Bob Larsen is a very long way from becoming who he will eventually be.
He has no clue that the ideas about running he has been forming for more than a decade with his collection of San Diego misfits will lead him toward a kind of truth about this strange sport.
He doesn’t know that he already understands the secrets to the eventual East African domination of long distance before the Kenyans and Ethiopians do, or that he will help produce two generations of national and Olympic champions, and that one of them, Meb Keflezighi, will pull off perhaps the most inspirational triumph in distance running history.
All he knows right now, in the nation’s bicentennial, is that he has roughly six weeks to prepare his current team for the AAU Cross Country National Championship, which at this moment in America’s running evolution is the most important annual distance event other than the Boston Marathon.
Few give Larsen’s team a chance. But he believes the group he has assembled is formidable. The runners do not have sterling résumés, but they have long accepted the fundamental concepts that he understands as essential to success in running and in life, which to him and his team are basically the same thing.
To his runners, Larsen’s secret sauce reveals itself subtly. He comes across as a simple, happy man with plain tastes and an even tone. During training or races, he stands in the infield with a stopwatch, making sure his runners know their pace. But he doesn’t bark those numbers the way other coaches do, or try to rouse more speed with hollers from the grass. He speaks in the manner of quiet dinner conversation, with suggestions no more than three or four or five words — “Maybe pick it up here,” he might say, or “Relax those shoulders” or “Use those arms.”
His methods, still evolving and seemingly basic but almost revolutionary for their time, don’t require huge leaps of faith.
First, his runners must have faith in themselves, in their ability to run faster when they are most tired. Also, while running may be the essence of individual pursuit, Larsen’s runners will almost never train alone. He believes that, like a peloton in a cycling race, the group is always stronger than the individual. The lone runner, training by himself, can slack off and slow with little consequence. But the group pushes together. We run on our own, but always together.
Another cornerstone — when you think you are running hard, run harder. Try to keep running harder for longer than you think you can, bringing your body and your mind closer to the edge, that moment when the ritual becomes the revelation. Running, he knows, is filled with truths that can be found only when we learn to be comfortable with discomfort, to go to the place we fear more than any other — and stay there, without fear.
His runners call themselves the Jamul Toads, and they know these lessons well, lessons that they believe will drive them to run the race of their lives in Philadelphia on Thanksgiving weekend.
One problem — Larsen does not know where he’s going to get the money to get them there. He’s got to cover airfare, food and two nights’ lodging in Philadelphia for eight. It’s going to run a couple of thousand dollars at least. He doesn’t have that kind of money. He’s got to find someone who does.
Larsen’s first thought is that new shoe company up in Oregon — Nike. Its roots are in distance running. Nike’s founder, Phil Knight, ran cross-country at the University of Oregon, then started his business selling running shoes from Japan out of his car. Nike believes in the sport as a way of life and a form of self-expression. Larsen even knows Geoff Hollister, Nike’s chief promoter. If Nike truly believes that distance running represents that underdog spirit of rebellion, it can find no group that better embodies that than the Jamul Toads.
Knowing Hollister’s zeal and his missionary-like belief in his product, Larsen calls to tell him about the Toads. They train like beasts, he says. They are going to Philadelphia, and they are going to be tough to beat. He thinks they can win.
Who’s on the team, Hollister wants to know. Larsen runs down the roster. It’s a local crew from San Diego.
Hollister isn’t impressed. Colorado, Florida, Boston, Oregon, New York Athletic Club, that’s where the quality is right now, he says. Not San Diego.
I’m going to pass, he says. “You have to understand Bob,” he adds, “Colorado knows how to peak.”
Bob Larsen hears those words and can’t help but smile. Hollister has left him empty-handed financially, but he has given him something far more valuable. Colorado knows how to peak. It’s the perfect line for motivation. Time and again over the next six weeks, the Toads will hear what Geoff Hollister and, by extension, everyone else in the running world think of their quixotic little venture to become national champions.
He knows it is lines like this, the little digs and challenges, that fire up distance runners best. The rah-rah speeches are for football. This game is too long, too taxing, too nonstop. It’s a long, slow burn, and the motivation has to work that way as well. Coach Bob still needs some cash, and he will get that eventually from a local guy, a top executive of Jack in the Box, the burger chain that began in San Diego. Hollister, though, has given him something priceless.
Why They Ran
Larsen’s Toads have run for many reasons — some to escape war, others to escape difficult childhoods.
Ed Mendoza spent his childhood getting picked after a younger sister for neighborhood baseball games. Then in high school he realized his 5-foot-5 frame could run very far, very fast. For the first time, he finally understood his body had a purpose.
Tom Lux was on his way to juvenile delinquency in middle school when his older brother made him start running. Then Larsen, who coached at Lux’s high school at the time, told him he could be special.
Always painfully shy, Kirk Pfeffer never felt comfortable around other little kids, but when he woke up early and ran through his neighborhood smelling that mix of eucalyptus, sagebrush and juniper, he felt at home in the world.
For Dave Harper, running fast was all about gaining the approval of a father who had served in the Marines in World War II.
Dale Fleet got hooked on running when he realized a track scholarship was the only way to escape a house filled with the constant fights between his mother and stepfather.
Thom Hunt was the classic track coach’s son, a boy brought up to run who set a national high school record for the indoor mile.
No one knew exactly why Terry Cotton ran the way he did. Terry barely talked, but he ran with unmatched ferocity, as though he were being chased by a man with an ax. One night Terry told his good friend Tom Lux about a haunting childhood memory — the day his little brother died. Ever since then Tom had assumed Terry ran so hard because he might be trying to outrun a ghost.
Every Toad was running from something and to something. Aren’t we all?
On to Philly
In the final weeks before Philadelphia, Larsen tweaks the training regimen. He knows the runners are all plenty fit. He needs them fast. Like most cross-country races, Philadelphia’s will start with a kind of funnel, a sprint to the narrowing path through the woods.
So in addition to those lung-searing six- and eight- and 10-mile tears out on the roads and the trails, there are quarter-mile repeats that get the legs turning over as fast as they can. Instead of six or eight 800s at 2 minutes 15 seconds, there are sets of 10 and 12 400s at 60 to 65 seconds. Concrete times. We’re going to get out in that first mile, and we’re going to be bold, Larsen says.
In early November, there is a bump in the road. Terry Cotton, then a senior at the University of Arizona, needs emergency surgery to have his wisdom teeth removed. His cheeks swell to the size of softballs.
When Larsen hears about the wisdom teeth, he gets a little nervous. There’s a newly christened Toad, an 18-year-old named Glenn Best. He’s heard about this plan to go to nationals. He wants in. He isn’t the natural talent the rest of the Toads are. He doesn’t have that last turbocharged gear, but he is strong and reliable, and the senior Toads who are headed east are the guys he worshiped growing up. Larsen tells Best he’s got to pay his own way. There isn’t enough money for an eighth man. And he’ll definitely be one of the guys sleeping on the floor of the hotel room. You’re a quasi-alternate, Larsen tells him. Deal, Best says.
The journey east is not easy. The Toads leave on Thanksgiving. Because of missed plane connections, the journey grows to nearly 20 hours before they all finally end up in the Benjamin Franklin Hotel off Independence Park.
The Toads pile into the beds, cots and sleeping bags in the two rooms their budget allows and grab a few hours of sleep. In the morning, it’s time to head out to Fairmount Park to go over the course.
This is when Bob realizes he has messed up the math. He rented the biggest sedan he could find to get the Toads from the airport to the hotel and back and forth to the park. He figured four in the front and four in the back. A cross-country team of seven, plus a coach. But Glenn … he’s forgotten about Glenn, his quasi-backup for Terry. They all look at the sedan and look at each other, wondering what to do. The solution becomes obvious. Glenn is low man on the totem pole. He’s going in the trunk. Larsen promises Glenn he will drive carefully. Plenty of air back there, he assures him, and it’s just a 15-minute ride anyway.
At Fairmount Park, they jog easily over the 10,000-meter course on the part of the park known as the Belmont Plateau. Just as Larsen assumed, a broad start leads to a narrow path through the woods that hikers appreciate because of its rises and descents. The four hills are large enough to have names, three of which suggest unforgivingly steep gradients — Flagpole, Parachute, Nursery and Surekill, which doesn’t sound like the sort of hill that any runner wants to confront. There are rocks sticking up from the trail, and divots and gullies hidden beneath the foliage. It’s what they call a “billy-goat course” — lots of hops and half steps.
It’s cool and gray, the Northeast in late November. The Toads aren’t in San Diego anymore. That is the point. When they are done, they grab some food and spend most of the rest of the day bumming around the hotel, staying off their feet. There’s a venture to a cheap, nearby restaurant for dinner, a burger and pasta place, and then it’s back into the hotel.
There is light chatter in the rooms, the kind of razzing and ribbing that young men who have competed with each other for years are prone to. The Toads are just so happy to be here, together, running as one. Larsen doesn’t bother with any pre-race manifestoes. The Toads know why they are here and what they have come to do. Larsen knows at this point his job is to psyche them down, not psyche them up. They’re ready. So is he.
The morning breaks gray and a little on the warm side for this time of year — 60 degrees. Not bad at all. They pile back into the sedan. Four in the front, four in the back, Glenn in the trunk. They wouldn’t have it any other way. As they pull into the lot at Fairmount Park and pile out, the Toads gaze around at the competition. All around them are running teams in designer-brand matching sweats. Everyone’s got some version of a Nike or Adidas or New Balance racing flat. No doubt the fancier clubs got these for free.
The Toads’ eyes turn to each other. They are all wearing whatever they could cobble together from their drawers. Beneath their unmatched sweats they wear dark green and yellow striped shorts and the yellow singlet with Kirk Pfeffer’s silk-screen of a snarky Toad. The budget couldn’t stretch far enough for warm-up gear. That’s just fine with them. They know it’s the runners in the uniforms that make the team, not the uniforms, not even the shoes. They stretch on the dewy grass, run some warm-up sprints on the open plateau, then gather in close with Larsen for one last chat. The clouds are hanging low. It’s not so different from morning in San Diego, he tells them, before the sun burns off the early gray.
Larsen tells them not to worry about reputations, to enjoy the day. Remember, head out fast, get to the narrow trail as quickly as possible. Passing won’t be easy in that part of the course. Get a position, hold it, push the pace. Make them understand you are not going anywhere. Become their problem. Believe.
The Toads head to the start. They crush toward the front, jockeying for position among these few hundred pioneers of long distance. A month has passed since the first five-borough New York City Marathon, when some 2,000 runners — lunatics, in the eyes of most — bounded over the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, sounding a sort of unofficial start to the mass running movement that for years has been populated mostly by the elite few hundred on this start line today.
The Toads have collectively spent decades hammering the pavement in San Diego under the baking Southern California sun, running mile after mile to escape from nasty fights between moms and stepfathers, from lonely summers and from tragic childhood loss. Together, they ran away from what made them different and toward an ideal that would make them all the same.
Then the haunting, quiet moment that all races produce finally arrives — the moment when there is nothing left to do but wait for the sound of the gun.
The article is excerpted from “Running to the Edge,” by Matthew Futterman, a deputy sports editor for The New York Times. The book will be released June 4.
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