At the height of his powers, Steve Prefontaine owned the American record on the track at every distance from 2,000 meters to 10,000 meters. His specialty was the 5,000, with a PR of 13:21, a completely ridiculous time that stood as the American record for decades after his death in 1975. At that time, Pre was beginning to train for the 1976 Olympics and all expectations were that he would again challenge for the gold medal and then turn pro following the games.
But an outcropping of rock on a winding road intervened and the world never got to see just how great Pre might have been. It’s reasonable to assume that Pre, like most of the premier track men of his generation, would have moved up to the marathon within a few years of going pro. That’s where the money and the fame that attracted deep-pocketed sponsors was. Plus, Pre was driven by a desire to race against and beat the best runners in the world, and the marathon distance was where most of those men were in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This begs the question: How would Pre have fared in comparison to the top marathoners of the day? It’s obviously impossible to know for sure, but using his 5K PR time and some extrapolation, we can get a pretty good idea.
If you enter Pre’s 13:21 time into Greg McMillan’s terrific running calculator you come up with a predicted marathon time of 2:10:09, which would be the 29th fastest marathon in U.S. history right now. That’s not too bad. But keep in mind that time is being calculated using a 5K time Pre ran in his early 20s. There’s plenty of reason to believe that he would have continued to improve, and that his marathon times would have dropped as he adapted to the distance and learned the intricacies of the marathon. Also, let’s say Pre ran that 2:10 in 1979; that would have been the fastest time run that year and a new American record.
At that time, America men owned the marathon distance in a way that’s hard to comprehend now. Bill Rodgers, Alberto Salazar, Greg Meyer, Benji Durden, Dick Beardsley and a few others were pushing each other to ever faster times in New York and Boston each year and it was not unusual to see as many as a dozen Americans in the top 20 of a major marathon. Given Pre’s famous drive and competitive spirit, I don’t think there’s any question that he would have been running shoulder-to-shoulder with those men for several years. In fact, had Pre lived, the U.S. marathon record books would likely look quite different and we’d probably be talking about him, and not Rodgers or Salazar, as the best marathoner of that generation.