Steve Prefontaine set the 5,000 meter record at the U.S. Olympic trials in 1972, a record that stood for 40 years.

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Steve Prefontaine set the 5,000 meter record at the U.S. Olympic trials in 1972

The meet record is one of the most elusive in track and field

Galen Rupp broke the record by less than two-tenths of a second

"To hear I got the record, that's unreal," Rupp says

CNN  — 

The buzz began hours before the start of the race at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials: Would one of the most-elusive records in long distance running set by a legend long dead finally fall?

It’s a question that has been asked at nearly every Olympic track trials since the brash Steve Prefontaine set the meet record for men’s 5,000 meters in 1972.

Sure, there have been runners since who have been more than capable of breaking the record. They just always came up short when it counted.

The record, though, was not the most pressing issue on Galen Rupp’s mind when he stepped up to the starting line on a cool, crisp night last week at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon.

His goal, he told reporters: a top-three finish that would guarantee him a ticket to the Olympics.

Rupp, who had already qualified for the 10,000 meters, was running against the Kenyan-born Bernard Lagat, a favorite.

Unseen, though, was another opponent: Prefontaine, whose presence decades after his death on May 30, 1975, at the age of 24, has loomed large over long distance running in the United States.

There are eerie similarities between Rupp and Prefontaine: Both were born and reared in Oregon, trained at the University of Oregon and later ran for the Oregon Track Club.

And both matured as runners following their first Olympic appearance. Rupp finished out of the medals in the 10,000 meters at the Beijing Games in 2008.

Pre, as Prefontaine was known to fans, was charismatic and brash, predicting wins and sometimes taunting opponents.

His following was huge by track standards, with thousands attending his races. At one point, an opponent donned a “Stop Pre” T-shirt to counter fans, dubbed “Pre’s People,” wearing “Go Pre” shirts.

At the 1972 Games in Munich, Prefontaine promised that if it came down to “a pure guts race at the end,” he was the only one who could win.

He placed fourth in a heartbreaking finish after leading for the last four laps of the 5,000 meters, a race that saw Finland’s Lasse Viren win gold in a late surge.

By most accounts, he was a favorite to medal, if not win gold, at the 1976 Games in Montreal.

Prefontaine died in a car accident hours after running his last race at Hayward Field. At the time of his death, he owned every American record between 2,000 and 10,000 meters and between two miles and six miles, according to stats provided by the University of Oregon.

When 26-year-old Rupp took to the track for the 5,000 meters Thursday at Hayward Field, the same track where Prefontaine set the meet record in 1972, he already owned an American record in the 10,000 meter.

The crowd of thousands roared with the start of the race, just like they had decades earlier for Prefontaine’s race.

“This is the only place in the country, possibly the world, that you’re going to get that kind of reception for the 5,000,” Rupp said later.

It wasn’t surprising that Rupp led the last laps. The surprise was the finish, after Rupp was overtaken by Lagat in the final lap and then surged the final 20 meters to the finish line.

Rupp’s time: 13:22.67, less than two-tenths of a second ahead of Prefontaine’s 13:22.8.

“To hear I got the record, that’s unreal,” Rupp told reporters shortly after the race.

“Anytime you’re mentioned in the same breath as Steve Prefontaine, it’s a huge compliment.”

But more than that, Rupp’s record-breaking run opens the door for U.S. long distance runners to be considered contenders at the London Olympics.

Only one American man has medaled since Frank Shorter won the gold medal in the marathon in 1972 and a silver medal in 1976, and that was Meb Keflezighi, who won the silver in the marathon at the Athens Games in 2004.

Maybe, just maybe, Rupp will bring home the medal that eluded Prefontaine.