The Search for the Edge
A group of young runners hone strength and speed on the roads as Bob Larsen develops his effort-based training philosophy in this excerpt from a new book about the legendary coach.
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There are two prevailing schools of thought in distance training. There are the disciples of Lydiard, the Kiwi, who don’t think much about pace and instead focus on volume—a minimum of 100 miles each week. “Train don’t strain.” Avoid injury by not going too hard. In the other school are runners and coaches obsessed with intervals—Zátopek and his scores of 400s, and Iglói and his twice-daily interval sessions. Avoid injury by not adding on unnecessary mileage, they say. Both have little science backing them up. Larsen thinks he can create a third way, by marrying the two. Then he will back it up with numbers and trophies to make it last.
The miles Larsen envisions are on the roads and trails, off the track. The question Larsen really wants to answer, the one he thinks he might discover in this next level of competition, is this—how long can you stay away from the intervals, stay off the dangers of the track, and still compete successfully? Larsen is sure of one thing, that eventually the track becomes the enemy. It’s a strange thing about a track. There is something about those eight lanes and that quarter-mile oval, the scattering of curiosity-seekers who always seem to pause as they wander by. From the first moment a spike hits the dirt (or the cinders, or eventually the rubber) a runner on a track wants to be great in that moment. He wants to win every lap, every interval, wants the stopwatch always to read a split second less than it did the lap before. The best runners crave competition, no matter who it is—a rival or a teammate—to be one step farther behind or one step closer in front than he was the previous day. But do that on a track day after day, month after month, and the breakdown will come. The oval shifts the mind’s frame of reference in some mysterious way, and the psychological toll is simply too taxing.
Larsen has learned that roads and trails are different. Out there, the mind expands beyond 400-and 800-meter intervals, referred to by runners as “splits.” A runner can explore and conquer the barriers and limits that everyone who has never done this sort of thing assumes exist. At some point, on nearly every run, the runner begins to believe that, yes, you can keep doing this, at this pace, maybe forever. Larsen’s goal is to rewire his runners’ brains to experience competition in a different way, to enjoy the push of body and speed as they have never done it before, and to want to search for each new limit again and again.
So this is what Bob Larsen tells that first collection of Grossmont runners as he gathers them in the summer before school begins. He says he knows what their old teammates and high school competitors who have ventured elsewhere are likely doing right now. He knows they are going to be hearing about it. It’s what runners do, after all—they talk about running, the way golfers talk about irons and drivers and the latest technological innovation, or hip turn that might give them an extra 10 yards off the tee. Pitchers in baseball trade secrets about how they grip a ball, where each fingertip touches each seam, and the angle at which the arm powers through the slot. Runners talk workouts. Interval patterns. Weekly mileage.
Larsen tells his boys they are never going to match what the other guys are doing on the track. Those other teams are going to do so many more quarter and half and mile repeats than we will ever think about doing, he says. He tells them not to worry. He is going to make sure the boys of Grossmont run themselves into the shape of their lives, not by next week, or for the first race of the season, but for when it counts, at the end of the season, when the championships are won.
The summer, he says, will be all about building the base, putting in the miles on roads, and on trails, and at the beach, up hills and down, 60, 70, 80, 100 miles a week, whatever their legs can take. Each runner will find his limit. His body will tell him where it is. Then, after several weeks, when the fitness is there, they will begin in the middle of those runs on the roads and through the canyons to chase the edge, to find that spot where one click more is too fast to maintain, and one click less feels just slightly too comfortable. They will hold it there, for five miles, and then six and seven, as long as they can. For some of them, that pace will be sub-five-minute miles. For others, it will be slower. They will try to hang with the pack as long as they can. This is not about high mileage or low mileage, it’s not about 65-second quarters, or 2:10 halfs, or 4:30 or 5:20 miles. It’s about the search for the edge. They won’t search for it every day, but several times each week. Then, when the big meets approach toward the end of the season, they will back off the search and move to the track, to find that short burst of speed they will need to bring the finish line close.
The boys trust Larsen, trust the man they call “CBL” and what he tells them. The trust equation is unspoken but perfectly conveyed. They trust him when he starts out on the runs with them, and he orders them to stay behind him for the first 15 minutes, and then 20, and 25, so they get into the warm groove. They know eventually he will let them go. Then he will take a shortcut to the latter stages of the loop and wait. There, Larsen will give them those few words they need to hear to get to the end. He limits these to simple phrases that remind them to stay relaxed but not let up.
Out there on the roads and trails, away from the track, the boys stick together but always end up in something that looks like a race, pushing each other to get the pace up a few clicks faster, to get back to that hilltop track, high above their heavenly city where each run begins. He checks their heart rates when they get there and between intervals, and this is what the numbers say: the longer they stretch out the threshold runs, the longer they can run intensely without pushing their heart rates to that maximum pumping level of roughly 180 beats per minute, which means their bodies are becoming more efficient. This is what he knows to be the definition of fitness. He knows the numbers can only mean one thing, that their bodies are becoming more efficient, that they can do more while using less energy. If they can keep getting better at that, they will have more gas in the tank to push the pace as a race moves into its last miles.
As a team, they can’t win the big meets at first, can’t challenge for a state championship. They don’t have the depth yet. But Larsen can see the progress, especially among his better runners. They show up at the big invitationals in Long Beach and at Mt. San Antonio College and score with the best runners from the biggest schools in California.
Bob Larsen knows why this is happening. He believes his search for the edge is making them as fast as they can possibly be, faster than they ever imagined. He believes in their hearts, that his way is getting them all closer to the truth—that marriage between having the strongest engine and the healthiest legs that gives the elite runners the belief that they can run fast forever. Now he just needs to find some more of them. If he can find the right runners, he believes he can win anything.
And so the hunt begins.
Excerpted from Running to the Edge: A Band of Misfits and the Guru Who Unlocked the Secrets of Speed, by Matthew Futterman.