YOU EXPECT so much from a mecca that anything less than perfection found there can mar your first impression. Eugene was already well established as a runner’s dreamland by the early 1970s, and I expected more from this city than it could deliver.
I created my own first disappointment by opposing in print the 2:59:59 time limit for entry into the National AAU Marathon here. I’d met the standard myself but had written that it violated the evolving spirit of the sport: everyone is welcome and there’s no stigma on being slow.
This editorial didn’t sit well in Eugene and brought spirited rebuttals from two of the city’s most prominent running citizens, Bill Bowerman and Kenny Moore. Before this debate flared up, I’d wavered about running this marathon (which would have been my third in six weeks and second in eight days).
Now I felt obliged to back my words with actions, and drove here from California with two other marathoners and my now-fiancee Janet. One runner was Jim Howell, who had married Janet’s sister and would qualify for the 1972 Olympic Trials. The other was Harold DeMoss, an airline pilot who chafed at the dawdling pace of our drive north.
On Saturday morning before Sunday afternoon’s race, an IHOP filled with runners. One noticed an empty spot at our table and drawled, “Mind if I join y’all?”
He introduced himself as Jeff Galloway and told how his drive, from Florida in a sports car he called Mobley, had dwarfed ours. Thus began a friendship with Jeff that would endure for decades.
My protest marathon on behalf of the excluded went all but unnoticed. An exception: While running through sister city Springfield, a kid critiqued my run with, “You’re so slow, why don’t you drop out?”
We had started on the Hayward Field track, running two laps there before reaching the road. I’d been last to leave the stadium and hadn’t advanced from there when the boy remarked on my pace.
“Slow” was relative, as I was averaging better than seven-minute miles. This pace would advance me only four spots by the end.
Place didn’t concern me, but time did. We had a deadline: reach the Hayward Field entrance before 3:00:00 and finish inside, before a track meet began; arrive later and detour to an alternate line outside. I passed through the gate with less than a minute to spare – but not before a gun fired and the full-house crowd roared for the milers.
Later I would tell how I “led” Steve Prefontaine up the backstretch. His crowd cheered his first lap on his track, while I ran unseen in the outside lane. Soon enough, he and the other milers raced past.
Too soon, Pre would run his last race at Hayward and at this same time of year, in 1975. This same meet would be renamed in his honor, as the Prefontaine Classic.
That evening we marathoners reconvened at the Eugene Hotel for a banquet. I happened to sit across from Frank Shorter, who’d debuted at this distance and finished second to Kenny Moore. Frank’s face was now pale and he wasn’t eating, as nausea kept him from enjoying what he’d done that afternoon.
Suddenly the distinctions between the nearly first and almost last vanished. The after-effects of the marathon brought the marathoners closer together that evening than their range of times had made them appear that afternoon.
“WE COULD live here,” I told Janet during this first visit to Eugene. She nodded agreement. We’d seen the city at its early summer best and couldn’t imagine its long and wet winters.
We weren’t yet married but were already casting about for a new home, away from the sprawling suburbs and soaring costs of the Bay Area. Ten years and two children after nominating Eugene as a future home, we moved here.
Our arrival coincided with a local financial crash and a spike in interest rates nationally. The motto of those times was, “Eugene is a great place to live – if you can make a living.”
All of my income came from elsewhere, so I imagined myself immune from the harsh economic times. I wasn’t.
The outside income declined, and the “bargain” house became too costly to keep and worth less in this dismal market than its loan. We sold at a big loss.
By then, though, Eugene was home. I found ways to make it a lasting one.
Since moving here, no one has ever taunted me again for being “too slow” – thought it, maybe, but never shouted it – even as I’ve slowed by a minute or more per mile per decade since 1971.
On that first visit we stayed at race headquarters, the Eugene Hotel. That same building now houses the Eugene Hotel Retirement Center, which could someday bring me full circle as the last place I’ll stay in this hometown.
Photo: Frank Shorter (left) and Kenny Moore ran their first marathon together in 1971, in Eugene. A year later they teamed up at the Munich Olympics, placing first and fourth.
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]