Mercy Cherono, two miles, photo by PhotoRun.net
In 1975, Steve Prefontaine had won the 5,000 meters over Frank Shorter,at the Hayward Restoration Meet, had a few beers, and while driving home, trying to avoid a head-on collision, rolled his car and suffocated underneath, as the people who he had tried to avoid hitting with his MG, stirred up enough courage to call the police. By the time help arrived, Steve Prefontaine had died, struggling to get his last breaths, as a several thousand pound sports car smothered him.
Steve Prefontaine died in his mid twenties. The people who knew Steve Prefontaine knew he tried to live his life with brutal honesty, like an ee cummings poem. No quarter asked, no quarter given. His life ended rudely, with no explanation.
It is said that, when Bill Dellinger was told of Steve Prefontaine’s death, Dellinger tore a clock out of its wall socket and threw it across the room. Honesty, pain, loss, hurt. Bill Dellinger was one of the few who got Pre’s drive, his need to perform, his need to fill the void he felt inside. Dellinger understood Prefontaine, because he had that drive, how else would one have competed in 56,60, and 64 Olympics. Dellinger knew Steve could win an Olympic medal-he just felt it.
Prefontaine had lived his life honestly. Unfortunately, the truth of his death did not come out for many years. He was not drunk. He had drank several beers, but his fatal mistake, his achilles heel, was not wearing a seat belt.
His friend, Jan Johnson, a 1972 Olympic team-mate, had experienced a similar accident in same type of car, and survived due to his seat belt. Pre and Johnson had spoken about it, but Steve was, as many people have told me, Steve. He lived his life without apologies. He died the same way.
David Rudisha, ran, and lost, in his first race in over a year,
photo by PhotoRun.net
I remember when I heard of his death. I felt a pain in the pit of my stomach. It was the same I felt when Robert Kennedy had been assassinated. I knew the world would never be the same. Prefontaine and Shorter were the two runners I identified with at that time. I had met Shorter, at the 1974 AAU cross country and he had been fun with my friends and myself. We became lifelong fans of Frank Shorter.
Pre was this mix of athlete and rock star. He reminded me of lots of the heavy metal guys I was into in 1975. I had lost Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Tommy Bolin (T-Rex) only a few years before. Why did the people I admired die so young? Would I make it to 21? 25? I found that doubtful, I once wrote, terrifying my mother.
The one time I could have seen Prefontaine actually race, in February 1975, I had to miss the SF Indoor Games due to work commitment. I began going to Pre Meets I believe, in the late 80s.
I have missed few Pre meets since. In the following years, great races ensued, even when Tom Jordan had little support from Nike. Under John Capriotti’s leadership, Jordan knew he had a kindred spirit.
Will Claye soared in the Triple Jump, photo by PhotoRun.net
In the 1990s, the Nike Pre Classic was the only bastion of elite track in our country. Some would try to put on meets, but failed. It was not until the adidas GP (formerly Reebok GP), in NYC, who put the power of a global brand and keen meet management behind an event, that the East Coast had an event that gave Easterners a chance to see a European style meet. That model had been the Pre Classic.
For me, 1995 was the most poignant year at the Pre Classic. Frank Shorter, the two time Olympic medalist, a frequent competitor to Steve Prefontaine, spoke to the assembled crowd at Hayward Field about how Prefontaine had changed him, and that after his death, something had died in him. Frank was exploring some very painful things in his life, at the time, but, to me, the relationship between he and Steve Prefontaine struck a chord.
Kirani James versus LaShawn Merritt, both run 43.97, unapologetic racing,
photo by PhotoRun.net
The 40th anniversary of the Nike Pre Classic was one of it’s best ever. This year, there were more non-Nike athletes at the event as well. For an event accused of being a Nike alumn meet, that was always a secret of its success. In many Nike athlete agreements, sources would tell us that the athletes had to race at key Nike events. Pre Classic had fields of athletes worth millions.
This year, the crowd was as strong as ever. The fields were fantastic. The key to the Pre Classic, is that, for three hours, wave after wave of athletes compete, great event after great event happen, as crowds cheer, stand up, and wonder, who will win! The huge god of athletics is satiated with great performances as athletes in their prime, give their best to see how fast, how far, how long, that they can run, jump and throw.
In it’s unabashed athleticism, is where I feel the spirit of Steve Prefontaine. Shorter suggested to Tom Jordan that Pre could best be understood as a unpredictable satyr who loves a late night, cold beer and warm woman (to paraphrase a Tom Waits song).
That his spirit is kept alive in a Nike that strives for continued multi-billion dollar growth, at least one day a year, is comforting. I think that, as I see Steve Prefontaine, he would be the guy, standing on top of a table asking “What the flying F##ck” do you think you are doing?”. Pre, in his early sixties, would have been no different. A man possessed. A man with spirit. We have all missed what he could have become.
Nijel Amos, Mo Amman in the 800 meters, photo by PhotoRun.net
It puts a tear in my eyes, to see that Steve Prefontaine did not live long enough to enjoy the things we find as part of our daily lives. That is the part that breaks my heart. Having a child. Staying up all night worrying about said child when they were sick, mad at you, doing their thing-Steve Prefontaine did not get to experience those parts of life.
Recently, my 28 year old son, Adam admitted, that there were times, in our relationship, when he wondered how I had not just sold him into servitude. I smiled and said, ” How could I do that, dear son? I wanted to see how you would turn out.” Thank god, Adam lived past the age of seventeen, an age with American males that is truly the Nightmare year of young adult hood when, specifically males are a combination of a beast from hell, one moment, and a teenager the next.
As I was leaving the meet after the Bowerman Mile, I spotted Matt Centrowitz, the father, fretting a bit over his son, Matthew Centrowitz. Trying to comfort him, I told Matt, ” Matthew got a PB, it is early in the season.” Matt nodded, but he was being what he does well now, he was being a dad, worried about his talented son.
I thought, Steve Prefontaine would have liked that. He would have wanted that experience. But, he had never lived long enough to have that experience. That is what happens when one dies young.
But, one day a year, Steve Prefontaine, in cotton sweats, with a hoody on, can almost be seen, sitting up in the top of the stands, with his Waffle racers on, holding a cold one, wondering how many milers Tom Jordan and John Capriotti can get under four minutes in the Bowerman mile. Then, as quietly as he climbed up into the stands, he and his buddy, Elvis, head over to Track Town Pizza, looking for a good beer, a decent pizza, and some BTO on the I-Tunes.
And that, to me, is good.