A collective outburst of veneration followed the all too early death of Oregon running legend Steve Prefontaine at the age of 24. His cult status flourished and continues today. Why not? He owned at least eight American track records, he was a brash frontrunner; he possessed a gun-slinging-like character trait that Americans seem to relish in their heroes. He was good looking and was a quotable post-race interview. He delivered lines which later became iconic statements of bravado like, “the best pace is a suicide pace and today looks like a good day to die.” Perhaps there was a little foreshadowing here?
In running circles his name stirs an archetypal sense of nostalgia reminiscent of James Dean or Marilyn Monroe.
There were two movies made about him, one produced by Disney titled “Pre” that came out in 1997 and the other by Wagner-Cruise productions. The “Cruise” is Tom Cruise. Wagner and Cruise benefited from the interest that Disney stirred with his legend and then they did one better. They spent an extra million dollars on making their version, which they called “Without Limits” and released it a year later. They employed the great Donald Sutherland to play the legendary Bill Bowerman and as usual Sutherland was excellent. Billy Crudup as Prefontaine received positive reviews. The movie continues to flitter towards a cult-like status, but it is not there just yet.
Pre’s Rock is a memorial to the fast-running and fast-driving athlete. It is a monument where runners visit from all corners the US to place flowers, hang memorabilia, leave notes or take selfies. It is a modest memorial, but a popular one, at least within American running circles.
“To give anything less than your best, is to sacrifice the gift.” Pre would tell kids at running camps. It is an indelible message. Who could argue? Some of Pre’s other quotes are now legendary too, for example he had delivered various iterations of, “A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest. I run to see who has the most guts; who can punish himself into exhausting pace and then at the end, punish himself even more.” Or, “somebody may beat me, but they are going to have to bleed to do it.”
It was tough talk from an entertaining racer. The legacy of his quotes adds to his legend, but how good was he really?
In 1971 he broke the American 5,000m record with his 13:30.40 performance in Berkeley, California, in a meet between the US and USSR all-stars. He was just 20-years-of-age.
The next year he took two more national records, one in the 3,000m, by running a 7:45.80 and again in the 5,000m with a 13:22.80 performance. He again broke the American record in the 3,000m in the Bislett Games in Oslo, Norway with his performance of 7:44.20. He took American records six more times in the two-mile, 3,000m, 5,000m and the three mile. He also held the 10,000m record at 27:43.6. He was definitely good.
As a racer, he was a frontrunner. He preferred to race hard to see what comes of it, rather than sit and kick. He perpetuated the brash, perhaps moody, perhaps tough and certainly tough-talking prototypical American hero. But his suicidal race strategy was not going to win him medals in global championship events and does not lend itself to breaking world records. Americans in the past have been accused of self-indulgence. Perhaps a national record is big enough for many American sports fans. Who needs a world record when the big sports in the US are confined to the country anyway like the NFL, MLB, NBA and NASCAR?
Pre’s rebellious front-running style likely cost him a better performance at the 1972 Munich Olympics, a race where he finished fourth in the time of 13:28.40. He was beaten by the legendary Finn Lasse Viren, who was then considered a very intelligent trainer, an athlete who seldom raced and peaked just at the right time. Viren was the antithesis to Pre: quiet, reserved and very private. Mohamed Gammoudi of Tunisia finished second and Ian Stewart of Great Britain finished third. Viren won in the time of 13:26.40.
Sure Pre was an international level runner, but was his status bolstered by America’s running fraternity and their need for a hero? He possessed all the ingredients that make up a hero, especially his early and untimely exit.
But athletically-speaking he was no Jim Ryun. Ryun perhaps was a little too straight-laced for mad public adoration. He was neither awe shucks-apple pie nor brash. Perhaps his religious views tempered broad public approval. Ryun came before the Frank Shorter and Bill Bowerman-credited American running boom. As Malcolm Gladwell would likely attest, Ryun’s career did not contain all of the four primary ingredients for vast public acceptance, such as timing, hard work, opportunity and help – especially the timing. At a younger age, he was faster than Pre. Ryun ran the mile in 3:51.10. In high school he ran 3:55.30 in 1965, perhaps five years too early. Ryun had no peers.
How about Rod Dixon? He was often considered the most versatile runner of his time. Although not an American, Dixon competed during Pre’s time. Well part of the problem is he is still alive. The true hero worship will have to wait.
Dixon was from Nelson, which is a very hilly town in New Zealand and probably not much different than Coos Bay, Oregon, where Pre is from. Both areas offer a temperate climate are hilly, forested environments and the burgeoning athletes had many running heroes to learn from.
Dixon was coached by his brother, who – like most other Kiwis – trained by the Arthur Lydiard method. Interestingly, Pre’s coach Bill Bowerman followed Lydiard training principles. In fact, when Bowerman was given a citation by President Kennedy in helping to create the American running boom, Bowerman said in his acceptance speech, “I am merely the disciple; it is Arthur Lydiard of New Zealand who is the prophet.”
Bowerman was a great coach, Pre was an excellent athlete, but the Dixon brothers were better.
Head-to-head Pre never beat Dixon in any race at any distance. In comparing their personal bests Dixon is faster than pre in the 1500m by a stunning five seconds. Pre wasn’t even in the same ballpark. Their mile times were closer, however Dixon edges Pre there too 3:54.60 to 3:53.62. Again in the two-mile, Pre isn’t even close, although one could argue that the distance is an odd one and it is likely that neither athlete raced it enough to find out their true potential, which leads us to the 10,000m distance, where Pre was faster. Dixon ran only one 10,000m race in his life and finished in 28:11.00. Pre’s time was an American record at 27:43.60. It could be safely assumed that based on Dixon being a faster 5,000m runner, he would have likely raced at least as fast as Pre over 10,000m.
Yes Dixon takes Pre again in the 5,000m distance, this time by over four seconds. See the comparison below.
Dixon’s legend is actually more interesting.
For example, there is a yarn about Dixon and a mate of his out for a 2.5 hour long run, when they came across a wild boar. The story is priceless. They spent another four to five hours chasing the boar through the New Zealand bush with knives, on foot and with several dogs sniffing out the trail. Death and carnage endued. In the end, the boar copped it in a dramatic, throat-slicing finale.
Locked out of the car on a long run.
“He (John Dixon) had me run 13 miles at time trial pace, around 4.45 per mile and the understanding for me was when he was satisfied with pace and distance we would ‘wrap it up’. So at 13 miles at race pace I went to get in the car.
John said, “nice work, you know the way back, you have just have to run it” …John rolled up the windows, locked the doors and drove home,” wrote Dixon in an Athletics Illustrated interview from 2011.
Did Prefontaine’s death at the early age of 24 not give him the opportunity to better his times, where Dixon continued to run into the 1980s?
Well yes, but well no. Prefontaine was just six months younger than Dixon. He was born in January 1951. Dixon was born in July of 1950. They both achieved their middle-distance bests roughly at the same age – within a year or two of each other. Dixon’s half-marathon and marathon bests were performed in the 1980s, but we are not comparing those distances as Prefontaine did not race the longer events. As was customary at the time, the practice was to move up in distance as one aged – as it was assumed that the speed left the athlete, the athlete would begin to race longer. Surely Pre would have been a great marathon runner. Or would he?
He would have had to learn to run like Rod Dixon to be a great marathon runner. To aggressively front-run a marathon is a very risky way of racing. Dixon’s 1983 New York City Marathon victory was a methodical and patient exercise in chasing down the leader Geoff Smith; he did so in the final metres, just before he ran out of real estate to do so. It was a truly legendary performance, the finish-line photo is iconic; arms raised skyward, with Smith laid prone on the asphalt just behind Dixon in the finish chute.
Dixon won a bronze medal in the 1972 Munich Olympics in the 1500m event. He also won two medals at the World Cross Country Championships. He won that 1983 New York City Marathon in only his second attempt at the distance with that come-from-behind 2:08.59 performance, which remained his personal best. At the time 2:08:59 was world class. The world record then was held by Australian Robert De Castella at 2:08:18 on a faster Fukuoka Marathon course. Today it is still a very strong time, especially in NY.
The 2014 New York City Marathon was won by former world record holder Wilson Kipsang of Kenya. He finished in 2:10.59, exactly two minutes slower than Dixon, 31 years hence. Sure it was a very windy day, but in 2013 Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai, who owns the fastest Boston Marathon time with his 2:03:38 won NY in 2:08.24, not much faster at all. In the 45 years of the running of the New York City Marathon only 11 times has someone won the race with a faster time than Dixon. This is saying a lot considering the progression of the marathon world records. The world records are now down to glorified time trials, run on perfectly flat courses (mainly Berlin) in antiseptic conditions. Eight of those 11 faster NY times were run slower than 2:08.00 – within a minute of Dixon’s time. Dixon’s 1983 New York City Marathon win is the stuff of legend.
Prefontaine was a great athlete. To be fair, Pre did not get a chance to mature and back away from his suicidal race strategies that he employed. Perhaps if he lived into his late 20s he would have raced smarter and perhaps he would have been faster. And that is mostly what grips American running fans of his legend; what would have become of the great Pre if he lived?
We will never know, but we do know that Rod Dixon displayed the greatest range of his time. He was fast from 800m to the marathon and every distance in-between. Rod Dixon of New Zealand is a legend.
Steve Prefontaine – US: January 1951
Rod Dixon – NZ: July 1950