COOS BAY — The all-too-familiar intense glare peers over Coos Bay, forever turning left on a now invisible track.
The image of a young Steve Prefontaine, standing at Pete Susick stadium, black M embroidered on his chest with a hint of a smile on his now-famous lips, greets motorists as they venture south on U.S. Highway 101 in downtown Coos Bay.
It was more than 40 years ago when Pre’s car flipped, fatally trapping him underneath. But his legacy is still alive and strong, and focused as the permanent northward brow-furrowed look on one of the three freshly-painted murals.
That memory has lived on for nearly four decades through the Prefontaine Memorial Run, and the 38th annual edition is this Saturday, with the 10-kilometer race starting at 10 a.m. in downtown Coos Bay.
“He’s pretty big,” Prefontaine Memorial Run Director Bob Huggins said. “And that’s confirmed by the number of people that come to this area just to do a Prefontaine pilgramage to find out where he grew up, where he lived, where he went to high school, what track he ran on, what routes did he train on. There’s hundreds and hundreds of people from all over the world making visits to Coos Bay.”
As cars busily drive through the tight two-lane highway in front of the murals, they loom over everything, too big to see without craning one’s neck and looking upward.
So, too, does Prefontaine loom over running, not just in Coos Bay, where it’s expected, but also over American running, where Pre held records in five different distance races.
But the excellence alone didn’t make Pre a legend. It was the suddenness of his departure and the unknowns left behind. It seems illogical that the most dominant American distance runner never stepped onto an Olympic podium.
“He never really hit his peak, so there’s that legend status of what might’ve been,” Marshfield cross country coach Steve Delgado said.
He looms in the training routes that have been memorialized in the Prefontaine Memorial Run course, he looms in the stadium visible on a wall that’s only a few blocks away. High schoolers will run in the OSAA-sanctioned 5-kilometer race that prefaces the main-event 10K, and some come by themselves and make the pilgrimage to trace Pre’s steps.
The high school race, which is a relatively new wrinkle, is a major fixture early in the cross country season. Saturday's race, which starts at 9:45 a.m., will include at least 19 teams from Oregon and California — 326 boys and girls as of Tuesday.
Meanwhile, just over 550 runners have signed up for the 10-kilometer race and another 70 for the 2-mile fun walk.
The steep hills of Ocean Boulevard are tough on soggy September legs and the quality of the field makes winning difficult.
But as the grimace of the smallest mural indicates, difficulty was never something Steve Prefontaine shied away from. This race, with its hundreds of those who come to remember the gait and the grimace and the mustache, only serves to honor that memory.
“I think that while the kids feel like they can be part of that story, they don’t feel like they own the story themselves,” Delgado said. “They understand that there’s a bigger world that loves Pre, identifies with Pre, but holds him as an example of hard work and striving after your dream and all that. They feel good that they’re able to be a part of that in a special way that no one else is, but they’re also able to share it.”
People still can sign up for the race, with registration and packet pick-up from 4-6 p.m. on Friday and 8-9:30 a.m. on Saturday at St. Monica Catholic Church hall, 357 S. Sixth St. The entry fee for those who haven't signed up is $40 for adults and $15 for students.
Meanwhile, the new mural will be dedicated at 5:30 p.m. Thursday. At that time the pedestrian walkway also will be renamed the Pre-Way.