From Birch Lane, high above Eugene, a deep red path cuts across the landscape. The trail ducks in and out of trees along the Patterson Slough, circling a verdant field on the east bank of the Willamette River.
The path, called Pre’s Trail in honor of late Oregon track hero Steve Prefontaine, is a 4.1-mile runner’s oasis in a changing college town. Eugene’s Historic Review Board on Thursday approved designation of the trail as a city landmark, which stands to protect the path into the future.
Pre’s Trail today hosts runners and walkers almost exclusively, but it was a Swiss exercise craze that inspired the trail’s creation.
The Swiss life insurance company Vita in 1968 funded the first parcourse (or vitaparcours), a dedicated running and walking trail, typically forested, with various exercise stations along the route. The idea was to create a self-contained, total-body exercise routine that included stretching, strength and cardio.
“A parcours [sic] consists of exercise stations to provide the opportunity of exercising one’s total physic [sic] while jogging,” wrote legendary Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman. “These stations stress exercises involving the upper body, arms, back and torso, while the jogging path builds up the legs and wind.”
Parcourses had by the early ‘70s become immensely popular in Europe, where they were installed by the hundreds.
“When my brother used to run in Europe,” said Linda Prefontaine, Steve’s sister, “he discovered these trails.”
Steve Prefontaine, who once held seven American distance records, often spoke out in favor of athletes and athletes’ rights. He had crafted a proposal for a parcourse in Alton Baker Park and pitched it to Lane County.
Parks officials were considering a 1-mile parcourse around the time Prefontaine died in a car crash on Skyline Boulevard in 1975. After his death, Prefontaine’s supporters and the Eugene-area running community sought ways to memorialize the fallen track icon.
A running trail and parcourse quickly rose to the top of the list.
Within a few months of Pre’s death, supporters had laid a nearly 5-mile trail of wood chips through Alton Baker Park. The trail’s center loop became a parcourse featuring six exercise stations including stretching, a balance beam and a “pole climb.” The Steve Prefontaine Parcourse, as it was officially known, was dedicated in September 1975.
Pre’s Trail became an instant hit.
That’s likely because of how it was designed. Lane County officials called it a trail “built exclusively for the runner’s needs” in a 1979 pamphlet they issued on how to build a parcourse.
The county advised easy access, parking, no street crossings and “views of desirable vistas.” One of the guiding questions was, “Will it offer the amenities of trees and ‘natural’ surroundings that will norish [sic] the soul of the runner?”
The result is a trail that can feel a world away even on a busy university campus.
Pre’s Trail was an early American example of the Swiss fitness sensation taking the country and world by storm. By the mid-1980s some 4,500 parcourses were constructed in the U.S. alone, according to an estimate in Outside Magazine. Switzerland still has more than 500.
The outdoor circuit training parcourses offered was free, accessible and relatively simple. However, as indoor gyms and fitness facilities became cheaper and more abundant, the parcourse began its slow demise.
“These individual exercise stations — collectively known as a par course — are probably among the most practical, yet least used, fitness amenities anywhere,” reads a blog post on senior fitness occupying a lonely corner of the internet.
Nowhere is that more visible, perhaps, than the Portland Exercise Course on Terwilliger Parkway, constructed a year before Pre’s Trail.
The 2-mile course is largely abandoned. Though the Portland Parks Bureau recommended its removal in 1983, much of the old metal exercise equipment is still intact.
Bars for stretching and pull-ups sit forlorn on the weedy hillside. An immaculate set of gymnastics rings hides behind an evergreen.
The trail rolls up and down gentle hills enveloped by the forest canopy with occasional views of Mount Hood.
“It’s just now a matter of protecting it from outside pressures and then getting people to appreciate the nature of it,” said Wes Risher with the Friends of Terwilliger. “I think people, when they actually use it, they get it.”
Risher and the Friends of Terwilliger would like to restore the parcourse in the future, but those plans are currently on hold.
Eugene, on the other hand, removed exercise stations from Pre’s Trail around the turn of the century.
The central loop of the trail is still called the Parcourse Loop, but that’s about the only remnant of the trail’s multipurpose past.
Bowerman once called Pre’s Trail “a fitting memorial to our country’s greatest distance runner.”
The Historic Review Board approved the landmark designation with no opposition, according to Eugene assistant planner Rodney Bohner. The board has five days to issue public notice of the designation, which is followed by a 12-day window to appeal.
Eugene previously listed Pre’s Rock, the site of the crash, as a city landmark in 2016.
Protecting the trail, his sister Linda said, honors Prefontaine “for what he loved: running.”