The Pre Chronicles — Part 16, Pre’s Summer Odyssey

HERE, IN THE 16th chapter of a long multi-part series, is how we reported the disappointing end to Steve Prefontaine’s 1974 campaign, with a major look by Jon Hendershott into what made Pre tick after an ill-advised race at home. 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 fifth and final cover of his career we illustrated an up & down year with a shot from his earlier 6M/10K AR race. (JEFF JOHNSON)

October 1974: The Summer Odyssey Of Steve Prefontaine
Around Eugene, Oregon, it’s known as “Black Tuesday.” The ryegrass farmers north of town burn their fields, both to remove the stubble left over from harvesting and to control disease. Columns of gray-white smoke billow into the sky. The days during the late summer and early fall on which the farmers can burn are rigidly controlled—principally to the days when the wind blows from the south to carry the thick, acrid smoke out into the open country north of town.

This year’s Black Tuesday, September 03, was blacker than usual. The winds weren’t cooperating; what few wisps there were blew from the north, drifting the smoke into Eugene. And it sat, since Eugene is at the southern end of the Willamette Valley and the smoke has no place to go.

And it was hot on this day, too. A temperature inversion locked the clouds in the doldrums. The grayness thickened around Eugene, blotting out the sun and turning the surrounding hills, which can usually be seen as clear as forever, into shapeless smudges. Alerts were broadcast, warning people with respiratory problems to stay inside.

This year’s Black Tuesday was also the day Steve Prefontaine planned to run a sub-4:00 mile.

Pre had been home from Europe for 6 weeks, getting in hard training to prepare for a return trip in early September which would take him, among other places, to Helsinki to meet Lasse Viren & Anders Gärderud and to London to tangle with Brendan Foster. He had already spent a month on the Continent earlier in the summer, setting 3 more American Records which ran his total for the year to 9, indoors and out.

But Pre hadn’t won much the first time around. Oh, he had won some minor 3000m races, but he hadn’t won any of the big races he had wanted to win. Nor had he beaten some of the top runners he had wanted to beat; he hadn’t done it on their terms—at home, in their prime season, over their best distances.

And this is why Pre went to Europe at all in ’74, to beat Europe’s best and anyone else who might be in the race as well. To prove that Steve Prefontaine wasn’t the kind of runner some people believed; one who couldn’t lose in Eugene or win in Europe. To prove that Steve Prefontaine was still one of the world’s best over 5000m. To prove Steve Prefontaine was one of the world’s best, period.

The mile on Black Tuesday was a kind of culmination of Pre’s training for his return—demon training which coach Bill Dellinger said put Pre in “awesome shape, maybe the best he’s ever been in.” The race was virtually a solo run; steepler Mike Manley was the only other runner to run the full distance, while four Oregon runners ran a quarter each to give Pre a fast pace.

It was an unannounced thing, just a test run. But considering this was Eugene, the word got around and about a thousand of Pre’s people showed up to watch. Dellinger wasn’t in town; if he had been he wouldn’t have let Pre run because of the atmospheric conditions. But Pre felt he owed something to those thousand loyalists. Besides, the air wasn’t really that bad. So he ran 3:58.3, not bad for a solo.

But afterward, Pre was doubled over he was coughing so hard. And he was coughing up blood. He didn’t know it then, but his hopes for a triumphant return to Europe had just gone by the boards.

He got to Helsinki, felt lousy in the cold and rain and even worse in the race. But on the last lap he sparked to life, blew by everyone and led into the final stretch. But he eased off for a moment, the others responded and Viren and Gärderud went by. Pre ran 13:27.4 and his good finish overshadowed another feeling: he was stiff and sore in his chest and he couldn’t breathe deeply in a race without a sharp pain stabbing his stomach.

On to London and a 2M with Foster. Pre was right in the middle at the mile but then Foster threw in one of his 60-second laps and he was dead. He couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t accelerate, he could only plod. He stepped off the track with 2 laps left.

A doctor discovered the problem: he had torn muscle fibers under his rib cage, probably from the violent coughing after the Eugene mile. “When I really started breathing hard and getting in oxygen debt and my whole system was really going, it would tighten up so I couldn’t breathe deeply,” Pre explained recently. “I couldn’t feel it when I was just jogging but when I really put the old coals down, it would tighten up and my whole system got off balance. It was like a locomotive that lost a driveshaft.

“It was really discouraging to have to come home like that because I was really ready, in fantastic shape. Bill said I was ready to break the 2M record. I had some super workouts: like a 4:08 mile, a quarter jog and then a 4:02.9 mile, with 660 breakdowns afterward. I mean I was just hummin’ and feeling fantastic.

“Then I ran that mile.

Check out the smokey background as Pre addresses his people after an ill-fated mile in Eugene: little wonder he ended up coughing blood. (ERIK HILL)

“But you learn through experience. I’ll never run a race in conditions like that again. My health is more important than satisfying the people who came out. I think they would have understood if I hadn’t run but my sentiments toward them are very strong and I didn’t want to let them down. So I let myself down instead.”

The entire year has been one of learning for Steve Prefontaine—about himself as a person and as a runner, about the realities of being out of college, working and still trying to train as usual, about not having a regular coach and having to try things for himself.

“It’s been a year of adjustments, of finding myself and playing around to see what I was able to do,” verified Pre, now working in Eugene for Blue Ribbon Sports [aka Nike] as well as trying to get a couple of his own things going, including a bar.

“I’ve lost a lot of things this year, like consistency in training, eating, sleeping and coaching, things I’ve always had previously. I’ve been very busy and so I’ve had to make do with what I could get. I haven’t been serious in two years about running. After Munich I’ve just been going through the motions.”

Yet those motions have netted U.S. bests at 3000m and 2M (twice) indoors, and in order outdoors, the 6M/10,000, 3M, 5000, 3000 and two mile. His 26:51.8/27:43.6 of mid-April have led the world all year; as has his 12:51.4y. And he isn’t serious?

“I was serious but not as serious as in the past,” he clarified. “I’m serious, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it. But I’m not the dedicated runner I was before the Olympics. I don’t have the determination and drive I had then. If it comes and I get in shape, fine. Since the Olympics, I’ve taken it almost day-to-day; if I run, I run. When I do, though, I train hard. Yet I don’t have all those little things to add to the hard training and which all affect it like consistency of training, good eating and sleeping habits, having particular goals in mind. So adding up those little things takes away from the total. I may never be that serious again.”

Even for Montréal?

“I don’t know if Montréal is worth it. That’s a decision I’m going to have to make in the next month or two. I don’t know if I want to make the personal sacrifice. There’s a monetary sacrifice. too. I’m tired of being a poor man, Plus I don’t know if I want to be at a disadvantage. There’s no way I can be as prepared as the Europeans: my government isn’t taking care of me. I can’t go train in South America during the winter to get in all that hard mileage. I have to do what I can in the rain. So what do you do? You take your chances but you won’t be as ready as they are; maybe as ready mentally but not physically.

“So I don’t know how much longer I’ll be running. It depends on a lot of things. I have been offered a very nice contract by [the pro group] ITA, so I have some decisions to make.”

Yet, underlying all his talk about hanging it up or turning pro, there is a sense that Pre still wants to prove to people he is one of the world’s best. He purposely limited his U.S. season to a few meets in order to be at his peak readiness for his summer odyssey to Europe. He competed sparingly indoors, racing himself into shape, something he had never done before. Then in the spring he poured on the mileage and emerged outdoors in superb 10,000m shape.

“Hell, I didn’t do any speedwork,” he admitted. “I only ran one outdoor mile before that 3:58.3. That hurt me because until I can run a good mile my 5000 times won’t come down. I could run a 10,000 pace all day but when I wanted to run a fast 5000 it just wasn’t there. I ran the 12:51.4 ten pounds overweight; it was a matter of strength rather than speed.

“I was very pleased with the 6M/10,000 race. It was a solo. I think if I’m still running in future years that will be my direction. Sure I’ve thought about moving up but I don’t want to run many of ’em. It’s a good race but it’s so damn long. I still haven’t accustomed myself mentally to running 25 laps. Even though my 5000 times haven’t come down drastically in the last few years, I still think I’m capable of running fast in it. I think I could have run 13:15 this year; that 13:27 in the cold at Helsinki is probably worth 10 seconds faster. I was really ready but didn’t get the breaks. That’s life and track though; you work hard for just a few chances.”

He went to Europe to beat people—“which I didn’t quite do”—and to run good times—“which I think I did consistently. I may not win but whoever is running against me is going to have to really run to beat me.”

He knows he went to Europe with great expectations and in great shape, but great shape for a 10,000. He didn’t have the preparation to run the faster, shorter races. But he was going to damn well try.

“I think running down Frank Shorter in the 3 at Eugene gave me a false impression of how ready I was,” Pre admitted. “I wasn’t that ready but I still felt fantastic. When he passed me I was in a daze and it wasn’t until about 280 left that I thought, ‘Shee-it, if I don’t get going I’m gonna lose!’ The next thing I remember is starting to lift with about 180 to go and catching Frank within 15y—and he wasn’t slowing down either. But now I know it was the strength that enabled me to do that.”

In his first European race, an American Record 5000 of 13:22.4 in Helsinki, Pre himself was run down by former Oregon teammate Knut Kvalheim. “I was tired,” Steve said. “I wasn’t competitive. We were neck and neck with 50y left but suddenly I thought, ‘Oh, hell I don’t want this bad enough. I don’t care. Take it.’ In ’72 I would have gone down to the wire with him.

“Actually I was very pleased overall with my trips. I know if I had had a little more preparation I would have done much better. I was as ready as I could be under the circumstances. I wasn’t ready to run those fast times so I should have run the 10,000. But I thought I could run a good 5000 and I wanted to meet the best guys at their distance.

“So I had a lot of disappointments and some success this year. People have said I’ve had success and others have said I’ve lost a lot. It’s been a building year, an educational year and it will help me make decisions for the future.”

He has heard, and thought about, the criticism that he is a homer; that he is a lion in Eugene and a lamb in Europe.

“I think I’m unbeatable in the U.S.,” he replied. “I’ve lost to one American indoors or out at anything over a mile since ’70; that was Dick Buerkle last winter. I may not be the best in the world, but who holds all the U.S. bests?

“To some extent what some critics have said is true—but everybody’s tougher at home. At Eugene I’m the toughest I’ll ever be, but it’s an adjustment in Europe. It’s true, I’m not as tough over there. I want to bring some top Europeans to Eugene and then we all could see how tough I could be.”

How tough a runner, in fact, is Steve Prefontaine?

“When he’s ready, very tough. When he’s not ready, not very,” he chuckled. “Well tougher than the average anytime. It’s just a matter of priorities, how tough you want to be. The toughness comes from my training and with the proper training I’m very tough, at home or away from home. My toughness is in my ability, when I want to win, to go out and do it. But right now I’m evaluating how much I want it.

“Actually I ultimately would like to retire and be able to say I accomplished the things I wanted. I really don’t know what those things are yet; maybe when I’ve achieved them, I’ll know. I might wake up some day and say, ‘That’s enough, I’ve done what I wanted to do.’ Planning and setting goals puts a lot of pressure on you, so I’d just as soon not plan right now.

“I do know that if I’m still an amateur in coming seasons, the races I run will be planned races. For me to run someplace, someone will have to extend a very excellent invitation. If somebody wants me, they can set up the race for me, make it a competitive race because that’s what I want. I’m tired of making all the races and giving everyone free shots at me.

“It all depends on how serious I get.” He laughed and flashed his boyish grin. “That seems to be the big decision right now. If I decide to be serious, I don’t know what I’ll do.

“So I’m just going to hang loose for a while and see what happens. But if I do get serious, watch out. You may see a new Pre.”

October 1974: Letters To The Editor
Will Pre ever run the AAU Cross Country?
Yes we all know that he has something against the AAU
And will probably use this as an excuse.
To tell the truth I think it’s a thin intellectual man with a mustache
That keeps him away.
Chris Hallinan—Bernardsville, New Jersey

November 1974: Letters To The Editor
THANKS FOR GIVING US a view of Pre the man [October]. It is nice to see him as something other than just a set of numbers and stats. Speaking of which, your I August list of his 8 American Records this season was 1 short. He began his season with an indoor 2M record of 8:22.2 in January. Go Pre!
Richard Shelby—Nashville, Tennessee

ON AMATEURISM, Steve Prefontaine [October] seemed miffed that his government didn’t give him any financial support while he trained and raced as an amateur. I’ll be damned if I want my tax money to go to Pre or anybody else who chooses to pursue amateur sport. I don’t happen to think of it as important which country wins the Olympics. There is no such thing as a team title anyhow. Who cares how many medals the U.S. wins?
Jay Dunn—Baltimore, Maryland

WHEN WILL WE SHAKE the myth of Pre and Europe? Since Munich, T&FN has on many occasions described Pre as “one who can’t lose in Eugene and can’t win in Europe.” Why does he have to beat them on their terms: “at home, in their prime season, over their best distances”? I don’t see anyone from Europe coming over here to prove themselves on our tracks. Why can’t Foster, Viren, Puttemans or even Gammoudi come and run in Oregon in May?
Wayne F. Moss—Weaverville, California

December 1974: Letters To The Editor
I WAS DISAPPOINTED that Pre chose not to run in Durham against the Soviets, but for a different reason than most. I was disappointed because it was probably the only opportunity I’d have to see America’s greatest distance runner ever. My attitude has changed now. After all, I can’t even remember the score of the meet. Pre should choose his meets. He is the one who has made all the sacrifices, not his fans. Like fans everywhere, I’ll be happy if he gears up for Montréal. But I’d want him to do it because he wants to, not out of loyalty, or because he feels obligated to do so.
Otto J. Allen—DeLand, Florida

JON HENDERSHOTT must be congratulated on a fine article on Prefontaine in October. It was an absorbing and illuminating interview. As one who has been skeptical of Pre (I consider him to be grossly overrated by his fans), I was interested to learn of his troubles in ’74 and the article, providing me with a new dimension of the man, left me feeling more sympathetic towards him.

There can be no doubt that Pre is a great runner, capable of running under 27:30 for 10,000, but there are still men—principally Pekka Päivärinta, Emiel Puttemans and Brendan Foster, who are better still. Pre will set a strong pace and then men like these will blow by him over the last couple of laps.
Dave Cocksedge—London, England

BRENDAN FOSTER HAS NEVER trained out of Britain in the winter and if Prefontaine would like to try slogging over the countryside during sub-freezing weather he might not find the Oregon rain too bad. I have read nothing but excuses, alibis and the like from this man since Munich, and now you have printed two full pages of them. There is no doubt that he has put up some very good times, but in Europe he cannot win a single race against any top-class runner.

Invite our European 5000 champion, who holds World Records at 3000 and 2M, to Eugene where Prefontaine feels he is unbeatable and let the distance be anything from 1500 to cross country. Then T&FN can prepare another two pages of laments.
Geoffrey Harley—London, England

OCTOBER’S LETTER from Chris Hallinan inferred that Pre is afraid of Frank Shorter. I know for a fact that Pre and Frank are very good friends and Pre lives on competition. The only thing that will keep Pre away from the AAU is politics.
Kenneth B. Train—Reedsport, Oregon

December 1974: AAU XC Champs
Belmont, California, November 30—… The prerace talk plumped up a clash between Frank Shorter, going after his fifth consecutive title, and Steve Prefontaine, contesting his first AAU harrier race but suspected to be short on training… [Shorter finished 11th] and Pre didn’t even show up. Neither did Paul Geis. Some talk said Pre stayed home to build a sauna; some Oregon TC runners said he wasn’t in the shape to be competitive. /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

Part 13: The Final XC Races For Oregon

Part 14: The ’74 Indoor Season

Part 15: The ’74 Outdoor Season