Steve Prefontaine arrived in Los Angeles from Eugene, Ore. last week with a worry. And a disdain for people who look to the planets for prophecy. The worry was over the early pace of his two-mile race in the L.A. Times Indoor Games, which he was afraid would be so slow that he would have to set it himself. The disdain came after he learned that an astrologer, one Burton Morse, had said that Prefontaine's planetary influences were less than favorable and predicted he would finish behind Emiel Puttemans of Belgium and Kerry O'Brien of Australia. "Phooey on the stars," said Prefontaine, or words to that effect, and glared heavenward.
And so, with the planets out of the way, Prefontaine got down to the pace. "I just hope some of those foreign guys help out," he said. "I don't want to set the stupid thing all by myself. In America you don't get the comradeship you do in Europe. Over there everybody helps with the pace, and then the guy with the most guts wins. Over here they let you go out all by yourself, just hitching an easy ride and hoping somewhere near the end you'll drop dead. To hell with them. Maybe I'll let the first mile go by in 4:51." He grinned. "Of course, the crowd will start throwing stones at us."
"That's not too funny," said a friend.
"Did you ever run behind a slow pack?" said Prefontaine. "You get a trailing wind and a lot of body odor."
February 21, 1972
"You shouldn't say things like that. Somebody will print them."
"Aw, nobody would print that."
"Yeah, I guess you're right."
Unbeaten in a distance race since 1970, the 5'9" University of Oregon junior found himself almost totally wiped out after the Pan-American Games. He came home to Coos Bay, Ore. with a gold medal and a Salmonella infection, a sort of super diarrhea. When the doctors had pumped enough medicine into him to kill the Salmonella, they also killed all the good bacteria and he came down with a yeast infection, another sort of super diarrhea.
Finally healthy again, Prefontaine won his second straight NCAA cross-country championship last November, and a few weeks ago in Portland he won a two-mile in 8:26.6, just .4 off the American indoor record. George Young, the 34-year-old American outdoor record holder, had been invited to run in the Times meet but had declined. "Too much youth in that race," he told Will Kern, the meet director.
"Goldarn!" said Prefontaine. "I wanted to run against Young more than anybody in the field. I wanted to test the veteran out." He laughed. "I almost said the old man, but I don't want to make him mad and give him something to use against me when we do race. Besides, he's not really old. And I like him a lot. He's super intelligent. And very good-looking. And has a great family. And I hope he remembers all these nice things I'm saying when we do race."
For Kerry O'Brien, Los Angeles was worrisome too. Southern California hasn't been all that kind to the 25-year-old Coca-Cola P.R. man. He did set the indoor world record for the two-mile (8:19.2) last year in San Diego, but during the same trip was scared witless by the L.A. earthquake and had $60 stolen from his wallet. "Besides the record," he said, "the only good thing that happened to me was that I decided to see a movie instead of going to Tijuana with two friends. I saw Love Story and they got mugged."
And like Prefontaine, O'Brien wasn't all that happy with Morse's view of the position of the planets. "I should like to warn him against some minor muscle damage if he's careless at all about preparing for this race," Morse wrote for the Times. "Some difficulties appear in the health house."
"That's just bloody great," O'Brien said. "I haven't had a healthy day since I left America last year, and this chap has to predict more trouble. Where was he before the earthquake when I could have used him?"
After setting his record at San Diego, O'Brien went home and intensified his training schedule. He holds the world record of 8:22 for the steeplechase, too, and when he ran two steeples in 8:26.8 and 8:24, European promoters came up with an attractive package of eight summer meets. O'Brien worked even harder. But apparently his planets were in the wrong position. One day while he was jogging along, another runner fell in front of him. "I had to scissor-kick my legs apart to leap over him," O'Brien said, "and then I felt this terrible pain in my stomach." He had suffered a great rip in his lower abdominal muscles. Eight weeks later he ran again, but it wasn't until November that the rip completely healed. O'Brien never got to Europe. Instead he managed to injure his right knee and left Achilles' tendon, both of which were still bothering him in Los Angeles.
When O'Brien announced in January that he was going to run in Toronto and Los Angeles, both his friends and the press in Australia said he was crazy. "But sometimes you have to have the courage to gamble against the advice of other people," he said. "You can't be a champion or set world records unless you are ready to back your own convictions. I felt I needed some intense international competition."
At Toronto a couple of weeks ago he got it, winning a grueling three-mile in 13:23.8. "It took a real gutsy finish to win," he said, "and now I'm pleased that I took the gamble. That race really knocked my legs around a lot, and it's not the sort of thing I'd recommend. But for me, it was the only thing."
The third party of last Friday's race, Puttemans, the 24-year-old waterworks gardener who set the pending outdoor two-mile world record of 8:17.8 in Edinburgh last year, was, like his two rivals, worrying. He has raced indoors very seldomly and he had been warned that negotiating the tight Forum turns would be an edifying experience.
"Is it really that bad?" Puttemans asked. "I've heard it can get pretty crowded."
"Let me see your elbows," someone said.
"If your elbows aren't as fast as your feet, about the third lap they might be charging you for a seat in the bleachers."
O'Brien didn't figure the Belgian would have too much trouble indoors. "He's a shorty, and they usually can adjust right away. Of course, you never know with Prefontaine. He's an aggressive little bug, isn't he?"
"Is he kidding?" Prefontaine said. "If Puttemans wants to go by me and share the pace I won't lay an elbow on him. Unless he wants to share it on the last lap."
Prefontaine's worries about the early pace ended late Friday afternoon. A few hours before the race, Will Kern got a call from a coach at Cal State Fullerton. "Well, we got a rabbit," said Kern, hanging up. "A kid named Tom Baird, and they say he can give us a 3:10 three-quarters of a mile and that's better than nothing."
A half hour before the race, O'Brien stretched out on a rubbing table while a trainer worked on his knee and Achilles' tendon. Prefontaine trotted past, stopped and said gaily, "Hey, Kerry, what are you, a goldang cripple?"
O'Brien sat straight up as Prefontaine trotted off. "Did you hear that?" he said. "A goldang cripple? I know he was only kidding, but that makes me even more determined to run his cocky bottom into the bleeding boards."
Meanwhile, Puttemans was inside watching Tom Von Ruden burst past Juris Luzins to win the 1,000 in 2:07.1. And Byron Dyce win the mile in 4:02.9, with Jim Ryun a dismal sixth in 4:13.2. And Martin McGrady outduel Lee Evans to win the 600 in 1:09.6. Puttemans had seen plenty of flying elbows, and he was stunned when he saw Von Ruden have one shoe ripped away during the first lap of the 1,000. "And he not only didn't stop," said Puttemans, wide-eyed, "but he won."
"It wasn't much," said Von Ruden, at the moment America's most consistent middle-distance runner and a good bet to be in the 1,500 at Munich. "Just a little blister, that's all."
"That little blister covers his whole foot," said Luzins. "If I had known he was running on that instead of a shoe I might have stepped it up at the end."
As they called the two-mile field, Prefontaine called for Baird, the rabbit. "Can you throw a couple of 62s or 63s together?" Prefontaine asked. Baird nodded. "Great," said Prefontaine. "Let's see what everybody's got."
Baird gave him a 64.7 first quarter, a 2:07.7 half, and dropped out. By then, Prefontaine's throat was burning from the smoke that hung inside The Forum. "Why don't they give up smoking?" he thought.
With that, he turned his attention to the race. When Baird dropped out, Puttemans took the lead. For one lap. "Too slow," Prefontaine thought in disgust. He burst past the Belgian and quickened the pace. Puttemans and O'Brien hung on for four laps and then began to fall back. Prefontaine turned the mile in 4:14.9.
"Right on the nose," said Bill Dellinger, the assistant track coach at Oregon. "We wanted between 4:13 and 4:15. We didn't figure those other two were in real great shape, and we decided to smoke them quick. If you don't, if you permit a slow pace, then it turns into a half-mile race and anybody can win."
Out on the track, Prefontaine was smoking, adding 10 yards to his lead with each lap. Spurred on by the cheering crowd of 13,000, which was on its feet, Prefontaine went even faster. "Golly," he was thinking, "aren't they beautiful people?" He finished in 8:26.6, half a lap ahead of Puttemans, with O'Brien a stride back in third.
"He sure is a speedy little bug," said O'Brien, sighing, "but I'm not upset at finishing third. I got my hard race, and I didn't get injured. And there were no earthquakes. And nobody stole any money out of my wallet. I just wish I could have met that little bug last year."
"And I wish he'd stop calling me a little bug," said Prefontaine. "But wasn't that a super race? Those fans really turned me on. I just wish they wouldn't smoke. But I'm not castigating them for that. Hey, has anybody got a newspaper? I want to read my horoscope for tomorrow."