Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Linda Prefontaine's Tour de Pre

 Coos Bay, Oregon
July 8, 2017

by Mark Cullen

Photos by Jordan Geller, Thomas McDaniel, Linda Prefontaine


“Excuse me, are you a big fan of Pre?”

“Yes, yes!” Marti Menz replied emphatically.

“This is his sister, Linda Prefontaine.”

I thought I was going to have to catch Marti.

Marti and Thomas McDaniel had spent the previous evening in Coos Bay, OR, looking for the statue of Steve Prefontaine, but it took until noon the following day to find it.

I was privileged to be in the company of Linda Prefontaine, Steve’s sister, and Jordan Geller, the famous shoe collector and founder of the Shoezeum.

Jordy and I were part of the second iteration of Linda Prefontaine’s Tour de Pre, and it was Jordy who introduced Marti to Linda.

Marti, it turns out, is exactly why Linda began this business.

“Steve is my inspiration,” she said. “I started running in 1975 because of him.”

Marti is a veteran distance runner who worked at The Athletic Department in Berkeley, CA, from 1978-80. She made her pilgrimage to Coos Bay to find the history and landmarks of the legendary US distance runner, but she, like so many before her, had difficulty finding them presented in an organized and unified way.

Linda to the rescue.

Linda is moving home to Coos Bay after many years in Eugene. She is launching a new business designed to bring together the highlights of the life and running career of her brother in an engaging day-long tour.

“This is a really good idea,” Marti said. “I’m a classic example of who this is for. I was all over town late last night looking for the statue. People want to come here and do their pilgrimage.”

The Tour de Pre includes stops at:
-          - the History Museum and its Prefontaine display case
-          - the memorial statue downtown
-          - the Prefontaine Memorial Gallery at the Coos Bay Art Museum
-          - Prefontaine Track at Marshfield High School
-          - Heritage Hall at Marshfield High School
-          - opportunities to run: on the 10th Avenue hill, the beaches, the high school track
-          - the Prefontaine home
-          - and a seafood lunch that can’t be beat at the Portside Restaurant in Charleston, OR.

The Tour can be tailored to the individual interests and preferences of each tour group. Runners will want to go on the runs, historians might spend more time in the extensive library display, and if you wish to pay your respects to Pre, that is optional and Linda will guide you to the cemetery at the end of the Tour.

Linda said that the Tour is about “…telling my brother’s story and teaching people that he was more than a great runner. He was a fierce competitor on the track and a friend moments later. I want to teach people about the whole person he was. There are so many facets to him; there’s not a better example of what it takes to be successful.”

The Tour began at the Coos County Museum where there is a display case featuring the achievements of Steve Prefontaine. From there, we took a beautiful walk along the waterfront to the Prefontaine statue, where we had our memorable encounter with Marti and Thomas.

The Tour became more personal at the Prefontaine home, which is viewed from the outside. The house was built by Steve and Linda’s father, Ray, and it gives a strong sense of the modest, middle class economic background of the family. Neighbors greeted us warmly, and the small-town nature of Coos Bay (population 16,000) was evident in their openness and their delight in seeing the Tour underway.

When we arrived at the Marshfield High School track named in Linda's brother’s honor, Jordy did what one does on a track: he ran. While he claims to have set the world record for the slowest 400m, his record lasted only until I jumped in and took even longer.

Marti and Thomas, to whom we had bid farewell at the statue, reappeared and, as Jordy said, it was like the scene from Forrest Gump when more and more people fall in behind the Gumpster
as he’s running.

Being at the track was an emotional experience for me as this was the first time I had been there since the day of Steve Prefontaine’s funeral 42 years before.

Linda read us the speech she gave at the dedication of the resurfaced track, a stirring piece called “Who Would Have Known?” Then she surprised me mightily by asking me to read the story that brought us together, a story I wrote of what happened between her brother and me on the day he won the Olympic Trials 5,000m in 1972. And so I read “Steve” to Linda, Jordy, Marti, and Thomas in the stands of the Marshfield High School stadium.

This unplanned experience still gives me pause when I realize where I read the story and to whom. Later, Thomas wrote, “I cannot tell you how much our encounter of you three meant to Marti and me. She is still very emotional and teary-eyed talking about her very special pilgrimage to Coos Bay… (a)n encounter that will forever be etched vividly in our memories.”

The memorial exhibit at the Art Museum is the most extensive of all the Prefontaine displays, and the collection of photographs on the walls is a reminder of how many iconic races just happen to include Pre. Charmingly, the museum director opened a closet door in the gallery to deal with cleaning equipment. No pretension at this museum, and that seemed somehow fitting for an exhibition space dedicated to Pre.

At lunch we were welcomed with open arms by Rosella Freeman at the Portside Restaurant in neighboring Charleston, OR. A public sign of welcome noted our anticipated arrival, and later we were joined by restaurant owner Joe Tang.

After we placed our orders, Linda asked Jordy to close his eyes and hold out his hands. In them she placed a beautiful pair of Pre’s shoes – 1972 blue Nike Finlands.

Time for me to catch someone else.

“I got up from the table and went on a date with the shoes!” said Jordy. He placed them on an adjacent table and began photographing them.

A customer complained to management that a pair of dirty old shoes was on the table and that the table needed to be cleaned.

Perspective is everything.

As I interviewed Linda about why she started the Tour, a young man approached Jordy and asked, “Are you the Shoezeum guy?”

When Jordy replied, “Yes,” the George Fox student's response matched that of Marti at the statue. He dashed to his car and came back with two pairs of Nike Air Jordans and asked Jordy to autograph them.

If only Nike had named them Air Jordys, perhaps they would have sold better.

The young man’s name?

Steven.

Heritage Hall at Marshfield High School was our final stop of the day. As a former longtime athletic director, I have been in more schools than I can count. It’s not hyperbole to say I have never seen one take such visible pride in its athletic heritage or display it more meaningfully. In a large room are exhibits of every sport as well as of the honored teams and individuals. They even took care to preserve the indoor pole vault box in the floor.

That Coos Bay cares deeply about its history was evident at every stop. I imagined myself as a freshman in Heritage Hall, new to Marshfield High School. I would know I’m part of a heritage that goes far beyond its most famous icon.

Fran Auer Sichting (now Worthen) twice set the national high school long jump record and won the 1973 220 yard senior AAU outdoor title. How many high schools have had both male and female national record holders? Mel Counts was a two-time NBA champion with the Boston Celtics. Linda Prefontaine came within one point of winning the US amateur racquetball championship in 1978.

Prominent, too, are Walt McClure, Prefontaine’s high school coach, as well as Pete Susick, the legendary football coach after whom the stadium is named.

We were greeted by Superintendent Brian Trendell and Mary Paczesniak, curator of Heritage Hall. Kind of them to leave home to join us late on a Saturday afternoon, another symbol of the deep community support the Tour already enjoys. That Coos Bay is enthusiastically behind Linda and the Tour de Pre and is invested in having it succeed can only be good for those who make the trek to Coos Bay.

“I can't tell you how happy I am to come back to the community I was born and raised in and see the residents come together and embrace what I'm doing to help make it successful. It means everything to me,” said Linda.

“To see Jordan speechless when he got to hold a pair of Steve's shoes was worth a million bucks. To watch both of them running around Prefontaine Track (slow but it's the effort that counts!) made me smile, and to share so much history between us was pure joy.”

Each tour has its own identity. On each one differing nuggets emerge.

Who knew that Pre liked tomato juice but disliked tomatoes?

Or that when he started running in the mornings, he got stopped by the police because they thought he must be running away from a crime scene?

Or that a possible explanation for Steve and Linda’s closeness would emerge: Linda liked the frosting and Steve liked the cake. A sibling match made in heaven.

I found my own hero on this tour. I salute our server, Gabe, at the Portside Restaurant. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone work with more grace under more challenging circumstances. After all, he delivered mounds of delicious seafood without getting any of it on Steve Prefontaine’s 1972 Nike Finland blues.

Talk about pressure.


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The first of Pre’s pilgrims to take the Tour de Pre - on May 23 of this year - were Blake Preece and his mothers, Tina Preece and Carrie Fleming, of Ohio. Blake and his family share a painful point of connection with the Prefontaine family. Blake’s twin brother, Brandon, died in a car accident a year and a half ago. I share the same, as my older sister, Laura, died in a single car accident when she was 30, six years after Pre’s passing.

Rather remarkably, on each of the first two tours, four of the five initial guests had suffered the loss of a family member in an automobile accident.

“It was a healing experience to connect with another person who has had the same experience,” said Blake. “It made the Tour even deeper.”

With Blake’s gracious permission, I am reproducing here his Facebook post after he completed the tour. As you read this, I’ll let you guess how old he is.

“When my moms, Carrie Fleming and Tina Preece, first told me that they had scheduled for us to take a tour through Coos Bay with Steve Prefontaine's sister, Linda Prefontaine, I was in a state of disbelief. It was unfathomable that I was going to have the opportunity to visit the place where my idol was molded into the legend that he became. Taking a tour with his sister? Get outta here!

“The Tour de Pre was without a doubt, one of the best experiences of my entire life. Linda is such a wonderful person that is filled with charisma and love. Her passion to share her brother's TRUE story and show off the town that her family grew up in was more than admirable. I can never thank her enough for opening up her heart to share personal stories and provide a human element to the dynamic track star that everyone knows. It was an absolute pleasure to spend time with her and make new memories. Thanks Pre! 😊

“I had the opportunity to literally run all over the Coos Bay region. When Linda Prefontaine tells you to run, you run. From running laps at the Marshfield High School, to running along an ocean beach, and to sprinting up a hill that puts all others to shame. I was able to run the paths of my idol, not just the record setting athlete, but the loving brother and son.

“Smiles were shared, laughs were had, and tears were shed. It was an amazing day filled with healing and growth. In life, we often are faced with unbelievably challenging trials that test our limits. It is so easy to let ourselves crumble underneath these difficulties. This is not the way. Life is a beautiful thing. Every moment that we are able to share with those around us should never be taken for granted. Live without limits; I know that Steve did.”

Blake is 20.

As Blake and Marti’s experience shows, we most certainly need our heroes, perhaps now more than ever. Coos Bay and the Tour de Pre are outposts of hope in these deeply cynical times. The Tour reminds us not only of who and what inspires us, but of our better selves and
of who and what we aspire to be.

The Tour de Pre earns an enthusiastic recommendation from trackerati. Kudos to Linda Prefontaine for creating an experience that inspires and changes. Kudos to Linda for creating the newest must-do experience for track and field fans from home and abroad. It is, in the truest sense, a service to the international track and field community.

Coos Bay is a small town with a huge heart. Come to Coos Bay for a welcome dose of small town reality - for a day of re-centering - and see if you don’t emerge the better for it. See if you don’t find Linda Prefontaine, a certified life coach, to be one of the most focused, encouraging, and inspiring people you’ve met. The memory of Steve Prefontaine will draw you here; when you leave, it’s Linda you will hold in your heart.

Blake’s mothers report that their trip, which included the Prefontaine Classic, was deeply comforting for their son. “Linda went out of her way to make sure we were having a good time,” said Tina Preece. “The Tour was more than I ever could have imagined. The joy she brought to my family that day will never be forgotten.”

Said Carrie Fleming, “I know this trip has changed me personally. So many laughs and tears were shared from us all that day. Best part was I made a new friend... Thank you Linda Prefontaine.”

I’ll leave the last word to Blake. “The Tour is a testament to what kind of person Linda Prefontaine is,” he said. “She is what made the Tour de Pre the Tour de Pre.”


Links:

Linda Prefontaine’s Prefontaine Productions; make your tour arrangements here:

Coos History Museum

Coos Bay/North Bend Visitor Center

Heritage Hall at Marshfield High School

Portside Restaurant

Jordan Geller’s Shoezeum

Steve – 1972 US Olympic Trials Story


Thanks

Heartfelt thanks to ever-gracious Linda Prefontaine for entrusting me with this story. Linda was helpful at every turn before, during, and after the Tour. To Jordan Geller - team photographer, professor of social media, and shoe maven to the world. To Superintendent Bryan Trendell and Mary Paczesniak at Marshfield High School and Heritage Hall; Rosella Freeman, Joe Tang, and Gabe at the Portside Restaurant; Barbara at the Visitor Center and Suzy at the Gallery; all at the Coos History Museum. To Marti Menz, Thomas McDaniel, Blake Preece, Tina Preece, and Carrie Fleming for letting me tell your very personal stories here. Note that it's only 15 years before we can vote for Blake for President. It took a village. Heartfelt thanks to you all.


Honoring Two



7 comments:

  1. Mark, very nice article about the Tour!

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  2. Thank you, Steve! I'm delighted you enjoyed it. Thanks so much for your kind words - much appreciated.

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  3. Another superb piece Mark!

    As you know I'm don't know much about T&F. But reading your article certainly draws me closer.

    Thanks.

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  4. Good luck to the Tour de Pre. www.prespeople.com

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  5. Mark, great piece. I haven't been back to the Marshfield Track since that day in 1975. A friends Mom drove four of us Axemen down for the funeral. Great writing which evoked a lot of memories.

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  6. I will always remember the special day and sporadic encounters with Linda, Mark & Jordan during my pilgrimage to Coos Bay. I am still emotional about the whole experience and coming that close to one of my life-long idols and the world that shaped him. I think about "Pre" a lot... often when running, even asking for his advice... He's with me/us forever... Thank you!!

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  7. Wonderful article Mark! Linda is a very good friend whom I've known since 1967 when we (and Steve) attended High School together. I was a Marshfield distance runner with Pre and have many special memories from those times. It's great to see Linda Pre keeping Steve's spirit alive and encouraging young people to enjoy sports and life and make the most of their abilities.

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