On Running: Still Waiting...
When Steve Prefontaine (Pre) was a freshman at Marshfield High School in Oregon, he was short and weak. There were hundreds of freshman runners faster than him, and no one expected him to be great. They were wrong.
My favorite poster of Pre shows him crossing the finish line of a race. The stands in the background are filled with people on their feet. They are cheering as Pre's right hand lifts up to grab the tape and he looks over his left shoulder to see where his competitors are. They are nowhere to be seen. Instead, in the distance a question looms - "Where is the next Pre?"
It's been thirty-three years since his tragic death and we are all still waiting.
As a college runner for the University of Oregon, Pre won three straight NCAA cross-country titles and multiple track championships. When he was just twenty-one years old, he was the top American 5,000 meter runner at the Munich Olympics where he would run with the leaders until the final meters before finishing fourth.
After Munich, Pre's focus turned to the 1976 Montreal Olympics. His performances continued to improve and by 1975 he held every American track record for distances from 2,000 to 10,000 meters, but his story ended abruptly on May 30, 1975, leaving us searching for someone to take his place.
There have been other great runners. In fact, all of Pre's American records have since been broken, and yet no one else has been able to move us the way he has.
Pre was a rebel. He was a fighter. He ignored those who doubted him. He had undying self-confidence, yet possessed the unique humility to understand that talent was a gift not to be wasted. He gave his full effort in every race, but also had an unusual ability to learn from disappointment, keep things in perspective, and move on to the next one.
Pre wanted to win, in fact he needed to. He was the fiercest competitor the sport has ever seen. And yet, it's not his PRs we remember, it's the way he expressed his passion for life through his running.
The truth is that Pre is irreplaceable and that's exactly why we miss him so much.
Still, I have to wonder what he would think of us, waiting after all this time. I think, maybe, he'd be disappointed and he might tell us that we're missing the point.
He never asked to be an icon. All he wanted to do was harvest every ounce of his own potential, and I have a feeling that he'd think we should do the same.
It's not about being inspired; it's about being inspirational. It's not about finding a role model; it's about being one.
Where's the next Pre? He could be standing next to you as you wait for the starter's pistol to fire. She could be running laps on the high school track. Who knows, at this very moment the next Pre could be holding the paper you're reading.
Dave Griffin writes a bi-weekly running column and offers coaching to high school and adult runners of all levels. Contact Dave at firstname.lastname@example.org.