Running with Pre: Part 2

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 31, 2019 7:31 PM
Updated: Jun 4, 2019 11:09 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.

Tom Huggins, Steve Prefontaine's former teammate and friend: To beat Pre, you had to beat him up here as well as with your legs. That's a tough thing to do. He was unbelievably tough mentally.

Bob Huggins, former teammate and friend: His coach, I think Walt McClure geared his training to the two mile high school national record and so there was a lot of buzz around when that was gonna happen and where it was gonna happen.

The date was April 25th, 1969 at Corvallis High School.

Tom: They were all pretty close. I remember people talking, maybe they're gonna break 9 minutes today. And that was the goal and I think a couple of them broke 9 minutes, a couple of them I think were right there, but they were about 150 miles behind Pre.

Ron Apling, former teammate and friend: ...And Phil got one arm and I got the other and we had him on our shoulders, and we walked him a little ways so he could catch his breath and recover slightly. And they announced over the PA system that he had broken the national record and it all of a sudden he had all this energy again.

Pre had arrived, he also set the Oregon high school state record at the Coos County meet that same year, and with those time milestones out of the way, he turned his focus to making history.

Jay Farr, former teammate and friend: Our senior year is when you could double at state in the mile and two mile, before that you could only run one or the other.

The ruling came as a result of an outstanding crop of Oregon runners, with a little help from Walt McClure. 

Phil Pursian, Steve Prefontaine's former high school coach: It was never called that but in reality it was Prefontaine ruling. McClure was on the state board, and he went to the meeting in the middle of the winter and he says 'guys, I got one that can run all day and all night and he can double. There's no reason in the world that he can't'. And I think he had some, obviously he had some backing from (Bill) Bowerman and (Bill) Dellinger.

And at the state meet, Pre did it again.

Tom: I took a bunch of my friends there and told them, you're gonna see something special today. They had never heard of him and they couldn't believe him, blew them away. They said 'oh, he's going way too fast, he can't take this pace, all those other guys are running together, they know what they're doing,' I said he knows what he's doing.

Jay:  As we went to the starting line, he was coming back from having finished that race which was a tough race that he'd won. And he said, alright guys, it's up to you. And I've thought about that many times over the 50 years since we graduated from high school.

Ultimately, the team finished third and Steve graduated into the waiting arms of the University of Oregon and Bill Bowerman. And th rest, as they, is the stuff of legend.

'Pre' would go on to be one of the most prolific distance runners to ever race for the University of Oregon. He won three NCAA Cross Country Championships, four NCAA Track Championships (Three in the 3 mile, One in the 5000 m) and set numerous records between the years of 1972 and 1974. IN 1972, he competed at the Munich Olympics, Prefontaine was narrowly held off the podium, finishing fourth after setting an American record at the U.S. Olympic Trials that year. 

In 1975, after winning the 5000 m in an NCAA prep race in Eugene, Prefontaine was involved in a car accident up on Hendricks Park in the early hours of May 29th. The 24 year old was pinned inside the car, and by the time medics arrived, he was pronounced dead. 

Steve Prefontaine lays at rest on a hill overlooking the water in Coos bay. His rock in Eugene is a holy place in the runner's world, but here, he is at peace, in an area surrounded by those who knew him best. When Pre was just a shortening of his last name.

Bob: He was Pre long before he got to Eugene.

Ron: He was just the guy that sat in front of me in Math.

Jay: He'd always ackonowledge anybody he knew from high school or anybody from Marshfield. He never forgot his roots.

Phil: He was standing there on the track and there was a growing line of little kids and young kids, junior high and younger, not high schoolers, coming up to him, with their little pieces of paper or programs, and he stood there and signed those.  And that's who he was.

50 years after his final year donning the colors of his hometown high school, it means something greater. Pre is as much an idea, a mentality, as it is a name.

Chad Scriven, current Marshfield Track & Field Coach: There is a little bit of weight to the job as far as realizing that this is not just your typical head coaching track and field position or being a part of the team. I think for the coaches and staff, it kind of makes it a little more important, I think that we take it on...especially for the head coach...I sometimes think that I'm as much a caretaker as a coach.

But to those in Coos Bay, Pre represents the boy and the man they knew, who ran the track at Marshfield that now bears his name, who walked down 4th street, where murals of him adorn building walls. And where his memory echoes and reverberates still.

Linda Prefontaine, Steve's sister: I think Coos Bay is still proud of, I guess I'll say, their most famous son.

Ron: I think the biggest thing is the example he set to push to do your best that you possibly can, for kids, to do not only in sports, for the rest of their life.

Linda: It does something to them and seeing where this humongous legacy came from this little teeny, out of the way, beautiful place called Coos Bay, Oregon and I think it makes them realize, I can do this too, look at what he did too.

Steve Prefontaine would be turning 68 this year, and despite the tragic nature of his passing , he continues to inspire as the rebellious collegian with long flowing hair and the trademark mustache or the fresh faced small town Coos Bay kid, leading from the front. Even long departed, his meory, the manifestation of the runners spriit is never truly gone. And here, where the Pacific meets the Douglas Firs and the dunes along with them create the perfect runners paradise, Pre is home.

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