The Runner with a Thousand Faces

Joseph Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces” outlines some basic common lines of story-telling, myths and legends. We can certainly see these patterns in the story of Pre.

The “call to adventure” comes when the young man from blue-collar Coos Bay is transported to the magical land of Eugene, where, under the tutelage of mentor/wise old man Bill Bowerman he faced a literal “road of trials.” He succeeds greatly throughout these trials, and even his defeat at the 72 Olympics is a success, in that it seems to bring him to a new level of maturity. He returns to his roots, and gathers himself for the next challenge, in Montreal.

Of course, we know, tragedy then strikes. Steve Prefontaine’s passing is mourned by all. But we find, over time, because of this mourning, because of the impact he had, he is able to return, bearing the goods from his quest. He returns in stories, in the meeting of other adventure seekers on this particular “road of trials,” on t-shirts and posters. So, indeed, it is not over the top to refer to Prefontaine as “Christ-like” in the context of Campbell’s monomyth. They were on the same journey.

Travelling to Eugene is very much a pilgrimage. Yesterday, 38 years and one day after he died, I went to Pre’s Rock, the place where he crashed his car. Driving up through the winding hills of Fairmount, to Skyline Boulevard, it is easy to see how an accident could have happened. I’d read descriptions before, but when you are driving or walking on the roads, you can really see how treacherous it is, if you aren’t careful. The spot where Pre’s Rock lies is as it is often described: a blind turn. To hit the wall like he did, Pre would have had to make a sudden movement to the left, as he drove around the turn going right. The most likely reason for this, as many have surmised, is that something or someone was in his lane.

Cars are big, heavy dangerous machines. More dangerous than airplanes, for that matter. Pre was a risk taker, but this was a fairly common risk, that we all take, and don’t think much of. The risk outweighed any benefit, for Pre the man. While he was already known as great, it may have transformed him into Pre, the legend.

The question of whether he was drunk or not has always bothered me as well. Of course, I don’t want to believe that a hero could have flaws. What makes Pre a hero, however, are his flaws. So it fits the narrative. All this being said, standing on that turn, sober, in the light of day, I don’t think it would have mattered how much he had to drink. Many others have been over this before me, so I don’t claim to be definitive here. I’m just trying to sort out the legend for myself. My feeling now, after surveying the scene, is that it was an accident. But, as with all legends, we make of it what we need.

On our way up to the rock, my host, Phil Johnson, and I noticed an older man in a vintage Ducks letterman jacket, ballcap, and carrying a notepad.

“Oh my god,” said Phil. “That’s Kenny Moore.” Indeed it was. He was headed up to the Rock to meet his old friend. We stopped by and said hello. Having taken on the mantle of the “wise old man” archetype, he spoke almost in aphorism.

“Are you going to the Rock?”

“Yes, we are.”

“Good. Go. Make a connection.” And then he hobbled off.

We didn’t have a chance to tell him we were actually having trouble finding it. We drove around, until realised we’d driven right by it. By that time, a tour bus had pulled up, so we parked in front of it, and walked back to the Rock. There was a film crew there, and we surmised that Kenny was going to give a talk to the group, who had been bussed in by Nike from Portland.

Kenny and another Prefontaine teammate, Steve Bence, spoke. They told some wonderful stories. I’ll re-tell them here because they are part of the myth.

After the 1972 marathon, in which he came 4th, Kenny Moore was feeling pretty down, as we can all imagine, 4th place being the worst place to finish at the Olympics. The 5000m had been run during the marathon, so he didn’t yet know what had happened with Pre. As he sulked under the stadium, his friend and teammate, Steve Prefontaine, approached him and said:

“I ORDER you to be proud of yourself! You finished 4th in the world! Think of all the billions of people you beat!” And Kenny nodded his head and thought, ok, sure. Pre was right. Then he said.

“So how did you do, Steve?”

“Oh, man, I got fucking fourth!”

The man’s intensity shines through, but also the idea that he was really generous and sympathetic to others. he was hard on himself for finishing fourth, but he wanted his friend to be proud for the same accomplishment.

The Nike crew had another story that showed the effect Pre had on others. A year ago they arrived, as usual, for a tour, and they saw a woman at the Rock. People often leave things, flowers and notes, but also running shoes and sometimes medals. This lady left three marathon medals at the Rock. Uncertain at first, Bence approached her and asked why she was leaving those medals there. She explained that her life had gone downhill. She didn’t specify, but she had been in a bad way. Running had brought her back. Inspired by the story of Pre, and the community of Eugene, she had taken running as the thing to turn her life around, and had completed three marathons. Now, she was leaving Eugene, having secured a successful position out of town.

“But these medals,” she said. “They have to stay here with Pre.”

Kenny Moore said that Pre was always pushing for the next thing. He had so many projects, and left so much unfinished when he passed. But in inspiring his friends, and those who knew him, and eventually, so many who never did, all of that good he wanted to do, well, it’s getting done. Gone 38 years, Steve Prefontaine is still making connections.