Monday, March 10, 2014

Pre Lives, or You Are No Longer Uninformed

Hayward Field, the track at the University of Oregon, is one of the most revered places in the sport of running.  It's at least in the Top 5, along with Marathon, Greece; a certain house in Hopkinton, MA; a certain bar in Falmouth, MA; and Iffley Road Track in Oxford.  A disproportionate number of American NCAA national champions, major marathon champions, and Olympic medalists have circled this tartan, even before people in the United States cared about running and winning running races.

Two names stand above all others associated with this oval: Bill Bowerman and Steve Prefontaine.  Bowerman was a long-time coach of the Ducks who used his collegians as guinea pigs to test the training theories upon which 31 Olympics were forged and the running shoes upon which Nike (yes, that Nike) was built. 

Bowerman, with his infamous stopwatch, at Hayward

Prefontaine - or "Pre" - was a Duck from Oregon with the guts and from-the-front racing strategy to redefine the idea of what it meant to race and be a sportsman.  Pre died in 1975 at the age of 24, in a car accident in Eugene.  At the time of his death he held the national record for all distances between 2k and 10k, and one of the only things he hadn't won was an Olympic medal, although not for lack of trying.  One of his now infamous and oft-repeated quotes is "Somebody may beat me, but they're going to have to bleed to do it." 

"I race to see who has the most guts."

One of my favorite books is Bowerman and the Men of Oregon, written by a runner of Bowerman's by the name of Kenny Moore who did this little thing called running the marathon in the Olympics, twice.  I cannot recommend this book enough, and when I first read it, I could only imagine this place based on pictures my dad took for me when he rode through on his motorcycle.  But now I visited myself so please excuse me while I fangirl a bit.

Because of Bowerman, Pre, Dellinger, Moore, Grelle, Davis, Ohelmann, and Knight etc etc, and all of the track events hosted there (Olympic track trials, NCAA national champs, IAAF junior champs, and on and on), Eugene is known as:

Tracktown USA

The stands on the west side are iconic, not only because Nike peddles shoes using their image.

Pre died in a late night car accident when the car he was driving flipped and slammed into a rock wall.  The site - known as Pre's Rock - is notoriously hard to find because it happened on a random street in a random neighborhood in Eugene.  For those who want to go looking, the Rock is at the corner of Skyline Ave and Birch Lane in the Fairmont neighborhood, just north of Hendricks Park, about a mile east of the UO campus.

 Runners come and leave tokens, hopes, and prayers.

The road curved and his car went straight.  If not for the house just behind where I am standing, Pre would have died within sight of Hayward Field.

- - - - - - - - - -

Although Nike's current apparel line let me down while souvenir hunting, it is still pretty cool that the company was born here.  Phil Knight went into business with Bill Bowerman - creating a company known as Blue Ribbon Sports - to import and distribute Japanese running shoes, named TIGERS, in the US.  Bowerman was a consummate tinkerer and contributed designs for new shoes, most notably the "waffle trainers" that defined early Nike shoes.  Before the first Nike designs, the vast majority of running shoes, made primarily in Germany (Adidas) and Japanese (TIGERS), had smooth soles.  (I think the exception was Chuck Taylors.)  Anecdotally, Bowerman created the first track shoes by pounding little carpenter nails through the soles to improve their grip on contemporary tracks, which were made of loose cinders.

Both men were notoriously forthright and no-nonsense, which definitely impacted the nature of the company, if the company taglines of the last 50 years are any indication.  I found a great example of this hanging at the wall at the Nike store in Eugene, the only positive of going there.

[Partial Transcript]

Bill Bowerman at Oregon said "If I tried to take the (marathon) shoes away from Kenny Moore or Wade Bell, I'd have a fight on my hands."

Each model sells for $7.95.  TIGER is not only better--it's less expensive.  As one runner said, "The only people who will be left wearing German shoes will either be uninformed or idiots."

You are no longer uninformed.

Very truly yours,
Philip H Knight 

Consider yourself now informed about the history of running in Eugene (and why I wanted a souvenir from there!).

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