"A lot of people run to see who's the fastest. I run to see who has the most guts."
So said Steve Prefontaine, who died in 1975 at the age of 24 when he crashed his sports car into a rock and prematurely ended a running career that saw him set 14 American records, including the high school two-mile mark.
Pre hailed from Coos Bay, trained in the dunes, graduated from Marshfield High in 1969, and ran track for the University of Oregon where he turned running into a combination spectacle of performance art, animal instinct, existential abandon, Zen Buddhism, and rebellion that nobody had ever seen before and would ever see again. Loggers and fishermen used to care if he won. He got a whole state to take up running as exercise.
Pre would party all night and then wake up and win with a hangover. He probably got laid before races. He assuredly did after. He had groupies. He took off at the gun and ran competitors into the ground. People flocked to Hayward Field in Eugene to see him race and he made the city the track and field capital of the United States. He didn't have a corporate sponsor. No sweet deals promoting day-glo colored sports drinks. No one did then. It was the sham era of "amateurism" in world track and field (tennis, too), and it amounted to one of the biggest cultural farces of the 20th century.
Pre won the 5000 meters at the 1972 Olympic Trials, went on to compete at the cursed Munich Games, and later fought to overturn the chattel slavery that was the Amateur Athletic Union's grip on track and field.
As an eight-year-old living in Oregon City in 1972, I was glued to a huge Zenith for the 5000-meter Olympic final. All of Oregon was. I will never forget watching that race, Pre running an uncharacteristic conservative race and getting nipped at the finish line for third place, losing out on the bronze medal. But we all knew he would be back in '76, our bicentennial year, to defeat the blood-doping Finns and the chemically-enhanced East Germans.
That he is an American distance running legend and the most famous Oregon athlete of all time is as certain as a Newtonian law.
That he had an early association with a fledgling shoe company called Nike and that the now-Fortune 500 company looked to the 30th anniversary of his death back in 2005 to sell more shoes was unseemly, but not unexpected.
Remember that print campaign in the fancy capitalist magazines? In the two-page glossy ads, complete with a stunning photograph of Pre crossing the finish line 200 yards ahead of the next closet runner, in the last race of his life, Nike asked two questions: 1) "Where are all the rock star runners?" 2) "Where is the next Pre?"
Here's your answer, Nike: 1) Playing contrived extreme sports and getting tattoos; 2) There will never be another Pre because America's youth simultaneously got fat and lost its hunger, and Nike once thought it could return America to its former long-distance running glory by putting up a bunch of privileged kids in a West Hills mansion pressurized to simulate high altitude. You know, so it gives Americans an edge when they go up against the Kenyans who run barefoot in 100-degree heat and don't rehydrate with day-glo colored sports drinks.
Pre would have blown off the mansion: There wouldn't have been any chicks there and he liked drinking a lot of beer.
I thought about Pre recently, and what he meant to me as an Oregon kid, how today he represents the beautiful antithesis of everything vulgar and gilded in contemporary collegiate and professional sports, when I found myself in Coos Bay with time to live.
There, I suddenly remembered reading something about a Pre museum somewhere in the city. Pre had grown up in the Coos Bay area, came from a logging family, attended Marshfield High, and as a kid trained relentlessly in the sand dunes like no one else had before or ever will again.
Located in a small room on the second floor of the Coos Art Museum, is the Prefontaine Memorial Gallery.
There are photographs, his medals, trophies and awards. There is a Joint Resolution by the Oregon Legislature passed after his death (cosponsored by then-Representative Ted Kulongoski) that reads:
House Concurrent Resolution 11
Whereas Steve Prefontaine died May 30, 1975; and
Whereas Steve Prefontaine was the nation's most outstanding distance runner, holding American records at 3,000 meters, two miles, three miles, 5,000 meters, six miles and 10,000 meters; and
Whereas Steve Prefontaine came out of the Oregon coastal community of Coos Bay where he had been a national high school champion, went to the University of Oregon where he won the NCAA three-mile championship three times and the cross country title four straight years, and went to the 1972 Olympics in Munich where he placed fourth in the 5,000 meters; and
Whereas Steve Prefontaine drew admiration and respect as a sincere, outspoken and indefatigable advocate of a national program to enable amateur athletes to more effectively participate in international competition; and
Whereas Steve Prefontaine served as an inspiration for all those who wish to excel in life; now, therefore,
Be It Resolved by the Legislative Assembly of the State of Oregon:
That the Fifty-eighth Legislative Assembly mourns the death of a truly dedicated runner who brought much to all who were privileged to know him, Steve Prefontaine.
The very best of all things Prefontaine in the museum is a register where visitors to the museum can record what Pre meant to them. It took me 45 minutes to read them all, dating back to the late 1980s.
Who signed in? Entire high school cross-country teams on a pilgrimage. Those who raced against Pre — and lost. His hometown buddies. Loggers. Former lovers. Former Oregon Ducks. Europeans. People who've never ran 100 yards in their life. Oregonians who loved him.
What did they write? How about lines like, "I find Steve's pure focus replenishing..." "Pre, thanks for reminding me why sports matter..." "I liked watching you run..."
Oddly enough, in the museum, I found no framed copy of a poem about Pre by Charles Ghigna that has been widely included in anthologies of sports poems. I tracked down Ghigna and secured his permission to reprint the poem. So here it is, from a poet who competed against Pre and lost:
He wore old Oregon on his chest,
a new mustache on his 24-year-old lip
and a scowl on his brow
that could jump out of his mouth
quicker than that famous final kick.
We all agreed
he could run and run and run
after women and whiskey and ribbons,
a chip off the old lumberjack block.
We in the stands gave our clapped-red hands
to him and his victory laps.
We watched and prayed for his runty form
under suns, gym ceilings and television rooms.
He stood us wild after each mile
witnessing his sudden bursts of speed.
We curse a coffin car we never saw.
But the poem's absence isn't that much of an oversight. There is enough of Pre in the museum to inspire someone, especially Oregonians, for a lifetime. I started crying as I read the register, and when I finished, I knew I had just read one of the most unique and moving testaments to the spirit of an American life that exists in this nation's history... and it is all there for you to read in a Coos Bay museum.
Before I left, I left my message in the register. "Pre, you were a Stone Oregon god!"