A SHOOTING STAR
“To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” These are the words of Steve (Pre) Prefontaine, written on a giant poster hanging on my wall. Just like a shooting star, his life was brilliant, only to suddenly come crashing down to earth. During a period of seven years, he set every American record in all distances from 2,000 to 10,000 meters.
Pre was born in 1951 in the town of Coos Bay, Oregon. In high school, he was interested in football and basketball but quickly realized his small frame (5’9”) was not suited for these endeavors. One day he saw a few cross-country runners jogging on the football field. He decided to try out for the team and immediately became the number-one runner. Thus, the career of an American icon began.
In his freshman year, he ran a mile in 5:01. As a senior, he has undefeated in the state of Oregon in 1 and 2 miles. Forty colleges tried to recruit him. He selected the U of Oregon to be coached by the legendary Bill Bowerman. During those years, he trained relentlessly and was able to lower his mile time to 3:54.6, just 3.5 seconds off the existing record.
During this period, he was living on food stamps in a trailer and working at a bar. People at Nike, seeing his greatness, agreed to pay him to wear their shoes. He was the first athlete ever endorsed by them. While training, Pre worked hard to overturn regulations that prevented amateur athletes from being paid.
With a uniquely aggressive running style, he always ran from the front and all-out. On one occasion he said, “The best pace is a suicide pace, and today is a good day to die.” Once, after losing a race, he vowed never again, and said, “Somebody may beat me, but they are going to have to bleed to do it.” This ferocious competitor gave advice to a fellow runner: “Your body will tell you it is tired and can’t run any faster. You take charge and tell your body, ’No, I can go faster.’”
Although considered brash and cocky by some, his great charisma attracted a tremendous following at Hayward Field where fans screamed “Pre, Pre, Pre.” Setting his sights on the 1972 Olympics in Munich, he established a record in the 5K at the U.S. trials. Expectations for gold were incredibly high. In the last lap he was in third place and felt sure he could keep that spot. He reminded himself that he came for gold, not bronze, and took the lead. That turned out to be a mistake, and he finished a disappointing fourth. Ready to give up, he had to be reminded that he was the holder of seven US records, made it to the Olympics, finished fourth in the world, and was only 21 years old. With this new perspective, he was ready to fight again.
During the next three years, he trained relentlessly to show the world what he believed he was capable of in the 1976 Olympics. That chance never came. On May 29, 1975, after running a 5K race, he partied with other runners and attempted to drive home at night in his sports car. He lost control, flipped over several times and smashed into a boulder, dying at the scene. One of the greatest runners and one with tremendous potential to become even greater was gone in the blink of an eye. That boulder has a plaque honoring him and is visited to this day by his admirers. The shooting star came to earth at 24, way too early. He had many years ahead of him before he was likely to reach his peak. Distance runners often do so at 29, so he could have improved his records (mile 3:54.6, 5K 13:22.2, 10K 27:43.6) before aging slowed him. He had time to possibly fulfill his dream of a world record and gold at the Olympics.
Movies “Prefontaine,” and “Without limits” as well as the documentary “Fire on the track” were made about his brilliant but brief life. He said “Some people create with words or music or with a brush and paint. I like to make something beautiful when I run.” He showed passion, desire and dedication in everything he did. It has been said that when he talked about running, he made it sound more macho than football and more illuminating than poetry. A Nike engineer put it well when he described Pre as having “honesty, audacity, determination and a singularly awesome ability to push his limits.”
He was once tested and found to have an incredibly high maximum oxygen capacity. This was the GIFT he was given. He accepted this gift and honored it by working relentlessly to improve it so that he could truly give back HIS BEST.