The Pre Chronicles — Part 14, The ’74 Indoor Season

HERE, IN THE 14th chapter of a long multi-part series, is how we reported the beginning of Steve Prefontaine’s first full year as a pro (even if nobody was actually called that in those days). We have taken the liberty of doing some stylistic updatings to mirror our modern protocol and also added an editorial comment or three.

In the fourth of what would be 5 T&FN covers for Pre, there was shocking news as he lost to an American for the first time in years. (WALLEY BROWN)

January 1974: World & U.S. Rankings
[Ed: Pre dropped a notch in the World 5000 ratings, earning No. 5. Among Americans he was No. 3 in the 1500 {which would be his highest ever}, earned his third straight No. 1 in the 5000 and his first No. 1 in the 10,000.]

February 1974: Buerkle Stops Pre Streak
College Park, Maryland, January 11 & Uniondale, New York, January 12—Does anybody still think of Dick Buerkle as “That bald guy from Rochester, New York?” Well if you do, forget it.

Only a few years ago that may have been an adequate description but those days are gone forever. Buerkle is now “The Man Who Stopped Pre.” In a 2M race Friday evening at College Park [in the CYO meet], he beat Steve Prefontaine, something no American had accomplished in a race longer than a mile since ’70.

To be sure, it was an early-season indoor invitation race of no special significance to either runner. But it still must have been a disturbing defeat for Pre, who does not enter races with the thought of losing. It also had to be a particularly satisfying achievement for Buerkle. To appreciate why, go back to ’70 when the two first met on the track.

It was the NCAA Championships in Des Moines, the last race of Buerkle’s remarkable college career at Villanova, which he had entered as a 4:28/10:01 prep. In four years, Buerkle emerged steadily from an obscurity. He never had overpowering speed, but was always a consistent competitor and usually ran a well-paced race at or near his potential best at any given time. By his senior year he had become the East’s leading college distance runner winning the lC4A indoor 2M and outdoor 3 & 6.

He chose the 3 at Des Moines and there found himself locked in a duel with the Oregon frosh who had won national fame as a HS recordholder and, after winning the Pac-8 3M, was on his way to greater things. After 2½M the two were even. Then Buerkle tried to force the pace and moved into the lead momentarily. He was quickly overwhelmed by Pre’s superior kick and ended up an honorable but disappointed 3rd.

After leaving Villanova, Buerkle lost some of his incentive to run. He was troubled for a while with shinsplints and found it difficult to mix working and training… In ’73 Buerkle developed the speed to be a sub-4:00 miler and also produced the finest performance of his career. In the AAU 3M, he ran a 12:59.8, placing him in a tie for third on the all-time US list with George Young. But with a half-mile to go in that race he still found Pre forging ahead to win by 50y.

This fall Buerkle returned to his home, upstate New York, and only 6 months after their last encounter on the track. Buerkle found himself again pitted against Prefontaine at College Park. The two had pulled away from the field by the mile-and-a-half mark, with Buerkle having overtaken Pre just after a 4:15 mile split.

Now, with 5 laps to go, Buerkle moved out to lane 2 on the straightaway to let Pre make the expected move to take the lead again—and Pre couldn’t do it. Standing on the sidelines, Marty Liquori shouted, “You’ve got him.” And Buerkle seized the opportunity and moved in for the kill. He poured it on and by the mile-and-three-quarters he had a 20y lead, a gap which he more than doubled by turning in a 58.2 last quarter. His time of 8:26.2 was good for =No. 5 on the all-time world indoor list, and made Buerkle =No. 2 American after Pre. [The next night Buerkle won the New York KC mile in 4:00.3.]

… the star of this interesting and revealing first weekend was Buerkle, who in two tremendous races, established himself as the hottest American distance runner around. If you don’t believe us, just ask that fellow from Coos Bay, Oregon. /Bob Hersh/

In his first race after his surprise loss to Dick Buerkle, Pre lowered his American Record in the 2M to 8:22.2. (DONALD DUKE)

February 1974: Pre Suddenly In Shape With AR 8:22.2
Portland, Oregon, January 26—Can it be true that The People are turning their collective backs on their homegrown hero? Heavens! Not even an American Record 2M by Steve Prefontaine pumped 8121 of his People at the Oregon Invitational to an enthusiastic level.

“Maybe there was an energy crisis,” the talkative Pre said following his 8:22.2 race. “The crowd didn’t put too much energy into the meet this time. It just wasn’t a very good crowd.”

The race was atypical in several ways. Pulled through a good first quarter, the former Duck struck out on the pacing chore alone. After 11 laps he showed a 4:07.0 mile. Then the pace became somewhat erratic, which is unusual for Pre. There was a reason.

“With 4 laps to go, I didn’t know whether there were 3 or 4, and I was lapping people. So I probably lost another second there. The second mile was 4:12.2. I think I could have gotten under 8:20, but that’s the breaks.”

Pre lowered his own US standard, also set in Portland, by 2.4 seconds, and made a good showing despite still not being in top racing form. /Don Jacobs/

I March 1974: Waldrop Beats Pre In A Mile
Inglewood, California, February 8—Tony Waldrop clocked the ninth-fastest indoor mile in history, 3:58.3, to dominate a stellar [LA Times Indoor Games] field in surprisingly easy fashion. Waldrop followed close behind Steve Prefontaine’s well-paced (59.0, 1:59.6, 3:00.3) intermediate quarters, with New Zealand sensation John Walker sandwiched in between. Walker made a brief move with two laps left. But Pre would have none of that and quickly regained the lead.

Waldrop moved on the gun lap and with 100y left moved around the former Oregon ace. Pre, looking a bit tired, drifted out slightly and the two runners bumped but Pre recovered with barely a loss of rhythm. Waldrop recovered even better and quickly jetted to a 10y lead around the final curve and held it in the run for the tape.

Prefontaine finished with a decent-enough 3:59.5, while Walker held off fast-closing Len Hilton, 4:01.0–4:01.4. Walker’s run was nothing short of amazing considering he had run 3:56.0 in a meet in Auckland, New Zealand, the night before, followed by a 15-hour plane flight and little sleep on his way to Los Angeles. /John Wenos/

I March 1974: U.S. SCENE
Steve Prefontaine isn’t too popular with the Philadelphia management. He begged out of his mile commitment there because heavy studies had left him short on conditioning. “We had his signed entry and everything,” said Jumbo Elliott. “I don’t know whether he’s afraid to encounter Dick Buerkle, John Hartnett or Liquori or what. Gee, I always thought he was terrific, the best. This is no way for a champ to act.”

Pre certainly wasn’t afraid of early-season conqueror Buerkle. “I think he shot his wad in one race,” Pre commented after his 8:22.2 record in Portland upon learning that Buerkle had only been 4th the night before in New York.

Pre wrapped up his ’74 indoor campaign with an AR in the 2M, running 8:20.4. Trailing him were Dick Tayler, Chris Stewart & Jim Johnson. (CHIP GANE)

II March 1974: Pre Lowers His 2M AR To 8:20.4
San Diego, California, February 17—…After the Times meet, Steve Prefontaine said he was through with indoor running for the year. But the lure of San Diego’s fast track was too much for him. He had never run on it and he wanted a try.

The crowd was still limp from the mile when the 2-milers were introduced. Could this be a repeat of that great ’71 meet when Ryun ran 3:56.4 for a World Record tie followed by that 8:19.2 2M World Record by Kerry O’Brien? Does lightning strike twice?

Pre took the lead at the start and was followed closely by New Zealand’s Dick Tayler, coming off a 13:08.0 3M two nights before. Steve did all the work in the early stages and set a quick pace with Tayler right at his elbow. They ran this way for the first mile (4:09) and broke away from the field by 40y. Then with 6 laps left, Tayler charged to the fore.

“I realized, by taking the lead so early, it might have cost me the race,” explained the slightly balding Tayler. “But I felt good and I wanted the screaming crowd to see a record. I knew we could do it.”

With 2 laps to go, Pre again surged into the lead and began to sprint. The Kiwi tried to stay with him but the Oregonian’s withering blast scorched Tayler’s kick and the race was over. It was all Prefontaine now, driving to the tape with a great burst, smashing his own U.S. Record with a sparkling 8:20.4, No. 3 on the all-time indoor list. Tayler moved into No. 5 with 8:22.4. En route, Pre passed an American Record at 3000 of 7:50.0 to =No. 6 on the all-time list.

“Tayler helped with the pace,” said Pre, who will now prepare for an extensive European summer of running. “Those people from overseas are much more generous that way, especially when you are going for a record. I wish more Americans were that way. The track felt great, but I didn’t. I think I can lower my time another 10 seconds outdoors. This was the best indoor meet I’ve ever been in.” /Wally Donovan/

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

Part 13: The Final XC Races For Oregon