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David Antonio Perezcassar

Steve Prefontaine’s Last Run

Forty years after the track icon’s death, his life continues to affect athletes everywhere — and his loss haunts those at home

On May 29, 1975, having won his 5,000-meter race at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, earlier that day, Steve Prefontaine attended a post-race celebration. The party was at his friend Geoff Hollister’s house, tucked amid the trees in the older, statelier part of town. The night was clear, the mood was jubilant. Several elite runners — Jon Anderson (the 1973 winner of the Boston Marathon and son of Les Anderson, Eugene’s mayor at the time), Kenny Moore, and Frank Shorter, among others — were in attendance at Hollister’s that night. Even Prefontaine’s parents, Ray and Elfriede, stopped by before making the two-hour drive back to their hometown of Coos Bay.

Around midnight, Prefontaine, 24, said his goodbyes, climbed into his butterscotch MG, and gave his friend Shorter a lift to Moore’s house, where Shorter was crashing for the night. In the era long before race purses, appearance fees, and shoe deals, elite runners like Shorter and Prefontaine relied on the lower-key runner-couch economy.

Shorter had been a late addition to the meet, coming to Eugene from Colorado after Prefontaine’s rival, Olympic gold medalist Lasse Viren, pulled out. Prefontaine had picked up the phone and called Shorter, who had won a gold medal in the marathon at the 1972 Munich Olympics, to see if he would fill in. “Oh,” Shorter told me he said to Prefontaine. “You need someone to beat?”

The two laughed. Shorter was in.

But Prefontaine had actually wanted something else from him. Prefontaine was in an ongoing battle with the Amateur Athletic Union, and he needed support. In front of Moore’s house, he sat in the driver’s seat of the car and spoke with Shorter. How could professional runners like them make a living in the sport? What was their next move? AAU officials said that if athletes wanted to remain “amateur” and eligible for the Olympics, they could not be paid for appearances at track meets, limiting the options for athletes who needed to finance their own careers.

With golden hair, movie star charisma, and a rebellious air, Prefontaine was redefining what it meant to be an Olympic athlete. Through his fame as a tough runner with a fierce kick and outspoken nature, he emerged as a rebel with a cause: improving life for working athletes. Neither Oregon nor the sport of running had ever seen a personality as bold as Prefontaine’s, let alone one so fearless in criticizing his sport’s governing body. With his friends in Eugene, Prefontaine was an early employee of a small shoe company that would later be called Nike. His efforts to support himself, change the place of running in mainstream culture, and involve athletes in the industry that was built on their work had spectacularly lasting consequences.

After their conversation in front of Moore’s house, Shorter got out of the car. The two agreed to go for a training run the next morning to continue the conversation.

Seconds later, as Prefontaine began the drive down the windy, narrow strip of Skyline Boulevard, he lost control of his MG and it flipped over. He was crushed under the weight of his car. At just after midnight on May 30, 1975, Prefontaine died.

Shortly after his death, Congress passed the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, providing a more advantageous legal framework for athletes. Running has gone from a pastime reserved for Olympians to a habit for the masses. And Nike has a market capitalization of nearly $90 billion. It is a publicly traded empire that continues to weave its corporate origin story with Prefontaine’s edgy biography.

But even 40 years afterward, his death and questions surrounding it haunt the places where his life began and ended and the people he left behind. Despite the global reach of his legacy, his is the story of a small town.

Steve Prefontaine #1005 of the United States leads Lasse Viren of Finland #228 and  Emiel Puttemans of Belgium #61  during the Men's 5,000 metres event at the XX Summer Olympic Games on 10 September 1972 at the Olympic Stadium in Munich, Germany.

Tony Duffy/Getty Images

Steve Roland Prefontaine was born on January 25, 1951. His father, Ray, met his German mother, Elfriede, while serving with the U.S. Army during World War II, and like many veterans, he returned to the States eager to settle and raise a family. They headed to Coos Bay, in the country’s northwest corner, where Ray had family. (Elfriede at first barely spoke English.) Steve had an older half-sister, Neta, and a younger sister, Linda, and the family lived in a modest house on Elrod Street, their home marked by a wooden placard made by their father that proclaimed “Mr. and Mrs. R.G. Prefontaine” in silver letters.

Prefontaine’s hometown is a study in contradictions. The smell of sand mingles with the scent of splintered wood. At the diners, loggers wrap scarred hands around coffee cups. Some are missing fingers — a common hazard of the profession. No one blinks. Bus-riding hippies wouldn’t think twice about lighting up a joint in the open. The Egyptian Theater’s art deco sign still advertises the current movies. The historic post office is now an art museum, and freight trains rest along the waterfront tracks. Some are no longer running. But between 1960 and 1970, Coos Bay’s population roughly doubled, to 13,000, as families like the Prefontaines settled, multiplied, and flourished off the working-class stability of the fishing and lumber industries.

Prefontaine would become the unusual personality that appealed to both the long-haired left and to the rugged lumberjacks and longshoremen of the right. Like his fans — “Pre’s People,” they often called themselves — Prefontaine had a strong independent streak that he didn’t try to hide, a chip on his shoulder that made him relatable to the typical Coos Bay resident.

“Pre was more than a name,” author, former collegiate wrestler, and fellow Oregon boy wonder Ken Kesey said in the 1995 documentary Fire on the Track. “It was a condition.”

Prefontaine tried out for the football team at Marshfield High School, but he was quickly deemed too small. In swimming, he sank. Basketball didn’t take either. “But he was good at the tag games on our block,” Jay Farr, a friend from Prefontaine’s high school told me.

So, his freshman year of high school, Prefontaine decided to give running a try.

They ran on the dunes, they ran on the streets, they ran in the woods. During winter, they ran in long johns and argued with the football players in the Marshfield High School locker room about which was harder: swimming, football, or track.

For a small-town high school, Marshfield’s track program was exceptional. Marshfield’s track coach, Walt McClure, was the son of an Olympic runner and had run under Bill Bowerman at the University of Oregon. Just two hours away, in Eugene, Bowerman was trying to spread the concept of running as a casual pastime, a hobby that anyone could do anywhere. His tome, Jogging, would go on to become a bible in the sport — against long odds. In Oregon, the sight of Prefontaine and his high school friends running along the roads was typical, but in other parts of the country it would have been considered downright bizarre. Few people in those days ran for fun. The skeptics liked to ask what people were running from.

Prefontaine had respectable freshman and sophomore seasons on the cross-country team, but he did nothing special. Junior year was different. McClure became known for wearing a wreath of mechanical stopwatches, one for each runner. He placed Prefontaine on a more intense interval-training regime, a then-novel strategy that would later become standard. Prefontaine’s running routine was so intense that McClure rotated him through training partners, since any single runner would face rubber legs otherwise. He hit just about every interval McClure asked of him.

“One of the great qualities of Pre is he made everyone around him better,” Mac McIntosh, a hurdler on the varsity team during Prefontaine’s senior year, said. McIntosh was a self-described “military brat” and “scrawny sophomore” of Caucasian and Japanese descent, and he was new in town. Being on the team provided McIntosh an excuse to hang around the cooler upperclassmen. He remembers the sight of a bunch of muddied, darkened shirts of the track team as they slogged their way around the loop. “But Pre always had a clean white shirt on the front,” McIntosh said. “He led every single race.”

McIntosh went on to compete in the hurdles at the United States Air Force Academy and served as a colonel before retiring from the Air Force in 2005 and returning to Coos Bay with his wife. In the time that he had been away, the population of the school has decreased by more than half, as the fishing and logging industries have evaporated since his childhood there. Today, McIntosh, who received his first pair of spikes from Prefontaine, is the head coach at Marshfield. He weaves his own anecdotes about Prefontaine into his pep talks to his students.

Prefontaine garnered national attention when he set the high school record for the two-mile (8:41.5) in 1969. Letters from college recruiters poured in to the Prefontaine mailbox. He decided to stay close to home and attend Oregon, where Bill Bowerman, his high school coach’s coach and an increasingly well-known figure in the sport, was waiting.

Steve Prefontaine leads during the AAU Meet in Eugene, Oregon.

Tony Duffy /Allsport

When people talk about Prefontaine’s time at Oregon, they tend to use religious language: “divine intervention,” “a miracle,” “intervention by the hand of God,” “a supernatural occurrence.” It was the right place, right time, right guy.

Running was becoming more popular everywhere. In the late 1960s, access to better footwear was expanding; even in Coos Bay, one could buy a pair of Onitsuka Tiger athletic shoes (later known as Asics). In addition to Tigers, Converse Chuck Taylors and New Balance Tracksters — early pioneers of the expanding sports footwear business were being sold to the rising fleet of casual athletes. Political rebellion and countercultural vibes opened the door for skinny guys to become cool.

But in Eugene, originally named “Skinner’s Mudhole,” running was already a way of life. Eugene’s mild weather and soft trails were ideal for road running; it was the home of the evangelist Bowerman himself. Working with Oregon coaches Bowerman and Bill Dellinger, a former Olympian, Prefontaine claimed NCAA titles all four years at school. Every time he took the track, fervor erupted at Hayward Field. He was recognized on campus by runners and non-runners. He ran not with the elegance that usually inspires awe in fans, but with obvious effort. He looked ravaged every time he crossed the finish line. Crowds went wild. “There was nothing like watching him run,” Sherry Shirley said. “He was electric.”

During part of his college career, Prefontaine lodged with Shirley and her husband, Cliff, a local couple who met him through volunteering as track officials. Cliff Shirley often hired local college athletes, including Prefontaine, to work in his various businesses. Prefontaine ran dozens of miles through the streets of Eugene every week. The sight of him preparing for a race was just as common as the antiwar protesters and trees that lined the streets. He was the rarest of elite athletes: a true local.

Sitting in a Yale University dining hall in 1969, senior Frank Shorter flipped through a copy of Sports Illustrated and read that a high school student was outpacing times the Shorter was clocking in NCAA competition. And he wasn’t afraid to let people know it. Prefontaine was carving out a reputation as the most intimidating of competitors: the one who talked a big game and delivered on it. Shorter turned to someone at the table.

“Jesus,” Shorter said. “This high school kid from Coos Bay is running faster than I am.”

From there, Prefontaine’s career seemed unstoppable. He smashed collegiate and American records and competed in the 1972 Munich Olympics. Prefontaine was favored to at least land on the podium in the 5,000 meters.

“He’s inexperienced enough in many ways not to know how good the others are,” the announcer said as Prefontaine made his way around the Olympic track leading the pack with three laps to go. Two hundred meters from the finish, Prefontaine was still in a small cluster at the front. “These are the medal men,” the announcer said. But Prefontaine’s Finnish rival Lasse Viren surged to the front to win the gold medal, and Mohammed Gammoudi of Tunisia and Ian Stewart of Great Britain narrowly darted in front of Prefontaine, who missed the bronze medal by less than one second. It was a heartbreaking loss — but one that only increased his legend.

“Prefontaine dies in the final stride,” the announcer said.

Prefontaine wasn’t just setting American and collegiate records. He was becoming one of the most outspoken critics of the Amateur Athletic Union, the governing body for track athletes. At the time, athletes needed to ask permission to compete in non-AAU events, a governance issue that crippled their ability to earn money through sponsorships and appearance fees.

Prefontaine lived in a trailer in Glenwood with his Oregon teammate Pat Tyson. Glenwood, just on the outskirts of Eugene, is known to most locals as the home of a large garbage dump. Prefontaine and Tyson had trouble rationing the five-gallon tank of water for the shower after six-mile training runs. “You had to make it quick,” Tyson said. But it was the perfect place to start an underground athletic revolution concerning amateurism. “Pre was trying to be a world-class distance runner,” Tyson said, “but it was a lifestyle of simplicity. In some ways, that’s not a bad thing because it keeps you hungry. You’re not spoiled. You’re not a slave to stuff. There’s a purity part.”

There was an irony there: The purity of fighting an old idea of amateurism that was meant to keep the sport itself clean. But Prefontaine could see how corrupt it actually was. An athlete had to eat. With the hopes of making a little money and promoting his sport, Prefontaine become one of the earliest employees of a company called Blue Ribbon Sports; in 1971, the name was changed to Nike. He traveled around Southern Oregon with early Nike employee Geoff Hollister, trying to sell early models of the company’s shoes and speaking at schools.

In 1975, Nike was still a small enterprise, usually on the brink of financial disaster. The company was launching its first lines of footwear, and had yet to hire an advertising agency.

Nike and its cofounder, Phil Knight, have since redrawn Eugene as a small but mighty sports mecca, with the gleaming Matthew Knight Arena for basketball, “jock box” state-of-the-art student-athlete tutoring facility, and revamped fan and training facilities near Autzen Stadium, and more expansions in the works. After years of slumping, track in Eugene is on a rebound, fueled by Nike dollars. A wave of elite competitions has come to town, including the 2008 and 2012 Olympic track trials. Eugene was also recently named the host for the 2016 Olympic track trials and the 2021 IAAF World Championships in Athletics. On Nike’s campus in Beaverton, a two-hour drive north of the Glenwood trailer park where Prefontaine used to live, there now stands a statue of him. An apartment building near Hayward Field even bears the name “The Prefontaine.”

Critics complain that track in Eugene has become “corporatized.” Victory laps, once a rarity in Prefontaine’s day, are now sponsored. Terms like “Tracktown” or “Historic” Hayward Field have been coined to capitalize on the sports legacy. Some bridle a little at the appropriation. (“You shouldn’t have to say you’re ‘historic,’” an early Nike colleague of Prefontaine’s said to me.) But for others, the branding is a reminder of the way he ran. “We embrace our legacy,” Prefontaine’s high school track teammate Mac McIntosh said as he sat on a bench in the renamed Prefontaine Track at Marshfield High. “It’s not that he placed fourth in the ’72 Olympics. It’s that he ran to win with two laps to go.”

But on May 30, 1975, Prefontaine’s legacy was still in the making. After dropping off Shorter, he drove away. Arne Alvarado, a 16-year-old at South Eugene High School, was at home on Skyline Boulevard. From his view upstairs, it did not appear that Prefontaine was speeding. “He was just putzing,” Alvarado said.

Then, Alvarado said, he saw Prefontaine abruptly turn to the left to avoid the headlights of an oncoming vehicle.

His father, Bill Alvarado, later said that he heard “the squeal of a tire, a loud thump, and then silence,” according to the police report. He rapidly dressed and went into the street to see if he could locate the accident. As he approached the street, Alvarado said, he saw the other car coming toward his residence “traveling at a high rate of speed.” He waved his arms and hollered to try to stop it, but it drove past him, according to the report.

Alvarado then got into his own car and tried to follow the other car as it made its way up Skyline Boulevard, according to a police report. He was unable to spot the other car. Returning home, he saw Prefontaine’s car flipped over. He rushed inside and told his wife to call the police. He told his son, Arne, to stay inside, a command that Arne said he ignored.

“I didn’t realize it was Steve,” Arne Alvarado said. “It was just a person under a car. He was gasping. He was choking.”

The weight of the car was crushing Prefontaine. “Steve was very much alive when I got there,” Arne Alvarado said. “All I could do is say, ‘Sorry. I can’t help you.’ It’s always weighed heavily on me. I’ve always had a deep resentment for the other driver.”

Eugene police Officer Rex Ballenger had just arrived home after a long shift when the phone rang. It was someone at the station. There had been a fatal accident up on Skyline Boulevard, a typically calm residential part of town. Could he check it out?

At the age of 28, Ballenger was no stranger to the most horrific scenes: twisted limbs, blood, cold bodies. Like many other cops on the Eugene Police Department’s payroll, he was a military veteran, a Navy man attached to the Marine Corps. By the time his phone rang, he had done reports for roughly half a dozen deadly accidents in the Eugene area in his career. He still cringed at the memory of one, a car that had slammed into a phone pole on Oak Patch Road.

Minutes later, Ballenger was parked on Birch Lane at the foot of the hill. A streetlight about 100 feet away from the wreckage illuminated the scene. Some other police officers were there. “I could smell alcohol when I got out of the car and it was half a block away,” he said.

Ballenger began assembling his police report, working in tandem with other officers at the scene. He spoke with Bill Alvarado and the driver of the other car. He ruled that the accident involved Prefontaine’s car and a “fixed object.” Ballenger’s assessment was that Prefontaine’s car had been traveling in the right lane approaching the curve and “then began to drive over into the left-hand lane, leaving the roadway after jumping the curb and striking the rock wall embankment.”

Ballenger tried to determine the speed at which Prefontaine’s car had been traveling. The police looked through the bushes in the dark to make sure another passenger hadn’t been flung from the vehicle. An officer found Prefontaine’s wallet and told his colleagues whose car accident they were investigating: Eugene’s most famous resident.

“You knew there was going to be a lot of scrutiny,” Ballenger said.

Years later, Ballenger left the Eugene Police Department, but he still lives in town. He worked selling sailboats, then as a real estate agent; he is now happily retired with his wife. He volunteers at Hayward as a track official.

Ballenger tells his tale at Sam’s Place on Wilson, a wood-paneled sports bar in West Eugene filled with flatscreens, pennants, and neon beer signs. He is now bald with a gray mustache. He maintains the posture and alertness of an ex-cop, but that is blended with the folksiness and humor of a man you’d want to buy a home from.

On the wall behind him is a framed copy of Prefontaine’s Sports Illustrated cover.

The morning after the accident, the front page of the Register-Guard printed a large, piercing portrait of Prefontaine’s face and the headline “The end of an era.” Flags in the area flew at half-staff. A group of shocked coworkers gathered at the store downtown where he worked.

Jeff Galloway, a friend of Prefontaine, said he was among the first ones to arrive at the crash scene that weekend. After he heard the news, he quickly drove from Lake Tahoe. “I can’t describe why I wanted to do this,” Galloway said. “Because I’m generally not this way. I had to see the scene.”

He noted a gas stain on the road and some glass. “I actually picked up a few things. I’ve never really done anything like that before. It was an attachment to Pre.”

Prefontaine’s sister, Linda, had been in the stands that day with her parents to watch the race and went home afterward to study. The race was the last time she saw her brother alive.

As dawn broke, Prefontaine’s car was flipped right side up and towed to Al’s Towing on Garfield Street. Prefontaine’s body was taken to England’s funeral home.

Linda remembers waking up that morning and receiving the call that her brother had died in a car wreck. Her parents came to her apartment. They were given a brief explanation of what police found at the site. “Their version,” she said.

“At first, it’s completely debilitating,” she said. “You don’t eat. You have no appetite. You’re physically sick.”

Ray Prefontaine told his daughter he wasn’t able to drive them back to Coos Bay. She got behind the wheel and they made their way toward the coast. They drove in silence.

The next morning, Frank Shorter walked down the hill to examine the scene of the crash.

Prefontaine’s death is told as a cautionary drunken driving tale. But Shorter then and today maintains that although there was beer at the party that night, and Prefontaine may have had some, he wasn’t intoxicated. Shorter wouldn’t have gotten in the car with him if he were.

Like any ace runner, Shorter measures much of his life’s outcomes in seconds. That became the case for what he describes as his “survivor’s guilt” over Prefontaine’s death. “If we had talked for 30 seconds more or 30 seconds less,” Shorter said. “Five seconds more or five seconds less … ”

Steve Prefontaine, Portland Trailblazer guard Geoff Petrie and javelin thrower Russ Francis, were honored at the annual Hayward Awards banquet for Oregon athletes, in Portland, Feb.1, 1972.

AP Photo Prefontaine, Portland Trail Blazers guard Geoff Petrie, and javelin thrower Russ Francis in Portland at the 1972 Hayward Awards banquet for Oregon athletes.

The 16-year-old Alvarado said that he pushed his father about talking to the police further about the accident but was brushed aside. The Alvarados discussed the lack of contact between the two cars and how they hadn’t actually seen the other driver’s face. Based on physical evidence, it would be virtually impossible to contradict the police report.

“But I stood in the window and watched those lights come together,” the younger Alvarado said. “It is what it is.”1

Almost instantly, rumors began to swirl around the “other driver.” The police report and local news accounts of what happened that night named a 20-year-old, but locals wondered if he was actually behind the wheel or whether it was his father, a prominent doctor in town. They wondered, too, if the other driver had been intoxicated.

The Shirleys also heard rumors: The driver had left Eugene for months after the accident; his father, the doctor, had a drinking problem and it was actually him in the car that night; he had convinced his son to take the rap; his medical license had been on the rocks; the son went to the district attorney’s office to “confess” but they didn’t want to accept the confession. But these were just rumors.

Years later, as an adult, Arne Alvarado said, he ran into the driver’s father at the supermarket at the foot of the hill.

“I told him the truth,” Arne Alvarado said. “That it was him. He started shaking a lot. I told him that it had destroyed me as a kid because I knew Steve. Steve was my hero. And having to experience that night and have it haunt me ever since, to hear on the radio the next day that it was a one-car accident and that Steve had killed himself driving drunk, that’s ground on me. Excuse my French, but it’s always pissed me off. I know it was a two-car accident. I saw it.”

Local news accounts from the time say that the driver and his father avoided inquiries from reporters. In March, I dialed a phone number listed for the man listed in the police report as the other driver. Several people in Eugene had told me that he had left town and moved to Seattle years ago. I left a voicemail and my cell phone number. I left another. I still haven’t heard back.

In the following days, the police released Prefontaine’s blood-alcohol level, 0.16, well over the limit at the time. Members of his family were upset, as releasing blood-alcohol levels was not typical. Much to their frustration, the sample “disappeared after that,” according to Linda Prefontaine, preventing any further testing.

On the 10th anniversary of Prefontaine’s death in 1985, the Register-Guard asked, “Did Steve Prefontaine just lose control when his car hit the rocks?” The paper quoted the Lane County medical examiner who prepared the autopsy as saying that it “was not standard procedure” that the police had already ordered the mortician to draw blood and have it taken for sampling. Perhaps the timing could affect the outcome of a test, but enough to determine Prefontaine was still below the legal limit?

Some more far-fetched theories made their way into the gossip mill and continue to live online. Did the KGB do it? Prefontaine’s rivals in the AAU? Was he swerving to avoid hitting a small animal? What if a Finnish track fan did it so Prefontaine wouldn’t race against Lasse Viren at the 1976 Olympics?

The more commonly told tale is the drunken-driving one: Steve Prefontaine had too many drinks and flipped his car over. Shorter and Linda Prefontaine, at least, won’t accept it. Linda is adamant that Prefontaine wasn’t impaired that night. “People who weren’t there have no idea,” Linda said. “We still have our beliefs and people can say whatever they want. He wasn’t drunk.”

Known as “The Rock,” the site of Prefontaine’s crash has become a draw for visitors in Eugene. Officials added a parking space on the narrow road to accommodate visitors, who leave race bibs, medals, sneakers, photographs, and handwritten notes. The Shirleys, Prefontaine’s onetime landlords, say they regularly come to gather the goods and store them.

Daniel Wojcik, an English professor at the University of Oregon, began visiting the Rock to interview “Pre’s pilgrims” as part of his research into modern shrines. The ambiguity around Prefontaine’s death allows people to “construct new meanings from the death event,” Wojcik said, “just as the activities at Pre’s Rock create a meaningful narrative from his death and reaffirm his life. Individuals at informal memorials and sites of tragedy do more than commemorate or grieve; they attempt to understand what happened, to make sense of the disaster, or to seek action against those responsible.”

But most of the people who were closest to Prefontaine avoid the Rock.

“I get it,” Linda Prefontaine said. “But I just don’t want to be a part of that. I don’t want to celebrate where he died.”

After her father’s death in 2004 and her mother’s in 2013, it’s now largely up to Linda to handle the intellectual rights tied to her brother’s legacy. Recently, she confronted an artist who painted an image of the crash site, arguing that he didn’t have the right to do it.

“It’s self-centeredness,” Linda said. “It’s very narcissistic. It’s about him, although he’s using my brother’s name. ‘Look at me! I did this great drawing!’ Really? Someone wanted to make that? A picture of where my brother died? That’s morbid.”

She tries not to listen, like her parents before they died. “My mother would say, ‘It’s not going to bring him back,’” Linda said. “’It’s not going to bring him back.’”

For the better part of the last 30 years, every Thursday morning, Jay Farr has laced up his sneakers, donned his signature brightly colored track pants, and taken a crew of a dozen or so runners out for a run in Coos Bay.

After earning his bachelor’s degree at Yale and an MBA from Stanford, he returned to Coos Bay to take over the century-old family hardware store. Farr, who maintains a spry runner’s frame, also heads up a small group that puts on an annual 10K in town to honor Prefontaine.

On a recent spring morning, eight runners gathered for a brisk four miles.The sun poked through the morning mist and lit the rows of dilapidated postwar, three-bedroom homes and the tunnels of fir trees as trucks loaded with logs rumbled by. A tapestry of green mountains and tunnels of fir trees still wrap around Coos Bay’s citizens. Like many Oregon Coast settlements, Coos Bay feels like a town that time forgot.

Nike spike worn by Steve Prefontaine at Niketown Eugene in Eugene, Ore.

Kirby Lee/WireImage

Two feature films, Prefontaine and Without Limits, endure as staples for high school runners, along with the documentary Fire on the Track. Their releases led to another wave of Prefontaine fans well into the early 2000s. For years, visitors to Prefontaine’s home in Coos Bay would be greeted by his parents and, in some cases, invited in to peruse family photo albums.

The runners grab cups of coffee and walk two cool-down laps around the hardware store, speculating on how Coos Bay has produced such a runner and why they can’t seem to let him go.

They point to the recent success of another Coos Bay–born sports star, Mark Helfrich, the University of Oregon football coach, who keeps a picture of Prefontaine hanging outside his office. Track programs continue to survive even the harshest of budget cuts, they say, because they’re relatively cheap to operate. Children at Blossom Gulch Elementary, Farr and Prefontaine’s alma mater, are taught an entire unit on Prefontaine’s life and philosophy. Some of his medals and trophies are on display at a small museum downtown, near a large sculpture bearing his name.

“They’re still trying to find their identity as a town,” Jay Farr said. “They talk about when the logging and fishing come back. And I think, I’m sorry. It’s been gone for 30 years. It’s not coming back.”

For Farr, Prefontaine’s death is still personal.

“We even took driver’s ed together,” Farr said, his eyes turning glossy. “He knew better than not to wear a seat belt. I was pissed off at him.”

A two-hour drive away from Pre’s Rock in Eugene is Sunset Memorial Park, a cemetery on a hill on the outskirts of Coos Bay. The drive there winds you through pastures with cows, tunnels of trees, and the occasional roar of U.S. 101, the road that connects Coos Bay with the rest of the world.

Steve Prefontaine’s grave is perched on a hill, facing a shining slough, bedecked with trees and near the rusted-out railroad tracks he ran along as a child.

To the left of Prefontaine’s grave is another plaque, where his father and mother, Ray and Elfriede, rest, having outlived their son by 29 and 38 years, respectively. In between them is an empty patch of grass where Prefontaine’s sister, Linda, said she will be buried when her time comes. 

Mary Pilon (@marypilon) is the author of The Monopolists, a New York Times best seller about the history of the board game Monopoly. She previously covered sports at the Times and business at The Wall Street Journal.

Filed Under: Track and field, steve prefontaine, Nike, Summer Olympics, bill bowerman