Q&A: Legendary Coach Bob Larsen Looks Back at Career, MN Upbringing

The Legend Coach Award recipient talks track and field, career highs, and how growing up on a Detroit Lakes farm helped him embrace the pain

This summer has been a good one for Minnesota native and Olympic coaching legend Bob Larsen. In June, New York Times deputy sports editor Matt Futterman released his book Running to the Edge: A Band of Misfits and the Guru Who Unlocked the Secrets of Speed, which chronicles Larsen’s storied career as a successful track and field coach at the high school, collegiate, and Olympic levels. (It was inspired by a 2015 documentary about Larsen, City Slickers Can’t Stay With Me: The Coach Bob Larsen Story.) The book details Larsen’s growing-up years on a farm near Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, and describes how his training methods helped catapult American long-distance running back to respectability and popularity after decades of decline.

Courtesy Doubleday

In July, Larsen, the longtime UCLA Track and Field coach, was awarded the Legend Coach Award at the USA Track and Field (USATF) Outdoor Championships in Des Moines for his achievements in and contributions to U.S. Track and Field. His list of accomplishments is impressive: back-to-back NCAA outdoor titles in 1987 and 1988, 11-time PAC-10 Coach of the Year, and an overall record of 118-3-1 in dual meets, all in addition to guiding Meb Keflezighi to Olympic silver in Athens in 2004.

I had the chance to speak with Larsen recently about track and field, the book, and how his Minnesota upbringing helped make him a successful coach.

The following interview has been edited for clarity.

How did you fall in love with running?

My high school physical education teacher, Raleigh Holt, was a big part of that. He said, “We have a track team and you’re beating everybody in gym class. You should be on the track team.” At the time I had no idea what that really was.

When I found out there is this sport where you just put on shorts—shoes are optional—and go running and you get to test yourself against a bunch of other guys, oh, man, I just love that. I still do.

I especially love that feeling—Futterman did a great job of describing it: what it feels like once you find that groove and feel you can maintain a pretty hard pace indefinitely. When you feel that you want to do more of it.

And it’s great when you can get into something that you’re good at and can improve at it by working hard. With running, when you work at it, you get better, its automatic. And working hard appealed to my nature of growing up on a farm where all you do is work.

You spent the first 13 years of your life on a farm near Detroit Lakes. What was life like for a young boy in rural Minnesota in the 1940s and ’50s?

 I was born in 1939 and we lived in a small log cabin, without plumbing,15 miles north of Detroit Lakes by dirt road. At the time, my family didn’t have a tractor; we used horses for almost everything. It was a great life for a kid but, you know, very difficult because as soon as you can stand up they put you to work. We did chores all day. We had cows and pigs, sheep and chickens. We raised whatever was going to be sellable that year. We always had a little bit of everything.

The winter in northern Minnesota gets really cold. A couple times it got below 40, and this is before we considered windchill—we had never heard of that. And we would be in the wagon and driving horses in those temperatures—it was very challenging. I don’t care what kind of clothes you have on; you’re still cold.

In the summer it was warm and humid. I began driving the tractor at a young age, and we didn’t get a milking machine until I was 10. We often ate fish out of our lake and venison provided by hunters from our wooded farm areas. We drank raw milk with quite a bit of cream on it at every meal, and then we made our own butter.

How did your Minnesota farm upbringing impact your career as a runner and then as a coach?

I think you learn to be very uncomfortable by growing up on a farm. It’s a great life for a kid, but in the winter you’re always cold. You learn to block out the pain because you grew up that way, it’s something you’re used to.

As a coach you try to help athletes embrace that feeling. It’s, “Can you take that pain? Can you take that discomfort? Can you take that agony in a race a little bit longer than somebody else?” That’s the game.

What I liked about running was trying to endure something that really challenges you. And those that handle it best have success.

After growing up with all the challenges we had on the farm, going to a one-room schoolhouse and only running in the snow at recess, everything else is a little bit easier.

After your father’s back injury, your family moved to California when you were 13. What was the most challenging part of transitioning from life on a farm in Minnesota to life in San Diego?

I was just clueless. Fortunately I was good at sports, and knowing I could play sports and run gave me confidence when we got to San Diego. We would go to the playground. It took me a while to adjust, being a country bumpkin, but sports is a universal language. I had all these other guys I could identify with. Socially I was inept and very shy. I gradually adapted and fit in because of sports. Without the reassurance of knowing physically I could do things other kids couldn’t, I can’t imagine how hard it would have been.

Track also helped immensely. Once my high school coach talked me into joining the track team, that was…to this day, he has been a big factor in my life.

They say you can take the boy out of Minnesota but you can’t take Minnesota out of the boy. After a lifetime living in California, in what ways are you still a Minnesotan?

I think people that grow up in the Midwest have those core values that are important. All those things you were taught as a kid are emphasized consistently, and you’re surrounded by so many people who have those core values as you grow up. I think it can affect your personality.

When Futterman and I were making appearances for his book, I said that I thought it was a book that people would enjoy, and there are great stories in it, but that he over-exaggerated my influence on distance running. Futterman’s response to that was, “That’s the Minnesota in Bob coming out.”

You learn those special qualities, how to be courteous, humble, grateful, from all the adults. All the things Midwesterners do. There’s a little bit slower pace and a little more attention to some of the core values that we learned as kids.

Once you’re a Minnesota kid [feigning a thick Minnesota accent] you’re always going to be that Minnesotan/Scandinavian.

When you were coaching at UCLA, what character traits were you most looking for and most trying to instill in your athletes?

You have to have a work ethic to go to a school like UCLA. Both as a student and as an athlete. Academically they are really tough. It’s a wonderful school because it’s a nice mixture of academics, athletics, and social atmosphere. I love the kids there.

We were always looking for kids with character. We would get to know their parents, their high school teachers and coaches. We would ask, “Will they work with tutors and always go to class?” We were really looking for athletes who would work hard and have high character.

What was the single greatest thrill of your coaching career?

That would be impossible to answer [laughs]. I started at Monte Vista High School. They had won one cross-country meet a year for the last two years. But we won the championship all four years I was there. We lost early in that first season but then went on to win the championship and then were undefeated the next three years. When those kids won that championship that first year, how can you describe or surpass that, in anything you ever do? The first time you do it at each level, you’re drawn to that.

Winning NCAA titles at UCLA, the Jamul Toads winning the national cross-country title, or Meb getting silver in the marathon in Athens—first American in 28 years; Meb winning at New York —first American in 18 years; Meb winning at Boston—first American in 31 years; and he won it the year after the bombing. Grossmont winning seven state titles. It’s impossible to pick. All of those are special.

What is the No. 1 thing you would tell runners who want to run farther faster?

I don’t think there is one thing. Maybe some coach wiser that I could say you have to do this or you have to do that. There are quite a few things that are essential if you are going to be a good runner. You need to be efficient and learn stride mechanics. Meb is very efficient. He held off the Kenyans at Boston by keeping his form. He always did drills to keep his mechanics together even when he was tired.

To be faster is to be more efficient. Consistency in training is also very important. You first need to establish an aerobic base. You need to become fit before you do the more intense things. After you put in those training miles, you add threshold training (hard miles on the road) and then you finish by adding interval training to your schedule.

What do your days look like now? In what ways is running still part of your life?

I’m still running almost every day, though not a long way and not very fast anymore.

I enjoy running and am grateful I have no pain that prevents me from running. The last several years I have been on a bike quite a bit with Meb or others in our running group, helping to pace them or give them fluid during their runs. I’ll bike while Meb runs. He is retired now from marathoning, but he still runs 10 miles a day.

I’m also still doing quite a bit with USA Track and Field. I’m on committees with local associations and at the national level.

At the Outdoor Championships in Des Moines, you will be awarded with the USATF Legend Coach Award. What does winning that award mean to you?

To be selected as the sixth recipient is awful special. With my Minnesota background, I’m a little embarrassed because I can think of a lot of people who should be honored before me—but I’m not going to turn it down, and I’m really looking forward to it.

It’s a testament to the athletes and the excellent coaches I’ve worked with. One person didn’t do this. It’s not me; it’s a team effort. It’s really special. We have some really wonderful coaches that have been honored, and to even be mentioned in that category is a real thrill for me. I am eternally grateful.