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Chasing Prefontaine

Good Dirt



With no better place to cool off, Ted Castaneda sat down in the steeplechase water jump pool at the 1973 NCAA Track and Field Championships in Baton Rouge, La. The University of Colorado track star had just beaten the NCAA record in the 3-mile run. The day was hot and sticky, and it was time to relax.

That spring season marked a breakout year for the gritty kid from Palmer High School in Colorado Springs. He had struggled for two years at CU. And then it all clicked. He piled on the mileage and increased his speed. He believed in himself and his training.

"It was a dream season," says Castaneda, now the cross country and track coach at Colorado College.

Heading into the NCAA finals, his best time at the 3-mile distance was 13 minutes, 32 seconds. Very respectable, but not quite world-class. He soon changed that.

Castaneda stepped with confidence to the starting line and sprinted away from the pack over the first quarter of a mile. Down the final stretch, the crowd roared its approval as Castaneda crossed the finish line. His time: 13:10. A personal best of 22 seconds, and eight ticks better than the old collegiate record.

But there was a problem. And that problem, the legendary runner Steve Prefontaine, soon walked up to Castaneda in the steeplechase water hole and shook his hand.

"He came over and said, 'Good race, Ted,'" Castaneda says. "I didn't care for him at the time. I thought he was cocky. I never had that attitude as a runner. But when he did that, I realized he respected people who took him on."

Prefontaine, or "Pre" as he is known by track fans around the world, had won the race that day. The crowd had cheered for him as he broke his own record by an astounding 13 seconds, finishing in 13:05.

Castaneda had led for 600 yards. And then came Pre, his long hair trailing behind him, his big chest filled with pride and enough oxygen for two men.

"It was like trying to catch a locomotive," Castaneda said afterward.

The stubborn runner from Coos Bay, Oregon, always ran at the front. Every race was a "guts race." He never lost a college race longer than a mile. For Pre, the events on the track were about more than running.

"A race is a work of art," he once said, "that people can look at and be affected in as many ways they're capable of understanding."

"I never really knew him," Castaneda says. "But we all were there to take a shot at him. We tried to beat him. He believed in himself and what he wanted to do. He never held back. His way was hammer time, all the time."

Steve Prefontaine died in an auto accident 40 years ago on May 30, 1975. He was 24. Word of Prefontaine's death reached Castaneda as he traveled home from competing in China.

"We were in the airport and people were crying," he says. "It was so sad."

Prefontaine continues to inspire generations of athletes attracted to the legacy of a man who refused to back down; who, at age 21, took on the world at the 1972 Olympics and finished fourth in the 5,000-meter run, a race known as perhaps the greatest in Olympic history.

Shannon Payne, the third-place female finisher in the 2014 Pikes Peak Ascent, says she trained harder as a college freshman after reading Prefontaine's story.

"I read the book Pre and got so pumped up I started running twice a day," she says. "I believe he's exceptionally appealing primarily to younger runners. He's kind of the big name for them and the one historical running figure they've all heard of."

Dan Angeles, 37, says the Hollywood movie Without Limits, a fair account of Prefontaine's life story, convinced him to start running about six years ago.

"It showed me that runners weren't the wimpy and scrawny guys I had always imagined, but they could be tough, gritty, and courageous," Angeles says. "He inspired me to be passionate about what I do."

Castaneda went on to win big races after his eventful match with Pre in 1973. But that day is one he'll never forget.

"I gave it all I had," he says. "I could walk away with pride. Prefontaine was just unbeatable."

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