Ron Apling, 67, moved to the Coos Bay, Oregon area at age four. As a Marshfield HighSchool freshman, he met a sophomore who sat in front of him in Algebra 1 class. Aplingbroke his arm in football and the sophomore suggested he try cross country. The sophomore was Steve Prefontaine. Prefontaine changed Apling’s life. Apling joined the freshman track team in the spring and was undefeated in the 440 yard run. Following his final victory that year in the South Coast JV Meet at Marshfield, Pre suggested again that Ron go out for cross country in the fall. Ron did and was finally a proud Marshfield Pirate distance runner. Apling was one of Pre’s friends to the end, and has remained friends with the Prefontaine family over the years. Apling was a professional fireman and emergency medical technician for 36 years, mostly in Eugene. He retired in 2008. Thereafter he was a constant volunteer at Hayward Field events and a charter member of Team Lance (Deal), Hayward Field volunteers who worked before, during, and after track meets. Apling and his wife, Linda, are OTC members.Ron has luckily been married to Linda for 26 years, and is the proud dad of daughters Ginger and Rachael. Still a runner, on the trails thrice weekly, he resides at a lovely home in a serene, secure, and secret location on Spencer Butte near Eugene.
From day one, you discerned a Pre aura, a guy with destiny glowing about him. Yet still a mortal, especially in algebra. Details?
My freshman year at Marshfield HS I met Steve when he sat directly in front of me in myalgebra class. I had a better grasp on algebra than he did and occasionally he would turn to make sure my answers corresponded with his. Steve was very appreciative that Iwas willing to assist him. That was the beginning of our friendship which lasted the rest of his life.
You have described your first cross country season in 1967 as, “a whole new world for me”, and a major influence on the rest of your life. How so?
The 1967 cross country season was the beginning of my distance running. Distance running taught me lessons about setting goals and striving to meet them. First of all I learned if I wanted to be successful I needed to set goals. Then I learned that the harderI worked, the more likely I would reach those goals. Pre taught me that a major part of completing the effort is in the mind.
About that day in the locker room after the 1967 cross country season. A good story and life lesson.
During the winter of 1967, I was in the locker room dressing down to go for a run. Pre along with a senior Tom Huggins, who was one of the best runners in the state, were also in the room. In the course of our conversation it came up that I had never broken 5 minutes in the mile. Pre and Tom looked at each other and said, “You are today.” They borrowed a stop watch from our coach, Walt McClure, and we headed to the track. Afterwarming up, we started my run. Tom paced me for the first lap, Pre for the second, and Tom again for the third. On lap four, Pre ran beside me and as we ran down the backstretch he said, “Let’s go Ron. You really have to push it now.” Through labored breaths I said, “I’m pushing.” Steve said, “Shut up and run!” I did and went under five minutes for the first time.
Wasn’t Pre so good, a natural? God’s most gifted talent, not subject to the trials, troubles, and tears of the rest of us mortals? Much easier for him?
I believe natural talent only takes you so far. As you mature it becomes more apparent that you have to work harder to rise to the top. Pre worked harder than anyone else to become the superb athlete he was.
You own two near-pristine copies of the June 15, 1970 Sports Illustrated magazine. Pre is on the cover. Each copy has two autographs. What’s the background story?
Shortly after my graduation from Marshfield, I called Steve and asked him if he would sign the magazines for myself and Dennis Zeller, another Marshfield runner. He said, “Sure, come on over.” We did and Steve spent time with us and told us about his freshman year at the U of O and being on the U.S. team that competed in Europe the summer before his freshman year. After some time he told us he’d better sign the magazines for us because he needed to get going. He had a date and would be late picking her up.
The other signature I have on the magazines is from Mary Decker Slaney. In the 1990’s she was at Hayward Field doing a track workout under the coaching of Bill Dellinger After her workout, Mary graciously signed them for me. I wanted to have my magazines signed by the greatest U.S. man and woman distance runners of all time.
Your last contact with Pre was on May 10, 1975. What happened?
Steve had set up a series of track meets for some Finnish athletes so they could compete in the U.S. He, along with the Marshfield Track Coach Walt McClure, organized a meet in Coos Bay so Pre could, once again, run in front of his Bay area fans. Pre would run the 2,000 meter run. Prior to the race, a friend of mine told me he had never met Steve. I said, “Come with me.” We went to the outside corner at the beginning of the backstretch where Steve was sitting and talking to a mutual friend, Ted Sichting. Frank Shorter and some other athletes were also there. As we approached, Pre looked up and said, “Hey, Apling. What’s going on?” I introduced my friend and Pre introduced us to Frank and the other athletes. Steve invited us to sit down and talk for a while. Then it was time for him to go warm up for his race. He broke the American 2,000meter record with an unofficial time of 5:01.4. It was the last time he ran in front of his home town fans and the last time I saw him.
Pre had goals and plans after his competitive years. Had he survived, what is your best guess about Pre’s life from 1975 to current times?
When I talked with him at that last meet in Coos Bay, Pre was quite excited as he told me about his plans to build a small bar/restaurant near the U of O campus. He had an architect draw up the plans and he was going to call it the “Sub Four.” I believe he would have been successful in business and I also believe he would have continued to give to the community with programs for children. I also believe he would have continued working with the running program he started with prison inmates in Salem.
Best lesson your father/mother ever taught you?
My father taught me that if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. In everything, give it your best. My mother taught me the importance of love of family.
Personal daily exercise routine?
Having just turned 67, I do a three to eight mile run every other day, three days a week, and free weight training on the alternate days.
Advice to your younger self at 15 years?
Set aside a portion of every paycheck into retirement savings. I should have started doing that earlier than I did.
Name three of your personal heroes, and why you admire them so much.
My father Steve. He led me in my faith and raised me to respect others. I never heard him speak ill of anyone and I never heard him swear. He also taught me the importance of giving back to your community.
My brother Steve. He was career military, retired as a Captain in Special Forces, and gay. After he passed away, I looked through his military records and found out about many amazing things he never talked about. One speaks about briefing a General and the U.S. Ambassador on information gathered at a “data collection” center he established and directed. In retirement, he was a diligent and forceful presence in starting a Neighborhood Watch program in a crime-ridden section of Tacoma, WA. The Tacoma Chief of Police spoke at Steve’s funeral and expressed immense appreciation for what he did to help the community. Steve also volunteered as a liaison between the Army and the Red Cross. He was instrumental in correcting the Red Cross computer system which puts families in touch with military personnel during family emergencies. ARed Cross Management leader flew out from the Washington D.C. headquarters to speak at Steve’s funeral.
My friend Steve (Pre). He greatly influenced my work ethic. He taught me that when your body tells you there is no more to give, you can tell your body, “No, I can and must push harder or longer.” He taught me the mental toughness to be a good athlete. Never in my life have I met anyone more driven or seen anyone push themselves harder in training. I’m sure my good friend Lance Deal (American record holder in the hammer throw, silver medalist at the 1988 Olympics, and world record holder in the weight throw) did the same, but I didn’t know him at the time and so I never got to see that side of him. Steve also taught me how to spit when running so that it didn’t blow back in my face.
Quotes you live by, or quote often?
Show others respect.
What special moment or insight caused your devotion to running?
I realized in high school that running was something I could do the rest of my life to stay healthy. In later years, I realized I could cut back on the miles and days of training, and that it would actually be healthier for me than to push hard.
Best coaching memory?
As a freshman at Marshfield, I ran the freshman 440 in every meet and went undefeated. Since Marshfield hosted the South Coast JV Track Meet, some Marshfield freshman were allowed to compete. Just before the race started, Lynn Matthews, a Marshfield coach, came up to me and put his hand on my shoulder. He said, “Ron, I’ve got a six-pack riding on you.” I thought to myself, “Wow, Coach Matthews really thinks Ican beat the JV runners.” That simple act gave me the extra confidence and I won the event, the only freshman to win that day. From that I learned that a few simple words from a coach can have a large impact.
In your recent years, what has become more important and less important?
Less important is collecting “things.” More important is spending time with family and friends.
Three things that make you grumpy?
1. Being sick and unable to run or do other physical activities. 2. Seeing someone being disrespectful to family or friends. 3. Robo calls, especially at dinner time.
What possible advice could a 73 year old runner (Don) give to younger runners?
Make it a way of life, and as you age it will likely enable you to do physical things your contemporaries can’t do.
Books on your night table?
Harris Faulkner’s “9 Rules of Engagement.” And Ken Hamblin’s “Pick A Better Country.” And a Zane Grey novel.