How can we run faster?
How can we run farther?
How can we run farther, faster? These are the questions that runners of all calibres ask themselves, have asked themselves, and will ask themselves forever more. Throughout history there have been visionaries, athletes and coaches alike, who propose answers with evidence to these eternal queries. Bob Larsen is one such visionary.
Running to the Edge, by Matthew Futterman (2019) explores the history and training principles of Larsen, a coach who was around during the American running boom of the 60s and 70s, and was at least partially responsible for the resuscitation of American distance running in the early 2000s – a revival which has continued to this day, with the United States now an undeniable power player across the entire range of running distances, from the 100 metre, to the 100 mile.
Futterman combines a passionate exploration of Larsen’s training techniques (most notably extended threshold running and high altitude training/living) with an entertaining and detailed historical account of the exploits of the ragtag band of collegiate runners who Larsen led to success in his early days, named the Jamul Toads. Futterman writes with reverie over the cross country successes of this disparate group who moved away from the traditional training methods of the time (high volume interval training) to what Larsen perceived to be the way forward (long distance threshold/tempo efforts).
Running, more than other sports, is often enjoyed by participating, rather than spectating. The Olympics is of course an exception, when all events, great and small, are watched with unusual levels of intrigue and excitement, but in general the interest in running on any stage other than the global one has historically been negligible in comparison to other sports. In Running to the Edge however, Futterman gives relatively low level competition the same space and respect as he does the highest of the high. The first half of the book focuses on the Toads and their running for the State Championship, and the second on Meb Kefleski’s run on the Olympics, and the New York and Boston Marathons.
Where this book falters is that it does not go particularly deep on the training principles which Larsen and his athletes pursue, the detail instead going to the life and times of key players in the Jamul Toads, and in the second half of the book to Meb Kefleski. Accordingly, this doesn’t provide much training insight for those searching for answers to the questions laid out above, but it does provide an extremely entertaining account of an enthralling part of running history.
Running is so often about our stories, and even here Futterman can’t seem to help weave himself into the tale, interspersing his own running vignettes into the historic account at large, but overall this is about a grander running narrative, from the little leagues, to the largest.
Distance running is far from the biggest spectator sport out there. There is no The Last Dance of running because honestly, there is no Michael Jordan. But there are stories to be told. The recent nail bitingly close 100km World Record attempt by Jim Walmsley shows it. Sara Hall sprinting to an unbelievable second place at the London Marathon last year shows it. And this book shows it too. It shows that these stories live in schools and colleges, on the cross country field and on the athletics track, just as well as they live in the Olympic Stadiums of the global stage.
It is up to us to take our heads out of the books of our own lives, and pay attention.