Keep Fit: The Legend of Steve Prefontaine

Lately, I’ve been reading about running. A lot. I’m on the Runner’s World website practically every day. It’s a fun addiction—reading about the latest, greatest gear; recaps of races; accounts of people running personal bests.

I haven’t competed since October, but the East End’s road race season is heating up, and every time I read Runner’s World, I get excited to participate.

I love that it’s still possible to read recently written stories about Steve Prefontaine, an Oregon athlete who put distance running on the map. Considering the small circle of Americans who participate in, much less follow, distance running, “Pre” isn’t exactly a household name today. And East Coast track teams don’t seem to emphasize his influence as much a West Coast track teams do.

Recently, my mind has been racing with Pre’s iconic quotes. Our next area race is the Hampton Bays 5K on May 18. Read on for inspiration to enter:

“A lot of people run a race to see who is the fastest. I run to see who has the most guts.”

Pre was born on January 25, 1951 in Coos Bay, Oregon. He started running on a whim, and joined the cross-country and track teams during high school. Pre’s race stats are still astounding: Zero defeats in cross-country and track during his junior and senior high school seasons; three NCAA Cross Country Championships won while at the University of Oregon; four NCAA titles in the three-mile; a lifetime win percentage in outdoor track of 78%.

“Some people create with words or with music or with a brush and paints. I like to make something beautiful when I run.”

Pre was often referred to as the “James Dean of Track” for his boyish good looks. Handsome and speedy was a lethal combination, and people paid attention. Those who cheered for him wore shirts with the word “LEGEND” on them. Those on opposing teams sported “Stop Pre”—made in the shape of a stop sign—T-shirts. Pre famously donned the “Stop Pre,” and a phrase meant to mock became a rallying cry. He landed on the national radar in 1970 when, at 19 years old, he was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. A feat for any athlete, but particularly for one in an endurance sport.

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

Steve Prefontaine died in a single-car accident in Oregon a year after his college graduation in 1975. The details of the night are shady, but his fame and influence remain, as runners travel to Eugene to pay tribute to the spirit of a man who constantly pushes them, leaving old shoes, race medals, flowers and race bibs in
sincere thanks.

***

After qualifying for the 1972 Munich Olympics in front of his home crowd in Eugene, Oregon, Pre was asked what he was thinking:

“Well, there’s gonna be 12 people in the final event [of the 5,000], and if I’m there, there’s gonna be 12 people that can win.”

Pre finished fourth, .64 seconds behind the bronze medal winner. But his absence on the medal stand is not what he is remembered for. It was his determination to put it all out there. Always. And whether in running or in life, that’s good advice to live by.

***

I was in Boston last weekend to participate in the pre-marathon festivities, opting to come home Sunday evening. The beauty of a marathon is that it represents so much more than running, and that was on full display in the aftermath of Monday’s events. I cannot comprehend how someone could commit such a senseless act against something as purely good as running, and my heart goes out to all those affected. But I know that the solidarity of the running community will not be broken, only inspired by hope that always perseveres
amidst tragedy.

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