Steve Prefontaine's performance on April 25, 1969 became the stuff of legend.
Steve Prefontaine's performance on April 25, 1969 became the stuff of legend.

Note - Twenty-five years ago, I was just getting started in sports writing at the Corvallis Gazette-Times in Oregon and I rented a house about 200 yards from the track and Corvallis High School. I used to run there, and because I knew the history of the place, I could imagine on a warm evening what it might have been like there in 1969 when Steve Prefontaine made high school history by running 8:41.5 for two miles. 

I convinced the G-T sports editor, Jeff Welsch, to let me write a story about the 25th anniversary of that race, in 1994. It was one of the first track stories I had done for the newspaper. 

Now it's been 25 more years. The race that helped launch "Pre" into a national figure is now 50. 

I reached out to Tom Jordan, the Prefontaine Classic meet director and the author of the biography "Pre!", which I had begun checking out at the library when I was in high school. 

"Of all the races I never saw Pre run, that's the one I wish I had seen," Jordan said. 

Without pacing, right at night in perfect conditions, Prefontaine paced himself to a time seven seconds under the outdoor high school record. It was his crowning achievement while a prep at Marshfield High. 

Here is a re-published version of the story I wrote in 1994.

-- Doug Binder, DyeStat Editor

By Doug Binder, Gazette-Times Reporter (April 27, 1994)

Steve Prefontaine has been groomed for this moment for years.

His powerful legs and tireless lungs were hewn from running the streets and hills of Coos Bay, over and over again. He had an incomparable tolerance for pain. His mental toughness was unsurpassed.

At 17, Prefontaine already was the stuff legends are made of. All the compact 5-foot-9, 145-pounder from Marshfield High needed was that one special boost into the national limelight.

He got it on the warm, calm evening of April 25, 1969, on the Corvallis High School track.

Prefontaine had special plans for the Corvallis Invitational that night. The strength of the field and favorable conditions, he thought, could enable him to break the national high school record in the 2-mile run.

Break it he did, and more.

On that night, "Pre" ran smart, incredibly fast and right into the record books with a time of 8 minutes, 41.5 seconds.

(Note: Gerry Lindgren of Spokane Rogers had run 8:40.00 for 2 miles indoors against professionals in 1964; Prefontaine's high school record lasted four years, until Craig Virgin of Lebanon IL ran 8:40.9 in 1973).

Fifty years later, it's still the Oregon record.

Prefontaine would rocket to greater fame and glory in the next six years. Over that span, he became a patron saint of Eugene's exploding running craze, fueled by three NCAA cross country titles and four 3-mile track titles.

In 1972, Prefontaine ran a gutsy 5,000 meters in the finals of the Munich Olympics but was outrun to the tape in the last half lap and finished fourth.

He became a celebrity at Eugene's Hayward Field, where he was never beaten in a race longer than a mile. He was a charismatic figure, known for always running as hard as he could, for running with his head cocked slightly to right as if to watch for competitors trying to sneak up on him, for the showmanship and victory laps, and the new shoes with the "swoosh" called Nikes.

Prefontaine transcended the sport in life and the legend only grew after the night of May 20, 1975, when a shocked sports world learned that he had died in a car accident on a winding Eugene road.

To many who followed his career, the 1969 Corvallis Invitational stands as a pivotal turning point. It served to herald his arrival -- that Era of Steve Prefontaine was at hand.

Many who were in the Spartan Field grandstands that night remember the scene vividly.

Former Grant High (Portland) coach Mark Cotton remembers. His squad won the team championship that day.

"It sticks out real strongly," Cotton said. "Everything was still. The conditions were perfect for it."

The race itself began about 9 p.m. and the air was cooling after a warm day of about 70 degrees.

"I haven't forgot any of it," said Walt McClure, a Coos Bay insurance man and former Marshfield coach.

McClure had the distinction of first developing Prefontaine's enormous talents. The two of them developed the race plan for the Corvallis 2-mile.

The goal was to run the first mile in 4 minutes, 24 seconds. Then he would aim for a 4:19 second mile, and finish around 8:43. Those numbers would put Prefontaine under the national standard of 8:48.4 set in 1966 by Rick Riley of Spokane.

"I told him, 'If you're going to be wrong, be slow,' and he was," McClure said.

At the sound of the starter's pistol, the runners took off and the stopwatches clicked on.

Prefontaine began his eight-lap race with a 68-second first lap.

Going with him were North Eugene's Doug Crooks, Centennial's Dennis Weed and Grant's Scott Jackson, all of them part of the state's bumper crop of oustanding distance runners.

Jackson, then a sophomore, was fourth. He admits making a mistake that day.

"It was the one time I didn't try to stay with him," Jackson said. "I thought (the leaders) would come back to me, but (Prefontaine) didn't."

Prefontaine sped up slightly, clipping off back-to-back 66s, and finishing the first mile with a 65 complete the first mile once second off the pace, at 4:25.

"We thought with his good miler from North Eugene it would push him, and he did for the first five or six laps," remembered Mel Boldenow, the meet director and former Corvallis High coach.

But there came a point where the mere mortals dropped back, and the machine kept getting faster. The next three laps went 66, 65 and 64.

Walter Colton, a longtime meet official at Corvallis track meets, recalls the utter disbelief at what he and the gathered crowd were watching.

"It was amazing, unbelievable," Colton said. "It seemed like he was never going to stop. And the crowd couldn't believe it. They sat in silence until he was nearing the finish."

As Prefontaine passed the starting line for the final time, he heard the timer call out "7:40." Calculating the remaining math in his head, he sped up for the final 440 yards. He would later recall dreaming the previous night about running 8:40.

The fastest outdoor 2-mile in prep history to that point ended with a sprint that was more characteristic of a half-miler. The final lap was 61.5 seconds.

Gazette-Times reporter Chuck Boice was there and he still remembers the scene.

"We all felt when the time was announced that he probably had the record, but we had to look it up and check," Boice said. "But our disbelief was heightened by the fact that he looked so fresh at the end."

Prefontaine's time was a milestone achievement in a career that took off like wildfire soon after. Track and Field News claimed it was a world best for runners 18 and under. It was five seconds faster than Oregon State University's school record, set in 1961 by NCAA cross country champion Dale Story.

(Note: Today, Prefontaine's time still ranks No. 5 all-time in prep history).

Several weeks after the race, officials from track's governing body came to Corvallis to verify the record, survey the track and make sure Prefontaine had run the full distance.

He hadn't.

Instead, the track measured two feet too long. Pre had run two miles, 16 feet.

Current Corvallis head coach Steve Locey doesn't need to be reminded of the CHS track's place in history. He was a senior on the Spartan track team in 1969 and competed in the meet. 

After his event, the high jump, Locey found a place in the stands to watch Prefontaine.

"He was an interenational level competitor, and that's the way he looked in high school, too. He ran with a tough, competitive fire," Locey said. "We knew he was shooting for something big out there, but we didnt' expect anything like that."

Prefontaine's accomplishments in track and field grew to include American records in every distance from 2,000 meters to 10,000 meters before his death at the age of 24.

But there was something special about his high school records, achieved by sweat and willpower, that continue to captivate.

"I'm biased toward high school kids," Cotton said. "But in my recollection that was his best race ever."

McClure, who knew the high school Prefontaine as well as anybody, would likely agree.

"I sure never saw anything like him before," he said. "He worked so darn hard. He was scary in that 2-mile."