Oregon’s Steve Prefontaine remembered through friends and Pre’s Rock

Cover story for the Emerald written about Steve Prefontaine.

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Steve Prefontaine was a hard guy to miss. He could go into any venue and just own the place through his charisma and charm. He was slight of frame, but handsome — and most importantly — he was confident. (Emerald Archives)

 

The path to Pre’s Rock is a twisting maze of narrow roads, short sight lines and abrupt turns. It is also an escape from the noise and clutter of Eugene and the University of Oregon, an oasis of peace up on the hillside near Hendricks Park.

The brush lining the road is thick and overgrown, lush greens only interrupted by splashes of vibrant color where the blooming flowers have broken through. In the distance, one can hear the low grumble of the highway.

Placed in the middle of all of it is a memorial to Steve Prefontaine, the greatest distance runner in Oregon track and field history. Pre’s Rock marks the spot where, 40 years ago, Prefontaine passed away after hitting a wall and flipping his orange 1973 MGB convertible. He was only 24.

The memorial is understated, yet powerful. It features an image of Prefontaine looking off into the distance. Underneath reads:

“For your dedication and loyalty

To your principles and beliefs…

For your love, warmth, and friendship

For your family and friends…

You are missed by so many

And you will never be forgotten…”

Pre’s Rock has served as a mecca for all distance runners who visit Track Town. Running shoes, team shirts, flowers and running bibs adorn it. There are medals and trophies too — one from the 2013 Corvallis Marathon, another an eighth grade running trophy from 1992. Messages were left. One reads: “Keep on going, Pre.” Another: “Thanks for the inspiration to make a comeback.”

Pre grew up in in Coos Bay on the Oregon Coast. He fell in love with running, especially cross country, and quickly began to make a name for himself. His junior year of high school he went undefeated and won the Oregon State Championship. It was during this time that Pat Tyson first met Prefontaine, rooming with him when they were invited to Hayward Field for a meet.

“He had a lot of energy, a lot of excitement,” Tyson said. “Really kind of wild and crazy in a good way.”

With 40 schools across the nation recruiting him, Prefontaine decided to stick with his home state, picking Oregon and its famous coach, Bill Bowerman.

Prefontaine was a hard guy to miss. He could go into any venue and just own the place through his charisma and charm. He was slight of frame, but handsome — and most importantly — he was confident.

“He was a rock star before the term even existed,” said Tom Heinonen, former head coach of Oregon women’s track and field and cross country teams. “No one else had the courage to say what they were going to do in a race before they did it — nobody else would say, ‘I am going for the American record today.’”

Prefontaine was an aggressive front-runner. He would jump out during races and refuse to cede the lead. Like gold medalist Vladimir Kuts, he would attempt to run the opposition into the ground, so that by the end of the race, he was the only one with any energy left.

“His whole thing was to make it come down to a test of who could stand the most pain,” said former teammate and gold medalist thrower Mac Wilkins.

He ran more upright than usual, standing out amongst his competitors. He cared about the fans watching, wanted to put on a show. His style worked, as the titles and records began to pile up. Prefontaine won three NCAA Cross Country Championships and four straight 5,000-meter titles. He set the American record in the 5k at the 1972 Olympic Trials in Eugene when he was 21 — two years younger than anyone else in the field.

“What was cool about running with him in workouts and racing is that without really thinking too much about it, you knew he was the best in America,” Tyson said. “He was a great team leader, a great captain.”

Prefontaine ended his career at Oregon with just three defeats. He owned every American record between 2,000 and 10,000 meters, held eight collegiate records and broke the four-minute mile barrier nine times. His three-mile and six-mile records still stand today.

He competed at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, making it to the 5,000 finals. During the last mile, he took the lead, breaking the slow pace and sprinting out to the front. Unlike times before, he couldn’t hold on, running out of gas with 30 meters left to finish fourth.

Heinonen once ran against Prefontaine in a cross-country race at Lane Community College back in the fall of 1974. Early in the race, Pre took off and the rest let him go.

“A couple of minutes later, we heard this voice yell, ‘Guys look,” Heinonen said. “It was Prefontaine ahead of us with his pants down and he was mooning us while he ran.”

When Prefontaine was a junior, before the Olympic Trials, he was on the Oregon cross country team that finished second in the Pac-8, losing to Washington State. Norv Ritchey, the athletic director, told the team it wasn’t going to the National Championships because it hadn’t won the meet. Instead, they were only going to send Prefontaine, who had finished first individually.

“Pre got in the athletic director’s face and said, ‘If the team doesn’t go, I don’t go,’” Tyson said. “He was able to get six Ducks to fly to Knoxville, Tennessee and run in the NCAA Cross Country Championships.”

Fittingly, Oregon was able to win.

The day after Pre passed away; Tyson was out on his morning run. When he got back, he heard the news.

“I went upstairs, shaved, not believing this really happened,” Tyson said. “I nicked my chin and drew a little blood, which is when I knew I wasn’t dreaming.”

Though he is gone, Prefontaine is not forgotten. Many people attribute a quote to actor James Dean, but it also seems to fit Pre — “Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse.” Three movies have been made about him, multiple books have been written and every year Hayward Field hosts the Prefontaine Classic — a meet that Bowerman had named in Pre’s honor.

“Sometimes you wonder about what would have happened if he had not had that accident,” Wilkins said.

Tyson is currently the director of cross country and the men’s track and field head coach at Gonzaga University. He makes it back to Eugene about once every two months, often staying with his old coach Bill Dellinger. Tyson runs those winding and peaceful roads up by Pre’s Rock, jogging under the trees. When he goes by the memorial, he always makes sure to hold up a peace sign.

“I like to keep him alive,” Tyson said.

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