HAPPY BIRTHDAY STEVE PREFONTAINE
Steve Prefontaine born January 25, 1951.
The man, Steve Prefontaine has been described by so many in one word, Passion. He was considered for three decades the greatest long distance runner in American History and by far one of the most popular Track and Field athlete's of all time. At the time of his death at a young age of 24, Pre held 14 American Track and Field Records from 2,000 meters to 10,000 meters and was ranked the #3 most popular athlete in America competing with the likes of Wilt Chamberlain and Joe Namath. That Passion of Steve Prefontaine has defined the sport of American distance running for more than 40 years. From the streets of Coos Bay, Oregon to the legacy of excellence established while competing for the University of Oregon he was always defined by one word, Passion.
Steve Prefontaine inspired an entire generation of distance runners, coaches, and running enthusiasts. It wasn't that he was the best role model or that he was perfect it was how he performed when he stepped on the line to test himself against another human being. We think those who knew him best admired his loyalty, his dedication, his committment to his cause of justice, and to his unwavering loyalty to his friends. We admire Pre because of his commitment to prove to himself he was not a quitter. All those that watched him compete and all those who would remember always walked away with the feeling they had witnessed a masterpiece summarized by this statement, "that you can expect the best, more than the best from yourself each and every moment you compete". In the movie "Prefontaine" Bill Bowerman used the analogy that this mindset in running would directly correlate to winning in the game called life.
Since the tragic and untimely death of Steve Prefontaine there have been many runners who have gone faster. All of his records have been broken. Runners from Galen Rupp, Matt Centrowitz, Leonel Manzano, to Nick Symmonds have won World Championship and Olympic Games medals. There are moments we see Pre's Passion in them.
The reason we are continually inspired by one imperfect man was not in the number of trinckets that he accumulated, we do not remember him for the times of the distances he raced, or that he was some mythical role model who did not experience the struggles of life, we remember him for how much he expected from himself inspite of his challenges. It was the Passion Pre had to expect excellence from himself that inspired runners like Galen Rupp, and millions more that have never won state titles, or medals, or set records, to individual excellence in their moment, their game of life. From the 11-minute 3200 meter runner who aspires to run 10:59 and looks for that extra bit of juice or the junior varsity runner who just wishes to make the varsity team 1-time, we can look to the Passion that Pre had for the expectation of himself to push 1-more second, to give one more last ditch effort, to not give up when you have reached your limitation, to be ruggedly determined to push against that wall.
I have thought long and hard about why Steve Prefontaine should matter to runners today and why coaches today should consider one man, still relevant in a world where the expectation is winning and nothing else. Pre never won his Olympic Gold medal, but every one of us can run in a way, can live in a way, that with the finish line just ahead we can finish the race his death never allowed him to complete. We do not have to be defined by our failures, from the first place runner to the last place runner the expectation can be set to run without limits for yourself, to choose to finish Steve Prefontaines last race. To finish knowing how it feels to expect more. I believe only then will a runner, a person, understand what it feels like to hit the finish line knowing you had nothing left with 30 feet to go and somehow willed your way through to the end. This applies not to running but life. Always looking forward, never looking back.
Prefontaine abhorred what he deemed corruption, injustice or unfairness and was not afraid to call a spade a spade. He was the first to speak out when he saw unfairness. The world of track and field gave him a big target, hypocrisy bother him the most. He did not pull punches or look away, he was not politically correct. His personality was a distinction of his running style, he was not afraid to say what others were too timid or afraid. Everything he lived for, breathed, dreamed of, hoped for was running and lived according to his unspoken code of right and wrong. This is a quality that we admire in Prefontaine.
The 1972 Olympics were said to be a precursor of things to come for the man known simply as PRE. In many ways the shadow of this one man still rests over all who lace up and hit the trails. He is the standard, the benchmark, he is the greatest regardless of whether he won an Olympic or World Championship medal. That is not the standard by which he is judged, he is judged for never giving up, never giving in, and expecting no matter what the outcome he would ALWAYS give his best. What does that truly mean?
To me, it means that every second of his race, with every step, with every breathe the defeatest attitude and mindset did not exist. I believe every second mattered to him and whether it was 1500 meters or 10000 meters, cross country or a road race, or Life, his thought of personal determination mattered to him. How many of us have ever completed a race, looked back and considered how many times we eased up, let up, thought about what to do now to save a little for later, how many have finished the race knowing that for every step of the race they were not a quitter in any way shape or form regardless of the outcome? Whether it is 4th place or dead last, the effort, the mindset is relative to your moment to choose to do more with the distance spread before you. He said before the 1972 Olympic 5000 meter final race, "I'm going to work so that it's a pure guts race at the end, and if it is, I am the only one who can win it." Was that statement pure arrogance? I do not think so, I think it was a verbal acknowledgement that there would not be one moment regardless of the outcome where he would believe that he could not give more, that he could not expect more, that his passion for his performance was not based on the result at the finish line but rather the distance and moments in between.
The Passion of Pre exists in the hearts and the minds of the running community. While it does seem that time has moved on and an effort exists to forget Steve Prefontaine His Passion still resonates and matters. It is owned by none, a gift freely given to all those who hope for more and are willing to sacrifice. Prefontaine's outlook on running is a gift. Many of us have never met him or felt the determination he must have had during every single race but we share in his legacy, a legacy of love for effort. With a mile to go I can imagine Pre saying within his mind, "The best pace is a suicide pace, and today is a good day to die."
He said, "To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift". The gift is life, the opportunity to begin anew each and everyday. To not be defined by your past mistakes, imperfections, or weaknesses. Rather, to choose this moment to be more, to do more, to expect more from yourself. To use the gift of your moment to never give anything less than your best.
Heart beating. Blood Dripping. Pre never gave up. His heart willing him to victory.