Forty years ago, on May 30, 1975, Steve Prefontaine died when his car flipped over on a winding road in Eugene, Oregon. Who was Steve Prefontaine, called Pre in running circles, and why do we still celebrate his life?
Pre was America’s premier track runner in the early 70’s. A brash kid from Coos Bay, Oregon, he set an American high school record in the 2 mile and then attended University of Oregon under coach Bill Bowerman, the founder of Nike. It was less about what Pre did than how he did it. A notorious front-runner, Pre invariably pushed the pace. This was counter to the strategy followed by most top runners who would strategically let others lead and then pour it on toward the end. Pre thought that was cheating, that one should run the whole race. By running this way, Steve helped others run their best times. And made racing fun to watch!
Pre brought intensity to everything he did. You might say Pre was poured, not born. Even as a youngster, he was hyperactive. He channeled this energy into running during his sophomore year in high school, showing an unusual amount of focus and commitment under the direction of coach Walt McClure. The track team at small Marshfield High became a force, largely due to Pre’s contributions, running multiple races and cheerleading others to do their best. Pre never lost a race his final two years and caught the attention of college coaches nationwide. He continued his dominance in college and was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in June 1970, a space generally reserved for sprinters and football, basketball and baseball stars.
Pre’s death left a hole in American running that has never been filled. Two full-length movies and a documentary have been made about Pre and another documentary is pending. Maybe it was the time – the beginning of the running boom in the 70s; maybe it was the Munich Olympics where Frank Shorter won the gold medal in the marathon and 21-year old Pre ran a gutsy 5,000 meter race against much more experienced competition. Maybe it was his bravado backed up on the track or his willingness to take on the American Athletic Union, which ultimately paved the way for athletes to earn an above-board living from sport. Whatever it was, Steve Prefontaine had an aura that captured the imagination of runners and non-runners alike. He drew enormous crowds, who he called “My People,” at Hayward Field in Eugene.
Pre’s public persona belied his depth of character and complexity. He engaged with youth to get them excited about track; started a running club at the Oregon State Penitentiary, which still exists today and numbers 150 with a waiting list; organized international track meets; lived simply and worked multiple jobs to make ends meet; and drew pictures as a another way to express his creativity. Pre never felt settled or satisfied. He moved from one thing to the next as if time was of the essence. And it was!
For many runners, Steve Prefontaine is a continuing inspiration. One of Pre’s most memorable quotes is: “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” He lived his life as if each day was a gift. Steve Prefontaine left a lot on the table and it’s natural to ponder about what he might have accomplished. For sure, he was targeting the 5,000 at the 1976 Olympics and was showing great promise at longer distances. Instead, he leaves a formidable legacy that challenges each of us to make good use of our time and abilities. And thus, Pre lives on!