The Early History of the Salute to Prefontaine

By Dave Rogers, with help from Carmen

On September 25, 1976, the First Annual Salute to Prefontaine Race was held in the Apalachicola National Forest. There were 182 starters, and at that time, it was the largest race in Tallahassee. The male winner was Tim Simpkins–then 22 years old–with a time of 15:43. The female winner was Nancy McCormac, 18 years old, with a time of 19:20. Along with the many complaints about the sand and natural obstacles in the wooded paths, there was a lot of enthusiasm and pride by runners who enjoyed the personal challenge. (A secret note from the then-director: I measured that dog-gone course five times and came up with different measurements each time. My guess is that the times of the leaders indicate the course may have been short; however, the times of the trailers indicate the course may have been long. Go figure…)

By the second year, 1977, that enthusiasm had spread, and the number of entrants jumped to 244. The winner was again Tim Simpkins, with a time of 15:35. (Keep in mind, these were the days before he became Superman. Tim really was great!) Janice Gage (soon to become Hochstein) was the first woman, coming in at 19:00. By this time, the beautiful and well-earned t-shirts were much coveted. After checking out the male/female ratio of the results of that era, I made it a tradition for the top 80 men and the top 20 women to receive t-shirts. After that, we started handing out the trophies (in the finish shoot) and blue ribbons.

On September 23, 1978, there were 233 runners, and all the proceeds went to the F.S.U. woman’s cross country team as they had from the inaugural race. The truth is that I wanted to become the coach of that team. Sometime around that time, it became clear that I would never attain that goal, and I went to GWTC and asked them if they would like to include “Pre” as a club race.

The Fourth Annual race in 1979 brought in 224 runners, still one of Tallahassee’s largest races. The Fifth Pre added a new twist. The night before, September 19, 1980, we held a Midnight Moonlight 20K/10K through the woods. The path was marked with candles in bags of sand. Several runners camped out in the forest and awoke to the traditional 5,000 meter race the next morning. The 20k had 28 entrants. I remember that we were short on helpers that late evening and recall doing 75 miles per hour in my ’67 Chevy on those dirt forest roads to beat the winner to the finish line to give him his time. My records are not clear as to how many entrants were in the 10K, but I do remember Chris Van Fleet (a great name for a runner) being a participant. The 5K had 92–a tremendous drop from previous years. (Wish we could remember why; my guess is that the word had finally spread as to the Hell that the course had to offer.) The first male finisher in the 5K that year was good ole’ George West in 17:17, and the first woman was Donna Miller in 20:52. (Donna and Betty Ely went on to become the first women to beat me to the finish line about that time. It was in the Apalachicola Forest Marathon, and I have been trounced by many gals since.) All finishers received a beautiful print of a winter forest entitled, “Silent Presence.”

In 1981, there were 101 entrants. That’s about all the details we can come up with on that one. I think that was the year that Carmen and I had the “kissing start.” We had just gotten married and I dared the guys in the starting field to, “kiss and run.” By the Seventh Annual in 1982, the numbers were back up again to 189. September 24, 1983, saw 125 runners, with Jeff Daugherty winning in 17:17, (Jeff would go on to become the director of the race after Mike Eakin) and Donna Miller was again the first female in 20:36. The Ninth Pre, on September 22, 1984, had 184 runners.

The forest is a changing venue, and through the years the course had to be altered some–partly because of natural causes, and partly because of new roads being cut by loggers and park officials. One year a bunch of drunk fraternity brothers decided to change the direction of the course markers the night before the run. But through it all, I (and subsequent directors) managed to keep the course practically un-runnable in difficulty and a true test of endurance and stamina. Anyone who completes it should feel very proud of the achievement.

Like Dave Rogers (Carmen Rogers wrote this part) and his bare feet (definitely an advantage in that sand), there have always been unusual aspects of this race: almost always there were t-shirts, sometimes artwork, sometimes recycled trophies, and often long-stemmed red roses for the ladies. There was always a keg party after the race. (As I recall we were the first to start the recycled trophy trend. Ken Misner was a great provider of hardware. We would always give the largest trophy to the smallest kid.)

And, I’m proud to say that in the nine years that Carmen and I directed this great race, the entry fee was always just one dollar. One of the most intriguing things about this race has been the start. Sometimes I would have my beautiful wife, Carmen, throw a target into the air and I’d shoot it with a shotgun. Sometimes she threw three different targets (on your mark, get set, go) and I grabbed a different gun to shoot each target. One time I shot a balloon out of Carmen’s mouth with a bow and arrow. That upset a lot of people; even to this day I catch hell about that one. The truth is, I never even aimed that arrow anywhere near my wife; she popped the balloon with a pin and I never even fired the shot! One of the most fun starts was the cork popping off a bottle of champagne. The front runners got a little sticky in the spray, and some tried to lick it off before it evaporated. I think my favorite was the reverse start. The parks/forest department somehow came to me one year and said, you can’t run the course as it is. You can, however, run it in reverse. In honor of that ridiculous ruling, I sat in a rocking chair in the back of a truck for the start of the race and held a .22 caliber rifle over my shoulder with a mirror on the butt of the stock. 100 feet behind me was a clay target on a post. The runners took off when I shot the target I saw in the mirror while facing the opposite direction.

It’s fun to look back through the registrations in the guest book that was used in the early races. Keep in mind that this was before the days when the director’s greatest concern was covering his or her ass legally. We had our participants sign a guest book back then and I treasure that book today. It’s fun to look through the results and think about how many years and miles have passed under our feet since the first “Pre” race. I had the privilege of watching Steve Prefontaine win the 1971 NCAA Cross Country Championships in Knoxville, Tennessee. He was the race favorite and I was just a freshman from Tennessee Tech. The thing that most impressed me about him at that time was how he was just a “regular guy” at the awards ceremony after being a ferocious competitor just an hour before, fighting off Gary Bjorklin from Minnesota during a beautiful snowfall to become the National Collegiate Champion, yet again! I recently had the occasion to train on the “Mecca” known as Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, that “Pre” called his home track. If I remember correctly, Pre went on to set 15 U.S. records between 5K and 15K as a proud representative of the University of Oregon. The sad fact is that he lost his life to an auto accident when he was in his prime.

So… here we are at the 27th Annual Salute to Steve Prefontaine. Come out and enjoy it, and get psyched up to be a part of what has traditionally known as Tallahassee’s most difficult race. I’ll be there! Do you have the guts?

~Dave Rogers, with tremendous help from my loving wife, Carmen