The Pre Chronicles — Part 13, The Final XC Races For Oregon

In the third of what would be 5 cover appearances for Pre, he preps for his third NCAA XC win by beating John Ngeno & Danny Murphy at the Pac-8 Championships. (DAVE DRENNAN)

HERE, IN THE 13th chapter of a long multi-part series, is how we reported the wrapup of Steve Prefontaine’s collegiate career, where he used his final season of cross country eligibility after having skipped the ’72 harrier campaign after the Olympics. We have taken the liberty of doing some stylistic updatings to mirror our modern protocol and also added an editorial comment or three.

October 1973: Over Hill, Over Dale…
[XC Report] There have been scattered rumors from the Northwest that Steve Prefontaine has been injured and not training as hard as he used to. We’ve heard those before. You also have to consider that even an unhealthy, out-of-shape Pre is going to be tough to beat in this country, so immense is his talent.

The only indicator to date is a 26–29 victory by Oregon over the Oregon TC. Pre’s 29:44 over the 6.28M route was an easy winner over Knut Kvalheim (30:19) and Paul Geis (30:25), pretty fair talents themselves.

November 1973: Pre Annihilates Classy Record in Rain
Stanford, California, November 10—Steve Prefontaine’s second “running battle” with Washington State’s John Ngeno this overland season indicated two things fairly clearly: Pre is in excellent physical shape heading into his final appearance for Oregon in the NCAA title race; and, it is highly possible his chief opposition may come from Ngeno himself.

The Washington Stater carried the fight to Pre in the Pac-8 Conference test, just as he had done two weeks earlier in the conference Northern Division race, but Pre again emerged the victor after cruising a powerful 28:05.4 over the 6M route. Ngeno and teammate Dan Murphy flowed immediately to the front of the rain-soaked race with Pre right behind; the route over the Stanford Golf Course was a testing distance, with several long hills—which ultimately proved Ngeno’s undoing.

The trio led the race throughout and as Ngeno admitted later “I wanted to wear him down on the hills.” But those sometimes steep inclines got to the Kenyan too; “I hurt my leg lifting weights and then ran on a very cold day soon after,” he explained. “My legs were heavy and hurt going uphill. But the weakness was only in the legs, not here,” Ngeno said, tapping his chest. “My shape is good.”

Despite outsprinting Ngeno by just eight-tenths in the Northern Division, Pre approached this race optimistically. “I didn’t have any pre-race strategy,” Steve said. “He just alternated the pace and I love that kind of race.” Ngeno forged the pace until about the halfway mark, when Pre unsandwiched himself from between the two crimson-clad runners.

It was in the fourth mile—on a downhill flat after the last of the hills—that Pre broke the race wide open. He blasted that stint around 4:20 to open over 75y on Ngeno. In effect, that was the race; Pre had to work on his final sprint but still broke the course mark he shared with Gerry Lindgren by exactly 28 seconds. Ngeno just missed with 28:38 as Murphy also turned in a fine 28:45. Back a ways, Leonard Hill’s storming finish nipped a tight group for 4th.

Just as in the individual race, the team battle went down to the wire between Oregon and Washington State. Oregon got 5 men in the first 11 while Washington State’s fifth man placed 15th and those four slots provided the 4-point difference, 32–36. /Jon Hendershott/

With a mile left in the NCAA Championships, Pre still had Nick Rose for company. (JEFF JOHNSON)

December 1973: NCAA—Pre Gets 3, leads Victorious Oregon
Spokane, Washington, November 19—Pre went for 3 and despite a tough battle from a thorny Rose collected that coveted third triumph.

Steve Prefontaine made his last race for Oregon doubly memorable as he outdueled gritty Nick Rose of Western Kentucky to win his third NCAA cross country title and lead his teammates to the team crown. Pre’s 28:14.8 over the rolling, hilly 6M route edged Rose by 5.2 seconds; Oregon’s 89 points—to secure its second title in 3 years—provided a more comfortable margin over UTEP’s 157 and the 166 of host Washington State. Pre’s victory, combined with wins in ’70 and ’71, makes him only the second collegian ever to win a trio of titles. Gerry Lindgren of Washington State won in ’66, ’67 and ’69.

There really was little doubt Pre was the favorite before the 219 starters in the 35th NCAA title race got away on the route over the Hangman Valley Golf Club course, running in mid-30’s temperatures under blue sky and sometimes into a pesky, chilly wind. True, runners like Villanova’s John Hartnett, Penn’s Dave Merrick, Manhattan’s Mike Keogh and Duke’s Bob Wheeler and Bobbie Perkins weren’t at the starting line. But the competition was there in defender Neil Cusack, ’72 runner-up Doug Brown, plus the likes of Gordon Minty, Craig Virgin, Pat Mandera, Ed Leddy and John Ngeno, all assertive forces during this overland season. Then, of course, there was Rose.

The fine-featured Englishman from Bristol said afterward, “From what I’d read, I thought he would go at 3M, so I decided to go before that to surprise him, make him uneasy. Also, I wanted to show I hadn’t just blown up last year.” Running 2nd midway in the ’72 race, Rose fell and pulled a calf muscle which restricted his ability to lift and he dropped back to 9th.

Rose didn’t hesitate this time, hurrying to the front immediately while Pre stayed back in the sea of humanity that charged after the long-haired, stoop-shouldered Englishman. Minty, on the other hand, was tripped at the start, went down on all fours and got away well behind.

By the first short but steep hill, about a half-mile out, the leading group of Rose pacing Brown, Mandera, Ngeno, Pre and Cusack had already established itself. By the mile mark, passed in around 4:20, this group was well separated from the pack. After another mile (passed unofficially in a clicking 8:58), Rose, Pre and Ngeno waged a 3-way duel with Cusack, Brown and Mandera some 20y back. It took Minty just over 2M to catch up.

By the halfway point, as the runners passed the starting line and started around again, Rose had between 40 and 50y on Pre. Rose appeared to gain ground on the downhill stretches; Pre looked to be running strongly but was Rose too far ahead? It was a 2-man race by then. Ngeno had fallen back (later explaining the cold tightened his chest and arms, making pumping his arms difficult) to be overtaken by Cusack, Minty and NCAA II champ Garry Bentley. Starting to move strongly up on Mandera, Brown and Virgin was UTEP’s Kenyan junior Wilson Waigwa.

Along a series of rolling hills late in the third mile, Pre began to move. Rose led past 4M, but a halfmile later Pre was on his heels. Rose had paid for his bold, brave pacesetting. The two traded strides, while Cusack and Minty formed another duo some 50y back. The surprising Waigwa was alone in 5th. As close as 1000y from the finish, Pre held a precarious lead over Rose. But, as the Englishman later said, “On that last fairway, I felt my chest get tight. The crowd [estimated at 4000] really cheered for Pre and I had to let him go.”

Pre’s margin at the finish appeared to be around 15y, the closest of his 3 wins. Rose ended up besting Minty by just 2 seconds (28:20.0–28:22.0), Cusack was a solitary 4th in 28:28.0 with Waigwa a commendable 5th at 28:32.6. An eyebrow-raiser was Oregon State’s Hailu Ebba who finished ahead of Waigwa—until it was learned he had dropped out with a stitch in the third mile and then jumped back in during the fifth mile just to help Waigwa along (or so Ebba said).

Later, encircled by many youthful admirers, some wearing “Go Pre” t-shirts, Steve said, “Of my three wins, I’d call this the toughest, due to the competition, weather and everything put together. It was a tough course competitively, but not too bad to run. I’ve never seen a guy that far ahead of me in a cross country race. But with a half-mile left. I knew he couldn’t stay with me.” /Jon Hendershott/

December 1973: Pre—“A Great Way to End”

Pre got a post-race hug from coach Bill Dellinger after winning his record-tieing third NCAA title. (JEFF JOHNSON)

Steve Prefontaine tugged a green stocking cap, with “Pre” in yellow script, down around his ears. He was sweaty and hot and a chilly wind blew over the rolling hills and long flats Pre had cruised to score his third college harrier title. But Pre was smiling warmly, in the flush of victory.

His victory in Spokane was his last while wearing the lemon and green of Oregon, but he approached the race with a relaxed frame of mind. “Matter of fact, I had very little psych at all,” he revealed. “I was just very mellow, trying to be loose. Of course, I had some adrenaline flowing, but I was more relaxed than anything else. I think being able to relax comes with maturity. It doesn’t seem to take me as long to get myself ready to compete as it used to. In high school, it took me sometimes 5 days to get ready for a race.

“Hell, before my first NCAA championship [the ’69 harrier race, coincidentally Gerry Lindgren’s third overland win], I was on the toilet for 3 days before. But this one I just took in stride and figured if I ran like I did in the Pac-8 last week and in previous weeks, I could hold my own.”

Still was he worried when Nick Rose opened a gap of some 40y and kept charging? “When someone gets that far ahead of you, you get concerned,” he smiled. “After the first 2M, I was very tired and laboring. I mean you go through the first 2M in 8:58 or so and you’re going to be laboring. Actually, my race is in the last 2M. Up to that point, I felt lousy, but when the fourth mile came around, I was feeling good. But even though I’m a 5–6 mile racer, and not a 1–2 mile racer, when someone gets that far ahead of you, you start to wonder if you can close the gap. But you also realize that he has to come back to you sooner or later. I was confident I could pull him back. And after the fourth mile, I started feeling very relaxed. I wasn’t laboring anymore.”

And now his career at Oregon is over, an illustrious career full of triumph, defeat, success, records, adulation and controversy. “Actually, it’s a funny feeling now to hear about me getting kicked out of the dressing room since I’m graduating and won’t be part of the team anymore,” Pre mused, rubbing his mustache. “But winning like this, my third and the team too, is a great way to end it all.” /Jon Hendershott/

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

Part 12: The Summer Of ’73