The Oregon System
Recollections and Training Logs from Steve Bence
Note: I originally published this article in Spring 2009 issue of RUN(sd) Magazine, however the content is too good to keep within the hands of the 13 people that purchased the magazine, thus I’ll share it here on https://sd.milesplit.com.
I want to again, thank Steve Bence for sharing his old training logs and recollections of the “Oregon System”. Bence was an 800 Meter runner for the University of Oregon during the early 70’s.
What I envisioned as a quick Q&A with Mr. Bence turned out to be so much more.
The Oregon System
Recollections and Training Logs from Steve Bence
TRACK TOWN USA: CIRCA 1970
Let’s be honest, if you’re under the age of 50, the only connection we have with the Golden Era of USA Track and Field are the Prefontaine movies, a couple of historical books and YouTube videos.
The really geeked-out track fan with a mind on history will probably wear vintage running gear, have grown a “Pre mustache”, a Lasse Viren beard or at minimum, is worried about “sacrificing the gift”.
So was it really like in the heyday of Track and Field?
Better yet- what would it be like if you were a distance runner in the epicenter of the madness:
The University of Oregon in Track Town, USA.
Steve Bence lived it, and what follows are his stories.
BENCE: 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.
During my four years at Oregon, our cross country team was the national championship team three 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), sixteen Olympians representing four 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.
Some more of the specific names of my friends and teammates that contributed to the stats I just mentioned:
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 OREGON SYSTEM
You don’t have to be an aficionado of track and field to know of the Oregon success. If you were ever on a high school team, you likely watched “Prefontaine” at your pasta feed or cross country bus trips.
But there are those of you in the business of performance, whether it be in the capacity of “coach” or the actions of “runner”- and you want to know the two essential questions:
Why was Oregon so good?
How did they do it?
Bence: 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 out 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 (eg, 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 dayes. 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 (cutdown 48 to 42)
11/9/71 – 15 x 220 (cutdown 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 (cutdown 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 (cutdown 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 (eg, 440 or 660 instead of 330) or more (eg, 8 x 220 instead of 6 x 220), slower paced, and with shorter rest (they often jogged their rest intervals instead of walking).
SPIKED UP: RACE-DAY ACCOUNTS
What were some of your most memorable races at the University of Oregon?
BENCE: 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):
[3/18/72 at Fresno] “Left Eugene at 9:30 and arrived at Fresno at 12:00. We raced around 4:00. Windy with gusts. Weiker took the lead for the first 660 with me right behind him, boxed in by a Fresno guy. With 165 McClendon shot past, Nils followed and I was still boxed in. Then the Fresno guy faded, I rushed in front of him and kicked in to win in 1:52.3. Weiker was mad because he led the whole race and said that we used him as a wind block.”
[3/25/72 at Bakersfield] “At 3:00 we started our warm up with jogging and strides. At 4:00 it was apparent that we weren’t going to run at 4:00 as planned. At 4:50 we finally started our race. Nothing like a two-hour warm-up!! I was pushed and shoved around at the start. I finally settled into sixth place off Nils’ shoulder. 220 time was 29 seconds. I didn’t try to pick up the pace. At 440 our time was 57.5. Someone shot past so I followed, Nils right along with me. The guy had us by a good 10 yards. At 600 yards the guy began to die. I hesitated until Nils passed me and then I followed Nils. We passed the dieing runner. Then I passed Nils with 50 yards to go. Dave Perry (a 1:47 half miler in his time) edged out Nils for second. I won in 1:52.0, Perry 1:52.2, Nils 1:52.4. There were several 1:48 runners in the race but apparently none in shape. Dellinger was upset at me because of the slow first lap.”
[4/1/72 in Eugene] “I got the inside lane, took off quickly and got the lead. Earlier I decided to run the first lap in 54 seconds to wear out Vogel. We ran the 200 in 26 and 400 in 52.5. At 600 someone tried to pass me, I accelerated and kept that pace to the finish. Very tired on the home stretch but managed to pick up the pace somewhat. 1:49.2. Weiker took a victory lap while I talked to Wade Bell and then reporters. Very happy!”
[4/8/72 at University of Washington] “Rather miserable today. Windy, rainy, cold, hail, and even some snow. Weiker and I made it exciting since we saw that the meet was on the radio. I took off quickly and then eased up to put Weiker in the lead. Then I passed Weiker at the 220, then Weiker took the lead at the 440. I dropped back then moved up on his shoulder. At 660 he tried to keep me from passing. I picked up the pace and broke away with 110 yards to go. Me 1:50.8, Weiker 1:52.6. Washington runners were never close. After the race six reporters came up to me.”
[4/15/72 at Nebraska] “ Windy, cold, and rained a touch. The Nebraska runners took the lead off a fast turn. I heard the 220 was in 27.5 but Nils thought it was faster. The Nebraska runner said to slow it down so I passed him after the second curve. I had to go to the third lane to pass. The 440 was definitely 54 seconds. I picked it up towards the 660 and got a decent lead. On the last curve I heard footsteps. Someone said “Go Mike!” and I knew it was McClendon. But he didn’t shoot past me as I expected. We ran side-by-side on the straightaway and I finally gutted enough to win by a step. If I hadn’t picked up that third 220 then I think I would have lost. That third 220 will do me a lot of good in the future. My time was 1:49.4, McClendon 1:49.5, Roger Chadwick 1:51.0, and Nils 1:51.4. Surprisingly my tongue was heavy and hurting, my throat was cold and my lungs hurt”
[5/6/72 Oregon State duel in Eugene] “The 880 race was built up to be between me and Hailu Ebba. But Oregon State surprised everyone by having Hailu run against Pre in the mile. I was warming up and heard “Pre in the lead with Hailu in second”. I ran to check it out. For me it was a shock and a let down for my race. I finished warming up and ran my race half ass. I had to take the lead and kept it from start to finish. My first lap was 56 seconds. I was pushed by Svoboda on the backstretch. McClendon came on strong but got boxed behind me and Wes Smylie. I won in 1:49.8, Smylie 1:49.9, and McClendon in 1:50.0. I didn’t like having to sprint at the end. I felt ‘BLAH’”.
[5/20/72 Pac-8 Finals at Stanford] “I got stuck in lane 7. After the gun I cut in behind either Sanchez or Burks. Collins passed and I followed. At the 440 the time was a fast 53.5 with Collins ahead of me. Collins picked up the pace. Then, BANG, with 300 yards to go Brown shot passed us both. I followed but not as fast. I started catching him at the end but he had too much of a lead. He finished in 1:47.7, two tenths off the meet record. I was second in 1:48.6 and Smylie was third in 1:49.2. I was interviewed by reporters, on the radio, and received a huge medal.”
[6/1/72 NCAA Prelims in Eugene] “I ran okay. I got boxed but had a good kick. I moved on with a time of 1:48.4”
[6/2/72 NCAA Semi-Finals in Eugene] “I was very nervous. This time people didn’t yell ‘Good Luck’ and ‘Go Steve’. Instead they yelled ‘Don’t get boxed’ and ‘Run a smart race’. I ran a lot in the outside lane. I snuck by a couple of runners to qualify for the finals. I was excited and made a fool of myself by jumping around and throwing my arms in the air. I’m in the NCAA finals!!”
[6/3/72 NCAA Finals in Eugene] “I was surprisingly confident. I felt that I could win the race. I got pushed around and finally I pushed back. I put in a couple solid goods hit. I took sixth. SIXTH IN THE NATION!! Not bad for a freshman and 18 years old. 1:47.7 I was only 6 tenths of a second behind the winner.”
Without a doubt the most recognizable track and field name in America is still, “Prefontaine”.
Outside of what everyone has seen in the movies, who was Steve Prefontaine?
BENCE: 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 by itself). Pre was the last runner in that city-to-city relay and he won it for the UO 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.
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 6am the next morning I was awoken by a phone call to hear that Pre was dead.
Our lives changed.
What influence did Bill Bowerman and Bill Dellinger leave with you?
BENCE: Since my email is so long and it is getting late, I’ll answer by saying that anyone that has been inspired by a coach will know the answer to this question. 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.”
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 experience has shaped my life.