Sometimes it pays not to throw stuff away. A few weeks ago I was going though some boxes in our basement. From the dates of the first few postcards and ticket stubs, I knew that this one was "pre-marriage memorabilia" and had been sitting for more than 30 years. For some reason, a business card intertwined in the middle of the mess, attracted my attention. As soon as I read it I remembered the moment that Steve Prefontaine gave me this, his business card, right after a race at Berkeley CA., just before he was to join me at my Lake Tahoe Running Retreat for some altitude training.
The new Nike company had given him an official corporate position in the company: National Director of Public Affairs. He tried to be cool as he pulled the card out of his gear bag but there was a real energy in his voice as he talked about training at Tahoe and brainstorming ideas about his new job. A few days later Pre died in a car accident.
Despite showing little or no athletic talent as a young athlete in Coos Bay, Steve Prefontaine showed that he could work harder, endure more discomfort and fatigue and improve. He became the state champion. He was determined to be the best miler, and then the best 5K runner in the world. No performance was good enough–he was always critical of his mistakes and looking ahead. His friends called him "focused", "determined", "dedicated". His detractors called him "brash", "tunnel visioned" and "ruthless". He added excitement to every race entered, infused hope that North Americans could compete with the rest of the world and usually made good on his statements, however bold.
The first time I heard of Pre was just before I flew to meet my Navy ship off Viet Nam in November of 1967. My friend Geoff Hollister (Nike’s 3rd employee) invited me to spend a weekend in Eugene, OR. The U of O distance runners were hanging around waiting for their mentor Bill Bowerman, when some of the guys mentioned something about a high school guy who really took charge of the state cross country competition. I was in awe of Bowerman, wishing that I could return to the collegiate life and become one of his athletes. My dream came true in ’72 when I made the Munich Olympic team and Bill was named coach–although he hated that term.
When I returned to the US from the Navy in 1970, Geoff advised me that excitement was building around freshman Pre, in Eugene. For two decades, Hayward Field had been the stage for a series of talented runner-performers who found inside themselves the resources to be national champions as they stepped on that track. But I was not prepared, when I arrived in 1971, for the way Pre interacted with the crowd, and they with him. They came to see Pre dig deep and deeper, finding unexpected will power in the midst of complete exhaustion. He absorbed energy from the crowd and felt the need to respond to them. Even when he lost, Pre made the race come alive. In Eugene, Pre didn’t lose.
Athletes either liked Pre or didn’t like him. I first met him in the staging area at Hayward field before the Pan American Trials in 1971. A group of us were talking and joking when Pre came up. He failed at small talk and went right up to me and said "let’s warm up". Right from the start we talked about what was on our minds–mostly his mind. I don’t know whether he looked on me as an "older brother figure" or what, but we were instant friends. Since I had 98% slow twitch muscle fibers, maybe he felt comfortable with me because he knew I would not present a competitive challenge at the end of a race. This only happened once, in the 1975 Portland Indoor 2 mile. Thankfully Jeff Johnson (#1 employee at Nike) snapped a picture early in the race, before Pre took off and I was still within sight of him.
During clinics, he respected those who asked honest questions. When asked by a middle age runner about running a marathon, Pre was noticeably impressed with the desire to attempt that distance and admitted that he didn’t know if he would ever have the guts to try it. But he would turn on reporters and officials who tried to trick him with questions, or try to get a reaction out of him.
Two movies were made about his life: PREFONTAINE (better and more accurate in my opinion) and WITHOUT LIMITS. The former movie has a Jeff Galloway character who fairly accurately represented the traveling distance runner that I was then. My character’s most famous line is a classic: "Hot dogs…again".
Back in my basement, about two archaeological layers deeper in the box of ’70’s debris, was a picture that someone sent to me about a year after the ’72 Olympics. Pre, Jack Bacheler and I were finishing up a training run in Brunswick, Maine, just before we left for Europe, and Munich. Jack was the founder of my running club at the time, the Florida Track Club, and I had paced him through the marathon so he could qualify for the team. That was a special run as each of us felt the promise of the upcoming Olympic experience…and beyond.
I still feel the intensity of that run. Whenever you ran with Pre–even on an easy run–you had to be prepared to push, or drop back. On these runs, after a minute or so, Pre would start talking about something he was focused on–and he was always focused. It could be last night’s date, a car he really wanted, another athlete or a frequent target: the AAU (our restrictive national federation). As he started spilling his guts on each subject, the pace would get faster and faster.
Pre was honest. Whether chasing the world record or chasing women, whether drinking water after a workout or beer in the evening, he was competitive. You may not agree with his opinions or his actions, but you always knew where he stood. He was a friend, and I still miss him.