SI Vault
Kenny Moore
June 09, 1975
Hours after winning yet another race with a surging kick, distance runner Steve Prefontaine was killed in a car crash. The author, a fellow Olympian, looks back at track's angry man
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June 09, 1975

A Final Drive To The Finish

Hours after winning yet another race with a surging kick, distance runner Steve Prefontaine was killed in a car crash. The author, a fellow Olympian, looks back at track's angry man

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Steve Prefontaine tried to sleep on the plane from San Francisco to Eugene, Ore. a couple of weeks ago, squirming in his seat, closing the window shade with a snap, cracking his head against the fuselage in an apparent try at denting a hollow there. He closed his eyes for perhaps 30 seconds and then he was squirming again. He had not run as well as he had hoped in the two-mile in Modesto the night before, although he had won in 8:36.

"I went through the mile in 4:13," he said, "and then I just didn't seem to want to run very hard any more. I was lethargic. I still am. I feel like quitting training. Maybe I want to devote my energies to something positive, something I can see bearing fruit."

Prefontaine seldom spoke of his motives, and when he did he always included that "maybe"—as if he, like the rest of us, could only observe himself and wonder at this strangely engaging, obstreperous, fidgety creature.

"I talked with a lot of other athletes at Modesto about the AAU's damn moratorium rule," he said. A few days before, the AAU had announced a policy for forcing the country's best trackmen to compete in international meets against the Soviet Union, against Poland and Czechoslovakia, against West Germany and Africa. An athlete who declined a spot on the national team or who did not run in the national AAU meet would be suspended for one year if he or she competed abroad during certain moratorium periods before the AAU championships and the international meets.

"In July there are only about 10 days when the moratorium is not in effect," said Prefontaine. "That screws up my whole competitive schedule."

More to touch off his celebrated fulminations on the subject than for any enlightenment, I asked him blandly what was wrong with competing on the national team against the Russians and others. He looked at me as if I were a traitor to my class.

"Where are the best runners?" he said, coldly. " Emiel Puttemans is Belgian. Brendan Foster is English. Rod Dixon is a Kiwi. Knut and Arne Kvalheim are Norwegians. Lasse Viren is from Finland. Does the AAU have any of them on their wonderful televised schedule? Hell, no. For me, running against the Poles and Czechs would be like running against high school kids. And I hate all this gung-ho, run-for-the-red-white-and-blue attitude that the AAU spouts. If that's important to some people, fine, more power to 'em. But, damn it, I wish they'd leave me alone to do what I want to do—run against the best."

As he spoke, frustration rose in him. He seemed caged, vulnerable. He had organized a month-long visit to the Northwest by eight Finns, and then had experienced a series of withdrawals by athletes and promoters. The crowning blow had been a telegram from Finland saying Viren, the Olympic 5,000- and 10,000-meter champion, who was to race Prefontaine in Eugene, was injured and would not come. "I'm not so competitive as before," Prefontaine said. "It's wearing me down holding this tour together. Maybe the negativism stems from not being able to count on big races. One disappeared with that telegram. With the AAU rule others aren't likely."

In the week leading up to the meet last Thursday night in Eugene, where Prefontaine would go against Frank Shorter at 5,000 meters, I happened to talk with several men who knew Prefontaine well. Jon Anderson, an Olympian and the 1973 Boston Marathon champion, said, "He's not like other distance runners. He's not quiet, not introspective. He can't relax. A 15-mile run in the woods makes me kind of mellow and satisfied. All it does for Pre is make him mad. Most distance runners find expression in easy running; we take comfort in that kind of personal experience. Pre's kind of running is always hard and straining and fierce."

Anderson felt Prefontaine could not be understood without reference to the demanding, elemental life of Coos Bay, Ore., the logging and shipping town where he grew up. There are codes there governing social acceptance among the stevedores and lumbermen, and chief among these is success at sport. It took Prefontaine a while to gain that acceptance. When he first went to grade school he knew more German than English because his mother spoke German at home. He was taunted for his backwardness. He once said, "Kids made fun of me because I was a slow learner, because I was hyperactive, because of a lot of things." Then, in junior high school, he discovered that he could run well; all it took was being able to stand the discomfort of effort. The need to measure up, as demanded by Coos Bay, turned into a need to surpass. "Running gave me confidence," he said.

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