Scenes of Steve Prefontaine (Scene 2)

“A lot of people run to see who’s the fastest. I run to see who has the most guts.”

So said Steve Prefontaine, or Pre as he was called by friends, competitors and the media. He died in 1975 at the age of 24 when he drunkenly crashed his sports car into a rock in Eugene and prematurely ended a running career that saw him set 14 American records, including the high school two-mile mark (on a cinder track) that still stands.

Guts. Guts. Guts. What are they when it comes to life? No one speaks or writes the phrase anymore.

Pre hailed from Coos Bay, a gritty fishing, mill and port city on the remote South Oregon Coast. He was a logger’s son, too small (and brooding) for football, so he took up running, trained relentlessly in the dunes and shore pine forests, graduated from Marshfield High in 1969, and ran track for the University of Oregon where he turned running into a combination spectacle of performance art, animal instinct, existential abandon, mysticism, rock and roll, Zen Buddhism and rebellion that nobody had ever seen before and would ever see again. Loggers and fishermen used to root for him to win. He got a whole state to take up running as exercise. Someone came up with the design for a logo of a STOP sign with PRE underneath it and signs and T-shirts bearing the design started appearing at all his meets.

He would party all night, wake up with a hangover, win, and set an American record. He had groupies. He took off at the gun and ran competitors into the ground. When he needed it, which was rare, the ferocity of his kick left racers inhaling his fumes.

People flocked to Hayward Field in Eugene to see him race and he made the city the track and field capital of the United States. He didn’t have a corporate sponsor. No one did then. It was the sham era of “amateurism” in professional track and field (tennis, too), and it amounted to one of the biggest cultural farces of the 20th century. He tended bar and bucked hay in the summers to make ends meet while also working to overthrow the tyranny of the track and field establishment that kept him impoverished.

Imagine Pre behind the bar in a dive tavern serving you a dime glass of draft beer brewed in the Pacific Northwest by union men and women, knowing he was on his way to becoming the most legendary distance runner in American sporting history as well as the greatest athlete and sports personality in Oregon history. You could have tipped him a buck so he could afford to travel and compete.

Pre won the 5000 meter event at the 1972 Olympic Trials and went on to compete at the cursed Munich Games. In the 5000-meter final, Pre ran an uncharacteristic conservative race and was nipped at the finish line for third place, losing out on the bronze medal. Some coach had convinced him to run with his mind and not his guts. It didn’t work.

Back in Oregon City, an eight-year old boy watched Pre’s fourth place finish on a huge Zenith floor console television. He was transfixed and it made him want to become a long distance runner. In fact, after the race, he took up running—he ran out the door, across the street, and through the rubble of an abandoned miniature golf course. He would remember that first run all his life and never forget Steve Prefontaine because Steve Prefontaine kept running into his life.

A few years later, the boy went out for track in elementary school, ran distance races, and continued competitive running into junior high. In 1976 he set a school record for the 1320-yard race (three times around), a record that still stands because everything track and field in America changed over to the metric system a year later and the 1500-meter run became the standard middle distance race at all levels of the sport.

After junior high, the boy stopped running and took up tennis. He had admitted to himself he wasn’t Pre and couldn’t hack distance running. He was fairly successful at tennis but could never transfer the energy or metaphor of Pre into his game and transcend to a higher level. It’s hard to do that with anything in your life.

That is, until you have to save your life.