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May 23, 2017

Remembering “The Greatest Footrace Ever”

It’s tough to pick out a single Steve Prefontaine tale that someone could tell as a bedtime story, but November 15, 1969 at the Pac-8 Conference Cross Country Championships seems to be the one for Gary Hill of Track and Field News, who calls it the “greatest footrace” that he’s ever witnessed.

No race footage has ever surfaced of the event, so it’s something that we just have to keep passing down as part of track & field’s oral history.

The two protagonists of the story are Gerry Lindgren, who was a a fifth-year senior at Washington State the time (he redshirted the 1968 cross country season to try and qualify for a second Olympic team but failed), and Prefontaine, Oregon’s freshman star out of Coos Bay, Oregon.

Prefontaine was already popular, having donned the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline “America’s Distance Prodigy.” Putting that much hype behind a high school athlete can always be hit or miss. You have the success of putting LeBron James on the cover as a star at St. Vincent’s St. Mary’s High School (Akron) in 2002 and then two years later, there’s the flop with putting Sebastian Telfair on the cover. But Pre quickly proved himself to be a LeBron and not a Sebastian.

Prefontaine’s big breakout before the conference championship was setting a course record at Oregon’s Avery Park at the NCAA District 8 Northern Division Championships. It was just the start of living up to the cover.

Lindgren was reportedly a little banged up coming into this now notorious duel, but that wouldn’t stop him from employing the same erratic pacing strategy that made him successful by taking a race hard from the gun. This is the same fella who reportedly ran about 240 miles per week.

Robert Coe, author of Jock: A Memoir of the Counterculture and a runner for Stanford at the time, described the start “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: Super-Nerd and Super-Boy, each sprinting full-speed, intentionally veering thirty feet out of their ways to collide with one another shoulder-to-shoulder, bounce off, then move in to collide again arms entangling, elbows jabbing, as if each wanted to knock the other to the ground.”

Lindgren and Prefontaine went through the first mile in 4:18 before they took turns shoving each other for the lead. Anytime Prefontaine had a move, Lindgren had a response. It resulted in one of the best finish line photos ever.

Lindren and Prefontaine together at the finish line with arms interlocked and faces drained of any energy or emotion. The spectators on the side have just as much of a clue as to who won the race as you may upon first glance of the picture. The finish was initially too close to call but Lindgren was eventually given the victory having covered the six-mile hilly course in 28:32.4.

prefontaine embracing lindgren

(Photo shared by Jerry Kokesh on the 40th anniversary of Pre’s death.)

Lindgren went on to defeat Prefontaine again at the NCAA Championship at Van Cortlandt Park but their careers and life took different paths soon after. Prefontaine became the legend that everyone knows him to be from his success in the 70s. Lindgren had a brief career as a post-collegiate athlete in the 70s but then moved to Hawaii, where he remains active in the running community out there.

This simple recap doesn’t do it justice but it’s a tale that deserves to be passed along from generation to generation.

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