RUNNING TO THE EDGE
A Band of Misfits and the Guru Who Unlocked the Secrets of Speed
By Matthew Futterman
Stitched into the pages of “Running to the Edge,” a new book by Matthew Futterman, a deputy sports editor at The New York Times, is a savvy, if unintentional, marketing strategy: Make readers — at least those who run — feel slow so they will want to read on and learn how to run faster. Futterman isn’t trying to be dismissive; he admits in an author’s note that he, too, is torpid compared with the elite athletes at the center of his story. “I wrote this book because I have long been fascinated by something I do not possess, which is speed.”
The effect is as disarming as Futterman’s subject: Bob Larsen, a visionary coach whose work over the past 50 years changed the course of distance running in this country. Larsen, who started as a high school cross-country coach in the dusty hinterlands of San Diego County, brought together a scrappy, hodgepodge group of fleet-footed male runners known as the Jamul Toads. Throughout his career — including the 21 years he coached at U.C.L.A. before being named the United States distance coach for the 2004 Olympics — Larsen had a knack for spotting talent in the unlikeliest places.
His story begins in the 1960s, before jogging was popular, before Title IX, before Kathrine Switzer scandalized the sport by becoming the first woman to compete in the marathon, back when distance running consisted largely of young men brutalizing their bodies with repetitive intervals on the track. Larsen, who’d competed in college and was repeatedly sidelined by injuries, became obsessed with cracking the secret to speed and longevity. His approach to training was revolutionary, even rebellious: “Liberate the run from the track, and even from the paved road. Make the hard runs even longer.” He taught his runners to push beyond what seems possible, to the brink of exhaustion, even transcendence: “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 to the Edge” is at its most gripping when Futterman is reconstructing the early days of the Toads, outliers and long shots like Terry Cotton, who “runs as though he is being chased by a man with an ax.” Written largely in the present tense, these early chapters don’t feel reported. Rather, the narrative is smooth and immediate, almost effortless in its detail, if occasionally breathless, like a good fast run; the book makes it easy to forget these scenes involve obscure runners at obscure races that happened more than 40 years ago. Futterman places the reader in the middle of the action, a spectator to the story’s improbable unfolding. While Larsen’s later athletes — most notably the Olympic medalists Meb Keflezighi and Deena Kastor, who dominate the book’s second half — ran to international glory and lend a glimmer of star power to the story, it’s the long-forgotten Toads who will elicit the most cheers. “They are chasing victory, but also the primal idea of doing what the body was meant to do, doing it beautifully and to its fullest extent, which are really the same thing.” Long after they faded into obscurity, the Toads stand as testament that the joy of sport doesn’t lie in the results but in the process, the pursuit of excellence and self-discipline, the rigors and rewards of dedication.
“Want to see Meb’s training log? Have a look,” Futterman writes genially. In 2001, Keflezighi and Kastor followed Larsen to Mammoth Lakes, Calif., at 8,000 feet, where they ran 135 miles a week, including five days of “doubles,” twice-a-day workouts, plus strength training. Sometimes they would descend to 4,000 feet to run on an uneven, hole-strewn cinder track that Kastor dubbed “the [expletive]box.” Altitude became their secret weapon, by conditioning their bodies to perform at a higher output with less oxygen. Their times slowed but their endurance grew. It was all part of Larsen’s carefully crafted plan: “Making every mile and every minute count as much as it can. … Because if you do that up high, where it is hardest, then, when you come off the mountain, you feel the power and you begin to imagine doing everything that once felt like a dream.”
In the end, of course, speed is relative and all too fleeting — Futterman’s included. In personal vignettes interspersed throughout the book, the author recounts his own forays in the sport, from his first five-miler, at age 10, to soggy slow marathons and hitting the wall in Central Park. Though at times these scenes distract from the central narrative, they remind us that the allure of running — just like its tolls — is universal, regardless of where we finish in the pack. Even the Olympic hero Keflezighi falls victim to the inevitable ebb and flow of fitness, though his triumphant 2014 Boston win, at 38, proves that age, like time, is just a number. It’s a consoling thought for all runners, who seek something sweeter than Olympic medals and age-group victories: the redemptive, timeless pleasure of long-distance running — a way to “be a part of something so much larger than ourselves … to make some sense of our stupid little lives.”
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