Steve Prefontaine

Class of 1969

Steve Prefontaine

When high school boys get into distance running and begin to learn about the great accomplishments of their predecessors, they naturally are impressed by the performances of legends like Jim Ryun and Gerry Lindgren from more than 50 years ago, as well as those of modern-day greats like Alan Webb.

But invariably, the lion’s share of hungry distance kids discover the legend of the late Steve Prefontaine and, as they learn his story, are drawn to Pre’s gutsy, take-no-prisoners competitive spirit. From his ascension as a prep, to his wildly successful days at U. of Oregon, to his short-lived elite career – both spectacular and bittersweet – Pre’s accomplishments and attitude were and still are magnetic. He was especially beloved at Hayward Field, his home track, but far beyond as well. When he passed in 1975 in a tragic auto accident, he was memorialized with the launching of Prefontaine Classic – an IAAF Diamond League meet and one of the world’s best – and not just one, but two Hollywood movies.

It all started in Coos Bay, Ore. though, at Marshfield High School where Pre trained under Coach Walt McClure. After failing to advance to the state track meet his 10th-grade year in 1967, though, Coach McClure implored Pre to put in the extra work during the summer. The rising junior did just that, his motivation and confidence growing, and by the fall he was a new runner. No one in Oregon could beat him and he was the undefeated state champ.

It was more of the same in the spring; Pre set his first state record with a 9:01.3 2-mile at the Corvallis Invite and then at state he was nearly as fast with 9:02.7. Now regarded as one of the nation’s best, as well, Pre went unbeaten again in fall XC in ’68, then set his sights on the 2-mile national prep record. Again at Corvallis, he set a hard, even pace and crossed in 8:41.5 – setting a national standard that would last four years (and 8:07.9 3k en route HSR, lasting 17 years). At state, he doubled the deuce and mile, and then clocked a PR 4:06.0 mile at the prestigious Golden West Invite. After taking 4th in the AAU senior 5,000, was invited to race in a series 5000s in Team USA international duals. His 13:52.8 best was 2nd only to Gerry Lindgren on the all-time prep list.

Now the nation’s most sought-after recruit, he joined Coach Bill Bowerman at Oregon. He would win seven NCAA titles in XC (3) and the 3M/5,000 in track (all 4 years) – the first ever to do so in the latter. In 1972, Pre’s focus was squarely on the Munich Olympics and a gold medal in the 5,000. He ran his usual bold race, start a long kick with a mile to go, but ultimate just missed a medal in 4th.

Pre continued to win and set records – he once held every American record from 2,000 meters to 10,000 meters – until his untimely passing. It’s hard to imagine, however, that the American distance running community will ever forget him and his spirit will surely continue to live on.

Did You Know?

Steve Prefontaine’s life was immortalized in the 1997 film Fire on the Track (starring Jared Leto as Pre) and in 1998 the movie Without Limits (Billy Crudup).