Standing on South Broadway Street in Coos Bay, Oregon, I stare up at the larger-than-life two-story-high murals of home-town hero Steve Prefontaine. Haloed with a backdrop of blue sky and sunshine, the three separate panels depict the 1970s running sensation in varying stages of his career. From left to right, the images show Pre, as his friends and admirers called him throughout his running career. First, during his high school days at Marshfield in Coos Bay; then, in his junior year at the University of Oregon in Eugene; and, running the 5,000-meter race in the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany.
Though greatness had already blessed him as a runner, his life was cut short by a tragic car accident on May 30, 1975. He was just 24 years old and owned every American running record between two miles and 10,000 meters at the time of his death, eight records in all.
The running world was shocked by the news of his passing, and I still remember that day distinctly. I had been in Germany for only a month, serving as a sergeant in the U.S. Army. Being a creature of habit, it didn’t take long to establish a Sunday morning ritual in Germany. I’d walk over to the base cafeteria, buy a cup of coffee and a copy of the Stars & Stripes newspaper.
At that time, there was no Internet, and the newspaper was the only source for checking scores of major league baseball and other sports. But sports aside, the only news I recall on the sports page that day was the dominant photo and story of Steve Prefontaine’s passing. I was numb with disbelief. I instantly thought of how, just three years ago, he competed in the Munich Summer Olympics an hour’s train ride away from my duty station.
Later that day, I stuck to the goal I had set when first arriving in Germany: To start running regularly. I ran five miles that day, which was double what I usually did a few times a week. From that point in my life, running played an important role. In retrospect, Steve Prefontaine played a significant role in that goal, which I religiously continue even today.
Echoes of Pre
As a freelance travel writer, I’ve written a great deal about snowshoeing and golf over the years. Running has been the connection for staying fit to enjoy these and other activities.
Ironically, at the time I was planning a golf trip to Coos Bay, Oregon, it was also time to replace my aging New Balance running shoes, which I’d pounded on the pavement for more than 800 miles. While sitting in a running shoe store in Olympia, Washington, waiting for the sales clerk to return with a few samples, I notice on the wall several framed photos of runners in full stride; the only one I recognized was Steve Prefontaine, mustache and all. I hadn’t heard his name in years, but seeing his photo brought a reflective smile. After all, he inspired a generation of runners and want-to-be-runners for years to come, and I was among the faithful.
After purchasing a new pair of Brooks Ghost running shoes, I headed home to finish researching all the things I wanted to experience while in Coos Bay. And for the second time within 24 hours, I thought of the iconic Oregon runner. I discovered that Steve Prefontaine grew up in Coos Bay! I knew Pre attended the University of Oregon in Eugene, and I always assumed he was from that city.
Finding Pre in Coos Bay
I was impressed to read that Coos Bay continues its devotion to Pre even today. He is still bigger than life in this town on the southern Oregon coast.
In addition to the mural, there is a statue dedicated to Pre right outside the visitor’s center in downtown. There’s also a poignant gallery on the second floor of the Coos Art Museum devoted to his many accomplishments. Here, you’ll find numerous photos, trophies, ribbons, and other Pre memorabilia from his productive but short career.
Steve’s sister Linda offers a comprehensive Steve Prefontaine Tour called the Tour de Pre. The tours were canceled for 2020 due to COVID-19 but have resumed as of resume May 1, 2021. Highlights include Linda’s personal anecdotes and a chance to run on the Marshfield High School track, where it all started for Pre. The facility is now Prefontaine Track. Linda’s Tour de Pre also includes visits to other locales where Steve once ran, including the nearby dunes and a local golf course. The upbeat and informative tour ends on a somber note with a visit to Steve’s final resting spot at Sunset Memorial Park.
Also, every September, runners descend on Coos Bay for the annual Prefontaine Memorial 10K Run. This year’s 41st annual run, scheduled for September 19, was canceled due to COVID-19 and rescheduled for September 18, 2021.
Connecting the past and the present
As mentioned, in addition to running, I enjoy snowshoeing during the winter months, an activity I took up a few decades ago. That’s why when I was finally standing before those murals of Steve in downtown Coos Bay, I immediately wondered whether he would have enjoyed snowshoeing. Or, more realistically, how much he would have enjoyed snowshoe racing! Numerous runners and cross-country fanatics have included snowshoeing or snowshoe racing into their regimens (and offer training tips). Snowshoeing is an excellent complement to running, as well as a great workout, and the competition is fierce, too!
I’ve occasionally thought about the potential impact Steve might have had on the sport of snowshoeing, which got its official start in the U.S. a few years after he died. In 1977, the United States Snowshoe Association (USSSA) formulated, and the sport of snowshoe racing was launched.
Read More: Transition From Running To Snowshoe Racing
While hiking some of the steep hills of the picturesque Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, I recalled that Linda mentioned that her brother spent untold hours running up and down these same dunes. Also, he ran along with the Coos Golf Club, which I was planning to visit while in town.
A few days later, I’m standing at the tee box of a long par five at Coos Golf Club. The club was Coos Country Club when Steve Prefontaine used these same fairways for running. I could almost imagine him effortlessly striding across the fairway right before me. And I couldn’t help wondering just for a moment what his potential impact on the worldwide snowshoeing community might have been, if only…
What memories do you have of Steve Prefontaine? Please share them with us in the comments below!