Like most great runners, Steve Prefontaine stepped to the starting line with a chip on his shoulder—something to prove. After being told he didn’t quite have the natural speed necessary to be a great miler, the brash young blonde with the kamikaze racing tactics almost singlehandedly transformed the 5,000 meters from a 13-minute yawn fest to 12-1/2 laps of wire-to-wire excitement over the course of a career that was tragically cut short.
So, it seems fitting then that on the 40th anniversary of Prefontaine’s last race, on the very same track at Hayward Field, in front of some of the very same fans he once mesmerized, the meet that bares his name will play host to one of the most fully charged men’s 5,000-meter fields ever assembled on U.S. soil.
It also seems appropriate that taking his rightful place on the starting line in Eugene on Friday night will be another blonde haired Oregon alum, Galen Rupp, who, like Prefontaine decades before him, is considered an underdog against a lineup of highly favored thoroughbreds, some of whom boast personal bests up to 10 seconds faster than his own.
Unlike Pre, however, the chip Rupp carries on his shoulder is less obvious. His racing tactics are not quite as bold. But don’t let the 29-year-old’s clean-cut looks and soft-spoken, boy-next-door demeanor fool you. What Rupp lacks in outspoken aggressiveness, he makes up for in quiet confidence and an uncanny ability to put himself in position to do the only thing that matters at the world-class level—finish. It was on display in the 10,000 at the London Olympics, as Rupp closed hard with Nike Oregon Project teammate Mo Farah over the final circuit of the 25-lap race to capture the a silver medal for the U.S., and again in the 10,000 at this meet last year, covering the last 800 meters in an eye-popping 1:57 on his way to the win and a new American record of 26:44.
“For a while, all this stuff seemed so far away,” he told The Oregonian’s Ken Goe earlier this week. “You just have to get better and better, and eventually you claw your way up. Now it’s to the point where I’m right there. Now is the time to perform and make sure I’m at my best.”
But will Rupp, who aborted his indoor season this past winter after a lackluster 2-mile in late January and has yet to race so far this spring, be at his best in the 5,000 on Friday night? Can he hang on to the likes of Kenyans Isiah Koech, Edwin Soi and Albert Rop, whose personal bests of 12:48, 12:51 and 12:51, respectively, are virtually a lifetime ahead of his own best mark of 12:58? Or will he fall victim to the devastating kick of the seemingly ageless Bernard Lagat, the only American who can claim to have his number?
Questions like these have followed Rupp from the time he was a maverick high schooler training and racing with men almost twice his age, throughout his record-setting days as a collegian at Oregon, and well into his wildly successful professional career, where his every move is seemingly scrutinized. Since the beginning, he’s chosen to let his legs provide all of the answers.
Friday night’s 5000 will be no different. When Rupp steps to the starting line, he’ll do so with a chip on his shoulder and the magic of the hometown crowd behind him—just like Prefontaine did on this same day 40 years before him.