Four decades later, the scene of Steve Prefontaine’s fatal car accident in Oregon looks much the way it did in the days after he died. Runners who drew inspiration from him for years have navigated peaceful, winding roads leading to Pre’s Rock and left behind sneakers, race bibs, medals and messages to honor him.
Prefontaine buffs, legions of them around the world, know his story chapter and verse the way clerics know the Bible. He was a running god, after all. Yet through all the tales about his life and theories about his death, the former Olympian proved his mortality as James Dean did 20 years earlier.
The Cliffs Notes version shows Prefontaine was revered more for pushing himself to the limit than for his collection of American records. At the University of Oregon, he filled stands at Hayward Field with fans who admired his competitiveness while standing against the highest levels of authority in amateur track and field.
Before last week, I understood his legend only on basic terms from a geographical and generational distance. Simply, I was 7 years old and living in Hamburg when he died in 1975 in Eugene. I knew he was a great runner with an edge to his personality. I knew he died at age 24 in a car accident after leaving a party.
And that was all.
“A lot of people have run faster than Pre, but nobody has run harder than Pre,” Kenny Moore, the former Olympic marathoner and good friend of Prefontaine, said over the weekend by telephone. “He was different than we were. We were all runners. We gave our best. We responded to the crowd. But nobody did it like Pre did.”
Coincidence led me to Skyline Drive while staying in Eugene last week. I happened upon a Nike store and remembered Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman was a co-founder of what became an empire. It led me to Prefontaine, which led me to his death, Google Maps and a 4.7-mile drive toward … what?
Visiting a deadly scene seemed morbid and disconcerting. In a battle between curiosity and comfort, curiosity always wins with me. Road signs directing tourists to Pre’s Rock suggested the scene had become a destination for many before me. Others had chased a ghost who seemed larger than life.
Pre’s Rock rests near a curve on Skyline Boulevard, overlooking the university and a mile from the track where Prefontaine had made his mark on the world. On the same track hours before he died, he had won the 5,000 meters in an international meet. He attended a postrace party and had dropped off Frank Shorter at Moore’s home.
Moments after pulling out of Moore’s driveway, a few hundred yards away and around a sharp bend, his MG jumped a curb, hit the rock and flipped on top of him shortly after midnight. A teenager found Pre barely alive under the weight of the car, and he died a few minutes later. The country mourned.
“Pre had to have left this world with a fine regard for its absurdities, one being that he was dying on a road that he loved to run, on a hill where he made others suffer,” Moore wrote in his book, “Bowerman and the Men of Oregon.” “His last moments surely recapitulated his finest races, his blacksmith bellows gasping, his fighting down panic, his approaching death’s door, his needing the crowd to call him back.”
Prefontaine’s friends questioned police findings later that he was drunk. One longstanding theory suggested a car coming from the opposite direction caused him to swerve out of control and kept going. Nobody was charged, prompting rumors about everything from police corruption to international conspiracy.
My goal last week wasn’t to solve the mystery of his accident. It was to gather information I could pass along to my 13-year-old son, a cross-country runner. It would be a history lesson from father to son about perseverance and persistence, internal gifts that drive runners. The crash scene showed something different.
Prefontaine wasn’t just a great runner. He was a cautionary tale that should be passed on. Life takes people on strange paths with many twists and turns. We never really know what’s around the corner, and the end could be just around the bend. It’s important to appreciate each day.
Moore lived on Skyline Boulevard for 10 years after Pre died. He didn’t leave his neighborhood without that reminder. He ran those streets with Prefontaine and navigated the fatal turn, innocent enough, thousands of times in the years that followed. And he promised to get the most out of life.
“Every day,” Moore said. “It was certainly the underlying theme for a lot of my life. The place where we lost him was something I had to pass to get to the house. It was always there. Frank and I and others, anyone who had been involved in one cause or another, we pledged to do the best we could for him and his memory.”
Moore was a two-time Olympian in the marathon, finishing fourth in Munich in 1972 while Shorter won gold. He covered track and field for Sports Illustrated while he was still competing. He was a national champion in 1971 after beating Shorter. In the years after Prefontaine died, he became a voice.
Now 72 and living in Hawaii, Moore helped rewrite rules for the Amateur Athletic Union that Prefontaine had stood against in the years before his death. He spent a quarter century at Sports Illustrated, wrote two books, co-wrote a screenplay for the movie “Without Limits” and pushed for the release of middle-distance runner Mamo Wolde, who was falsely imprisoned in Ethiopia. He built a family.
Prefontaine was an employee at Blue Ribbon Sports, which eventually became Nike. It began with Bowerman molding soles for his runners, peeling ounces at a time away from their shoes, while pouring liquid rubber over his wife’s waffle griddle. Nike took off shortly after Prefontaine’s fatal turn.
Forty-one years later, the impact he made on so many lives around the world can be found at the scene where his life ended. Forty-one years later, it’s a story worth sharing.
“Absolutely, I couldn’t have had a more enduring influence,” Moore said. “He’ll always be an example for me. It’s as important now as it ever was. The important message, the most crucial and eternal message, is to pass the baton like a relay, and carry it on.”