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Track Town USA; the Steve Prefontaine Era and Bill Dellinger's Oregon 800 meter Workouts

Updated: Mar 22

The following blog post comes from a Q&A I did with Steve Bence, a former runner for the University of Oregon in the mid 1970's. At the time of the interview, I was working on a Track and Cross Country magazine and in one way or another, got connected with Steve.


Nonetheless, I wanted to share this article on the Coaching Distance blog, as it takes a first-hand look into Track Town USA, Steve Prefontaine and Bill Dellinger's 800 meter training.


If you can get your hands on it, the book Winning Running, by Bill Dellinger gives an in-depth look into the training he was using with the Oregon middle distance and distance runners in the 1970's.


Additionally, Kenny Moore's, Bowerman and the Men of Oregon, which Bence quotes in one of his responses, is a must read for anyone that wants to dig deeper into the history at Oregon.


TRACK TOWN USA


Q: What was it like to be a runner in Eugene during the 1970's?

For me, I went from high school in June 1971 where track was not a well-known or well-understood to Eugene three months later that was considered the track capital of the United States.  Track team members were recognized on campus and around town, the people of Eugene attended and understood track, some of the best meets in the world were held in Eugene, and top athletes chose Eugene to live and train.  


Oregon had track athletes that were better known than the football and basketball players.  Steve Prefontaine was on the cover of Sports Illustrated.


Bill Bowerman, who was the 1972 head Olympic coach for track & field introduced jogging to the United States in the mid 1960’s and by the early 1970’s it was common to see Eugene citizens running on the track and on the streets.  When I ran on the streets in other towns around the US I’d have people taunt me but in Eugene running was common and runners were well respected. 


Q: Who were some of the top runners on the University of Oregon team during your years as a member of the U of Oregon squad?

During my 4 years at Oregon our cross country team was the national championship team 3 times (Fall 1971, 1973, and 1974) and the track team was 4th in 1972 and 2nd in 1973.  

My teammates included an eventual world record holder (Mac Wilkins in the discus), 16 Olympians representing 4 different countries, 8 sub-4 minute milers, and 4 NCAA individual champions.


When I ran my personal best in the mile (4:02), I was fourth place in the race.  The three runners in front of me were my Oregon teammates- 2 of whom were under 4 minutes in that race.


Bill Bowerman, our head coach my freshman year, was the 1972 head Olympic coach for track & field. 


Bill Dellinger, the assistant coach at the time responsible for the middle and distance runners, was a 2-time NCAA champion, 6-time American record holder, 2-time indoor world record holder, 3 time Olympian, and the 5000 meter bronze medalist in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.


My roommate my sophomore year was Paul Geis.  Paul ran the mile in 3:58.1, 5000 meters in 13:23, 1974 NCAA 3 mile champion, and placed 12th in the 1976 Montreal Olympics 5000 meter finals.


My roommate my junior and senior year (and my best man at my wedding) was Mark Feig, who ran a 3:58.5 mile while at Oregon and a 3:55 mile after he graduated.


Steve Prefontaine – 7 time NCAA individual champion, 4th in 5000 meters at 1972 Olympics, held every American record from 2000 meters to 10,000 meters, 3:54.6 mile


Mac Wilkins – world record holder and Olympic champion


Matt Centrowitz – 1976 and 1980 Olympics, 5000 meter American record holder, post collegiate mile of 3:54.94


Pete Schmock – 1980 Olympics in the shot put


Bouncy Moore – NCAA champion in the long jump


THE WORKOUTS


Q: What were some of the staple Dellinger workouts during the track season for the middle distance runners? Distance runners?


My memory isn’t that good of our regular workouts.  However like many runners I kept a detailed training diary and I just pulled out my training journal from my freshman year.


My diary went from Monday September 20, 1971 through June 11, 1972.  I came to Oregon with a high school best 800 meter time of 1:55 and on June 4, 1972 ran 1:47.7 to place 6th in the NCAA finals.


We tried to run about 20 minutes easy every weekday morning.  That sounds easy and it added about 15 miles per week of building a running base.  But getting up to run was often difficult for me:


9/29/71 – “Too lazy to get out of bed.  The room was freezing and the bed was so warm and comfortable.”

10/6/71 – “My blister bothered me so I didn’t run”

10/8/71 – “Too tired to run”

10/15/71 – “Had to study for a test”

10/21/71 – “Nothing because of my cold”

10/28/71 – “Nothing – was tired and missed class”

11/1/71 – “Overslept”

11/5/71 – “Nothing because of my sore ankle”

11/18/71 – “Slept in and skipped a class”

11/23/71 – “Big test in math.  Stayed up until 5am”

1/27/72 – “Snowy and cold”

2/28/72 – “Very windy and rainy”


I’d usually get in 3 or 4 morning runs.


I noticed that as I got into the spring track season my morning runs were more infrequent.  I’d say that a big difference between me and the distance runners were they were much more diligent and disciplined in getting in their morning runs.  I was constantly finding an excuse and I think it was good for me to “listen to my body” because our speed work took more of a toll on our legs & feet plus I’d break down with too many miles … even though they were easy miles. 


Also, I think that Pre basically NEVER missed a morning run.


Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday were track days for us middle distance runners.  I lived for those workouts.  Dellinger would post our weekly workouts on Monday, I’d make a point to read them on the way to class, and I’d get psyched for the workouts.  Even though I found excuses not to do my morning runs … I can’t find a Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday workout that I missed for reasons other than holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas), significant soreness, sickness, or travel.


Before I detail my track days, I’ll comment on the workout days other than Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.


Monday afternoons were almost always a 4 – 6 mile run with the route and pace usually depending upon who I happened to run with.  In looking at my journal I’d usually finish at the track and do some quick strides (ex. 4 x 110) or I’d go to the weight room and/or sauna before my shower.  I was pretty consistent in doing my Monday runs.


Wednesday runs were erratic for me.  They ranged from nothing (10/20/71 “Nothing because I’m coming down with a cold.  Stayed indoors and skipped classes”) to 2 miles (9/29/71 “Very lethargic and just jogged about 2 miles”) to 7+ miles (3/8/72 “I felt great! Went out on a long run with Dean.  8 or 9 miles.  We experimented with different trails and had a great, relaxing run.”)  I think the Wednesday runs were difficult for me because of the often challenging Tuesday/Thursday track workouts.  I would be recovering from Tuesday and I’d want to be sharp for Thursday.


Friday runs were designed to be easy, mainly to develop the habit for track season when the Friday run was just loosening up for a Saturday race.  My journal usually says “3 mile easy run”.


Sundays runs were about an hour … usually in the range of 48 to 55 minutes.


My Tuesday workouts were a lot of intervals or simulated races.  Tuesdays were the hardest track days because they were further from our normal Saturday race days.  


Examples of Tuesdays:


9/21/71 – 3 sets of 3 x 330 (total of 9 x 330), easy mile, 6 x 100, 3 mile easy run

9/28/71 – 8 x 440, easy 3 mile run, 6 x 110

10/5/71 – 2 x 1320, 2 x 880, 2 x 44, 2 x 220, easy run, 4 x 330

10/18/71 – 3 x 880, 3 x 440, 3 x 220, 3 x 110

10/26/71 – 3 x 660 (1:30, 1:27, 1:24), 20 minute easy run, 3 x 330 (45, 43, 41), 3 x 110

11/2/71 – 1 x 550 (55 at the 440), 1 x 330 (39), 2 x 165, 4 mile easy run, 6 x 330 (cut-down 48 to 42)

11/9/71 – 15 x 220 (cut-down 32 to 28)

11/16/71 – Mile (4:36), 1320 (3:22), 880 (2:09), 440 (63), 4 x 220, mile easy

11/30/71 – 6 x (220 in 27 then 440 in 90), 4 mile easy run, 3 x 330

12/7/71 – 6 x 330 (41-43), 3 mile easy run, 6 x 330 (47, 44, 41)

1/25/72 – 440 (53), 1 mile easy run, 440 (52.1), 1 mile easy run, 2 x 220 (24.9, 24.5), short rest, 2 x 110

2/1/72 – 6 x 110 (fast, all under 12), 3 mile easy run, 6 x 220 (cut-down 30 to 25)

2/15/72 – 6 x 330 (all under 41 with last in 38.2), 3 mile easy jog, 6 x 110 (started at 16 and last was 11.5)

3/1/72 – 550 (53 at 440), 550 jog, 330 (39), 550 jog, 2 x 165 (19), 3 miles easy on grass, 3 x 330 (47, 44, 41.5)


Thursdays seem to be shorter, quicker track days with an easy run in the middle.  A sampling of Thursday workouts:


9/23/71 – 16 x 165 (24-25 seconds), 3 miles easy

9/30/71 – 3 sets of 4 x 165 (total 12 x 165), first set in 25, second set in 22, third set in 25, 3 mile easy run, 3 x 330

10/7/71 – 4 x 165, 4 mile Lydiard Fartlek, 4 x 220

10/14/71 – 3 x 110 (12), 20 minute easy run, 3 x 165

10/28/71 – First & Last 220 drill … 220 (24), 440 (90), 220 (25), fast 4 mile run, 3 x 330

11/11/71 – 2 x 110, 6 mile fast run, 4 x 110

11/18/71 – 6 x 330 (42), 3 miles easy, 6 x 110 (cut-down 15 to 12)

12/2/71 – First & Last 220 drill … 220 (24.9), 440 (81), 220 (26), 3 miles easy, 3 x 330 (45, 44, 38)

1/20/72 – 6 x 165 then inside to Mac Court because of wind & rain

1/27/72 – 2 x 220 (28, 27), 3 miles easy, 4 x 110

2/17/72 – 2 x 110, 4 mile easy run, 4 x 110

3/9/72 – 3 x 330 (44, 42, 37.5), 4 mile easy run, 3 x 110


Saturdays were time trials, simulated races, and then real races during track season.  A sampling (actually most) of Saturday workouts:


9/25/71 – Time trial … I ran 3 miles in 16:20 … the fastest 6 mile was 30:17

10/2/71 – Time trial … 880 in 1:56, 5 mile easy run, 4 x 330

10/9/71 – Time trial … I ran 3 miles in 15:32, 2 mile jog, 4 x 330 (49, 47, 46, 40)

10/16/71 – Time trial … A touch over 3 miles in 15:35

10/23/71 – A timed distance run … approx 9 miles on the road … first mile 5:20 with finish time at 54:12, 4 x 330 (48) on track

10/30/71 – Time trial … a touch over 3 miles in 15:45 (same course as 2 weeks earlier and 10 seconds slower)

11/13/71 – 3 sets of (660, 440, 330, 220, 110), 3 mile medium paced run

11/20/71 – 20 x 220 (averaged about 29) with 1 minute rest between each

12/4/71 – Time trial (rainy, cold, many puddles) … 660 in 1:23, 3 mile easy run, 3 x 330 (47, 44, 39)

12/11/71 – Time trial … 880 in 1:54.6 (my fastest 880 ever!)

1/15/72 – 10 x 220 (30), 3 mile easy run

1/22/72 – Time trial … 990 in 2:10.2 (1:55 at 880), easy jog, 6 x 330 (cutdown 45 to 42)

1/29/72 – Indoor Competition on wooden track, won 1000 yard race in 2:14.2.

2/19/72 – Time trial … 770 in 1:37 (55.5 at 440, 1:23 at 660), 2 x 165, light jog, 3 x 110

2/26/72 – 1320 (3:27), 2 x 880 (2:10), 3 x 440 (62, 59, 55.5), 4 x 220 (cutdown 30 to 25), 3 mile easy run, 3 x 110

3/4/72 – Time trial … 1:51.4 (55 at 440, 1:23.5 at 660) … my fastest time ever at 880!

3/11/72 – Fast pace … 440 (51.9), 2 x 220 (25, 24), 3 x 110 (12.5), 3 mile easy run, 3 x 220 (28, 26, 24)

3/18/72 – Fresno California Meet … 1st 880 1:52.3

3/25/72 – Bakersfield California Meet … 1st 880 1:52.0

4/1/72 – Oregon Invitation in Eugene … 1st 880 1:49.2

4/8/72 – at University of Washington … 1st 880 1:50.8

4/15/72 – at University of Nebraska … 1st 880 1:49.4

4/23/72 (Sunday) – Oregon Twilight Meet in Eugene … 1st 600 yards 1:09.9  (50.5 at 440)

4/29/72 – Workout of simulated 880 of 660 (1:21.7), 880 jog, 220 (24.5), long jog, 2 x 110 (11.6, 11.1)

5/6/72 – Oregon State in Eugene … 1st 880 1:49.8

5/13/72 – Northern Division at Corvallis Oregon … 2nd 1:49.7  (Pat Collins won 1:49.5)

5/19/72 (Friday) – PAC-10 Trials … 2nd 1:51.0

5/20/72 (Saturday) – PAC-10 Finals … 2nd 880 1:48.6

5/21/72 (Sunday) – Simulated 880 for 3 race days in a row … 550 (66.8), 1 lap jog, 3 x 110 (11.8, 12.2, 11.5)

5/27/72 – No meet so sharpening workout of 6 x 330 (40.3, 40.7, 38.8, 40.4, 39.2, 38.5) with 330 jog between each

6/1/72 (Thursday) – NCAA Prelims in Eugene … 800 in 1:48.4

6/2/72 (Friday) – NCAA Semi-Finals in Eugene … 800 in 1:48.9

6/3/72 (Saturday) – NCAA Finals in Eugene … 6th in 1:47.7  (winner was Willie Thomas of Tennessee in 1:47.1)


Regarding the distance runners workouts, I’m having trouble remembering (or maybe I didn’t really pay attention).  As I mentioned, they were better at getting in their 20 minute morning runs, more consistent in doing their Monday, Wednesday, and Sunday runs; and on the track they did slightly longer intervals (ex. 440 or 660 instead of 330) or more (ex. 8 x 220 instead of 6 x 220), slower paced, and with shorter rest (they often jogged their rest intervals instead of walking).



STEVE PREFONTAINE: "PRE"


I asked Steve about stories from his time at the University of Oregon, with particular interest in Steve Prefontaine.


Stories?  Where would I even start?


I’ll blend several stories together that incorporate the Oregon accomplishments in running, the people of Oregon, their roles in the sport, and the various personalities that keep people in check.  


I’ll steal from Kenny Moore’s book. (Bowerman and the Men of Oregon)


"Prefontaine went to the 1972 Olympics expecting to win the gold medal.  It was a natural thought growing up in the Oregon running legacy.


Pre ran the 1972 Olympic race to win.  However because he didn’t just settle for a medal he overextended himself and fell to fourth place in the last steps of his race.  He was devastated.


After the race Eugene Register Guard reporter Blaine Newnham tried to talk to him.


Blaine caught Pre and said “I know you feel bad, but we’ve got to talk.”


Prefontaine said, “I’ve got nothing to say,” and headed for the darkest corner.


Newnham said, “Wait a minute, you’ve got to talk to me.  What about all those people back in Eugene, the people at Hayward Field, Pre’s people?  They’ve lived this race for you, they can understand what happened and we’ve got to talk.”


Mention of Pre’s people stopped him. Newnham asked, “How old are you, twenty-one?  And you finish fourth in the world, how bad is that?”


“Well, that’s not too bad” Pre answered.


Newnham continued, “Did you run for third or second?  No, you ran to win, you took the lead with a mile to go, you ran your butt off, and you finished fourth, now how bad is that?”


“No, it wasn’t that bad” Pre repeated.


“What he needed,“ Newnham said later, “was someone to put his arm around him, to kind of hug him and say it’s okay, we understand.  Pre’s People understand.”


A little later that same day Pre caught up to fellow Oregonian Kenny Moore who just finished the marathon.  Because they were running at the same time they didn’t know how each other did.


Pre ran over to Kenny and asked, “How did you do?”  Kenny dejectedly responded, “fourth”.


Pre countered, “Kenny, that is great!  Out of all the billions of people in the world you were fourth.  You have to be proud!”


Kenny nodded.  Then Kenny mustered up some positive energy for what must have been good news, “Pre, what did YOU get?”


Pre responded, “The worst place you can ever finish.  F*ing fourth”.


After the Olympics Pre retreated from racing and training for a while to lick his wounds.  In 1973 Pre started to train again with his friends and teammates who understood the blow that he took.


Pre gradually began to remember that he loved running and winning, that the Olympics were not the only, or even the main, reason he ran.  He became excited about the possibilities of life again.


Arne Kvalheim helped keep Pre centered.


During one run, Pre proudly reported news from his home town, “Coos Bay is naming a street after me!”


“What are they going to call it?” asked Arne.  “Fourth Street?"


For Bence, his favorite memory of Steve was more personal.


I’ll share my favorite memory of Steve.  


It happened during the last 24 hours of his life.


Pre ran his final race on Thursday evening May 29, 1975.  Pre put together the meet so a delegation from Finland could compete in Oregon.  Originally Pre had set up the meet to run against Lasse Viren on Pre’s home ground.  But Lasse canceled and Pre set up a 5000 meter race against Frank Shorter instead.  


Pre’s goal was to break the American record that evening.  Kenny Moore was at the meet for Sports Illustrated to capture the story.


Earlier that Thursday morning I went out for an easy jog to get ready to race.  I was running 800 meters that night.  Pre saw me and insisted that I, my roommate Mark Feig, and Matt Centrowitz go to his house during the day to relax.  Pre was hyper and needed others to keep him distracted and calm.  I said that I needed to study for a math final so I took my book with me to study.  Mark, Pre, and Matt played a 3-handed card game (probably Spades).


Later in the afternoon Pre dressed for the meet and we started to leave.  The plan was to go to Mark’s and my apartment which was across the street from Hayward Field, the rest of us would change into our uniforms, and then jog over to the track.  


But just before we left Pre said that he wanted to get a picture of the four of us.  We were the four anchor people on a Fall relay race from Eugene to Corvallis (which is a story in itself).  Pre was the last runner in that city-to-city relay and he won it for the U of O by mere seconds.  He kept the trophy on his mantel and knew that he had to return it.  He coaxed his neighbor to take our picture before we headed off and the neighbor clicked the following picture on Pre’s camera.

(Matt Centrowitz, Steve Bence, Pre, Mark Feig)









Weeks after Pre’s death the film in Pre’s camera was developed and I was given the picture above.


We went to Mark’s and my apartment.  We changed, jogged to the track, and then the focus was on Pre.  Not only was Kenny Moore trying to cover the story of the Finns in Oregon and Pre trying to break the American 5000 meter record but the Sports Illustrated photographer was trying to capture the story in pictures.  Pre came up to me before my race to encourage me.


That Thursday race turned out to be my last race as a University of Oregon runner.  


Pre said that I wasn’t progressing the way that I should (he blamed Dellinger) and said that on Saturday he would become my new coach.  I tried to adjust to that thought.


Pre went to the party for the Finns that evening and the rest of us went to the Oregon track team dinner.


At 6 AM the next morning I was awoken by a phone call to hear that Pre was dead. 


Our lives changed.


For most of us on the team and friends of Pre, Pre’s death was our first death experience with a close friend.  For me it was very surreal that I spent Thursday with Pre, raced with him on that day, had several pictures taken with him, and he vowed to be my new coach starting on Saturday.


However on that Friday morning, a beautiful clear Oregon day, the day of his death, I took my math test as though nothing happened. 


I think many people such as me didn’t get the opportunity to grieve properly because of Pre’s fame.


Give us the details of your best collegiate track race.

I am 53 years old and with my journal I don’t need to rely on my memory.  My wife asks me how I can remember a race 30+ years ago when I can’t remember our best friends’ phone number.


My races during my freshman year were probably some of my best.  Not only was I was surprising myself on my success, I was surprising my teammates and Oregon fans.  


I’ll type from my journal during my freshman year (remember that I was a 1:55 800 meter walk on and the upperclassman expected to beat me and use me as a rabbit; also I expected for the upperclassmen to beat me):


But I’ll continue.


I’m a product of a minor sport with figures that are strong for my sport?  Bowerman and Dellinger don’t get much bigger for track and field.  Think about me as 53 year old man in 2007 that had a personal connection to Bowerman and Dellinger as a 17 year old wide-eyed kid in 1971.


The impact on me is huge and better articulated by the influence that Bowerman had on Phil Knight which is a key theme in Kenny Moore’s book.


Kenny Moore concludes his 417 page book with the following hand written undelivered note from Bill Bowerman (the coach) to Nike’s founder and Chairman of the Board Phil Knight (the athlete) …


Dear Buck (Phil Knight),

I want to tell my “Partner in Sports” how much I admire your leadership and the crew or team you have assembled and direct.


The road has had some sharp curves.  Yes, and some major obstacles to get around or over.


I have never availed myself of the opportunity to express my admiration for your leadership and accomplishments in the growth, from small Blue Ribbon to International Nike Inc.


Your leadership has been phenomenal.  Barb joins me in appreciation and admiration.”


Bowerman left the note unsigned and undelivered.  


A few days after Bill’s death Barbara (Bowerman’s wife) delivered the entire legal pad to Knight.  


“Am I going to cry?” Phil asked Barbara.  


She nodded, so he took it away to read alone. 


“That note resides in a sacred drawer,” Phil would say later, knowing at last the Bill Bowerman had judged him worthy.


Question #7: When did you get involved with Nike?  In ________ did you envision Nike becoming what it is today?

Blue Ribbon Sports started in the 1960’s and they imported Tiger shoes.  I wore Tiger in 1971 to train and compete and switched to Adidas in 1972.


The first Nike product was on athletes in 1972.  Since I was on the Oregon track team, an NCAA all-American, and in the Olympic Trials I was given a pair of Nikes in the spring of 1972.  I didn’t like the shoes and gave them to a friend.


During my Oregon career Nike tried to get me to compete in Nike but the shoes didn’t fit my foot well for competition.  However by the end of my college career I liked Nike to train in and

Adidas to compete in.  I traded my Adidas training flats for Nike training shoes (the Cortez at the time).  But Nike wouldn’t sponsor me officially because I wouldn’t compete in the shoes.


When I graduated college I taught school and coached.  In the summer of 1977 I worked at a Nike retail store and then I was recruited to work full time for Nike and move overseas.  I remember my mother telling me that I needed to quit my ties to athletics and get a “real job”. I quit teaching in 1977, worked full time for Nike, and moved to Taiwan in 1978.  I loved the job.


I personally had no vision that Nike would grow to what it is today.  I doubt that anyone at the time including Phil Knight could have envisioned what Nike is today.  In fact Phil kept his “day job” for quite a while before working full time for his own company.  In the early days I thought Phil was proud that his new company could provide a full time income for so many people.


However over the years Nike would not be what it is today without Phil’s step by step vision of the future.


What was your part in the making of the movie, Without Limits?

Kenny Moore called me out of the blue to work on the movie.


I contributed by loaning my clothing (uniforms, sweats, tee shirts, etc from that time) and my training journals.


I gave input to the script writing, was on the set for a lot of the filming, and generated support from true fans of the era.


Jeffrey Atkinson played me in the movie. I’m credited as the track & field consultant.


Sum up your memories of your University of Oregon experience.

I never set foot in the state of Oregon until I came here in August 1971 to run on the Oregon track team.  I graduated from Zaragoza American High School located on Zaragoza Air Force Base in Spain. 


I came to Oregon as a runner.


My Oregon running experience is the theme of my life.

/steve bence

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