The Pre Chronicles — Part 4, Junior Year XC & Indoors

HERE, IN THE FOURTH of a long multi-part series, is how we reported the career of Steve Prefontaine in our pages from the fall of ’71 through the indoor season of ’72, with the same photographs we used at the time. Given the wealth of Pre material we generated during the Olympic year, this one is broken up into multiple parts. We have taken the liberty of doing some stylistic updatings to mirror our modern protocol and also added an editorial comment or three:

November 1971: Washington State Easily Upsets Oregon
Eugene, Oregon, October 30—Expectedly, Oregon’s Steve Prefontaine ran away from the rest of the field, blazing a swift 28:10.8 for 6M to acquire his third Northern Division title. Unexpectedly, the next 5 positions were filled by Washington Staters, who handed Oregon a 20–86 pasting in the team tussle.

Pre had reportedly been suffering stomach problems in recent weeks and was unable to finish a tryout race 2 weeks earlier, but he showed little sign of being hampered here, as he blasted through the first 3M in 13:56. His second three took slightly longer, but his winning margin was 35.2 seconds over Washington State’s Dan Murphy, who had hung on until slowed by a stitch at 4M.

The Oregon team featured 5 returnees from last year’s NCAA runner-up squad, led by individual titlist Prefontaine, but had not yet run a competitive race this season. In contrast, the tough young Washington State squad was undefeated in five weekends of competition and had perfected group running. It showed, as juniors Mark Hiefield and Phil Burkwist and frosh Dave Harper and Dale Fleet came down the homestretch together.

November 1971: Prefontaine Burns A Tough Course Victory
Westwood, California, November 13—The Pac-8 cross country race resembled an instant replay of the Northern Division affair of two weeks earlier—Washington State’s Danny Murphy chased Oregon’s Steve Prefontaine through the early stages of the race, then Pre burned away for an easy victory, but Washington State piled its first 5 into the top 10 for the team title.

Host UCLA had laid out a tough course, 410y longer than 6M, covering grass, dirt, asphalt and concrete at various stages. Pre’s winning 29:59.6 shattered the course record by more than a minute. He later said, “This is one of the toughest courses I’ve ever run but I really like it, because you can burn people on it. I also like it because I won.” UCLA coach Jim Bush commented, “Yes, it is a tough course. If Prefontaine says it is, then you know it’s tough.”

At the finish, Pre had over 300y on runner-up Murphy, who clocked 30:45. Behind Murphy, Ruben Chappins of UCLA surprised by out-sprinting a tight pack for 3rd with 30:52, while Washington State’s Phil Burkwist edged Oregon’s Randy James as both timed 30:53. Washington State added 6-9-10 placings for its winning total of 31, with Oregon adding 11-13-14 for its 45.…

Pre surprised after the race by saying, “I’m undecided about going to the NCAA. The whole Oregon team may bypass the NCAA, and I might rest for the AAU.” /John Wenos/

Early in the NCAA XC Champs Pre was front and center. Also in the group (l–r): Dan Murphy (WS), Dick Sliney (339), Mike Slack (glasses), Garry Bjorklund (281) & Reggie McAfee (319). (PENNY CROWELL)

December 1971: NCAA—Pre Duels Bjorklund in Cold Weather, Hot Race
Knoxville, Tennessee, November 22—Although there were reports that the two favorites might skip the meet, Steve Prefontaine and Garry Bjorklund both showed up for the NCAA Cross Country Championships—and the race belonged solely to this pair of juniors.

With Bjorklund missing last year’s meet (which Pre won) due to appendicitis and opting for the 6M outdoors, a duel between collegiate distance running’s two dominant forces finally materialized—and it was all that anyone could have expected. Starting before a crowd of 2000 in sunny but cold (35°) weather, Prefontaine quickly moved to the front, where “I waited for Garry to run with me.”

Bjorklund caught up with the Oregon star after an early struggle among the pack, and the two zipped through the first mile-marks in 4:24 and 9:36. The pace speeded up in the third mile, as they passed the halfway marker in 14:36 with Bjorklund slightly ahead. “I didn’t know how well I’d hold up against him after 4M,” Pre later explained, “but I knew if we were close near the end I’d win because I have the speed.”

Pre ran away from Garry Bjorklund in the second half of the NCAA XC. (BILL CROWELL)

But Bjorklund did not concede, and only after the runners had negotiated a steep grade in the fifth mile did Pre definitely appear to have an edge as Bjorklund began to fall behind. Looking around as he came down the final stretch, Pre completed the 6.0M in a course record 29:18.0, with Bjorklund only 6 seconds behind. This margin of victory is the smallest Pre has enjoyed in the last two seasons of cross country. Only the sixth ever to defend his title successfully, Pre ran a remarkably even-paced race, covering the second 3M only 3 seconds slower than the first.

Bjorklund finished looking fresh and commented, “It looks kind of bad when the winner comes in beat and the second man looks fresh.” While he made no excuses, it may be noted that Bjorklund, troubled by a bad back, had done only light running the past month and after winning the Big 10 on the 13th did not run at all for four days. Reportedly, he was hampered by his back here on downhill grades. For him, there’s always next year and the promise of another good race with Pre.

Premeet form went by the board in the team battle as Pre’s Oregon squad upended Washington State, 83–122, for top honors, piling 5 men into the first 48 slots. Oregon had suffered two earlier reversals at the hands of the Washington State squad and it was close through four men here, but the runners-up’s fifth man slumped to 90th. Behind Pre, Randy James finished 19th (12th team man), Pat Tyson 31st (19th), Mike Long 35th (22nd) and Rick Ritchie 48th (29th) to give the winning total. Oregon depth was such here that by substituting sixth runner Mark Savage (60th/36th) for Pre, it would still have taken the title.

After his successful NCAA title defense, Pre embraced runner-up Garry Bjorklund. (CHARLES BRYANT)

It was a particularly sweet victory for Oregon, which held the championship for several hours last year before video-tapes revealed a mixup in the finish chute and advanced a Villanova runner enough to edge Oregon by a single point. /Art Jester & Don Kopriva/ — Click here for meet results —

January 1972: World & U.S. Rankings
[Ed: In a sequence of firsts, Pre claimed his first-ever No. 1 in the U.S. 5000, his first appearance in the World 5000 (No. 10) and his first U.S. 1500 score (No. 6).]

I February 1972: Pre Forges 8:26.6
Portland, Oregon, January 28—Steve Prefontaine forged to the second-fastest indoor 2M ever by an American—and nearly lapped Jim Ryun in the process—while Al Feuerbach popped four of six shot puts over 68-feet in standout performances in the Oregon Invitational.

Pre pushed to a Collegiate Record 8:26.6 for 22 laps of the 160y oval, a clocking bettered only by the 8:26.2 of Frank Shorter among Americans. The former collegiate standard was Kerry Pearce’s 8:27.2, a world indoor best back in 1968. Pre paced the race all the way to win comfortably from resurging Gerry Lindgren at 8:35.2, Rex Maddaford at 8:38.6 and the controlled-appearing Ryun at 8:47.4.

“I was going for 4:12 and 8:22 tonight and because I didn’t get those times, I’m disappointed in that respect,” Pre said later after accepting the meet’s outstanding performer award for the second consecutive year. Last year, he clocked an 8:31.6 victory. “I wanted somebody to run a fairly fast first quarter,” the Oregon junior continued, “but nobody would.” He even moved out from the pole and motioned for Pearce to take command but the Aussie declined so Pre set out on his own. His splits read 2:08.5, 3:13, 4:16.5, 5:20, 6:25 and 7:28.5 and, urged on by the cheers of 10,062 fans, he covered the final 440 in 58.1, keeping his eye on the running clock throughout. “I am pleased with the time, don’t get me wrong,” he later commented, “but it could have been faster.”

Lindgren was the only one who attempted to stay with the flying Prefontaine; he never pressed the leader but ran smoothly. “I’m happy to run what I did,” Lindgren later chirped, “especially at this stage of the year.” Ryun also voiced pleasure with his performance. “I came up to run against a good 2M field,” he said. “It was a good run and I’m not disappointed.” Ryun clocked 4:20 at the mile and closed with a 59-second last quarter; as Prefontaine dashed for the finish, the crowd seemed to be exhorting him to lap Ryun as much as to better the American Record. Pre barely fell short on both accounts. /Jack Pfeifer/

II February 1972: Feuerbach, Prefontaine Thump Good Fields
Inglewood, California, February 11—It was a bad night for some very large talent. Randy Matson was last. Jim Ryun beat only the rabbit. No one finished behind Kerry O’Brien. And only O’Brien was behind Emiel Puttemans.

There were some very big winners, too, in the Los Angeles Times Games as 16,104 expectant fans packed the Forum to watch the outpouring of Olympic hopefuls. None stood taller than big Al Feuerbach and little Steve Prefontaine.…

Prefontaine literally ran away from O’Brien, the indoor recordholder, Puttemans, the outdoor holder, and Kerry Pearce, second-fastest ever undercover but a non-finisher here. A tight 3-man battle was broken apart at the mile (4:14.9) when Pre spurted and the two foreign greats did not respond. The young Oregonian steadily built up his lead, finishing with great strength if not overwhelming speed for a 59.6 last quarter and an 8:26.6 clocking. It equaled his collegiate standard and once again just missed the national mark by 0.4. More than half a lap behind, Puttemans outfinished O’Brien, 8:39.2 to 8:39.8. /Bert Nelson/

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