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New Book Profiles Hall Of Fame Running Coach Bob Larson Who Got His Start In San Diego

 June 10, 2019 at 10:38 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 While Hall of fame track and field coach Bob Larson may not be a household name and running circles. His ability to push athletes past their limits to achieve success is legendary. He's worked with marathon champion in San Diego and Meb Keflezighi and the lesser known Hummel toads. Larson's career is now the subject of a new book. Joining me is New York Times deputy sports editor, Matthew Fetterman and other of running to the edge. Welcome Matthew. Thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate it. Glad to do it. So what moved you to write a book about Bob Larson? Speaker 2: 00:34 Well, I'd always been looking around for a story that would get at the emotions that I feel and the, and the, and really the, what I think is at the heart of the sport and always has been, um, which is this sort of feeling of rebellion, uh, that I think a lot of runners feel when they run. I know, I feel it. I'm kind of, uh, a little bit of a running nut. I've run like 23 marathons at this point. I've got a little bit of a problem. Some people say, uh, but I've been running for about 35 years. Annual. I think about like a lot of runners. I think about running a lot. It has, it has very deep meaning to me. And as a writer it was something I always wanted to write about. Um, but I was looking for the right story that would really get at a lot of the feelings I had about it. Speaker 2: 01:20 And I knew Bob from covering Meb Keflezighi. I knew him as his coach, but I didn't really know his backstory and I didn't know about this team of hippie runners from the 1970s, uh, that he coached in San Diego that called themselves the humble toads. And I saw a picture of them at a documentary that want to, Bob's runners had made about him and they were the scraggly guys who look kind of like the Doobie brothers for people old enough to get that reference, you know, scraggly beard and long hair. And I looked at them and I said, you know, who the hell are those guys? Uh, I've got to get to know them cause I think I just had a feeling that they were a part of the story that I had long wanted to tell Speaker 1: 02:03 and remind me of some of Larson's most notable moments. So Speaker 2: 02:07 Bob Larson, you know, comes along in the early 1960s when distance running is, is just not even a thing. Like it appears in the Olympics and a marathon every, every four years. There's the Boston Marathon, but there is very, very little distance running. There is nothing crazier or Kookier that you could be doing than putting on your sneakers and going out in your neighborhood and going for a run at this point in the world. And yet Bob Larson is kind of obsessed with it. He was a runner in high school and then in college at San Diego State and he won the Balbo eight mile. Uh, you know, when he was afraid after his freshman year in college and when he met Fred cash and he saw what he was he was doing in terms of testing these adults and testing their hearts and seeing he could treat the heart like any other muscle, he sort of said, wait a minute. Speaker 2: 03:02 That's what I feel. That's what I'm feeling when I'm running that I'm getting better and faster. The longer I go, the harder I go. And that's what really formed the basis for the start of his career, which begins at Montevista high school, uh, in eastern San Diego County and then at Grossmont college also in that region where, uh, you know, these are much smaller schools and they'd be lots of much larger schools. And really he created some of the fastest runners in the country at the time. Honing in on what became the sort of Larson method. And Larson honed his training techniques with the Humboldt toads who are from San Diego. You mentioned them a bit earlier, but talk to me more about who they are. So they are, you know, some of his runners who, uh, he began working with at Monta Vista high school and then later at Grossmont College, they're kind of counter cultural, uh, because that's what running was back then. Speaker 2: 04:00 That, you know, the face of running at this point is Steve Prefontaine, the legendary runner from the University of Oregon and he's got a mustache and he's got long hair and that's what they all want to look like. And these guys are, you know, the crazy group of runners that if you were driving around the streets of San Diego in the early 1970s on a Saturday morning, you saw them running from the East county, uh, all the way out to bird rock. And you saw them running really fast doing it and doing it together. And they were running as a group and they were Larson's team and he had put them together because he wanted to take on some of the biggest clubs in the country, the sort of more established running clubs, places like the New York Athletic Club and the Colorado Track club. And these were places that had sponsorships with shoe companies and things like that. Speaker 2: 04:51 And the humble toads, they didn't really have any sponsorships from shoe companies. Nobody took him seriously. All they did was wrong train really, really hard. Um, because they listened really closely to Bob Larson because he was making them stronger and faster than just about anyone else in the country and how successful were they? So they come out of nowhere to when the 1976 cross country championships, national cross country championships, back when that was basically the biggest distance race in the country other than the Boston marathon. And they do it like I mentioned before, following Larson's methods that he established over 10 years of working with regular guys. Like they were, I mean, granted a little faster than the average person off the street. But, um, they really worked hard. And you know, his, his method sort of boil down to three fundamental principles. You know, the first is that you've got to be really get your body really comfortable with being uncomfortable. Speaker 2: 05:53 You've got to go to your edge, go to your threshold of near exhaustion and teach your body to stay there and go to the place that you're afraid of and just kind of embrace that fear and your body will adjust to it. It'll get, it'll be able to do it for three miles one week and then five miles the next week and eight miles the next week because all along it's getting stronger. And the second principle was we run as a team. You know, we train, we are individuals. We compete sometimes as individuals, but we, we also compete as a team and we trained together. Uh, you know, let's say it's that old adage about the power of the wolf is in the pack and the power of the pack is in the wolf and that's what they did. So if one guy was having a bad day, he was working extra hard to keep up with the group and the next day that guy would be having a good day and the other guys would be working really hard to keep up with him in training alone was sort of a death knell as far as Larson sighed. Speaker 2: 06:49 And finally the last tenant was, you know, you don't believe that where you're born or how you're born is your destiny. Um, if you, this is all about work and this is all that hard work and if you do that work, you can be a little bit better tomorrow than you were yesterday. Long distance runner, Meb could fly ski who also grew up in San Diego is one of Larson's protege. Many San Diego fans will be familiar with Mab. He, when the Boston marathon in 2014 a year after the bombing, how did Larson's coaching contribute to [inaudible] success? What was so fascinating is that, uh, you know, Larson when he found meb in the early 1990s, Larson at this point was coaching at Ucla and meg was a rising star at San Diego High School and Larson, you know, saw him, uh, saw him in a meet at Ucla and then he drove down to San Diego to meet with him and his family and he gave him a scholarship even though he usually didn't give distance runners scholarships at that point, but it gave him a scholarship and he brought him along at Ucla. Speaker 2: 07:54 He brought him to national championships when he was in college and then after college, at this point he graduates insulate 1990s and the state of American long distance running at this point is really terrible. And Larson is getting ready to retire from Ucla, but he's got another mission and his next mission is to recreate the magic of American long distance running that he had been a part of in the 1970s and the early 1980s when the US was really the dominant country in the sport. And what he did is he basically just did the same things with meb and with meb and some other runners that he had done with the humble toads. He created the mammoth track club, um, which was a small group of elite runners who moved up to mammoth, uh, because of its elevation was 8,000 feet. And they basically just did all those great workouts that they had done a with the toads they had. Speaker 2: 08:55 They went to their threshold, they went to their edge, they learned how to be comfortable for long periods with being uncomfortable. And they did it at elevation, which had become the sort of new innovation over the 20 years, uh, while Washington had been at Ucla, because that's where the Kenyans and Ethiopians were doing. But what he also did was, you know, he made them train as a group, but he also convinced them that, like I said before, where they were born, that they were Americans and not east Africans was not their destiny. We had convinced ourselves at this time that, you know, maybe the Kenyans and Ethiopians, maybe their biology was different. Maybe they had evolved, uh, over the, over the course of, you know, centuries and millennia to really be long distance runners. And we hadn't. And Larson just thought that was also kind of, you know, a bunch of crap. Speaker 2: 09:46 Uh, he, he looked at this landscape and he said, no, we're not working hard enough and we're not training together and we're not believing in ourselves. And if you ask Meb, uh, as I have many times, you know, he will say that other than himself, Larsen is the, the central person in his career. He, he, he made him what he was, and I've been speaking with Matthew Fetterman, author of running to the edge. He'll be speaking about and signing his book, running to the edge on Thursday at 7:30 PM at Warbucks in La Hoya. Matthew, thank you so much. Thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

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While Hall of Fame track and field coach Bob Larsen may not be a household name, in running circles, his ability to push athletes past their limits to achieve success is legendary. Larsen's career is now the subject of a new book by New York Times Deputy Sports Editor Matthew Futterman.
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