Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sat, 11 Aug 2007 05:06:31 -0400

Pre Views


I never met Steve Prefontaine, and saw him run only once. In 1972, I saw the "Go Pre" phenomenon at full force. The full-house crowd at Hayward Field was with him all the way as he won the Olympic Trials 5000.

I attended the Olympics that year but missed seeing a medal barely escape him. That race came after the killings of Israelis. I couldn't bear to return to the stadium as if nothing had happened, and instead watched it on German TV from 100 kilometers away.

After that I watched from a greater distance as Pre's racing kept getting better. By 1975, I'd gotten over my Olympic angst and was planning to see him the next year at the Eugene Olympic Trials and again in Montreal. I was at both meets, but of course he wasn't.

By then an informal shrine to Pre had taken over the spot where his sports car crashed. Pre's Rock later became the smallest city park in Eugene, a 20-foot strip protected from developers.

Street signs, a target for souvenir hunters, point to the Rock between thefts. A metal monument, created by prisoners at the Oregon State Pen, marks the fatal spot. On the rock itself is a hand-painted "PRE, 5-30-75, RIP."

Pilgrims leave memorabilia ranging from race numbers to racing shoes. Pre worship is amazingly enduring. It hasn't waned over the years but grown, egged on by Nike plus two theatrical movies and a documentary ("Fire on the Track," which is better to me than either of the full-length films).

Adults who never knew of the living Pre now visit the spot where he breathed his last. Kids who weren't born when he died have elevated him to running sainthood.

A University of Oregon professor, a runner himself, is examining the Pre phenomenon for an academic paper. Dan Wojcik's focus is to be Pre's Rock and what draws the faithful there.

Dan asked for my thoughts about that spot. My reply:

"I'm happy it's there but don't feel compelled to visit except when out-of-town guests ask to see it. Making a pilgrimage to the spot where he died strikes me as slightly maudlin.

"I'd rather celebrate at the spot where he lived to his fullest. That, of course, is Hayward Field [less than two miles from Pre's Rock]. I'd like to see a Prefontaine statue there, perhaps alongside Bill Bowerman's."

This is my Pre view. Another, better one comes from someone who did know him well.

At the time that Dan Wojcik asked me about the idolized runner, I was paying my annual visit to Jeff Galloway's running camp at Squaw Valley, near Lake Tahoe. Jeff has come there every summer since the mid-1970s, first to train himself and later to direct his camps.

He and Pre had been teammates on the 1972 Olympic team, running different distances. "We planned to train at altitude together in the summer of 1975," Jeff told me. "I was already at Tahoe when I heard about his death."

He drove immediately to Eugene. Once there he was drawn to the Rock, much as runners have been ever since.

"There I picked up a broken piece of headlight from his car," said Jeff. "I kept it in my own car for a long time, then forgot to remove it when we sold the car for junk. I've always regretted that."

Jeff had something else from Pre that he thought was gone. Recently he unearthed Pre's business card from Nike.

"He gave me this card the last time we saw each other, two weeks before he died," Jeff said. "He was very proud of his new title, National Director of Public Affairs."

Jeff then handed me a photocopy of the card. On the same page were two photos of these runners and others. The inscription above Jeff's signature read, "Great memories, with friends."

He asked, "Would you leave this at Pre's Rock for me?"

I did. This was a my first visit to that shrine in more than a year. And it was the most significant, since it delivered a message from someone who knew Steve Prefontaine as he really was.
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