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Pre: The Story of America's Greatest Running Legend, Steve Prefontaine

Pre: The Story of America's Greatest Running Legend, Steve Prefontaine

4.8 44
by Tom Jordan

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The story of America's greatest running legend.

For five years, no American runner could beat him at any distance over a mile. But at the age of 24, with his best years still ahead, long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine finally lost. Driving alone at night after a party, Prefontaine crashed his sports car, putting a tragic, shocking end to the life and career of


The story of America's greatest running legend.

For five years, no American runner could beat him at any distance over a mile. But at the age of 24, with his best years still ahead, long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine finally lost. Driving alone at night after a party, Prefontaine crashed his sports car, putting a tragic, shocking end to the life and career of one of the most influential, accomplished runners of our time.

More than 20 years later, Pre continues to influence the running world.

From his humble origins in Coos Bay, Oregon, Pre became the first person to win four NCAA titles in one event. Year after year, he was virtually unbeatable. Instead of becoming one of the new breed of professional track athletes, Pre chose to stay amateur and fight for the adequate funding he felt American amateur athletes deserved.

A man of incredible desire and energy, Pre trained relentlessly. In his drive to be the best, he spurred others to do their best. As one racer said, "He ran every race as if it were his last."

But Pre not only touched runners; his exciting technique as well as his maverick lifestyle made him a favorite of the fans. A race with Prefontaine in it was automatically an event.

His brief but brilliant life - documented by author Tom Jordan - is the tale of a true American hero.

This is his story.

"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 style. It's doing something better than anyone else. It's being creative."--Steve Prefontaine

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Pre inspired a whole generation of American distance runners to excel. He made running cool. He created the whole idea of training really hard and going for it. Runners setting goals for themselves, wanting to go all out and be really tough. That was his example.” —Alberto Salazar, former American record holder in the 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters and marathon

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Rodale Press, Inc.
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5.66(w) x 8.44(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Not Many Ways to Jump

    Nothing hinted at what was to come.

    Steve Roland Prefontaine was born on January 25, 1951, in the midst of the baby boom, in the Oregon coastal town of Coos Bay. He grew up with his parents and two sisters, Neta and Linda, in a snug house on Elrod Street built by his father. Ray Prefontaine had returned from serving with the U.S. Army occupation forces in Germany with his new bride, Elfriede. Both were hardworking, he as a carpenter and welder, she as a seamstress. They were a good fit for Coos Bay, where sloth was, and still is, a four-letter word.

    Growing up, Steve was an active youngster, tearing around the house on his scooter, or after he grew older, setting speed records mowing the lawn. He would race HO-scale cars with his friends on Saturdays and go belly-boarding on Sunset Bay in the summers. His youth might have appeared unremarkable, even idyllic, but he was a product of his town and his time. Olympic marathoner and writer Kenny Moore explains it best:

    "To understand Steve Prefontaine," he wrote in 1972, "it is necessary to know something about Coos Bay, Oregon. The town and the man find themselves similarly described: blunt, energetic, tough, aggressive. Coos Bay is a mill town, a fishing town, a deepwater port. Longshoremen, fishermen, and loggers are not given to quiet introspection. Coos Bay endures its difficult, elemental life in the woods, on the boats and docks with a vociferous pride. The working men insist on a hardness in theirsociety. Youth must be initiated, must measure up.

    "'You don't have many ways to jump,' says Prefontaine. 'You can be an athlete. Athletes are very, very big in Coos Bay. You can study, try to be an intellectual, but there aren't many of those. Or you can go drag the Gut in your lowered Chevy with a switchblade in your pocket.'"

Potential from an Early Age

    Sports tradition runs deep in Coos Bay to this day. Perhaps because of its isolation, the small town of 15,000 invests much of its interest and enthusiasm in athletics. Football and basketball are especially popular, and the pressure to participate is intense.

    At home football games during the 1950s and 1960s, a seemingly unending stream of 60 to 80 players, dressed in the silver-gray and purple uniforms of the Pirates of Marshfield High, would trot onto the field for pregame warm-ups, with the crowd standing and cheering. The varsity letter, notes a Marshfield grad who lived through the era, was "akin to a badge of manhood."

    Colliding head-on with this ethic of toughness was an individual with something to prove. Years later, Steve would recall that he had been teased in grade school because of his hyperactivity, and because he was a slow learner. In junior high school, he tried hard to measure up. A 5-foot, 100-pound benchwarmer in the 8th grade, Steve—he wouldn't be called "Pre" until later—occasionally noticed members of the high school cross country team jogging by the football field on their way to practice.

    "What kind of crazy nut would spend two or three hours a day just running?" was his reaction.

    Pre's attitude changed that same year, during a three-week conditioning program in his physical education class. The longer the distance run, the closer he was to the leaders. He ran 3:51 for the 1320-yard run and 1:45 for the 660-yard run. "It somehow caught my interest," he said years later. Here was something he was good at, where determination coupled with talent could bring recognition and reward. Pre had found his sport.

    He turned out for cross country in the fall of 1965 as a freshman at Marshfield High, and went from seventh man to second by season's end, placing 53rd in the state meet. His first year of track in the spring was less auspicious, with a 5:01 best in the mile.

    "It was at the district cross country meet his sophomore year that his potential to become an outstanding runner showed itself," Walt McClure, his high school coach, states. "We were against the defending state mile champion and the boy who would become the state high school cross country champion, and there was maybe a quarter mile left to go when this little guy in purple passed them and took a short lead. They just went 'Who was that?' They got him in the end, and the same thing happened at the state meet, where he got sixth. Steve was really mad. 'Let's run it again!' he said, and he'd probably have beaten them if they had."

    Now thoroughly hooked on running, Pre trained hard through the winter season and placed fifth in the Oregon Invitational, a showcase indoor meet for the best runners in the state, his sophomore year. His goals were high for the outdoor track season, but months of frustration ended in his failure to make the state meet two-mile, caused in part perhaps by his strong interest in the performances of the other members of the team.

    "He was always running up and down, shouting encouragement and advice," McClure recalls. "We finally had to tell him, 'Look, we'll do the coaching, you do the running.'"

    Spurred on by his failure, Steve started planning for his junior-year cross country season with the goal of going undefeated. He began to show the singular ability to accept mentally and physically the punishment of training.

    "Pre was the hardest worker in running that I ever had by far," McClure remembers. "This is the whole thing, his intensity. On his morning runs, I didn't check on him. I just said if you want to be a good runner, you've got to get out there in the mornings.

    "He asked, 'What should I do?' and I said you've got to be inventive, like sprint between telephone poles or just go out for 20 minutes and see how far you can go. He had a lot of imagination and thought of all sorts of things to do out there. He worked awful hard."

    The intensity and hard work brought results. Gaps began to show between Pre and the pack, and there were no more incidents like the one during his sophomore year, when in a physical cross country race against Sheldon High School, the tough kid from Coos Bay indelicately took a swing at rival Jon Anderson, the future winner of the 1973 Boston Marathon.

       "I used to see Pre training while on my way to work," a longtime Coos Bay resident recalls. "He used to run through Mingus Park, past the swimming pool and then up the steep Tenth Street hill and beyond. It's an odd thing, but although I saw him running the streets and trails of Coos Bay about a hundred times, I don't think I ever saw him running downhill. Seems like he was always going up."

    Pre started to feel that special responsibility to his roots and "his people" that was to hallmark his career in both Coos Bay and Eugene, at the University of Oregon. On his morning runs, toward North Bend up the highway, he shared an affinity with other early toilers. "A couple of guys I know who wave at me," he said. "Some of the bread men, garbage men, and street cleaners."

"I Want to Be Number One"

    Pirate Stadium began to fill for track meets, and Steve gave them a show, though he didn't run any victory laps while at Marshfield. He drew the fans, partly because they wanted to follow the fortunes of this lad who was never satisfied, and partly because they sensed that Pre was something special.

    "A lady came into the store where I worked," Steve's mother remembers, "and said, 'Mrs. Prefontaine, you should go to the meets. Your son is Olympic stuff.' I still remember the words."

    "What I want to be is to be number one," is how Pre so aptly put it.

    Senior year began with an easy defense of his cross country title and aggressive goals for a 9:00 two-miler. He wanted by the end of his senior year to run a 1:52 half-mile, a 3:56 mile, and an 8:40 two-mile. McClure set the workouts with those goals in mind, and the early ones, at times, Pre could not finish. But he drove himself relentlessly.

    "His talent was not that he had great style," McClure assesses. "He didn't. It got better I think. We worked probably harder on that than we did on anything. He'd like to slump over, and we'd keep hollering at him. No, his talent was his control of his fatigue and his pain. His threshold was different than most of us, whether it was inborn or he developed it himself."

    "What I like most about track," Pre said at the time, "is the feeling I get inside after a good run."

    To achieve their ambitious goals, Prefontaine and McClure had to battle the late Oregon spring, rival runners, and a high school dual-meet schedule offering few opportunities for all-out assaults on records.

    Following McClure's orders in the early meets, Pre went hard only one race per meet, running a 4:11.1 mile and a 9:13.4 two-mile one week, and a 4:19.4 mile and 1:54.3 half-mile the next. But by the end of April, Pre was ready to tackle the most important of his goals, at the Corvallis Invitational: the national high school two-mile record of 8:48.4 held by Rick Riley.

    The plan was for the first mile to be in 4:24 and the second in 4:20.0. That would yield a time well under the record, and put Pre within 8:40 range at the state meet a month later. On the Monday before the Invitational, Steve had run four half-miles between 2:07 and 2:10, with a 110-yard jog in between each one. "It came out to be an 8:36 two-mile," he said. "After that, I was ready."

    It was a night meet, and a chilly one. Despite his outward confidence, Pre approached McClure before the race and said that his stomach had been upside down for three days. "I told him mine had been that way for five weeks," McClure notes. "The last comment I made to him, and this was because he was so intense that he sometimes ran the first part too fast, was 'if you're wrong on pace, be slow.' So he ran a 69 on the first quarter-mile."

    "My first lap was too slow," Pre said, a month after his record, "but I knew I couldn't make it up all in one lap. So I went to work on a 66-second pace per quarter-mile after the first mile. I thought I better go to work. I hit the last lap and I knew I had it, so I opened up a little. My last lap was 61.5, and my second mile lek better than my first. I think I should have started my kick sooner." His time was 8:41.5, 6.9 seconds better than the old record.

    "After I heard my time, I wasn't tired at all. I felt on top of the world."

    With the first goal accomplished, the district and state meets were the next venues for fast races. But Marshfield was in the team race for the state title, and Steve willingly sacrificed record attempts in one event so that he could win both the mile and two-mile races. "We weren't going to run his guts out," McClure says of their strategy. But other runners had different ideas.

    Doug Crooks of North Eugene pushed Steve to the tape in the district mile, a tenth of a second behind Steve's 4:07.4. And Mark Hiefield of Milwaukie set a strong pace throughout the state two-mile before Pre opened up a small lead on the backstretch of the last lap and held it for a 9:03.0 win. Winning the mile and two-mile races at both meets was unprecedented in Oregon, and the sacrifice of further record attempts seemed a tolerable price to pay.

    All during that successful senior season, the flood of phone calls and letters recruiting Steve to this school or that increased as the time for making a decision drew near. Steve directed most of these to his coach, and McClure made short work of the latecomers. Also, in his heart, Walt wanted Pre to go to the University of Oregon, his alma mater. Steve was pretty sure he wanted to go there or to Oregon State, but he hadn't heard anything from University of Oregon cross country and track coach Bill Bowerman. Bowerman was the legendary coach of a succession of world- and American-record holders, including Bill Dellinger and Dyrol Burleson, who, like Pre, grew up in small Oregon towns.

    "Then I got a handwritten note," Pre said. "I could barely read it. It said if I came to Oregon, he'd make me into the best distance runner ever. That was all I needed to hear."

    Bowerman doesn't remember it quite that way. "I recruited Steve the same way I recruited everybody," he says emphatically. "After all, the athlete makes himself, the coach doesn't make the athlete." But Bowerman had been following Pre's career since he was a high school sophomore, and had agreed with McClure s statement that "Here's a little guy who's pretty good." He agreed so much that he wrote a letter to the community of Coos Bay after Steve chose the university, thanking them for their part in Steve's success thus far.

    "I have every confidence," he wrote, "that if he keeps his eye on the target, and his dedication, with his background and with the future, he will become the greatest runner in the world."

    Pre and Oregon had chosen each other. And with a win in the mile at the Golden West Invitational, an all-star meet in Sacramento, California, featuring some of the country's best high school athletes, Pre's Marshfield career was over. Fittingly, he won in a personal best of 4:06.0.

    Almost immediately, he made the plunge into world-class competition.

International Competitor

    The 1969 Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Championships were to be held in Miami at the end of June, and the people of Coos Bay opened their pocketbooks to send their favorite son to run the three-mile. The AAU governed the sport of track and field at that time, and its annual national championships determined who would be selected to run for the United States in international competitions. All of America's best distance runners would be there, including much older and stronger postcollegiate athletes.

    Pre was game. The three-mile distance was one, in McClure's words, "we weren't quite ready for," but you wouldn't have known it watching the race unfold on the hot synthetic surface of Miami-Dade South College.

    Former high school great Gerry Lindgren and Olympic veteran Tracy Smith quickly broke away from the pack and kept it a two-man struggle for first place. Back in the pack, Steve moved from seventh to fifth, then charged home on the last lap for fourth and a spot on the AAU team.

    Steve was drafted into early service when second-placer Smith chose to run in the Military Championships in France instead of the U.S.-U.S.S.R.-Commonwealth meet in Los Angeles in mid-July. Jerry Uhrhammer of The Register-Guard in Eugene got hold of Steve in Coos Bay with the news. "Pre had just returned from his second workout of the morning when he answered the telephone, still breathless.

    'I haven't heard anything (pant, pant) about it,' he gasped. 'All I know is that I've got an airline ticket for Hawaii (pant, pant).'"

    As part of the overall team preparation for the summer's' meets, the U.S. team and alternates (Pre was one) went over to Honolulu for some training and racing. Pre was looking forward to challenging the Russians when the AAU informed him just two days before the race that Smith had decided to run in the Los Angeles meet after all. Pre was not pleased. "So now I have to sit on the bench when I was really ready to run a good, or the best, race of my life," he groused.

    Then, in yet another turnabout the day before the race, and after completing a hard workout, Steve was told by AAU officials that Smith had withdrawn because of illness. Thus began a deep-seated dissatisfaction with an organization he continually found to be autocratic, unresponsive, and out of touch.

    A chagrined Pre was teamed with Lindgren in the 5000 meters. He stuck closely to pacesetter Lindgren for the first mile of his first international race. The crowd of 15,000 cheered on the high school kid, but he gradually lost touch with the pack and faded to fifth and a creditable 14:40.0.

    Next, the 18-year-old from Coos Bay was on his way to Europe with the AAU team for three meets. While in Europe, he wrote a series of letters to Kenn Hess, then with the Coos Bay World newspaper. Pre was a prodigious letter writer, if at times somewhat unorthodox. "Steve spoke better than he wrote," says a friend, "because he was always in too much of a hurry to punctuate his sentences or read over for errors. In fact, I'm surprised he had the patience to write at all." One of Pre's letters from West Germany tells of his progress during the summer.

Augsburg, W.G., Aug. 2, 1969

Well I didn't get first but I didn't get last either. Thats the way I should of run in Los Angeles, and in Miami. I knew I had it in me but I had to prove it to myself. Now I'm ready to run with anybody cause I know what I can take I'll just have to polish up on my form which was not the best but not bad either. I was relaxed the whole race except for the last lap and I got stiff again and couldn't go when Jerry and the other guy took off.

Here is how the race went the first lap was about 62, then for the 800 meters it was 2:05.3, 1500 meters 3:58.0, for the mile 4:13 to 4:14 the 3000 meter mark was in 8:07.0 and the two mile mark was in 8:42 something, the three mile mark was about 13:20 maybe a little faster maybe a little slower and then I came home with a 13:52.8 my last lap was not to good no sprint left.

Now we're in Augsburg, what an old city the houses here are hundreds of years old, the people here are very friendly, we all went to a old fashion party last night they had the band and the dancers and the big lieter beer mugs, which are just huge. I had one and that was enough for me. They gave us two for present to take home.

Well I best go I've got a meeting to make tell Walt hello for me.

Yours Truly, Pre

    This first international tour had been instructive. He had finished third in the 5000 at the United States versus Europe meet, and his 13:52.8 time was faster than any ever run by the legend of the previous generation, Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia. Pre had found that he could hold his own against the world's best. That fall, as he left Coos Bay for the college town of Eugene, Oregon, Steve felt ready to take on all comers.

    "He was self-confident, yes, sir," McClure recalls of the Pre of 1969. "He wasn't cocky, as a lot of people accused him of later. He had a lot of pride, but it was constructive. Evidently, he had problems with the press or something. If you ask dumb questions, you get dumb answers, I guess.

    "I was just a short period in that guy's life, but he kept in contact with me no matter where he went. That's not the nature of some guy who does everything on his own."

Excerpted from PRE by Tom Jordan. Copyright © 1997 by Tom Jordan. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Pre: The Story of America's Greatest Running Legend Steve Prefontaine 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 45 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Pre is the sole reason I didnt quit when I was injured...and im injured a lot. Pre is truly an inspiration to every runner.
Guest More than 1 year ago
My son, who is on his high school cross country and track teams, holds Pre as his ultimate role model for his sport. I bought this book for him last Christmas and he reads it constantly. My son runs every day wearing his "Go Pre" tee-shirt. The book is a great inspiration for him in his quest to be the best he can be in this sport. It is unfortunate that Pre died so young when he still had more records to set!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Clearly, this is one of the most important documents about one of our most important runners. Informative, touching, and engaging.
Guest More than 1 year ago
prefontaine is a great runner and the world should know about him, this book will help spread the knowledge of the once greatest distance runner in america.
Anonymous 24 days ago
HannahCampbell_37 8 months ago
A Fast Paced Novel about One of America's Fastest Distance Runners Pre The Story of America’s Greatest Running Legend, Steve Prefontaine is an inspiring biography tracking Prefontaine throughout his running heyday and his ultimate end. The story starts off by explaining his humble beginnings in Coos Bay and Eugene Oregon. He was motivated to run harder in front of his home crowd, so that he didn’t disappoint his fans. During college he qualified for, and competed at the 1972 Olympics, taking fourth in the 5000. This was really hard for Steve to come to terms with because he was always running to get first place. This may have contributed to his heartbreak at the Olympics. As he finished college he decided to run as an amateur because he wanted to qualify for a second shot at the Olympics. His time as an amateur was very hard due to all the restrictions placed upon the athletes. Steve wrote many emotional letters to the AAU to try and change things. After his final race in Eugene, he celebrated with friends, and while driving home he died when he crashed his car. His death left many in the running community shaken up, as Prefontaine had always seemed invincible. Pre touched the lives of many, as he pushed teammates and competitors to their limit, and encouraged others. He was a young star who had not yet reached his full potential, but will forever be remembered for his unique running style. This book was very well written, and encompasses the perspectives of many different runners, sports writers, coaches, and fans. This gives the book a fuller feeling as it goes back and forth between how Steve acted in front of large crowds and how he was in private or small groups. This gives Pre a more down to earth feeling, as many of us have to behave in different ways when in various situations. If you are considering reading this book, don’t get caught up in the idea that this book will just state the races he ran and his times. This is a fast paced book, you won’t want to put it down.It really takes you through his races, stating his times per lap, and comments from Pre, competitors, and coaches. Pre was a well rounded character that everyone had their own perspective on of who he was. It is interesting to see how he develops throughout the book, as he gains confidence and fame. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes to run. It is relatable for runners because it shows the mental struggles and paints for us the picture of hard work and determination the Steve Prefontaine embodied.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great inspirational book, especially if you are a runner
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great book! Love it, buy it now
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Ryann_Derrick More than 1 year ago
This is a great book. This biography on Steve Prefontaine was very good it captured so many parts of him, after i read it i felt like i knew him. It captured every aspeact of his life, from is amzing running feats to his interesting socail life. You should definitly read this book if you are intrested in sports and sports heros.
saucerman94 More than 1 year ago
Steve Prefontaine's short, but hugely successful life has been hailed by many as one of the best careers in distance running history. Steve Roland Prefontaine was born on January 25, 1951, in the midst of the baby boom, in the Oregon coastal town of Coos Bay. During Pre's younger years he was always known for being a small, non-athletic kid. However what many of his peers didnt know was that Pre had the heart of a champion, and the will to win. When watching the Olympics at a young age Pre said "That's gonna be me one day." His parents told him it would never happen. Just a few short years later Pre was going from setting National High School records, to NCAA records, to numerous American Records. During his attendance at the University of Oregon he was virtually unbeatable becoming the first college runner to win 4 NCAA titles in one event (5000). During his life Pre help lead the fight to free armatures from the chock hold the AAU was putting on them. Pre helped make running "cool" in his time. In a time when running tactical races was common Pre always surged to the front of the pack to try to run the best race he possibly could. While at The University of Oregon Pre motivated the fans in Eugene (also known as track town USA) like few other athletes have ever done. Pre often said "I run every race like it is my last." What Pre didnt know is that the last race would be coming sooner than anyone could ever have imagined. On May 30th, 1975 Pre life took a turn no one could have imagined on a back road in Eugene. Even 35 years after his death Steve Prefontaine is debatably the most well know distance runner ever.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Pre is for the runner, one who is looking for a bit of inspiration and motivation to get the job done, make their goals. It is also for someone who wants to know a bit more about Prefontaine. Easy read, informative.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This story is quite an informative one and an inspiration. The detail's on Pre's life really are great and heart warming. The author does a great job of describing him and his running career. I would recommend this book for all Steve Prefontaine fans!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Being a high school cross country and track runner, (as well as a fan of pre) I found this to be a nice, quick, inspiring read! I have already passed the book on to my teammates.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Pre : The Story of America's Greatest Running Legend Steve Prefontaine is an extremely inspiration book that gives you that extra kick to get out the door and run if the weather isn't favorable or you don't feel great. I recommend this book for the more serious of high school runners or the runner who wants to become inspired to work harder or needs an extra incentive to get faster. The included photos allow you to get more personal with this courageous man. The University of Oregon runner Steve Prefontain shows what heart truly is where he states, "A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest. I run to see who has the most guts, who can punish himself into exhausting pace, and then at the end, punish himself even more." Steve, arguably pushed his body and mind harder than any other runner in history as depicted through the pages of this book.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
this book is great especially if you are interested in running and sports or if you are a runner such as myself. i run cross country and track for my school atheltics and this book and the story of the amazing steve 'pre' prefontaine helps me motivate myself to run my guts out and train every day to help my running. He is my role model and this book always reminds me to do my best. i deeply reccomend this to other runners and athletes
Guest More than 1 year ago
Prefontaine is the reason that I continued running. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't have continued throughout high school. Steve Prefontaine is a running legend that every runner has heard about. Without his records and his motivation, running would be a totally different sport. Seeing the movies and reading the book made me realize what running exactly was. Steve Prefontaine is a role model that I look up to.
Guest More than 1 year ago
He once said: 'To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the Gift.'- Steve Prefontaine , and that is like totally true! I give my best when I run. I repeat this quote every time I am running or just thinking about it! It's like when I say it, He is right there beside me running and encouraging me. He was the true heart of track and still is! This is an awesome book. I highly recommend it!