Sports Zone

SPOTLIGHT: LONG DISTANCE RUNNING – Pre was great, and definitely cool

Part of Pre’s appeal was his defiant individualism, where he relied on the values of a small, Oregon mill town to become a global track and field legend. Photo provided

”A race is a work of art that people can look at and be affected in as many ways they’re capable of understanding.”
”Somebody may beat me, but they are going to have to bleed to do it.”
– Steve Prefontaine

As far as I know, Isaac Newton never ran a 5000-meter race, but Steve Prefontaine did. Newton, who invented calculus and described gravity, is one of the foundational natural philosophers (scientists) in history. He famously said, ”If I have seen a little further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” In the world of track and field, Pre lives eternally with the giants.
I never met Steve Prefontaine. I wish I had. He was an inspiration long before I became involved in the world of track and field or spent any time in Coos Bay. I knew about Pre long before I moved to the Pacific Northwest. The whole country knew about this kid from a mill town. In a world of distance runners, often populated by well-healed prep-school kids, Pre was a blue-collar sensation first known in his town, then his state, then his country, and eventually the world. Pre’s life and Ken Kesey’s writing remain inspirations by which I form my Oregon identity.
I grew up in a world where being cool was the highest standard to which one aspired. Dizzy Gillespie, the jazz trumpet player, was cool. Walt Frazier, the great New York Knicks basketball player, known as Clyde, was cool; Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon were cool. And Steve Prefontaine was cool, oh so cool with his moustache and his attitude. Man, he had some attitude. You didn’t need attitude to be cool, but it certainly helped, and if you had some style. Pre, with his long hair in an era when in my community long hair placed me in personal peril, had longish hair and lots of style.
To be cool, it helped to be defiant. Along with record-setting race times and a take-no-prisoner’s style, Pre spoke out against the hypocrisy and exploitation of athletes by an entrenched athletic cartel, the AAU Amateur Athletic Union. Pre turned down huge sums of money to hold to his dreams and his principles. Yes, Pre was defiant, a real-life James Dean but with a cause. Defiance as cool rose to another level if your defiance aligned with people who have no voice or power. Oh, yeah, Pre had that in spades. The kid from Coos Bay, whose mother was German, whose father worked with his hands, from a mill town where people appreciate what comes to you by your ability to grind out a living. Oh yeah, Pre had that, and from all of it, he forged an aesthetic, an art form, and an ethical standard by which he ran. It wasn’t enough to run fast, and it wasn’t even enough to win. No, a victory without honor and beauty was meaningless.
You had to take your talent and pour your heart into every race. No coy and strategic calculations that bettered your chance at winning, no strategic drafting on the coattails of others. Winning as the calculated result of exploiting others’ courage? No thanks.
Pre’s devoted fans watched him run for himself and them. Pre ran and saw competition as an art, with an ethos, and in defiance for others who did not. That touched me as a kid, it touched the legions of Pre’s fans, and it still touches people today. You don’t have the world’s best annual track and field meet in the world named after you because you were strategic.
Pre inspired people, and they still come from all over the country and the world to touch Pre’s rock, to feel a little of Pre’s soul.
Others have won more races than Pre, others have broken his record-setting times (Pre held every USA record from the 2,000 to the 10,000 meters at the time of his death in 1975 at age 24). Records fall, but none have captured the passionate following that Pre had with his fans, adulation that today still ripples across the world!



View this profile on Instagram


The Chronicle (@thechronicle1909) • Instagram photos and videos