Stop Pre: Five Lessons Steve Prefontaine Taught Me About Business

Prefontaine at Indoor NationalsYou’ve probably heard of Steve Prefontaine (“Pre”), the small-statured yet larger-than-life American mid-distance runner who never lost a collegiate race in four different categories, held multiple concurrent records, competed in the 1972 Olympics, and was tragically killed in a car accident at the age of 24.

I’ve been aware of Pre for as long as I can remember—my mom was very close to him at the time of his death, and I have several early memories of talking to her about him. But my interest in Pre really escalated when I started working on and managing startups—and running more as an outlet for the associated stress. I began to see similarities between Pre and myself, and became inspired by his legendary tenacity. I realized that if I could approach business with the same matter-of-fact ferocity and will Pre commanded on the track, I would have a much better chance of success. Here are five famous Pre quotes that have inspired my entrepreneurial strategy and work ethic.

“A lot of people run a race to see who is the fastest. I run to see who has the most guts, who can punish himself into exhausting pace, and then at the end, punish himself even more.”

If you run the 5,000-meter and really want to win, your training requires commitment. The same is true of starting a company. Before anyone else knew Steve Prefontaine was the fastest middle-distance runner in the world, Steve himself believed it—and committed to training and performing accordingly.

Pre didn’t have easy training days to speak of. He pushed his body brutally, occasionally driving his working heart rate over 200. He ran so hard that University of Oregon running coach Bill Bowerman was rumored to be concerned that he might run himself to death during a race. Pre didn’t want to be everyone else. He wanted to be the greatest, and he trained like it.

Knowing someone out there had pushed that hard made me want to be better, to dedicate myself fanatically to learning the art of company-building. And to run a little harder. Steve became a role model and embodied one of my favorite quotes from another mentor: “Building a successful startup means being driven to succeed beyond reason, regardless of how likely you are to fail.”

“No one will ever win a 5,000-meter by running an easy two miles. Not against me.”

Steve Prefontaine did not train for a race by accepting limits or setbacks, and no one starting a company should prepare for success by accepting them, either. No one writes the perfect pitch deck, business plan, or operating procedure on the first attempt—but you push past the failed attempts to get to the final product. You practice leadership every day, every chance you get. You keep pitching to hone your negotiating and conversation skills. You learn to talk with people, not at them. Every person you meet with a pulse and a working brain is a chance to refine your skills.

Steve worked out every chance he got. His soul-crushing training regimen was legendary, but also appropriate. He was focused—he didn’t train for the shot-put because it wasn’t his sport. He trained hard for his races, but not 24 hours a day. Working inside a large corporation is not training for startups. It’s the shot-put. And working 18 hours a day, 7 days a week is not effective or reasonable. Pre taught me to work effectively—and demonstrated the power of working harder than everyone else.

“There are big odds against me. Nobody under 25 has ever won the Olympic five. But if everything goes right, whoever wins will know he has been in one helluva race.”

Steve knew running at a world-class level and winning the Munich Olympics at age 21 was improbable—but he didn’t care. He suffered the pain of his intense training because he knew it was necessary. He knew the Olympics would be a test of wills between the best middle-distance runners on the planet.

Most people know that Pre went on to lose at the 1972 Summer Olympics, placing fourth in the 5,000-meter. What they don’t know is that both before and after that race, he posted times that easily would have put him on top of the Olympic pedestal. The loss could have ended Steve’s career, but it didn’t. He learned from his mistakes and continued to run faster. At the time of his death, he was a favorite to win the 5,000-meter in the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics.

Starting a company is like training for the business Olympics. You have to go in understanding your potential for success is low and you will experience failure frequently, often alone. You must accept that and even plan for it. The goal is to succeed more than you fail until you eventually win—nothing more complex or glamorous than that.

“Don’t let fatigue make a coward of you”

On more than one occasion, Steve ran himself unconscious or to the point he couldn’t walk during a training run. He ran so hard his body quit—and that’s the only limit you should accept if you really want to succeed. Not fatigue, not pain—your body giving up. Once you discover your limits, your new goal should be to build up tolerance, train harder, and over time overcome them.

Entrepreneurs often overlook the exhaustion of starting a company. We tend to forget how draining repetitive tasks and stress can be. Fatigue is a regular part of the life of an entrepreneur. But you can’t quit. You rest when you can and you avoid abusing your mind and body. Most importantly, you keep putting in work while finding balance.

Running is my stress outlet, and when I’m not working I spend time with my wife, Emily, and my Giant Schnauzer, Dieter Von Floppenhousen. I have learned how to prevent stress and fatigue from building up faster than I can manage them. I let Pre remind me that it’s not how much time you spend practicing and exercising your craft, but the quality and intensity of that time that matters.

“What I want is to be number one”

That was Pre in a nutshell. He showed up to beat you, plain and simple. I like that. Learning about Pre has reinforced my belief that second-best is not a win, and the day I don’t feel that way is the day I should start looking for another job. Only Prefontaine-level dedication will allow me to remain committed despite the fatigue and loneliness of starting a company.

During Steve’s junior year at Oregon, someone at a party asked him who the greatest 5,000-meter runner in the world was. His response was, “I am.” When asked who said so, he responded,“I did,” and that was that. Pre taught me the importance of believing you’re the best at what you do for as long as it takes to prove it. Do the work until you win

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