Jeff Johnson: What Makes Pre So Special

Photo: Jeff Johnson

Although Steve Prefontaine continues to be widely remembered, idolized and celebrated 40 years after his fatal car accident on May 30, 1975, few think as highly of him as Jeff Johnson.

Before he became Nike’s very first paid employee (among other innovations, he came up with the name “Nike”), Johnson was a renowned photographer for Track & Field News, where he first came into contact with the high school running prodigy from Coos Bay, Ore. Over the next several years, as Johnson shot some of the most enduring action photos of Prefontaine, and then later worked with him at a fledgling running shoe company that featured waffle-iron outsoles, Johnson became a huge admirer of Pre, and frequently speaks about him to Nike employees, high school track teams and runners of all ages.

“[Pre] was an enormous force in the lives of those who saw him,” Johnson says now. “And I wanted to capture a sliver of that experience for young people, because there’s never been anyone like him since.”

The following is a speech about Prefontaine that Johnson has given many times, and has kindly given Competitor permission to reprint.

RELATED: 14 Great Steve Prefontaine Quotes—and the Stories Behind Them

***

I want to tell you about a boy. A boy who became a legend among American distance runners. People who never saw him run ask, “What was so special about him? He was just a runner.” Well, I will tell you.

It was the summer of 1969, and I was on the campus of the University of Miami for the National AAU Senior Men’s Track and Field Championships. I was just beginning a career as a photojournalist, and this track meet was one of my first assignments. I wanted to do a good job.

And so, I was preoccupied when I stepped into the elevator. As the doors closed, a small boy squeezed in behind me. From the look of him, he was about 12 years old. I ignored him, but as we began our ascent, I became aware that he was looking me over.

“What event do you do?” he asked.

In that distant summer of 1969, I was 27 years old, fit and undamaged by time. In that elevator of the athletes’ dormitory, one might reasonably have mistaken me for a competing athlete. The boy obviously had. I told him I wasn’t an athlete. I was a photographer for Track & Field News. Then I went back to ignoring him.

“What’s your name?” he persisted.

I told him.

“I’ve seen your pictures,” he said, then proceeded to recall specific pictures I had taken and his opinions of them. I was really impressed. Who even notices the tiny photographer’s credit alongside a picture in a magazine, much less remembers it? This kid was a real fan.

For a moment, I thought he was going to ask me for my autograph. I didn’t ask him his name.

The next evening I saw this boy again. He was standing on the starting line of the three-mile run, nearly lost among the shadows of America’s best long-distance runners, a gate-crashing child to be pulled aside by officials at any moment so the race might begin. Or so I thought. Then I noticed the mustard-colored vest clinging damply to his chest, and the single word—Marshfield—arched across the front, and recognition finally dawned.

“My God, that’s Steve Prefontaine.”

Few of us knew Pre in that summer of ’69, but nearly everyone had heard of him—the fiery high school runner from Coos Bay, Ore., who that spring had set the scholastic record of 8:41 for 2 miles and who was already known for his audacious, front-running style. In less than six years he would be gone, but in that brief time Pre would gain a reputation that has already spanned a life greater than his own.

He left us the records: Four consecutive NCAA track titles at three miles, a feat never before accomplished; American records at every distance from 2,000 to 10,000 meters; five years without a loss to any American at any distance greater than a mile. At Hayward Field, his home track, in front of his fans, his people, he never lost a race longer than a mile to anyone, American or foreign. Never.

But it isn’t for the record that Pre is remembered. He is remembered for how he competed. And how he lived.

I didn’t know Pre very well, but I’m not here to tell you what he was like. I’m here to tell you why he affected us so much. But I find I can’t do the one without the other, so I’ll tell you what I do know.

I know that Pre was just an unsophisticated, small-town kid. Bill Bowerman called him ‘Rube’ because he was so direct and upfront with people. When they asked him what he meant to do, he would tell them: he was going to win, of course. The media portrayed Pre as cocky. But Pre merely had a child’s enthusiasm for his own potential, and a fierce confidence born from the consistency of his training. According to his coach, Bill Dellinger, in Pre’s four years at the University of Oregon, he never missed a workout. Not one.

Pre had a child’s look about him, too—the girls thought he was cute—an image which pained him and which he tried to change midway through college by growing his hair long and adopting an outlaw’s mustache. But no one was fooled. Though he became a giant slayer, Pre was still just a boy, and the people of Eugene, Ore., embraced him and made him their own.

Pre had a charisma, a personal magnetism that drew people to him, but in every other way he was just a normal college kid. Bill Dellinger described him as just “someone who didn’t know any better and went out and did whatever he said he was going to do.” To his teammates, Pre was easygoing, “just one of the guys.”

He lived in a trailer and survived on food stamps.

He took his dog to class with him.

He grew his own vegetables.

He started a jogging club, then jogged with the joggers. He went to schools and talked with the kids. He went to the state prison and got involved with their programs; he even worked for an inmate’s parole. He seemed to have limitless energy and a desire to make a difference. He was Oregon’s Man of the Year in 1975. A college kid. An athlete. A runner.

He personally organized a track tour to bring Finnish athletes to compete in Eugene, including Lasse Viren, who had beaten him in the ’72 Olympics. And he publicly criticized the AAU—which was then the national governing body of the sport—specifically for not taking the lead in creating more opportunities for international competitions, and generally for its shabby treatment of American athletes. He spoke out against the status quo and stood up for athletes’ rights when few would. And he took considerable heat for it.

He had a kindness about him, especially with children. A father tells a story of taking his son to a meet to see Pre run. Before the race, the boy went to the warm-up area to get Pre’s autograph. When he came back, he told his dad, “Pre wouldn’t sign.”

“Well,” said the father, “Pre is getting ready to race. Ask him later.” After the race, the boy tried again. This time Pre signed. Recognizing the boy from before, Pre asked him, “What are you doing for the next few minutes? Come warm down with me.” As the father tells it, that warm-down jog with Pre changed his son’s life.

He was intensely loyal to his teammates. In 1971, Pre won the conference cross-country title with Oregon finishing second. The school was going to send Pre, but not the team, to the NCAA Cross Country Championships in Knoxville. But Pre said he wouldn’t go without his team. So they sent the team. Pre won, leading Oregon to its first-ever NCAA Cross Country team title.

He was loyal to his fans as well. One fall day in 1974, Pre was in Eugene training for a 5,000 that he would soon run in Europe. To sharpen, he had planned to run a fast track mile, and though it was just a workout, no one in Eugene ever missed a chance to see Pre run. One thousand people showed up that day, which was also “field-burning day” in the Willamette Valley, the one day each year when the farmers burned the stubble left in their fields after the harvest. The smoke was so thick you could barely see across the track; it was no day to even be outdoors, much less training. But there were those thousand people. For them, Pre ran his workout mile in 3:58.3 and coughed blood at the end. And then, his lungs gravely wounded, he found a bullhorn and thanked the people for their support.

That wasn’t the first time Pre had sacrificed himself for his people. A year earlier, in a four-way track meet that included arch-rival Washington State, Pre ran a 3:56 mile and a 13:06 three-mile, at the time the greatest distance double in history. It was a routine college track meet, but Washington State had come with a top recruit from Kenya and the stands were full. The effort knocked Pre off form for a month—you could see he wasn’t himself—but just 13 days later in a Twilight Meet, running on “dead legs,” Pre answered the call of his people again with a 3:55-flat mile, at the time the third-fastest mile ever by an American.

From the crowds of people that came to see him run, Pre drew energy. And they loved him for it. But when they cried for him to surge too often, break away too soon, run harder than he needed to to win—and when he responded as he always did—it robbed him of strength that hurt him later in the year, especially when he raced in Europe, months away from his conditioning base. But the most important thing in Pre’s mind seemed to be to please his fans, his people. He ran for them, never holding anything back, and they loved him for that too.

But for all that he was—for all the energy and responsibility, for all the confidence and charisma, for all the involvement and commitment—Pre remained just a sweet kid, warm and friendly. In conversation, he would often reach out and touch you, connecting with you. If he hadn’t seen you for a while, you might be in for a hug. Though his fame gave him rock star status, he hated it because it tended to isolate him from people, made him doubt their motives. He wanted you to call him “Steve” because “Pre” was his rock star name, and he hated that, too. He was a star who didn’t act like a star.

* * *

He was not a pretty runner, flowing over the ground like so many of the great ones. Someone said Pre had scoliosis, which caused him to run with his body slightly twisted, like a tightly coiled spring. With his head cocked to one side as if listening to a secret voice, Pre forced himself around the track, running with a ferocity that denied relaxation, as if straining against the leash of his own limitations. Pre made running look hard, and you sensed his suffering.

Pre once said, “I like to make people say, ‘I’ve never seen anyone run like that before.’” And I suspect that’s why he always ran so hard—not just to win or set a record, but because there might be someone in the stands who had never seen him run.

For several years, I continued as a track photographer, so I was at ground level to notice that Pre had a strange habit before his Hayward Field races. Warming up, he would circle the infield, acknowledging friends on the track and in the stands with a wink and a smile. It struck me as peculiar, his outer-directedness before a race, his apparent lack of focus when you would expect just the opposite.

Then one day it occurred to me what his behavior reminded me of. It was show time, and Pre was “checking the house” like a stage actor peeking through the curtain before the show to see who was in the audience. But more than that, he was inviting us to participate in the performance he was about to give, and acknowledging that we were his inspiration. “A race is a work of art,” Pre once said, and if that is true then surely it is the only art form in which the artist breaks himself down as he proceeds through his work, breaks himself down to the point where the work is finished at the moment of the artist’s collapse; and the impact of the art, its capacity to move us, is determined solely by the courage of the artist.

Majestically, Pre would prance onto the track with authority of the alpha male claiming his territory. The gun would rise, then bark, releasing a tumble of athletes from which Pre would instantly emerge, seizing the lead and pressing the pace. Pre’s nature wouldn’t permit him a sit-and-kick race. He was impatient, hyper, and, knowing that he lacked finishing speed, Pre would counter with an intense pace all the way. Almost immediately he would go on the attack, punishing the field with savage bursts. When Pre ran, victories ensued, records fell. But they never seemed to be the point. The point was simply to run harder than anyone else, to take effort to a plane where no one else was willing to go. For Pre, it was never about winning or losing. “I don’t run races to see who’s the fastest,” he said. “I run races to see who has the most guts.” Pre came right at you. He was a smash-mouth runner, the only smash-mouth runner I ever saw.

At first, Pre’s impossible combination of pride, confidence and success irritated his opponents. But soon they came to respect him, then revere him—even love him—for he always gave them his best. He challenged his competitors to respond in kind, to go deeper into themselves than they had ever gone before, to run the race of their lives. And they either met that challenge or Pre would bury them. Runners came to measure themselves as athletes by whether they approached their races with Pre with eager anticipation or with dread and intimidation. When you took on Pre there was never any doubt: He would challenge your talent, your toughness, your training and your heart.

The last laps of his races were almost unbearable to watch. The pressure built, the pace increased, and Pre’s surges—like sword thrusts to the heart—began to separate him from his remaining rivals as, one by one, they faltered and broke. Pre ran for his people, he was ours and we were his, and as each opponent was dropped we roared our approval, a hoarse blood-roar unheard since the days of ancient Rome. He would come off the last turn staggering, almost falling, sustained only by the thunder which rose from the East and West grandstands, a thunder that deflected downward from the wooden roves, downward to the track where the athletes ran through sound so great, so dense, so deafening that it had the force of wind. Often, at the finish, with both hands Pre would grab the yarn which spanned the track in those days before electronic timing, a final gesture of dominance and defiance, like a predator seizing prey.

You didn’t have to understand running to be awed by Pre. You just had to understand effort. And will.

A man once said, “To see others will themselves to do what seems impossible is to understand what the body is capable of achieving, and finally to see what a glorious thing … what a glorious thing being human is.” And there you have it. That is what set Pre apart from anyone we had seen on the track before. That is what still sets Pre apart today, and why we who saw him run still speak of him as we do. Pre willed himself to do impossible things. He drove himself to the brink, not just once or twice, but every time he set foot on the track. More than once he rallied from almost certain defeat to give his people one more victory; more than once he overcame crushing fatigue to deliver one more record. The amazing thing about Pre was not that he raced so well, but that he raced so well so often. “I want a race,” he said, “where it comes down to … who can push himself the farthest into that kind of exhaustion where running is unnatural, where you have to whip yourself to go on.” Pre made sure he got that race, made sure he got it every time, the kind of race that transforms talent and training and courage into near invincibility.

And here it bears repeating, that amazing record: For six years—the track seasons of 1970 through 1975—they came to Eugene, the best in the nation at 2, 3 and 6 miles, the best and 5,000 and 10,000 meters. They came for dual meets and quadrangulars, for Twilight meets and invitationals, for national championships and Olympic Trials. For six years they came to Hayward Field, ready and rested, believing that this day they would defeat that punk, that Prefontaine, on his home turf. But they never did. No one. Not once. Never.

* * *

Pre created a kind of madness in Eugene, a cult of admiration and adulation. Pre’s people were not so much fans as followers, and events at Hayward Field ceased to be mere track meets and became instead hand-clapping, foot-pounding, lung-busting, hysteria-induced revival meetings.

When Pre ran, we felt better about ourselves, glorious in our shared humanity. When Pre ran, we dared to imagine—then believe—that we, too, had deep within ourselves, embers of that same extraordinary fire. Pre inspired us to accept challenge, to attempt, to strive, to risk, to endure. We fed on his unfailing strength and heart, and he, in turn, fed on our frenzy. He blazed through our lives like a shooting star, an incarnation of courage and will. There never had been an athlete like this boy who ran with the fury of an enraged bull. There never had been a sound to match the din of 10,000 berserk people, on their feet, a tempest howling “Go Pre! Go Pre!”

And then he was gone. John Donne wrote, “Any man’s death diminishes me,” but the death of this man, this boy, diminished an entire sport. The grief felt at Pre’s loss went beyond the loss of a great athlete, or the loss of a boy, a youth, however dear. The loss of Pre meant, as well, the loss of our exemplar, our standard, our beacon. The light was out.

Steve Prefontaine died on May 30, 1975. But we don’t have to believe that if we don’t want to. Heroes like Steve Prefontaine never really die. They live on in our hearts and perform their warrior deeds on the big screens of memory and imagination. They define the excellence to which we aspire. They arouse our spirits. They fire our souls.

We just have to somehow get past the tears in our eyes, the bloody spike-wounds on our hearts, and the loss that will stay with us until our final day.

RELATED: New Movie About Steve Prefontaine Nearing Completion

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