The Prefontaine Classic might not exist without Bowling Green. I am not making this up.
I ran at Bowling Green State University, my little college out there on the edge of the prairie. It was 1990, I think, and we were piled into BGSU vans on the way to an off-campus run with head coach Sid Sink driving. The athlete in the front seat next to him was reading something about Steve Prefontaine, either a magazine article or Pre!, Tom Jordan’s biography of the man. (This was back before the internet opened up everyone’s ability to look up virtually anything, and figures from the past were not well known to 20-year-old guys.) The athlete was amazed at how good Prefontaine was, and asked Sink if he’d ever run against Pre. Sid glanced over and matter-of-factly said “that’s me right there”, one step ahead of Pre.
Sid was a contemporary of Prefontaine and raced against him on many occasions. Sid is a forgotten man now since his peak came at the wrong time, but at his peak he was very good: a four-time NCAA champion who broke the steeplechase American record and won a Pan-American Games silver medal in 1971. In 1972 he had just completed his collegiate eligibility at BG and a sciatica flareup led to a terrible 9th place Olympic Trials finish in his preferred event, the steeple, but he gamely came back in the 5000 and very nearly made the team.
It was only at the end of Sid’s career that teammate Dave Wottle eclipsed his accomplishments. Two years his junior, Wottle won three NCAA titles in 1972, then followed it up with a surprise World Record at the Olympic Trials and a shocking come-from-behind gold medal victory in Munich. Wottle and his golf cap are now legendary.
Pre and Wottle got to know each other during the ’72 Olympics, then roomed together at the ’73 AAU Championships in Bakersfield, California. “Pre’s personality was obviously a lot different than mine,” said Wottle. “We were like salt and pepper. I was a newlywed and he was a playboy, but we had a good time together.” So when Pre approached Wottle with the idea of making a mile record attack at a one-off meet, Wottle was all ears.
The Hayward Field Restoration Meet was a hastily organized event in response to an unexpected calamity. Early in 1973, the city of Eugene’s fire marshall informed the University of Oregon that Hayward’s dilapidated west grandstand (the homestretch side) could no longer be used, that it would have to be torn down and replaced. Funding to make this happen was in short supply, as was time to get it done. Head coach Bill Bowerman said, “it was impossible to do justice to my coaching and to a big construction project at the same time,” and abruptly retired before the ’73 season to head up the project, leaving assistant Bill Dellinger to take over the track program.
Pledges were found to fund the new west grandstand construction but came up about $25,000 short. Someone—nobody seems to know who—came up with the idea of holding a track meet to bridge that gap. (How quaint: a track meet that makes money.) The hook to draw people in was Pre going head-to-head against Wottle in a mile, a matchup of the two biggest names in US middle-distance running at the time. Pre helped organize the race: “It shows his pull,” Wottle said. “He was able to put together a great field of competitors in about a two week period of time”.
Wottle says that Prefontaine approached him with an offer he couldn’t refuse: “Why don’t you come up to Eugene. We’ll go after the world record in the mile and I’ll set the pace. I’ll bring you through in 2:56 and then each man for himself in the last lap.”
At that time it was relatively unusual to get any kind of pacing that fast past maybe 800 meters and Wottle was a big kicker who never pushed the pace himself. The target was Jim Ryun’s 3:51.1, but no one else had ever broken 3:53 and anything under 3:55 was considered very fast indeed. It was the classic Pre approach: honest pace, hell bent for leather and embracing the battle. There were plenty of other top names in the meet, including hurdler Rod Milburn, the Olympic champion and world record holder, but all were undercards to the Pre-Wottle headliner.
And on Wednesday, June 20, it all went according to plan in what Prefontaine called “one of the greatest mile races ever”.
Club Northwest’s Gary Atchinson led for 700 yards, then peeled off and let Pre continue the pace through 1:56.8 and 2:56.0. At the bell it was on. Pre tried to force the pace, but Wottle couldn’t be shaken and with 220 to go he made his move. He shot 10 yards into the lead and maintained it to the finish for 3:53.3, a PR by nearly 4 seconds and moving him to #3 on the all-time list.
“To a certain extent I learned something about myself tonight,” he said. “I can handle a fast pace. My coach has always said my best race would come off a fast pace, but you never really know until you try it. So I really had no idea what would happen.”
While Prefontaine suffered a rare loss, he still recorded a PR of 3:54.6 to tie Marty Liquori for #9 on the all-time list.
“The race went excellent but my legs just didn’t respond. With a quarter to go I wanted to explode, but I just had no acceleration.” He cited a heavy recent racing schedule, one which looks Hurculean by modern standards: NCAA 3-mile heats and finals, AAU 3-mile heats and finals, plus this mile all in the space of two weeks. Villanova’s Irishman John Hartnett laid low early on and closed hard in third for 3:54.7, just 0.1 seconds outside the all-time top ten.
The real purpose of the meet was a success as well. A capacity crowd of 12,000 came out (estimated by some as twice what it would have been if not for the big mile matchup). A $10 ticket (worth $40 in today’s wages) admitted a family of three, and after expenses the meet hit its goal of raising $25,000. Originally imagined as a one-off meet, Bowerman wanted to make it an annual affair. He said, “We’ve found that there is considerable interest among the athletes for competition about four or five days after the AAU meet and before they leave for Europe,” referring to the annual AAU-sponsored overseas trip for the top finishers at the nationals. Without a doubt, though, the big mile race established it as the USA’s must-see outdoor invitational.
The 1974 meet moved up a bit to Saturday, June 8, and somehow got better. Construction reduced the sellout crowd to 8,000, but they saw some very fast races. Rick Wohlhuter broke the 880 yard world record and almost assuredly broke the 800 meter record en route, but lack of an intermediate timer meant he didn’t get credit for it. Prefontaine thrilled the crowd in the three-mile when he ran down Frank Shorter from behind on the last lap and set a new American Record of 12:47.8 (equal to roughly 13:18 for 5k). Three more American Records were set in other events. After his cool-down jog, Pre declared “the people who came saw the best track meet in America this year.”
The 1975 meet was slated for June 7 and since Hayward Field had finally been restored, the name was changed to the Bill Bowerman Classic in honor of the man who turned Eugene into Track Town, USA. And then the unthinkable happened on May 30, just a week before the meet. Prefontaine died in a single-automobile accident. The meet was quickly renamed in his honor and has remained so ever since. And it all started with a little help from his friends, including one who wore the same jersey that I proudly did so many years ago.