Pre’s Rock—40 Years Later

Photo: Kennett Mohrman

Every day for the past 40 years on a narrow neighborhood road in Eugene, Ore., people of all ages, from all over the world, come to this slate-black rock on the side of the street. They’re here to pay their respects to Steve Prefontaine, America’s greatest distance runner—at the very spot where the 24-year-old took his last breaths.

At 12:40 a.m. on May 30, 1975, Prefontaine’s 1973 gold MGB convertible flipped while he drove home, after dropping off Frank Shorter at Kenny Moore’s house, both friends and fellow elite American runners who ran in the 1972 Olympics. Despite the help of a neighbor on the scene, the weight of the car suffocated Prefontaine.

To this day, the exact details of Pre’s accident are unclear. The questions will remain unanswered, likely forever at this point.

Whether by inattention, inebriation, or another errant driver headed up the hill toward Prefontaine head-on (Eugene’s enduring version of a second-gunman-on-the-grassy-knoll theory), Pre veered left, straight into that 15-foot slab of rock. This outcropping upended his car, crushing the driver, who was, at the time, an irresistible force in running. Pre oozed charisma, swagger and sex appeal, and held every American distance running record between 2,000 and 10,000 meters, all while tirelessly fighting for athletes’ rights at great risk to his own career. He was what we nowadays call a crossover star: In the context of the ensuing 40 years, the fact that he made non-sports fans care about distance running, of all things, is no mean feat. He made running cool as no one else has before or since.

If Pre was larger than life, his tragic death, occurring just as he was on the cusp of realizing his nearly limitless potential in the following year’s Olympics, also had a rock-star quality to it that you just can’t make up (which is why James Dean is a frequent, though somewhat lazy, comparison). Pre was a cult hero—with a genuine cult of personality in running-mad Eugene—and right away, that chunk of rock on Skyline Boulevard attracted visitors. The next day, the teenage neighbor who tried to help Prefontaine graffitied “PRE 5-30-75 RIP” on the rock, which has remained since, with regular touching up. In 1997, inmates at the Oregon state prison (whom Pre often spoke to and mentored away from the public eye) contributed an elegant, headstone-like granite marker, the only formal display on site.

Just as Pre’s outsized personality outlived his physical time on earth, the site of his death has also gained momentum over the years, morphing into a quasi-pilgrimage site for runners. Every day—and especially during large track events—the rock draws visitors who bequeath running-specific offerings to Pre. There’s always a curious and sometimes poignant array of track spikes, trophies, medals, personal notes, bib numbers, friendship bracelets, singlets, race T’s and other assorted items, all arranged individually at the base of the rock—a tithe to both the sport of running and to a man now deified in its pantheon.

As each successive generation of runners discovers and gets seduced by the story of Pre, they come here.

Forty years later, it’s somewhat of a macabre tourist attraction in a city that proudly calls itself “Tracktown USA.” And if that last sentence makes you a bit uneasy, you’re not alone. In Eugene, Pre’s Rock straddles an uncomfortable line between its recognition as a memorial and as a roadside attraction that sometimes attracts a carnival atmosphere on important race days (the spot is promoted by tourism bureaus; it’s on local running maps; and road signs, before they inevitably get stolen, refer people in its general, winding direction). As a native Eugenean, I’ve never been sure how I’ve felt about this myself.

While in town recently for the Prefontaine Classic, I decided to revisit Pre’s Rock throughout the weekend’s anniversary to observe the regulars as well as the pilgrims seeing it with fresh eyes. Because although those I interviewed for our May feature story who were close to Prefontaine are often creeped out or disgusted that people want to visit the spot where he took his last, undignified breaths, Pre’s Rock has meaning. Even if visitors are spilling out of tour buses or taking selfies in front of the rock, they all come here with honorable intentions.

It’s an odd place for a monument, and not just because of its history. It’s in a residential neighborhood, on a narrow, steep, precarious street that’s banked high on each side with what must be rock—it’s hard to be sure, because several dense layers of ivy cover everything, starting from the pavement on up to the tallest tree. Birds chirp throughout the thick forest canopy. It’s lush, peaceful and somber. Yet there’s a disquiet about the place, as it hits you, every time, that the legendary Steve Prefontaine died here. And when you think of all the momentum that Pre had going for him that stopped at this very spot on the pavement, you wonder, as a runner, how the often-frustrating sport of track and field might be different today had he made it home safely on that cool spring night.

***

After meeting a visiting BBC reporter in town for the track meet at a pre-Pre Classic event we both attended, I offer him a ride to Hayward Field. At the last minute, I suggest stopping by Pre’s Rock. He’d recorded a profile story on Pre’s life while in Oregon, but this was to be his first time to the site. As we turn the final corner, we find that, incredibly, an hour before the Friday-night races are to begin, no one is here. A few birds sing, the dappled evening sun dances through the tree canopy, and we have Pre’s Rock all to ourselves. Very few words were said, and that was just fine.

***

What do people expect to get out of a visit to Pre’s Rock?

To understand Pre’s Rock, you need to understand what Prefontaine the man has slowly become: an American folk hero, more legend than human. His story checks all the boxes: a small-town kid blessed with immense talent, ferocious determination and a reckless abandon whose ability took him to the Olympics, while his sheer force of personality made him a household name. Yet even at the height of Pre mania he remained a working-class man of the people who tended bar, never missed a workout and lived an ascetic lifestyle out of a trailer. His anti-authoritarianism made him very much a man of his time, as did his ’70s brand of mustachioed sex appeal.

Despite being consumed with running, he seemed to find his other true calling in enthusiastically counseling both kids and convicts. He backed up his bold predictions with dominating performances on the track, and raced every single race to the point of exhaustion, that, in death, he has come to symbolize the platonic ideal of running: a willingness to suffer, always running from the front, and leaving it all on the track at the end. He was fond of saying, “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift,” and he showed a martyr-like willingness to suffer for his fans in every race. He’s inspired thousands—maybe millions by now—to take up running. He was not only possessed of superhuman athletic ability, like any hero, he was also tragically flawed. And with that shock ending, his is a story that became an instant legend.

University of Oregon professor Daniel Wojcik made all of the above points in an excellent academic article on the significance of Pre’s Rock. He cannily observes that for runners, this is hallowed ground. “Pre’s Rock is not only characterized by traditions of memorialization … for some individuals it is a place of pilgrimage, reverence and spirituality,” he writes. “A number of people regard the site as a ‘sacred place’ for runners, or as one person stated it, ‘The Church of Pre.’ … Some of them say that they can feel Prefontaine’s ‘presence’ or his ‘spirit’ here, and they seek to interact with his life and legacy. The practices and personalized spirituality expressed at Pre’s Rock blur the boundaries between the sacred and the secular, pilgrimage and tourism, shrine and memorial, inspiration and supernatural intercession.”

In other words, people who come here want to be near greatness. Maybe there’s even a bit of transcendent energy to be felt? Something like a mainline to the spirit of running itself, if one can suggest such an idea. They still want to still be one of Pre’s People, as the passionate Hayward Field fans were once known. For runners, Pre’s Rock is a rite of passage; others simply want to pay their respects to Pre for being the beacon of light that he remains.

***

By early Saturday morning, exactly 40 years to the day after Pre passed away here, several extinguished votive candles remained from the night before, arranged neatly atop the curb. It must have been quite a sight, the tiny flames illuminating the graphite headstone and pitch-black rock on that dark stretch of road.

***

Nike director Steve Bence, a former 800-meter runner who was a close friend and teammate of Pre at the University of Oregon, visits the rock regularly, and takes groups of Nike employees (among whom Pre was one of the first) here as the final stop on what the company calls the Heritage Tour of its early startup days in Eugene.

“The reason I like going there is I can bring him to life,” Bence says. “When you’re there where he died, you can explain the events that day leading up to his death. It kind of makes it more real. Then I always tell one personal story about Pre, so he doesn’t seem like some mythical figure—he was just a guy that lived like the rest of us. I like to think that it energizes or inspires people to keep the soul of Nike alive so we don’t turn into just another corporation.”

***

Saturday’s track events are over, and there’s a steady procession of cars at the rock, license plates from all over. A man hands me his camera and asks if I’d take a photo of him and his large, smiling group in front of the rock.

***

What does one actually do at Pre’s Rock?

The sound of digital camera shutter clicks aside, there is often a respectful quiet here. Everyone is internalizing the mise en scène—the natural environment, the loss that took place here, as well as Prefontaine’s enduring hold on people right now, as evidenced by all the running paraphernalia around the rock.

Many of the items are touching. How could anyone not be moved by the notion of an idealistic high schooler leaving his or her hard-won trophy at this place? Notes thanking—or asking—Pre for his inspiration through a personal victory or hardship can be devastatingly beautiful. For although the no-nonsense Prefontaine would have probably bristled at the fuss of a monument bestowed upon him, there can be no doubt that he’d be satisfied at this place’s enduring ability to support and motivate people just as he had enthusiastically done for others in his lifetime.

Most of all here, you find yourself reconstructing the scene of the accident, looking up and down the street, wondering what could possibly make someone turn so hard off the road so suddenly.

***

In between departures and arrivals, I chat up a photographer who turns out to be from the local newspaper, unobtrusively snapping the occasional photo. He lives nearby and comes here regularly to shoot. As we talk, a jogger huffs and puffs up the hill to the rock, touches it for a brief second, then turns and coasts right back down as if he’d done it hundreds of times before.

***

Nearby at Hayward Field, Pre had a hold on Eugene’s track fans that was unlike anything else in sports. He was never beaten here in any race longer than a mile (and in two of those mile-race loses, Pre ran under four minutes). But his undefeated record wasn’t what made him special. He had a symbiotic relationship with the fans. They adored him, and he was always effusive in his praise for them. He would emerge onto the track to warm up coming out like a matador, his fans in the stadium roaring for blood, and he never failed to put on a show. He would, as always, start fast and take the lead, grinding down his opponents one by one, lap by lap. “Pre! Pre! Pre!” would rain down from the stands, an entire stadium in unison. The frenzy would crescendo in the final laps as they willed him to go for the kill, and Pre would always dutifully oblige, digging especially deep on days when he didn’t always have it, yet he always managed to pull it out.

Part of what made his races so enthralling, though, was just how Pre was made. He was not a graceful runner. As quick as he was, he was built exceptionally solid, and labored around the track like a buffalo running among gazelles. Everyone watching could sense the difficulty, and exactly how much effort Pre was forcing into his race. At the finish line, depending on how spent he was, he’d either snatch the finish tape with both hands, pouncing on his prey, or he’d wobble across the line with an expression of total agony across his face, looking like he’d been picked off by a sniper.

Pre didn’t just race, he put on a performance. Eugeneans got to witness six glorious years of this.

***

Two middle-age men in cargo shorts near the rock look up the street, then down it, pointing this way and that, assuming the role of armchair forensic experts. They talk quietly among themselves. “Well, Pre did like to drink,” one of them was overheard to say.

***

We’ll likely never know what happened that night.

It’s always been tempting for many to dismiss this as a case of impaired driving. Pre was reported to have had several beers at the party he was at that night, and, although it’s rarely mentioned anymore as he’s become more myth than man, he was fondly known around town to be a bit of a bon vivant. The first officer on the scene said he could smell alcohol from half a block away, and a sample taken during Pre’s autopsy revealed a blood alcohol content of twice the current legal limit. His sister Linda vehemently denies that he was drunk, however, and it’s been established that the toxicology report was grossly mishandled. And many think Shorter would have insisted on taking the wheel if Pre had been unfit to drive. Based on evidence at the scene, it’s also been speculated that Pre was reaching for a John Denver tape and missed the turn (another theory that Linda denies, having later found the tape in Pre’s van). Then there’s a popular local legend of another car forcing Pre off the road. The true identity of the driver has been whispered about around town for years, whom Grantland recently attempted to pursue.

All of these theories (or any combination of them) dead-end at the same place, though. As Tom Jordan succinctly wrote in his biography of Prefontaine, “The end result is the same.”

This Zen-like take on the matter is both completely true and deeply unsatisfying. Pre’s was a death that seems irreconcilable with his life and his seemingly superhuman talent and accomplishments. Heroes and idols simply don’t die senseless deaths. The unresolved and undignified nature of Pre’s passing offers no answers, no comfort and no closure.

It is in this void that people—fans—seek to create meaning out of his life.

***

A family of four parks their SUV, gets out and walks toward the rock. They spend a few moments in silence, taking in the ambiance. Soon the true reason for their visit is revealed as the high-school-age daughter sheepishly places a pair of track spikes in among the other offerings.

***

Pre’s background, ethos and tragic ending seem tailor-made for teenagers, who naturally seek out heroes for identity and guidance in those awkward years. The most talented marketing team in the world couldn’t possibly invent a better idol for high school runners. He’s forever entombed in his youth—brash, virile, kind-hearted and idealistic till the end. And while most people probably haven’t watched either of the Pre movies in years, prep runners ritualistically view them before races for inspiration. In other words, for many high-school athletes, worshipping Pre is a habit.

In fact, high school and college coaches will bring their entire teams come up here—and not just the running sports. It’s not even that uncommon for runners of all ages to do crazy things like touch their racing shoes to the rock before a race to glean some kind of supernatural, superstitious running power from it.

And as Nike co-founder and chairman Phil Knight has expressed throughout the years, Pre is and always has been the spiritual North Star to the world’s largest shoe and apparel company.

So after four decades, Pre hasn’t gone away—for anyone. Thanks to modern technology, we can now watch Pre’s races and interviews online anytime. For those of us born after 1975, it’s the most vivid way we’ll ever be able to experience him in action. But though he almost comes to life in these videos, he still always remains on the other side of that glass screen.

It’s at Pre’s Rock that the legendary runner’s vibe manifests itself in human form—not that of Pre himself, of course; rather in that assemblage of personal items brought one by one to this tucked-away roadside spot. Think for a second about this constant act, day after day (exactly 14,600 of them), over 40 years, of complete strangers visiting and offering genuine thanks to a deceased person for his impact on each of their lives. It’s a beautifully heartbreaking, life-affirming kind of thing.

Pre may have died here, but this spot now pulsates with life. People from around town and all over the world converge here. They and their objects bring color to this monochromatic spot. Whatever people leave, whether it’s a pair of running shoes or a Boston Marathon bib number, each item resting there has its own story that Pre helped write. The people that Steve Prefontaine continues to influence beyond the grave and each of their personal achievements are what give this funky little slab of rock its meaning, its purpose, and its significance—far more than any grand statue ever could.

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