Six and a half months before he died, America’s most transcendent distance runner bonded with Tacoma.
Steve Prefontaine jogged through Point Defiance Park with some of Tacoma’s fastest runners, and, near the Rhododendron Garden, proclaimed, “This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever run. You don’t know what you have here.”
The park reminded him of Coos Bay, Oregon, his hometown, and the waterfront reminded him of Finland, where he’d set the U.S. 5,000-meter record that summer.
It was mid-November 1974, and Prefontaine was the king of running. He’d set five American records that year. His spot on the 1976 Olympic team was a foregone conclusion. A gold medal was expected.
Pre, as almost everybody called him, was in Tacoma visiting friends, talking at schools and making an appearance for a young shoe company called Nike.
Saturday will be the 40th anniversary of Prefontaine’s death. He was killed in a car accident shortly after midnight, rocking the running world and leaving a void the sport still hasn’t filled.
“You ask people who the top (distance) runners are today, who was on the last Olympic team and a lot of people probably can’t tell you,” said Wilson High track coach Sam Ring, a friend of Prefontaine. “But they know Pre.”
Prefontaine’s relationship with Tacoma was short but sweet. His University of Oregon roommate, Pat Tyson, attended Lincoln High. A Sound to Narrows victory was dedicated to him. A movie about his life was filmed at the University of Puget Sound. And at least one of the kids Prefontaine met in ’74 still draws inspiration from the legend.
Prefontaine made several visits to Tacoma, running at Point Defiance each time. But it was that November ’74 visit his friends remember most.
Tyson arranged Prefontaine’s visit. The track star would speak at Hunt and Mason junior highs, then sign autographs at Scott’s Athletic Equipment in Lakewood. The owners, Scott and Sis Names, were among Nike’s original investors.
On the evening of Nov. 14, Ring and Tyson, friends since high school, took Prefontaine to a tavern on 38th Street. Prefontaine, 23 at the time, loved being around people.
“He had a genuine interest in people,” Ring said. “He’d strike up a conversation with anybody.”
“As long as they didn’t get weird,” said Tyson, now Gonzaga’s track coach. “You know, grab on and consume him with stupid questions.”
Shortly after their arrival at the tavern, things got ugly. Two men were fighting over a woman. Prefontaine intervened and helped defuse the brawl. “But we figured we better get him out of there,” Ring said. They moved on to the Schooner Pub in Lakewood.
At 6:15 the next morning, as they did every morning, the men planned to go for a run. They’d invited a few friends, but word got out and spread quickly.
When they started near the corner of Narrows Drive and Jackson Street, an estimated 50 people were there, shivering in the cold so they could run with the man who’d finished fourth in the 5,000 meters at the ’72 Olympics. The News Tribune even sent a reporter and a photographer.
“You are all freaks to get up this early,” Prefontaine told the crowd.
They ran six miles at about 10 mph. Pre worked the crowd.
“He was cordial as always,” said Terry Rice, who ran at Central Washington University. “He’d run up in front, then drop back and jog with the wogglers.”
Rice taught at Hunt, and Ring taught at Mason, and both were impressed by Prefontaine’s presentations at the schools later that day. He loaded a projector, showed film from some races and talked about setting goals.
The usually restless kids were silent as they listened.
“He was very special,” Rice said. “He had a charisma that is hard to describe.”
A picture from the Nov. 15 run was published in that evening’s edition of The News Tribune.
It shows Prefontaine as one of the shortest of a group that included several high school students.
Prefontaine is wearing a white jacket trimmed with red with a Nike logo stitched on his left chest. Nike had made the jacket for the trip.
Nike’s famous Swoosh logo was designed in ’71 and debuted on track shoes in ’72. The brand was so young, nobody seemed to notice a mistake had been made.
The Swoosh was sewn on backward.
“I think everybody would notice now,” Tyson said.
1975 SOUND TO NARROWS
Tyson was out for an early morning jog on May 30, 1975, when he returned home to find his landlord waiting. She had bad news.
Prefontaine, 24, was killed a few hours earlier. Tyson couldn’t believe the news.
Tyson remembers going to work at the Seattle junior high where he taught and seeing tears in his students’ eyes
“They were crying for me because they knew he was my friend,” Tyson said.
Tyson’s next race was supposed to be Tacoma’s third Sound to Narrows on June 7. He’d won it the year before, and Ring had won the first race.
He drove to Coos Bay for his friend’s funeral with every intention of dropping out of the race.
“It was at Pre’s funeral that I began to think — if he knew I was withdrawing from a competition he would roll over in his grave,” Tyson later told The News Tribune.
Instead, he decided to dedicate the race to his former roommate. He drove home after the funeral, arriving back in Seattle at 2:30 a.m. He was out for a training run before 6 a.m.
Three days later he lined up for the Sound to Narrows wearing an Oregon running singlet.
“I called on him for help,” Tyson said after the race. “It was there too.”
Tyson won. Ring was fifth.
Prefontaine’s Tacoma ties made the city a fitting location for the 1997 Hollywood Pictures (Disney) film “Prefontaine” starring Jared Leto.
Eugene, of course, would have been more fitting, but the rights to film there had already been obtained by Warner Brothers for the 1998 Prefontaine movie “Without Limits.”
The University of Puget Sound’s Baker Stadium played the role of Oregon’s Hayward Field. Olympia got a cameo as Coos Bay.
Several of the men who ran with Pre in Tacoma in November of ’74 had bit roles in the film. Tyson and Ring served as advisers for the film they say Prefontaine’s parents preferred.
Leto, in his third movie, was dedicated to the role, Ring said. Tyson trained Leto, getting him to the point where he could crank out 60-second laps on the UPS track.
However, Breckin Meyer, the actor who portrayed Tyson, wasn’t much of a runner. During race scenes, Ring said, Meyer would hide behind the pole vault pit, then pop out and join runners for the final stretch.
The movie received mostly good reviews and still inspires runners.
Nick Paterno, a Pierce College math instructor and PowerBar-sponsored runner, remembers watching “Prefontaine” when he was a freshman at Emerald Ridge High. Today, Paterno sports a mustache that is partly a tribute to the running icon.
“My dad always had a mustache, and Pre had one, so when I was old enough to grow one that didn’t look terrible, I kept it,” Paterno said.
Paterno also works at Fleet Feet Sports in Tacoma, where a picture of Prefontaine hangs in a back room. He says Prefontaine’s running style still resonates with runners.
“People like that style of going all out from the beginning,” Paterno said. “You just don’t see that much anymore.”
In November of ’74, Pat Cordle was a senior at Wilson High when Ring, his old junior high coach, asked if he wanted to go for a morning run with Prefontaine.
Of course he did.
“It’s had a lasting impact on me,” Cordle said from his office at Bic headquarters in Connecticut where he is vice president of field sales.
He is 58 now and still passionate about running. He travels the world extensively to race with friends. Their next half marathon will be in Iceland.
Cordle still has the newspaper clipping from the 1974 run, signed by everybody in the picture. It was a gift from Ring.
And hanging on his office wall is a black and white photo of Prefontaine in the final steps of a victory at Hayward Field. Above it is one of the runner’s most famous quotes.
In 2011, Cordle was inducted into the Convenience Store News Industry Hall of Fame. During his acceptance speech, he told the story of running the streets of Tacoma with the man who helped inspire his work ethic.
Then, he shared the Prefontaine quote: “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”