Todd Williams has decorated his house in Knoxville, Tenn., in Pre. Not pre-colonial, not Pre-Raphaelite, but just plain Pre, as in Steve Prefontaine, the feisty runner who took with him much of the hope for U.S. distance running when he died in a car crash at the age of 24 in 1975. Prefontaine's biography and countless articles about him are scattered throughout Williams's home, and photos of Prefontaine hang on the walls. Even his Lhasa apso is named Pre.
"When I call him, it puts me in the right frame of mind," says Williams. "What I admire most about Pre was his work ethic and the way he ran his races. He was really aggressive and wasn't afraid to take the lead when the pace slowed."
The 24-year-old Williams didn't have to take risks last Saturday when, on a tundralike 10,000-meter course in Missoula, Mont., he beat a strong field to win his second national cross-country title. The day was sullen and cold, the temperature hovered around 11°, and an icy glaze covered the ground. While many competitors ran in tights and veteran Ed Eyestone slathered his legs in olive oil—"Makes me smell like a pizza," he said—Williams used a different trick. "I rubbed Ben-Gay all over my butt," he said, "so I wouldn't feel the cold for the first few miles."
He ran a controlled race, tucking in behind the leaders as first Eyestone and then eight-time winner Pat Porter set the pace. Williams waited until just less than half a mile remained, then bolted to finish 35 meters ahead, in 29:55. "The plan was to stay close to the front and hope my legs didn't freeze off," he mumbled, wrapping himself in a blanket. "Sorry, my mouth is frozen. I can't talk."
That was unusual for a man whose conversation is pointed and purposeful—as is his running. Williams has stripped his professional life down to the single goal of running fast. While watching TV, he drops to the floor almost reflexively to do push-ups. And he sees omens everywhere, even in his coach's phone number, which ends in 2712, an ambitious time for the 10,000, in which the world record is 26:58.38, the U.S. record is 27:20.56 and Williams's personal best is 27:40.37. "I like to have fun, but my life now is pretty much just running," he says. "It's twice a day. You're lifting weights, showering. You've got to set your meals up. You've got to get your rest."
Growing up in Monroe, Mich., Williams was a tough age-group swimmer who took up running as a high school freshman after logging a 4:34 mile without training. He won state high school titles in cross-country, the mile and the two-mile, but at the University of Tennessee, where he enjoyed his nights out. his discipline deserted him for a while. "His claim to fame," recalls one friend, "was winning burping contests." After being lapped by a Kenyan in a race, he got serious again. "I knew then I wanted to be one of the world's best," he says. He now is. On Monday, Williams learned that he currently ranks ninth in the world in the 10,000, the highest ranking at this distance for an American man since 1987. The ranking is due, in part, to Williams's 27:40.37 run in the 10,000 at Oslo's Bislett Games in July and to his seventh-place finish in the 10,000 at the World Championships in August.
Surely Pre would be proud.