Steve Bence was a middle distance runner for the University of Oregon in the early 1970s. He served as a consultant for the film Without Limits, giving background on the Eugene running culture and Steve Prefontaine. One summer during college he traveled to Europe and ran for money under the table, a forbidden practice in those days of amateurism (even now it would probably affect his status as a collegiate athlete). This is the main subject of the interview. At the time of the interview Bence worked for Nike (he still does at the time of this posting in 2010). I came across Bence while doing research on the Florida Track Club. (Here is his webpage about Pre, Eugene, and running.) I sat down with Steve in the summer of 2001 when I was living in Portland, Oregon.
June 9, 2001
Dale Winling interviewing Steve Bence, former middle distance runner for Oregon, [at a Starbucks in Beaverton, OR].
[Note: My questions were a good deal more rambling than indicated here. The interview is about Steve Bence, not me, so I just put down the essence of the question I asked.]
Tell me how you first got interested in running.
Well. It probably started about 6th grade. I started somewhat being interested in running. I remember we used to have to run a mile or something like that in PE. I’d be the first guy, but there’d always be some girls who beat me. In 7th grade, I was going out for a lot of different sports because some other guys were – basketball, track – some sport every season just because everybody else was. Then in PE we’d have cross country runs, like 2 mile runs. In 7th grade PE class I was beating everybody, so all of a sudden I started realizing I was good at it and went out for track. I didn’t run any meets I remember in 7th grade until the absolute last track meet. The coach put me in the 400 meters and I was second. The coach was shocked, cause that was the last meet of the season. Afterwards, he was almost apologetic, saying, “You’re a good runner.” By about 8th grade, I was doing well in PE, and then I was winning all the meets, and going to districts, so it started to become obvious I had some talent. It wasn’t because I loved running, but that I turned out to be good at it. By 9th grade I knew I was a good runner and got serious about it, in cross country and track. Probably my junior year was the first time I broke 5 minutes for the mile. I was improving every year, but nothing great for times.
Did you play any other sports in high school?
I was a good bowler; played football, basketball, baseball. I tried all the sports, but bowling and running were my 2 best sports. The rest of them I sat on the bench a lot.
What got you interest from colleges? Were you recruited from any other place besides Oregon?
I wasn’t even recruited [there]. My dad was in the Air Force so I graduated from high school in Spain. I wrote letters trying to get into a lot of schools [track programs], but I’d get a lot of letters rejecting me, saying, “You’re just not that good.” I’ve actually got them right here – letters from Kansas, USC, but my high school coach my senior year in high school threw the javelin at Oregon, so he helped me become a walk-on. I just kind of showed up in Eugene – didn’t even know when school started – they set me up with some guys to live with, got me a job, so I wasn’t on scholarship.
Could freshmen compete when you were a freshman?
How many years of high school were you in Spain?
Freshman and sophomore years I was at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Junior year I was in the Madrid area in Spain. Senior year in Saragoza, Spain. It was a brand-new school, the first year it was open – they had just opened the Air Force base.
What did you expect from college track?
I don’t remember having a whole lot of expectations about what it was like. It was kind of the next logical step. What I was doing with my coach. I always had to go to college. I was running, so for some reason I always decided to run. It was like that was the next step in life. I had no idea what I was stepping into. In hindsight, if I had known, God, I probably would not have done it. I was way in over my head. Freshman year, we went into March and I was one of the guys on the team and I was beating some guys on the team and they were ticked at me and some of my teammates. Some of them started refusing to train with me because they thought training just helped me beat them. All of the sudden I was 2nd in the PAC-8 championships that year, and 6th in the NCAA, made the Olympic Trials, went to the national championships, junior national championships, made the junior team for the United States competing against the Russians. All of this happened in a 2 month period of time. I just said, “Wow.” I got my scholarship after that.
Did you get a full or partial scholarship?
After my freshman year it was a full scholarship, up until then I had no scholarship, so I went from nothing to a full scholarship.
Where on your list of priorities was running?
That was my life. All of my friends were runners, that’s the way you lived; when you had parties that’s what you talked about. That held the main position in my life. I remember my junior year panicking, thinking “running is going to be over soon and I’ve got to get serious about what kind of job am I going to do, get serious about my education, get serious about maybe getting married.” My family wasn’t around. It was just a scary point in time. All of a sudden I saw running about ready to end, and I panicked.
Did you have any career plan? What was your major in college?
For college you have to put down what you’ll major in. I always did well on the SATs and was good at math, so I just put down “math major.” My junior year when I panicked, it was like “what am I going to do with a math major?” so I started taking a lot of computer science classes and also got my teaching certificate. By the time I was done with my senior year, I had a teaching certificate, a lot of math classes and also a lot of computer science classes, so I was trying to position myself to either go into teaching or work with computers.
What was the result of that?
The first year I taught. I actually taught – this is probably why I started working for Nike – here in the Beaverton area after the school year started. Meanwhile — Well, back up. I got married right after that [panic attack], like in 1976. I got married, and in the Olympic year didn’t do well. I went to Europe, because I wanted to teach in the same school system I graduated from. There was a whole European school system, but there were really no jobs, and the pay was such that it would have been a horrible living. After the school year started I came back here to Oregon. The Beaverton school district started to realize how many kids had shown up, so they needed somebody to teach 3 classes of math, for which I had the math degree, a class in computer science — and I had the computer science background – Spanish, for which I had lived in Spain, and one class of PE, and I was a runner, so it was like a perfect match.
What school was this?
It was called Five Oaks Middle School in the Beaverton area. After that first year I didn’t have a permanent job and while I was waiting to see if I would get a permanent job I started working at the Nike store during the summers, to have something to do. This was the summer of 77. Nike was just a small company, and they talked me into “quitting this teaching stuff and work full time for us.”
Did you work at the store full time?
It was a part time store job and then they hired me full time and asked, “well, what can you do?” So they had me as a computer programmer for the first 6 months, and after that 6 months they had to find where I was going to get on the product line in Taiwan. They were trying to do was find people to live overseas — young guys like me — to move overseas and kind of watch production. So that was their plan — give me something to do, but get me overseas fairly quickly.
Did your Oregon track connection help you get that job?
Absolutely, because that’s why I got that job at the store. A lot of the guys from Oregon track started working in the retail areas and so they said, “Come work at the store.” Then I was hanging around the home office, because my track buddies were working full time at Nike. And then Phil Knight, of course, who was setting up the company, was an ex-track runner. He knew who I was before I knew who he was, because he followed running. He wasn’t famous back then. I have one picture — God I wish I had it. There’s a picture I love of Bill Dellinger, my coach, with Steve Prefontaine, and Jim Ryun in Dellinger’s office and there’s one guy in the doorway and I never really paid attention to who that was, but like 10 years later I looked at the picture again and it was Phil Knight; just a track groupie; hung around all the time. Nobody knew who he was back then.
How long did you continue running after college?
Just one year. I graduated in 75. 76 was the Olympic year and my wife – we were engaged – was one year behind me. I thought, “Well, this is great. I’ll get my teaching certificate, train for the Olympic Trials, stay in Eugene, and see how it goes,” but it was just too much. I wasn’t able to train the way I needed to. I wasn’t good enough, so I had to worry about getting a job and moving on with life at that point in time, so I had to let it all go.
Did you qualify for the Olympic Trials in 76?
No. I did in 72, but not 76.
When did you realize that you could – aside from a scholarship – get money for running?
Probably through guys that went to Europe. There were guys on the track team like Prefontaine and some Europeans on the track team that understood the circuit over there. Actually one of my roommates, Paul Geis — who was an Olympian — had gone over there, so it was kind of talk among the athletes of what was happening over in Europe and what the opportunity was. So people were encouraging us. “Go over to Europe and run some track meets. It’s fun – you get some money it’s a really exciting thing to do, to travel like that.” So it was word of mouth.
How much convincing did you need?
I can’t really remember. I only went over once and it was after my junior year. I’d have to go back and look, but Paul Geis was my roommate my sophomore year. I think he probably went to Europe that summer, then when he came back, I was so competitive with him, just hearing the stories, and how much fun they had. Nobody really talked about how much money they made. I don’t think other than Pre, I don’t think anyone made a whole lot of money anyway. So it really wasn’t so much making money as much as getting to travel, that level of competition, and seeing what it was all about – that kind of thing. So people had done it during the summer, during that fall we had talked about it, because I remember by early spring –. Well, actually, I was trying to save money all along. It took a while to save money during the year, so I know we were doing it months before if we ever went over, making plans.
Did you go with a group or on your own?
I was reading this before I came over [diary of the trip]. I haven’t read it [in a while]. I had no right doing what I did. It was 4 of us, four Oregon guys got together and one guy dropped off and the second guy dropped off, so by the time we were done it was only 2 of us. We just got on a plane and went over and went to Oslo. I was reading my notes – we had no contacts, we had no phone numbers, we didn’t know where we were going to stay, we didn’t know where the track meets were. We just showed up and made it work somehow.
Did you do much talking with other, more experienced guys about what to do once you got over there?
I was looking at my notes. We were looking for Pre [traveling in Europe as well]. I don’t know what we thought was going to happen. I think we thought we’d get off the plane and we’d be embraced – people would say, “Come run in our track meet; we’ll give you money.” It didn’t work that way. So the first 5 days we stayed in a hostal 2 nights — they’d close in the morning and open up in the afternoon, so every day we’d have to leave and come back at night — so that was 2 nights. The third night we went from Oslo to Stockholm. We had no place to stay so we went to the stadium and slept in the bathroom of the stadium. The fourth night we decided to go to Finland and try our luck there. We were on a ship, and decided to sleep on the floor of the ship, out of the way where people were walking. I’m not sure where I slept on the 5th night, but it was not until the 6th night we actually had a bed to sleep in, so we had no plans; we had no contacts. Did we talk to people about what to do? I guess not. We were looking for Pre. We got to the point after a couple days where our goal was get on the phone, contact Pre, and just ask for help. Finally, one of the meet promoters in Helsinki who was real good friends with Pre got us into our first three meets. This is according to my notes, as I can’t really remember it that well, but we were ecstatic. All of a sudden, we were in a track meet finally.
During this first week, had you been running at all?
Yeah. It was like 30 minutes here, 30 minutes there. One of my notes was, we found a little cinder track and decided to do a little workout. My first 400 meters was like 49.2 seconds, so I said “this can’t be a 400m track.” Somehow we were finding ways to run. Between flights, or between boat rides we’d go out for a half-hour run or something like that, so we found ways to train.
Do you remember getting the AAU travel permit?
I’m not sure how we found that out. It was probably one of those word-of-mouth things, that we knew in order to compete in Europe we had to have an AAU permit. So we applied for it. Three of our names were on there. The fourth guy who was traveling with us was not an American. He was Australian, so he didn’t need the AAU permit. But [we] three Americans did, so they put all our names on the same permit. I think we just went to our local AAU office, told them what we were doing, and got the letter. So three of our names on one permit, and we had to carry it at all times. Then it had blackout periods. We weren’t permitted to run during certain periods of time while we were in Europe. Usually those were around major meets. The first one [in my case] was the AAU championships in that state. They didn’t want us to compete over in Europe during then because they were trying to force people to run in the national championships; then some of the big meets like USA versus USSR, they had those periods of time blocked out. So there was a real effort to get the best runners and force them into the championships, and force them to run for their country.
How did you feel about that?
For me, I wouldn’t have made the national team, so I was pissed. I ran through the whole thing. Even though there were blackout periods, I ran anyway. My roommate, Mark Feig – he had a chance at making the national team in the mile and so they actually didn’t let him run in one of the races [that the rest of us ran in]. We went to one city and they had a list of names. My name wasn’t on it. Halfway, I was relieved; the other half was pissed – “Aren’t I good enough to be on the list and not be allowed to compete?” — but I was able to compete. He was much more upset than I was. They actually had his name specifically on a list, and were blacklisting him for certain meets. He tried so hard – he was on the phone calling wherever he could, trying to threaten lawsuits and stuff like that, to allow him to compete, but he just couldn’t get ahold of anybody.
So here were are in Europe, living on a shoestring, and he [Mark]’s being blacklisted from these meets and he can’t get on the phone to talk to anybody about it. “This sucks! I’m going to sue you!”
Did most meet directors care about seeing your AAU permit?
I don’t really remember having to show the permit to anybody. The meet promoters tended to ignore it but when they got specific threats from the AAU, a specific list of names, they would not let those people compete. I’m not sure how they could be blackballed. Promoters were afraid enough of the AAU that if they were told, “Don’t let these people compete,” they wouldn’t let them compete.
Prior to this, had you had any contact with the AAU? How did you feel about them?
For me personally, my contact was just the surroundings of Oregon track – coaches and runners, athletes – so that was my first line of contact. I never really worked directly with the AAU. People like Bowerman hated the AAU; he was outspoken. Pre hated the people in the AAU and was pretty outspoken. I would hear about the AAU through them, and they were pretty upset. When we were over in Europe, a couple of us had USA uniforms. At the top it had an “AAU,” and we took a piece of tape and put it right across the top. I may even have a picture in there [photo album]. So it wasn’t me directly, but I was influenced by other people like Pre and those guys not to support the AAU, not even recognize or acknowledge them.
How would negotiations go with a meet director? How would you contact a meet director?
Our first big break was (Jakob Touminen). Actually he lives in Oregon right now. He handled the Helsinki meet and he was like a national person for Finland for track and field. In our contact with Pre, Pre went to Jakob and Jakob basically told these three meets’ directors, “Sign those guys up.” So he just told them, “Those guys are running.” That was our big break through there, but then when it came time to get money, what they had promised to pay us, they didn’t pay us that much. They cut us short, and I argued and complained, and I couldn’t get anywhere. So after we had run, they didn’t give me as much money as they said they were going to give me, and I had no recourse. Who could I complain to, because you’re not supposed to be getting money in the first place. But then after that, once we established ourselves, I was kind of the guy of our group that was doing all of the negotiations. What I did was just get a book that had all of the meets in Europe. You’d just go through the book and you’d say, “Oh, here’s one in Sweden.” It had the meet promoter and his phone number, so I’d just call up the meet promoter at that phone number and say, “Hey, we want to run in your meet.” Sometimes I’d go, “I’m a half miler,” and they’d say, “I’m sorry, we’re not going to have an 800 meters at that meet.” “OK, we’ve got a miler.” “We don’t have a mile in our meet.” “We’ve got a long jumper.” “Oh, really. How far does he jump?” I’d tell him how far, and he goes [interestedly], “Ohhh. That’s very interesting. We’d like to have him.” I’d say, “Well, we’re a package. If you want the long jumper, you’ve gotta take us all.” And he’d go, “You run 400 and he can run the 2 mile,” or something like that and then he’d get the long jumper. Sometimes people would say no, they didn’t want us, or other times we’d have to work a deal to get all of us in. Usually the best thing you’d get – pretty standard – is your room and board, transportation, and maybe a little to eat, but it wasn’t much. I remember looking at my list, keeping track of how much I made. Usually it was about 30 dollars total.
Even room and board and transportation was against the permit’s allowances, correct? You were expected to travel to Europe on your own and compete for free and finance yourself – that was the expectation.
I think the AAU, for people like me that couldn’t make the team, they could give a rip about me. They weren’t working in my interests at all. What they cared about was the AAU national team that would go around to all the various meets and so they were trying to find some way to force the best runners to be on that team and not run independently and on their own. We ran into the national team. In one meet, we ran the same track meet as them. I was talking to them, the half-miler who made the national team and here I was doing this on my own and so we were just chatting, comparing notes. For us it was pretty rough, because we had to figure out where we were going to eat, where we were going to stay, how we were going to move around, getting into meets. We were constantly working, whereas they just hopped onto the bus, “We’re going to the next meet.” So everything was orchestrated for them. I kind of enjoyed just figuring it all out as we went. It was kind of fun. The other thing was, I remember him saying they got about 5 dollars a day per diem, but most of the food and room and board and transportation was all taken care of. And they got maybe 5 dollars on top of that. He was saying, that doesn’t go that far. So where at the end of the summer, I had made money – I was determined I wasn’t going to leave Europe until I came out on the positive – those guys, it would cost them a couple hundred dollars out of pocket, just for the incidentals. Whereas, for me, by the end, even though I had to do all that work, I was able to make money. So the AAU, if you weren’t on the national team, they weren’t working in your interests at all.
How did you arrive at a payment amount at each meet?
For us, there was an understanding going into the meet, a verbal understanding of what they were going to do. It wasn’t that frequent, but we did get cheated a couple of times. There was not much we can do. I was sitting there thinking, “There’s nothing in writing, you can’t go to anybody for help, so what do you do about the situation?” My attitude was, just start telling people. Word of mouth – “that meet and that meet promoter are not honest, you can’t trust them.” Other places were great – they lived right up to what they said they would do. So it was more pressure from word of mouth.
How would you and the promoter arrive at your payment amount?
First it was, “are you interested? Here’s what we’ve got. This is how we can run.” Room and board and travel was almost a given. They would ask, “Where are you coming from and where are you going to?” If you’re flying in from Italy and going back, they’re not going to pay for that. Usually we’d say, “Before your meet we’re going to be in this city, so we’ll need bus fare from this city to your city, and after your meet we’re going to wherever,” so they’d mentally calculate how much would that cost to get there by bus or whatever. A lot of times they’d set you up with room and board [in places, as opposed to paying]. So in their heads was “where are you coming from, where are you going to, how many are you,” and then there’d be a little bit more on top of that. There wasn’t really incentives, it was more, “and if you don’t do what you say you’re going to do, we’re not going to pay you.” That really came into play a couple of times as a rabbit. They would say “We need you to go around this for the first lap, this for the second lap, and don’t finish.” They said, “If you don’t hit those paces, we’re not going to pay you. If you run slow and finish the race, we’re not going to pay you.” So it was more you have to agree to do something, and if you didn’t do what you would say you were going to do, they’d take it away from you. There wasn’t any “if you hit this time, you get a bonus,” not at my level, anyway. Maybe in some of those races where they were going for the world record, there might’ve been incentives, but I wasn’t a part of that.
How open on the topic of money were you with your traveling partners?
Among us guys that were traveling, we usually got the same amount every time and we usually split what we got 3 ways. The meet where I got the most money was one of those blacklisted races, where Mark was ready to go, he was going to run the last mile, and at the last minute they wouldn’t let him run. That’s where he went ballistic and was trying to make phone calls, but they absolutely would not let him run. I got to run, and then after the meet, I think it was 70 dollars or something like that – cause then you get boat fare to the next meet or something – but I was in line and everybody in front of me, they’d go, “Where are you going?” “Germany.” “Here’s three hundred dollars,” cause of airfare. Next guy, they’d look at his name, check off his name, “Where are you going?” “Germany.” “Three hundred bucks.” Then it got to me, ‘Steve Bence,’ and they looked, and said, your name isn’t on the list – just stand over to the side. “Oh, gosh,” I thought, “I’m going to get cheated.” I was only supposed to get 100 dollars. After everybody had gone through, they still had some envelopes left over for people that hadn’t shown up and so he picked up the phone and asked if I ran and was supposed to be paid and so the guy on the other end of the phone says “yeah, he’s a legitimate runner. Go ahead and pay him.” So then he goes, “Where are you going?” I go, “Germany!” So he gives me three hundred dollars and I was out of there, [thinking,] “God, I just stole money from these guys!”
But Mark got nothing for that meet. I didn’t give him half or a third, but I gave him about 50 dollars or something like that. So we were trying to help each other out, get through the whole thing.
After the meets would there be a line of people waiting? Did you know that other people were getting paid and did other people realize that you were also getting paid?
Yeah. That one meet was the most blatant time. I remember people actually in line, looking around to see who was in line and who was getting how much money. Usually it was just one on one, like the meet promoter would grab you, you’d go into a room or underneath the stands or something like that, and they usually had a bag with cash in it, and they’d hand you an envelope with cash or pull out some bills or something like that.
I was always kind of nervous. It always seemed real shady. Always like, “Hey. Come here.” We’d go to this out-of-the-way place, and I thought, “is he going to rob me, or kill me, or what is he going to do?”
When you crossed the path of the national team, did any AAU officials or anyone in any official capacity realize that you were probably getting paid for running.
Nobody talked to me about it ever, but they would have to be pretty naïve not to know what was going on. It was pretty well known among the running community what was going on. And I’m not so sure that everybody knew how it worked, but they knew it happened. They knew it was common.
Did any of your coaches know that you were going over to Europe for the summer to run?
Yeah. Dellinger knew. He was a little concerned about it, because here you have a full spring season, going through NCAAs. Then you turn around and we spent 2 months competing in Europe, so we had 2 months on top of that. He thought you’d burn yourself out by competing too much. Maybe we did. Maybe I did.
Did you have any preparation for cross?
This was ’74, my junior year. We were planning on doing it again my senior year, but I had a bad year – I broke my jaw running. After that, I just wasn’t running well and I just wasn’t up for it, so maybe I was a little burned out. It’s pretty grueling.
Was your training kind of piecemeal when you were traveling, just trying to get 30 minutes or a workout when you can?
I was a half miler. I was pretty convinced that you could get in pretty good shape just by racing. I noticed a lot of guys would do that. They’d get a pretty full European schedule. The first few races were just geared towards getting in condition. The first races wouldn’t be that fast, but if you watched them during the whole summer season over in Europe, they’d progressively get better, and kind of peak out in August or so. We used to talk about “racing yourself into shape.” We went over in pretty decent shape, cause we had gone through all our major championships here in the United States, so it was a matter of just maintaining that level. You’d pick your races, do a 400, do an 800, do a mile, and start choosing what distances you’d run – which is some pretty good training — and then supplement it with easy runs, and strides and stuff in between, which was easy because you had a lot of time on your hands. We packed real light. [Showed me a picture from his album of the group changing clothes in the woods.] You’d just decide, “it’s time to go for a run,” and whenever you’d go out for a run like that, if there was a lake you’d jump in and wash off. We packed real light. So whenever it was time for a run you just went out for a run and found a nice place.
What kind of contact with your family did you have during the summer?
To my fiancée at the time – wife, now – a whole lot of postcards, no phone calls.
When you said you didn’t want to come back to the US until you turned a profit, was that a practical matter or a matter of pride?
For me it was pride. Some of the other guys left. When we were done it was two of us. The other guys had had enough and they left. I said, “I’m not leaving till I make a profit out of this.” It was over a thousand dollars for airfare and I kept track of every cent I spent, so I made a couple hundred dollars on top of that. I had a couple hundred dollars more after I came home than when I went over. It’s not a big deal, I suppose, but it was a pride thing.
Do you remember what your fall cross country season was like, without the chance to build much of a base?
My senior year was a bad year, and it could have been because of that. I couldn’t make the cross country team [anyway]. I don’t even remember training that much with the cross country team the times I ran. More times than not I had my own [regimen]. My roommate – Mark Feig – was a sub-four-minute miler and he couldn’t make the cross country team those years. It was a really strong cross country team. My senior year was a hard year for me. I think it had to do with the summer, just the whole worrying, “what am I going to do now? What am I going to do once I graduate?” It was just a lot of stuff happening.
Did you qualify for NCAAs your senior year?
No. That was a big [disappointment]. So I had all those troubles and just never got a good race or good conditions. It seemed like every race there was rain, and the PAC-8 championships were up in Spokane on a crummy track in cold, wet weather. I ended up breaking my jaw in the relay. So then, I had another chance to do it, but I had just gotten out of the hospital and my mouth was wired shut. I was trying to qualify for the NCAAs; I was joking, it was probably the fastest half mile ever by a guy with his mouth wired shut. In hindsight, how can you expect to go under general anesthesia, then three days later be on a track to qualify for the national championships? So I didn’t make it that year.
Did you ever re-encounter a meet promoter – run 2 different meets for the same promoter?
It seemed like they were clustered – three or four meets in different cities but all in kind of the same area. You kind of tended to work with the same people. I remember that in Finland. Then, a meet promoter from Sweden approached me and said, “We’d like you to come over to Sweden and run.” He had like two or three meets in different cities over a few-day period of time. So he just took care of us the whole time. One thing he did was he took us up to Lapland, north of the Arctic Circle, which was cool, because we had a couple days off. A bunch of the athletes would just drive up there, see reindeer and all that kind of stuff. So he just took care of us over a three, four, or five-day period of time, and you had to run a couple track meets. So some meet promoters, I look back, and they were great – honest, reputable – the sport of track and field was in their heart, they loved the athletes, they loved working with the athletes and what they said they’d do – they not only followed through on that, they went one step beyond. Then there’s other meet promoters that are just out to trying to make a buck, who’ll try to screw you.
Have you ever met any of the promoters since that summer?
Jakob – I just saw him. He lives in Astoria [OR]. He has a bed and breakfast and we had Tiger Woods dedication at Nike Campus [a few weeks ago]. So he was there in the bleachers and just by chance I ended up sitting two rows behind him. I was walking up and he goes, “Steeeeeve!” Just so excited. I had to introduce him to my wife, and explain why I knew him so well. Then in a big voice he goes, “I took care of you when you were in Finland. You and Pre. . .” and he went through the whole thing. He goes, “When I tell people to put you in a meet –“ because I was asking, “How did that happen? How did you get us into those meets?” He goes, “I was in charge over there. I tell those people to do it and they’ll do it. They respected me. I told them to put you in those meets.” I said, “God, thanks,” you know. He still remembers those days. I still remember him, and I appreciate him a lot more now than I did back then. There’s a lot of guys, if I could ever meet them again, it would be fun to share stories, they were such characters, so much fun.
How did the promoters get the money to you for travel to a meet – through a bank account or a wire transfer?
We just paid out of our own pocket and they just reimbursed us cash. It was all cash.
How much money did you start with? Did you have any idea of how much to take?
I’ve probably got it written down, how much I had. I’ll have to take a glance. [Reaches for his journal of the trip.] This is gross. My wife –. I was probably thinking of you [a researcher] back then. I was keeping all these notes the whole time. See? I had travelers cheques. It looks like I started with maybe four or five hundred dollars cash. I could probably figure it all out, but I probably had a couple hundred dollars in cash and travelers cheques and I kept track of all my cash; when I’d cash out a travelers cheque. It looks like I was using travelers cheques as I went through and just collecting money – money earned so I could get to a track meet. [Reading] ‘Money earned, 127 dollars.’ So I had some kind of running total. I probably started with a couple hundred bucks, and we had our plane ticket back and I remember always making sure I had enough cash to get back to the airport. We had a return ticket, so I wouldn’t get stranded. As long as cash was coming in we were ok, which it was.
Do you recall why you started the journal?
No, literally, I was saying, “In case somebody 20 years from now wants to understand what was happening during this period of time, I’m going to keep real good records.” We had tons of time, so I was always keeping these real detailed records and people were always coming over to me and going, “what the heck?” I was going, “Maybe some day I’ll want to have this stuff.” I thought it was pretty cool at the time, trying to understand how it works, and making it work, that kind of thing. It was brand new to me. I walked into that not knowing. I had heard about it, but I didn’t know how it worked, so I was keeping detailed records of what I was doing.
Did anyone ask you about your trip when you got back?
I don’t remember talking about it that much. It was almost one of those status things maybe. So you get all the runners together; you’re always at the parties, yakking, talking, “Yeah, I went over to Europe last summer and ran and competed.” That was a pretty cool thing. You’re on a whole different plane as an athlete [when you can say] “Yeah, I competed in Europe last summer.” “Whoa.” That’s pretty cool. You’re among the elite by being able to do that. It was a pretty cool status thing. People respected that
I was shocked I ran as well as I did. I was used to peaking in big meets and then you’re toast after that. It takes you a while to recover and all that, but we were able to do some pretty good times over there. I was really surprised that was possible.
Was that the way you were able to balance the races or was it just kind of lucky?
I didn’t know what I was doing, whatever it was. In hindsight, too, I started really questioning the way Dellinger had us run because for me you had the March April May June competition season so you’d get about three or four months out of the year where you’re competing and about 8 months out of the year where you’re not competing. I find it really hard to stay motivated those other eight months. Unless I screwed up my senior year, then that was a lesson, but it sure seemed to me you could compete at a high level for a lot longer period of time than people thought at the time was possible. I was just thinking I wish I could run more indoor meets, more competitive kinds of things sprinkled throughout the year just to keep my motivation up. To have little things to peak for, rather than just…–. Because by the time spring hits if you’re not ready, you’ve lost a whole year, where if you’ve had some checkpoints along the year it would give wake up call – “I need to work harder” or something.
You didn’t run an indoor season?
Sometimes we might be invited to run in an indoor meet here or there. Maybe one indoor meet a year. It wasn’t a big deal. I wish we would have done more. Maybe he was thinking more like a distance coach, too. Most distance runners have a cross country season and a track season and you have to worry about building bases and stuff like that, where a middle distance runner, cross country season is nothing for us and we don’t have something halfway through the year that gets us up.
Have you done any coaching yourself since you stopped running?
When I was teaching that one year I coached track at the middle school level but that was just trying to get kids to come out and have fun and that kind of thing. So that was no big deal. Then just lots of little things like basketball, baseball, girls, boys, fourth grade to sixth grade level, that kind of stuff, but not really track. I volunteered to coach a while at one of the local high school and they really weren’t very interested. I was shocked. I think it was I called one of the high schools and said “I’d like to do something for the community and coach and give back to the sport and you don’t even have to pay me. I’d do it for free.” I guess school policy wouldn’t let them do it. Part of it was I thought the coaches felt a little threatened. They wanted to be paid for their coaching expertise and when they get people wanting to do it for free, it could threaten their livelihood in a way. I got pushed back on that when I tried.
Did you let them know, “I have some pretty high level experience in track”?
They weren’t that interested. I didn’t oversell myself, but sometimes just because you run doesn’t mean you can coach, which I knew because I hadn’t ever really tried [to coach]. Actually, when I student taught I was at North Eugene High School and I helped with the cross country team that fall when I was student teaching and they took second at the state [meet]. That was a pretty neat experience. North Eugene had never been to state – you had to be top three in the district. They were third in the district, so the kids were just excited and they went to state and they beat one of the teams that beat them at district so they took second at state and I don’t think they’ve been to state since. So that one year –. I still see one of the guys who was on that team. It was just a neat experience to have an Oregon runner come and student teach and work with them. I’d go out and run with them, too. So I was not only coaching but running with them, helping them to perform well. So that was a neat experience. I wish I could have done more.
What do you do now for Nike? Are you still in computers?
I’m just, I’d say, management now. Just doing odds and ends. Right now I’m very focused on process. I don’t know if you’re following some of the re-engineering stuff that’s going on, but we’ve been spending the past few years really focused on how we go about treating the product of shoes. Designing, developing, commercializing, delivering the product to people. If you stop and think about, how do you do something in a big company, nobody ever sat down and said, “This is how the process is going to work.” It just kind of happens over the years. You do some pretty dumb things. You just try to do stop doing the stupid stuff and reinforce the good stuff, the value-added stuff.
After ’76, did you still run for fitness?
One year when I was in Portland, there was the Portland Track Club and one guy was really trying to get me to run in the Portland Track Club. I did and probably ran 1:51 for a half-mile then, which was good, but I wasn’t into it anymore. I was doing a lot of road races and that kind of stuff. I wasn’t really disciplined and road races didn’t really excite me. Every year I had to get used to the fact that I’d run slower and slower. It’s no fun to keep doing that. Hood to Coast, I probably discovered that in 1984, so for probably 10, 15 years, that was my focal point. I would always train for Hood to Coast, and that was my fun. Then that started getting harder and harder for me, and beat the heck out of my knees. I had knee surgery in January and so right now I’m walking. I’m thinking about (Portland to Coast [?]) – walking it, rather than running it this year. Just weightlifting, cycling and stuff. So running was what I did for fitness and for identity. I always said, if there’s one thread that goes through my whole life I hope it’s going to be running. From as early as I can remember all the way up until the point I die, I hope no matter what I do in life, running is that constant thread. But right now, I can’t run.
When the changes from amateurism to professionalism occurred, were you still paying attention to track, and how did you view that?
I was happy to see it, because absolutely the athletes need the money to train and compete. The issue would be more, “What’s a fair and equitable way to get money to the people that need it in a right and healthy way?” So, you look at Athletics West that was going on in Eugene which was post-collegiate runners. I really love these ideas of being able to encourage post-collegiate runners to go to a certain location where they can work and train and get subsidized in some certain way. I didn’t really like seeing just the elite athletes get millions of dollars, where if you’re elite, you get millions of dollars and everything below that you get nothing. So there’s gotta be some way to take that money and spread it out a little bit more, not just after you perform great, but in order to allow you to become great. Some people really don’t blossom until they get out of college. Then another thing I look at, too, I’ve seen a lot of really great athletes like Mac Wilkins. Lynn Jennings, I don’t know if you know her – those guys were able to compete well into their thirties. Lynn’s 40. They were able to make enough money competing so that they really didn’t have to work. They could just focus on competition. But, they get to a point where they have to retire from the sport and all of a sudden they realize 10, 15 years have gone by. Their peers have been working in other areas, they’ve got careers established, and all of a sudden they’re trying to get into the workforce and they really don’t have marketable skills, so it’s really difficult for them to make that transition from professional athlete to “what am I going to do now?” In other sports, this is the weird thing, a lot of sports, if you’re really great and you’ve gone into your thirties or forties, you have enough money; you can retire. In track and field, you make enough to get by. You definitely don’t get rich. During the meantime you haven’t developed any kind of skills that you can use for work. So I guess it would be kind of nice to see –. I would like to be able to see athletes coming out of college, that if they want to pursue running, there’s a place where they can go, they can get subsidized somehow, they can train and compete at a high level and at the same time maybe work part time, maybe four hours a day or enough so that they have some sort of a skill so that when it comes time to leave the sport that they’ve got some history and some background to do something.
That’s kind of my thinking. When I see all the money going to a couple athletes, I don’t think that’s right and when I see people getting a lot of money but not enough to retire on and they don’t develop skills that isn’t right, either. It just doesn’t seem to be right and it hasn’t been sorted out yet on how best to do it for track.
There are groups like the Farm Team and Hanson’s Running springing up recently.
I don’t understand it that well, but the one at Stanford, we had a guy at work, who was working at Nike and he wasn’t that happy with what he was doing at work and he just didn’t feel like he had brought closure to his running career. He took off for a year or two, went down to Stanford, and trained with that group. I don’t think he ever break through and become an elite runner, but at least he was able to dedicate himself to it enough to know he had made an honest effort. Then when he was done he came back and is working for Nike again. I think that’s pretty neat, to be able to have something like that. It’s kind of anti-cultural for Americans, because it seems like people tend not to want to train with people they are going to compete against. You go to Kenya and some of these other places and it seems like they all train together. You come to the United States all the sudden if you think that’s a competitor you don’t want to train with him, even if you’re going to benefit from it. I love seeing that kind of stuff happen.
At Nike is there still a connection to the Oregon teams, where someone coming out of college can come work for Nike?
There’s evidence that people can make that transition. It’s not as strong as it used to be. The natural way to do that is to work at the retail store in Eugene and then we have what we call the (Ekin?) program, where it gets people out in the field. It’s kind of a grass roots marketing, sales, that kind of stuff. Some people are doing it, even though it’s not as strong as it used to be. My measure is at lunch time, you see who’s out running. There’s a group of people who run at lunch time, but they’re getting older and older. It’s like, “where’s the younger people who love the sport?” But I think the avenues are still there. I don’t think people are taking them for some reason or another. Maybe it’s because people don’t feel comfortable or they don’t have the connections. I don’t see the people with the passion with the sport working at Nike. They’re aging and I don’t see a replenishment coming in. I think it’s a bad sign.
Do you still pay attention to Oregon track?
Do you go to meets or anything like that?
I go to meets but not as much. I went to Pre Classic this year, but that was it. I almost didn’t go to that. We have a group at work called the “Lame Ducks” and every year we write checks to the track program. It started maybe 8 years ago and we got $10,000. This past year it was over $100,000 when you add it all up. The way it works is if I donate money, Nike will double match it as a company because they match donations and they double match it if it’s for youth sports and they consider track at Oregon youth sports. They kind of changed the definition for us. Phil Knight said whatever we collect – not with the matching but whatever we collect individually – he’ll match that, too. In essence, if I write a check for $100, it’s really $400 going to the Oregon track program. Some people are bucking up pretty good, so it’s getting up there. We’re trying to support the program but there’s a mixed feeling that we’re not real happy with the way track and field is at Oregon. They’re not the dominant team. Stanford, Arkansas, and some of those other places are pretty dominant. We’re disappointed Oregon track seems to be fading even though we’re trying to support it financially. We feel this loyalty because Dellinger – up until recently – was the coach, and most of us that are donating, he was our coach. So you want to support your old coach, but at the same time I think that he was part of the problem. You know like Berryhill – I don’t know if you saw, he just won NC double As – he went to Crater High School there in Bend. He wanted to go to Oregon, but he couldn’t get anybody to go to return a phone call, so he just said, “I’m going to Colorado State.” So we’re just losing some of these great athletes because nobody’s following up. Hopefully that’s going to change.
Oregon was leading the first two days with Lorenzo and Steigler.
Jason Hartmann got some surprise points. The coach has been there for 2 or 3 years, so I think he’s starting to turn it around a little bit.
What we were getting on Dellinger most about – I mean we were polite to him, but – the athletic director brought his phone list, because anytime he calls any high school athlete he’s gotta keep track of phone calls. He had like, for an entire season, he had like 30 or 40 phone calls he made to high school kids. One guy that was working at Nike who used to be athletic director at Kansas State I think it was. He said, “A coach like Dellinger should be making 30 or 40 phone calls a day, not an entire season.” What Dellinger complains about, he says he only has like 12 scholarships for track and field so he says every four years on average you have 3 or 4 scholarships to give out [per entering class]. You give them out, and then you can’t talk to anybody else. What’s the point. But if you go and talk to the kids, there’s a ton of kids that would go to Oregon at their own expense or would try to find other ways of funding it just to be a part of that heritage, to be a part of that program. All they wanted was a phone call just to say that they were welcome to come. “We can’t give you a scholarship, but we want you here.” A lot of people would say Stanford and Arkansas have the same limitation as Oregon and they can attract the caliber of athletes that they’ve got. I hope it’s going to turn around.
How often do you talk to your old coach or assistant coaches?
When I started Bowerman actually the first year was the head coach and Dellinger was the assistant and he did the middle distance guys and distance. Then Bowerman retired and Dellinger became the head coach, but he continued coaching us [middle distance]. So really, Dellinger was my only coach that I dealt with the whole time I was there.
How often do you see him now?
We used to see him once or twice a year. In particular we’d go down to track meets and sometimes fundraisers. Recently, Bowerman’s funeral. Those kinds of things. Dellinger had a stroke. I don’t know if you know that. We were looking for him when we went down to the Pre Classic and somebody said, “he’s up in the stands. He’s not getting around very well.” He wasn’t socializing and we just felt awkward going and searching him out, so we didn’t go talk to him. Up until recently we saw him a couple times a year. Through the fundraisers we’d stay in contact that way.
Does Martin Smith contact you the same way Dellinger would?
Yeah. Martin Smith does more to stay in contact than Dellinger did, but I don’t think he’d know me [if he saw me]. I’d go down and talk to Dellinger, but if I went down to see Martin Smith he probably wouldn’t know who I was. I’d have to remind him. The past couple years we’ve sent in the donations and it was a list and he’s been real good about like the Oregon Guide that has the history of Oregon track and the lists of all-time [performers], we get that every year. If there’s any kind of fundraisers or lunches or whatever you want to call them, we get invited to those. Just randomly, we’ll get a little packet that has newspaper clippings of how the Ducks are doing. Especially during cross country season we’ll get a bunch of articles on how the team’s doing and how individuals are doing leading up to NC double As, just to keep us in the loop. It’s nice to get that. We got posters. Before the Pre Classic we got a little tube with the Prefontaine poster for the track meet in there and just the schedule posters that go on the wall. So we get that kind of stuff.
Do you still work with any of the people that you ran with?
My closest friends are John Woodman, who was a hurdler and works at Nike, Dave Taylor, who was a distance runner, and is retired. He’s a millionaire now. He got lucky. He was smarter than the rest of us or something. So the three of us and our families are around all the time. Part of the bond is track, but the more important bond is we all started with Nike within 2 months of each other. One guy started in June of ’77. I started in July of ’77, and another one started in August of ’77. We’ve all lived overseas for many years. We’ve been back and forth overseas and here, worked for Nike the whole time, and track, so we’ve got this real strong bond and common backgrounds and stuff.
Did you all start working at the retail store and work your way up?
Different stores, but that’s the way we all started. All of us, relatively quickly after starting, ended up going overseas. At the time it was hard to get people who wanted to live overseas. For me, my dad was in the air force, so for me my first job was in Taiwan and I thought I’d died and went to heaven. The were taking care of everything for me – housing, cars, all that kind of stuff. They paid my salary and let me stay overseas and travel and I thought “This is great.”
Between us, I’ve got 4 kids. John Woodman has 4 kids, and Dave just has one. Out of those 9, I think only 3 of those were born in the United States. 2 were born in Korea, one in Taiwan, one in Indonesia, one in the Philippines.
Do any of your kids speak a foreign language?
No (laughs). That’s bad. One time we were living in Korea I came home and my wife was so proud. She was starting to take a foreign language. I go “great!” I thought she was studying Korean, and she was taking French. I said, “what are you taking French for?” She said, “I want to learn a language of a place I want to go to.” She didn’t like Korea. Anyway, you could get by so easily over there with English.
[Asking about the photo album he brought]. Can we start taking a look at this?
I’ll just show you what this is. If you want something, I can just photocopy it, or something. If you run, you’ve got a training diary. I’m probably a little bit more anal than most people.
This is a little bit more detailed than I keep. [He opened an inch-thick hard cover blank book you buy at bookstores, filled with his handwriting.]
Normally it’s just like this, everyday “warmup, what I did, helped Prefontaine make a (done deal? Down to Yale?).” But when I went to Europe then I started to get real detailed. This must be – here we go. From here is all the details of going to London and arriving in Oslo. I get real anal about I was watching every penny. First I didn’t want to take the airport bus downtown because it was too expensive, so we would walk to take the city bus stuff just to save two and a half kroners. But then it talks about what we were doing. We were trying to contact people. I couldn’t believe we did this. We didn’t have phone numbers, we didn’t have contacts. We just showed up and started going through the phone book trying to find people that we knew to try to get us into stuff. Here’s where we called Pre or the meet promoter as soon as we got to Stockholm. We tried to search him down. That was our hope. Troubles with phones. [I also wrote about] how helpful people were, too. They saw us struggling. They’d try to make phone calls for us and try to find things for us. Ships. I was reading this this morning. After 5 days of getting around, we hadn’t gotten a hold of a meet promoter yet. “Great news. We’ve lined up 3 meets.” “The 21st, 22nd, and 23rd. Our AAU meet doesn’t allow us to compete before the 23rd, but we’re desperate for competition so we’ll compete. We may be in for a hassle later.” See, we didn’t know what we were getting into. This was like, “Bullshit, we’re just going to do it and see what happens.” You know, that kind of thing.
I get into some of the races and it goes on and the whole thing, so I don’t know if you’re interested in any of this.
I’ll show you the first meet, too… “After my race, a man with a briefcase came up to me. He was very nervous and clutched his briefcase with both hands at times. He wanted me to go with him to a place under the stands to give me the money. We got ripped off. He gave us only 300 markas to split 3 ways (only 27 dollars 6 cents a piece). I complained to him and to Pre. We’ll wait and see if we get the rest.” Then you get that over here … “Again we didn’t get the money we expected. We got 100 markas for both meets even though I tried to get more. Nonetheless, we should be happy we are getting room and board.” So you can see all that kind of stuff in here.
There’s one more where I was really pissed, which I probably won’t [read], back in here. The guy just flat out ripped us off in one meet.
[I discussed some topics for my potential master’s thesis at Oregon, and uttered the phrase, “running is my life.”]
You don’t have to apologize to me. I know how that works. You know, when I went to work for Nike – I taught for that year, then I went to work for Nike – and my mom was just like, “When are you going to grow up and get out of this running thing and get out of sports and get a real job?” And then it turned out fine (laughs). At the time you never heard of Nike. A bunch of running geeks trying to start up a company.
You have photos here? [Intervals of silence here as we browse the photos].
Yeah. Tell me what you want and what you don’t want. This is just stuff I took out of the newspaper when we were running in those various cities over there.
This’ll get you a big head. Here’s where I had entered to run the 1500 meters. This is [a newspaper preview] prior to the meet where you pick up the newspaper and you go, “Oh, God, they’ve got my name in there!”
This is cool. So I had gotten into the Stockholm meet and this is Wolhuter and they thought he had a world record but then when they got the official time it wasn’t. I was going, “God, that’s me, and that’s him. I wasn’t that far off the world record.”
This is real important, too. A lot of times when the national team was running – I’m not sure if he was on the national team or not – they had the USA stuff on so purposely I would wear my Oregon stuff. Then if the national team wasn’t there I’d wear my USA stuff.
Who’s got the Florida [Track Club] jersey on?
That’s Juris Luzins. Wolhuter ran 1:43.9. Anke Svenson, and then Juris Luzins. Then I was fourth behind him. He ran pro, right? If you read this, you’ll see his name all through [the journal]. We bumped into each other at several meets. He was running independently. This is actually a cool race for me. [Gestures at a picture of himself breasting the tape]. Cause I won, right? This is –. I was really trying hard to get into some of the bigger meets. This race [pointing at one picture] got me into this race [another picture] because this was a small town and both these guys were running in Germany and stuff like that and I knew that they were finding small towns to run 800 meters. I wasn’t traveling around as much as they were, so I just hung out in this town and just rested up and I was just bound and determined that I was going to beat them. He was a Swedish record holder. That year, he’d just broken the Swedish [800m] national record. By beating him here in this race [first picture] it got me into this race [second picture] and then these two guys [first picture] are those two guys [second picture]. So I beat them in the race before that, got into this race, and they beat me, in the big one.
[N.B. in this last paragraph, Bence accelerates in rapidity of speech and excitement as he recalls, but in the last sentence slows down, until pausing at each of the last two clauses. As he says, “in the big one,” his voice is obviously dejected, as he thinks again how sorry he was to lose. Read it again with that in mind.]
What was the extent of the press and recognition you got in Europe?
I might have gotten a little bit of notoriety in Sweden just because I beat their national record-holder and that was big news. This is a local paper. No I never got any [popular recognition]. I got well-known enough to be able to get into races. Opened the doors to get into big meets like this, this kind of stuff.
Would kids come with autograph books?
Oh, yeah. That was cool… I haven’t read this in a long time. I was talking about two nights in hostal, one night in a bathroom, one night on a ship. I don’t know where we stayed the fifth night, but finally we end up in this place. Jakob set us up to run in those three meets – the 21st, 22nd, 23rd that you saw there – and he told us where we could stay. We were hitchhiking. We didn’t even know how to get there. We were hitchhiking, somebody picked us up, and then we figured out where we were going. We got all excited; we didn’t even know where the heck we were going. We had the address. He drove us there, and it turned out to be like this Olympic camp – Finnish Olympic camp – for all sports, not just track and field. They had these houses and lakes facilities, just a beautiful, beautiful place. We got there after 5 days of not having a place to sleep all of a sudden we had our own room and our own bed and we were sleeping. They had all these kids there that were at this Olympic camp. They had us talk to the kids, and they had to interpret us because we couldn’t speak the language or anything like that. They would ask us all kinds of question. I was just reading how our heads would just get bigger. We were all of a sudden stars. We were these American guys that were in this camp and they were looking up to us and asking us all kinds of questions and getting psyched. So my head was just getting bigger, because God, when you see this kind of stuff your head gets real big, too. Especially in Finland, because running is probably their national sport. They really love track and field in those countries up there. Yeah, it was cool. You really felt like you were into something big.
Pre tried to replicate something like that here in the States…I ran in those, too. Coos Bay was one. There was about 3, 4 cities in Oregon; small, high school towns. You’d get a thousand people to show up and you have Prefontaine, and great athletes run in these high school towns and it would all end up at Hayward Field. [Hayward Restoration] was the meet where he died – his last race. He was trying to get that feel of bringing elite athletes and going to small towns, which is what we were doing. We’d go to these small Finnish or Swedish towns in the middle of nowhere and you look down and see this kind of caliber of athlete running world record times on small tracks. It was mind-boggling and it was just fun.
Here in the states, you run every Saturday. In a couple months you get 8, 10 races in. You could get 10 races in two weeks over there. That’s why I say, I was really surprised how well you could run day after day after day. I thought you would burn yourself out, but you could keep yourself at that level for quite a while.
Maybe you can show me some of your pictures there.
This is a hodgepodge here. These are just a few of the pictures from Europe. This is just us traveling to Stockholm. Then us getting around Europe; Stockholm to Helsinki by boat. This is one of the track meets. I probably liked the international flags. I guess that’s a pretty good-sized track, but it’s nothing special really. This is probably one of those places where we got a little place to stay and we’d wash our clothes. We’d just have to make due as you went along.
These are the kind of things you just died for – you get a little cabin like that to stay. This meet director here, (Bertel Ericson) was the meet director for a couple meets and he just took a group of athletes up to Lapland, up north of the Arctic Circle. We’d see reindeer. He was really taking care of us, really entertaining us.[A picture of a line of athletes standing in front of a store]. That’s Jeff Galloway and this guy’s a high jumper. [Reading from the back] “Rory Kotinek, Jeff Galloway, Brent Petersen, Bob Stelle, Pat Matzdorf, Bertel Ericson, Juris.” “Went to Arjeplogs Sport with Thomas [owner]. [This] was put in the newspaper and then they gave me the picture. The reason the store name is circled is because they had to cut it out – something about free advertising.” That was pretty cool.
How did your fiancée feel about this trip? You leaving for the summer without having a plan?
[Lost in thought] I don’t know. I don’t think she thought too much about it. I think she thought it was pretty cool and was pretty supportive. I sent her post cards and I think she – somehow she was getting stuff from me. I might say, “If you write me a card and mail it to me there, I’ll be there at this point in time.” Stuff would catch up with me somehow.
This guy, that one meet where I said I was holding out for those guys, it was this town. This guy was actually the newspaper writer for the local newspaper, so we got a lot of press there. They were always writing articles or [putting] pictures in the paper; that kind of stuff.
[Showing a picture of runners changing clothes in the forest]. You always found times to run. You’d be out some place and say, let’s go out for a run. You’d change and off you’d go to get a run in or something…That’s high school stuff…I’ll send you some of these pictures, too. You want pictures?
Yeah. Anything remotely related.
The trials, from ’72. [A picture of Wottle]…This would be like one of the track and field [meets]. You can see the tape on the AAU. [White tape across the letters “AAU” on the shield on the chest of the national uniform. Bence made the national junior team in his freshman or sophomore year].
These two [guys] in our first meet, they just [took] us under their wing. You get to a really great meet where you’re running two or three races in a row. You’d get somebody like this who would take you in and make sure you get around and all that kind of stuff until you go to the next meet.
Do any of your kids take any interest in track or in your career?
Every once in a while it dawns on them, what I did (laughs). For the most part, they know I ran and it doesn’t mean anything to them. My son actually is a junior. He ran his freshman and sophomore year, but he dropped it. So he gave it a try.
Does anyone ever recognize you as “Steve Bence, the runner,” instead of “Steve Bence, member of the community,” or “Steve Bence, who works at Nike”?
No (laughs). I’m trying to think. The closest was when the movie [Without Limits, for which Bence worked as a consultant, offering nuances of Steve Prefontaine’s personality and the Eugene culture] came out, they had a premiere down in Eugene, so you had a lot of people pretty interested in Pre and running and from that era and stuff. I went to the movie and went to the reception afterwards, so I was bumping into people I haven’t seen in 15, 20 years. I’m pretty sure it shocked some people, because they remember you as a runner and all the sudden you’re like 50 pounds heavier and 20 years older and all that kind of stuff. It kind of shatters the image a little bit sometimes, what people remember. That’s one of the things we used to say about Pre, too. All the rest of us have grown over 20, 25 years, but Pre forever will be that 25 year old runner. The image is gonna endure forever. It’s part of the reason for the mystique and why people still love him. That’s probably why we like heroes to die young because they stay young and stay fit, and you remember them the way you want to remember them.
I met Jack Bacheler a couple of times, and I asked if anybody ever recognized him. Jack Bacheler, for me, is about as high up as you can get on the running scale. He’s an entomologist now at NC State and he said, “It’s been 10 or 15 years since anybody has recognized me as Jack Bacheler, runner.” [This is more a paraphrase, in retrospect]. I thought, “are you kidding me?!” He doesn’t run anymore because he has a problem with his hip. He coaches a couple of runners, but that just floored me because these guys are legends.
Some people should be that way [retaining that “hero” status]. I would think Frank Shorter, people still remember him as a runner. Kenny Moore. You know I worked with him quite a lot on the movie. People probably remember him a little as a runner, but he was a real good Sports Illustrated guy, now a writer for movies. That kind of goes away. I never really thought about it. Paul Geis – I have fun, because our Hood to Coast team, he’s our driver. He doesn’t run hardly at all any more. I was saying, “Our Hood to Coast team is so good, we’ve got Olympians as our driver!”
Does he work for Nike?
He’s worked for Nike twice. He worked for Nike for a while and went and did something else, came back to work for a while, now he’s doing something else again. He’s one those guys just bouncing around.
Not too many people know who Geis is and even if they would, Geis goes, “Yeah, I used to run in the Olympics,” and I’m sure most people would [think], “Right.” “You and my mom!” “Really, you know.”
It’s getting about that time, so thank you for your time…
End of Interview
Mr. Bence made a typewritten copy of his log, with some pictures scanned in, printed in hard copy, which I have as a supplement to the interview. If I ever have the opportunity to write about professionalism in track history, this will be the supplement and the log will be the primary source.
More to come.