Steve Prefontaine is known as the “James Dean of track” and is a legend among runners. A native of Coos Bay, Oregon, he was born in 1951 and died in a car accident in 1975 at the age of twenty-four. Though his life was short, he was a major star. Naturally, he’s been immortalized in books and movies, though none seem to really capture him all that well.
Watching Pre run a race was like watching Eric Clapton play guitar–it was endless coolness. His most celebrated event was the three-mile, and his full-on, full-out style and charisma put audiences on the edges of their seats, chanting, “Go, Pre.” Pre held armloads of speed records, the last of which was just broken in 2012. He ran the 5000 metres in the 1972 Olympics, placing fourth.
He also actively challenged the Amateur Athletics Union, which was amateur track’s governing body, because it essentially forced athletes to be dirt poor if they wanted to be eligible to compete in the Olympics. They weren’t allowed to receive money for personal appearances or event participation; they had to compete for free, preferably at the AAU’s bidding. Three years after Pre died, Jimmy Carter signed the Amateur Sports Act, which stripped the AAU of its authority and freed athletes from its stifling rules.
Additionally, Pre was instrumental in the development of a little shoe company called Nike. His coach, Bill Bowerman, began by making shoes in his garage using his wife’s waffle iron, and had all his track athletes test them on the field. Pre was Nike’s media liason, and had to be paid in shoes because AAU. His rocker persona was a perfect fit for the job, and set the tone for the company that has outfitted the likes of Michael Jordan, Maria Sharapova, Bo Jackson, and, bafflingly, the highly overrated Colin Kaepernick.
For a guy who died as young as Prefontaine did, he left quite a legacy. Besides working against the AAU, he mentored prison inmates, including designing workouts for them, he coached children in track and field, and he encouraged his fellow runners to improve their craft, such as one Mary Decker Slaney. He saw races as works of art, and strove for purity as an athlete.
And oh man, Prefontaine was a tough fella. His sister, Linda, remembers him running up and down a certain dune at the beach in Coos Bay, and it wasn’t just any dune, but a steep forty-five degree slope. Sand is hard enough to run on, but add an angle to it and it’s a recipe for pain. Speaking of which, Pre awed others with his ability to push through pain, even if it wasn’t the best thing for him. He once caught his foot on a diving board bolt and then ran the next day, even though his foot had twelve stitches in it. That’s definitely not advisable, and it takes serious fortitude. I’m sure Pre paid for it the next morning.
He may be a legend, but books and movies about Pre are rare. The best and most comprehensive biography seems to be Pre: The Story of America’s Greatest Running Legend by Tom Jordan. Jordan uses various iterations of the term, “tough” more than one can shake the proverbial stick at, but it’s a very authentic, thorough portrait of Prefontaine, drawn primarily from reminisces by Pre’s family and friends.
And what kinds of things did they say? Pre drove a gold MG. He liked to wear purple to track practice. He liked salad and beer, but would splurge on junk food now and then. He wanted to open a bar called Sub-4, with photos on the walls of runners who could cover the mile in under four minutes. He was a guy who had a great sense of purpose, and was a good friend.
The 1997 film, Prefontaine took a similar approach to Jordan’s book, only in biopic form. Jared Leto played Pre, R. Lee Ermey played Bill Bowerman, and Ed O’Neill played assistant coach Bill Dellinger. The movie had the involvement of Prefontaine’s family, and they were very careful to stick to Pre’s story as it happened in most respects.
The other feature is 1998’s Without Limits, which stars Billy Crudup as Pre and Donald Sutherland as Bill Bowerman. It was produced by the Cruise/Wagner team and is much more slick than Prefontaine. Also unlike the previous film, which was more of a docudrama, Without Limits focused more on the relationship between Pre and Bowerman, as well as Pre’s relationship with one of his girlfriends, Mary Marckx.
Pre is kind of a devisive guy when it comes to his two biopics. There’s an ongoing debate among Pre fans whether Prefontaine or Without Limits captured him better, although neither is very good. The Without Limits crowd like to tout their film’s superior acting and better production values.
Me, I happen to be in the Prefontaine camp, because Without Limits feels like a vicarious ego-trip for its producer, Tom Cruise, who would have played Pre himself had he been younger. In my opinion, Billy Crudup was instructed to play the part the way Cruise would have played it, and it comes off as pretentious. Jared Leto, on the other hand, nails Pre’s drive and determination. He may have played Pre a little meaner than he probably was, because Pre was a charming guy, but Leto had the gutsy aspects of Pre’s personality down pat.
Plus, I don’t care for the liberties Without Limits takes with Pre’s story, despite its being co-written by his friend, Kenny Moore. It’s common for history to be changed and condensed to make an effective movie, but the key is to respect the subject matter. Billy Crudup’s Pre is a morally clumsy horndog who has to be taken down a peg by good girl Mary Marckx (Monica Potter). It’s unclear whether Pre sincerely sees the merit of her position or if he changes himself just to get into her pants.
Some aspects of the film were tacky and in poor taste. Remember when Pre caught his foot on a diving board nail and then ran with twelve stitches? In Without Limits, Pre gets that injury from trying to have sex upside down with a girl he sees jumping on a trampoline (It’s Amy Jo Johnson, by the way, best known as the original Pink Ranger).
People who knew Pre said that while he liked the ladies, he was extremely focused on running. Teammate Mac Wilkins remembered that the best-looking girl in school could ask Pre for a date and he would always say he had to check his schedule. It’s highly probable that one-night stands were not a priority for him, if they ever happened at all.
In fact, in her unpublished autobiography, Mary Marckx said that she had once teased Pre about how often he was in the sports shop picking up new shoes. She thought maybe he was using them to entice women. “No,” Pre told her. “I just go through a lot of shoes.”
(By the way, Mary Marckx doesn’t like to be asked about Pre, so if anyone’s thinking about it, please don’t try. But I digress.)
I have to wonder if Pre would have preferred to be immortalized in the inspiration he continues to foster. The Prefontaine Classic is run every year in Eugene, Oregon, and a running path known as Pre’s Trail follows the Willamette River. Built to Pre’s specifications, it’s a must-do for runners from all over. His sister, Linda, gives tours of Coos Bay, ushering visitors around town and telling them Pre’s story. His alma mater, the University of Oregon at Eugene, has built a new, modern grandstand, but they still honor Pre’s legacy.
I think the reason people still find Steve Prefontaine intriguing, even though it’s four-plus decades after his death, is that his gutsiness is catching. Aspiration should never be underestimated, especially when it’s done for the right reasons and with integrity. Pre had that in spades.
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- Crystal at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood
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- Michaela at Love Letters To Old Hollywood
- Gabriela at Pale Writer
Thanks for reading, all, and don’t forget, the Second Annual Broadway Bound Blogathon is tomorrow. Hope to see you then…
Pre: The Story of America’s Greatest Distance Runner, Prefontaine, and Without Limits are available on DVD from Amazon.
Jordan, Tom. Pre: The Story of America’s Greatest Distance Runner, Steve Prefontaine. Emmaus, Pennsylvania: St. Martin’s Press. Originally published in 1977.