Posts Tagged ‘Steve Prefontaine’

It was early on Wednesday morning – about 5:45 a.m. when I started to run my warm-up heading clockwise around the Westlake High School track.  There was nobody in the stadium, nobody on the surface with me as you could hear my soft footfalls striking the ground 180 times per minute.

Shortly after my first mile a couple of other runners showed up, dropped their water bottles and car keys on the infield and started in behind me.

2-mile warm-up, a bit of light stretching and drills and then it was time for the workout.

3-miles of “in and out” 100’s – where I would run the straightaways of the track at just under 5k pace (5:40min./mile) then float the next 100 meters around the curve before settling back in to 5:40 pace for another 100.  Repeated for 12 laps or 24 cycles.

My usual training partner David was not at the workout on this morning – his toe had been bothering him a bit on Saturday after we completed “The Monster” – a workout that deserves its’ own post sometime soon – so I was not surprised to be running alone for the workout.  On any other day I would have been down about that prospect, but on May 29th it seemed fitting.

38 years ago on this same date, Steve Prefontaine would run his final race, winning of course at Hayward Field where he was undefeated at any distance longer than a mile.Pre

As I finished my first set of 100’s my coach called me over to correct my form.  I had clocked the first mile including the floats at 6:20 with a goal of 6:18.  Wind was gusting close to 25 mph, so I felt like I pretty much nailed it.

Coach noticed that I was cutting my stride a hair short, making my plant leg land too far “under” my hip, which was putting more shock on my lower legs.  Instead she wanted me to remember to bring my knee up just a bit higher so that my bent foot after striking the ground would pass by my planted foot closer to knee level, and not below it.

I ran the curve practicing this adjustment and ran my second mile at the same effort in 6:16.

I ran the final mile of the workout in 6:14.  Faster still even though I was working hard to stay “even”.

A tough workout, especially one done alone with nobody to pace with – but I was able to focus in on the task ahead of me and tick them off – 6:20, 6:16, 6:14 and had plenty of gas left in the tank.

What should have served as a big confidence booster for me coming off of a really tough week last week just felt “blah”.  Thundering along my final 400 around 5:35 pace should have been invigorating – the buzz usually lasts almost all the way through my mile long cool down.  But not on this day as my thoughts traced all the way across the country to Coos Bay Oregon where a family will be mourning the loss of their son today and as will the small blue collar town on the coast.

In Eugene, the same thing will be happening at track workouts, pubs and around the University of Oregon campus where people remember Pre.  An American Distance Runner that made running “cool”.   A sport which to that point and to some extent even still today is a lot of things, but “cool” isn’t necessarily one of them.Stop Pre

Pre ran the way that most of us wish that we could.  I’ve come to accept that running and especially the speed at which we run is relative.  There really is no slow.  Just degrees of fast.  People often say to me – and keep in mind, I am by no means an accomplished runner, or one who is particularly talented or gifted – I just tend to work at it harder than some others.

“I’m not fast like you are” or “I’m not a real runner like you”.

To me, a runner is anyone who is working as hard as they can to approach their potential.  By that I mean, if your genetics, age, injury history, mechanics and training allow you to approach a 9:00 minute mile and you do your absolute best to improve that to 8:50 …. then you are every bit the runner I am as I try to improve my marathon time by a handful of seconds per mile to break 3 hours.  Or to take just :03 off of my 5K PR to break 18 minutes.  We are working just as hard at the same exact pursuit.

The pursuit of excellence.

When I say that Pre ran the way that all of us wish that we could, that sentiment is captured perfectly by Bill Bowerman’s Eulogy taken from Steve Prefontaine’s funeral service:

“All of my life – man and boy – I’ve operated under the assumption that the main idea in running was to win the damn race.  Actually, when I became a coach I tried to teach people how to do that.  I tried to teach Pre how to do that.  I tried like Hell to teach Pre to do that… and Pre taught me – taught me I was wrong.

Pre, you see, was troubled by knowing that a mediocre effort could win a race, and a magnificent effort can lose one.  Winning a race wouldn’t necessarily demand that he give it everything he had from start to finish.  He never ran any other way.  I tried to get him to.  God knows I tried.

But Pre was stubborn.  He insisted on holding himself to a higher standard than victory.

A race is a work of art.  That’s what he said.  That’s what he believed.  And he was out to make it one every step of the way.

Of course, he wanted to win.  Those who saw him compete and those who competed against him were never in any doubt about how much he wanted to win.  But how he won mattered to him more.

Pre thought I was a hard case.  But he finally got it through my head that the real purpose of running isn’t to win a race.  It’s to test the limits of the human heart.  And that he did.  Nobody did it more often.  Nobody did it better”.

Maybe that is why as badly as I want to run well at Cottonwood and I am training harder than ever before to give myself the best possible chance of breaking through 3 hours on race day – more than anything – I just want to run a race that I can be proud of.

To test the limits of my heart in a way that a now 62-year-old Steve Roland Prefontaine might glance with respect at the slight middle-aged runner from Austin TX, the same height he was,  7 lbs. lighter with hair much shorter – running the final 385 yards pouring every ounce of energy into the pursuit of excellence.

To be better on that day than I have ever been before – 2:59 or not – to me, anyone that sees me race that day will know that I was there and that I could not have run that race even one second faster.  In my eyes, that is the definition of a runner.

At the time of his death Steve Prefontaine held every single American Record from 2,000 meters to 10,000.

Pre started 153 races in his career and won 120 of them.

In High school he broke 19 different records.

Just last summer, 40 years after he set the mark, Olympic Silver Medalist Galen Rupp finally broke Pre’s 5,000 meter Olympic Qualifying record in 13:22:67.   Prefontaine’s record time, the oldest track and field Olympic trials record on the books was 13:22.80.

Somehow I have a hard time believing that head-to-head Pre would not have found a way to dig down and summon the strength to find those 13/100’s of a second.

Go Pre.

Today Steve Prefontaine would have turned 63 years old if not for the one-car accident that claimed his life in Eugene Oregon on May 30, 1975.  He was just 24 years old at the time of his death and held every single American Middle Distance record from 2,000 meters to 10,000.

Seven distances, seven American records.

I’ve written a lot about Pre since I started blogging.  Usually on his birthday and the anniversary of his death.  Other times before or after an “A” race, sometimes after a grueling workout or just a day where the weather or another outside stressor made me reach deep to either get out the door or push through tough circumstances.

My cousin Joe and Pre were basically the same age.  One passing away on a dark road late at night more than 30 years ago.  The other just this past week.  I have often wondered just what Pre would have become had he not died on the way home from a post-race party that night in Eugene.  He of course won the three-mile earlier that day at Hayward Field.  A track where Pre was essentially unbeatable.

Would he have gone to Montreal in 1976 and won the 5000?  Given the disappointment in Munich where Pre finished 4th in one of the most talented 5000 meter fields ever assembled at the age of 22.  Yes, I believe that he would have or in Prefontaine fashion, would have just about died trying.  That was the way he ran – he as his college roommate Pat Tyson once said, “People in the 70’s had drugs, alcohol or whatever.  Pre was addicted to winning.  At everything.”

38 years have gone by and people are still talking about Pre.  I still see his image on race shirts from Austin to Boston every year.  To have that kind of impact between your High School years and age 25, that is pretty remarkable.  Pre was a remarkable runner.

By now he would most likely be a powerful voice in American Track and Field.  He as an early activist for athletes rights, and was very – sometimes to a fault – outspoken against the governing bodies of the day.  He was also a kid.  How tactful were you at 21, 22 years old when it came to something you were passionate about?  That was everything you thought about 24 hours a day?

I give Pre a pass on that one.

He would be a father and by now more than likely a grandfather.  But in my mind’s eye I still see him chiseled and fit, racing around a track with nobody remotely close to him – charging down the home stretch at Hayward field, hair on fire, simply put …. crushing it.Pre at tape

So today on Pre’s birthday I pause to say thank you.  Thank you for showing athletes that winning is one thing, but it really is about the effort you put forth, pushing your talents and abilities to their limits, getting as close as possible to your absolute best.  THAT is winning, whether you finish first, second, fourth or last.  It is what makes runners of all talent levels drawn to Pre.

He didn’t win races because of God given talent alone.  Obviously Pre had the genetics for the sport.  But he was also a small, short-striding runner with a left leg that was shorter than the right.  Pre out-worked, out-trained, out-smarted and out-hearted his competition.  Pure and simple he just put forth the maximum effort possible to make the most of his talents and abilities.

That is something that I have tried to remember whenever things have gotten tough either on the trail, on the hill or on the road race course.

I may never “Win” another event.  It has only happened once since I started this journey 7 years ago.  And as I get older and as the races I choose to compete in get larger and more difficult, the chance shrinks to virtually zero.  But the thought of not trying my best never enters my mind.

The day that happens is the day I will have run my last race.  Unable to run this morning due to my still recovering Achilles strain I hopped on the bike trainer and pedaled as hard as I could for 63 minutes.  One for every year since Pre was born.  Seemed like the right thing to do.

Go Pre.

Sunday morning with the sun still below the horizon in downtown Houston the gun will fire and the sound of 30,000 feet striking the ground will start as runners fire out across the mat at the Chevron Houston marathon.

Or 29,998 feet anyway.

Our two feet will be just starting to mill around the house in Austin, TX.

The bad news is we are still on the shelf from a strained Achilles tendon as our training for the Houston marathon was just entering its final stage and into the taper.

The good news is we are close to being back to running.  Very close.

I have regained the flexibility and a great deal of the strength on my left side.

I can now stand on my left foot only and balance with my right knee pulled up high to my chest like a runner would in a toe-off sprint position.

A week ago I could not balance on my left foot for more than a second.

I can now raise my entire body weight up onto my toes standing just on my left foot.

A week ago I could not.

There is no more “pain” in the Achilles or left foot area – I am close.  Very close.

What remains now is the fear that I am not 100% and the residual doubt about how those first strides are going to feel.  What taking on an incline is going to do to the area, am I going to aggravate the situation further or will I continue to move forward and back to full recovery without setbacks.  The unknown is what is ahead of us.

Runners can’t stand the unknown.

As a group, I think we would rather try and fail then simply never find out – and that is what fuels runners on race day to test their limits.

On Sunday without me there, a 45-year-old runner from Virginia Beach is going to cross that start line and run the race of his life.  His text to me said:

“I’m going for it.  If I blow up, I blow up.  Nothing to lose”.

Typically when I put a training plan together, in the footer of the document I will put an inspirational quote for me to look at every morning when I cross off my run, swim, bike ride, strength training session or rest day.  I read the words and think about them for a moment, helping them build my confidence and focus day after day until race day.

For Run for Dom I had a quote from Steve Prefontaine, for Austin it was a quote from Dom, for Boston last year, Bill Bowerman.

As I put my training plan together for the Pocono Marathon on May 19th in Pennsylvania – I added a new author to the bottom of the page from Virginia Beach.

Steve Speirs – “I‘m going for it.  If I blow up, I blow up.  Nothing to lose.”

Exactly right Steve, my sentiments exactly.  You do your thing on Sunday.  I’ll follow suit on May 19th.

Knock ’em dead my friend, I would give just about anything to be there with you.

Steve Prefontaine would be 61 years old today.

On my run this morning I thought a lot about Pre.  Over the past few years I’ve met Bill Rogers, Bart Yasso, Joan Benoit Samuelson … would I have ever met Pre?  If I did what would he think of the sport today?  What would he think of an aging Marathoner and his quest at running a sub 3 hour marathon?

My final thought as I came down off of the dam and let gravity pull me downhill over the final mile of my workout was if he had lived, rather than died in that fateful night in May 1975 – would I even be a runner today?

Pre's 1973 MGB at the crash scene May 1975

I’m not really sure.  I like a lot of people were fascinated by the story of Pre when I was exposed to it through the 1998 film Without Limits.  Up until that point I remember references to Pre when I was a young child growing up in suburban Philadelphia.  I was only 8 years old at the time of his death, and my first real memories of an Olympiad was the Montreal games in 1976.

The games that Pre was really gunning for after his heartbreaking fourth place finish in Munich 1972.

I remember seeing Bruce Jenner on Wheaties boxes while I shopped with my Mom at the A & P.  Had Pre competed in ’76, Would I have been bitten by the track bug back in Middle School and become a runner 25 years earlier?  Who can say.  But in 1998 I became a fan of Pre’s and by 2005 when it was time to do something about the onset of age and “out-of-shapedness” I turned to running.

At some point a runner becomes a “racer” and that arrived for me in 2009 as I trained for the Pittsburgh Marathon in May of that year.  I was going to pour my heart and soul into training for my second marathon in the hopes of running a Boston Time.  As that training cycle evolved I began to race a bit more often, and I started to understand what it meant to really give maximum effort on race day.

It’s a level that is difficult to summon, difficult to describe to those who have never been there.

But as I approached that race I came across perhaps the most well-known of “Steve Prefontaineisms” –

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

It is a quote that adorns the back of one of my favorite long-sleeve running shirts, and one that at least a few times a year I will see at races.  Each time I think about the small kid from Coos Bay Oregon who at the time of his death held every single American Record from 2,000 to 10,000 meters.

Every.  Single.  One.

The fact of the matter is that I am not a particularly talented runner.  There are very few races out there where I would be considered a threat to finish any better than the top 5-10%.  There is nothing wrong with that of course, I am very proud of my accomplishments and my individual PR’s that I have set all after the age of 43 or 44.  But I am no Steve Prefontaine or anything close to it.

The one thing I do think about however is whether or not I have what it takes to “race” like Pre.  He also was never the biggest, strongest or fastest.  He did not have elite speed or a tremendous finishing kick.

What he did have was more heart than his competitors and he was willing to go places during a race that others were afraid to go.

In his words:

“A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest. I run to see who has the most guts, who can punish himself into exhausting pace, and then at the end, punish himself even more.”

That was the way that Pre ran, if you have never seen the actual footage of the 1972 Olympic 5,000 Meter Final – you should really take a look at it:

Watching him thunder away over the final two laps of the race, running not to medal, not to finish in the top 3, but to run to the absolute edge of his abilities is something to witness.  He left it all out there – win, lose or draw – that is all any of us can really hope to do.

So as Saturday’s race approaches, with off days scheduled for Thursday and Friday, I wrapped up my final pre-race workout on Pre’s birthday.

You can never predict who will show up on race-day.  Looking at previous results from past Texas Half Marathons I should have a decent chance of running in the top 10-20 overall, possibly win an age group award.

But frankly, I’m not worried about any of that to be completely honest. 

I’m not running for any other reason than to take myself to a place I have never been before in the half-marathon.  I want to push things as far as I can and test my limits.  Saturday is just another opportunity to prove my metal prior to Boston. 

I am going to give my absolute best effort.  Afterall, anything less would be to sacrifice the gift.

Go Pre.

I have been trading messages with a good friend of mine up in Dallas about my training lately.  We followed it up with a phone call this past week, just two days before my latest race on Wednesday night.

We spoke in generalities about what seemed to be “missing” lately when it came to my running.  How I was pretty disappointed with myself, not so much with the results I had been getting, but more in the effort that I was putting in.

Our conversation covered all of the excuses I had been batting around in my head.  My five weeks away from running as I recovered from my left knee injury.  All of the “doubles” I had been doing since I returned to running.  Running in the morning, swimming in the afternoon, biking on my off days, sometimes actually biking and running back to back as a “brick” workout.  I had been training 9 or 10 hours a week throughout the month of May, surely I was  just tired.

All of that was really just bullshit though, and I knew it.

For some reason I just wasn’t pushing as hard as I had been leading up to the Austin Marathon.  I needed to get back to basics and think about why I run or race at all. 

Memorial Day Monday will be the anniversary of Steve Prefontaine’s death in 1975.

I was just a 7-year old boy on May 30th of ’75 – the thought of long-distance running was not even a glimmer on my horizon.  It would not be for another 30 years.  Pre’s death that night on Skyline Boulevard just East of the University of Oregon Campus changed the US Running scene forever.

That’s not an overdramatized statement.  It’s a fact.

Next Saturday on June 4th the Prefontaine Classic will be  run at Hayward Field in Eugene, OR.  the very track where Pre never lost a single race.

Top runners from all over the world will come to Eugene to compete on the Nation’s largest stage when it comes to track and field outside of the Olympics.

Ironically as I was stretching before my little 5K race on Wednesday night, a young man walked by with a Prefontaine T-shirt on.

Austin, TX, 2011, Wednesday night local 5K.  A Prefontaine shirt.  Really?

As I walked down to the starting area from the benches and took the last swallow from my water bottle, another runner, this time a 40+ year old man strolled past with an Oregon Green T-shrt with PRE LIVES in bright yellow letters.

Another one?  Really?

Was that the last shock to the system that I needed to get back to racing the way that I know that I can?  I’m not sure.  But I will tell you that it has never really been about Pre’s death and the tragedy that brought me great interest and motivation.  It was the way that Pre raced.  There are volumes of stories that people have shared throughout the years about Pre.

At one point Pre held every single american record from 2000 Meters to 10,000.  His style was to simply go out and take the heart of his competitors.  He was not a “coast and kick” type of runner.  He wanted to run at a breakneck pace and simply turn every race into a battle, where only the toughest runner, the one who “wanted it the most” could win.  And Pre won just about all of them.

There is a great letter that you can read from Pre to his coach Walt Mclure that was written just 13 days before his death.

You can read the letter in its entirety by clicking here:

You can sense that the start of something special was forming in Steve’s mind when it came to running in the 1976 olympics.  Just a spark that was starting to build inside of him that by the time he got to Montreal there would have been very little chance of anyone staying with Pre.

Infectious is the word I think of when I read about his training and racing.

I don’t believe in coincidences.  Never have, never will.

There is some reason that the only two T-shirts I have seen in the last year with “PRE” on them at a race in Austin showed up on the same night.  The very night that I was searching to find what I had been missing.

I went out and ran a :06 Personal best on the course with the temperature reading 100 degrees.

Coincidence?  Hardly.

Pre would be retired now, 62 years old, still running I’m sure, the way he always had.  For the love of it.

19 years from now I’ll be that 62 year-old still doing my best, trying to hang with some of the young guys, running for the same reason.  Because I love it.

Maybe I’m running Pre’s miles now – albeit a lot slower.  There is a trip out there that I am hoping to take this September with my friend from Dallas.  A trip to Coos Bay Oregon for the running of the Steve Prefontaine Memorial 10K.  It will be run this year on September 17, 2011.  Traveling from Austin to Oregon for a 10K race seems a little silly?

Actually, it’s the least I can do.

January 25, 1951 - May 30, 1975

RIP Pre.  Thanks for everything.

60 years ago today a baby boy was welcomed into the world. 

Steve Roland Prefontaine.

Born into a blue-collar family in the blue-collar town of Coos Bay Oregon, in just 24 years Pre would develop into perhaps the finest American born distance runner of his generation.  Because of a tragic and rather foolish accident in 1975 we were all robbed of the chance to see just the kind of impact on the running world Pre would have made during the running boom of the 1980’s.

At one time Pre held every American distance record from the mile up through 6 miles.

In fact for five years no American runner ever beat him in a race over a mile in length.

For Five Years.


For not having won an Olympic medal or holding a world record why do so many still remember Pre?  In fact, some of his greatest accomplishments were achieved at yard distances that are no long run. 

His story however is more than just a talented athlete who died too young.

Unfortunately there are far too many of those stories.

In the case of Pre there is a rather mystical element surrounding his accomplishments on and off the track.  Many University of Oregon graduates recall that the sun always seemed to break through the clouds whenever he first stepped onto the Hayward Field Track.

They talk about how Pre wore a black singlet in a race for the very first time in his career on the night he died.

How at the 1976 Olympics, which would have been Pre’s second Olympiad, just then entering his peak years, two torch bearers by complete coincidence had the name Stephen Prefontaine.

Or how a young female runner named Mary Slaney who Pre took an interest in coaching when she was just 15 years old would go on to become one of the most successful American Distance Runners of all time.  On May 30, 1986 ten years to the day of Pre’s death, Mary Slaney and her husband became parents of a baby girl.

For all of us out there with a pair of Nikes lying around the house, Pre was a driving force behind that Corporate Colossus ever taking flight. 

Pre ran with courage and determination that very few runners have demonstrated either before or after his death.

His goal was not just to win, but to truly run his best. 

Always.  Every time.

Losing to a runner who went out and simply beat him was acceptable, as long as the race unfolded as it should.  Pre detested the races where runners hung back, took it easy and kicked to the end.  He went hard from the start and carried other runners along with him.  If you were going to beat him, you were going to have to earn it. 

Automatically you have to admire someone like that.

As I prepare to race this weekend and again at the Austin Marathon in a little less than 4 weeks I find myself thinking a lot about another scrappy “little kid” from a blue-collar family in a blue-collar town.  Dom was the same kind of guy Pre was.  he was small in stature, but huge in heart.

Never the most talented athlete, he was willing to work hard to achieve all that he could.

Anyone who ever met Dom remembers him.  He simply had a way about him that made an impression.  He was 100% real and genuine.  No false pretenses.  What you saw was what you got.  Those of us who knew Dom were also cheated by a life cut far too short.  There is no telling how much more an impact Dom would have made had he survived his cancer.

Sadly, we’ll never know.

So as I got back to it on Tuesday morning, still licking my wounds from Sunday’s failed attempt at my final 20-mile training run for Austin – it seemed a fitting day for a run.

8 miles on the schedule, 8 in the books.  Nothing fancy, just a recovery run as we get ready for Sunday’s 3M half-marathon.

These are the runs I think about when it comes to “putting in the work” to prepare for race day.  No hoopla, no attaboys or congratulations.  Just the runner, alone, feet crushing stone along a running trail two hours before sunrise.  The only person in the world who would know whether those 8 miles were covered this morning or not is the runner himself.

A blue-collar run on a blue-collar day.

It felt great to be back out there.

Go Pre.