On the Origins of Steve Prefontaine: New Pre’s People Documentary

Forty-five years after his untimely death, Steve Prefontaine’s hold on the running world’s imagination is still unrivaled. Already the subject of three feature films—two Hollywood biopics as well as the documentary Fire on the Track—Pre appears now in a fourth, Pre’s People. This documentary, directed by Travis Johnson, alumnus of both Coos Bay’s Marshfield High School and the University of Oregon, breaks from the mytho-biographical mould established by the earlier films, foregrounding instead the context in which Pre’s heroic and tragic story was set.

The great success of Pre’s People is that, by turning its camera from Pre and inviting us to see him through the eyes of the people who knew him, it allows Pre to resolve into a depth and clarity that hasn’t previously been achieved in film. This Pre is more sensitive, less brash than fans have come to expect—less heroic, more human.

Take, for example, two of Pre’s high school races. First, climactically, his attempt to set the national 2-mile record. Knowing his success in advance does not damper the joyous intensity of reliving the race in oral-history fashion. Here is Pre as conquering hero. By poignant contrast, his subsequent failed attempt to break four minutes in the mile reveals Pre’s vulnerability. According to Ron Apling, one of Pre’s Marshfield teammates, Pre’s post-race dejection wasn’t on his own behalf but on that of his hometown crowd. “They had all come to watch him and he hadn’t done what he wanted to do for ’em.”

For those of us who grew up steeped in the mythology of Prefontaine, whether in Oregon or elsewhere, there is much to be gained by such doses of reality. They keep us honest and puncture the hagiography that often attends Pre’s legacy. As Bob Welch puts it, “I think sometimes people try to make Pre more than he actually was. He was just a great runner who gave it his all. And that’s enough. I don’t think that we need to make him into a god.” Nevertheless—or, perhaps, therefore—the myth withstands. Pre’s example, after all, has always been one of dedication and courage—mortal virtues if ever there were.

Such is the portrait that emerges from the testimonials of former coaches, former teammates, former rivals, and lifelong fans: a hardworking kid who had more in common than not with the other hardworking kids of Coos Bay. These testimonials, which are as affectionate as they are proud, coupled with historical and geographical surveys of Coos Bay, bring Pre back home. We’re glad to share him with the world, Pre’s People declares, but in the end he’s ours.

One of the most endearing statements in the film comes from Jared Bassett, a former Marshfield runner, who says, “Sometimes running out in the dunes you kinda just feel like he’s out there still, training with you almost. It’s a neat feeling.” It’s one of those things about Pre that the more you know about him the closer to him you inevitably feel.

But from the felt sense that he’s still alive to the lingering shock that he isn’t, Brad Jenkins, Johnson’s co-executive producer on the film, who also grew up and ran competitively in Coos Bay, recalls, “Travis and I were just eleven years old when we both saw Pre set his last American record, which happened to be on Marshfield’s track . . . the 2,000m in 5:01.4 set in 1975. A few weeks later, we were on that same track at his funeral.”

That sequence of events, needless to say, has stayed with Jenkins and Johnson. In 2011, realizing how much local Prefontaine lore had gone undocumented, they began what became the ten-year process of conducting interviews and acquiring old footage and photographs. It has been a labor of love for these lifelong friends, the product of which is a gift for all of us who continue to draw meaning from the life and example of Pre. Who are his people? We are.

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Scott F. Parker
Scott F. Parker is the author of The Joy of Running qua Running and Running after Prefontaine: A Memoir, among other books.