In 1975 Steve Prefontaine, then the holder of seven American distance running records, was killed in an automobile accident. He was 24. After his funeral in his hometown of Coos Bay, Ore., it fell to some of his friends and teammates to conduct a memorial service for him in Eugene, where he had run for the University of Oregon. The sudden loss of this combative, prodigiously energetic man had been a disorienting shock. "We didn't know what to do," recalls Frank Shorter. "So we tried to give him what he had always wanted."
Prefontaine had spoken about a three-mile time that would satisfy even his voracious ambition. "Twelve thirty-six," he had said. "Sixty-three seconds a lap, four-twelve for each mile." His American record was 12:51.4. The world record was 12:47.8 by Emiel Puttemans of Belgium. Thus 12:36 seemed a fitting Prefontaine goal, one so impossible it invited laughter. One that only he would take seriously.
Four thousand people filled the stands on one side of Oregon's Hayward Field for the memorial service. The Scoreboard's digital clock was started. Briefly, Pre's friends and competitors said what they had to say and left the infield.
As the clock reached 12 minutes, the crowd stood and began to stamp and cheer, bringing Pre home as it had so often. Many said later that they felt they had willed his presence. The clock stopped at 12:36.4 amid forced, tearful pandemonium.
Through the succeeding years, those who had been there could be forgiven if they regarded that mark as a natural limit, not only to what Prefontaine might have done had he lived, but a limit to the rational aspirations of any earthly distance runner.
Soon afterward, the U.S. abandoned yards and miles for what the rest of the world runs—meters. The Olympic distance of 5,000 meters, which is 188 yards farther than three miles, was substituted. Puttemans held that record, too—13:13.0. (Indeed, he had set his three-mile record on the way to it.) Prefontaine's goal of 63 seconds per lap converted to 13:03.
In 1977 Dick Quax of New Zealand improved Puttemans' record, but by less than a second, to 13:12.86. A year later Henry Rono of Kenya ran 13:08.4. Three years after that, in 1981, Rono cut another two seconds from the world record with a 13:06.20. Rono also broke world records for 3,000 meters, the 3,000-meter steeplechase and 10,000 meters. He seemed the ultimate combination of talent, imperviousness to pain and readiness to drive the pace early in a race. Yet he did not run 63 seconds a lap for 5,000 meters.
But on July 7, 1982, in Oslo, Norway, David Moorcroft of England did. Taking the lead at 800 meters, intending only to chase Brendan Foster's British record of 13:14.6, he ran away from a field that included Rono. He passed the miles in 4:12, 4:11 and 4:11 to finish in 13:00.42.
"That is simply the greatest performance I have ever seen," said Dr. Thomas Wessinghage, the West German mile and 5,000-meter record holder. "He ran splits that nobody else has ever run. He didn't need a rabbit. He didn't need anybody. There are no words to describe what we have seen."
It was hard to choose which was the more astounding, the performance or the performer. Moorcroft is 29 and has been a more than solid miler for nearly a decade. He won the Commonwealth Games 1,500 in 1978 in a tight finish with Filbert Bayi. Yet, if he now appears vaguely familiar, it is probably because we have seen him for years, albeit subliminally. He was one of those straining, out-of-focus figures back down the track in such photos as that of the finish of the 1976 Olympic 1,500 final, won by John Walker (Moorcroft was seventh), or the 1979 Golden Mile, won by Sebastian Coe in a then world record of 3:48.95 (Moorcroft finished ninth in the mile 3:54.35).