The deputy sports editor for the New York Times chronicles a key figure in the development of modern track.
Why run? In a lively narrative, Futterman (Players: The Story of Sports and Money, and the Visionaries Who Fought To Create a Revolution, 2015) writes that it’s in part to fight death, for relative to an ordinary person, “the well-trained body has far more glycerol, which breaks down fatty tissue, and far less allantoin, which can bring on a condition known as oxidative stress that causes cell damage.” Running, by those lights, is a form of resistance against decay and demise. These are the sorts of ideas that intrigued Bob Larsen, a scientifically and philosophically minded coach. In the early 1970s, he rounded up a bunch of hippie jocks, known to sports history as the Jamul Toads, and set out to condition the young runners in ways that coaches had not considered before—running off track, running in extremes of heat and altitude, and the like, carefully gauging the effects of these conditions on performance. Larsen would go on to coach generations of runners, all the while employing the ethic of “running to the edge of exhaustion, the very foundation of every lesson Bob has delivered to every runner he had guided in the past forty years as he quietly writes the bible of distance running in the U.S.” Futterman chronicles plenty of thrills and spills, as well as the inevitable disappointments, on the road to winning Olympic squads and marathon champions, a development accompanied by lots of good science—running while slightly dehydrated, for instance, leads the body to produce more blood plasma, and “the increased plasma works to bring red blood cells to muscles that are under stress.” Ultimately, Larsen clearly understands what motivates runners in the endless rise and fall of competition: “He believes in rising.”
Athletes in any sport stand to learn from Larsen’s methods, and Futterman turns in a fluent yarn reminiscent of Plimpton and McPhee.