We love reading and we love running, so naturally, we love reading about running. This summer, I read “Running to the Edge: A Band of Misfits and the Guru who Unlocked the Secrets of Speed” by Matthew Futterman, Deputy Sports Editor at the New York Times.
The book details the career of coach Bob Larsen, who started as a cross-country coach in San Diego County but went on to transform distance running in the U.S. He would eventually coach both Meb Keflezighi and Deena Kastor, two of the most iconic figures in U.S. distance running.
We sat down and asked the author about his inspiration behind the book and the insights into running that he gained during his writing process.
BITR: For those who may not know you, can you give us a little background on your writing and running career?
MF: I’ve been a journalist for 25 years, and a sportswriter for about 20, first at The Star-Ledger in New Jersey, then at The Wall Street Journal and now at The New York Times. It’s been a great run, so to speak. I’ve covered five Olympics and four World Cups and countless other great events along the way. I published a book called “Players: How Sports Became a Business” in 2016.
My running career began with a five miler in 1979 when I was 10. I ran a 40:15 and beat my oldest brother. I worshiped distance runners as a kid– Shorter, Rodgers, Salazar– and was always a track fanatic. Unfortunately, I was also always pretty slow. I ran cross-country after I got cut from my high school soccer team and was probably like the 7th guy on the team. But I always loved the activity and found the longer the run the better I felt.
I’ve basically run almost every day (though I cross-train more now) since was 18. It’s meditative and my running and writing are connected because when I run I do my best thinking and in some ways my best writing.
BITR: A lot of us are on the quest for speed, but few of us research and write a book about it. What is it that pushed you to write Running to the Edge?
MF: I was so drawn to the story of Bob Larsen and the team of hippie runners who called themselves the Jamul Toads who came out of nowhere to win the 1976 national cross country championship back when it was the biggest race outside of the Boston Marathon. They captured so much that I love about running– the rebelliousness and the underdog spirit that pervade the sport, especially in its early years of the U.S. boom.
BITR: How and why did you focus on Bob Larsen?
MF: Bob is the great unknown guru of distance running. He basically invented how we all train today, that combination of distance, speed work and tempo runs. He is the only character that was there at the birth of American dominance in distance running in the 70s and then led the re-birth as well.
BITR: What was the most surprising thing you learned or story you heard while writing “Running to the Edge?”
MF: Every character, whether it was Meb or Deena, or guys from the 70’s-era Toads like Ed Mendoza and Kirk Pfeffer, has a very meaningful reason for why they run. For Meb, it was to prove others wrong. Deena was very shy, so running was a way of finding her voice. For Ed, who was not much of a stick-and-ball athlete and is very small, it gave his body a purpose. And then for Kirk, who was so removed and had terrible problems making friends, it helped him learn how to be comfortable being alone when he was a little boy. That is really powerful stuff to me and I think for runners of all abilities.
BITR: It seems like the focus in running used to be on going ‘hard’ all the time and today the big focus is on “recovery.” What/who do you think is responsible for this shift?
MF: “Recovery” is an interesting word. It’s become a verb rather than a noun. So your recovery days are sort of like easier runs. I think there is an understanding in the last 20 years — and Larsen is a big part of this — of understanding the purpose of every mile you run. Is this a hard one, a speed mile, a shakeout. It’s all a part of a larger whole.
BITR: Throughout “Running to the Edge”, you showcase how hard runners work. Do you think anyone can be an Olympic runner with hard work or do you think talent is involved?
MF: You have to be born with a big engine and great natural ability. But the great thing about running is that it really doesn’t matter whether you make the Olympics or make your college team. The community loves you being a part of the tribe. So no matter your talent level, if you work hard you can be better tomorrow than you were yesterday.
BITR: You’ve mentioned that a couple of keys to success, in running and life, are discomfort and risk-taking. Why do you think it’s so difficult for most of us to be uncomfortable? Do you think this is a learned trait or more inherent?
MF: The default for our bodies and minds is to find comfort. That is probably a survival thing that helped us evolve in some way. Taking risks, putting yourself out there, is a learned behavior. For most people, it’s unnatural to go into a room of strangers and introduce themselves and try to make friends. It’s a risk. It’s uncomfortable, but think about the payoffs for that discomfort.
BITR: If there’s one thing you want the world to take away from your book, what would it be? What did you take away from it?
MF: The magic really does happen when you can get comfortable with being uncomfortable. I’ve never met a person who is successful in life, either with their running, their family, relationships or their work, who says the key to it all was playing it safe. Finding the edge, doing the thing that scares you, like running to exhaustion, can have tremendous payoffs.
BITR: Why do you think American women are doing amazing things right now? Do you think American distance running is going to continue to grow?
MF: American women are doing well because there is a great network of support, both financial and social, through training groups, that allows them to pursue this sport full-time without having to worry about where their next meal or rent-check is coming from. We’re a huge country with tremendous talent and unbelievable support through scholastic and college running. If that support goes away after graduation, we can’t succeed. If it exists, we will. Also, Deena and others showed what is possible, and that Americans can compete with anyone if they do the work. That’s huge.
BITR: Do you think we’re going to see a big change to sponsorships and contracts in the future?
MF: I certainly think women will no longer be penalized for having a baby mid-career. Thankfully the shoe companies know they can’t do that anymore now that some courageous women spoke out.
BITR: In March, we saw a big change in the Olympic Qualifying standards for the marathon and then it flip-flopped back to the top three. Any thoughts on that?
MF: It’s not the first time the IAAF made an ill-thought move and probably won’t be the last. The fact is the Olympic marathon, which is run in the heat in mid-summer is a completely different animal than all other marathons. Meb had the 39th fastest time in the field of the 2004 race and came in second. I get wanting to maintain high quality in the race, but making the standard so low was not a smart way to do it. Also, great competition comes from people racing each other, not a clock.
BITR: What’s next for you in terms of running?
MF: Chicago Marathon on Oct. 13. I’ve never run it before. I’m excited about a flat race and hoping for a cool crisp day.
BITR: What’s next for you in terms of writing?
MF: I’m toying with a few different ideas, looking for another great tale to tell. I’m sort of fascinated by the opposite end of the running spectrum these days– the race to shave hundredths of seconds off the 100-meter record.
BITR: What’s harder: running or writing?
MF: It’s a tie. Both require a lot of patience. Marathoning is mostly about training, and writing is mostly re-writing.
BITR: What’s your favorite race? Why?
MF: That’s like asking me which one of my children I love the most. Very tough. Boston’s history is magical, but New York is my hometown race and I hear a lot of friends and family calling my name throughout the course, and Big Sur, which I ran in 1994, is the most beautiful run imaginable.
BITR: Do you prefer running alone or with a group?
MF: A group. The power of the wolf is in the pack. And the power of the pack is in the wolf.
BITR: Is there a style of training you prefer? High mileage, low mileage, heart rate training, etc.? Did anything change after writing this book?
MF: I prefer the mix. I love going on my watch and pushing it on tempo runs, but I also love leaving my watch at home and just running free and being with my body in motion and celebrating that. The big change in writing about Larsen was that idea of knowing what I wanted to get out of each mile, each run, each training block, even if sometimes it’s just freedom and enjoyment.
BITR: We are big on shoes here. What are you running in currently? What’s your race day shoe?
MF: ASICS fit my feet best. I’ve run in them for years. Shoes are so personal. Feet are so weird.
BITR: What’s your favorite running apparel brand? Must-have accessory on the run?
MF: As a journalist, I can’t really endorse a brand, but I absolutely love my Ironman running sunglasses. They cost like $19.99 at CVS or Duane Reade. I have like six pairs of them. They are so light.
BITR: If there’s one piece of advice you’d give to the everyday runner chasing a PR, what would it be?
MF: Find your edge in training but try to be as happy on the start line as you are at the finish line. So many factors beyond your control influence your result– the weather is the big one. Remember it’s about the journey, not the destination.
You can pick up “Running on the Edge” at Amazon using the shop link below.Shop Running to the Edge
Meaghan is the co-founder of Big Run Media and Believe in the Run. She’s often found tearing up the promenade on Baltimore’s waterfront early in the morning.