On the eve of the Boston Marathon, Jesse Kornbluth remembers the great American runner, Steve Prefontaine, and the movie about his life and career.
There are artists who paint by the rules. We call their work “decorative” and forget their names fast.
Then there are artists who break the rules and make something new, forcing us to see the world fresh. They’re the immortals.
Steve Prefontaine said, “Some people create with words or with music or with a brush and paints. I like to make something beautiful when I run. I like to make people stop and say, ‘I’ve never seen anyone run like that before.’ It’s more than just a race, it’s a style. It’s doing something better than anyone else. It’s being creative.”
Steve Prefontaine. You draw a blank. Well, it was so long ago. . .
Prefontaine didn’t have a low opinion of himself. But he got it right; he was an artist. He took the formula of long-distance running—hang back, let the front-runner burn himself out, then kick at the end—and spat on it. Pacing yourself, he believed, was for wimps. His style was to sprint. From start to finish. Go out fast, take the lead, keep the lead—at any cost.
No one had ever run this way. But Steve Prefontaine, painting in time and space, did the impossible, proving that it wasn’t impossible at all. He revolutionized long-distance running. Became a hero, a role model, a legend.
Was he driven? Of course. He grew up in a hard place—the logging town of Coos Bay, Oregon—and there weren’t a lot of ways out. He started running as a kid, saw he was good at it, and amped up his effort. It’s a simple story: the guy who wins because he can’t afford to lose. “Somebody may beat me,” he said, “but they are going to have to bleed to do it.”
He wanted desperately to go to the University of Oregon at Eugene, but Bill Bowerman—the legendary coach and, later, co-founder of Nike—didn’t believe in recruiting. But he did send his assistant, Bill Dellinger, to watch Prefontaine at the Oregon State high school cross-country meet. “I had my binoculars and I was probably a good half-mile, 700 yards away, from the start,” Dellinger has recalled, “and I saw this guy as they were called to the line and got to the set position. I saw the look in his eyes, even from a half-mile distance, and the intensity in his face as the gun went off, and I thought that’s gotta be Pre.”
Prefontaine did go to Eugene. He bonded with Bowerman, and he won and won and won—until the Munich Olympics in 1972. He returned to Oregon, committed to take a medal in 1976. And then, in 1975, he died in a car crash. He was 25.
An athlete who dies young can become an instant legend. Pre was made for the part. He had long dirty-blond hair, a moustache, fierce eyes—he was the James Dean of running. Attitude? His mouth was always too candid by half. Charisma? His fans called themselves “Pre’s People,” and they came out every time he ran at Eugene’s Hayward Field, screaming “Pre! Pre! Pre!” He loved them right back: “How can you lose with 12,000 people behind you?” And, in fact, he never lost a race over a mile on that track.
Prefontaine was the natural subject for a film. Twenty years after his death, there were two. The one you want to see is “Without Limits,” co-written and directed by Robert Towne, whose writing credits include “Chinatown.” Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner were the producers. Conrad Hall, who won an Oscar for “Butch Cassidy,” was the cinematographer. Billy Crudup played Pre. Donald Sutherland was Bill Bowerman.
A distinguished team, but the film made little money, and disappeared. That’s tragic, because “Without Limits” is not just inspiring—hell, most sports movies built around a dead guy are inspiring—it’s thrilling. In Hollywood, they talk about the “arc” of film stories. This has the arc of the classic Bruckheimer movies—little guy digs deep, finds a big guy inside—without the car races and jet fighters that make so many of those films corny.
The races are blood-pounding. But it’s what’s between them that makes the movie—Pre was as funny as he was profane. There’s a great scene, for example, when Bowerman comes to visit Pre in Coos Bay. He’s brought along two of his star runners as advertisements for his program at Eugene. Pre turns to them: “How about an easy 10?” And off they go, into the woods. Cut to: their return. Pre is fresh, the college boys are barely able to breathe.
If you have a kid who needs to get his/her ass off the couch, here’s your Saturday night viewing. If you’re feeling sluggish, ditto. But be warned: “Without Limits” is as seductive as Prefontaine himself—and as motivating. It can make the lame throw off their crutches, the faint of heart leap for the sky. See it, and believe.
This article first appeared on Head Butler.