goes and you've got to go with it."
Time, as even devouts from Eugene agree, has mellowed Prefontaine. During his tenure at Oregon he has changed appreciably from the brash, often-inconsiderate freshman who arrived there in 1969. Indeed, Prefontaine grew up as a fighter, a trait that has served him well in track, but that, in social situations or press conferences, has often rubbed people the wrong way.