"The first-ever Pac-8 cross-country championship convened on November 14th, 1969 – the same day that Apollo 12 lifted off for the moon to land five days later in Oceanus Procellarum, at 3°11'51" south latitude and 23°23'8" west longitude on the northwest rim of Surveyor Crater, only 600 feet from its target point: The Surveyor III, an unmanned spacecraft that had landed there on April 20, 1967. As I warmed up on the Stanford golf course that morning, I was so awestruck I could barely look around.
I stole only a brief glance at fifth-year Washington State red-shirt Senior Gerry Lindgren, at age twenty-three already widely considered the greatest American distance runner of all time; his only competition, the Native American Billy Mills, the 10K Gold Medalist in Tokyo. As a high school Senior, Lindgren had defeated Russia’s best over 10K, then run injured in the Tokyo Games a few months later. By the end of his freshman year at W.S.U. he had covered six miles – the distance we were racing today – in 27:11.6, a tenth of a second behind the winner Mills and faster than the existing 10,000-meter world record, based on conversion tables. Lindgren was a freak of nature and nurture. It was rumored that in high school he had sometimes gotten out of bed in the middle of the night to run ten miles (probably true); also that he once trained 350 miles a week for six weeks straight (almost certainly untrue). Abused as a child, he had grown up into a Marvel Comic Book character with a monstrous talent, inner demons and little or no sense of boundaries when it came to racing and training. The N.C.A.A. cross-country champion in 1966 and 1967 and a track titlist over 5K and 10K in 1968, he had dropped out of school to train for Mexico City, but had difficulty adjusting to altitude and failed to make the team. My stolen glances at this legendary warrior took in his geeky horn-rimmed glasses, preternaturally white skin with spidery blue veins, jug ears, and thighs like Batman with zero body fat on a 120-pound frame: Lindgren looked like Super-Nerd. An instant later another runner jogged past with three or four fellow Oregon Ducks, giving off a glow like a piece of jagged glass. He looked like Super-Boy. I barely had the courage to cast more than two or three furtive glances at the sensational freshman Steve Prefontaine (or at my old high school teammate Mike McClendon, who was jogging with him), but seeing Pre in person, prancing narcissistically in his day-glow green-and-yellow uniform (the biggest shock was noting that he was almost exactly my size and build), I instantly believed every report (of many) that “Pre,” as he was already universally known, was one obnoxious prick. His own Head Coach, Bill Bowerman, had nicknamed him “Rube” because he hailed from the hick, blue-collar, bad-ass town of Coos Bay, Oregon, where he could have easily gotten into drugs, according to his older sister. (I had heard he was into marijuana anyway.) But instead of becoming a big-time druggie, Pre had become the American high school two-mile record-holder, soon to land (that spring) on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He shouldn’t have thought he could handle a former Olympian five years his Senior, but two weeks earlier in his college debut at the N.C.A.A. District 8 Northern Division Championships at Oregon State's Avery Park in Corvallis, Pre had shocked the west coast running world by winning the six-mile event in a new meet record, breaking the previous mark of Oregon State’s future Mexico City Olympian Tracey Smith by over a half-minute, with Lindgren a stunned second, twenty-seven seconds behind the prodigious freshman. Word was out that Lindgren had been returning from an injury on that day, so he would no doubt be gunning for revenge today. I also had no doubt that Pre would think he could run him into the ground a second time. Today’s race promised to be a clash of two Northwesterners with balls the size of Nebraska – two men who never entertained the slightest thought of losing, except to inspire themselves to accomplish feats almost no other runners in the United States could manage, collegiate or otherwise.
In addition to Lindgren and Pre, each of my nemeses was present and accounted for: Cliff West and Bob Waldon from Cal; the U.S.C. and U.C.L.A runners we had recently battled. My father was there, too, by coincidence, in the Bay Area on business. This would be the first time he would ever see me compete in a Stanford uniform, running on the rims after our very long season. But I had no doubt what I would do: “For Stanford I Will!” For my school, my platoon, and myself, I would leave everything I had on that golf course. This was never in question. I knew I would hold nothing back. I would psych-in. This was Do or Die, and Death was not an option. @ @
I had never smelled blood before the start of a race, but in the seconds before the gun sounded there was blood in the water, no question about it. I felt as if I wasn’t standing on a starting line for a race; I felt as if I was about to jump off a cliff.
The starter’s pistol fired and Pre and Lindgren exploded off the starting line as if shot from cannons – as if they were competing over a hundred yards, not six miles. 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. It was macho lunacy, worthy of a Big DQ (disqualification) for both of them. But the gauntlet had been flung. What else could we do? I joined the rest of the field launching itself after the pair, sprinting on my toes like a quarter-miler, hoping that when the dust settled I would find myself at least among the top ten behind these two maniacs. At the half-mile mark the pace calmed a little, but far in the distance Pre and Lindgren would soon cross the mile mark at a near-suicidal pace: 4:18. Lindgren was famous for insane early paces: He had gone out in 4:14.0 in his American Record three-mile (12:53.3) in 1966. But today’s race pace wasn’t suicidal; it was each runner courting his own “death” in order to destroy his opponent. I later learned later this was mostly Pre’s doing. “I felt I had to go fast from the start because Gerry is fast,” he said – which makes no sense, but there you are. As I closed in on the mile mark, at least a hundred yards behind the leaders, in maybe tenth or eleventh place, I realized that I had no clue as to the location of a single teammate. The entire field had become wildly strung out. Coach Clark’s imperative at last year’s N.C.A.A. championship – get together and run as a team – had been completely lost in the mayhem.
Our Coach Marshall Clark shouted out my Mile split, the tension in his voice speaking volumes: “Four-thirty-three, THIRTY-FOUR…“ here was one of those “uh-oh” moments that every distance runner dreads to his very soul, and that nearly every instinct in your body tries to protect you against. I had gone out way too fast. Less than eighteen months earlier my best all-out mile on a flat track was 4:25; we had also never run a single Monday mile-rep in training under 4:45. But I had just burned my first mile in 4:34. This race was going to be beyond brutal. I had probably run the first half-mile in something like 2:10, which meant I would be spending the next five miles dealing with the lactic acid built up from this wanton act of madness. It turned out this was what Pre wanted, too. He hated competitors who just “sat” on rivals, waiting to out-kick them at the end – the way Mark Spitz kept defeating my fraternity brother John Ferris in the 200-meter butterfly. “Most people run a race to see who is fastest,” Pre would later famously remark. “I run a race to see who has the most guts.” The first-ever Pac-8 Cross-Country Championship would be a “gut race” now. In a “gut race” you go out hard, establish your position, then hold on for as long as you can. That’s what I had to look forward to: Survival. @ @
My memories of the next twenty-five minutes are not-surprisingly vague, but photographs show me in the second pack at two miles, just behind U.S.C.’s Ritcherson and Brock and shoulder-to-shoulder with McClendon. My old teammate, who had been the national “postal” champion at Clear Creek High, where he ran 14:00.0 for three miles, had set a new Oregon three-mile freshman record of 13:57.8 – a record Pre would obliterate come springtime. I remember a Washington State runner easing by me a bit later; a little later still, someone from U.C.L.A. On a short but steep downhill portion at three and a half miles, just before our monster three-hundred-yard-long uphill climb on the 16th fairway, McClendon went by me without so much as a “suck it up, friend.” At the top of the monster hill on the 16th Fairway, as far away from the finish line as our course took you, I could barely set one foot in front of the other. The long downhill would allow me to recover somewhat, but I was already toast. On most cross-country circuits, in a gut race or not, your place at two miles is fairly close to where you’ll finish, barring a major collapse or a major surge. But midway down the long, shallow descent towards Junipero Serra, still two miles from the finish line, Cal’s Cliff West went by me easily. I wasn’t competing anymore. I was running to get this race over with. I had no other ambition. Other than Greg Brock, I hadn’t seen a Stanford teammate since the starting line. Our vaunted pack had been blown to smithereens. The first Pac-8 Cross-Country Championship had turned into a Death March, which again was exactly what Pre wanted. Years later I found this quote from him: “The best pace is a suicide pace and today is a good day to die.”
Two hundred yards ahead of an excellent field (and over a minute ahead of me), Prefontaine and Lindgren were locked in a Duel of Titans that years later ESPN would rank at No. 73 among the hundred greatest track & field and cross-country competitions of the 20th century. The long-time editor of Track and Field News, Gary Hill, later said that it was the greatest foot race he ever saw. Trading the lead repeatedly, each man attempting to surge away from the other, but never getting more than six feet apart, they averaged a less-then-searing 4:51 per mile pace after their psychotic first mile, but as a feat of intestinal fortitude it must have been a race to behold. Going up the small rise 150 yards from the finish (where I had taken the lead against U.C.L.A.), Pre got a half-step on Lindgren, then moved to cut the Cougar off from the finish line. Again and again, Lindgren later claimed, Pre tried to edge him into the crowd off to his left, but the smaller man resisted, leaning towards Pre, pushing back. They crossed the finish line together, shoulders touching, arms entangled, each wearing the same naked expression of exhausted surrender – inverted hawk-moon mouths agape – but only Lindgren remembered to lean at the tape, his hands half-raised to break it. They had both circumnavigated our hilly six-mile course in 28:32.4. The finish was so close that the race was initially called a tie. There is a myth that photographs were examined, but the fact is that after officials conferred, Lindgren was given the nod on the spot. Conference records forty years later list the winner as the Cougar from Pullman.
In coming years the Pac-8 cross-country championship of 1969 would frequently be cited as the last great American distance race of the Sixties. Nine days later, Lindgren would “[run] scared” and decisively defeat Pre at the N.C.A.A. Championship for his 11th individual collegiate title; a short time later he would graduate, turn schizophrenic – or so it has been claimed – and leave the American distance running scene to Pre, his presumptive heir. In 1980 Lindgren would also abandon his wife and children, leaving behind a note that read “get a divorce, sell the business,” then disappear off the face of the earth, only to turn up years later in the Hawaiian Islands, running road races under an assumed name. The Seventies would belong to Pre, who would break every American record from 2,000 to 10,000 meters, finish a heart-breaking fourth in the 1972 Munich Olympic 5K, and almost single-handedly transform the sport of long-distance running by shattering its nerdy stereotypes and lending it a new showmanship and sex appeal. The final spin on the legend would be his early accidental death, James Dean style, in a mysterious car crash at the age of twenty-four, legally drunk and suffocated under his flipped sports car on the side of a road in Eugene. Decades later, the greatest American track & field legend since Jesse Owens became the subject of two feature films, the best of them, Without Limits, written by Kenny Moore and produced by Tom Cruise, who had hoped to play the Pre himself, but by the time the production was ready to roll, he was too old. (On the day that Without Limits opened in Los Angeles in 1998, I would be one of a half-dozen people in the shopping-mall cinema for an 11:30 screening. The moment in which Bill Bowerman (played by Donald Sutherland) tells the cocky freshman (Billy Crudup),”Grant me those Stanford three-milers are no slouches, especially that fellow Kardong,” and Pre replies, “Don Kardong? He’s not bad” – this was about four or five months after the conference cross-country race -- I wanted to stand up and scream, “Kardong didn’t beat me once that year!” But of course I didn’t. @ @
So what did happen to me on that overcast morning of November 14th, 1969? Running those last two miles on instinct and not much else, I crossed the finish line a tick over a minute behind Pre and Lindgren in 29:33.0, a new course PR by 21 seconds, but buried in 15th place, soundly beaten by a teammate, Brock (28:08) for the first time all season. In a masterpiece of peaking – gearing a season towards one race -- Greg had finished 5th, just behind Oregon’s Steve Savage, a future Olympic steeplechaser, and Washington State’s Rick Riley, yet another great eastern Washington runner who had competed internationally while still in his teens. (Riley’s interscholastic two-mile record had been broken only the year before by Pre.) S.C.’s Freddie Ritcherson, who had barely beaten me a month or so before, managed 7th; McClendon came through 10th; Cliff West, 13th, in 29:22. Oregon State Junior Spencer Lyman, who had won the seventh annual Equinox Marathon in Fairbanks, Alaska less than two months before this race, finished just ahead of me.
Brock was bouncing on his heels not far from the finish line. “I trained through every meet,” he told me, as I wandered around, feeling utterly trashed. “I was running two-a-days on Fridays while the rest of you guys were taking it easy!” I acknowledged him with a grim nod, then headed out to run my cool-down alone. I felt no resentment about Greg’s boasting, none at all. He had shown up when it counted, while I had apparently squandered my chances of performing well at Conference for the sake of holding on to that stupid white cotton jersey, modestly emblazoned “Stanford #1.” Freshman Decker Underwood (and former California State Mile Champ) had shown up huge that day, too, finishing just two seconds behind me, obliterating my freshman course record by almost a minute and a half. Brock & Decker, two industrious tools! The pair who had grown a pair! Kardong was our fourth man, running a course PR 29:41 in 18th place but as disappointed about his performance as I was about mine. My classmate Jack Lawson, former king of the Great Valley in high school, was the fifth Stanford scorer in a so-so 30:27, in 32nd place. Chuck Menz, who had been as high as our third man at times that year, had dragged himself to the finish line a full fifty seconds off his course best, while Arvid Kretz tanked, our one-time second man finishing next to last in the entire field, in 32:34. In Chuck Dyer’s photographs of that day I see Arvid running alongside Brock at Mile Two; his wheels must have fallen off completely.
As a team our 86 points nipped U.S.C. (90) and avenged our tough early-season loss to U.C.L.A. (94), but we were nowhere close to the two Northwest powerhouses: Oregon and Washington State finished one-two, 46-63. There would be no return to nationals for last year’s runner-up. A “force to be reckoned with” early in the season, competing in the toughest cross-country conference in the nation, we would be officially shut down for the year, thanks in part to the two greatest distance runners of the age. My disappointment was keener because my father was there.
“You saw it, Dad,” I said, once I composed myself enough to talk to him. “Lindgren and Pre blew everybody else’s race out of the water…" (c) 2011