A FINAL DRIVE TO THE FINISH

Hours after winning yet another race with a surging kick, distance runner Steve Prefontaine was killed in a car crash. The author, a fellow Olympian, looks back at track's angry man
June 08, 1975

Steve Prefontaine tried to sleep on the plane from San Francisco to Eugene, Ore. a couple of weeks ago, squirming in his seat, closing the window shade with a snap, cracking his head against the fuselage in an apparent try at denting a hollow there. He closed his eyes for perhaps 30 seconds and then he was squirming again. He had not run as well as he had hoped in the two-mile in Modesto the night before, although he had won in 8:36.

"I went through the mile in 4:13," he said, "and then I just didn't seem to want to run very hard any more. I was lethargic. I still am. I feel like quitting training. Maybe I want to devote my energies to something positive, something I can see bearing fruit."

Prefontaine seldom spoke of his motives, and when he did he always included that "maybe"—as if he, like the rest of us, could only observe himself and wonder at this strangely engaging, obstreperous, fidgety creature.

"I talked with a lot of other athletes at Modesto about the AAU's damn moratorium rule," he said. A few days before, the AAU had announced a policy for forcing the country's best trackmen to compete in international meets against the Soviet Union, against Poland and Czechoslovakia, against West Germany and Africa. An athlete who declined a spot on the national team or who did not run in the national AAU meet would be suspended for one year if he or she competed abroad during certain moratorium periods before the AAU championships and the international meets.

"In July there are only about 10 days when the moratorium is not in effect," said Prefontaine. "That screws up my whole competitive schedule."

More to touch off his celebrated fulminations on the subject than for any enlightenment, I asked him blandly what was wrong with competing on the national team against the Russians and others. He looked at me as if I were a traitor to my class.

"Where are the best runners?" he said, coldly. "Emiel Puttemans is Belgian. Brendan Foster is English. Rod Dixon is a Kiwi. Knut and Arne Kvalheim are Norwegians. Lasse Viren is from Finland. Does the AAU have any of them on their wonderful televised schedule? Hell, no. For me, running against the Poles and Czechs would be like running against high school kids. And I hate all this gung-ho, run-for-the-red-white-and-blue attitude that the AAU spouts. If that's important to some people, fine, more power to 'em. But, damn it, I wish they'd leave me alone to do what I want to do—run against the best."

As he spoke, frustration rose in him. He seemed caged, vulnerable. He had organized a month-long visit to the Northwest by eight Finns, and then had experienced a series of withdrawals by athletes and promoters. The crowning blow had been a telegram from Finland saying Viren, the Olympic 5,000- and 10,000-meter champion, who was to race Prefontaine in Eugene, was injured and would not come. "I'm not so competitive as before," Prefontaine said. "It's wearing me down holding this tour together. Maybe the negativism stems from not being able to count on big races. One disappeared with that telegram. With the AAU rule others aren't likely."

In the week leading up to the meet last Thursday night in Eugene, where Prefontaine would go against Frank Shorter at 5,000 meters, I happened to talk with several men who knew Prefontaine well. Jon Anderson, an Olympian and the 1973 Boston Marathon champion, said, "He's not like other distance runners. He's not quiet, not introspective. He can't relax. A 15-mile run in the woods makes me kind of mellow and satisfied. All it does for Pre is make him mad. Most distance runners find expression in easy running; we take comfort in that kind of personal experience. Pre's kind of running is always hard and straining and fierce."

Anderson felt Prefontaine could not be understood without reference to the demanding, elemental life of Coos Bay, Ore., the logging and shipping town where he grew up. There are codes there governing social acceptance among the stevedores and lumbermen, and chief among these is success at sport. It took Prefontaine a while to gain that acceptance. When he first went to grade school he knew more German than English because his mother spoke German at home. He was taunted for his backwardness. He once said, "Kids made fun of me because I was a slow learner, because I was hyperactive, because of a lot of things." Then, in junior high school, he discovered that he could run well; all it took was being able to stand the discomfort of effort. The need to measure up, as demanded by Coos Bay, turned into a need to surpass. "Running gave me confidence," he said.

A long-abused ego burst out in a cockiness that was usually forgiven because boasts of what he could do were followed by proof. He set a national high school record of 8:41.5 for two miles, and at the University of Oregon he won four NCAA three-mile championships and three cross-country titles. He ran the mile in 3:54.6. He held U.S. records at 2,000 meters (5:01.4), 3,000 meters (7:42.6), two miles (8:18.4), three miles (12:51.4), 5,000 meters (13:22.2), six miles (26:51.4), 10,000 meters (27:43.6).

Yet he had not won when it meant most to him. In the 1972 Olympic 5,000, he ran his last mile in about 4:04, but Viren, the winner, did 4:01.2, and Mohamed Gammoudi, who was second, did 4:03. Prefontaine, staggering at the finish, was passed a few yards before the line by Ian Stewart to lose the third-place medal, too. Last year he set three American records in Europe, all in losing races to Knut Kvalheim and Rod Dixon. "When he's in a race with someone who is capable of beating him," said Anderson, "I think his thoughts, or the kind of man he is, make him press too hard."

Given the kind of man, the defeats were met by increased resolve. Early this year he was offered the largest contract in the short history of the professional track circuit, $200,000. He turned it down. Until the Europeans were well and honestly thrashed, he said, "What would I do with all that money?" Yet he displayed little of the traditional distance runner's feeling for austerity. "I like to be able to go out to dinner once in a while. I like to be able to drive my MG up the McKenzie River on a weekday afternoon. I like to be able to pay my bills on time." With a sense of humor more lascivious than droll, he relished low tavern life ("Envision a satyr," said Shorter). He delighted in describing the ruinous modes of recreation practiced in Coos Bay establishments. "I know places you better speak low if you've been to college," he would say. "Men will come across the room and cold-deck you if you hold your glass wrong."

Two days before his race with Shorter, Prefontaine ran a brief workout under the eye of Oregon Track Coach Bill Dellinger, himself a three-time Olympian and bronze medalist in the Tokyo 5,000 meters. While he held a watch during Prefontaine's 330-yard interval runs Dellinger said, "That man has something no runner in my time had. We used to warm up out of sight behind the stands, and we would never have considered taking a victory lap. But Pre...he's almost like a movie star in his relationship with the crowd. He thrives on it."

Asked if he considered himself a major influence in Prefontaine's life, Dellinger said, "Well, I render advice. I don't know how often it is taken in areas away from running." Prefontaine finished his last 330 and approached us, sweaty, his barrel chest heaving, displeased with his times.

"Do you have a guru?" I asked. "Is there someone you would go to if you found yourself in a situation you couldn't handle?"

His reply was thrown back, almost defiantly. "I don't have anybody like that," he snapped, and he was jogging off, shaking out his arms.

"I told him that sounding off about how strong he was was a mistake," said Bill Bowerman, Prefontaine's first coach at Oregon and later his Olympic coach. "He runs an American-record 2,000 meters in Coos Bay and Viren cables that he's hurt. If he wants to get those runners over here to his lair, he's got to be more sly." Yet Bowerman had no illusions that Prefontaine could do that, could lie low and wait. "No, that's hard for him," Bowerman said. "He's too outspoken and honest." In the act that meant the most to him, that he defined himself by—driving for the finish in a hard race—it was hopeless to expect him to hold off, to slow down. "He doesn't look beyond races," said Bowerman. "He doesn't look beyond laps."

Frank Shorter had come to Eugene as a favor to Prefontaine. His wisdom teeth had been extracted eight weeks before, and then he had overtrained and had been ill. But with Viren out and the financial success of the meet in doubt, he was needed. Prefontaine had barely clawed past him in the stretch to win a three-mile in Eugene a year earlier—his American record—so Shorter's return attracted a twilight crowd of 8,000.

Before the race Shorter and Prefontaine lay on the grass of the infield. They spoke almost shyly with Erin Forbes, a beautiful, angular 14-year-old from Portland who had recently run an age-record 4:48.6 mile. "I hope she's blessed with nonpushing parents," said Shorter after she had gone, and Prefontaine slapped the ground in agreement. They watched as Gary Barger won the mile in 3:58.8, to become the 16th Oregon trackman to go under four minutes. Prefontaine went over to half-miler Steve Bence, who had fallen in a relay in the Pacific Eight championships and had broken his jaw. Now, with 14 stitches in his chin and his mouth wired shut, Bence faced his last chance to meet the NCAA qualifying standard of 1:49.8. Prefontaine bent close and spoke intensely. "I don't think I could do what you're doing," he said. "So why don't you make it worthwhile?" Bence nodded, silent, and Prefontaine withdrew to watch. With 220 yards to go, Bence had a chance but could not kick. Prefontaine turned away.

For three laps of the 5,000, Shorter and Prefontaine ran behind Paul Geis, who earlier had won the two-mile; Shorter led at the mile in 4:17. Prefontaine took over the lead at six laps, Shorter floating at his shoulder, the rest of the field far back. Shorter looked tight, apprehensive. At 2¼ miles, Prefontaine shot ahead and churned successive laps of 63, 64 and 63 seconds, running away with the race, running through the rising shouts of his people, his head cocked to the right, his brow tightly knitted. This was where he lived, and those long searing drives never failed to be compelling. Into the last straightaway he closed his eyes and swung out from the curb slightly; he ran 50 yards with his eyes shut, squeezing away the suffering. He finished in 13:23.8, only 1.6 seconds slower than his best, and as he touched the tape he glanced back at his distant rivals. Soon the crowd was flowing out around him, small boys waving programs, beaming matrons, girls in halter tops.

That evening there was a party at the home of Geoff Hollister, Prefontaine's associate in an athletic shoe company. All the Finnish athletes were there, along with many of the families who had housed them. Prefontaine's parents and his high school coach were there. As the beer flowed and sandwiches circulated, there was much talk of Pre going to Helsinki, of his hospitality being returned, and much discussion of the AAU rule. Jon Anderson tried calmly to analyze the difficulty of explaining to the layman why athletes become so enraged at the AAU. "There is such a gulf between us and all those thousands of people who would give their right arms to wear "USA" on their chest...."

Prefontaine broke in. "Where is the talent that I competed with when I started in 1969?" he cried, seizing on the first injustice that came to mind. "The shortage is of guys who are out of school and can still figure ways to train and find competition. I'm 24 years old and Frank is 27, and we're veterans. That's the shame. That's what's wrong with the American system."

I found myself with Raymond Prefontaine, who seemed daunted by his son's ferocity. We talked instead about the Dungeness crabbing in Coos Bay, he carefully explaining where good catches were being made. Steve leaned near and confided to me that he had never been crabbing. "I've never been fishing, either," he added, "but for God's sake don't tell anybody that."

Poor revelers, my wife and I left the party at 11. Frank Shorter, who was staying with us, said Prefontaine would drive him home later, and he did at about 12:30. They sat in Prefontaine's MG on the road above our house and confirmed a date for the three of us to run an easy 10 miles in the morning. Shorter, an attorney now, promised to brief Prefontaine on the legal challenges that might be brought against the AAU's restrictions on free international racing. "Yeah, well, let's go over that tomorrow, when our heads are clear," said Prefontaine and he drove off down the hill.

In the morning the phone rang, waking me, and I learned he was dead. I told Frank. At eight o'clock, the day was still, full of sun and birdsong. From the radio we learned that the accident had happened only a few hundred yards from our house, and we knew Frank had been the last to see him. After a few minutes we walked down a path through a neighbor's yard to the road below. The ashes of flares were scattered in the road. On one side, beneath an outcropping of black basalt, there was broken glass and twisted metal strewn among the poison oak. There was blood on the street, a street he had run at least three times a week for six years.

We saw the accident report, which said he was dead at the scene, his chest and stomach crushed under the weight of the overturned car. His blood alcohol content had been found to be .16 percent, a level presumed to significantly impair driving. We always knew that the important thing about his life, that which let him perform as he did, was his prodigious honesty. Because he had never been hypocritical about his use of alchohol, the manner of his death could not diminish that honesty.

Later, after we had spoken to the news people, Frank and I ran. I believe it was a sort of observation of ritual, something that had to be done. We could not have run a step anywhere that Prefontaine had not run. As it happened, we ran softly through the woods skirting Eugene, looking up at the rugged ground under the Bonneville power lines where he did winter training. After we finished a five-mile loop, we kept on, crossing the river over a footbridge where I had once seen Prefontaine crouched behind a tripod and movie camera, waving at a tired runner to sprint toward him out of the cottonwoods, yelling, "Do I have to do everything myself?"

We avoided the road of the accident, coming up the hill to my house another way, a hard climb, feeling the effort, accepting it as the only link left with what Prefontaine had felt and accepted better than any of us.

PHOTOAs Prefontaine reaches his last tape, he looks over his shoulder at his distant rivals. PHOTOThis 1970 photo of Prefontaine, then 19 and a freshman, ran on Sports Illustrated's cover. PHOTOKenny Moore (left) and Frank Shorter (center) talked with Prefontaine at the meet in Eugene shortly before his death.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)