The Pre Chronicles — Part 12, The Summer Of ’73

Pre’s reign as the HS Recordholder in the 2M ended after 4 years when Craig Virgin ran 8:41.0. Over his shoulder is fellow Olympian-to-be Matt Centrowitz. (AL MESSERSCHMIDT)

HERE, IN THE 12th chapter of a long multi-part series, is how we reported the career of Steve Prefontaine in our pages after his final outdoor NCAA Championships in June. We have taken the liberty of doing some stylistic updatings to mirror our modern protocol and also added an editorial comment or three.


II June 1973: Virgin Burns 8:41.0, Erases Pre’s Prep Mark
Mt. Prospect, Illinois, June 09—The next Steve Prefontaine may have arrived. His name is Craig Virgin, a 17-year-old star from Lebanon, Illinois. After a stunning 8:42.6 in his State Meet, Virgin vowed to crack Pre’s national record of 8:41.6, and 2 weeks later at the International Prep Invitational he fulfilled his promise by breaking the tape in 8:41.0.

With 8000 screaming fans standing cheering every step of the race with “Go Craig Go!” something that usually happens only in Eugene, Oregon, Virgin cruised through the first mile in 4:19.7, just off his announced goal of 4:19.0. Finishing with a creditable 63.0 last 440 in the 87-degree heat, Virgin clipped 0.6 off Pre’s mark. /Mark Maloney/


II June 1973: AAU 3M
Bakersfield, California, June 16—The 3-milers, from winner Steve Prefontaine down, came to run. And run they did, Pre just missing the national record as 8 of the first 9 finishers tallied lifetime bests.

Pre, such an overwhelming favorite that his only competition was considered to be the clock, was forced to declare himself early. The first 160y was covered at a dogtrot with Pre in the middle of the bunch. But the Oregonian would have none of that nonsense, quickly broke to the front and remained there with a few insignificant exceptions. He covered the first mile in 4:23.1 and picked up the second one to 4:21.0.

A lap later, the real running began as Pre went after Gerry Lindgren’s 8-year-old U.S. Record of 12:53.0—and perhaps even Emiel Puttemans’ world mark of 12:47.8. Working hard, Steve covered the 10th go-round in 62.8, almost 3 seconds faster than his average lap. The 11th was even faster at 61.4 and he took the gun in 11:53.7. A 59 final circuit would give him the American mark but he managed only 59.7 in a remarkably even paced lap (220s in 30.0 and 29.7, last 100 in 13.5). The clocking of 12:53.4 was 0.6 faster than Pre had run (en route to his 13:22.0 Olympic Trials win last year) and puts him No. 6 on the all-time world list.

Pre said he overcame “a very slow first mile. I couldn’t get psyched up for this race. But I wasn’t going to let the same thing happen as in Munich.”

Obviously Pre, whose performance was the classiest of the meet, is ready to take on the sterner competition of Europe. But he did not lack for a challenge here as a surprising Dick Buerkle stayed with him until there was a little more than half-a-mile to go. A Villanova senior 3 years ago, Buerkle was perhaps more notable for his bare head than for his running exploits. Certainly he was a solid performer, placing 3rd in the ’70 NCAA, but his best going into this race was 13:11.0 and that was made earlier this year.

Dick knew something the rest of us didn’t, however, and confessed afterwards he had ambitions as low as 12:50.

Dick Buerkle gave Pre a good run for his money for most of the AAU 3M, in which Pre missed the AR by just 0.4. (DAVE DRENNAN)

From the beginning Buerkle dogged Pre’s fast moving heels. He had run confidently in the trials and was the picture of determination as he pursued his famous opponent. Whenever Pre picked it up, Buerkle picked it up. As the others dropped back it was only Dick who could hang on. Eventually he, too, had to succumb to Prefontaine, losing ground throughout the last 2 laps. But Dick finished well, ducking under 13:00 by 0.2 to tie George Young as the third-fastest American ever. /Bert Nelson/


II June 1973: Super Mile Overshadows Milburn’s Hurdle Record
Eugene, Oregon, June 20—It isn’t often that a World Record takes a back seat to competition in another event, but that’s what happened at the Hayward Field Restoration Meet. Returning to the track he calls “the fastest in the world,” Rod Milburn assuaged his surprise AAU high hurdle defeat by matching his own World Record with a 13.0 clocking, aided by a legal 2.24 breeze…

However, great as Milburn’s race was, the meet-concluding mile—as intended—was the showpiece. Billed as a Dave Wottle/Steve Prefontaine battle, with the possibility of a World Record, the race was just that. Club Northwest’s Gary Atchison was inserted in the field as a rabbit, and he obliged by towing the field through laps of 58 and 1:57. Then Pre took over, leading through the 1320 in 2:56.0, with Wottle a yard behind, and Villanova’s surprising John Hartnett a yard behind him. Wottle hung on Pre’s shoulder until 230 left, then quickly opened an 8–10y bulge.

For Wottle, who once said that he thought his ultimate was somewhere around 3:55, the final time was 3:53.3, a time only Jim Ryun (4 times) and Kip Keino have bettered. “I didn’t even start breathing hard until the last 500y,” commented Wottle. “Even when I broke away the last 220 I didn’t go as fast as I could. I just wanted to get 5 quick yards on Pre and then hold him off. I was never worried that he would catch me.”

Behind Wottle, the amazing Hartnett was sticking with Pre, and up the stretch even looked as if he might catch him at one point. Pre moves into =9th on the all-time world list with his 3:54.6, while Hartnett is suddenly 11th with his 3:54.7. “My legs just didn’t respond,” said Pre. “With a quarter to go I wanted to explode, but I just had no acceleration.”

Seven of the 8 in the race all broke 4:00, all of those getting PRs. For Paul Geis (3:58.0), Canadian Ken Elmer (3:58.5), Jim Johnson (3:58.8) and Scott Daggatt (3:59.8), it was the first sub-4:00 of their careers.


I July 1973: US NOTES
Always eminently quotable, Steve Prefontaine was his usually voluble self at the NCAA: “Sometimes it seems that AAU rules work against runners instead of for them—and you can quote me on that.” His comment was in relation to being reminded that he could get disqualified for pushing and shoving. He had said, “There was a lot of shoving and pushing early in the race [a heat]. I didn’t mind it much. In fact, American runners have to get used to that type of thing if they expect to compete internationally. I even threw a few elbows and gave a few shoves myself.”

Spotted at the AAU: the Go Pre license plate is confronted by the Stop Pre t-shirt. Our photo caption at the time read “To Go Pre or not to Go Pre, that is the question. The identity of the model on the right is being withheld to protect him from angy hordes of Pre’s People.” (STAN PANTOVIC)

What had him angered against the AAU (this time) was the fact that he was having difficulties (since resolved) in getting a permit from the AAU to travel and compete in Europe… No, there’s no truth to the rumor that the NCAA is thinking of changing the name of the 12-lap event to the “Pre-mile” in Steve’s honor.


I July 1973: Meet of Year: Puttemans Drags Pre to US 5000 Mark
Helsinki, Finland, June 27—The “world” was very evident in the annual World Games, with a bevy of competitors from various parts of the globe contributing to the best meet of the season…

Shortly after [a WR steeple of 8:14.0 by Ben Jipcho], the fans were treated to a classy 5000. Pre pushed the pace through the first two kilos, with Olympic champ Lasse Viren close behind and World Record holder Emiel Puttemans running easily in the pack. Pre led a late-race surge, but Puttemans cruised by with a strong last-lap kick, doing the last 200 in 26.0 to finish off a world-leading 13:19.6.

“I didn’t realize that the race was this fast,” said Pre of his American Record 13:22.4 in 2nd. “When he passed me I let him go because I thought I was going to finish 2nd in a 13:30 race. Had I known that the race was this much faster I might have tried harder and I think I could have put up a much better fight. Now I want to stay in Finland and get into shape for some serious races.” /Hakan Nordqvist/

[Ed: Pre won a low-key 13:40.6 race in Oulu, Finland, on July 04.]


II July 1973: U.S. vs West Germany
Munich, Germany, July 11-12—There were surprises galore in the U.S.-West Germany dual, reinstated this year after a 2-year pause, and the best was young Dwight Stones’ 7-6½ (2.30) high jump World Record. Mixed in with the Olympian’s performance were other eyebrow-raisers: wily veteran Harald Norpoth’s stinging surge past Steve Prefontaine…

In the dual with West Germany, Pre once again got the short end of the stick against sit-and-kicker supreme Harald Norpoth. (LOUIS LUCCHESI/MIROIR DE L’ATHLÉTISME)

The hometown fans responded exuberantly the second day to a snappy 5000 chase where veteran Norpoth sped past pacesetter Prefontaine for a surprising 13:20.6–13:23.8 triumph. Norpoth appeared to be finished last summer when a stomach ailment bothered him in the Olympic 5000 final as he struggled home in 6th (13:23.6). The still-undiagnosed stomach problems, plus Norpoth’s age, caused many followers to think the 30-year old veteran might be ready to hang up his spikes.

When Prefontaine, recent U.S. 5000 recordsetter, set off on a challenging pace (2:40.8, 5:21.6, 8:02.6, 10:46.6), Norpoth’s smooth style seemed almost too easy. He was barely breathing hard when he spurted past the mustachioed American and held the advantage over the final furlong to post a national record. That moved him to No. 6 on the all-time world list. Pre was only 1.4 off his U.S. mark. Non scoring Paul Geis, who fell off the pace early, moved to No. 2 on the all-time U.S. list with a surprising 13:29.0.

“With 5 laps remaining, I felt a nervous pain in my stomach,” related the coach from Münster, “then I thought how I should kick short or long. To be cautious, I decided on the short sprint.” If it hadn’t been for those pains, which he felt before the start, Norpoth was hoping for a time around 13:15. His last round was timed in 56.8.

Prefontaine had made some prognostications: “I know that Norpoth will not lead for one inch of the race. But I also know that he can’t win.” But on this coolish, ideal long distance running evening, Steve was handled. A pinched sciatic nerve, which has bothered Prefontaine since the April 27 Twilight Meet, returned to mysteriously haunt the precocious American.

“I ran the first 3000 in 8:02 and I was feeling just great,” explained Pre, who returned home early. “It was at that point that I wanted to bear down and step up the pace but I couldn’t. I wasn’t tired, but I couldn’t go any faster. When the race was over it only took me five minutes or so to recover. Later the coaches told me they could see me start to tighten up. My race in the 5000 is in the last 5 laps, but when I’d start to move that last mile my back would tighten up.” Of his loss to Norpoth, Pre said, “Anybody but him. I’ll be back.” /Michael Gernandt/

[Ed: Before he cut his summer tour short and headed home, Pre had one more European race, going up against Emiel Puttemans in Louvain, with the Belgian claiming a convincing 13:30.6–13:35.2 win.]


II July 1973: To Box 296
I’M A Steve Prefontaine fan, but there are two things I just don’t understand. One, why can’t he win in Europe this summer? And why can’t he learn to bite his tongue and quit making rash predictions?… They have all been running away from him just like they did last summer in the Olympics. I can understand after Munich that he was disillusioned and disappointed and made a lot of remarks that were not too wise.

However, he is doing it again this year and did so on TV when he talked about what he was going to do to Harald Norpoth. We knew the results already, but then CBS didn’t even show us the race, yet they showed a lot of meaningless ones. I’m all for Pre, but if he puts his foot in his mouth, why does CBS have to protect him?
Steve Kroka, Chicago, Illinois.


August 1973: To Box 296
IN A SEMI-RESPONSE to Steve Kroka’s letter about CBS not showing Pre’s race against West Germany, at least he saw the rest of the show! Of the two CBS stations in this area, one doesn’t even carry the show. Instead they carry old movies. The other shows it once every 3 weeks, so they’ll have time for Atlanta Braves baseball, which is about as interesting as a tiddlywinks tournament. So don’t complain. At least you saw it.
Joe Hill, Rock Hill, South Carolina


August 1973: World Scene
“You’ve got to go over there and find out what you’re up against,” a disappointed Steve Prefontaine told the Eugene Register-Guard’s Blaine Newnham after returning from Europe early. “I wasn’t at my best, I wasn’t getting any help from the AAU doctors, so I just packed my bags and came home. I really wanted to run in Russia, but I’m a guy running without any weapons.”

In the 4 weeks Pre was in Europe, he lost 7 of 8 races. “I had to have the experience if I want to be the best. I think it will make me a better runner and a better person.”


Previously in the Pre Chronicles…

Part 1: The High School Years

Part 2: The Frosh Year At Oregon

Part 3: The Soph Year At Oregon

Part 4: The Junior Year At Oregon, XC & Indoors

Part 5: “What I’d Like To Do,” by Kenny Moore

Part 6: The Junior Year At Oregon, Outdoors

Part 7: Summer ’72, The Olympic Campaign

Part 8: Letters To The Editor

Part 9: Senior Year First 3 Months

Part 10: Senior Year, “What’s In Store?”

Part 11: His Senior Outdoor Campaign