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The Unforgettable Steve Prefontaine

“The only good race pace is suicide pace, and today looks like a good day to die.” — Steve Prefontaine

ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” introduced Steve Prefontaine to me on Saturday afternoons of my youth. I’d watch him line up against the best distance runners in the world and he’d slay them one by one in the mile, the 3-mile run, or whatever event he ran.

Heart, determination, and an incredible motor defined him. But he also had an “it” factor that captured people. You were drawn to him.

Prefontaine always grabbed the lead, which was by design. Others had better kicks, so his goal would be to wear the others out so they wouldn’t possibly have enough left to kick at the end.

Indulging myself, I went to You Tube and called up some black-and-white footage of two memorable races — the 1973 LA Times Mile and the 3 Mile at the 1971 U.S. National Championship. Once I began to watch, I remembered seeing these races as a kid. Prefontaine had burned them into my memory for a lifetime.

In the mile, which was run indoors at the Los Angeles Forum, he leads the entire way, though the announcers begin to tout noted miler Marty Liquori’s chances heading into the last two laps. You could understand the analysis. Remember Prefontaine didn’t have a kick; Liquori did. Only Prefontaine finds some untapped reservoir of energy to produce a little kick of his own, running the last quarter in 57.8 to win going away.

Prefontaine’s performance in the 3-mile race was even more compelling. With the competition creeping up behind him heading into the final lap, the gritty runner from Coos Bay, Oregon shifts into high gear. The fans at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon are behind him all the way, “Go Pre! Go Pre!”

Prefontaine did not let them down, running the bell lap in 58 seconds to win with a time of 12:58.

PreRock “Pre’s rock”, a memorial marking the place where Steve Prefontaine died in Eugene, Oregon. (by Cacophony)

Prefontaine tells the announcer afterward: “With people like this, how can you lose?

Sadly, Saturday marks the 40-year anniversary of his death in an auto accident at the age of 24. In a 2013 Orange County Register article, Steve Scott, the former American record holder in the mile, called him “Track’s James Dean.”

Prefontaine was unique.

Among his accomplishments: 15 outdoor American records and he was the first athlete to win an NCAA title in the same event four consecutive years. Pop culture will forever remember him for giving a fledgling Oregon company — co-founded by his Oregon coach Bill Bowerman — a much-needed boost by becoming the first athlete to wear their shoes. Nike has done pretty well since.

Steve Prefontaine. What a joy to watch.

bchastain19@gmail.com

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©2020 by Bill Chastain. Photo credits: Jill Doty Photography