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Heaven Sent Nearly 30 years after Steve Prefontaine's death, his gritty spirit still inspires runners, especially at the Pre Classic in Eugene

June 21, 2004
June 21, 2004

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June 21, 2004

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Heaven Sent Nearly 30 years after Steve Prefontaine's death, his gritty spirit still inspires runners, especially at the Pre Classic in Eugene

Steve prefontaine's first coach at the University of Oregon,
Bill Bowerman, was of pioneer stock. Bowerman's grandmother
traveled the Oregon Trail (in utero) in 1845. "The cowards
never started, and the weak died along the way," Bowerman would
crow, summing up the great winnowing. "That just leaves us,
doesn't it?" Oregon--dreamed up, claimed and settled by the
stubborn--would always honor tenacity. ¶ Pre was hardly
Bowerman's first champion. Oak-hearted Bill Dellinger was,
winning the 1954 NCAA mile and the '64 Olympic bronze at 5,000
meters. Then came Olympians Jim Bailey, Otis Davis, Jim Grelle,
Dyrol Burleson, Wade Bell, Arne Kvalheim, even Kenny Moore. It
took that tradition to lure Prefontaine 109 miles from his home
in Coos Bay to Eugene in '69.

This is an article from the June 21, 2004 issue Original Layout

Oregon loved Pre's front-running battles against the clock
because Oregonians' labor, in the woods and mills with huge logs
and screaming saws, was so hard it could only be done with skill
and endurance. The Hayward Field crowd didn't just see a chesty,
beetle-browed kid driving into the turns. They saw work being
done that they knew was hard unto impossible, difficult unto
death.

During one 10,000 meters in rain and wind in 1974, Pre really
seemed to be running into oblivion, his eyes rolled back, his
mouth agape, moaning down every backstretch. Yet when the crowd
came up and howled, he showed that he heard. That was his
difference. The rest of us heard, of course, but we didn't show
it the way he did. We tried to lift a grateful arm afterward, but
he cocked his head then, surged for the fans then, and they
thundered all the more. He won them by stripping himself naked,
absolutely unembarrassed at revealing his need and his agony. He
ran an American-record 27:43.6 that day. (When he died, at age 24
in 1975, he held all seven U.S. marks from 2,000 to 10,000
meters.)

To understand Pre you had to read Sometimes a Great Notion, Ken
Kesey's masterpiece, set in the coastal logging towns of Pre's
youth. This is Kesey's paean to the inner worth of a man: "For
there is always a sanctuary more, a door that can never be
forced, whatever the force, a last inviolable stronghold that can
never be taken, whatever the attack; your vote can be taken, your
name, your innards, even your life, but that last stronghold can
only be surrendered. And to surrender it for any reason other
than love is to surrender love."

You think that's not distance running? You think that wasn't Pre?
Prefontaine loved rough, lascivious talk ("Envision a satyr,"
Frank Shorter once said) and was quick to whine about injustice,
but nothing was more obscene for him than surrender. He ran hard,
he castigated those who didn't, and yet he loved the girls, loved
the rush of life, loved kids, loved love. His morning 10-miler,
he said, was to keep him from getting fat on the pizza and beer
of the night before. He swore that if he didn't run, he'd gain
four pounds a day, indefinitely. He was all appetite and power.
His heaving chest in a race could seem luridly sensual. He had
bellows for lungs, blasting his furnace with 84.4 ml/kg/minute of
oxygen, the highest VO2 max reading ever recorded in a runner.
Air for the burning.

You can't think of that chest without thinking of the accident,
of Pre in his last battle, his convertible having rolled that May
night in 1975 and come to rest on that great chest. He had not
broken a bone. It was simply the weight of his beloved
butterscotch MG pressing the life out of him.

Pre had to have left this world with a fine regard for its
absurdities, one being that he was dying on a road he loved to
run, on a hill where he made others suffer. He would have choked
at the idea of his becoming our passion figure, one who suffered
for us, whom we remember by doing the same. But runners from all
over the world, from kids to masters to Olympians, still bring
their race numbers and medals to the little memorial on Skyline
Drive, the black basalt rock marking where he died. They leave
them--offerings to the spirit of going all out--beside the
monument put up by the prison running club he began.

And every year at this time when he left us, when the roses and
peonies are most potent, when the rhododendrons in Hendricks Park
bend under tons of wet, pink blossoms, we have Pre's track meet.
This is his time, blending the two opposites that met in him, the
voluptuary and the ascetic.

Pre's biographer, Tom Jordan, has been the Prefontaine Classic
meet director for 20 of its 30 years. "The first time I saw him
at Hayward was the 1971 AAU three-mile," says Jordan. "He came
onto the field just to warm up and got an ovation. I got chills."

Jordan's most vivid memories of Hayward Field all involve the
thundering crowd. "But the loudest, the loudest I've ever heard
it," says Jordan, "was in 2001, beginning in the first turn of
the last lap of the mile." World-record holder Hicham El Guerrouj
of Morocco had the lead and was on his way to breaking 3:50. But
the knowing crowd, Bowerman's crowd, Pre's crowd, was watching a
Virginia high school kid, Alan Webb, back in eighth place, moving
out and beginning to pass. Webb took NCAA champion Bryan
Berryhill on the turn, then Adil Kaouch of Morocco and Raymond
Yator of Kenya on the backstretch. By then the sound was of such
an order that stadium announcer Scott Davis, realizing that he
couldn't be heard, turned off the mike and willed the 18-year-old
on.

Webb hit the homestretch in fourth, with only El Guerrouj,
Olympic 1,500-meter bronze medalist Bernard Lagat of Kenya and
3:51 miler Kevin Sullivan of Canada ahead of him. It seemed for
an instant that Webb could make it to second, and the force of
the crowd was such that his ears would still be ringing that
evening, but he was perfectly spent. Kaouch leaned past Webb to
retake fourth. Webb crossed the line exactly as Pre tried to,
barely able to stand. And he crossed it having ripped almost two
seconds from Jim Ryun's 36-year-old high school mile record of
3:55.3. Webb had run 3:53.43. El Guerrouj, who'd won in 3:49.92,
pinched Webb's ear to get his attention, and they took a victory
lap together, and the crowd wept and sang out that it wouldn't be
long before the kid came back and won.

And why was that exactly? Why did Pre's crowd scream most for a
kid who finished fifth rather than for a champion? Because they
wanted him back. They wanted another Pre. They wanted a young
American runner to hang with the Africans, and they had just seen
one who could do it. Ever since, they have been calling to Alan
Webb to come back and fulfill the promise of his great run.

As it happens, Webb is about to oblige. Having left the
University of Michigan after injuring his right Achilles tendon,
he is now running well under his high school coach, Scott Raczko.
He won the Home Depot Invitational 1,500 meters last month in
3:35.71, which is the equivalent of a 3:53 mile. On June 8 he
blazed to a 3:32.73 to win a Grand Prix event in the Czech
Republic, setting a personal record in the 1,500 for the fourth
time this season.

Webb will be back on the Hayward Field track at 2:46 p.m. on June
19 for the Bowerman Mile, intent on becoming the first American
in 15 years to crack 3:50. He'll get an ovation for just warming
up. And if he falls short, it will not be for lack of trying. Pre
has seen to that.

This is the 48th in SI's 50th anniversary series on the 50
states. Next week: Mississippi

SI.com
For more about sports in Oregon and the other 49 states, go to
si.com/50.

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES PRE ORDAINED The local legend is still revered in his home state.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY RICH CLARKSON WHIZ KID Though he placed fifth, Webb (28) won the crowd's adulation at the 2001 meet with his high school record mile.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO FLEET FEET Prefontaine once held every U.S. record from 2,000 to 10,000 meters.

"The first time I saw him at Hayward was the 1971 AAU
three-mile," says Jordan, Pre's biographer. "He came onto the
field just to warm up and got an ovation. I got chills."