U.S. Olympic distance running icon Steve Prefontaine ran his final race on May 29, 1975, and won, a 5000m at the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field.
Hours later, he died after driving his orange 1973 MGB convertible into a rock embankment now known as “Pre’s Rock,” a shrine seen by runners visiting Eugene from around the world. (More on the circumstances of Prefontaine’s death in a (Eugene) Register-Guard story from this week here).
Prefontaine finished fourth in his only Olympic race, the Munich 1972 5000m, but he was at the time of his death and is perhaps even more today one of the most inspirational Olympians not to win a medal, for a nation that especially celebrates podium finishers.
A Sports Illustrated cover athlete, Prefontaine’s magnetic passion, American records from 2000m to 10,000m, and his front-running style continued to be celebrated in print and in the 1997 and 1998 films “Prefontaine” and “Without Limits,” which have become popular road-trip viewings for high school track teams.
In his final race 40 years ago, Prefontaine defeated friend and 1972 Olympic marathon champion Frank Shorter. Shorter has described the events of May 29, 1975, many times. You can watch Shorter go through it in the film, “Fire on the Track.”
“We had a very simple telephone call. He called up and said, ‘Gee, I really need you to come out and run this race because [Finnish 1972 Olympic 5000m and 10,000m champion Lasse] Viren’s backed out, and he’s not going to be here.’ My response was, sure. It wasn’t a problem. Again, some people would say, Oh God, my reputation, I’m not trained for it. … We were good enough friends, that he was asking me a favor. I knew that even though he would probably beat me, we were certainly going to have a fun race. Maybe he’d drag me along, and I could run pretty fast. As I recollect the race, I think I did a fair amount of leading at the start. We kind of traded off. He ran something under 13 minutes and 30 seconds, and I ran a little bit over. That’s how it turned out. I ran a pretty good performance. But he was in better shape than I was at that point in time.”
Shorter believed he was the last person to see Prefontaine alive that night, after Prefontaine dropped him off at the home of 1968 and 1972 Olympian and former Oregon runner Kenny Moore.
“I probably talked to him maybe two or three minutes before he died. He was fine. I was fine. I said good night to him, and we may have even talked about running the next day. I went to sleep actually feeling very good, like it had been a great evening. And lo and behold, I got awakened early the next morning by Kenny Moore. He told me Steve had died heading down the hill.”
The annual Prefontaine Classic track and field meet takes place at Hayward Field on Friday and Saturday. The men’s 5000m race is Friday night at 9 p.m. local time/12 a.m. Saturday Eastern time live on USATF.TV, preceded by a “Pre’s Legacy” piece, according to the Register-Guard.
“Not focus so much on his death, but that 40 years ago was his last race and since then the impact he’s had on all facets of U.S. track and field,” meet director Tom Jordan said, according to the newspaper.
The majority of events are Saturday. NBCSN will have live coverage Saturday from 3:30-4:30 p.m. ET, followed by NBC from 4:30-6. NBC Sports Live Extra will stream the entire broadcast window. The full schedule and entry lists can be found here.