This is Steve Prefontaine running in high school
EDITOR'S NOTE: With the Prefontaine Classic Track Meet May 29th and 30th we thought you'd enjoy reading this article about "Steve Prefontaine and Other Champions" from an issue of Youth Runner Magazine back in 2004. It was written by Geoff Hollister who was the 3rd employee at Nike and a big brother figure to Steve. He was also a mentor and a source of inspiration for me personally and a great friend. It's interesting and fun to read about some of Geoff's first hand experiences with Pre and his view on high school distance running over a decade ago. I'm sure he would be pleased to see some of the great runners on the scene now like Grant Fisher and Matthew Maton. Looking back this was an epic issue of Youth Runner Magazine. We also had Galen Rupp who was a high school senior at the time as Guest Editor. Bob Kennedy and Suzy Hamilton contributed training tips and we had a stellar interview with a great athlete named Ryan Shay. Hope you enjoy!
It was the eyes. As the light-footed Ritzenhein floated by on the first lap of the Spartan Invitational, the face was more impressive than the body. Concentration etched over the forehead and the eyes rolled up with the effort, lost somewhere deep inside. And, it was only the first lap. The hammer was already down. The vision took me back to Corvallis, Oregon. It was the first time I saw Prefontaine, and it stayed with me ever since. The year was 1968, my senior year at Oregon and Steve's senior year at Marshfiield high School. My teammate Tom Morrow and I decided to sit on the back-stretch and call out split times. The crowd was so loud at the start line it was impossible to hear "68!", we'd yell. Again, "68!". It seemed automatic through a mile, then it happened. We called out the split, and Steve's eyes just rolled up into his head. He was flat out and he had half the race to go.
Steve with high school kids | Photo Courtesy of Nike
I can't tell you the time I met Steve, but I never forgot this moment. I ran my first and only NCAA's that year, missing the Olympic Trials by two spots and was immediately shipped off to my assignment, the U.S. Navy Fleet Oiler Guadalupe. It was Vietnam time, with my diploma came my commission, and I'd spend the next three years as a navigator in the South Pacific, rarely running a step.
I returned to Eugene in the summer of 1971 to manage the little Blue Ribbon Sports store I started in my hometown of Eugene during my senior year. I traveled to all the track meets, visited the schools, sold out of the trunk of my car, a '63 supercharged Studebaker Avanti, and actually was getting fit again logging miles with teams around the state. The fact that I ran for Bill Bowerman opened doors.
Now Bill had been selected Head Olympic Coach for the 1972 team, and young Steve had become "Pre", the man. It still escpaes my memory, where we first met, but I will never forget the next experience. It could have been just yesterday. I was getting fit enough that I entered the Twilight Mile at Hayward Field. Bowerman had been experimenting with a wild idea. At first, it didn't work - a fluffy, pillowy piece of tan urethane glued to the bottom of running flats. They had unusual nubs sticking out, and after teammate Kenny Moore and I ran out Bill's gravel driveway and back for five minutes, the nubs were gone.
Steve with his Dad on the way to the State Meet. | Photo Courtesy of Nike
Unperturbed, Bowerman took them back, and a few weeks later had another pair with a new material. As strange as they looked, they felt great. The idea would become known as the waffle. Kenny and I decided that we'd race the mile in them. Sitting in the "bullpen" on the grass infield I laced up my new shoes next to Pre, my father walked up and said, "Hey Steve, you ought to try those waffle shoes Geoff''s wearing - he thinks they're great!"
Steve looked up with an expression that left me wanting to crawl behind the grandstands. "When you're going to run the last lap in 57 seconds, you have to have spikes on your feet!," he growled. I was paralyzed. I couldn't move. He just told me what he was going to do. "I'm nowhere close to that!" Then he went out and did it.
It was a pivotal moment. My competitive days were over, I was going to focus my efforts and do whatever I could to help this guy. Little did I know what I was getting myseslf into. What I collided with that day on the infield of Hayward Field was what countless others would experience. It was a level of intensity and focus that few of us shared.
Nike's first employee, Jeff Johnson, who shot a number of Prefontaine photos had this insight, "You know when we were in the stands, and Pre was down there on the track, he represented what we could be if only we were willing to work that hard." So where did it come from? You can start with Steve's parents, Ray and Elfriede. Steve inherited his father's sense of humor, the smile and the wink. But Ray was also a hard working carpenter that was proud of his craft and the finished product. He believed in doing it right - no short cuts. Elfriede's energy and intensity never slows for a second, even in a casual conversation in her living room. She presses constantly, never letting up.
Steve grew up with this only two blocks from the high school track where he could unleash the steam inside. It's the same track where a classmate unknowingly drove his Mustang over the cross country course. He saw the pack on the other side of the track, but Pre was so far ahead. He was out of sight. It was too late, and perhaps out of anger, Steve ran right over the hood of the Mustand with his spikes.
Bowerman and Bill Dellinger would form the coaching team that would take Steve to his world class level. I didn't realize until I produced the Prefontaine documentary, that he had a similar coaching team at Marshfield. Head coach, Walt McClure got most of the credit. A former Bowerman half-miler, he also was that father figure, having met Steve in Cub Scouts when his own son participated. Steve was competitive then. Many of the workouts were written and the stopwatch held however by Phil Pursian, a young coach that could share the load of reigning in what Bowerman would later refer to as "a Rube and a Stallion." In both cases, Bowerman and McClure would serve as mentor for a growing Steve, while Dellinger and Pursian absorbed themselves with training details. In both cases, Steve received their full attention.
Steve with Coach Bowerman | Photo Courtesy of Nike
Steve always seemed drived to "be somebody," and if you grew up in Coos Bay at that time, the timber industry and options were dwindling. Steve often said, "Without running, I would have become something else. I almost did." Size played a part. It narrows the playing field. Marshfield's seven-foot Mel Counts would play in the NBA and they annually reproduced a state powerhouse in football. Steve tried both and was always stuck on the bench. I understood. If you are skinny and unpopular in high school, you've got a chance trying out for the cross country team.
And that's what Steve did, with his old Scout Master as head coach. He not only talked about goals, he wrote them down. It was a secret he was willing to share with those who followed him. "Write them down, then commit yourself to them," he'd say to attentive high school runners in places as far apart as Myrtle Point, Madras and Albany. That's when he pulled out "To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the fit." Pretty prophetic for a 22-year-old who was living and loving life so fully, not knowing that it would come to an end at only 24.
Three schools a day was the norm, and we'd pack the car up after each talk and run. If I did my job, we had fewer shoes to reload at each stop. Ill never forget when the principal at Reedsport on the Oregon coast called, hearing that we were coming to speak to the cross country team. "Would you mind if we had the whole school listen to Steve and move the presentation to the gym?" Steve had bridged the gap in popularizing running - he "was somebody" and seemed to become bigger than life itself.
Steve's goals occasionally got him in trouble. "Ill run the last mile under four minutes" was a boast he would have to back up in the '72 Olympic Final in front of a world television audience. He always sought the next challenge, willing to put himself in the corner and fight his way out. Forget his youth, his inexperience or the competition. This was what he lived for, and yet I wondered if deep down inside he felt he'd finally stepped too far.
But when you saw his image on television, you knew he had his race face on. He was ready for the fight. It would be an unpredictable race, but if not, why run it? Pre's old roommate in the Glenwood trailer park, Pay Tyson, recalls being on the infield at Hayward Field. He would try to engage Steve within minutes of the competition, create some recognition, but Pre's eyes were in another world. When the gun went off, he was somewhere we'd never been.
For those of us who were close to Steve over the last few years of his life, went for runs with him, heard his banter that picked up with the pace, we'd have dreams after he was gone. Mine were always in color, his voice had that slight distinctive lisp, they seemed so real. Sometimes he would just be chugging along, coming around the opposite bend on Fox Hollow, one of his favorite runs not far from my house. It was the same house where he pulled up across the street to my mailbox in a butteerscotch MBC Roadster. It was like the little brother asking for approval. "What do ya think?" As long as I knew Steve, we would always talk sports cars. I'd owned my share. "Don't buy it" was my response. "Ha, I already have" as he dropped in, shut the door and drove off, leaving me standing there shaking my head. "Why'd he ask?"
Both Steve and I had 2 sisters without a brother. I was four years older, I was teaching him to sail, and we both loved architecture and dreamed of converting an old barn into a home some day. As the years passed he enetered my dreams less frequently. Finally in December 1995, I was brining my sailboard down the Washington coast to Astoria at the end of a high pressure system that turned dangerously foul. We had committed and got caught with strong winds and seas and temporarily lost our diesel power. The normal 40 hour trip became four days, and I with my son and on of his friends were considered lost at sea.
We crept slowly at a half knot against winds gusting 87 knots in the early morning to the fuel dock. I called my wife, fell into a deep sleep and was awakened by a rap on the side of the hull by the Coast Guard. I had been dreaming, telling Steve that I would join him on his run. "I'm in a hurry, I have to go now, I can't wait," he said. "No, I'm ready, let's go." and off we went into the sun on a beautiful trail lined on both sides by eucalyptus trees. Then came the rap, and I was wondering, why now? It had been some time since he visited me. It was almost like "You know that corner I used to put myself into? You just did it, and you got yourself out. Now you know what it felt like."
As I have aged and what hair I have left has grayed, Pre remains shockingly young- closer to the high school crowd that still follows him. His posters are displayed in bedrooms, his quotes are on t-shirts, and arguably the best track meet in the country each year bears his name.
But shortly following his death, the collection of U.S. distance runners of his era like Shorter, Rodgers and Ryun began to fall away. There was a transition to Salazar, Chapa, McChesney and a strong Athletics West influence, then came only the occasional sliver of hope with a Kennedy or Goucher. Who knows what happened in the year 2001? high School numbers are up, there is some excellent coaching at selected schools, kids are electronically wired across the country, but the times are getting faster. The lull is over.
Steves "notes and goals" from high school
Some who have been around for awhile, refer to the current high school phenomenon as an "American Running Renaissance," led by Rockford, Michigan's Dathan Ritzenhein and Reston, Virginia's Alan Webb. I had the opportunity to meet Alan two years ago, presenting him with the first Bowerman Award for winning the mile at the Nike Indoor Classic. Our sculptor, Diana Jackson, had just completed the clay maquette from which she would sclae up an appropriately slighty bigger-than-life statue of Bowerman, to be placed outside the building bearing his name at Hayward Field. It would face the track with the signature stopwatch in one hand and 16 mm camera in the other. Bowerman had just passed away three months earlier, and with the maquette not yet cast in bronze, a substitute award for the mile was needed.
On the victory stand, Alan received the best I could do-a framed picture of Bowerman shaking hands with a wide-eyed 19-year old Prefontaine at Hayward Field. Steve had just broked the four-minute - barrier for the first time, and Bill inscribed across the photo, "Congratulations champ. Your first, sub-4--3:57.4," and signed it. A follow-up meeting with Alan came after he won his division at the Great American.
An old friend and Olympic teammate of Pre's had a daughter running that day. When Bowling Green's Olympic gold medalist and former 800m World Record holder Dave Wottle asked, "Is that the kid?" I tracked Alan down so the two could meet and shake hands. It was obvious that Alan did not know who Wottle was. It didn't matter. Greatness of the past touched the future as Alan's father claimed that they wanted to get the sub-4 out of the way during the indoor season. Wottle admired the confidence. So would have Pre.
You could not script what would happen next. Prefontaine Classic Meet Director, Tom Jordan, assembled another loaded Bowerman Mile field, heading by world record holder Hicham El Guerrouj, and invited 18-year-old Alan Webb to join for an attempt at Jim Ryun's national high school record. The response varied. Was it too long a season the kid? It must be too much pressure. He's too inexperienced in an overcrowded field. The first lap silenced the critics, as Webb deftly avoided contact on the first turn, moving out and staying clear, coming through the 200 in last place, but in 28 seconds.
The Bowerman statue was at the end of the second bend, stopwatch in hand. If Alan could have received advice from the old master, it would have been, "Don't win the first lap." Alan was right where he should be, the moves came at the right times to maintain contact with the pack, while going by 2000 Olympian, Jason Pyrah. Then cames the bell, the young man's turnover accelerated through the turn and down the backstretch triggering an explosion of sound from Hayward faithful that had not been heard since the mid-70's. This was the moment we had been waiting for, and one almost lost eye contact with El Guerrouj as he had motored effortlessly to the first sub 3:50 on U.S. soil. Webb closed to what the knowledgeable fans could guess went under Ryun's 3:55.3, but when the incomprehensible 3:53.43 was announced, and Alan's hands went to his upraissed fore-heard, looking up to the sky, the sound had to be heard outside Eugene's boundaries.
Author of this article, Geoff Hollister, with Steve | Photo Courtesy of Nike
After the explosion, you were speechless. But, "The Future" wasn't finished at Hayward Field. The following month, Webb would return with Ritzenhein, who had a great senior year winning Foot Locker, finishing third at the World Juniors, then positng a 13:51 5000m PR at Penn Relays, he came within .7 seconds of Pre's nemesis Gerry Lindgren at the National Championships. Add Ryan Hall who enters Stanford with sub four potential, and despite another fast closing on the stretch by Webb, .8 seconds separated his 5th place finish from standing on top of the victory stand at the USATF Championships in the 1500m.
There's more to come as this class scatters to Colorado, Michigan and Stanford. Young Sophomore Bobby Curtis ran 4:12 indoors this year on a flat track. And what would Pre think? You know, he's over on that back stretch, calling out splits. "60 Bobby! I know you can do it!"
The Author Geoff Hollister was one of the original Nike employees and, as you can tell by this story knew Steve and his family well. During Geoff's 31 year caree at Nike, he spoke to thousands of young athletes at summer running camps, track & cross country meets, and sports banquets. He is not only a walking encyclopedia of Nike's history but also of Track and Field. The "Fire On The Track" documentary of Steve, and numerous other projects are to his credit. If you wondered why the 2003-04 crop of distance runners weren't mentioned in this story, Geoff wrote this for us over two years ago. (that would have been in 2002)He references guys like Bobby Curtis, who is now a freshman at Villanova running under coach Marcus O' Sullivan, along with Dathan Ritzenhein and Allen Webb who are both competing well in XC. Perhaps the most improved athlete Geoff mentioned is Ryan Hall, dropping his 1500 PR to 3:41 before running second to Ritz in the 2003 XC Championships. Rumor has it that he is finally working on his book, which no doubt will be full of other stories like this. Geoff has been a great friend to Youth Runner over the years and we are privileged that he shared his memories with us. Watch for his book--you know it's going to be good.
MORE FROM EDITOR: Geoff actually did go on and write that book. It's called " Out of Nowhere" available at Amazon.
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