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Prison Running Winner: Steve Prefontaine.

Steve Prefontaine on the right at '72 Olympics. via

Steve Prefontaine on the right at ’72 Olympics.

Great sports events trap time in a bubble. You remember your favorite player scoring the winning points like it was yesterday, locking the image into your mind and throwing away the key.

Yours for life.

If the event was big enough, you learn more about the player and the game.

ESPN and the visionary Bill Simmons of fame created 30 for 30 with just that in mind. Thirty documentaries over thirty years of espn about events big and small, but all with a personal impact on the filmmakers.

Sports take on a new meaning when they get it right. They show what you missed while your top guy had his best game.  They shine a light on the true meaning of sports and their fans: SHARING.

Every win is your win.

And it always will be. The bigger their win, the bigger your win. Why? Because the thrill of victory channels hope for a better world, if only briefly.

Hope for a better world came with words between a man and woman recently.

Their son is in prison. For a long time.

They visit him inside the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem. They’re on his visitor list.

The list they’re not on caught me by surprise. Because they’re on the visitor list, they can’t participate in the OSP racing program. It would be fun, they said.

Run Oregon,, explains it well. Matt Rasmussen talks the talk after running the run.

Would you like to run a 5K or 10K race in prison?

My marathon days, (day: Seaside, 3:32) are behind me. My Hood To Coast days too, (day: not the worst runner on the team.)

Yet running in prison spun through my hard drive, through my stacks, my photo-shop memory.

Prison running? Isn’t running the part you do before prison?

“Yeah, they ran through the briars
And they ran through the brambles
And they ran through the bushes
Where the rabbit couldn’t go
They ran so fast
That the hounds couldn’t catch ’em
On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.”

-Johhny Horton

From the outside you’d think running a normal part prison life. Outside meaning Shawshank Redemption, Cool Hand Luke, The Longest Yard. Run here, run there. Keep running to stay ahead of what you see and what you don’t.


It’s not easy for inmates to get into the running program. The first requirement is 18 months clear conduct.  Only 150 inmates can participate at a time. The institution houses more than 2,000. Wait time to get in the program is about four years.

Program coordinator Todd Gulley says he wishes there were resources so that every inmate with the motivation and commitment to run could join.

“The people that have earned the right, they covet it.  And it’s one of the places in the prison where there’s never problems. You’ll never see fights on this turnout, you’ll never see conflicts beyond, ‘Hey, I’m just not going to talk to you right now.’ ”

Robert Goggin has been in prison for 15 years. He thinks a lot of inmates don’t run because it’s easy to be lazy.

“In here, you have the option of sitting back and doing nothing, or doing something positive. I think that in here, the drive for staying in shape was pretty extreme,” Goggin said.

Goggin used to compete with his friends, running 17-minute 5k’s around this track. But now, it’s more about staying fit, and working through stress.

“Running around this track, chasing whatever you’re chasing, there is a way of putting it behind you.”

That’s good advice for everyone.

What he’s saying is give it the gas, make a run, live life through the windshield not the review mirror.

If a prison run sounds like the next outing for you, here’s the sign up sheet with scheduled races.

Runners will understand this: In the middle of training you have little aches and pains, nothing bad enough to take a run day off. You tie your shoes.

The first ten minutes in you feel like stopping and turning around. Maybe take a few lefts and pretend you’re lost when you get back home.

After twenty minutes you feel your body pumping with each stride, then settling down with a pace, adjusting for hills, gliding the flat. You’re convinced you’re in a loaner body, not that creaky thing you started with.

You open your stride, note your push-off, knee drive, and pawback. You feel for your optimal leg motion and hum the theme from Chariots of Fire.

Call it bliss, numbness, or an athletic fugue state. At some point you and everyone in your race feels the same. You are united as runners. You are all citizens in runners’ world.

Who realized prisoners could use running, needed running?

Hint #1: he was Nike’s first signed track athlete.

Hint #2: he was inspired by a UO professor.

Steve Prefontaine? Yes, that Steve Prefontaine.


Not afraid to speak out against injustice, Prefontaine was an activist and reformer in various areas. In the community, he often volunteered at Roosevelt Junior High School and at the Oregon State Prison (even starting a running club while corresponding with many of the inmates). One of Pre’s most famous stances was against the AAU, the American track and field governing body, and its treatment of amateur athletes.

Steve Prefontaine went to Marshfield High School in Coos Bay, Oregon. Some have seen the high school and commented on its appearance. Fortress. Prison. Castle.

He ran through North Bend and didn’t stop until he got to Eugene. He took SW Oregon charm to a whole new level. All the way to the ’72 Olympics after dominating U.S. distance running.

Instead of sucking up dirty cash on the track and field circuit and living the pro athlete life, he lived in his trailer and wore opponents into Hayward Field dirt.

The night he died Steve Prefontaine had just won a 5000 meter race.

His crash scene has become a popular destination.


As he leads the group toward the curve where Pre lost control of his ’73 butterscotch MG, Tyson narrates the events of that fateful night. “Pre’s coming down from Kenny Moore’s house. He’s going about 20, 25 miles per hour, listening to a little John Denver on the cassette tape. And as he comes around this corner . . .”

Tyson stops, his eyes darting to a car whizzing around the bend. “Uh-oh. Let’s stay deep over here. Now you can see how it happened. Isn’t that weird?”

The runners hug the curb with heightened purpose. After another hundred meters, Tyson gathers the group around a small black plaque between the road and a wall of jagged rocks.

“That marker was donated by the state penitentiary,” he explains. “Pre was very enamored by prisoners, so he created a jogging program at the prison. The inmates made that for him as a tribute.”

In the early 1970s, less than a decade after UO track coach Bill Bowerman helped popularize jogging in the United States, Pre introduced the running craze to prisoners at OSP. Inspired by his UO sociology professor, he spoke with the inmates about training and encouraged them to replace drugs and alcohol with a healthier addiction.

“Pre loved the down-and-outs,” Tyson says. “He wanted to make a difference.”

Who in their mid-twenties, at the top of their sport, thinks about those less fortunate, let alone prison inmates. Superstars probably spend more time thinking about how to stay out of prison.

I saw Pre run in the 1972 Olympic Trials in Eugene. He made the team. I ran the Pre Trails as an Oregon student in 1976.

That’s a moment locked in my baby boomer sports fan memory. It grew after Pre’s death, but so did he.


A large glass display at one end of the room houses a tremendous amount of medals and trophies and awards Pre received throughout his life, as well as a worn sneaker or two. It’s astounding to see all these mementos that span his entire running career so close together in one place. In the middle of the room is a large, handsome, wooden conference-style table handmade by inmates from the Oregon State Prison, where Pre began a running club while he kept in contact with some of those incarcerated.

We love our sports heroes when they play. We love them more when we learn how they touched others.

Steve Prefontaine has more reach than we’ll ever know.

About David Gillaspie
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