Remembering running’s biggest legend on the 40th anniversary of his death
This Saturday, May 30, will mark the 40th anniversary of the death of American distance running icon, Steve “Pre” Prefontaine. In the early hours of that day in 1975, Pre’s ‘73 MGB convertible hit a roadside rock embankment on Eugene’s Skyline Drive, flipped, and trapped him underneath. The police report pronounced Pre, who was alone in the car, “dead at the scene.” A few hours beforehand, Pre had won the 5,000 meter race at a track meet at the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field, clocking a time just two seconds shy of his own American record. He was 24 years old.
The enduring nature of Pre’s legacy can be partially attributed to the way he embodied the distance runner who goes for broke, every time. Nowhere is this mentality more evident than in the famous 5,000-meter final of the 1972 Olympics. Taking on the best runners in the world as a twenty-one-year-old college student, Pre repeatedly surged to take the lead during the final three laps of the race–running not to medal, but to win. He looked to be a dead-lock for third with 100 meters left—then totally collapses in the final 10 meters to wind up fourth. This near triumph adds to a feeling that Pre’s career was still on the rise—that he had a lot more to give. At the time of his death, Pre held every American distance running record from 2,000 to 10,000 meters.
Dying young means that you don’t grow old, and it’s hard to overstate how much avoiding the common humiliation of senescence can help make someone a legend. There have been faster American runners over the years, but none of them have come close to achieving Pre’s status in distance running lore.
A few suggestions on how to honor the legend this weekend:
1. Watch the Pre Classic
Pre’s great love, first and foremost, was distance running. The most appropriate way to celebrate his memory may therefore be to watch a few world-class races over the weekend. Even better: check out races on the very track where Pre built his reputation. On Friday and Saturday, Oregon’s Hayward Field will hold the 41st edition of the Prefontaine Classic. Part of the International Association of Athletics Federations’ Diamond League series, this annual track meet is the most competitive event to take place on U.S. soil. Last year, Galen Rupp set an American record in the 10,000 meters at the meet, which is also where he ran his fastest 5,000 back in 2012. Rupp is running the 5,000 again this year, while his training partner and two-time Olympic gold medalist, Mo Farah, is competing in the 10,000 in what looks to be an exceptionally strong field. Check out USATF.tv for live streaming from 7 p.m. PST.
2. Watch Pre Movies
If the idea of watching a 10,000-meter race on the track is more than your attention span can handle, you might want to indulge in a Pre-themed movie marathon instead. It is a testament to Pre’s appeal that he is the subject of not one, but two biopics starring major Hollywood actors. (We’re talking about distance running, after all; not exactly box office gold.) Check out Robert Towne’s 1998 film Without Limits, produced by Tom Cruise and starring Billy Crudup as Pre. If you want to remind yourself of what Jared Leto looked like in 1997, there’s Prefontaine, in which the recent Oscar winner plays the title role. If your tastes skew more towards documentaries than schmaltzy Hollywood fare, your best bet is Fire on the Track: The Steve Prefontaine Story, which came out in 1995 and is available on Youtube.
This may be the perfect weekend for you to set that road race PR, especially if you can find a way to summon some of Prefontaine’s ultra-competitive spirit. “Somebody may beat me, but they are going to have to bleed to do it,” was allegedly one of his favorite lines regarding his racing mentality. Make this your mantra for your next 5K and crush your local rival. It’s late-May and races abound. Find one near you on runningintheusa.com’s ultra useful Race Menu.
4. Plan a Pilgrimage to Eugene/Hayward Field
For those not already going, it may be short notice to attend this year’s Prefontaine Classic. But visiting Hayward Field is a must for any U.S. distance running fan any time of year. Home turf to NCAA track and field powerhouse Oregon since the early 1920s, Hayward Field is as inseparable from the Prefontaine legend as Yankee Stadium is from the story of Babe Ruth. Pre raced here more frequently than anywhere else. No venue has hosted the U.S. Olympic trials as many times, and the IAAF Track and Field World Championships are slated to take place here in 2021. If you’re already in Eugene, you can also go see “Pre’s Rock,” the exact site of that fatal accident 40 years ago. That may sound a little macabre, but over the years the spot has become a shrine for runners, many of whom leave a token of their admiration, like those who visit Jim Morrison’s grave at Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
5. Grow a Moustache
This form of showing tribute may preclude participation from female and prepubescent admirers, but it makes sense given that Prefontaine had one of the best ‘staches of all-time. A regular on those “most iconic moustaches” lists that we never knew we needed until the dawn of the Internet age, Pre’s facial hair has seemingly inspired a new generation of runners.
Bonus: Buy a Graphic Novel
British runner, Michael Crehan, 23, raised about $8,000 on Kickstarter to fund the creation of The Art of Running: The Steve Prefontaine Story. The fully-illustrated novel comes out May 30 for about $15.