The following story is an excerpt from my book,
Chief - The Questionable Recollections and Slow Maturity of a Baby-Boomer. 

The picture shows me with Pre following his victory in the 5000 meter-run at the 1972 U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene.

Pre and Me

by Joe Fulton

Even if you are not a distance runner you have probably heard of Steve Prefontaine.  If you are an Oregonian then you almost certainly know about the man who seems to get more famous with each passing year.  He was the James Dean of Oregon athletics who died in a car crash in 1975 and though faster runners have come and gone he is still the most popular distance runner in American sports history.

I knew him, kind of, and I’m going to tell you about my Pre encounters.  But I am using his name for the title of this story just so you’ll be more likely to read it.  Truth is, this chapter is not really about Prefontaine’s running career, which most fans of track & field are already familiar with.  It’s about my career.  But don’t worry.  No decent 1970s runner from the state of Oregon could avoid being entwined with the great Prefontaine and such was the case with me.

I started running in the fall of 1969 as a super-skinny 14 year-old frosh. I ran all winter and even entered my first road race in December 1969. I finished 4th overall and first in my age group in the Lake Oswego Road Run.  Handing out the awards was a freshman distance runner from the University of Oregon named Steve Prefontaine.  I had never heard of him.

Injury-prone and sickly, I never made it through an uninterrupted high school season of track or cross-country. My junior year I managed to stay healthy enough to clock 1:56.6 for 880 yards and 4:17.9 for the mile run.  The only Oregon prep runners who ran faster were seniors.  For today’s prep runners who cannot relate to the races in yards I offer a rough idea of the difference between the races we ran and the races run today.  An 880 yard race takes about a second longer to run than an 800 meter race.  A mile is about 18 seconds longer than a 1500 meter run and a two-mile is roughly 40 seconds longer than a 3k.

I knew the other top-returning runners in the state, but I didn’t fear any of them.  The most impressive was probably my younger brother Dan, a sophomore who broke the Fulton tradition of attending Catholic high schools.  He went to Benson Tech.

Dan tried out for football as a freshman but during the winter I convinced him to start running with me. After a week of running we went to a winter all-comer’s track meet at Duniway Park.  I ran in the open mile and clocked a 4:31.  Dan ran in the novice mile and won it in 4:58.  He broke the five-minute mile off one week of training.

The most natural distance runner I ever knew went on to have a tremendous prep career at Benson Tech.  He ran the mile in 4:11 and clocked 9:00 for two miles despite running in lane two for the entire last lap as he lapped virtually everyone else in the race.  A final 440 yards in less than 60 seconds was a typical finish by Dan Fulton.  He won the state two-mile twice with blistering kicks over South Eugene’s fearsome duo of Tom McChesney and Steve Surface. He came within two seconds of the meet record held by Steve Prefontaine even though he didn’t lead until the final lap.  At the Golden West Invitational Dan ran 5,000 meters in 14:24.  In the history of Oregon prep distance running only Prefontaine and Galen Rupp ran faster.

Training was not a high priority for Dan who had a resting heart rate of 37 beats per minute. He was a great training partner when I could get him out for a run. But he preferred to sleep or tinker in the basement while I explored the nooks and crannies of the city.  It was easier to convince brother Bob to join me. 

When Bob noticed that his older brothers were good at running he decided that he must be, too.  Unfortunately, he was a plump little fellow in the 7th grade.  Nevertheless, one day he stepped outside and decided to run around the block. Although his face was red and he was sweating profusely, he made it without stopping.  And then he just kept on running.  Bob plodded around that big city block nonstop a dozen times or more and as he chugged along he actually began to look better.  Baby Bob, as the McChesney brothers of Eugene called him, went on to win the Portland Interscholastic League mile title for Benson Tech, competed for Spokane Community College and Oregon State and was a very good road racer, too.

On a cold February morning in 1972 Dan and I got up early with the intention of hitchhiking to Seaside to watch the marathon, which would feature the great Gerry Lindgren.  We ran to Hwy 26 near the zoo, held up a cardboard sign that read “Seaside Marathon” and we were quickly picked up.   We were without a change of clothes and I’m sure we didn’t carry a water bottle or food; we never did in those days.

When we got to Seaside Dan and I were caught up in the pre-race excitement and decided to crash the start even though we were not entered.  After a few miles we were a bit surprised to find ourselves within view of Lindgren and the lead pack.  There was an aid station between 20 and 21 miles.  We reached it in two hours and nine minutes and stopped to sample the sliced oranges. They were naturally the greatest tasting oranges we had ever tried.  But then we were probably famished and completely dehydrated.  We kept wolfing them down as volunteers encouraged us to get back into the race.  We were the youngest runners they had seen to that point and they assured us that we were in the top twenty.  But Dan and I explained that we were not even entered.  We were spectators and just wanted to see Lindgren.  So we hitched a ride back to the Seaside promenade and did just that.  But Lindgren lost the race to Russ Pate.

We saw Lindgren a few months later in Eugene at the 1972 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials.  He cruised out onto the Hayward Field track wearing the now famous “Stop Pre” shirt.  Of course, he didn’t stop Pre and after the race many young fans stormed the field to congratulate their hero, who donned his own stop-Pre shirt, which must have been given to him by Lindgren.  That is when I got my picture taken with America’s greatest runner.  I don’t know if he knew who I was, but he was certainly willing to stop and pose for the camera during all the excitement of the moment.

For the next few months I became very familiar with the streets of Portland.  By the New Year I was averaging more than ten miles per day.  I won the Oregon Indoor high school mile before a sellout crowd of 12,000 at Portland’s Memorial Coliseum.  Of course, they had come to see Pre in the open men’s two-mile, but it just so happened that the high school mile was the event immediately preceding the men’s two-mile, so the knowledgeable crowd was pretty jacked up and I simply pretended that all of them were cheering for me.

I was ready for a fast pace.  But since I had the top returning time in the state by six seconds no one wanted to take it out.  Finally a runner from a small school took control of the pace and I tucked into second.  None of the top runners, including brother Dan, would take over the lead.  Realizing that a fast time was now out of the question I decided to demonstrate my finishing speed and I waited until the final 440 yards to cruise away for any easy victory.

Now convinced that I was the best runner in the state I took aim at Pre’s state meet record in the mile of 4:08.4.  I had no doubt that I would get it as I visualized the state mile run over and over in my head. 

Over the 28 days of February I ran 367 miles. 

On February 17th I went to Duniway Park and tried to jump into a collegiate two-mile run.  Told that it might affect my prep eligibility I ran a solo two-mile instead and clocked 9:18; faster than any of the returning prep runners in the state.  Two days later I ran six times 880 yards in 2:15, 2:14, 2:11, 2:09, 2:11 and 2:08.  I ran the same workout, a bit faster, on February 28th.  I did not have a coach to tell me that I was doing too much.

On the day that changed my life forever, March 2, 1973, I ran 14 miles including a track “step-down” workout of mile-mile-880-440 in 4:48, 4:36, 2:17 and 52.5.  That night I led my “Bleacher Bums” as we cheered on the Central Catholic varsity basketball team in the CC gym.  I was wearing those groovy 1970s disco shoes with high heels because after the game I planned to attend a dance at Sunset High school with my date Cheri Brown, the gorgeous little sister of Sunset’s former state cross-country champ Randy Brown.

Central Catholic allowed its students to eat their lunches in the gym and as I walked behind the grandstands I was shoved from behind by a little chubby kid I played with in an after-school volunteer program.  My high-heeled shoe slid forward and hit some rotting food on the floor.  I made the mistake of referring to it later as a smashed piece of fruit and it became a banana peel in the press and to this day some people think that my career ended when I slipped on a banana peel.  Sometimes you don’t even have to try to be funny.

Regardless of the type of compost I slipped on, my knee twisted and dislocated in a flash, chipping both bone and cartilage in my right knee.  I tried to pretend it was nothing, even as my knee took on the shape of a cantaloupe.  I went to the Brown’s and got much sympathy from Cheri, but there would be no dancing or anything else that night.

The next day I went to the hospital for x-rays.  As I lay in the emergency room awaiting results a nurse dropped in to see how I was doing.  I asked her if it was possible that I could start running again soon.  Her reply, which cut through my heart was, “Oh, honey, you won’t be running for a long time to come.”  I immediately started to cry.  The nurse did not know she was talking to the top high school runner in the state.  Caught off guard she offered me a cigarette.  The ludicrous irony of the offer sent me into hysterics and I laughed and cried until I collapsed from exhaustion.

It took a three-hour operation to clean up my knee and I wore a full-leg cast for the next three months.  It was the worst time of my life.  When a serious distance runner stops cold turkey and faces sudden immobility he or she confronts a nightmarish form of cabin fever. The last day I did not go out for a run had been Christmas Day, 68 days earlier.  Since then I had logged 660 miles; not much in terms of the modern ultra runner, but an awful lot for a high school kid.  I rarely slept through the night during the three months I wore that cast.  I would wake up trying to tear it off my leg.  When it finally came off, my once sinewy limb was withered and weak.  As was to be expected, but unfortunately not prevented, I rushed back into running, wearing ridiculously padded Nike’s that only hindered my naturally gentle running form.  I would eventually have four more surgeries on my right knee.

It would take me 31 years to completely get over the loss of my youthful dreams of glory.  Even though I would win a few races over the next 15 years, and I would be fortunate to coach many state champions, my day of blissful relief didn’t come until May 29, 2004 when my son Leland, in dramatic fashion, won the Oregon 3A high school state title in the 800 meter run.  No one in the stands that day at Hayward Field, and no one on the track, including Leland, could have possibly known what that moment meant to me.

Berny Wagner, the head coach at Oregon State University, took a chance on my bum knee back in 1973 and gave me a scholarship to run track at OSU.  Though I wasn’t able to start hard training until the following February I did get in some blistering track workouts before clocking a couple 4:14 miles, a 1:52.7 800 and 3:04 for three laps.

One of the last collegiate races I ran was a 4 x 880 yard relay at Mt. Hood Community College.  My Stater’s Track Club team won the race, but all eyes were on Prefontaine, who was racing for the Oregon Track Club.  After the meet I happened to overhear a high school kid asking Pre what he thought about Dan Fulton signing with OSU.  Pre responded, “That’s the last you’ll ever hear of him.”

Needless to say I took offense, after all, OSU was my school and Dan was my brother.  I asked Pre to explain himself.  He contended that the only good runner OSU had ever produced was the current Pac-10 mile champ Hailu Ebba. Apparently Pre had never heard of Dale Story, the OSU runner who won the NCAA cross-country title in his bare feet over snow; or the OSU two-mile relay team that once held the world record; or Morgan Groth, NCAA champ and U.S. Olympian; or even Tracy Smith, former U.S. indoor record holder for three-miles.  The great Duck knew how to race, but he sure didn’t know that a few Beavers did, too.

Earlier that spring Pre had shown his animosity for the Beavers while watching a dramatic dual meet between Oregon and Oregon State at Hayward Field.  The place was packed and with two events to go it appeared that OSU had a chance to upset the Ducks on their home turf.  We needed 2nd place in the three-mile run and first in the mile relay. 

Paul Geis of Oregon, the heir apparent to Pre, took off like a flash in the three-mile, while OSU’s Randy Brown was fighting the Duck’s Randall James for 2nd.  My good friend Jose Amaya was also in the race after finishing 3rd in the mile.  James started elbowing Jose early on.  Jose responded by sprinting ahead of James, then cutting in and slowing down.  James would have to slow down too and then maneuver back in front of Jose so that he didn’t lose track of Brown.  But Jose kept it up, sprinting past James and then slowing down much to the frustration of James and the ire of the partisan crowd.  As Brown lengthened his lead on James the crowd became so furious that some fans started to throw garbage on to the track.  I was not racing in that meet, so I jump down to the track, gathered up the debris and flung it back at the crowd.

As the rabid Duck fans continued to boo Jose’s tactics Coach Wagner wisely pulled him from the track for his own safety.  Much to the surprise of the irate crowd it was James who received the first disqualification for intentionally elbowing Amaya.  Amaya was disqualified for dropping out; not for his tactics, which were perfectly legal and I might add, brilliantly executed.  Brown took 2nd and our mile relay team won, too, but not before the lead off leg saluted the entire Hayward Field throng with the baton on his middle finger.  It was a historic victory for the Beavers who went on to place 5th in the NCAA meet.

Jose was escorted off the track by our All-American shot putter Ron Schmidt, who stood 6’10 and weighed 300 pounds.  That didn’t stop Pre from taunting Jose (from a safe distance, of course).  Pre challenged Jose to a race and dared him to try such tactics on him.  But Jose just ignored him.  For the record, Jose Amaya was one of the kindest, gentlest men I ever met.  He never spoke a negative word about anyone, including Prefontaine.

I saw Pre race many times; including his great mile against Dave Wottle and his gutsy victory over Nick Rose in the NCAA Cross-Country Championships.  And I was there for his last race on May 29, 1975.

Brother Dan was competing in the same meet and Pre stopped during his warm-up run to say hello.  I went up into the stands and sat with the McChesney brothers, Seth Brown and Eryn Forbes, a sensational youth runner from Portland, to cheer on Pre as he won the 5000-meter run against Frank Shorter.  It was a night meet and Dan and I headed back to Corvallis as soon as it ended.  At 6:30 am the next morning we were awakened by a phone call from brother Bob in Portland.  Steve Prefontaine was dead.

Every American distance runner from the 1970s can tell you exactly what he or she was doing when they learned that Pre had died in an automobile accident.  I lived in a house full of OSU distance runners and we wandered around campus in a daze all day.  On June 3rd we attended the memorial service at Hayward Field and listened as Bill Bowerman, Frank Shorter and Kenny Moore praised the cocky young runner from Coos Bay and all of us stood for one final, foot-stomping standing ovation.  Four days later we went back to Hayward Field for what was to be called the Bowerman Invitational, but was quickly renamed the first annual Prefontaine Classic, now America’s greatest track and field meet.

The following summer I was in Eugene to watch another meet and I used the UO student ID card of Nancy Alaman, Prefontaine’s girlfriend, to get in.  Fortunately, the monitor didn’t look at the ID that showed a beautiful petite blond and not a bushy-haired, bearded freak.  Nancy was living in Pre’s house on McKinley Street with Pre’s sister Linda and my old friend from Portland, Caroline Walker.  I slept there that night and was given the honor of sleeping in Pre’s bed.  I even sat in the sauna that he built.  It wasn’t eerie.  It was an honor.

I have the newspapers from the day Pre died.  I have the program from the first Pre Classic.  I have his autograph and a pair of Nike Pre Montreal spikes, given to me by Blue Ribbon Sports after I won the high school mile right before Pre took the open two-mile in the 1973 Oregon Indoor Meet.  And I have the picture of the two of us standing together at the 1972 Olympic trials.  But best of all I have these memories and even though I did not know him as a friend, I encountered him enough during my own brief career, that I can use his famous name to get the attention of the young runners I coach today.  Young runners who, 35 years after he drove himself into immortality, worship the name of Prefontaine far more than I ever did, or likely ever will.

Copyright 2010 by Joseph Fulton

My good friend Jose Amaya leads the great Steve Prefontaine in this race at Oregon State's old Bell Field.  Pre went on to win the race, of course, but just to lead Pre, who always preferred to be the front-runner,
demonstrated the gritty determination of Jose. 
Also in the picture are Oregon State's Randy Brown and Oregon's Randall James.

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