Posted: January 25, 2010 in Training

If not for a fatal car accident on the evening of Friday, May 30th 1975 Steve Prefontaine would be celebrating his 59th birthday today.  Controversial in life and in death many would argue that “Pre” defined American distance running in the early 1970’s.

Pre - University of Oregon

Most marathoners can look back on a person or event that got them interested in the sport.  Deciding to run for 3-4 hours in covering 26.2 miles is not something that you take lightly or decide to do on a whim.  For many  it is a goal with strong emotional ties that will last a lifetime – being able to achieve something that at one point in your life seemed impossible – there is real power in that, achieving something that very few ever attempt. 

The Marathon experience is something that once completed you carry around with you for all time.  I remember the first time someone referred to me as a “Marathoner” – the feeling was completely surreal.  Marathoning becomes a part of you, a part that you can always draw strength from when things in life do not go exactly according to plan.

For me a great source of inspiration when I am training for a race or pushing through a punishing hill is one Steve Roland Prefontaine.  A framed copy of his Sports Illustrated cover from June 15, 1970 sits on my desk at work under my Pittsburgh Marathon Bib and finshers medal where I posted my Boston time last May. 

Pre was born 59 years ago in the small town of Coos Bay, Oregon. His father Raymond, was a carpenter and his mother Elfriede was a seamstress from Germany.  Many accounts say that Pre was a typical high school boy wanting to play traditional sports (football, basketball) while growing up.  It turned out that Pre was too small for these sports and took up running.

He began his running career at Marshfield High School and became one the most sought after runners in the United States. He was undefeated in cross-country and track his junior and senior year.  Not simply a sprinter or distance runner Pre was very versatile and could post times from a 1:54 in the 800 meters to a 13:52 in the 5000.  During his senior year at Marshfield High School he set the American record in the two-mile run.

Legendary coach Bill Bowerman of the University of Oregon took notice of Pre’s talent and recruited him heavily. Pre arrived on Oregon’s campus in the fall of 1969 and began running with the cross-country team.  By the time he finished his career at Oregon he won an impressive seven NCAA national titles: three in cross-country, 1970, 1971, and 1973 and four in track at the 3-mile distance in ‘70, ‘71 ‘72 and ‘73.  Pre was the first athlete to win four consecutive NCAA track titles in the same event. He also held eight collegiate records including the 3 mile and 6 mile races which to this day have not been broken.  In fact Pre was never beaten in a single race at the University of Oregon’s famed Hayward Field.

There are a number of amazing facts and stories about Pre – too many to list here for sure, but one of my favorites is the fact that prior to his death in 1975 at the age of 24, Pre broke his own or other American records 14 different times.  He at one time held all seven of the American distance records between 2,000 meters and 6 miles.

For me it was not Pre’s accomplishments that got me interested in distance running as let’s face it – I’m a regular guy with regular abilities who trains hard and does “O.K.” at a sport that I am more than a decade too old for.  I was drawn more to the sport by the way Pre raced rather than how well he finished.  Pre’s most famous effort is probably the 5,000 meter race at the 1972 Olympic games in Munich.  At the age of 22 he took on the world’s top runners with far more international race experience leading most of the final lap before finishing in 4th place literally less than one second away from medaling.

Pre believed that it was all about giving maximum effort – there are countless quotes attributed to Pre that are adorned on race shirts at every local running event across the country, my favorite remains:

“To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift”

I have filed that quote away to draw on for the difficult stretch that is sure to come at Boston or Pittsburgh when the mileage starts to weigh me down and the course becomes unforgiving.  That quotation really captures the spirit of what Run for Dom is all about.  When I come through the chute at Pittsburgh I hope that I have appropriately honored a close friend and made a difference in the lives of Dom and his family as they fight this terrible disease, kicking cancer’s ass 26.2 miles at a time.  Go Pre.

Pre's Rock - Eugene Oregon

  1. David says:

    GREAT piece! I casually stumbled across your blog a few weeks ago and this one has been my favorite. Keep up the good work, and good luck in April/May!

  2. joerunfordom says:

    David – thanks so much for stopping by and for the kind words! Glad you enjoyed to post. Take care and thanks again for the encouragement for April and May – going to be an adventure! Best, Joe

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s