“Some people create with words or with music or with a brush and paints.  I like to make something beautiful when I run.  I like to make people stop and say, ‘I’ve never seen anyone run like that before.’  It’s more than just a race, it’s a style.  It’s doing something better than anyone else.  It’s being creative.” –Steve Prefontaine

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If you’ve never heard of Steve Prefontaine, you’re either not a runner or not from Oregon.  “Pre” is probably the greatest distance runner this country has ever had (and possibly ever will have).  He was brash and arrogant, yet charismatic and likable, sort of a mix of James Dean, Che Guevara, and Muhammad Ali.  When Pre died in a car accident in 1975 he held every American track record in distances from 2 miles to 10,000 kilometers.  Today he would been 61 years old.

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“To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”

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Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if Pre hadn’t died at such a young age.  Would he have won a gold medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics?  Would he have switched to the marathon?  Would this guy who lived in a trailer and received food stamps now be a multimillionaire?  Would he still have his trademark mustache?

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“A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest.  I run to see who has the most guts.”

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There have been numerous books and movies about his life.  Without Limits is the better of the two Hollywood movies.  However, the best of the bunch is Fire on the Track, a 1995 documentary narrated by fellow Oregon icon Ken Kesey (author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).  Fire on the Track was chosen as the best running movie of all time on letsrun.com beating out Academy Award winner, Chariots of Fire.  You may have a tough time finding this film (it’s not available on Netflix), but I could be persuaded to lend you my copy (with a credit card deposit, of course).

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“Don’t let fatigue make a coward of you.”

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Last May I ran a half marathon in Eugene, a city known as Track Town USA because of runners like Pre, Alberto Salazar, Galen Rupp, and coaches like Bill Bowerman and Bill Dillenger.  The race finishes on Hayward Field, home of the University of Oregon track team and site of the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials.  I signed up for this race because I wanted to know what it would feel like to run on this famous track, in the same way a musician would aspire to one day perform at Carnegie Hall.

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“You have to wonder at times what you’re doing out there.  Over the years, I’ve given myself a thousand reasons to keep running, but it always comes down to self-satisfaction and a sense of achievement.”

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In the months leading up to the race I thought a lot about Pre and his legacy.  After reading all the books and seeing all the movies, I started using his image and his words to inspire me to run faster.  For the Eugene Half Marathon I decided to pay my respects by dressing up like Pre.  I couldn’t find a vintage University of Oregon track singlet, but my Mom was able to turn a yellow tank top from Goodwill into a reasonable enough facsimile.  I then trimmed my wintertime beard into a Prefontainesque mustache.  I now felt like I had a serious 1970’s Oregon mojo going on.

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“Someone may beat me, but they’re going to have to bleed to do it.”

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The day before the race Yoshimi and I paid a visit to Pre’s Rock, a memorial at the site where he crashed his car and died.  There were lots of things runners had left behind:  various medals and ribbons, old track spikes and uniforms.  I let Pre know that my mustache was no sign of disrespect, but rather a way for me to honor his legacy.  I also asked him to give me the strength to run as tough as he did here in Eugene and on the track at Hayward Field.

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“I’m going to work it so it’s a pure guts race at the end, and if it is, I am the only one who can win it.”

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The next day I was one of 8,000 runners to take part in the race.  Along the course a few spectators recognized my getup and shouted a “Go Pre!” for encouragement.  As I entered Hayward Field the announcer said, “Now entering the track, from Portland, Shawn…Wait a minute folks, for a second there I thought it was Steve Prefontaine.”  My hour and 23 minute finish was not even close to the winning time, but for me it’s the fastest I’ve ever run at that distance and maybe the fastest I ever will.  In the end it was a pure guts race.  I think Pre would have been proud.

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