EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — They all had stories about how the distance runner known as “Pre” gave them motivation. How they considered it an honor to race in his backyard, in his signature event, at one of the biggest track meets in the world.
The presence of the late Steve Prefontaine looms large around these parts. This is the house that Pre built (even if Hayward Field has been renovated and resurfaced). The 5,000 meters was Pre’s race.
Jakob Ingebrigtsen of Norway ran the final at world championships Sunday in a way Pre might have done it himself — racing not only to win, but to dictate the way the race would be run.
“I couldn’t think of a better place to win than here,” Ingebrigtsen said after he won in 13 minutes, 9.24 seconds.
Everywhere in Eugene, there are reminders of Prefontaine, who died in a car accident in 1975 at 24. There’s Pre’s Trail, a bark-covered loop that meanders aside the Willamette River, where runners of every ability flock. There’s Pre’s Rock, the marker on the side of the road where he died that has become a pilgrimage for runners. Fans have been wearing shirts with Pre’s image — including ones featuring his distinctive bushy mustache — all week.
There are movies about his life. Most notably, “Prefontaine,” starring Jared Leto as Pre, and “Without Limits,” featuring Billy Crudup, that came out about the same time.
Sam Parsons didn’t medal in the 5,000. The runner from Delaware who represents Germany finished last in the final. But he still felt like a rock star for one reason — racing in the place Pre made famous.
“I wish he could have been here watching,” said Parsons, who can quote the Prefontaine movie “Without Limits” line by line. “I wish I could have shook his hand and taken a picture with him. I hope he’d be proud of me.”
Growing up, Parsons had posters on his wall of Prefontaine. His favorite was the one of just Pre’s eyes that read: “Where are all the rock star runners?”
Parsons decided to be one.
“I was a 5-foot-nothing kid from middle-of-nowhere Delaware and out of place. But Pre made this sport cool for me,” Parsons said. “It made me want to pursue it. … He made it so you can talk to girls and have swagger — be the guy on campus.”
American Grant Fisher would watch Prefontaine movies before cross country meets on a portable DVD player.
Just for extra inspiration.
“He started the running craze and running boom back in his day,” said Fisher, who finished sixth. “It’s just cool to be running the same event as him. He laid the groundwork for this.”
Prefontaine starred at the University of Oregon, where he won numerous NCAA titles. He finished in fourth-place at the 1972 Olympics in the 5,000. He set American records from 2,000 meters all the way to 10,000.
His coach, Bill Bowerman, would become one of the founders of a shoe company called Nike. The swoosh is ever-present in Eugene and a big reason that an event as big as the world championships would make it to a college town like this.
“Pre is someone that I hope lives through me,” Parsons said. “I hope I can continue his legacy.”
Ingebrigtsen certainly competed like him — with an intensity.
Angered over taking silver in the 1,500 meters a few days earlier, Ingebrigtsen wasn’t about to give anyone a chance in the 5,000. About halfway through the race, which was run in 90-degree heat, he took a gamble by veering out of traffic for a moment to take advantage of a water station set up in the middle of the track. Not everyone would make that move. Someone with confidence would. Soon after Ingebrigtsen hydrated, he plotted his move. When he took off, no one could catch him.
“Today was not a tactical race. I just won it because I was the better runner,” Ingebrigtsen said.
Pre couldn’t have said it better. At least, that’s what all the Norwegian greats have told Ingebrigtsen. He’s heard the stories and seen some of Prefontaine’s races.
“I know that there were a lot of running legends in the stands cheering for me,” Ingebrigtsen said. “I’m very proud of doing that here. I’m very honored.”
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