Saturday, July 3, 2010
We Paused Five Minutes To Watch A Race
We hadn't planned on seeing the race. My girlfriend and I just happened to be cutting across the campus behind Hayward Field on our way to Mamma's Truck Stop. As soon as I heard the crowd yelling I remembered, this was the day of the Hayward Field Restoration Meet and the big showdown between Steve Prefontaine and Dave Wottle.
Steve Prefontaine was not just another University of Oregon student like me; he was a legend in the world of track and field. The U of O is a huge track and field school. All other sports are secondary in status. Head coach Bill Bowerman had courted Pre to attend the U of O. In his attempts to invent a better track shoe for his star athlete, he poured urethane into his wife’s waffle iron, which later became the Nike Waffle Trainer. In the early 1970s Prefontaine held every American track record in races between 2,000 and 3,000 meters. We were all shocked when he failed to get a medal in the ‘72 Olympics. He came in fourth, which disappointed his fans. But he was only 21 at the time, so everyone chocked the loss up to gained experience for future races including the Olympics. None of us foresaw that like James Dean, he would be dead at age 24 after crashing his sports car.
I can't say that I knew him. The U of O was a big school, but I'd seen him around campus. On a few occasions I’d even sat up in the stands and chanted “Pre! Pre! Pre!” with the rest of the crazed fans as he took his signature victory lap. Every one knew he loved his celebrity status. Some said you either loved him or hated him. To me he was similar to Muhammad Ali. I was initially repelled by Cassius Clay’s large ego, but once I saw him fight, I was hooked. When Pre ran he was all guts, heart and charisma. I had to love the guy. Besides he was our guy at the U of O.
One afternoon he came into the men's sauna when I was in there relaxing after a work out. He was handsome, in a California beach boyish sort of way. His hair was long and bleached by the sun and he had a dark well-earned tan. His body was thin, but muscular. He definitely had the world by the tail. I generally don't last too long in the sauna, but on this day, I forced myself to endure. I guess I wanted to be around him a little longer. He was talking to a couple guys. I can't remember what he was saying, nothing of any consequence. He talked fast, all the while performing pushups, sit-ups and all manner of exercises. It was so damned hot in the sauna, I thought he deserved some kind of medal just for this exuberant display of calisthenics in the intense heat.
Dave Wottle had won the gold medal for 800 meter race at the ’72 Olympics. I remember watching it on TV. He held back throughout the entire run and as the pack rounded the last bend, this goofy looking guy in a baseball cap came out of nowhere and flew past all the other runners. And it was at Hayward Field on this very track that Wottle set the world record for the 800 meters at the Olympic trials, again holding back and then winning in the last few seconds. He had one hell of a final kick.
Prefontaine did not usually compete in the shorter length races, but was a master strategist in the longer ones. Time and time again I watched him pull ahead of the pack early and set a pace that would totally wear down his opponents. Most races he crossed the finish line alone well ahead of the other runners. He could push himself to the edge of pain and exhaustion and sustain it with sheer will power longer than anyone else.
I have since read an interview with Wottle. He said that two weeks before this first Hayward Field Restoration Meet, Pre had gotten the idea of their both going for the mile record and invited Dave to Oregon to compete. Pre told him that he would bring him around to the beginning of the final lap at a world record pace of 2 minutes and 56 seconds. Then after that, each man was on his own.
I think I was in love that summer, so stumbling upon this race just moments before the starting gun fired did not seem like just a lucky coincidence. You know how that is, for a while anyway the world becomes a magical place. We had spent the morning studying and sitting out in the warm Oregon sun and felt like we needed to move around a bit, so we were headed over to Mama’s to sit there for a while. But there we stood for just a few minutes looking through the chain link fence at the row of runners shaking their arms and legs in preparation for the race. Prefontaine’s golden hair shone in the sunlight like a crown and Wottle's baseball cap didn’t look goofy anymore. I guess Olympic champions can wear whatever they want. The gun fired and as expected, Prefontaine took off at a grueling pace leaving the rest of the runners behind. The fans were ecstatic as their hero once again ruled the track with flare and determination. He stayed in front of the pack until rounding the final bend, when Wottle made his move with that amazing reserve of energy that won him Olympic gold. He closed the gap and just before the finish line, passed Prefontaine. The historic showdown was over. As the rest of the runners crossed the line, there was clapping, but the anticipated roar of the crowd didn't happen. Neither runner set the world record that day, but both Wattle and Prefontaine ran their own personal best mile; Wottle in 3.53.3 and Pre in 3.54.6, just 1.3 seconds behind. When they came around to the beginning of lap 4 they were clocked at exactly 2.56 minutes as Pre had promised. This race placed Prefontaine at 6th fastest miler in the world. Wottle is quoted later as saying about his friend and this race, “Not bad for a 5,000 meter guy.” The next year at this same meet Pre would beat Frank Shorter in the 3 mile race and set an American record. By the following year he would be dead and the meet’s name changed to the Nike/Prefontaine Classic.
My girlfriend and I didn't wait around after the race. There would be no victory lap by our local hero. The sun was hot and we knew it would be cool at Mamma's where we could get a couple of iced coffees.