Cross Country


"A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest. I run to see who has the most guts, who can punish himself into exhausting pace, and then at the end, punish himself even more. Nobody is going to win a 5,000 meter race after running an easy 2 miles. Not with me. If I lose forcing the pace all the way, well, at least I can live with myself."

Although the movie Without Limits points to Steve’s obsessive desire to win stemming from childhood chases in the woods, it seems as though Pre always had a competitive spirit. As a child he played sports like baseball, basketball, and football. Well, at least he tried. Coaches and teammates often benched Steve telling him he was “too small” and lacked the natural abilities to play.

Unlike some running greats, running wasn’t childhood pastime for Prefontaine. Frank Shorter, who won 1972 Olympic gold for the Marathon (the same Olympics Prefontaine participated in), was known to enjoy running as a child. In an interview with KidsRunning.com, Shorter said that he “ran to and/or home from school about three times per week” which was a “distance…about 2.5 miles each way”.

Pre was college friends with Shorter. In fact, Frank was one of the last to see Pre on his fateful night, but the two did not seem to share the same childhood passion for running. Pre is quoted as saying, “What kind of crazy nut would spend two or three hours just running?” in Tom Jordan’s PRE.

But when Prefontaine noticed that he beat other kids when running in his physical education class, he decided to give cross country a shot his freshman year at Marshfield High School. It didn't take long for young Pre to realize he had finally found his sport. Determined to be the best in his first year, Prefontaine found himself quickly gaining ability and eventually found himself as the team's second best runner. His freshman year concluded with a 53rd place finish at the Oregon High School Cross Country State Meet.

The Development

Pre is known for his magical performances, but there were no tricks to his rapid progression in high school. His effort-based racing style seemed to go hand-in-hand with his hard core off-season training.

Steve came into his sophomore year with high hopes. Track & Field allowed him to develop his running style through his freshman spring and the long summer afterwards opened the gates for high mileage training. The hard work paid off that fall, as he performed well during the year, shining in both the district and state meets (he finished 6th at the state meet).

Fuel from Track & Field

Most people were surprised with Steve's excellent performance his sophomore fall, but Prefontaine wasn’t. He had set his eyes on first at state, not sixth. Failing in sport after sport, Steve had been trying for the majority of his life to prove himself athletically worthy. Now that he was beginning to, he wanted to show everyone he was the best.

So Steve worked incredibly hard in the winter months, hoping to prove himself his sophomore year in track. Unfortunately, all the hard work had burned Pre out, creating a disappointing season in which he would not even qualify for the two-mile race in the Oregon State Track Meet.

Sure, a few years later Steve would encounter Oregon Head Coach Bill Bowerman. He was a revolutionary in the sport who preached, contradictory to most others, that "it is better to be undertrained than overtrained." But that was Pre’s future. Now, his best asset, hard work, had seemed to give him something terrible -- inner failure.

It is said that a time of disappointment, that champions that rise again, and losers let the failure consume them. That being said, there is no doubt Prefontaine was a champion. He came into his junior year of cross country stronger than ever before, and ran an impressive season -- he took first at every meet, even state. Perhaps this was a crucial turning point in the life of Pre.

Senior year cross country was another success, as Pre easily brought home the blue ribbon from the state cross country meet. Now, he could firmly set his eyes on The University of Oregon and his dream to run for Bill Bowerman.

When Bill Dellinger, Bill Bowerman, and The University of Oregon got Steve Prefontaine in the fall of 1969, they got an arrogant and cocky kid with limitless potential. Steve was riding high after shattering the National High School record for the two-mile, running an 8:41.5.

For Bill Bowerman, Pre was always a challenge. But Pre’s success in cross country was unquestioned.

After his freshmen year, Steve never lost a race. In 1970, 1971, and 1973 Prefontaine went undefeated, hence winning the NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships each year (he took 1972 off for The Munich Olympics).



  © Copyright 2006 Malorie Osypian. All Rights Reserved.