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  • 21 Oct 2014

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My View: Beating Pre was one hurdle runner never cleared

Olympian Don Kardong once said that running against Steve Prefontaine made you part of a select club — second place.

Watching the recent Prefontaine Classic at Hayward Field in Eugene brought back a flood of second-place memories from three years of races on the Oregon high school scene with Pre.

Even in high school in the late 1960s, Pre’s laser focus, his competitiveness and his quest for excellence were unequaled. Little did I know at the time, but those were lessons that rubbed off and are with me to this day.

In his sophomore year at Marshfield High School in Coos Bay, Pre finished sixth at the state cross-country championship, fourth in his district two-mile and failed to qualify at the state track and field meet. That was his last loss in high school.

Following Pre’s victory at the state cross-country race the next fall, Pre told me, “I’m going to win at least four championships (in high school).” It was the type of brash pronouncement that had many calling him cocky, a braggart or worse. For me, it was just well-placed bravado. Pre loved to get in your head, but he always walked his talk — a good lesson for life.

And get in your head he could.

In the winter of our senior year, Pre invited me to spend a weekend with him in Coos Bay. After I met his parents, Pre showed me his room. On the wall was a small hand-made sign with just two words: “Beat Crooks.” I have no idea whether he put it there for my visit, but as soon as I saw it, Pre said, “Let’s race.”

We headed to Reedsport for a meet Pre had heard about, but when we got there, the race had been canceled. He was steamed. No matter. He talked me into racing through town, never let me out of second place, and I couldn’t get his little sign out of my head.

The next day, we went for a run and nothing changed. Pre pushed the pace the entire 10 miles, surging over and over again. For me, it was a race, and, once again, Pre was in my head. For Pre, it was just another workout. Later he shared with me that pressing to the limit, in every workout, was his goal. Another good life lesson.

Many of us were learning to never underestimate what Pre could do.

Early in the 1969 track season, I ran a 9:03.0 two-mile — the fastest high school time in the nation that year, nearly equaling Pre’s time when he won the state championship the year before. “Not great,” I thought, but “good early-season form.”

Three weeks later was the Corvallis Invitational. Pre and I were set to square off in the two-mile along with several outstanding runners, including Mark Hiefield from Milwaukie and Dennis Weed from Centennial.

When my coach, Bob Newland, got word that Pre was aiming to better the national high school record of 8:48.4, he called me to his office and said he didn’t think Pre could do it. Instead, Newland suggested I run the first mile in 4:30, then pick up pace and “reel him in the last mile.”

After four laps, I was exactly on pace, running in third place but 50 yards behind Pre. My fifth lap was two seconds faster, but now I was

60 yards behind. Race over. Pre smashed the national record, finishing in 8:41.5. I cruised in a distant second, leaving me wondering, “What if I had tried to stay with him?”

A few weeks later, I found out. Pre ran a 4:07.4 mile at our district championship; I stayed with him, matched every surge, but couldn’t take him at the tape. My 4:07.5 was good enough for only second place.

Ten yards past the finish line, Pre turned to me and said, “You’ve been waiting a long time for that.” There he was, in my head again. When I told Newland that I wanted to double back and get another shot at Pre in the two-mile, my coach said, “No, I want you to beat him next week in the (state championship) mile.”

The next week, an excellent field of milers and two-milers came to Oregon State University’s Bell Field with high expectations — that we could beat Pre.

Didn’t happen. I pressed Pre to the finish line in the mile, getting second in 4:08.6 to Pre’s 4:08.4. Hiefield ran a 9:03.2 two-mile — good for only second place behind Pre’s 9:03.0.

Forty-five years later, I still marvel at how good Pre was, how strong-minded and focused he was on being the best. Second place was never good enough, and he didn’t have to settle for that very often.

Former North Eugene High School track star Doug Crooks, a Seattle resident, never beat Prefontaine in about 15 meetings during his high school years.