On Beating Steve Prefontaine

It is spring 1972.

I am a senior at the University of Oregon.

I am pedaling my black Schwinn, as fast as I can, to my Radio and TV Writing class. The clock is ticking. And I am running late.

This mid-morning course—catering to fifteen students—is located up the old-fashioned staircase inside the third story of the wonderfully anachronistic, yet always dignified, Deady Hall. Christened in 1876—with her mansard roof towers and ornate nineteenth-century Italianate window bays bedecked in their finest Florentine tracery—this venerable rectangular Victorian is the oldest building on campus. She was, in fact, the University’s first. And now, after everything else that she has endured (including a couple world wars and a true hurricane), at almost 100 years of age, the grand dame is hosting—without complaint—the Woodstock Generation.

With a semipanicked eye toward my wristwatch, I negotiate East 13th and zoom lickety-split into Deady Hall’s park-like Old Campus Quad area with its crisscross pedestrian pathways beneath those big oaks, maples, and conifers; the chattering staccatos of so many western gray squirrels; and—suddenly, bam—that unmistakable, full-mouth, sweet-air ambiance gracing the atmosphere from nearby Williams Bakery.

As I quickly retro-boost for the bike stand—located directly in front of Deady Hall’s front entry steps—I now have exactly one minute to get into that building and up all those steps before the bell rings.

At the same time that I push my tire into the bike rack and jump off to fiddle with my lock chain, directly in front of me—right on the other side of those slats—a fellow classmate, who also knows he’s late, is hurriedly doing the exact same thing.

He is Steve Prefontaine.

Did I mention that the most phenomenal American runner of the twentieth century is also in my class?

Every last one of us in Radio and TV Writing knows we have the legendary Pre amongst us. But absolutely nobody bugs him. Likewise, our teacher has never drawn any special attention or lavished accolades toward him. To do so would be beyond inappropriate. Totally uncool. But, I must confess, during each minute of every class, I am constantly trying not to look over at our university’s and nation’s famously unpretentious, preeminent track superstar.

As luck—perhaps destiny—would have it, I get my bike locked up first. I spin and rush pell-mell for old Deady’s steps. You-know-who is, quite literally, right on my tail. One, maybe two, steps behind me.

A tremendous spike of adrenaline explodes throughout my entire nervous system.

All I can think is: My God, I’m in a race with Steve Prefontaine!

True confession: my overriding second thought is: He’s not getting around me!

So up the steps we fly, crashing through the front door and lighting out for that ancient stairwell to climb and climb up to that oh-so-distant top floor. I even start skipping stair steps, attempting to bound over more than one at a time.

As I try my Clark Kent best to stay ahead of our Oregon track phenom—who doesn’t want to be late to class any more than I do—I have two cogent thoughts:

One, I realize stuff like this probably happens to the poor guy all the time—goofballs who will never don a pair of track shoes in their lives suddenly trying to stay a few steps out in front of Pre as he goes about his daily public business.

Two, I truly already cannot wait to tell my grandkids some distant day that, yes, I beat the great Prefontaine in a foot race. Sure, I’ll also end up telling the truth about the extenuating circumstances. But the fact will always remain that I was blessed by the quirky hand of fate to actually beat cleats with the guy.

Pre, of course, lets this goofball beat him to the classroom door.

And, regrettably, we all know far too well how the rest of this story ends. Three years following our mutual impromptu romp up those Deady Hall steps, after Steve Prefontaine sets fourteen American track records, including grabbing every American best time in the two-mile through the 10,000-meter events, this promising young world-renowned runner will perish in a single-car collision. Today—this year—Pre would have been sixty–one.

That other kid on the bike back on that memorable Eugene March morning, remarkably to me, is now sixty–two.

Deady Hall, bless her soul, has turned a full 136 years of age. Let’s face it. Judging from her longevity and perseverance, this old girl is certain to beat all of us in our continuing, unguaranteed race with time.

By Paul Keller '72

Paul Keller lives and writes from his home near Mount Hood in the Oregon Cascades. His essay “My Blood Turns to Wine” appeared in the Summer 2008 issue of Oregon Quarterly.