Lessons from an American Running Legend
American athlete Steve Prefontaine leads the field in the final of the men's 5000 metres event at the Olympic Games in Munich on Sept. 10, 1972. Photo: Getty Images

The legacy of Steve Prefontaine lives on in how he trained and raced

“To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”

— American running legend Steve Prefontaine

Twenty years ago this month, friends, fans, and family dedicated a black slab granite memorial at the site where American middle- and long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine perished in a tragic car crash in the early hours of May 30, 1975. “Pre” was only 24 years old at the time and his loss continues to be felt this day with fans across the globe who visit the memorial, which is in front of the rock wall that his convertible veered into on that fateful evening.

Before his death, Prefontaine had lit the running world on fire. Always bold and sometimes brash, Pre was truly a one-of-a-kind who ran with a determined style all his own. After setting a national record in the 2-mile run in high school and racing undefeated his senior year, the Coos Bay, Oregon, native went on to run under the guidance of legendary coach Bill Bowerman at the University of Oregon, where he never lost a race longer than 1 mile and set numerous records, including the American 5,000-meter record at the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1972. Although he came up short to win the event at the 1972 Olympics—he finished fourth after boldly taking the lead with with a mile to go—he won hundreds of races in electric fashion.

Even though Pre ran at a level well above most of us, there are still important lessons that we can all learn from him. Here are three key takeaways from the career of one of America’s most-inspiring distance runners:

Take Risks

Pre was a “frontrunner”, which means that he wasn’t the kind of competitor who would sit back and let others lead races and then wait for the last lap to kick to the front. “Steve believed he was able to control the race and pace when he was out in front,” says Prefontaine’s younger sister, Linda. “He also understood that he didn’t have the fastest kick in the last 100 yards, so he tried to break people in the middle of a race, so that they had nothing left in the tank at the end of the race.” Sportswriter Doug Williams who wrote about Pre for ESPN and interviewed some of his peers, competitors, and teammates for the piece says that his risk taking stemmed in part from his pure passion. “Steve talked about the fact that he knew he wasn’t the fastest guy, or the strongest guy, but he would put everything he had into running—whether it was a race or his training.” Even if you aren’t someone who can win a race or your age group, the next time you race, consider experimenting with an early charge at a pace you may feel could be too fast for you. Try to run with a group of people that you know are a little out of your league. Just being with them may encourage you to stick with it and not fall back if you begin to fatigue. Personal bests are almost always set when there’s an element of Pre-like risk-taking involved.

Dream Big

Pre didn’t really come into his own until his sophomore year in high school. He aspired to be great and his drive and dreams fueled his success. “You have to have complete confidence in yourself—confidence NOT arrogance,” says Linda Prefontaine. “That’s’ a big difference. You have to believe in yourself when others may not. You can’t allow other people’s opinions create doubt in your hopes and dreams. Steve didn’t!” For all of us, this means aiming for a personal best or a racing goal that we may think is impossible to attain. But if we don’t dare to dream of the possible as Pre did, then we will never know the kind of runner we can ultimately become.

Train Hard

Prefontaine’s sister published “The PRE Log” that covers the beginning of his running career through the 1972 U.S. Olympic Trials. She copied several of her brother’s workouts and included them in the log. “At the time he was running I don’t think there were too many other runners who were training as hard as he did,” she says. “He did not let school or work or girlfriends get in the way of his training and goals. Growing up in Coos Bay exposed my brother to a lot of challenging terrain which only made him stronger and tougher.” Though you may not be training at the intensity that Pre trained it, you can consider making some changes, such as going one extra mile in your weekly long run in order to build additional muscular strength or doing one more track repeat when you feel like quitting in order to test your mental and physical limits. This extra bit of grit and determination could pay dividends come race day the same way it paid off for Pre. And one other element of Pre’s training that paid off was the fit he had with his coach. “Bowerman was ahead of the curve in dealing with Prefontaine’s individual style of training and racing as well as others on the Oregon team,” Williams says. “He got the most out of all of them, because he was an individually oriented coach.” For us mortals, this can mean taking the time to find the right coach or training approach that best fits with our personalities. Just because a coach or plan is successful with one person doesn’t mean it will necessarily work for you. Take your time to find the right fit.

Duncan Larkin

Duncan Larkin is a freelance writer and 2:32 marathoner. His latest book, “The 30-Minute Runner,” will be published in January.