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Memory of Prefontaine prevalent at trials as Rupp breaks 5,000 record

EUGENE, Ore. -- At first there was a just a solitary soul standing at Pre's Rock on Thursday morning. Her name is Laura Lee, 50, from Boulder, Colo., where she works for a shoe company whose name and logo are not splashed all over this pristine city, but nonetheless has its own business to transact at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials. Lee had run from down on Franklin Boulevard in the valley up the steep, winding (is it insensitive to say treacherous in this context? Because they are treacherous) roads -- Fairmount Boulevard, Birch Lane and finally, Skyline Drive -- that lead to the Rock, and now she stood sweating in the rising sun. She did this because she's old enough to know the story behind the Rock and also, maybe more importantly, because she told her son, 16-year-old high school runner Zane Jeffress, that she would make the pilgrimage.

She was alone there for a few minutes, just looking at the outcropping of charcoal gray rock struck by Steve Prefontaine's sports car on the night of May 30, 1975. The car flipped over, pinning Prefontaine underneath and he died there in the road on Skyline Drive, 24 years old, famous then and in ways both inspirational (mostly) and a little discomforting (sometimes), more famous now. "I told Zane all about Pre,'' says Lee, never taking her eyes off the rock. "And now he just worships him.''

Soon there were others at the rock. A middle-aged man and his son from Pennsylvania. Two college runners from Ohio. Three high school coaches from California. A celebrity endurance athlete with a full-fledged entourage. A high school cross-country coach from Florida. A guy who says he grew up down the at bottom of the hill. Together they looked at the Rock. Sometimes they would look over their shoulders at the roadway from whence Prefontaine came on that night, a narrow serpentine byway carved from a hillside of tall pines.

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If you look at the picture or video shot by SI's Bill Frakes above, you can pretty much see what Pre's Rock looks like. It is a compact wall of hard, scratchy boulders in an irregular vertical mosaic. There are no other such features nearby. The top and sides of the rock are infringed upon by creeping kudzu-like vinery. Prominent at eye level is a hand-painted eulogy: PRE 5-30-75 R.I.P. It looks to have been repainted regularly by someone. (I wondered who would do that job, so I asked Tom Jordan, the respected director of the annual Prefontaine Classic meet, author of a book on Prefontaine, friend of the Prefontaine family and all-around go-to source on All Things Pre. His answer: "Yes, someone repaints the date each year but like the tributes left at E.A. Poe's grave, I don't know who.'')

Next to that is a more faded message, RUN PRE. There is a formal tombstone at ground level, featuring the (literally) timeless head shot of Prefontaine taken by legendary photographer Brian Lanker. Visitors to the rock have left pieces of their lives: A pair of running shoes, a T-shirt, a wilted yellow rose.

Prefontaine died here after running a meet at Hayward Field and then partying with running friends up the road from the Rock. His last stop was to drop off Frank Shorter. Four years ago I wrote a little on SI.com about Prefontaine in connection with the Trials and I'm comfortable repeating that stance here: There is no need to belabor Prefontaine's passing. He was legally intoxicated at the time of his death. Local legend -- and a well-researched section in former Sports Illustrated writer Kenny Moore's book, Bowerman and the Men of Oregon -- suggests that another car might have run Prefontaine's sports car off the road.

At the time of Prefontaine's death, he held every American track record from 2,000 meters to 10,000 meters. In the pre-Internet, three-channel television world he was a figure of powerful -- yet hazy -- significance to runners. Not just for his performances, but for this his passion. He liked to run at the front and run hard. He threw his personality behind the battle to make runners professionals.

These qualities outlived him through the 1980s and into the 1990s, but exploded into full-blown mythology in the middle of the 1990s with the release of three movies: A documentary called Fire on the Track, and two Hollywood features: Prefontaine' and Without Limits. Both movies included Prefontaine's heartbreaking fourth-place finish in the 5,000 meters at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. And both movies lionized Prefontaine for forcing the pace in that race with a mile to run, the signature push among many in his career.

There was a book by Jordan just on Prefontaine and Moore's book on Prefontaine's coach, Bill Bowerman, in which Prefontaine was prominently featured. (In Eugene, Prefontaine's enduring presence is a hundredfold more pervasive; it seems difficult to live through a day without coming across some reminder that Prefontaine once ran here.)

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Heath Harris, 21, and Albert Brannan, 22, both run track and cross-country at Akron University. They made the trip to Eugene to see the Trials and, like Laura Lee, they ran up to Pre's Rock on Thursday morning. "If you're here, you don't want to miss coming up here,'' said Harris, chest heaving from the short, steep climb up from Birch onto Skyline. "When I was younger I watched all three movies, and then as I've gotten older, I've learned more about what he represented.'' Harris pauses and then unleashes his inner track nut on me: "You know,'' he says, "He's still Top 10 on the all-time high school list, 8:44 for two miles.''

Nearby is Jeff Brandt, a balding and bespectacled 57-year-old man from Danville, Pa. He says he was in attendance on Jan. 10, 1975, when Prefontaine was outkicked by Marty Liquori in an indoor mile at Cole Field House on the campus of the University of Maryland. "I was watching on my black-and-white TV when he ran at the Olympics in '72,'' says Brandt, who was in Eugene for the first time. He brought his son, Chris, 20, a college cross-country runner whose roommate educated him on Pre culture.

There is a trio of coaches from El Camino High, north of San Diego: Terry Hart, 57; Martin Nolasco, 63; and Bob Cartin, 59. They regularly go on bucket list trips together, to Texas and Michigan for football and now here for the Trials. They were all young runners when Prefontaine passed away. "I remember when he died,'' says Cartin. "I was at Cornell, driving in my car around Ithaca and the news came on the radio.''

There is Kevin Curran, 29, cross-country coach at Bishop Kenny High in Jacksonville. He and his wife, Libby, were making their way up the West Coast and built in one night at the Trials. Back home, Curran motivates his young runners with quotes from Prefontaine. "Every time we go to a meet,'' he says, "the kids are watching one of the Prefontaine movies on the bus.''

Then there was Jason Lester, 37, a nationally known, ESPY-winning endurance athlete who was completing a 4,600-miles bike-and-run journey across the United States. He arrived with a group of supporters from Nike, who sponsor him, placed a T-shirt next to the headstone, and then knelt on the ground for several minutes. "We're all just carrying his torch,'' said Lester after rising. "I feel blessed to be a vessel for his message: Never quit.'' (It's important to understand that in 2012, Prefontaine and Nike are inextricably linked.)

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They ran two 5,000-meter races Thursday night at Hayward Field, where the Trials swung into the fifth of eight days. Prefontaine ran everything from the mile to the 10K, but the 5,000 was his sweet spot. There were 22,682 in attendance, a Hayward record. They arrived in warm sunshine and sat through persistent, cold rain, then just a hazy chill by the end of the night. Eugene weather, as we have learned this week.

First came the women's race, in which 28-year-old Julia Lucas, who trains in Oregon and wears the green, black and white of Oregon Track Club Elite, was a solid favorite to win the race and secure her first Olympic berth. She was near the front for more than nine of the 12 ½ laps and then quickened the pace, immediately gapping a group that included Molly Huddle, Kim Conley and Julie Culley. It was a brave move, and at the risk of pushing a metaphor too hard, a Prefontaine move.

After the race, Lucas would explain that she was uncertain about her chances in a sprint finish. So she relied on her fitness. "I felt like I was the best athlete in the race, so I wanted to put in a long grind to the finish,'' she said. She nearly made it, but in the final stretch was passed by Culley (the winner) and Huddle (second) and right at the line by Kim Conley, who also achieved the Olympic `A' standard by .21 seconds with a time of 15:19.79.

"I screwed up,'' said Lucas. "The best athletes show up on the line and deliver and I didn't. I wish I had waited until 600 meters; my legs didn't have three laps in them.'' A reporter tried to tee up an excuse for Lucas by asking if any lingering injuries had bothered her. A lot of athletes would have grabbed the lifeline. She didn't. "I was in no pain at any time,'' she said. ``No pain at all.''

I leaned over the barrier and asked her if she had taken the time yet to process the fact that her surge not only cooked her legs, but also made the pace fast enough for Conley to make the "A'' standard (had Conley run .22 seconds slower, Lucas would have gone to London). "I hadn't thought about that,'' said Lucas. "Until just this second.'' She smiled painfully. Tough young woman.

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Linda Prefontaine is 58 and has lived in Eugene for nearly four decades. (The Prefontaines were born in Coos Bay, on the Oregon coast; Steve Prefontaine is buried there). She misses her brother every day, and yet she sees him every day, and not just like people see a deceased relative's photograph around the house. On T-shirts and magazines and in store windows. It is hard to imagine how unusual this must be. "I feel like his older sister now,'' says Linda, who also has a sister older than both her and Steve. "And that's very unusual, because I was always his little sister. But I'm 58 1/2 years old and my brother stopped aging. He's always the boy in Brian Lanker's picture.''

Linda never goes up to the rock. "It's a place of sadness for me,'' she says. And it's not always easy being the survivor. "There are wack jobs out there who I am constantly dealing with,'' she says. "There's a downside to having a famous last name. It's a small part of it. But there is definitely a down side. In modern society, there are no boundaries. People will knock on your door and ask to come inside. People will tell me they dated my brother and actually, they never met him.'' (I got a little taste of this; one of the people at Pre's Rock said he used to chase Pre on his runs and was in kindergarten when Prefontaine died. Even heard the sirens. Then the man said he was 38, which means he was 1 when Prefontaine died.).

Yet in all of this, Linda sees through to the good. "He's been dead for so long,'' she says, "but he's still influencing people. What a great compliment that is. It wasn't worth him dying, but I am still extremely proud.''

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In the second of Thursday night's 5,000-meter races, it was a son of Oregon (yes, like Prefontaine) who gave the Trials their most compelling moment yet (at least for those who are not fans of dead heats). Galen Rupp, 26, who was born in Portland and competed for the Ducks, outkicked the venerable Bernard Lagat to win the men's 5,000. Rupp not only became the first runner in 60 years to win both the 5K and 10K at the U.S. Trials, but also ran 13:22.67 to break the Trials record of 13:22.8 set at Hayward Field in '72 by Prefontaine. (To be fair, many U.S. runners in the last four decades have been capable of running faster than 13:22.8, but the Trials races are usually slow and tactical). Rupp had also broken the Trials record in the 10,000 six days earlier.

It would be unfair to Rupp to describe his victory only through the prism of its connection to Prefontaine. It was a breakthrough performance for him. At the world class level, winning 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter races has become dependent on the ability to sprint fiercely fast over the last 200 meters. That is Lagat's specialty. So before Thursday night's race, Rupp's coach, Alberto Salazar, told Rupp to push the pace with 800 meters left and, expecting Lagat to make a move late said, "Don't let him gap you.''

Rupp moved with two laps left and Lagat went, too. "I told myself, I can't take any chances,'' said Lagat, who said he is only 90 percent fit. "I'm gonna go [also].'' The two of them sprinted free of Lopez Lomong on the final lap and Lagat took the lead. It seemed certain that Rupp was cooked, but instead he fought back and caught Lagat in the final strides. He ran his final lap in just over 52 seconds and his last 200 meters in under 26 seconds. When I profiled Rupp and his British gold-medal-favorite training partner Mo Farah in Sports Illustrated in February, Rupp's coach, Salazar promised that Rupp's natural speed would eventually be there for him in the final lap, with maturity.

In Salazar, too, there is a Prefontaine connection. Salazar was recruited out of Massachusetts and matriculated in Eugene in the fall of 1976, 15 months after Prefontaine's death. His college coach was Bill Dellinger, who ran for Bowerman and knew Prefontaine well. I found Salazar standing in the fog outside the media tent Thursday night during Rupp's press conference. "Coach Dellinger used to tell us something,'' said Salazar. "He used to say `Pre's dead. He's not coming back. But that doesn't mean you all have to stop running, too.''' Salazar nodded his head for emphasis. "There are some great runners in America right now. Americans are winners.''

After the men's 5,000, I texted Linda Prefontaine, who was at Hayward Field to watch Rupp's race. Her response: "[Galen] ran a great race. He ran 2 great races but I am a little sad that my brother's record was broken. At least it was Oregon blood that did it.''

*****

Back at Pre's Rock, 12 hours earlier, 25-year-old Thomas Whitcomb had stood by the memorial and talked about Prefontaine's memory. "He was such a great runner,'' said Whitcomb. "But the thing that really elevated him was the What If? There's no period at the end...''

I ask him if he had seen the movie Garden State, in which punctuation figures prominently, the ellipsis representing lack of closure. He had seen it and liked it.

"The ellipsis,'' says Whitcomb. "That's Pre.''

Yet in the fog of a late night at Hayward, a record fell, a crowd roared and a son of Oregon stood tall and moved his sport forward for another generation of Americans. The whole thing felt an awful lot like a period.

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