Legends of Running: Who was Steve Prefontaine?

Steve Roland Prefontaine, born January 25, 1951, was an American mid-and-long distance runner who’s iconic and revolutionary concepts and achievements in running helped pave the way for the running boom in the 1970s. Prefontaine, or “Pre” to the global running community, had his life immortalized in two Steve Prefontaine movies; the first one entitled “Prefontaine” was released in 1997 and the second entitled “Without Limits” was released the following year. Both films helped Pre’s achievements resonate through the decades and allowed his influence to transcend eras as he also inspired the running culture in the early to mid-2000s, 40 years after his death.

Pre was born in Coos Bay, Oregon. Both of his parents did not have any prior experience in mid-and-long distance running. His first introduction into the sport came when he saw members of his junior high school’s cross country running team warm-up around the field where he was playing football. At first, he wasn’t open to the idea of embracing running as a sport, preferring instead to dabble in football and basketball. However, his diminutive size and small frame did not allow him to become a prized athlete in both fields.

Later that year, he found out that he had the aptitude for cross country racing. His physical education classes provided him the opportunity to race against some members of the cross country running team in his school and this is where he began to appreciate the sport in earnest. By the second week of a three-week conditioning period, Pre was able to keep up with the best in his class and at one point finished second during the class’s daily mile runs. Pre was hooked and his love affair with running began to blossom.

He enrolled in Marshfield High School in 1965 and immediately joined the school’s cross country running team. His success, however, was not as immediate. During his first two years, he wasn’t regarded as the revolutionary runner that he eventually was famous for. Pre did not qualify for the two-mile event in his sophomore year and only ranked 53rd in the state championships that year. This series of setbacks pushed Pre to train harder than ever before in the summer, paving the way for his meteoric rise the following year.

Pre went undefeated in all the races he joined in his junior season culminating in his victory at the state championships later that year. The following year, he also went undefeated on the way to winning 2 state titles cementing his high school legacy as one of the most promising runners in the country. His junior and senior year running record led to almost 40 colleges and universities jockeying to recruit him to join their cross country teams but Pre eventually decided to stay in-state when he committed to the University of Oregon.

The legend of Pre was truly established in college when he won three NCAA Men’s Cross Country Championships and missed the competition the other year as he prepared for the 1972 Munich Olympics. His astounding college running record only included three defeats in the mile category while sweeping all other events that he entered in. Pre was also honored by Sports Illustrated when he made the illustrious magazine’s cover at only 19 years of age. It was shortly after this time when he ran the 5,000-meter Olympic event(coming in 4th) and along the way at the US Olympic trials established the American record which would stand for the next 40 years. In total, Pre won 120 of the 153 races that he joined, an astounding success rate of 78%.

But perhaps the most telling and time-tested of Pre’s characteristics was his brashness and his belief in training as the only way towards winning. One of the most famous Prefontaine quotes went “I am going to work so that it’s a pure guts race. In the end, if it is, I’m the only one that can win it.” Pre believed that beyond talent, guts and hard work will help any runner conquer any barrier and overcome any obstacle. This was the springboard from which every Steve Prefontaine story was told, and it inspired many athletes to push beyond their capabilities to achieve their dreams.

Any runner who delves into the history of cross-country running will eventually find himself face-to-face with the story of Pre, an undying and inspiring rise from nothing to running stardom all because of grit, guts, and hard work. He is Steve Prefontaine, runner extraordinaire and world-record beater; but he is also “Pre”, inspiring and empowering.

And his story remains as moving as it was 4 decades ago.

Steve Prefontaine Quotes

Someone may beat me but they’re going to have to bleed to do it.

A lot of people run a race to see who’s the fastest. I run to see who has the most guts.

A race is a work of art that people can look at and be affected in as many ways as they’re capable of understanding.

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