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Running with Pre: Part 1

Steve Prefontaine remains a significant figure in Oregon's running history. But his legend truly began to take shape in 50 years ago, in 1969.

Posted: May 30, 2019 5:47 PM
Updated: May 30, 2019 7:13 PM

Coos Bay, Ore. -- On the 50th anniversary of Steve Prefontaine's final high school races, KEZI 9 Sports brings you an oral history on the making of a legend, and "Pre's" senior track season at Marshfield High School.  

Even all these years later the track at Marshfield High School still bears the name of its prodigal son. 

Linda Prefontaine, Steve's sister: This is his home. This is the track he started on it was the track he ended his life on it because this is where we had the funeral.

Steve Prefontaine is many things now. The rebel, the icon, the near mythical figure in the running world. 

Jay Farr, former teammate (Marshfield Class of 1969) and friend of Steve: Steve was special.

Tom Huggins, former teammate (Marshfield Class of 1968) and friend of Steve: He's bigger than life, he's a legend.

1975 marked an end to a chapter in the book of Pre. But six years earlier, his final year in high school, the legend was just starting to be written.

Jay: At that time (1969), Coos Bay was the world's largest lumber shipping port.

Phil Pursian, Steve's former distance running coach. : It was a logging, longshoring, fishing community.

Jay: Labor unions were strong, we had mills along the bay and it was kind of a boom town at that time.

Tom: In Coos Bay you knew almost everybody in town.

Bob Huggins, former teammate (Marshfield class of 1967): And as you can see now, the bay is pretty quiet as far as manufacturing is concerned.

Despite the decades long economic downturn of the area, Coos Bay's workmanlike culture has persisted.

Ron Apling, former teammate (Marshfield class of 1970) and friend of Steve: If you wanted something you have to work hard for it.

Phil: That was the mentality of the community, of the kids and obviously athletics was huge.

Bob: A lot of the kids that were competing in athletics in those days were mill families, fisherman that sort of thing. So they were rough kids...not rough...but hardworking kids.

Jay: If you wanted to be someone who was noted around town, you became an athlete.

The industries and the area inspired many, including a kid growing up on the corner of 9th street and Elrod by the name Steve Prefontaine.

Ron: That environment, hardworking people, I think made for stronger people both physically and mentally.

Phil: The coaching staff at Marshfield was dominated by World War II vets. They were very goal oriented, they were very strict.

Bob: That certainly had an influence on his personality, I'm sure, because that was just the personality of the town.

And it wasn't just the mental environment, the actual physical area of Coos Bay made for a distance runners dream.

Tom: We had hills, we had beach, we had the dunes, we could go up the river and have 80 degrees, we could go to the beach and get 50 degrees and wind. We had all sorts of conditions and that's why it was a great place to train.

Linda: So those things contributed to he mentality that he had. That tough mentality.

Steve's first two years at Marshfield running track and cross country was met with moderate success but even by Coos Bay standards, his work ethic was already becoming legendary.

Ron: It was not a half hearted effort, ever, for him. Even in workouts, we'd be running intervals and he never wanted any of his teammates to finish an interval ahead of him.

Jay: He had a unique DNA and unique community DNA that caused him to want to be the best in the world.

And that energy was channeled into excellence with the help of coaches Walt McClure and Phil Pursian, with some assistance from the University of Oregon.

Jay: I would credit Walt McClure as having really set the basis for Steve's future achievements.

Tom: He ran at the University of Oregon and his father went to the Olympics.

Phil: McClure and Bowerman had a relationship.

Linda: Maybe Bill Bowerman never came to our house but Bill Dellinger did and the Oregon athletes came down to see him.

Tom: We started doing their workouts. The first time we did that, I got sick. I got physically sick and I remember Pre was making fun of me cause I was heaving and after 3 or 4 more 330's, he was heaving.

Jay: Walt was talking to Bowerman when he realized the kind of talent Steve was and the potential Steve had.

Phil: And he looked at me and he said, you know, if that young man doesn't go one and do great things, I will have been the greatest disservice to him.

Jay: And he was concerned about screwing it up, and he didn't screw it up.

Part of the Bowerman program invovled outlining goals and target times, and Steve had big plans for his senior year.

Phil: He was of course 4, 8:40 and 1:52 I think.

Tom: He improved so much between his junior and his senior, it went from 9:17 in the two mile or something to 8:41.

Ron: The workouts we did was the two mile, mile and half mile. And we had a date pace which is what we could run at that time, and a goal pace. And Pre's goal pace was under the two mile record.

Steve had already set the Oregon high school state record for the two mile his junior year, so coming back for his final year at Marshfield, he wanted to prove he was the best in the United States.

Bob: "I think probably his senior year of high school, the mystique was happening at that point."

Linda: "I think when everything really changed was when he set the national high school two mile record and then the phone rang off the hook."

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