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You Can't Stop Pre — His Legacy Lives On

Published: May 26, 2022

 

Eugene, Oregon, known as "TrackTown USA", is the frequent host to star-studded track events from the Olympic Trials to the NCAA Championships. This year, Eugene will even host the World Athletics Championships Oregon22 for the first time in the U.S. But there is one legendary annual track meet that personifies this "Running Capital of the U.S." best: the Prefontaine Classic

Considered one of the best track and field meets in the world, the 2022 Prefontaine Classic will take place once again at re-imagined Hayward Field, May 27-28. This beloved event is the longest running outdoor invitational track and field meet in the nation. 

The Prefontaine Classic is now part of the international and distinguished Wanda Diamond League. Founded in 2010, fourteen elite track and field invitationals take place around the world annually from Paris to Doha to Shanghai to Eugene, Oregon. The series is in the top tier of the World Athletics' (formerly known as the IAAF) one-day competitions. In 2023, the Pre Classic at Hayward Field will serve as the Diamond League Final, which will be held in the U.S. for the first time.

What made the Prefontaine Classic the legendary track meet that it is? For starters, the inspiration of its namesake, Steve Prefontaine. It was a track meet sparked from the love and admiration Eugene held for its local track hero, and was developed with the enthusiasm of track meet directors like Tom Jordan. 

Steve Prefontaine

To commemorate Steve Prefontaine for his inspirational and legendary distance running, a track meet in his name was established at Hayward Field in 1975. "Pre" was honored for his hard driving dedication to his sport, his call for the rights of amateur athletes, and for his grassroots environmental activism. He was Oregon's own, growing up in Coos Bay on the Oregon Coast and setting the national high school 2-mile record at Marshfield High School.

Pre went on to win every collegiate track race, all distances, that he ran for the University of Oregon. Running alongside the then unknown Phil Knight (Nike) and under Coach Bill Bowerman, renowned for coaching many a track champion, Pre was already a local celebrity. After finishing fourth in the 5K at the 1972 Munich Olympics, he was preparing to compete again in 1976 Olympics, with many believing the gold was within his grasp.

Tragically, his life was cut short in a 1975 motor vehicle accident, and the Pre Classic came together that same year. Like Pre himself, the Prefontaine Classic has become a track meet of legendary proportions.

Tom Jordan

Former Track and Field News contributor Tom Jordan stepped into the role of Pre Classic meet director in 1984. Noting that track meets often had long pauses between events — testing the attention-span of even the most dedicated track fan — Tom set a new pace for the Pre Classic. He compressed the event schedule with back-to-back action happening across the field, a track and field event meet model that has caught on around the world.

Along with its quicker tempo, the champions that starting dotting the roster drew national attention. It seems that competing in front of Eugene's passionate fan base was an experience that every track athlete could appreciate. The track audience was informed, attentive and cared about track—and they showed up to cheer! In the 90s, Jordan met Steve Miller who was the current head of Nike's global athletics. Miller arranged for Sergey Bubka, one of the biggest names in the sport at that time, to compete in the 1993 Pre Classic. And with all eyes on Bubka, he almost set a world record. Other athletes noticed, and eager to experience Hayward Field's "magic" too, they started to show up, and also to break records here.

Recognizing Jordan's contributions and tireless dedication to this event among others, Travel Lane County awarded him with the Sports Legacy Award in 2020.

Hayward Field

Photo: Jake Willard

The Pre Classic Today

When the guns go off this spring marking the 47th annual Prefontaine Classic, fans will witness some of today's most watched track stars compete. While the bulk of events take place Saturday, distance events are held the day before at twilight when the temperatures are cooler. The Pre Classic "Women's Distance Night" will be held Friday night—which is a local favorite. And pay attention to the "Pre Classic Mile", also now known as the Bowerman Mile, which is considered the greatest race in the U.S. racking up more times under four minutes than any other American meet.

A Legacy Celebrated

Tributes to Steve Prefontaine go beyond the Pre Classic. There is a dedicated bark chip running path dedicated to him, a memorial plaque at the roadside site of his death and his portrait graces many a mural or backdrop. Learn more about him at Hayward Hall, along with other track legends. 

The Eugene Symphony has compiled a multi-media musical tribute piece composed by David Schiff. Along with the Oregon Contemporary Theatre, they accepted written submissions from Pre's friends, family and fans about how he impacted their lives and what he meant to them. The not-to-be-missed tribute will be performed on June 4, 2022.

Visit Coos Bay

Prefontaine fans will want to pay homage to Steve Prefontaine in his coastal town of Coos Bay. This seaside community is just over two hours by car from Eugene. You can also take the Pacific Crest Bus there but plan on two overnights as the bus departs Eugene in the late afternoon and returns in the early morning — and you'll want at least a day to explore the town, feast on fresh seafood, shop and visit the places important to Pre.

Places to visit include the Prefontaine Gallery with his awards and trophies at the Coos Art Museum, Marshfield High School where he ran and Sunset Memorial Park where he was laid to rest. There is a great photo opportunity in front of the outdoor mural of Pre in downtown Coos Bay across from Restaurant O. And, every September, there is the Prefontaine Memorial Run through the streets of downtown.

In Coos Bay, Pre's sister Linda Prefontaine offers guided tours for small groups and shares her family's stories. Inquire directly with her for scheduling and pricing.

Author: Taj Barnhart Morgan

Taj Barnhart Morgan is the Director of Content Strategy for Travel Lane County. A journalism graduate from the University of Oregon, Taj has two decades of special event management and hospitality marketing experience in San Diego, CA and Maui, HI. Passionate about mothering, and back to her Oregon roots, she is discovering the Eugene, Cascades & Coast region all over again through the eyes of her daughter.