The Coach Who Changed Running Forever
In 'Running to the Edge,' a new book by New York Times sports editor Matthew Futterman, we learn the fascinating backstory of Bob Larsen, the man who coached Meb to glory
Ask a casual running fan who Bob Larsen is and you’re likely to get the same answer: that’s the guy who coached Meb Keflezighi. Indeed, Larsen’s career is inextricably linked to one of the most accomplished American marathoners ever. It’s a relationship that began in the mid-‘90s when Keflezighi was a standout runner at UCLA. Larsen was his coach back then and would remain so for the duration of a remarkable career that included an Olympic silver medal, as well as victories at both the NYC and Boston Marathons.
But to limit the Bob Larsen story to his role as Keflezighi’s coach is to exclude a fascinating chapter in the evolution of American distance running. Enter Running to the Edge, a new book by New York Times deputy sports editor Matthew Futterman. In it, Futterman chronicles the early years of Larsen’s career, when he built an elite distance running program at Grossmont Junior College near San Diego and eventually coached a scrappy club team known as the Jamul Toads to an Amateur Athletic Union national cross-country championship. In telling Larsen’s story, Futterman also profiles several of the young men whom he coached—guys like Terry Cotton and Ed Mendoza, who were local legends of the California running scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Helping these young men unlock their potential gave Larsen the foundation for a philosophy that would eventually yield one of the sport’s greatest champions. (The second half of Running to the Edge focuses on the Larsen’s years as Keflezighi’s coach.)
“When you get down to it, there are three tenets at the base of what Bob is preaching,” Futterman says. “These are: learn how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable; train with a group; and know that where you were born is not your destiny. That’s basically it.”
We spoke with Futterman to find out more about Larsen’s unique history, as well as the author’s own relationship to running.
OUTSIDE: The whole first half is about what happened before Larsen met Meb. What was it about Larsen’s backstory that you found so compelling?
Futterman: I’d always wanted to write a book about running and I’d always been looking for a story that would capture both the spirit of the sport’s roots, as well as the spirit of the emotions that I felt when I ran. I knew about Bob [Larsen] from reporting on Meb, but I had no idea that there was this group of hippie runners in the ‘70s, the Jamul Toads, who basically served as Bob’s lab rats. They embodied that idea of rebelliousness and counter-culturalism of running at the time. Even though it’s the most mainstream thing in the world right now, running’s roots are really rebellious. In 1972, if you ran 20 miles on a Saturday morning, people would look at you like you were a lunatic. I still think people look at you like you’re a bit of a lunatic today, which is something that I get a great deal of pleasure out of: the idea that other people think that I’m a little crazy. As I talked to Bob and the Toads, it became more and more clear that their narrative could convey a lot of what I wanted to write about.
At the moment we seem to be seeing a resurgence of the competitive amateur. When you first conceived the idea for your book, was it your goal to write about largely unknown “local hero” type runners like Terry Cotton and Dale Fleet?
I didn’t really know if there was a book in this until I started to interview them. I thought: “Let me call these guys and see if they have good reasons for why they run.” That’s the question I really wanted to address: Why do we run? What are we doing when we’re out there? And, each one of them had a better story than the next one. They all had very specific reasons. There wasn’t one of them who would say: “I don’t know. I was kind of good at it and that’s just what I did.” For one of them, running saved him from juvenile delinquency. Another guy was really undersized and thought his body was useless until he discovered that he was really fast and suddenly his body had a purpose. Another guy, his brother died when he was little and running became the place where he would find his peace. So, it was really about an opportunity to tell these stories. Also: in the 1970s, everybody was an amateur. Professional running didn’t really exist. Bill Rodgers, when he was running the NYC Marathon, was getting cash under the table. They were all “gentlemen athletes” or whatever you want to call them. I’d call them exploited athletes. Is that still a part of it now? I think the spirit of it is there now, even though you have people who are professionals. I think they have a lot in common with these guys in the ‘70s—not least because they are doing all the same workouts. That’s the thing about Larsen. It wasn’t any great revelation that made America better at running again in the 2000s. It was going back to what he was doing with the Toads in 1970s: working hard and running as a group and training together.
On that note, your book illustrates how, just a couple decades ago, there was much less of a consensus on how distance runners should train. Why do you think that was?
I think that the problem was that there wasn’t any science. Nobody had really studied it, so people were just sort of doing stuff and they didn’t really know why. In one of the great coincidences of good fortune, Bob happened to go to San Diego State and was really interested in this stuff and there was a guy there named Fred Kasch—a kinesiologist who was doing the first studies on exercise science and running with adult groups. Kasch’s theory was that the heart is just another muscle that can be trained, which completely went against the conventional wisdom at the time that if you strained your heart after the age of 35 you risked a catastrophic event. Bob had been experimenting with running hard on the roads, it was sort of like putting two and two together. The knowledge base really started to grow. It took a lot of time and it took success: a team like the Jamul Toads winning the national cross-country championships for people to say: “Woah. Maybe what they’re doing actually works.”
What is “running to the edge”? How do you define it?
I think it’s a couple different things. In a very literal sense, it’s that point where you are going hard, yet you feel just comfortable enough so that you can stay there for a while. That moment where, if you go any harder you will probably wear yourself out and not be able to sustain it. In a very technical sense, I suppose the scientists will say that’s your lactic threshold. But, I hope the message is not only about running, and that people see it as a way of going through life: make yourself uncomfortable and learn how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Challenge yourself to do the thing that you don’t think you can do.
Your book is quite specific about things like race times and workout paces. Running geeks will love that, but those numbers can potentially be alienating for non-runners. How much was that an issue for you in writing this book—figuring out how to make it interesting enough for the layman, but also include enough detail for the hardcore running fans?
Yeah, that is always a balance that you have to strike: providing enough information so that you can please your “base,” almost like a political campaign. First thing you have to do is take care of your base, but then also not geek out too much. I hope there will be readers who don’t even care about running and will be reading the book for other reasons. I tried to keep it general enough, but numbers can make you sound smart—like you know what you’re talking about.
By the same token, for the runners you write about, times and numbers can take on huge significance.
In one of my first interviews for the book, I was talking to Dale Fleet, and I asked him why he ran. And he said he ran because he had to get out of his house. He didn’t have any money and his parents were fighting all the time and he needed a track scholarship. So what he decided he needed to do was that he needed to run 800 miles in the summer so that he could break nine minutes in the two-mile. Those are three very clear numbers: 800 miles, nine minutes, two miles. To me, there’s such a great story in those three numbers; a seventeen-year-old kid thinking in those terms and timing himself, and working at a ten-week summer of 80 miles a week, by trying to fit in two runs a day. Numbers can be kind of poetic if you look at them in a certain way.
Between telling Bob Larsen’s story, you splice in mini-chapters about the role running has played in your own life. Can you talk briefly about the decision to include those anecdotes and to reveal that side of your personal life?
I’m the writer, but I’m also the target reader for this book and I was trying to write a book that I’d want to read. And I love to talk to runners about the link between their running and their life: what it means to them. We are the people who meet in the corner at the cocktail party: we understand each other. By providing those details, it was sort of a way for me to relate to potential readers, a way of saying: I spend a lot of time doing this thing and it’s very important to me. It has meaning beyond the activity itself and I think about it a lot. Because I think that runners do think about what they do a lot, partly because a lot it requires a lot of alone time. It’s one of those activities where there can be revelation in ritual and it seems like it speaks to a lot different emotions and spiritual activities in a way I don’t know that a lot of other sports do. So, I felt like why not include these things and tell people who I am. It would be a way of explaining to people in an implicit way why I wrote this book.